I was having a bad dream. I was hurt badly. I was being carried in someone's strong arms to the hospital. Only I wasn't taken to hospital; I was thrown into the back of a van and driven on a long journey. When the van finally stopped I was pulled out of the vehicle and dragged into a building. I heard a door open and I was pushed roughly. I stumbled into a room and fell on the floor. I blacked out.
A soft voice was calling my name. It was soothing, and I wanted to answer—to tell the speaker that I could hear them—but when I opened my mouth no sound came out.
I was hurting all over, hungry and cold. There was a man standing over me, staring at me with eyes that seemed to look right through me; an evil grin was playing on his lips. He had a round face with a huge scar on his cheek. I tried to pull my arm over my eyes to shut out the horrible sight, but I couldn't move. I blacked out again.
There was the voice again, talking to me softly. It sounded familiar, but I couldn't seem to place it. I tried to speak, but it was as if I was gagged.
The man reappeared. This time he was naked, and aroused. Roughly, he threw me on to a bed and handcuffed me to it. I screamed as he forced himself into me. Then I was singing, Ain't a-gonna need this house—
Someone was holding my hand. Another hand was caressing my hair. I thought I could hear a voice, but I couldn't understand what it was saying. With an almighty effort I managed to focus. It was my mother. '...get through this together, Michael, it's going to be all right.'
Mum! Get me out of here. Get me away from this monster! I blacked out, again.
I was creeping away from a building, trying to be inconspicuous and worried that someone would see me. I was wrapped in thick, warm material but I was still shivering from the cold. Now I was limping, stumbling across a paddock. I saw my family and friends beckoning me, urging me on. Why won't they help me? Why is it so hard to walk? After what seemed an eternity I came to a road. Have to stop a car and get away from here. There was a barbed wire fence. To me, weak and in pain, it was an impenetrable barrier. I was devastated. How am I going to get through? Then the picture changed. It was later, and the fence was behind me now. I was stepping on to the road. There was a screech of brakes. Everything went black.
'Michael, wake up, mate. We all miss you. We all love you...I love you—' The voice cracked, but I recognised it as Brett's. I had to talk to him, but somehow there was a barrier between us; it was as if we were in different dimensions. I was still hurting all over, and hungry, but…I was warm now; something had changed. Everything drifted out of focus again.
There was a jumble of voices. My parents, my sister and brother, Travis and Brett, and others that I didn't recognise. Someone was yelling at me, 'You're in big trouble this time!'
What have I done? Why am I in trouble?
'Come on little bro. If you don't wake up I'll kill you myself!'
Then, disembodied voices, laughing hysterically, echoing around me, as if to say, 'We've got you now; we'll never let you go!' I curled into a ball and covered my ears, and silence replaced the raucous laughter.
I was in a car, being driven somewhere. Then, as if I was in a movie, the scene changed abruptly, and I was shouting at people—frustrated because they wouldn't listen. Who was I shouting at, and what was I trying to tell them? My parents were there, and a young woman I didn't recognise, and a couple of men in suits. Where am I? What's happening? I stood up to make a speech. I was eloquent and forceful, and everyone listened intently. Just as I finished speaking everything went black and I felt myself falling.
The Monster was on top of me again. I was lying on my back with my legs doubled back; he was holding my ankles down beside my head and his face was centimetres from mine. The pain was terrible, and his weight was crushing me. I was having trouble drawing breath. Get off me you bastard! I'm suffocating! My head was thrashing back and forth as I tried to gulp in air. He lifted his hand to hit me. 'No! No!' I screamed.
'Michael! Michael, it's all right, you're safe here!' A hand was caressing my forehead; another was holding my hand. The voice was comforting and I began to calm down. I grasped the hand that was holding mine. I heard someone yelp in surprise. 'He's waking up! He squeezed my hand!' Brett? I heard another voice, calling someone. Travis! The familiar voices were comforting. I felt relief wash over me. I'm safe—safe at last!
I hardly dared to hope that the voices were real. I opened my eyes, half expecting to see The Monster looking down at me with his evil grin. But he wasn't there. The room was different and I was no longer naked on that dirty bed in my tatty prison. I was wearing a white gown and the bed and the room looked spotless. There was a tube in my arm, and wires hanging off me. Where was I? Hospital? Am I in hospital? I turned my head, and looked right into the anxious face of my best friend. 'Brett,' I managed to croak.
'Michael! Thank God!' A couple of tears made their way out of his eyes and ran slowly down his cheeks. Brett gave a loud sigh and slumped down on to the bed. After a few moments he looked up, blinking away more tears. 'You just disappeared. We thought we'd never see you again. And then you turned up, but you've been unconscious for nearly a week and we thought you weren't going to wake up.' He reached over and hugged me. When he let me go we were both crying. We looked at each other and hugged again. I lay back and closed my eyes. I was weak, and even though I'd just woken up, I felt tired. I felt a hand on my shoulder and opened my eyes. It was my other best friend, his cheeky grin lighting up his face. I was too choked up to speak, but I did manage a weak smile.
Brett moved his chair back and stood to give Travis room to move closer. Travis leaned over and hugged me. When he straightened up again there were tears running down his cheeks, too. 'Hey, it's good to have you back.' He just stood there, looking down at me.
After that there was a flurry of activity. Karen, one of the nurses, came in to tell me my family was on its way to the hospital. Apparently they had been visiting earlier but had gone home not long before I woke up.
A man wearing a white coat and a stethoscope followed close on Karen's heels. 'Hello, Michael. I'm Doctor Emery,' he said, and after a moment's thought added with a smile, 'And that doesn't mean I have an abrasive personality!'
Karen was busy checking my temperature and blood pressure, but she still managed to groan and shake her head at the doctor's joke.
The doctor examined my eyes and throat, and asked questions at the same time. 'Are you feeling any pain anywhere? Have a headache? Sore throat? Can you see? Is your vision blurred?' I didn't get a chance to do much other than nod or shake my head. He seemed to be satisfied, and explained that he would leave me hooked up to the machines until he came back in the morning to give me a thorough examination. By the time he was ready to leave Dad, Mum, Kellie and Simon were at the door. The doctor allowed them a twenty-minute visit. I was very weak, he told them, and wouldn't feel up to talking.
He was right. I don't remember much of that night. I was pretty wakeful for the first few minutes, but after that I kept dozing off. I recall saying goodbye to my family and Brett, and I remember Travis talking to me after everyone else had left, but it's all very hazy.
I woke in the morning feeling stronger and much more alert. Karen came and had a chat before she went off duty, and introduced Judy, who would be my nurse during the day. Travis had gone home earlier while I was still sleeping, they told me, and was planning to visit me after school. Doctor Emery had been delayed by an emergency and would not be able to see me until after lunch. That was good in a way because I got to spend the morning with my mum.
She poked her head in the door just after I had eaten my breakfast (corn flakes and orange juice had never tasted so good) and the tray had been cleared away. 'How are you feeling this morning?'
'Much better, thank you.'
She came over and gave me a hug and a kiss. She stood beside the bed, gazing at me. A tiny smile playing on her lips made me think she knew something I didn't.
'Nothing…I was just thinking how good it is to have you alive and well. You gave us a terrible fright, you know.'
'I suppose I did. It wasn't too crash-hot for me either.' I managed a weak smile, trying to put on a brave face, but memories of my imprisonment and rape came flooding back and I started to cry. 'Mum, it…it was…awful!'
Mum sat on the bed and put her arm around me. I cuddled up to her like I had as a child when something was bothering me. 'Michael, I can't imagine what you've been through. When the doctor told us about your injuries and what that man had done to you I sat down and cried—and your dad wasn't much better.' She paused to take a deep breath.
'The important thing is you're safe now. And they caught the man; he's been in custody since the day you escaped.'
I sighed, 'Well, that's a relief; I hope they will be able to prove what he did.'
Mum chuckled, 'I don't think there's going to be any problem getting a conviction.' She started marking off points on her fingers, 'They found his DNA on you, your blood in his house, your DNA in his van, your clothes in his house—with his DNA on them—and they have a witness who saw him in his van at the park that night. Oh, and they found a can of capsicum spray near where your bike was found. It had his fingerprints on it. He must have dropped it; I doubt he would have intended to leave it lying around to be found.'
A light went on in my head. 'Capsicum spray! Aha!'
'That's why I fell off my bike. I heard a 'shhhht...' noise, then this stuff hit me in the face. It made me close my eyes, and my face stung like heck. And I couldn't breathe and it made me cough. But where would he have got it? I thought it was illegal.'
'It is, but he was a prison officer so he might have got it from work.'
'How did they catch him?' I asked, trying to keep up with a multitude of thoughts.
'Well, you can thank yourself for that! The police used the information you gave them. They found out quickly who owned the farmhouse. From the owner they found out the name of the tenant and where he worked, and they arrested him at the end of his shift that same day—before he had a chance to go home and find that you'd escaped.
'It turned out that he had abused other kids, but hadn't been caught before. Apparently he was very good at covering his tracks, but his luck ran out this time.'
'He's a monster, Mum. I'm really glad they caught him,' I said sadly.
I was keen to hear what had happened the night I was kidnapped—when I didn't make it home from the shop—so Mum gave me the whole story.
'You hadn't arrived back by the time dinner was ready, and that's when we started to worry. At first we thought you must have got talking to someone and forgotten what the time was.'
'As if I'd do that, Mum,' I said, wryly.
Mum chuckled. I was renowned for losing track of time.
'Dad and Simon drove to the shop, and found that you had been there and bought the milk. Simon grabbed the torch out of the car and walked through the park while Dad drove around to the other side. Simon found your bike under a bush with the front wheel a bit buckled. The milk carton was lying on the ground and all the milk had leaked out. Thinking you had run into something and damaged the wheel, they thought you must have walked home. Then they realised the damage wasn't enough to prevent you from walking home with the bike, but they drove home slowly, anyway, keeping an eye out for you. When there was no sign of you anywhere on the way home Dad phoned the hospital, thinking you might have been hurt and someone had taken you there. But you weren't there and that's when we really began to worry. Dad called the police.
'They turned up very quickly because they'd had a couple of reports of a man lurking in the park a few nights before.
'We convinced them that you wouldn't have disappeared voluntarily, and after they found the can of capsicum spray they began to think you had been kidnapped. When there was no ransom demand or any other contact from a kidnapper the police put your photo in all the newspapers and on TV, and broadcast appeals for information on the radio as well.'
Mum's eyes teared up, and I took her hand to comfort her. My disappearance must have affected my family and friends deeply, and I couldn't begin to imagine how they had coped with the situation and got through that first week. Mum took a deep breath and continued.
'The only information the police uncovered in the next few days was that someone who lived near the park had seen an old van parked in the street the night you disappeared, and mentioned that they had seen it a few nights earlier, too. That turned out to be the night the police received the report about the man lurking in the park. In an effort to throw light on your disappearance the detectives looked backed through old kidnappings. They turned up three unsolved crimes—going back about ten years—where teenage boys had disappeared. These cases had been in other towns in other parts of the state, but there were similarities with yours. Everyone was worried because only one of those boys had been found. He had been abused terribly, and allowed to die, and the kidnapper had never been caught.
'We were all kind of numb. Dad and I tried to keep our cool so we could be strong for Kellie and Simon, but at times they had to comfort and encourage us. Simon was amazing. He was really upset that you were gone, but he also never gave up hope that you would be okay. He kept saying, "Michael's all right!" Every time someone asked him how he knew, he said "I just know!" At first I thought he was simply being positive, but then it became obvious that he really was convinced that you would be coming home.
'Your dad's birthday came and went and we hardly noticed it. None of us could find much to celebrate with you missing like that.' She managed a smile. 'Getting three pairs of socks didn't help his disposition much either.
'Brett and Travis and their families were really great. The boys spent half the time at our place just helping to keep our spirits up. They never seemed to lose hope either, and just accepted Simon's word that you were "all right".
'I can't describe the relief when the phone rang that day and I heard your voice! Your dad couldn't understand what I was saying when I phoned him to tell him. He had to tell me to stop talking and take a few deep breaths and start again. When I finally managed to tell him that you were on your way to the police station, there was a great "Woohooo" and he hung up the phone without even saying goodbye. He told me later that everyone in the office nearly jumped through the roof when he yelled—and then they all cheered when he told them that you were safe.'
Mum and I were laughing and crying at the same time. I could just imagine Dad yelling at the top of his voice and the surprise of his staff (although they shouldn't have been surprised; I'd heard them say often enough—with a grin and a wink—that they reckoned he was crazy; no prizes for guessing where my weird sense of humour came from). That was making me laugh, but the memories of my ordeal and thoughts of the pain that my family had endured were making me very emotional. Mum and I just hugged each other for a long time as our tears gradually dried up. It had been upsetting, but I was really grateful that Mum had been willing to fill me in on what had happened at home while I was gone.
Then it was my turn to talk. Mum made me tell her a little about what The Monster had done to me, and how he had "cared" for me while I was captive. I didn't feel like talking too much about those days, but I understood Mum's need to know. I was much more comfortable when it came to telling her how I'd escaped and how I'd given Maree a fright when I ran out in front of her car.
Mum chuckled. She and Dad had contacted the young driver to thank her for her help. She told them that when I appeared in front of her, wrapped in a blanket and looking desperate, her first thought was that I was an escapee from a psychiatric ward—or someone playing a practical joke on her, put up to it by one of her friends. I'd frightened the life out of her and she had only calmed when she recognised me from news reports.
Mum and I filled the rest of the morning talking about family and friends and local events. I caught up with a lot of things that had happened in the family and at school while I had been "away."
After lunch Doctor Emery appeared in the doorway with Judy. 'How are you feeling today, Michael?'
'Pretty good, thanks. I had a really good sleep last night.'
'Excellent, just what the doctor ordered.' He chuckled at his own joke.
'I don't believe you just said that,' said Judy. 'Haven't you run out of those bad jokes yet, Doctor?'
Mum laughed. 'You should hear Michael's jokes. Sick pun after sick pun.' She shook her head. 'It's really sad.'
'You know you love them, Mum,' I said.
'Oh, no!' Judy groaned. 'Not more puns?'
The doctor chuckled. 'I can see we're going to get along fine, Michael.' He shot Judy a defiant look. 'If we stick together we'll wear them down. By the time you leave here we'll have them rolling in the aisles—well, the corridors, anyway.'
Mum laughed again. 'You might as well surrender, Judy. Punsters never give up, no matter how much you groan. In fact, I have a theory that groaning only encourages them.'
Judy rolled her eyes.
'Now…' Doctor Emery continued, 'Let's get all these tubes and wires off, and then we'll have a good look at you.' He unhooked the electrodes connecting me to the heart rate monitor and Judy moved the machine out of the way. Then Judy took the drip line from my elbow while the doctor removed the catheter.
'There, now you'll just have to live independently,' he chuckled.
I grinned. Man, this guy's a barrel of laughs!
'Michael, you had some pretty nasty injuries when they brought you in. There was bruising to your torso and face, a couple of bumps to the skull, skin scraped off your face and shoulder and hands, the soles of your feet were cut and scraped, and your backside was torn badly. As well as all that you were dehydrated and malnourished.
'You were also unconscious. I think what happened was that you concentrated all of your strength on surviving while you were captive, and then the adrenaline rush kept you going until you got away safely and talked to the police. When you didn't need to fight any more your body kind of shut down. I think there was probably a bit of delayed shock in there as well.
'We decided to keep you sedated so that your body could put all of its resources into healing, and not have to worry about day-to-day living. We fed you through the drip, the catheter took care of your bladder, and a ventilator took care of breathing. We took you off the ventilator when you started to breathe on your own, but if your throat is a bit sore, it's because you had a tube in there for a few days.
'We did CAT and MRI scans, and took X-rays as well. We couldn't find any fractures or any sign of brain or other organ damage, so it was really just a matter of allowing time to heal the injuries.'
He poked and prodded all over my body; it seemed like he left no spot untouched. He even examined my backside. Eventually he seemed to be satisfied. 'Well, you're looking pretty good,' he said, 'I think we can move you out of intensive care now.
'A couple of my colleagues will be in to see you later today or tomorrow. One is a neurologist who will do some tests to check your brain function, and the other is a psychologist who will talk to you to see how you're feeling emotionally. If they are happy with you, nothing unexpected crops up, and you are getting your strength back, you should be able to go home in a few days' time.' He smiled, 'You have some very special people around you, Michael. We did everything we could, but without your family and friends I doubt you would have made it.'
I smiled faintly, 'Yeah, they're the best.'
He gave Judy some instructions for my care, then turned back to me. 'Okay, Michael, I'll drop in again tomorrow.' He surprised me by putting his hand on my shoulder and giving it a squeeze.
He was almost out the door when I remembered I had a question. 'Oh, Doctor?'
He stopped and returned to me, his raised eyebrows giving me the go-ahead.
'I think I was attacked with capsicum spray. Would it have done any damage?'
'One hit is unlikely to have any permanent effects. It disables a person quite dramatically and it's pretty uncomfortable while it lasts, but the severe effects usually only last for about 45 minutes. You would have had sore eyes and burning skin and coughing fits, that gradually eased?'
'We'll be checking your eyes anyway because of the knocks to your head, so if there's anything wrong we'll find it. I think you'll be fine, though.'
'Thanks, Doc.' This time I let him leave.
Mum left when Travis arrived after school. Brett and Simon would come in later, he said. They didn't want to wear me out by having too many visitors around at the same time.
I had been moved out of intensive care during the afternoon, and Travis sat on my bed and looked around my new room, and then gazed into the courtyard outside the window. Neither of us spoke; for quite a while we just sat there in silence. We'd been best friends for so long that we could communicate without words, and Trav's eyes showed a mixture of love, compassion, and anguish. I guessed he was thinking about what might have happened.
Finally, I couldn't help it; I started crying again. The sense of relief that I was safe and back with my family and friends was overwhelming. I managed a weak grin, and said 'It's good to be back!'
Travis burst out laughing, even though there were tears in his eyes, too.
'What? What's so funny?'
Still laughing, he managed to say, 'Sorry, but that just sounded so lame!'
I was a bit miffed. 'Well, it is good to be back,' I said, defensively.
Travis grinned. 'I know it is, and it's really, really, good to have you back. I was just expecting something a bit more articulate from the class poet.'
'Class poet? Ohhhh!' I rolled my eyes. A couple of months earlier I had handed in an English assignment that included some free-form poetry, and, to my embarrassment, our teacher had raved over it. My friends had teased me mercilessly ever since.
Suddenly, I remembered something Doctor Emery had said. 'Trav, the doctor said I wouldn't have made it without you guys. What did you do?'
Travis grinned. 'Oh, man, you wouldn't believe the drama we had. You collapsed at the police station and everyone panicked. You were still unconscious when they brought you here, and then they decided to keep you sedated because you were so badly hurt. The doctors thought that would give your body a chance to recover and save you from a lot of the pain. But when they tried to bring you out of it you wouldn't wake up.
'Kellie, Brett and I decided we'd stay here in shifts, so that one of us was always with you. Kellie would come early in the morning, Brett would take over in the afternoon, and I'd come in late at night. Simon wanted to help, too, but your mum and dad thought he'd get too upset if he was here on his own, so he'd come in and spend time with one of us. Your dad and mum were here a lot of the time, too. We kept booting them out because they were stressed out, and we reckoned they were needed more at home, but they wouldn't listen to us. I don't know how your dad managed to go to work and still spend so much time here; he couldn't have been getting much sleep. Your mum was here all day the days she didn't have to work.
'We talked to you, we hugged you, we held your hand, we even told you we loved you.' He grimaced, as if it pained him to admit that. I chuckled. He didn't have to tell me he loved me; I already knew—but I could imagine how hard it was for him to actually tell me.
'Every now and then,' Travis continued, 'We'd tell you off—especially Brett and Kellie. They were getting really cheesed off with you. They thought you didn't want to wake up; they reckoned you'd given up.
'That thought only made us fight harder, and the doctors kept telling us to keep going. They said we were making a difference—that we were all that stood between life and death for you. Man, that was scary. Kellie got so fired up one day that I thought she was going to slap you around.'
I had to laugh. Kellie must have been really annoyed. She's normally quiet and measured; nothing fazes her. The thought of her hitting me just seemed ludicrous.
'Anyway, a couple of days ago, the doctors began to notice an improvement. You weren't moving, and you didn't give any sign that you knew we were here, but your body started to function normally. Then, yesterday something seemed to be happening, and just as I got here last night you started thrashing around on the bed. Your head was twisting back and forth, and you were yelling 'No! No!' That was the first time you had said anything. Brett was holding your hand and talking to you, and you calmed down. He nearly jumped through the roof when you squeezed his hand, and I went running to tell Karen. When I got back you were awake.'
'Wow! I thought I was dreaming! It was all kind of mixed up together—I would hear people talking to me, but I couldn't respond. It was like being in some sort of halfway house. I wasn't properly awake, but I wasn't really unconscious, either. I kept drifting backwards and forwards. It was weird. I didn't know whether I was really hearing you guys, or whether it was my mind playing tricks. Just before I woke up I was dreaming that I was back…back there, and he was…hurting me again. I was thrashing my head around because I couldn't breathe, and he was going to hit me. I remember shouting 'No!' in the dream, but I must have shouted out loud.'
Travis looked at me. 'You're safe now, Mikey,' he said.
That made me giggle. 'Heh, I haven't heard that name for years!'
'Yeah, I used to call you that all the time, remember? I must have stopped when we were about eleven,' he said. 'Oh, I know—you decided it was "babyish" and it wouldn't do for a "big eleven-year-old."' He made quotation marks in the air as he emphasised the words I had used. He chuckled, 'I think I'll start using it again,' then cried, 'Ow!' when I bopped him on the arm.
We had a good laugh together.
Travis looked at me thoughtfully. 'I can only guess what you've been through, Mikey,' he said, ducking as I tried to hit him again, 'But it's over now, and he's not going to hurt anyone else, ever again.'