The lives of the Tracy’s from a different viewpoint.

Special thanks must first go to Little Miss Bump for being my beta, and patiently correcting me on my many many grammatical errors. Couldn’t have done this without her!

Huge thank you to all who have reviewed Strangers. Each one has been read and greatly appreciated. It has been such a wonderful and unexpected response for my first story, and has really encouraged me to keep going and write more!

So, from me, Stacey, Stan, Jane, David, Jack, Emily and Ben…Thank you!!!

Chapter 1

Scan the food, bag the food, give them the food.

Eight hours a day.

Every day.

There was no way of dressing it up to make the job more interesting. Working on the tills was dull. Painfully dull. Management didn’t even like staff speaking to friends on the other counters. So essentially, Stacey was trapped in the till booth - in silence - until she was relieved.

The only compensation for the mind-numbing task was that it gave Stacey a good chance to people-watch.

She rested her chin on her hand and stifled a yawn, listening to the terrible store music numbly as she watched the shoppers move from aisle to aisle. The CD was on a loop, and this was the seventh time she had heard the song today.


Suddenly, a small child went tearing past the counter, running down the aisle clutching a plastic toy high above his head.

“Nee-naw, nee-naw! Submarine to the rescue!”

Stacey raised an eyebrow as she watched the child run out of sight into the condiments aisle, laughing delightedly as he did so. Then, only a moment later, a tall dark haired man quickly strode in the same direction.

Stacey suppressed a laugh as a customer began unloading their shopping onto her conveyor belt. She smiled warmly at them, and thought no more of it, scanning the food and assisting the customer with packing. She was just handing over the receipt when an announcement came over the tannoy from her boss

“This is a staff announcement, clean up in aisle three. Clean up in aisle three. Thank you.”

Aisle three, the cans and condiments aisle. She glanced up just in time to see the young boy from before and laughed aloud before she could stop herself. He was being held tightly by the dark haired man, and it appeared that the boy was covered from head to toe in a substance that looked suspiciously like ketchup. She only managed to catch a snippet of their conversation as they walked past.

“- causing a fuss! Now you are going to sit in the cart and think about what you’ve done until your mom has finished getting what she needs.”

“But Dad! Johnny said-”

“I don’t care what Johnny said, you don’t-”

They disappeared down an aisle and Stacey grinned to her colleague, Adam, who was stacking shelves in the aisle in front of her. She loved watching the families, especially the ones that clearly had no control over their kids. Lord knows what their homes must be like.

Several minutes passed and Stacey slumped back in her seat, absently toying with her name badge as she waited for the next customer. Boredom began to set in again, until the afternoon took a strange turn...

She stared in curious disbelief, as a large bottle of juice with legs seemed to move slowly in her direction.

She glanced behind her to check that she wasn’t the only one seeing it, but if anyone else was seeing it, they weren’t paying any attention. She watched the strange sight in awe, as the juice bottle teetered towards her, before being pushed up onto the conveyor belt slowly. Finally the juice fell unceremoniously onto the belt, revealing a little boy with untidy blond hair grinning triumphantly as he pushed it further onto the surface.

“Well, hello there!” she said brightly.

“Hi!” the boy said, still grinning. He was adorable. He couldn’t have been more than two years old, and his bright blue eyes shone excitedly as he watched the bottle move down towards her.

“Did you pick this all by yourself?” she asked. The boy nodded triumphantly,

“Enough jooce for evveywun!” he giggled, throwing his arms out in an encompassing gesture. His enthusiasm was infectious, and Stacey laughed along with him.

“Well done! Where’s your mommy?”

“Gettin da poppicles.”

“And do you think she’ll be looking for you?”

The boy frowned thoughtfully.


Stacey nodded her understanding. She was about to go and make an announcement over the tannoy system, when a young boy came striding towards her. He looked around ten or eleven, and was clearly a boy on a mission.

“Oh, thank goodness,” he said, scooping the boy up in his arms and hugging him, before pulling back and looking at the boy sternly.

“Alan, what did Mom say about wandering off like that?!”

“But Scotty forgot da jooce!” he exclaimed, pointing at the bottle, which still rested on the conveyor belt.

The older boy looked numbly at the bottle, before grinning sheepishly,

“I guess I did… but still, don’t run away from me, okay?” He picked up the bottle, carefully shifting Alan so he was resting on his hip. He looked at Stacey nervously.

“Sorry, Ma’am. Our mom and dad will be over in a minute to pay.”

“No problem,” Stacey said lightly, just as Scott waved over his family.

The mom was stunning, even though she looked slightly harassed at the moment, pushing a trolley overflowing with food. Walking beside her were two more boys, both apparently on their best behaviour. The father was the dark haired guy with the ketchup kid. And, sure enough, there was ketchup kid, sitting in the trolley, his arms folded stubbornly as he sat amongst the tins and vegetables.

Five boys, Stacey thought to herself, no wonder they were a little chaotic.

“Hello,” the mother said exasperatedly, smiling at her briefly. Stacey smiled in understanding as the mother and her husband began unloading the cart.

“I wanna go on the mover!” the ketchup kid demanded, pointing to the conveyor belt.

“No!” both parents ordered.

The two adults began unpacking the cart, and as Stacey began to scan the goods, she glanced up to the man. He looked familiar, but she couldn’t quite place him. Maybe from TV? The way Adam was gesturing frantically suggested she should have known who it was, but the name wouldn’t come.

“Luce, did you pick up any juice?” he asked absently as he lifted the ketchup kid out of the cart, holding him easily in one arm as he continued unpacking the trolley.

By now the two boys had moved around to the end of the conveyor belt, and seemed to be having some kind of race to see who could pack the bags the fastest. The mother sighed and straightened up, pushing her blond hair out of her face

“No, hold on I’ll -”

“Here it is,” Scott said, putting the juice down. “Al got it.”

“You did?!” the mother exclaimed, grinning at the small boy proudly, who was still being held by the eldest “Good job!”

Alan giggled ecstatically as his mother planted a kiss on his forehead. The father was trying to suppress a smile as the ketchup kid sighed dramatically in his arms, watching the conveyor belt go by mournfully.

“That’ll be $230 please,” Stacey confirmed. The mother nodded and put her card in the machine, smiling warmly at her.

“Next time I’m shopping on my own,” she joked, typing in her security number to confirm the payment. The machine beeped a confirmation and she removed the card, helping the two boys with the last of the bags.

“Daddy, I’m real sorry I maded a mess,” the ketchup kid said forlornly. The dad looked at the child in his arms and hitched him up, his expression seeming to soften slightly.

“It’s okay, Gordon. Do you know why Daddy had to tell you off?”

The young boy nodded apologetically. “‘Cause I maded the shop man do lotsa work to clean up.”

“That’s right,” the dad confirmed, “and that wasn’t kind, was it? “

Gordon shook his head sadly. “And I got covered in ketchup.”

Stacey couldn’t help but snort with laughter at the child’s response, and immediately realised her mistake. She looked up in horror, waiting for the family to shout at her for eavesdropping, but the mom just smiled at her with equal mirth. Indeed, Stacey thought she could see a smile tugging at the corner of the dad’s mouth, but he was still attempting to look stern as the boy continued.

“I wont do it again. I promise. Can I get down now?”

The man looked at the child in his arms and smiled, attempting half-heartedly to wipe some of the ketchup off his son’s cheek.

“Not while everyone’s packing up, Gordon. But what say we get you cleaned up and then go swimming, okay? Just Gordy and Daddy time.”

Gordon’s eyes lit up and he nodded enthusiastically, flinging his arms around his father’s neck. He left a red ketchup stain on his father’s cheek, but the man didn’t seem to notice.

“Here’s your receipt,” Stacey said, handing the mother the long till receipt.

“Thank you,” the mother said warmly, “and thanks for your help.”

“Any time,” Stacey replied.

“Okay guys, good job!” the mother enthused as the boys put the last of the bags in the cart. “Are we all set?”

“All set, Mom,” the chestnut haired boy replied.

“Then let’s go.”

“Mom, can I help make dinner tonight?”

“Sure, John, honey. I’ll teach you how to make Gordon’s favourite spaghetti meal. How does that sound?”

The group began moving away from Stacey’s till and towards the exit. Stacey watched them leave, chattering happily amongst themselves. Those kids must be the luckiest kids in the world, she thought to herself.

Her colleagues were all staring at her, waiting for her to give them all the gossip on that guy…it was bugging her now. What was his name? Before she could think of an answer to that question, a woman dumped a basket onto her conveyor belt, startling Stacey out of her thoughts abruptly.

“Well, come on then! I haven’t got all day!”

Stacey sighed resignedly. “Yes Ma’am.”

Scan the food, bag the food, give them the food.


Chapter 2

Stan hated his job. He hated it with a passion. Especially on days like this.

He slurped his soda through the plastic straw, not taking his eyes from the ugly scene in front of him. There were dozens of people just like him. Some were standing on their vans with binoculars, some were arguing with each other about the best position. A few were in the middle of a live feed, speaking confidently into their camera as the large house lay behind them.

He got out of the car and sighed, leaning against the bonnet as he watched the large farmhouse closely. The media cordon prevented anyone from getting closer to the house, but that didn’t stop eager paparazzi from swarming around the front gates and surrounding woodland in an effort to get the perfect shot. No one seemed to be having any luck though; because no one had come in or out of the house for a good few hours. The last action they had seen was Jeff Tracy’s mom arriving, but grandmas do not make headline news.

Stan half-heartedly checked his camera and looped the strap loosely around his wrist. This wasn’t the life he had pictured when he first got into photography. Back then, he’d had lofty ideals, and it disgusted him that he broke those ideals at the first scent of a large cheque.

“Hey Stan! Stan, over here!”

Stan winced at the familiar voice as the man strolled casually towards him.

“Hi, Rob.”

“So, you got the shot yet?”

“If I had, do you think I’d still be here?”

“Well, I’m still here and I got a doozy earlier.” He lifted his camera and turned it on. Stan noted it was a state-of-the-art model, with an extreme zoom big enough that he would be able to see right into the house. And sure enough, the picture was of a bedroom in the house, slightly blurry, but it was clear that it was Jeff Tracy in the photo. Instead of his usual business suit, he wore a baggy grey t-shirt and sweatpants. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands.

Stan looked at Rob in disgust. Another private moment destroyed by people just like him.

“Well, whadda ya think?” Rob exclaimed, grinning broadly. Stan grit his teeth, before forcing himself to smile


“Yeah, it should be worth a few bucks, eh?” Stan nodded tightly, not trusting himself to speak as Rob continued, “I’m just waiting to get one of the kids now. That’s what all the glossies are asking for.”

“You don’t stand a chance,” Stan commented, staring at the house ahead of them. “He was cagey about pictures of his kids before this happened. You wont get near them now.”

“Don’t need to get near them with this.” Rob grinned, patting the camera fondly “I can see right into the house. I just need one of ‘em to look out of the window and ‘click’!”

Stan stared at Rob for a moment, waiting for the man to show some compassion. But it never happened. Instead, there was just that infuriating grin. He took a deep breath, his voice carefully controlled as he tried to contain his anger.

“You know, with people like you sitting outside his house every day, it’s a wonder that Tracy talks to the press at all.”

Rob raised his hands in protest

“Hey! I’m not the enemy here! Tracy’s going to have to come to terms with the fact that people want to know about him. Besides,” he chortled, “if he cared that much about privacy, he’d shut all the curtains.”

Stan couldn’t listen to this man anymore. He didn’t care if he lost the shot. He had to clear his head before this drove him completely insane. He walked away from the furore and towards the woodlands behind them.

“Hey! Where’re you going?!”

“Break” Stan ground out, stomping away from the ugly scene.

He wandered through the woodland that the house backed onto, kicking a stone aimlessly in front of him. The media frenzy faded away to a distant murmur, and soon he was surrounded by the silence of nature.

He didn’t remember how many times he had sat in front of that house, waiting for the big scoop; and he’d had no qualms about doing whatever it took to get the shot. He’d even been caught by Tracy once when he was trying to snap a picture of the oldest kid’s birthday party. So why did he feel so bad now? Maybe because this time was different. This wasn’t a business deal gone wrong, or the birth of a new child; this was a family torn apart.

Stan stopped his aimless walking and looked around, suddenly realising he’d lost his bearings. He stood completely still, hoping to hear the sounds of the photographers behind him in order to get an idea of where he was. But all was silent…no, that was wrong…it wasn’t completely silent.

He had been so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he hadn’t heard it at first, but now, there it was. A snuffling, breathy noise that seemed unnatural in the tranquil setting. He hesitated, looking back in the direction he had come, but his curiosity got the better of him and he followed the noise as quietly as he could.

It didn’t take long for him to reach the bank of a small river. There was a battered looking rope swing hanging out over the water, and the area around it was well worn down. It would have been picturesque were it not for the source of the noise he had been following…

A short distance away from him, there was a boy sitting alone. He was looking at something in his hands, his shoulders bobbing up and down erratically. What was he holding? Stan raised his camera without thinking, focusing the lens to get a closer look. It was a toy plane. The boy was gripping it so tightly that his fingers were white from lack of circulation. His sobs were clearly audible now, the sound of desolation and anguish completely heartbreaking; particularly coming from someone that young. He couldn’t have been older than twelve.

Tracy’s eldest was twelve years old, Stan thought to himself carefully. Scott. He wasn’t sure what the kid looked like, but the ages matched up just about perfectly. It had to be him. Stan’s eyes widened in shock at what he had stumbled upon. This was the find a paparazzo dreams of!

Stan’s finger drifted towards the ‘capture’ button before he could even think about it, but before he could complete the action, there was another sound that broke his concentration. A loud rustling was coming towards them, and Stan quickly ducked behind a tree, his heart beating wildly in his chest. Any minute now, Jeff Tracy would emerge and discover him. He shouldn’t be here! He was going to get himself into big trouble. He expelled a breath of relief when, instead of Jeff Tracy, another young boy emerged in the clearing. His chestnut hair was wild and unkempt, and clearly he’d been running for some time. He looked panicked at first, then relieved when he saw the other boy, putting his hands on his knees and getting his breath back.

Upon seeing that he wasn’t alone, the darker haired boy tried to hold back his tears, wiping his face quickly and taking a shuddering breath. He even attempted a smile, the poor kid. But the other one wasn’t fooled. Stan slowly raised his camera again, looking at their faces. The resemblance was undeniable: these were definitely Jeff Tracy’s sons.

The younger boy moved forwards, gingerly sitting next to his brother on the log. They sat in silence for a moment, staring out at the river as it rushed happily past them. The rope swing swayed lazily in the gentle summer breeze, and the wind murmured through the trees serenely, but neither of them were paying any attention. Both looked utterly lost.

Stan chewed his lip thoughtfully. He had the perfect shot. A portrait of grief and loss from Tracy’s own kids. This would be worth thousands. Millions maybe, to the right buyer. All he had to do was take the picture.

His finger hovered over the button, his hands trembling slightly as he did so. But he didn’t take the picture, instead he just watched as the younger of the two slowly put his arm around the other’s shoulders. The eldest, Scott, looked at him, and tried to speak, opening his mouth soundlessly a couple of times. Then he looked down at the battered toy plane in his hand, and the younger boy followed his gaze.

Neither had said a word, but Stan could see that there was an understanding between the two of them. The eldest began to cry again, silently at first, his breath hitching as tears rolled down his cheeks. The younger brother rubbed his shoulder gently, which apparently was all the permission that was needed. Scott began to cry in earnest, trying bravely to hold it in, but failing. The younger boy drew him closer, and Scott flung his arms around his brother, crying uncontrollably into his shoulder. The younger boy clutched him just as tightly, but no tears fell. They stayed that way for several minutes, just hugging each other. There was no need for words, it would seem.

Stan could no longer see the face of the eldest, so instead focused on the younger boy. He didn’t know this one’s name. He would have said he was around ten years old, but the look in his eyes made him seem ancient. He looked over the woods around them, looking for something he would never find, his eyes wide with untold anguish.

Then the kid seemed to stare right at him.


He was staring right at him!

Stan froze. Maybe he hadn’t seen. Maybe he was disguised by the bushes…

He watched as the boy’s face slowly clouded with hurt, and disbelief.

He’d seen.

There was a moment of strange stalemate as they stared at one another, neither moving a muscle. The boy still held his shaking brother in his arms, who was completely oblivious to Stan’s intrusion. The younger boy didn’t need to move or say anything. Through his camera lens, Stan could see every emotion play across his face, almost as though it were in slow motion. Confusion at first, then hurt…anger…and then sheer misery.

Stan watched through the lens as his expression slowly changed to that of hollow resignation. The boy seemed to wilt, and he gave an almost imperceptible nod, lowering his eyes and hugging his brother even closer to him.

Stan had never felt so low. He knew exactly what the kid was saying.

Take the picture.

What did it matter anyway? How could it possibly get any worse than what those two were living through?

Stan still held the camera to his eye, frozen with overwhelming guilt. He willed himself to take the photo. All he had to do was click the button and he would be set for life. But those eyes…the look in that kid’s eyes…he couldn’t bring himself to press his finger down. It wasn’t right. Taking pictures of drunk rich girls was one thing, but this…this was monstrous.

He slowly lowered the camera, the ‘capture’ button still untouched, and watched the brothers for a moment. Then, as silently as he could, he moved away, leaving their private moment to remain just that…

It was time to get another job.

Chapter 3

Jane Lyons was tidying up the classroom. The kids had left it fairly tidy, but the large group of four-year-olds always managed to leave some evidence behind. It had been a great day; they had done finger painting, and learnt about space and the stars. She loved days when the kids really seemed to hang on her every word.

The last parent had left a few minutes ago and the classroom was now calm. Jane would have been thinking about going home herself, were it not for the final person left in the classroom. Looking over, she watched the little boy, with his thatch of blonde hair, leaning over a picture and colouring it in furiously, quietly humming to himself as he did so.

“You okay over there, Alan?” she asked. The four year old looked up and nodded,

“Yes, Miss. I’m drawing a rocket ship.”

“That’s great Alan,” she said brightly, continuing to tidy up, “maybe you can take it to space when you’re done?”

Alan smiled, his blue eyes sparkling mischievously. “It’s only a pitcher, Miss.”

Jane chuckled, deciding not to correct him on his pronunciation, school had finished after all.

“Good point.”

She gave a small sigh of relief at the content of Alan’s drawing. Lately, Alan’s creative work had displayed his state of mind better than he could ever say. Sad faces, rain clouds, houses with locked doors and dark windows. For a four-year-old, it was unsettling, and she had thought long and hard about how she could help him. But a rocket ship was more on the right track.

Jane glanced up to the clock on the wall as she walked to the front of the class. Four o’clock. The poor kid should have been picked up half an hour ago. She settled down at the desk, keeping an eye on Alan as she casually organised the next day’s lesson plan. However, as her eyes drifted over the schedules and targets, she found herself thinking about the boy sitting in the corner.

Less than six months ago, Alan hadn’t turned up for school one day; and hearing from other teachers in the school, it would seem his older brothers were all absent too. The news about their mother made headlines later that day.

Alan had been back in school two weeks later, but he was a changed boy. He looked lost, losing focus constantly and sitting alone at break times until his brothers came to check on him. His brothers too, who had once been bright, friendly boys, were now walking through school as though in a daze. The whole family had changed irrevocably, it would seem.

It had taken a long time for Alan’s behavioural problems to settle down. Only now, six months on, was he starting to return to the same exuberant little boy that had first joined her class, and Jane thought she knew why this was.

In the weeks following Mrs Tracy’s death, she had noticed a change in Alan’s routine. He would arrive late to the class, being dropped off by an apologetic Jeff Tracy. Alan’s father always looked rushed and exhausted, his pager or phone normally ringing insistently. When Jeff did pick up Alan after school, he was invariably late. Sometimes he just didn’t turn up and Jane had to take Alan home herself.

For a while, Jane feared that she was witnessing a man on the edge. Grieving his wife, with constant attention from the press, a huge workload, as well as being sole carer to five young boys…it was too much for one person to handle, and Jeff Tracy clearly wasn’t coping.

Then one morning, after three months of tardiness, something changed. After only a few minutes of waiting for Alan, Scott Tracy arrived, holding Alan’s hand tightly. The eldest of the Tracy boys looked unnervingly calm as he gave his little brother his lunchbox and a hug goodbye; as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Jane remembered Scott from teaching him only a few years ago, but the boy that stood in her class that day was a very different person. He came up to her desk, looking tired but determined, and said simply,

“I’ll be taking the boys to school from now on.”

And that was that. Scott Tracy had become an adult. An adult at only thirteen years old.

There was a knock on the classroom door and Jane was startled out of her thoughts by the very person she was thinking of. Scott walked in hurriedly, his younger brothers in tow. Jane smiled as the Tracy’s all filed into the nursery, wearing identical navy uniforms. She had taught them all at some point or other, and it never failed to amaze her seeing their relationship when together.

“Scotty!” Alan exclaimed joyously. He ran over and hugged Scott around the legs tightly. Scott crouched down, allowing Alan to hug him properly.

“Hiya, Al.”

“You’re late,” the small boy scolded playfully. Scott frowned, glancing to Gordon Tracy, who was looking determinedly at the floor, avoiding his older brothers gaze.

“I know, Al, sorry about that. Have you been good for Miss Lyons?”

Alan nodded, grinning, as Scott looked him over for dirt or mess.

“Come on then, home time. Get your stuff together.”

Jane watched as Alan went over to Virgil, who was standing behind Scott quietly, and tugged on his hand.

“Virge, come see the pitcher I drew!”

“Picture,” Virgil corrected, allowing Alan to drag him over to one of the tables. Scott got to his feet, brushing his trousers down briefly and moving over to Jane.

“Hello, Miss. Sorry we’re late. Gordon was held back by Miss Gautrey and we had to wait for him.”

Held back? Jane made a mental note to talk to the new teacher. Delays after school were the last thing these boys needed.

“John, can you get Alan’s gym kit? It’s the bag with the race cars on it.”

The blonde haired boy nodded, and disappeared into the cloakroom without a word as Scott looked over to his three younger brothers in the corner. Virgil had sat Alan on his lap, looking at the picture and nodding his appreciation, though he didn’t smile. This didn’t seem to phase Alan however, who babbled happily about his rocket ship. Gordon was in his usual position when Scott and John collected Alan, on his tiptoes, his face pressed up against the glass of the class fish tank.

Scott turned to Jane worriedly.

“Has Alan been okay today?”

“No problem at all, Scott,” she happily confirmed, “He’s doing a lot better now.”

Scott breathed a sigh of relief. “Good. Dad said he’ll be able to make parents evening next week but, ah…could you do a written report anyway? Just in case?”

“Of course.” she responded understandingly, smiling as Alan walked over, proudly holding out the picture for his older brother to look at. Scott took the picture from him and raised his eyebrows, giving an impressed whistle. On first inspection it looked like a giant red splodge on a page, but looking closer, Jane could see a vague resemblance to a rocket ship.

“Wow, Al. Good job!” Scott said overenthusiastically, then he knelt down next to his brother again. “Do you think you could get your coat on so we can take this home to show Daddy?”

“And then put it on the fridge?” Alan asked, in awe of the very idea. Scott nodded, ruffling the youngest blonde hair affectionately. Alan giggled and ran off to the cloakroom at top speed, tearing around the tables and chairs before disappearing through a doorway. Scott winced as they heard a thump in the direction Alan had just ran. Virgil got to his feet with a sigh and, without a word, went to find Alan.

“Scott,” Jane asked carefully, “is Virgil doing okay?”

Scott frowned, looking at the doorway where Virgil had gone after his youngest brother, then back to Jane. She could tell he was wrestling with something, but seemed to make a decision on what information he would give.

“Yeah…He’ll be alright. He’s just having a bad week, that’s all. It was his piano recital.”

“And it didn’t go well?” Jane asked sympathetically

“No, it went brilliantly!” Scott enthused “He got top marks! But…uh…” he trailed off, lapsing into an uncomfortable silence.

Whatever upset Virgil, Scott clearly didn’t want to talk about it. But Jane could guess; only last week she had attended her own daughter’s piano recital. The room was full of moms and dads supporting their children. It must have been lonely on that stage with no one to play for. Scott looked at the picture in his hands closely, then smiled at Jane hopefully.

“This is good, right? Not as sad as the ones he’s been drawing recently.”

Jane smiled at the Scott’s intuitive question. Not many thirteen-year-olds would know the psychological implications of a child’s drawing, but then, Scott had never been conventional.

“I was thinking the exact same thing,” she responded, looking at the picture fondly. “He seems a lot happier recently.”

Scott beamed at that.

“That’s good. I’ll tell Dad tonight. We’ve been worried about Al lately.”

“Anything I can help with?” she asked curiously. Scott shook his head.

“Just Al being Al,” he said lightly, then hesitated, glancing up to Jane almost embarrassed. “He was bottling a lot of things up about…Mom, you know. Dad had a talk with him about it a few nights ago…looks like it worked.” He gestured to the painting.

“Well, if there’s anything I can do to help, you be sure to let me know,” Jane said sincerely. Scott nodded his understanding, and thanks, smiling warmly at his old teacher.

John emerged from the cloakroom, carrying a brightly coloured tote bag and backpack. He proceeded to pack up Alan’s belongings into the small backpack habitually while Scott folded up Alan’s picture. The older Tracy then ran his hand through his hair wearily. However if he wanted to relax, he was prevented by Gordon, who tugged at Scott’s jacket, a hopeful look in his eye.

“Scott, can we have Sketty for dinner?”

“Spaghetti,” Scott corrected absently, trying to put Alan’s picture into his bag as carefully as he could. “And John made that for you yesterday. You need to have some vegetables tonight.”

Gordon looked sourly at Scott, but didn’t complain at the idea. It was then Virgil emerged from the cloakroom, holding Alan’s hand tightly.

“He fell again,” he explained to Scott exasperatedly.

“And it didn’t hurt!” Alan boasted, giggling as he threw his arms around Virgil, hugging him tightly. Virgil seemed to relax slightly and gave a small smile, draping one arm around his little brother; it was the first time Jane had seen the middle child smile since arriving.

“Alan, you need to slow down! You’re going to hurt yourself one of these days.” Scott scolded, before looking apologetically at Miss Lyons. “We’ll be out of your hair in a minute.”

“Take your time,” she replied as she watched John crouch down to help Alan put on his backpack.

“Johnny, are we going to the park?” Alan asked hopefully as John helped him.

“No, Al. Me, Virgil and Scott have got homework to do. We’re going home.”

“But Johnny-” Alan began to whine desperately.

“Don’t worry Al,” Gordon said confidently, “Daddy said he’d play a game with us tonight after dinner. That’s way more fun than the park.”

Alan grinned, not seeing John’s worried frown to Scott.

“Gordo, remember Daddy’s got lots of work. And you need to catch up on your biology work because you made them stop the class.”

“But Daddy promised.”

“Well, you promised you’d stop letting the frogs escape but you did it again, didn’t you?”

“It’s not my fault! Miss Gautrey said-”

“Gordon, I don’t want to hear it.” Scott interrupted, effectively ending the potential argument. Gordon crossed his arms and pouted sullenly, but Jane couldn’t help but feel slightly pleased. If Gordon Tracy was playing pranks again, then things must be getting back on track.

John straightened up and held out his hand, which Alan took automatically, beaming at his older brother fondly. Scott nodded his approval, seemingly relieved that the school run was fairly painless.

“Ok, do we have everything?” Scott asked, there were general murmurs in the affirmative from the boys.

“Then lets go!” John and Alan walked hand in hand to the exit, and the others followed.

“Thank you for waiting with him again.” Scott said gratefully. Jane smiled affectionately in response.

“It’s okay Scott. Have a good evening.”

“And you.”

“Bye Miss Lyons!” Alan shouted, waving as he walked away.

“Bye boys,” she answered fondly. Gordon lingered behind, staring at a poster on the wall of a coral reef.

“Gordy,” Virgil called, holding out his hand as they walked without so much of a look back. Gordon ran to catch up, taking Virgil’s hand and holding it tightly as the family began the short walk home.

Miss Lyons watched them leave, a small smile gracing her features. They were going to be okay.

Chapter 4

David Tanner sat at his desk in the familiar setting. He blocked out the noise from those around him, the tannoy announcements, the murmur of low voices from nearby desks, the rustle of jostling papers, and the constant ‘thrum’ of electronic equipment. Instead, he focused his attention entirely on his work. The deadline was only months away, and he was in the process of redesigning the space station’s complex communications system. Each calculation had to be pored over meticulously, and then inputted by his team, before he checked it again.

His normal job of monitoring all communications on the space station had to be delegated to his colleagues. He did this grudgingly, but there was no one else with his kind of expertise. So while he was happy to pass his normal job to his colleagues, he had insisted that he remain in the mission control room, so he could be on the scene straight away if something needed his attention.


David glanced around momentarily to see the flight controller, Nick Wright, striding towards him. He looked back to his screen.

“Hi Nick, what’s up?”

“I’ve got your new guy waiting for you in the meeting room.”

David paused momentarily, before continuing his work.

“Tell him to talk to the team over in the communications office, they’ll be able to brief him.”

Nick was silent for a moment.

“I thought you’d say that. You can’t avoid this guy forever, you know.”

“Avoid,” David snorted, attempting to laugh at the ridiculous statement, but he still felt his cheeks flush. Had his behaviour been that noticeable?

“Come on, Dave. Give the kid a chance. Besides, when he’s up there, you’re going to be his man on the ground, so you’re going to have to -”

“Woa, woa, wait a minute! I didn’t agree to that, Mitch has been taking over day to day comms, he can-”

“He doesn’t have the experience you do, and don’t tell me you don’t want to be there second by second when they install your baby.” he said, gesturing to the screen. David frowned thoughtfully. Nick was right, he wouldn’t trust anyone else with the delicate installation of this equipment.

“Come on, what have you got against the guy?”

“It’s not him. It’s just-” David paused, frustrated, and took a breath. “Nothing. It’s nothing. I’ll talk to him now.”

“Great,” Nick said brightly, and clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll send down the files for you. He’s waiting in the briefing room.”

As Nick walked away, David slumped back in his chair and glared at the screen in front of him. He reluctantly stood from his desk and gathered up the notes he would need, before trudging the short distance to the briefing room.

In the months since this man had been hired, David had done all he could to avoid any interaction with him. He really didn’t have anything against him as a person, it was just what he represented. David knew of three or four really decent people on his team that had worked their way from the ground up. They had worked for years on mission control to be the best they could be in their field. And then this guy waltzes in from nowhere and steals the job from under their feet!

All of this he could forgive if he was the best man for the job. But that wasn’t the case. No, there was a far simpler and uglier reason for him getting the job: his surname. If there was one thing David hated more than anything, it was nepotism.

David reached the doorway and sighed resignedly, before swinging it open. The man was looking at a picture of the shuttle launch on the wall, his back to the door. He was tall, with a muscular build and a crisp navy NASA uniform. David already disliked him.

“Hello,” he said coldly. The man spun round quickly, then smiled. Now that he was not expecting. He was blond, with blue eyes and a sort of natural tan. He looked nothing like his father, but at the same time, David recognised that smile immediately. He looked a lot older than his age. As the tabloids loved to mention, at 24, he was the youngest to ever recruit to NASA’s astronaut programme. But he looked a lot more mature than his years.

“You must be David Tanner,” the young man said. David nodded, walking into the room and dropping his files unceremoniously onto the table in the centre of the room. The man held out his hand “John Tracy. It’s great to finally meet you.”

David paused, looking at the proffered hand and debating whether or not to take it, but his manners won out, and he shook the hand grudgingly, before gesturing that they should both sit down.

“I’m a big fan of yours,” John continued eagerly, ignoring the earlier pause and sitting opposite him at the table “I’ve really been looking forward to meeting you.”

David looked determinedly at his notes, organising them into some kind of order. After several moments, he glanced up to see that John had turned slightly pink, and looked a little awkward. Was he shy or something?

“Uh…” John began, looking around the room. He was trying to fill the silence. “I was told that you’re no longer on daily communications to the space station?”

“That’s right,” David said shortly, still staring at his notes, rather enjoying making this guy squirm. John seemed to get the hint and lapsed into uncomfortable silence, toying with the sleeve of his uniform.

“I’m here to talk you through the new system,” David explained brusquely, “and what your job is going to entail, both on the ground and when you’re on the space station. I’ll also be reporting back to the flight controller, to ensure we’ve got the right man for the job.”

He hoped that little dig hadn’t been too noticeable, but John didn’t seem phased, which irked David. He was trying to insult him, and John hadn’t even noticed!

“How’s your training going?” he asked the young man, flipping through the portfolio in front of him.

“Pretty well,” John said brightly, “we’re done with the basic training, and they’ve rushed me along in the programme.”

“Rushed you along?” That sort of thing was only done in rare circumstances, maybe his father had put in a word with the higher ups.

He looked closer at the portfolio in front of him and grimaced. No, that wasn’t the case. According to his statistics, John was fluent in several languages and semi-fluent in several more, and his pilot’s license suggested that he had clocked more air miles than David had himself. That would cut at least six months out of training.

He glanced up to John, waiting to see some kind of smug grin, but the younger man just nodded to his question almost nervously, before continuing.

“At the moment I’m doing all the book stuff, you know, study of all the systems on the shuttle and things.”

“Uh-huh,” David said testily, “how much do you know about the new system you’ll be installing?”

“We haven’t actually started any study of the space station yet,” John admitted, and David felt an unaccountable sense of triumph at that, “but I’ve studied it pretty extensively anyway. I know the old SDR system inside out,”

“You do?” That surprised David. Most astronauts didn’t give the old systems a second look, but in his opinion, the old systems were superior in many ways. He watched John closely as he continued.

“Yeah. I know the system I’ll be installing isn’t completed yet,” John said with a nervous smile, “but I’ve heard you’re creating something pretty revolutionary, so I thought I’d better swot up.”

“I’m not sure ‘revolutionary’ is the right word,” David said, ignoring the compliment and handing John the appropriate breakdown sheet. “But it’s fairly new. That’s where you come in. The flight controller-”

“Nick?” John asked absently, studying the paper in from on him. David nodded tightly.

“He’s decided that the two of us are the most qualified to complete the project. Which is apparently why you got the position.”

John looked up from the paper and grinned, and David found it difficult not to smile back, which frustrated him even further. John Tracy was not living up to the image he had created in his head. He was supposed to be snotty, spoilt and stupid. And right now he seemed quite pleasant. It made hating him difficult

John put the paper aside and looked at David hopefully. “So are you going to be my man on the ground?”

“It would seem that way, yes.”

John looked like he could literally leap out of his seat in excitement.

“That’s brilliant! I couldn’t think of anyone better. I’ve read your book so many times now I’ve lost count.”

“Most people have,” David dully supplied. His book was one of the most widely read in aeronautics, and it had recently been made an essential part of the astronaut training programme.

“No, I mean…well, I read that one too. But I meant your other book, ‘The future of Space Communication.’”

“Really?” David blurted, sitting up immediately before he could even think about it. John nodded, that small smile appearing again

“I thought your take on the old ‘Connect’ system was inspired.”

David looked dubiously at the young man. His last book, while critically acclaimed, was not widely read. Had he really read it?

“Thank you,” he said, and he surprised himself that he was being honest. “We’ve still got a long way to go on the new system though. We’re still working through a lot of glitches.”

David sifted through the pile of paper in front of him and extracted a circuit diagram to show John, who peered at the incomplete circuitry with interest.

“You’ve come across the same problems I did,” he said thoughtfully, pointing out the error in the diagram.

“You did?”

John glanced up from the diagram, seemingly just realising he was speaking aloud and looked slightly embarrassed.

“I was working on a prototype communications system myself before I got accepted for the mission.”


“Yeah, all theory at this stage of course…sort of a pet project.”

“A pet project? You do this stuff for fun?”

John seemed quite bashful all of a sudden, and began to blush. David blinked, surprised.

What happened to the snotty rich kid he had pictured? The one who knew nothing about communications? David was really starting to believe that John Tracy, part of one of the most famous families in the world, was shy.

“Well, what was your idea?” he pressed, mildly amused at the strange turn of events.

“I thought, using your circular wave system, something could be created that could operate on a global level.”

David sat back in his chair again thoughtfully, thinking through what the young man had just said. A new global communications system that used his techniques? He hadn’t thought they could be used at that kind of level. The technology just wasn’t there yet.

“That kind of system couldn’t be sustained from the ground though.” he reasoned, “It would need several relay satellites - not to mention the ISS and Lunar science stations. Plus, it would need constant manual operation.”

“To a degree,” John agreed “You’d definitely need a man in the sky to make it happen. But it could work without relay satellites and the ISS if there were a dedicated control centre in orbit.”

David thought about that for a moment, then smiled disbelievingly

“An entire new space station?”

“Why not?” John laughed in response, “This whole thing is hypothetical anyway. “ David couldn’t help but grin along with him.

“That’s brilliant,” he admitted “Not possible with current technology, of course…but inspired nonetheless.”

John laughed and visibly relaxed. “Well, that’s praise indeed coming from David Tanner.”

David found himself smiling at the compliment, and looked down at his notes. He had never met anyone that got as excited about this stuff as he did. The situation was no longer as black and white as he had hoped, as John Tracy seemed to know what he was talking about. He looked at the young man before him and was reminded of himself twenty years ago. All that excitement and passion for the subject, without any of the cynicism. It was refreshing, and he found himself softening slightly.

“So, how much do you know about your job on the ISS?”

John ran a hand through his hair nervously and sat up in his seat “I know I’ll be up there for six months. And I know I’ll be the communications officer. In terms of the installation work - I’m sort of relying on you for that.”

David felt a stab of guilt all of a sudden. He really hadn’t given this guy a chance. He’d been working here for months without a clue as to what he job would be doing. Well, it was time that was remedied.

“How about I talk you through the system from start to finish, and then you can tell me where you think there might be problems in its installation?”

John nodded eagerly, and without hesitation David found himself telling John all the things he had been working on. It was the first time in a long time that David hadn’t had to simplify terms, or slow down his delivery, John seemed to really understand what he was talking about. He asked all the questions David have been asking himself, and after an hour, David found himself laughing along with John as they talked through the intricacies of the design, enthusiastically pointing out sections of the circuitry on the diagrams on the table.

“Well, I think once you’ve finished the design, I’ll have no problems getting that up and running for you, Mr. Tanner,” John said, sipping a glass of water.

“Call me David,” he said without thinking. “I’m going to be your sole communication with Earth for six months. I think we can handle first name terms.”

“Six months…” John said thoughtfully. “That sounds a long time when you say it like that.”

“It’ll fly by once you’re up there,” David responded.

John nodded his understanding with a small smile “I remember when Dad went up, it never felt that long. Mind you, I was only a kid back then.”

“He and your brothers must be proud of you,” David said, “for following in his footsteps.” For some reason, the idea of John taking his father’s place at NASA now made perfect sense. John nodded warmly.

“They’re all pretty proud. Not that they’d ever admit that, of course.”


John shook his head with a grin. “Unless it’s an Olympic gold medal, we try not to boost each others ego’s any more than necessary.”

David smiled in understanding at the reference to his younger brother. Gordon’s achievement, and subsequent retirement to join WASP had only just dropped out of the headlines.

“A high achieving family, huh?”

John laughed, relaxing into his seat for the first time. “You could say that, yeah.”


“You mean why aren’t we all spoiled brats living off Daddy’s riches?” John asked. David flushed, and opened his mouth a couple of times, but John smiled

“It’s okay. I can’t expect people to think I’m here because of my own talent when I have the last name that I have; especially working here.”

David found himself unable to look the man in the eye all of a sudden, guilt beginning to build in him again.

“I guess when people think of you a certain way before you’ve even met them, you work doubly hard to prove yourself,” John said simply. “Which means that we’re all pretty high achievers…Plus there’s nothing like sibling rivalry to get you to push that little bit harder.”

The NASA technician tried to smile at the joke, but he had the feeling that John had known David’s opinion of him from the very beginning, which made him feel very small. He felt he should apologise, but John seemed happy to pretend that everything was normal.

David knew then that he liked this guy, whatever his last name was.

“Well, John, I think you’ve proved to me that you’re the right man for the job,” he said, tidying up his paperwork. “How do you fancy helping me out with all this ‘book stuff’ in mission control?”

John grinned like an excited schoolboy.

“That sounds brilliant, David.”

David stood up and clapped John on the back, and together they walked back to the control centre, and back to work.

Chapter 5

There was a strange atmosphere from the moment Jack stepped through the doors that day.

As he changed from his normal clothes into his work overalls, he could hear the noise outside. There was the usual quiet calm of life in the ICU, but there seemed to be an excited buzz about the place as well. The doctors and nurses were all talking amongst themselves about something. Some kind of important patient. He retrieved his trolley and ward breakdown list and began moving through the daily cleaning rota. To most, this was the most boring part of the day, but after thirty years in the job, Jack thrived on it. It was his main opportunity to speak to the patients and, indeed, the staff.

But today the staff was preoccupied. From what he could eventually tell from half overheard conversations as he passed, there was a famous patient in one of the rooms on the ward. It was none of his business, of course. If they were on this ward then they got treated the same as anyone else, at least that was how it was with Jack. He pushed his trolley, moving through the rooms as he always did.

“Hello, Mr Sebold,” he said brightly.

He was always Jack’s first stop on his walk around. He plumped up the cushions, threw away the dead flowers that still sat in the vase, and stocked the bedside cupboard with clean sheets. He then eased himself into the seat beside the bed with a stifled groan. His back had been giving him more trouble than usual today, but when you worked day to day with people this sick, it felt a little redundant to complain about something so trivial.

“Well, Mr Sebold, have you heard the buzz around here? Apparently there’s a famous fella down the hall. Maybe he’ll come out here and say hello?” There was silence, the hiss of the breathing apparatus the only audible response. Jack chuckled, looking down to the armrests of the chair and habitually brushing down the vinyl finish.

“No, I suppose not. These famous fellas don’t have much time for anyone, do they?”

He looked at the man’s sunken closed eyes. His skin was so pale it was almost translucent, and he had lost so much weight that he almost appeared skeletal. Mr Sebold didn’t have long now; Jack didn’t have to be a doctor to see that. He sighed quietly and sat in silence for a moment, watching the unconscious man. Then he straightened up, wincing slightly as he did so.

“Well, Edward, I must do the rounds. I’ll pop in for a spell before I leave to read you the paper.”

He gently squeezed the man’s frail hand, then hauled himself to his feet, before moving onto the high dependency unit. He moved respectfully from bed to bed, tidying up and restocking whatever equipment was necessary. He tried to learn the names of patients wherever possible, but in this section of the ICU, people generally didn’t stay long. Either because of an improvement, or because they didn’t make it.

He couldn’t account for why, but he had expected their famous guest to be here. Instead, there was an empty bed by the window, just as it had been empty the day before. However, it was clear that in the last twenty-four hours it had been used, as the sheets were rumpled and extra pillows had been added. Someone had also closed the curtains, casting shadows throughout the ward and blocking out the beautiful day outside. He efficiently made the bed, and prepared the area for the next patient. Once satisfied, he moved his trolley to the next section of the ward. Every window was streaming with sunlight here, which immediately made for a cheerier atmosphere. Also, the man in the final bed on the ward looked delighted to see him.

“Hey, Jack!” he said brightly. “Did you hear about the soccer?”

“They were robbed, Dan, robbed!” Jack called over to the man, seeing him laugh at his response.

He went over and tidied up a little, listening to Dan talk about the game. Dan had been really sick when they brought him in. Some kind of rare blood disease. All the doctors were saying he wasn’t going to make it, but he’d made a turnaround. A medical miracle apparently. He was definitely Jack’s favourite patient at the moment, and he’d been there several months, so they’d had plenty of time to get to know each other.

“Here, I got you something,” Jack said, when he had finished, taking a magazine from the bottom of his cart and handing it to the man.

“My Little Pony!” Dan exclaimed, “Where did you find it?”

“Old Jack’s got his ways,” he said smugly, placing the magazine on the table in front of the man. Dan grit his teeth and slowly lifted his hand, moving it towards the magazine.

“Want me to do it?” Jack asked lightly. Dan shook his head tightly.

“Nah. I’ve gotta practice.”

His hand was shaking with the effort, but he eventually managed to reach the magazine and turn the bright cover. Jack resisted congratulating him, and instead just matched Dan’s grin.

“Oh, this is great,” Dan said earnestly, “Sarah’s gonna love it. Thanks, Jack.”

“Well, you give Sarah a big kiss from me when she comes to visit.”

“I surely will,” he agreed, grinning at the thought.

“You looking forward to seeing her?”

“Yeah! It’s been way too long for her to be away from her Daddy.”

“She could have come sooner,” Jack reasoned, emptying the trashcan as they spoke.

Dan shook his head briefly, still looking at the magazine, “I wouldn’t have wanted her to see me the way I was.”

Jack continued to tidy around Dan. Thinking back to last month, when Dan was still almost completely immobile, he could understand the young man’s decision. It had been a hard recovery for him, and today was certainly a milestone.

“Hey,” Dan whispered conspiratorially, breaking Jack from his thoughts, “have you heard about the guy in room six?”

“Room six?”

“Yeah, it’s some famous guy apparently. He was in next door but they’ve moved him to a private room now.”

Jack felt a wave of sadness at that. They generally only moved people to the private rooms when things were really bad. He only hoped that, whoever it was, they had been moved because of their fame and nothing more sinister.

“I haven’t heard anything yet,” Jack replied, wiping down the bedside cabinet. “Just that it’s someone special.”

Dan frowned thoughtfully, then his eyes twinkled mischievously and he grinned at the older man. “Think you could get me the gossip?”

“I guarantee it.” Jack grinned back. “I’m going there now.”

“Well, let me know if it’s someone young. I’m sick of being the only person here under sixty…no offence.”

Jack barked out a laugh and clapped the man on the arm “None taken. You’re only as young as you feel, Dan, my friend, and I’m not a day over twenty-five. I’ll come back and sit with you in a little while, okay?”

“Okay. See you later.” Dan smiled.

Jack returned to his trolley and moved from room to room, humming gently to himself as he cleaned the ward. He knew some of the people didn’t like to be disturbed, and so remained quiet and respectful. The worst was always when he got to the large private rooms. Visiting hours didn’t apply here, so there was normally a worried family member there, looking at him as though they thought he could fix the person in the bed. It was definitely the saddest part of Jack’s day, but he tried to help as much as he could.

When he got to room number six he knocked gently. Always best to be courteous on the first visit, he thought. The door opened and a young man looked around, apparently confused that someone was requesting permission to enter. He was a good-looking kid, Jack thought to himself, with dark brown hair and deep brown eyes. Of course, he’d look a little better if he had a decent night’s sleep- but if he had a relative on this ward, then that wouldn’t happen any time soon.

“I’m the porter,” Jack explained. “Just here to tidy up a little.”

“Oh…thanks,” the man said, gesturing him into the room. He had that look, Jack noted. It was familiar around here, that helpless look that spoke of quiet desperation. He pushed his trolley in and wasn’t surprised to see more people in the room. Two more young men sat around the bed, one with blond hair, the other dark and wearing a crumpled Air Force uniform. There was also another man sitting with his back to him at the head of the bed.

Jack had never really considered himself a smart man; working around these doctors and nurses proved that to him every day. But he could read people pretty well, and he could tell that this was a close family straight away.

He cleaned up as quietly as he could, glancing up at the young man in the bed. He looked in an appalling state. He was covered in swollen dark bruises, his head thickly bandaged, as well as his chest and arms. His breathing - which was being regulated by a ventilator - and the life support machine were the only sounds in the room as Jack changed the refuse sacks.

Then Jack saw the face of the person closest to the bed, and suddenly all the buzz became clear. Jeff Tracy - the famous billionaire astronaut - sat there, gripping the man’s hand tightly with both hands. He looked distraught; just like any other upset father.

Jack’s heart immediately went out to the guy. No father should go through this ordeal, but hadn’t this guy been through enough? Jack remembered all the craziness that went on when his wife died, and now it looked like it was happening all over again. He only hoped the press would be nicer this time around.

“What’s his name?” Jack asked, not ceasing his cleaning.

“Gordon,” one of the young men quietly supplied, not looking away from the unconscious figure.

Jack stopped what he was doing and regarded the man on the bed for a moment, looking at his dark and swollen eyes. Gordon Tracy. The Olympic gold medallist. He and Eva had watched those games avidly, and he remembered the young man who came out of nowhere to win gold. He didn’t remember seeing any photos of Gordon out of the water, and with the bruising and the tube snaking from his mouth, it was near impossible to picture him as he would normally look. Never mind, he thought to himself, the bruising would fade and he’d see his face eventually. He gripped the end of the bed and leaned over, to be sure Gordon could hear him.

“Hello, Gordon. I’m Jack, the porter. Very pleased to meet you.”

The family were all looking at him as though he was insane, but he just shrugged lightly.

“Sometimes they can hear,” he said simply, then went back to his cart, taking out the new oxygen cylinders and placing them carefully next to the bed by Jeff Tracy, before frowning and raising his head.

“You should open the curtains,” he commented, nodding to the darkened windows. “I know Gordon’s sleeping, but a bit of light wouldn’t hurt you fellas, and it’d make this fiddly job a lot easier.”

“We can’t,” the blond haired man said miserably, his chin resting on his hand as he stared at his brother.

“Paparazzi were on the roof of the building opposite,” Jeff Tracy explained carefully. “That’s why we were moved.”

Jack nodded his understanding, trying not to give in to sympathy, and treated them how he would want to be treated if in the same position.

“Well,” he said decisively, walking over to the window and pulling open the curtains. “This is the West side of the building. Nothing but bungalows and ocean for miles. I’d like to see them try to get a snap of you. They’ll have to come through old Jack first.”

He held up his fists mockingly and smiled at the group. With more light streaming into the room, and with the ocean in view, the room immediately perked up, if only a little.

“I know the name of course,” he continued brightly, going back to changing the oxygen cylinders carefully and talking directly to the injured man. “Gordon Tracy. Our Olympic swimming hero. My Eva was glued to the screen every time you were on. But, truth be told, I think that had more to do with all those toned swimming fellas lined up than the race itself.”

He chuckled to himself and glanced up to the man on the bed. He didn’t react, but the family were all staring at him as though he were a complete oddity. To Jack, that wasn’t unusual, the people in these wards were so used to misery and sadness, sometimes being cheerful was a completely alien concept. He smiled his understanding and began fixing the last cylinder in place.

“Sorry, I know I talk a lot.”

“No, it’s okay,” the blond haired one said, looking earnestly at Jack. “You’re the first guy here to talk to us about anything other than his condition.”

“Well, you should be proud of him,” Jack commented warmly as he continued to hook up the oxygen cylinder. “He fought hard to win those races. Just like he’s fighting now, right Gordon?”

Gordon did not respond, but Jeff Tracy sat forward in his seat slightly, affectionately brushing the matted hair from his son’s bruised and battered face.

“I’ll be making the rounds every day,” Jack explained, straightening up with an involuntary groan and wiping his hands down on his overalls. “If there’s anything you’d like me to fetch for you, I’m happy to help out. I know it ain’t no fun leaving them when they’re like this. I could even bring young Gordon something, if you like. For when he wakes up.”

There was an uncomfortable silence in the room now. The lightening mood now sinking into horrible despair.

Clearly Gordon might never wake up.

The family all stared at the man on the bed, their eyes speaking so much more than words ever could.

“Thank you, Jack,” Jeff Tracy said quietly, after a protracted silence.

“Yeah. Thanks,” the brown haired one agreed sadly. “That’s good of you.”

He nodded and continued his cleaning route, replacing the sheets in the cabinet. Terrible shame when it happened to the young ones, Jack thought. But he had also been around long enough to know that doctors weren’t always right.

“I should call David again,” the guy in the Air Force uniform said, absently toying with the sheet that was covering his brother.

“There’s nothing more to tell him, Scott,” the dark haired man responded dully.

“I know, but if…if what the doctor said is right…then John should know.”

“They’re wrong,” the blond haired one said quickly, his voice shaking with barely restrained emotion. “The doctors are wrong.”

“The shuttle is bringing him down tomorrow,” Jeff Tracy interjected. “We should wait and tell him in person.”

His voice was stoic, and wavered only slightly, but it seemed to have a real effect on the younger men. Jack wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was that unmistakable sound of defeat in his voice.

There was another silence in the room, broken only by the scratching of a pencil. The brown haired one was drawing on a sketchpad, and as Jack looked at him he wasn’t certain that the man was even looking at what he was drawing. He imagined it was more of a calming exercise than an actual attempt at a piece of art.

The one in the Air Force uniform, what had his brother called him? Scott. That was it. He was sitting watching the other one sketching. He appeared to be gaining some comfort from the actions, perhaps just as a reason to not look at the man on the bed. The one drawing seemed to understand, and had subtly angled the sketchpad in such a way that Scott could see his progress.

The blond one, on the other hand, had barely looked away from the man on the bed since Jack had entered the room. He was staring at Gordon with a lost, almost frightened expression that made him seem younger than he actually was.

And then there was Jeff Tracy. It seemed all his emotions had been locked away somewhere where only he could access them. He clung to Gordon’s hand, his eyes willing him to wake up. The result was that Jack thought he was witnessing a man, and indeed an entire family, on the edge. They needed someone to give them hope.

“You know,” Jack started carefully, “there’s a fella in the ward you might want to talk to. Dan, his name is. Three months ago they were going to switch off his life support. The doctors said there was no chance.”

They were all looking at him now, and for a moment Jack thought he’d overstepped the mark, but none of them looked angry.

“What happened to him?” Scott asked, his voice wavering slightly.

“His daughter’s visiting him for the first time today,” Jack beamed. “And last week he walked on his own two feet right down this ward and back again. He’s gonna be fine.”

They all looked a little more relaxed now, all silently considering his words.

“What were his odds?” the blond haired one asked thoughtfully

“Not sure.” Jack shrugged “These doctors do like to give percentages and numbers that don’t mean much. But, truth be told, I’ve been in these wards long enough to see the ones that will try and fight. And your Gordon is a fighter. He’s going to do everything he can to stick around, isn’t that right, Gordon?” They all glanced to the man on the bed, and, while there was no response, the family seemed to look with a little more positivity. Jack’s job was done

“Well. These wards ain’t gonna clean themselves,” he said brightly. “It was really great to meet you all.”

“You too,” Scott said, with a nod of thanks. Jack smiled in response and gripped Gordon’s foot gently at the end of the bed.

“Now, you get yourself better, young Mr Tracy,” he said sternly. “This isn’t a very funny practical joke.”

They all laughed. Jack wasn’t sure why, but the sound was wonderful in the once stifling room. Jeff Tracy gave him a long look of deep gratitude, and Jack nodded a farewell to the man, before pushing his trolley out again. He’d check up on the Tracy’s again tomorrow.

Chapter 6

“Girl, you have got to check out table seven.”

“Who is it?” Emily asked distractedly, trying not to look at the mouth-watering crème brûlée she was preparing to serve.

“No idea, but there’s five of them, and I swear, they’re all models or something.”

“You’re just a sucker for a guy in a tuxedo,” Emily joked, carefully lifting the large tray.

Jenna stared at her exasperatedly, before taking the tray off her.

“I’ll take your section for this service, you take mine. Then you’ll see what I mean.”

Emily nodded her agreement, too tired to protest, and took another tray of desserts. Working in the Tracy Corp building, Emily saw her fair share of big events. Sure, she only worked as a waitress, but she liked to think she did a good amount of networking as well. After all, it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know, and she wouldn’t be a waitress forever.

She loved these big charity functions. Seeing the famous faces was so exciting! She had already served Johnny Ashford tonight, the world famous movie star. He was even more gorgeous in the flesh than he was on the screen, a fact that every waitress commented on when they reached the kitchen.

The event tonight had been arranged by the Tracy family, to raise money for a new wing of the hospital. It was good of them, Emily thought, though she hadn’t the faintest idea why they had decided to do it. In the six months Emily had worked for Tracy Corp, this was the first time the Tracy family had surfaced for anything. They were notoriously reclusive, but perhaps this evening marked a change.

Emily moved into the dining hall, and was once again hit with a wall of sound. The band were playing upbeat swing music, and the seated guests were getting more and more raucous as the wine went to their heads. She saw a lot of familiar faces, all of whom were wearing their finest clothes and looked stunning. There were singers, actors, and celebrities left right and centre, but Emily decided to ignore all those and see what all the fuss was about at table seven.

She glanced at the numbers in the centre of the tables, and spotted number seven in the far corner of the room. She laughed aloud before she could stop herself. There were five boys, and Jenna was right; those boys were magnificent. Why had she been so excited about seeing movies stars and singers, when male perfection was only a few tables away? Johnny Ashford looked ugly in comparison!

She moved to the table as smoothly as she could, and smiled nervously at the men, before carefully placing the desserts in front of them all in turn. They were talking amongst themselves, seemingly all at once, though none of them seemed to find that a problem. The one that drew her attention first was tall, with dark hair and piercing blue eyes. He was listening to the man sitting next to him, who had almost platinum blond hair, and was talking animatedly as she placed the plates in front of them.

“-and David was panicking so much that he completely forgot to reroute the power supply. I know in space no one can hear you scream, but I swear, you could hear me holler in the next galaxy!”

The dark haired one laughed uncontrollably. “What did you say to him afterwards?!”

Emily moved around the table before she could hear the blond haired ones response, and set down the dessert in front of another blond haired man. He smiled gratefully at her, and immediately set about cracking the top of the dessert with a spoon. He grinned at Emily when he succeeded, and for a moment he looked like an excited little boy,

“I love that sound.”

“Me too,” she whispered conspiratorially, sharing the man’s grin.

She placed the next plate down in front of the copper haired man sitting beside him. He looked a little thinner than the rest of the men, and his skin was pale, but he was laughing happily with his friends, and definitely seemed to be the life of the party. He smiled at her, and stopped his conversation with the other man.

“Excuse me, Ma’am, could we order some more drinks?”

“Sure,” she said immediately, and placed the final dessert on the table, before removing a notebook from her pocket.

“Great. It’s time to get this party started!”

“Gordon,” the dark haired one said warningly,

“Oh relax,” he responded with a wave of his hand, and smiled up at Emily again. “Let’s get a bottle of Dom Perignon, and four glasses.”

“Only four?” Emily asked, thinking he had miscounted. The man nodded with a smile

“I’ll have a glass of OJ.”

“Make that two glasses of OJ,” the chestnut haired one added, before grinning at his friend. “Big flight tomorrow. I don’t want to be drunk at the yoke.”

“Anything else?” Emily asked, jotting down the order.

“No, that’s all thanks,” the man said with a smile. Emily couldn’t help but smile in response, and immediately went to the bar to carry out the order. Jenna was waiting for her when she returned


Emily grinned. “Do you fancy swapping sections for the rest of the evening?”

Jenna laughed, taking the order form from Emily quickly. “No way, they’re all mine. Now you get back to Johnny Ashford, he’s complaining that the ice water is too cold.”

Emily sighed wistfully, and briefly considered protesting, but she knew if she were in Jenna’s shoes, she’d do exactly the same thing.

The rest of the evening passed by in a blur. She lost count of the amount of drinks orders she took, and boy did these people know how to drink! They were all up on their feet and dancing for hours, until the night began to wind down, and people started to drift home, or back to the hotel suites in the floors above.

Emily’s evening was nowhere near as glamorous. A particularly drunk reality star had spilt red wine over her white shirt, Johnny Ashford had been, without a doubt, the most demanding and rude customer she had ever served, and to top it all off her feet felt like they were about to fall off. It was a relief when the band finished and the night slowly drew to a close.

Waiters were now steadily moving in and out of the bar with empty plates, and the sound from the large dining hall had faded away so the only sound was the beautiful piano music they had started playing over the speakers next door. Emily wiped her brow on her sleeve for a moment, before continuing to clean the bar with a cloth.


“Yeah?” she responded, wearily turning to Jenna.

“Can you go clear the glasses in the main hall? We’re running low.” Emily nodded her assent and wiped down her hands on her apron. She picked up the largest tray she could find, before moving into the room next door.

The lights were still dimmed, the room lit only by the flickering candles on the tables and the mood lighting on the walls. The room had quietened down considerably, and all but the most die-hard partygoers had gone home. A few people stood out. A woman in a silver dress sat alone at a table, staring miserably into a glass of white wine. A man in a dishevelled tuxedo was asleep in a chair, his head resting on the table in front of him, and there was still a couple dancing in the middle of the dance floor. The woman had removed her shoes, and they were doing that familiar, shuffling dance in a small circle, which suggested that neither were particularly aware of the music they were dancing to. Emily was, however, and it was this, which drew her attention.

When in the bar, she had assumed the beautiful music had been on the sound system, but that wasn’t the case. The swing band had disappeared, and now the only person that remained was a solitary piano player. He was wearing a tuxedo, though the bow tie had been unfastened and now lay loosely about his shoulders. He was young, with dark hair and a small smile gracing his features, and he was, without a doubt, the most attractive man Emily had ever seen. How had she not spotted him when he was sitting at the tables?!

She expelled a breath as she watched him play. He was flawless. He was completely oblivious to the room around him, playing the gentle, lilting melody simply for the joy of playing. He appeared a man completely at peace, his eyes were loving and generous, his figure obviously muscular even beneath that perfectly fitted tuxedo.

Emily sighed to herself and tucked the tray under her arm, walking further into the room and just watching him play for a few moments.

“He’s good isn’t he?”

Emily span around and let out a small yelp of surprise. There, sitting at table seven - almost completely obscured by shadow- was Jeff Tracy.

“Mr Tracy!” she exclaimed in horror, rushing immediately to the nearest table and loading empty glasses onto the tray “I’m sorry, I was just-”

“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” he said with a chuckle, “I’m not gonna fire you for taking a break.”

Emily’s heart was beating wildly in her chest, but she chanced a look up to her boss, and saw he was not angry. He was smiling at her, and was leaning back in his chair, his arms folded in a relaxed way. He looked like a cowboy that someone had cleaned up and forced into a suit. He gestured to the empty seat at his table

“Take a seat,” he offered. “Your feet must be killing you.”

Emily hesitated, glancing around the room to see if her supervisor was watching, but Jeff Tracy was technically her boss, so she didn’t have much choice. She walked nervously over to the table and sat gingerly on the seat, relieved that the weight was off her feet for a moment.

Jeff Tracy seemed happy to sit in silence, and Emily found that incredibly unnerving. She looked around the room again, and back to the pianist, who was still playing the beautiful lilting melody. Then she looked back to Jeff Tracy curiously. The look on his face was of a man lost in a thousand different memories, and each one was wonderful. His eyes positively glowed with warmth and love as he listened to the music. This song must mean something to him, Emily thought, watching him as he smiled at the pianist’s beautiful playing.

“I love watching him play,” he said quietly.

“You know the pianist, Sir?” she asked timidly.

Jeff Tracy smiled at some joke Emily didn’t understand, and nodded. “Yes, I know him.”

He turned to Emily and looked at her curiously.

“Did you enjoy the evening?”

“I - uh - I didn’t really see much of the party, Sir,” she said nervously. “I was on the bar.”

Jeff Tracy nodded his understanding. “Well, you did a good job. I think my sons were pretty well lubricated by the end of the evening.” Emily smiled in response. She was surprised to hear his sons were here; who’d have thought the whole Tracy clan would turn up to something like this?

“At least all the proceeds went to charity, Sir,” she commented. Jeff nodded in agreement and took a sip from his champagne flute.

“Well, the hospital has been good to us these past few months. It’s the least we could do.”

Emily lapsed into silence, not knowing how to react. She was, of course, aware that Mr Tracy’s son had been in an accident, but other than that there had been next to no news. She hadn’t realised it had been so serious.

“How long have you worked for Tracy Corp?” Jeff asked.

“Six months, Sir.”

“And you don’t want to be working as a waitress forever,” he stated, looking at her pensively. Emily shook her head, and went to explain, but the man continued.

“And you took the job here because you knew you’d meet the right sort of people. And even though it isn’t what you really want to do, you need the money, and it’s better to do a dumb job somewhere like this, than in some dive bar with no prospects.”

Emily laughed incredulously. “You must meet a lot of people like me.”

Jeff Tracy nodded with a smile. “You’re doing the right thing. What’s your dream job?”

“I want to be a journalist, Mr Tracy,” Emily confessed. Jeff Tracy wrinkled his nose distastefully,

“Well, nobody’s perfect,” he said wryly,

There was a noise from the hallway behind them, and two men stumbled into the room, laughing hysterically as they did so. It was two of the men from table seven! The dark haired one with blue eyes looked a little worse for wear, his tie now loose and his hair dishevelled in a way that, somehow, made him even more attractive. The other was the copper haired man with the wonderful smile. Emily was surprised to see he was using a walking stick, but it didn’t seem to be holding him back.

“There he is!” he exclaimed, pointing to the pianist on the stage.

“I’ll get him,” the taller man said, and went to walk to the stage, but the one with the walking stick stopped him.

“No, no, let him play for a bit. I like hearing him play.”

“What are you two up to?” Jeff asked the young men. Both span around and grinned

“Dad!” the one with the walking stick said, and walked over to the table. “We’re going up to the roof to keep the party going. John and Al are already up there.”

“Is that wise?” Jeff asked dubiously. “Our flight is at six.”

“We’re all packed and ready, and we can sleep on the flight.”

“You can, maybe,” the taller one said with a grin, spotting the bottle of champagne that still sat on the table and pouring himself a glass, “I’ve got to keep an eye on you lot.”

Emily couldn’t believe what she was hearing. They were Jeff Tracy’s sons! Now they were together it was immediately obvious. The tall one especially looked like a carbon copy of Jeff Tracy, the only difference was the colour of his hair, which - unlike his father’s - was still jet black. He poured the champagne to the very rim of his glass, then he spotted Emily and looked surprised for a moment, before flashing her a smile that made her melt a little.

“Hi,” he said brightly, and sat heavily in the chair next to her.

“Hi,” she responded

“Are you coming up to the party on the roof?” he asked, taking a sip from his glass.

“Uh - no, Sir. I’m working.”

“Aw, come on,” he protested, “it’ll be fun! We’re gonna watch the sunrise, and have a jam session with the band. It’s gonna be awesome.”

“Awesome? How much have you had to drink, Scott?” Jeff asked with a smile, drawing Scott’s attention to him.

Scott tried to look offended at the question, but quickly descended into laughter, rubbing his face with his hand. The one with the walking stick moved around behind his chair and clapped him on the shoulder.

“Don’t worry, Dad, we’re looking after him. Scotty’s allowed to let his hair down once in a while, aren’t you?”

“That’s right!” Scott said with a grin, banging his fist on the table decisively, which only succeeded in spilling the champagne he had just poured himself. He looked horrified, and grabbed the nearest discarded serviette, mopping up the liquid quickly, apologising quietly to the glass of champagne as he did so. Meanwhile, the other young man ignored his brother and held out his hand to Emily

“Hi, I’m Gordon.”

“Emily,” she said simply, taking his hand and shaking it, astounded by the latest turn of events. Sitting at the same table as Jeff Tracy was surreal enough, but now his famously reclusive sons were introducing themselves!

“Hi Emily,” he responded brightly, before turning to his father again. “Virgil’s piloting tomorrow, not the drunk, so don’t worry.”

Jeff Tracy nodded his understanding. “Well, it is a special occasion.”

“That’s right!” Scott said again, and raised his now half empty champagne flute. “To new beginnings!” He then drank the remainder of the glass and sat back in the chair, smiling broadly at the group.

“Scott, go get Virge,” Gordon placated.

“Ok. I’ll go get him,” Scott agreed, he then sat forward and put his hand on Emily’s shoulder, pointing to the stage, where the pianist still played.

“That’s my little brother, Virgil,” he whispered, “and he’s my best friend. Don’t tell him, though.” He then got to his feet and strolled just a little too casually to the stage.

“Sorry about him,” Jeff said, chuckling to himself, watching as Scott struggled to get onto the stage. “It’s a real military effort to get him to relax, so we should appreciate nights like this.”

“You should have seen him when we first introduced the idea of having a glass of champagne.” Gordon ran his fingers through his hair exaggeratedly and lowered his voice in an uncanny impression of the man. “No, Gordon, someone needs to keep control, and you can’t drink because of your meds, and I’m your big brother, blah blah blah.”

Jeff Tracy laughed aloud at the impression and looked at the performance space. Scott had managed to get onto the stage and had walked to the piano, leaning against it and smiling at the man, who returned the gesture without ceasing his music. Emily almost laughed when she saw the pair together. She couldn’t believe that she hadn’t seen the family resemblance before. Suddenly Jeff Tracy’s expression earlier made perfect sense; he was a father who was proud of his son.

The pianist said something to his brother, who laughed in response, looking around the room and running his hand through his hair habitually in a gesture that Gordon had mimicked only a moment ago.

“Well,” Jeff Tracy said wearily, drawing Emily’s attention back to the table she was sitting at, “I think I’ll leave you boys to your party. Big day tomorrow.”

Gordon turned to Emily, lowering himself slowly into a seat beside her. “We’re moving house,” he explained “Well, moving countries, to be exact”

“Be careful what you say to her, Gordon,” Jeff said with a joking smile, getting to his feet. “She’s a journalist in the making.”

“A journalist?” Gordon exclaimed, eyebrows raised. “Then you definitely have to come to the roof with us. It’ll be your big scoop. I can see the headlines now ‘Scott Tracy is human! He drinks beer and falls over! Stop the press!’”

Emily laughed and stood up, ignoring the throbbing protest her feet made. “Thank you very much for the offer, Sir, but I should get back to work.”

“Sir?” Gordon asked, dismayed. “When did I become a ‘sir’?!”

“Don’t listen to him, Emily,” Jeff joked. “Just ‘cause he’s got no manners doesn’t mean you have to lower your standards.”

“Hey, I’ve got manners!”

Jeff waved away the comment, and removed his wallet from his pocket. Emily felt a vague sense of disappointment at that, but she wasn’t sure why. Most people would be thrilled to be tipped by a billionaire, but somehow it made the past few minutes seem false.

“Now,” Jeff said decisively, looking through his wallet distractedly. “I’d give you a tip, but I don’t think that’s adequate somehow.”

Emily smiled to herself. No wonder this man was such a success, he could clearly read minds. He finally removed a small white card and looked at her, handing it over casually

“That’s the direct number of Stan Derwent.”

“Stan Derwent…the photographer?” Emily asked confusedly, staring at the innocuous white card in her hand.

Jeff nodded. “He’s a good man, and he’s worked his way from the ground up. He works at the Times now. Tell him I sent you, and he can get you some on the job experience. I doubt it pays well, but it’s a foot in the door.”

It took a moment for Emily to register what he had just said. She stared at him incredulously, her eyes filling with tears before she could stop herself. No one had ever done so much for her. She stared at the card in her hand as though it were solid gold, running her fingers over the black lettering. She opened her mouth a few times to say something, but no words would come. She looked at the man, and went to say thank you, but he waved her off before she could utter a word, smilingly kindly at her.

“You have a good evening, Emily,” he said warmly. Then he strolled through the doors and out of sight.

Gordon watched his father leave, then turned and grinned at her. Emily stared at him, still processing what had just happened, before uttering a sound halfway between a laugh and a cry. With that little card, Jeff Tracy might just have changed her whole life.

“He does that, sometimes,” Gordon explained, still grinning at her. Emily wiped her eyes quickly, trying to compose herself. Luckily she had a little more time as Scott and his brother came over.

“Okay, I’m here,” the pianist said exasperatedly. “Now let’s go before Scott forgets how to walk.”

“Hey! I’m not that bad!”

“Yeah, yeah,” he chuckled, nudging his older brother jokingly. Gordon picked up his walking stick again, before hauling himself to his feet, wincing noticeably as he did so.

“Okay,” he said tightly, still obviously trying to remain cheerful. “Let’s go thatta way.”

He pointed upwards at the ceiling, and began to walk through to the hallway, before turning to look at Emily again.

“Come up to the roof when you’re finished down here,” he said. “And bring your friends. We need to toast your new job!”

And with that simple sentence the Tracy boys moved out of the dining hall, and out of sight. Emily stood there, stunned for a moment, watching the doorway where they had just left.

“Emily, what’s the hold up?”

Jenna’s voice cut through her daze abruptly, and she looked over to see her friend looking mildly annoyed at her, loading glasses onto the tray Emily had abandoned earlier.

“Sorry…sorry, I’ll clear up now.” She tried to shake herself out of it, walking unsteadily over to the table.

She moved some of the debris aside distractedly and picked up Scott’s empty champagne glass. She turned it around in her hands, staring at it thoughtfully as she ran through the events of the last few minutes, smiling to herself. Things were about to change. Excitement began to bubble up inside her, and before she could think about it any further, she came to a decision and turned around to her friend.

“Hey, Jenna, what are you doing after work?”

Chapter 7

Ben gasped for breath, coughing violently as dust invaded his lungs. It was pitch black and every second was a fight to remain calm. He knew something was deeply wrong with his legs, but he was too scared - and in too much pain - to feel down and see what the damage was.

He had been getting changed into his overalls in the lower levels of the chemical plant when it happened. He’d been late, thanks to his little girl keeping him up half the night crying. He was trying to be as quick as possible, and he was only ten minutes late. He’d thought that if he rushed, then maybe his supervisor wouldn’t notice. Then there had been an almighty bang, and Ben found himself blown off his feet and propelled across the room, before hitting the far wall and falling in a crumpled heap. Rubble had started to fall all around him, and then everything went dark.

When he awoke it was still pitch black, and it had taken him a long while to adjust to his new situation. It was the smell that he’d noticed first; the air was stale, with the faint odour of smoke. The place normally smelt almost clinical, and that, more than anything else, showed Ben that something terrible had happened.

He hadn’t felt the pain at first, it was only when he tried to stand that the problems arose. A large piece of wood lay across his lap and he had summoned all his strength to push it off. However, as soon as he pushed the beam to one side, pain like he had never experienced before lanced through his legs. He had roared in agony, arching his back against the wall behind him, his breath coming in quick pants, but there was no escaping the excruciating pain.

He had tried shouting for help, screaming even, but the factory was unnaturally quiet. He’d shouted until his voice had grown hoarse, then, when no one came, he picked up a small chunk of metal behind him and started banging it on the wall. His leg constantly throbbed in agonising protest, but hopefully, someone would pick up the sound he was making.

That was a long time ago now. Now, he had even given up on that. Instead he lay his head against the wall behind him, focusing on keeping his breathing under control. Dust drifted down onto him, covering him in a fine layer of dirt. The taste of it was sickening, and made his tongue feel disgustingly grainy. He could cope with the pain, but that taste was driving him insane; all he wanted was a drink of water.

Before, he had heard the distant rumbles of lesser explosions and the sound of machinery moving above him, but now there was nothing. They must have all got out, he thought to himself grimly; they must have thought he was dead.

He had lost all track of time. It was around ten in the morning when he had arrived to work, but it could have been hours, even days in this place. He had no way of telling. He tried once again to figure out the events in his head. He guessed there had been an explosion, the force of which had made the corridor cave in. That would explain the stuffiness in the room, and also the darkness. He hated to think what that meant for the rest of the building above him. Already he had heard ominous groans from the ceiling, like it was under a huge amount of strain. Occasionally there would be a crack, as abrupt as a gunshot, and dust would shower Ben from above. It wouldn’t be long now before the whole roof collapsed on top of him.

He shifted slightly, wincing in discomfort as he tried to quell his rising sense of panic. He couldn’t hold out much longer. And he wasn’t ready to die. But how could anyone reach him when he was so far underground? And if he was hurt down here, what about his friends who were already at work on the shop floor? Were they still alive?

When the rumbling noise of machinery returned, he ignored it. They had passed over him dozens of times, this time wasn’t any different. He continued to think that until the rumbling began to gradually get louder. He couldn’t see, but he thought the noise was coming from the wall on the other side of the room. It was getting much louder now, the floor beneath him vibrating with the sound of it. Then, there was a light! He stared at the pencil thin beam of light stretching across the room, hope stirring in him once again.

Dust began to fall around him, moving through the light and creating swirls; it was the best thing Ben had ever seen. The rumbling noise got louder and louder, until it was almost unbearable. The vibration was causing jolts of pain to travel up his legs, and he groaned, though the rumbling noise was now so loud he could barely hear himself. Suddenly, there was a muffled bang, and dirt exploded from the spot in the wall where the beam of light had emerged from. Ben winced, covering his eyes as best he could as clods of dirt rained around him.

A loud, grinding metallic sound filled the void Ben found himself in, until it began to slow down. Eventually, the room became quiet again, and Ben lowered his arms cautiously. When he opened his eyes, he thought for a moment that he had passed out again. A giant iron conical sphere now jutted from the wall, its barbed edges coated in mud and grime. Ben stared at it in awe for a moment, then things just got stranger.

He had no idea where it had come from, but a thicker beam of light appeared, dancing around the walls until it rested on him. He winced at the brightness, until the beam was pointed away.

In the dim torchlight, he could make out the silhouette of a man. He rushed over to his side, pushing debris out of the way so he could kneel next to him. The man was wearing a filthy blue uniform and a facemask, which was apparently providing him with oxygen if the cylinder on his back was anything to go by. It made seeing his face difficult; all Ben could see was his blue eyes.

“Hi,” he greeted, his voice strangely clear even through the mask. He placed a comforting hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Let’s get you out of here.”

Ben looked on dazedly as the man raised his arm up to his face. “Come in, Mole”

“This is the Mole, go ahead”

“I’ve got him, Virge. I need you to take a look at him before he’s moved, though.”

“F.A.B.” The man with the blue eyes looked back at him and removed something from his pack.

“Here,” he said gently. It took a moment in the dim light for Ben to figure out what it was, then he realised. Water!

“I can’t give you a lot,” the blue-eyed man apologised. “Not until we get you checked over, but it’s enough to get that awful taste out of your mouth.”

How did he know? Ben sipped the water gratefully, until the man regretfully took it away. He leaned his head back against the wall behind him, relief flooding him.

“Thank you.”

“No problem,” the man said lightly, as though the action were just a normal, everyday thing.

The machine behind him whirred to life again, and moved back slightly, creating a tunnel of sorts. The man didn’t seem phased by that at all as he walked around the various chunks of debris and picked up a long object that was lying carefully against the wall. Now his eyes had adjusted more, Ben could see it was a hover stretcher.

Lights powered up from the enormous metal contraption jutting from the wall, casting the room in a shadowy orange glow. For the first time, Ben could see what remained of the locker room. Part of the roof had caved in by the doorway, with cracks running all the way across the ceiling above them. In the room itself, the floor was littered with chunks of wood and concrete, as well as the twisted remains of the metal lockers. People’s belongings were strewn around the room, a haunting reminder of the normality that had existed prior to the explosion. The room was barely recognisable.

“What happened?” he croaked, his thoughts easier to manage now.

“Big explosion,” the rescuer confirmed, powering up the hover stretcher as he spoke.

“The whole building came down. They think it was a chemical leak. You’re the last stop on our rescue tour!”

“Well, thanks for stopping by,” Ben breathed, chuckling until the sensation caused him to cough again, which was painful. He felt some movement around him as the rescuer pushed aside more of the rubble and debris.

There was more light as another torch danced towards them. Then another man was there, wearing exactly the same soot stained uniform, except that his sash was yellow- though it was difficult to tell beneath the mud and grime. Thinking about it, who were these people? Their uniforms weren’t that of the police or fire department, and they definitely weren’t paramedics. Their equipment was completely unfamiliar too. Still, he was in no position to turn them away. Right now, he’d take any help that was offered.

The new rescuer removed a bag from his shoulder and then, to Ben’s surprise, removed his mask.

“Hi,” the man greeted. Ben was relieved to see a friendly face. The guy looked about the same age as him, with brown eyes and a warm smile. His face was covered in soot and dirt, though Ben had no idea how that had happened while he has wearing a mask.

“What’s your name?”

“Ben,” he responded, bewildered by the latest turn of events. “Ben Evans.”

“Hi, Ben. You can call me Virge. I’m a medic. Do you mind if I take a look at you?”

“Knock yourself out,” Ben breathed. These guys sure were to the point. ‘Virge’ proceeded to quickly check him over, focusing on his neck and chest.

“Are you in any pain?” he asked while shining a penlight in his eyes.

“Just my legs,” Ben responded, wincing at the bright light.

“How about your breathing?”

“It’d be fine if it weren’t for the dust.”

Virge smiled, glancing around the shadowy room for a moment. “Yeah, you never really get used to the dust. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at rescues and-”

“Virgil,” the other guy cut in warningly and the man rolled his eyes.

“I know, I know,” he said, taking Ben’s pulse and looking at him with a raised eyebrow. “You know, it’s a fine line between a good bedside manner and breaking secrecy rules.”

“If it gets me out of here, you can talk all you want,” Ben responded, coughing slightly.

Virgil chuckled and moved down to his lower half, manoeuvring himself around the debris to feel down Ben’s leg. Ben stared down at his swollen and misshapen limbs, now horribly exposed. Both legs were obviously broken, with white bone jutting from his left shin. His right leg was covered in blood from various gashes and cuts, and looked like it was broken in around about the same place, though the bone hadn’t broken the skin. He couldn’t help but suck in a sharp breath as Virgil felt the area around the break. The man glanced up apologetically, but continued his exam as much as he could. Then he sat back on his haunches and smiled.

“Well, Ben, it looks like you’ve broken both your legs.”

“So why are you smiling?”

“The good news is that you’ve no large splinters or shrapnel embedded in your skin anywhere, and you seem to have done our job for us and got yourself free of whatever did this.”

“It was that,” Ben breathed, pointing over to the large block of wood he had shifted from his lap earlier. Virgil nodded his understanding, and withdrew a needle from his bag. He removed it from its packaging.

“I’m going to give you some morphine for when we transport you,” he explained as he was loading the syringe, before flashing him a supportive look. “Then I’m going to splint your legs. I wont lie to you, Ben. It’s gonna hurt like hell, but once that’s done, we’ll have you out of here in five minutes flat. Just-”

“Mobile Control to Danger Zone,” a new voice sprang out of nowhere and both men stopped. Then guy in the facemask lifted his watch to his mouth, for some strange reason.

“Go ahead, Mobile Control.”

“You have four minutes and counting. I repeat, four minutes and counting. Do you understand?”

“F.A.B.,” the man confirmed.

“Make that four minutes flat,” Virgil corrected with a sheepish smile, and immediately sprang into action.

“Four minutes until what?” Ben asked dazedly; but neither would answer.

They were both still calm and collected, but seemed to work much quicker than before. Virgil injected the morphine into his upper arm with skill that only came with experience, and then set about binding his legs together with bandages and padding. Every movement caused a ripple of pain to move up his leg and through his body, but he tried not to cry out. He knew the rescuer was being as gentle as possible, and Ben could see that this was a man entirely at ease with the task at hand.

There was something about these two men that made him feel immediately safe. He was amazed at their calmness, and the way they worked together so seamlessly. Even friends he had in the emergency services didn’t work as skilfully as these men. He had to ask the question that had been plaguing him since they arrived…

“Who are you guys?”

Virgil looked up from his task, surprised, and smiled.

“We’re International Rescue.”

Ben’s eyes widened in shock, and before he could stop himself he started to laugh. It was a mistake. Pain shot up from his legs and through his chest. He groaned and arched his back, praying that the morphine would kick in quickly. Virgil took his own oxygen mask and placed it over Ben’s mouth. The cool rush of air was wonderful, and he sucked in deeply.


Ben nodded, and watched in silence as he got his breathing under control. International Rescue! Now he knew he was going to be okay. He stared at the two men as they worked efficiently around him. They certainly weren’t what he was expecting of the secretive organisation. They didn’t look like the incredible heroes the papers made them out to be; they just looked like normal guys. Mind you, what was he expecting? Supermen in capes?

“Okay, Ben,” Virgil said, tying off the final knot in the bandages around his legs. “We’re getting you out of here. This might hurt a little, but just keep hold of my hand and it’ll be over before you know it.”

Virgil gripped his hand tightly and Ben looked nervously towards the other guy, who was standing next to the hover stretcher, which was now floating at waist level. He was about to ask what was happening…but there wasn’t time.

There was a slow rumbling from above which grew gradually louder, and dust showered over them. Virgil immediately threw himself over Ben, protecting his body with his own as the walls shook violently behind him. He could hear concrete and steel falling from all around them, and Ben shouted in fear and pain. Then, he heard a menacing crack from the ceiling, and Virgil became suddenly heavier on top of him.

There was a terrified pause from them as the dust settled and silence reigned again.

“Virge, are you okay?” the other guy murmured, his voice unnervingly quiet. There was a long silence, until the masked man spoke again, his voice still soft and quiet, as though speaking normally would cause the whole room to crumble around them. “Virge, come on, man, speak to me. Are you okay?”

Virgil finally grunted from above him, and moved slightly, murmuring something incomprehensible as he did so. He then slowly pulled back. Ben was shocked to see a deep cut now above his eye, blood pouring freely down his cheek and down his neck. Virgil shook his head, as though trying to clear his vision, then looked at his colleague blearily.


“You sure?”

Virgil was silent, his head bowed for a moment, his hands on his knees. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes as he exhaled. Then he glanced back up to his teammate, looking a lot more composed this time. He wiped some of the blood out of his eyes and nodded confidently.

“I’ll be okay.”

The other man was staring at him concernedly, though kept glancing up to the ceiling with equal concern.

Ben looked up and began to understand the severity of their situation. The whole ceiling was sagging towards them, and the cracks - which were only small patterns before - now gaped open, and were extending with every second, silently joining up with one another like trickles of water.

“We’re almost out of time,” Virgil murmured, staring upwards as he spoke. “How long will it take to secure him to the stretcher?”

“Around a minute,” was the other man’s hushed response. Virgil stared at Ben, before he seemed to come to a decision, and nodded to himself.

“Okay. Let’s do this the old fashioned way.”

This was apparently all the other man needed to hear. He put his arm around Ben’s shoulders and waited for Virgil to explain.

“We’re going to move you into our transport vehicle,” Virgil said in a muted voice, glancing between him and the roof above them. “We don’t have time to use the stretcher now, so Al is going to carry you.”

Ben didn’t care. He just wanted out of this place. Without another word, ‘Al’ lifted him up and onto his shoulders. Ben bit back a groan at the jolting movement as Al got him into the correct position. The whole time Virgil was standing beside them, glancing between Ben, the ceiling above, and his watch for some reason.

“Okay Al,” he whispered urgently, “run!”

Al immediately began to move, and Ben couldn’t help but cry in pain as agony blossomed from his legs. It didn’t phase Al, who immediately set into a jog, running towards the jagged spike jutting from the wall as quickly as he could.

Ben could almost have dealt with the jarring pain, were it not for the catastrophic bang that came from somewhere high in the building on top of them. He felt a terrifying rumbling that started above them, but within seconds seemed to surround them completely. The groaning and roaring got steadily louder until the noise became unbearable.

There was shouting coming from somewhere, but Ben honestly had no idea who, or where, it was coming from. The darkness returned, and he felt dirt and debris falling all around him as the roaring consumed them. There was a shout of pain from behind him, but they kept running until they were all plunged into complete blackness. Ben screamed in pain as Al dropped him and he felt something heavy covering him. He squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the final blow that would end him. But it never happened.

The booming crashes and thuds continued, and Ben tried to make himself as small as possible, ignoring the agony that surged through his legs with every movement. He could still hear shouting above and around him, but the noise all merged together and he couldn’t make out the words that were being said. All that existed was the screech of twisting metal and that awful roar of the earth caving in around them.

After what felt like a lifetime, the sound began to slowly desist and ebb away, until there was only the occasional impotent thud, like small rocks landing on metal. All he could hear for a long moment was the sound of his own harsh breathing. Then the thing covering him moved and lifted. It was Al! He had been covering him just as Virgil had done earlier. But why were they both alive?

There was movement and, to his shock, fluorescent lights buzzed and flickered on above him. He winced at the harsh light for a moment, before looking blearily around him. Adrenaline still coursing through him, Ben let out a sound of total disbelief. He had no idea how, but they were in a vehicle of some sort.

He was lying in the corner on a stainless steel floor, as far away from the door as they could get. Al was kneeling beside him, his face still obscured my the mask, but from the look in his eyes, Ben could tell that this one had been a close call, even for International Rescue.

Ben looked over to the other side of the craft. Virgil was lying against the doorway, which was only half closed. He had his eyes shut tightly, his breath coming in quick pants and his hands pressed against the wall behind him, as though his own body weight could keep the door closed. Through the half open doorway, Ben could see dirt and lumps of concrete attempting to force their way through the crack. Clearly the room that had been his refuge had now completely caved in.

Al stepped back and looked down at Ben, checking him over briefly with concerned eyes. Then he pulled off his mask and Ben got a look at him for the first time. Beneath the thick layer of soot and dirt, it was clear that he was fair skinned, with blond hair and bright blue eyes. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-one.

Jeez, Ben thought to himself mutely, the man was younger than him. And he had just saved his life. Before Ben could find the words to thank him, Al got up and went to Virgil, kneeling next to him.

“You still with me, bro?” he asked concernedly. Virgil went to speak, then glanced to Ben and hesitated. He nodded wearily and sat up, wincing as he did so. Al helped him to his feet, and together, without a word, they used their joint strength to force the door closed.

Ben attempted to sit up and look around his new sanctuary. It was technology he had never seen before. Lights and computers filled the curved, tubular walls, and the vehicle itself, while utilitarian and robust, was sleek and obviously designed to perfection. Every inch of space had a purpose, and the equipment they had in here was clearly light years ahead of what existed at the moment. What confused him was the fact that the vehicle was completely undamaged. How had it survived that cave in?

Before he could contemplate the question further, Virgil was at his side again. His face was covered in blood, and his eyes looked tired, but he still had that same calming expression that made it seem as though everything was alright. He briefly checked the field dressings he had done only moments ago, then sat back on his haunches and looked wryly at his patient.

“Let’s get you out of here,” he said wearily, a smile playing at the corner of his mouth. Ben felt like crying with relief at those words.

He allowed himself to be lifted by the pair, the pain now only a dull throb as the drugs took effect. They carried him over to the wall and pulled down a makeshift bed. Virgil connected several pieces of medical equipment to him, seemingly from nowhere, then pulled a blanket over him. Al then took over, putting a pillow under his head and strapping him in without a word. The whole thing was a well-organised machine, and this was clearly a routine they had been through dozens of times. He couldn’t believe that these two men had got him out of there.

“Thank you, Al,” Ben murmured, still a little shell-shocked by the whole thing. “You saved my life.”

Al glanced up to his face, and looked almost surprised at the statement.

“We’re just doing our job,” he said simply.

Then the machine whirred to life and began to move. Ben looked over to the controls, as much as the straps would allow, and saw that Virgil was now at the helm, watching the monitors in front of him as he drove. It really was just the two of them that had saved him! And what was more incredible than that was the fact that Virgil seemed to be driving without any visible window on the craft.

Al put his hand on Ben’s shoulder, drawing his attention back to him.

“It’s about a five minute trip to the surface. We’ll then transport you over to where the paramedics are waiting. I’m going to be just over there with Virgil,” he explained, gesturing over to the co-driver’s seat a few feet away. “But you just holler if you need something.”

“Okay,” Ben responded. Though, truth be told, the morphine was doing its job brilliantly. He couldn’t think of anything more he could ask of these men.

Al removed a medikit from the draw above Ben’s bed and walked over to Virgil, putting a hand on his shoulder. They didn’t speak to one another, but Virgil seemed to understand the gesture and nodded, still looking at the monitors in front of him. Then, as Virgil continued to drive the vehicle, Al sat beside him and began to bandage the wound on his head. Neither said a word the whole time; they were clearly so used to working with each other that words weren’t necessary. Al turned around to check on Ben and smiled, all the stress and worry now gone from his face.

“You okay over there?”

Ben thought about the question for a moment, realising his situation for the first time. Only a few minutes ago he had resigned himself to dying in the bowels of a crumbling building, and now, he was safe. Completely safe. He looked back to the two men and nodded.

“Yeah…yeah, I’m fine.”

Al grinned boyishly, still bandaging his colleague’s head as he spoke cheerily. “Great! We’ll have you fixed up in no time.” Then he ruffled Virgil’s hair in a half affectionate, half teasing way. “And the same goes to you.”

He heard Virgil chuckle quietly and felt a little relieved. He didn’t like the idea of this man being hurt on his account. More than anything, he wished he knew the two men’s full names so he could thank them properly. But, of course, they hadn’t asked for his thanks. And yet, lying there on a makeshift bed in a metallic underground craft, he couldn’t think of anyone in the world who deserved more gratitude than those two men.

He thought back to his opinion of International Rescue when he had woken up that morning. The secret organisation was a myth that made his kids feel safer when they went to sleep. These anonymous supermen who swooped in and saved the day were just as good as any comic book character.

He looked over to the two men driving the craft, watching as Al finished tying off the bandage on his friend’s head. Bloodied, exhausted, and covered in soot, dirt and mud, they definitely weren’t the International Rescue he had pictured.

Ben smiled to himself, slowly lying back on the stretcher and closing his eyes. He took a long, deep breath and finally allowed himself to relax. As the tension sank away from his body, and his thoughts were filled with getting back to his kids, he began to realise the truth…

These guys didn’t need capes or costumes.

They were heroes.

...And so concludes ‘Strangers’

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