Hannah sighed. Why couldn’t she just walk away from him, from the Ancien and their struggles to survive, and their unwanted offspring? What did he want from her, anyway? Unable to think clearly, she grabbed Michel’s hand and started walking, pulling him along with her.
He resisted, but when she tightened her grip he let her lead him. “Where are we going?”
“Home. My home. I just quit work, and I don’t see any point in standing around on the sidewalk. I’m tired and hungry. If you’re hungry, I’m sure I can dig up enough food for both of us.”
“Like the picnic?” He sounded more cheerful.
“Not exactly. If you really came to talk to me, then maybe it should be someplace where you can’t just get up and run away.”
“Okay.” He curled his fingers around her hand, and she shivered. It reminded her of LeeLee, and she felt almost as if she been given a small child to babysit.
But there was nothing childish about Michel’s ramblings. They wiped away any thoughts she might have had about going back out to help with the cleanup. She did a hasty wash up, sure that she must stink to high heaven, and put together a sketchy lunch. She didn’t ask Michel any questions until after they’d eaten, and she was glad she hadn’t.
She thought she was fairly knowledgeable about humanity’s dark side. But most of it was from books and movies, and it did nothing to prepare her for the ugly side of Michel’s life. He told her about the other throwbacks and the power games that went on between them, about the circuit of party goers he was forced to be a part of. There was too much that he couldn’t bear to talk about, and he kept insisting that there were things she shouldn’t know. She tried to pretend that she wasn’t horrified and revolted, and that her pity for Michel wasn’t tearing her apart. She had to remain calm, to reassure him when he faltered and his face showed that he expected her to finally turn away from him in disgust.
He hated Harris and was desperately afraid of him. He wanted to escape and go somewhere where Harris could never find him, where he could have a life of his own.
“Is that why you want to tell me about it?” Hannah asked him. “So I’ll help you?”
“No, no. You can’t help. Nobody can. I just want someone to know . . . in case something ever happens. He reached his hand out, hesitantly, and she took it in her own. It was very small comfort, but it was all she could give, and possibly more than he expected.
He talked about his life before Chicago. He’d known nothing but the building where he lived under Harris’s supervision. His early childhood, before Harris, was shadowy fragmented images that might well have been nothing more than dreams. He and the other boys who came to live there, one by one, were well fed and clothed, and they were educated. When they were old enough, by whatever standards Harris set, they learned that there was a world outside the building. “They let us see videos, and told us this was what the world was like. I always wondered why there were never children in any of the videos. I thought maybe something happened to them. Maybe they were all in places like the Center. I didn’t know about families for a long time.”
Hannah wondered when Harris had told him about Patrick. He hadn’t shown any surprise when Harris introduced them to each other. But he was clearly startled at the mention of his mother. She also wondered why Michel hadn’t spoken to Patrick, either before or after the revelation. Had Harris given him orders to stay silent or was it a natural reaction to seeing a complete stranger who was supposed to be his father?
As Michel described the sex education that started when the boys reached puberty, Hannah’s self-control was put to the test. There was no way to view it as anything but abuse, and even perversion. It included sex games and contests between the boys and, as they matured, visits from young women who instructed them in sexual seduction. Had it all been part of Harris’s plans for taking them to Chicago? But Michel gave her no time to speculate. Somewhere in that period he was describing, something happened, something so terrible that he couldn’t even hint at it, his body shaking with the memory. That was when he started having nightmares, he told her.
Harris wanted to find a way to control the blood craving — more preparation for turning the throwbacks loose? When aversive conditioning didn’t work, he turned to medical experiments. It was his memories of the conditioning that had made Michel run from her that day in the park. The boys were tested more intensively than ever during the three times a year that they came into rut. They were given drugs; some made them violently ill and a few of the boys were driven into psychotic breaks.
The one constant in their lives was punishment. They were punished for every failure, for slow obedience, for shoddy performance, for the slightest hint of resistance or rebellion, and for reasons that were never explained. Harris wanted total and willing obedience in all things. “He didn’t just want us to obey him. We had to act as if we were happy about it. But I couldn’t. I always hated him, even when I was little, and I would never give him what he wanted.”
Michel refused to tell Hannah what Harris had done to him, but she got the distinct impression that his punishments were more severe than the other boys received. Remembering the way he had tried to avoid being near Harris, she suspected that it still continued. She mostly listened silently because questions often provoked either a wild outpouring or a terrified refusal to go on.
The dreadful story went on until Hannah couldn’t bear any more. She had to get out, into the open air. The room was stifling, not just with the day’s oppressive heat, but with the emotional storms that Michel had taken her through. His revelations were difficult enough to absorb. The sudden changes in his personality disoriented her as they reflected what he had experienced. They were so extreme that it was only with difficulty that she could reconcile the man who talked frankly about his sexual experiences and the terrified child who wanted to run away and hide. In between the two was the boy who took delight in the wonders of a world that had been hidden from him for much of his life. But he seldom came out of hiding.
She waited for a comparatively quiet moment when she could bring them both back to the everyday world. There was a lot of work to be done, and she needed to get out and help. Michel was eager to share the work, and they spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning up storm debris. To Michel’s confusing changes in personality, there was now added the times when he looked around in confusion, as if he didn’t know where he was or what he was doing.