The Touch – Volume 1: The Void
The middle school and the high school were both located in one giant building that looked like it had only been open a few years, unlike my old dilapidated school. Natalie walked beside me as she led me towards the front doors of the school. My heart was beating a mile a minute as my nerves began to take over. If Natalie hadn’t been holding my hand, I probably would have darted for the car, but I was stuck to face the new torture.
Students were rushing through the hallways of the school when we entered, but it wasn’t nearly as congested as my last school. I glanced up at Natalie in confusion for a moment as she led me towards the office.
“There’s not as many students at this school,” Natalie explained with a brief smile. “It’s a private school.”
“Those are expensive, though.” I skidded to a stop and looked at Natalie in disbelief.
She laughed lightly and pulled me towards her.
“If you must know,” Natalie said with a smile. “Greg’s office actually pays for the children of all of their associates to go to this school, Zachary. It’s a perk of being a lawyer for them.”
She laughed as I nodded briefly before she pulled the office door open. An overweight woman with curly brown hair and wire-framed glasses sat behind a long counter where she was busy sorting paperwork into different files. She smiled briefly as she stood up and greeted us. Her brown eyes looked like puddles of dark mud in the fluorescent lights as her gaze shifted between the two of us.
“Hello,” the woman said pleasantly. “Is there something that I can help you with?”
“Hi, I’m Natalie Harris.” My foster-mom responded with her own genuine smile. “I have Zachary Brody here for a meeting with Principal Thompson.”
The secretary checked a calendar on the counter in front of her before she smiled back at us. “Let me just make sure that he’s ready for you. I’ll be right back, Mrs. Harris.”
“Thank you,” Natalie said with a smile.
We watched the woman walk down a small hallway before Natalie turned to me.
“Remember, there’s no reason to be nervous, Zachary.” My foster-mom told me with a smile as she squeezed my shoulder lovingly. “You’re paying for their income. Just remember that.”
“But, what if they don’t accept me because I’m an orphan?” I asked with a whisper just as the secretary entered the office again.
The pudgy woman had clearly heard me as she frowned in my direction before she returned the fake smile to her wide face.
“Mr. Thompson will see you, now.” The woman stated as she motioned towards the hallway. Natalie thanked her again, and I glanced back at the woman to see her frowning on my direction. Her brow was furrowed in disgust and I quickly turned my attention back to the corridor in front of me.
The principal stood next to the open door with a slight grin on his face as he waited for us.
“Good morning, Mrs. Harris.” The slender man said before he turned and extended his hand to me. “Good morning to you as well, Mr. Brody. Welcome to our little establishment. Please, join me in my office.”
The man motioned for us to enter his office, so I followed Natalie inside and sat in one of the chairs as Mr. Thompson sat in the leather chair behind the desk.
“I’m Mr. Thompson, Principal of Eastwood High Academy.” The man said with a warm smile. “It is my understanding that you would like to register Zachary here for our fine school?”
“Yes, Mr. Thompson.” Natalie stated with a nod. “My husband’s office is covering the enrollment fees, and all other expenses associated with the school.” Natalie passed over the form and Mr. Thompson examined it before he nodded and set it aside on his desk.
“Very good,” the principal stated. “I have Ms. Pratt pulling the file that Mrs. Stevens had delivered last week. I’ll make sure that all of this paperwork gets filed as soon as possible so that we can get Zachary into a regular class with his peers. Do you happen to know what his last grade level in school was?”
“He was in sixth grade at his last school,” Natalie said.
Suddenly, there was a sharp knock on the door frame that made me jump in fright. Natalie reached over and grabbed my arm effectively keeping me from jumping into her lap. My eyes shot to the door where I found Ms. Pratt standing with a manila folder in her hands. She had a wicked smile on her face at my reaction before she glanced at the principal.
“I have that file for you, Mr. Thompson.” I could tell by the tone of her voice that she had read my file as she passed it over to the principal. She returned to her spot in the doorway and glanced towards me with a malicious sparkle in her eyes.
“Was there something else, Ms. Pratt?” Mr. Thompson asked with a raised eyebrow.
“My apologies, sir.” The woman said in a voice filled with hatred towards me. “I was just saving myself the trip back down the hall to escort the foster brat from the building.”
“Excuse me?” Natalie asked sharply. I cringed as I felt her hand go tighter on my arm. “You have no idea what you’re talking about, do you?” Natalie asked as she glared at Ms. Pratt. She directed her gaze towards Mr. Thompson when the smug woman refused to say anything. “You can be certain that you’ll be hearing from my husband’s office shortly. Come on, Zachary.”
Mr. Thompson shot to his feet and held out his hand to stop Natalie from rising from her chair.
“Wait!” The man begged almost desperately. “I will handle this.”
“Is there somewhere that Zachary can wait?” Natalie asked in a voice that sent a chill down my spine.
“He is more than welcome to wait out in the office until we need him again,” Mr. Thompson stated with a stern look towards Ms. Pratt.
The woman just rolled her eyes like she didn’t believe the situation was really happening. I was clearly in a state of shock myself.
“Zachary,” Natalie broke me out of my daze, and I realized that I had started trembling. I fought the urge to cry as I turned my attention back to my foster mother. “Go wait out in the office where we first came in, please. I’ll come get you in just a minute, baby boy.” She touched my cheek gently with the palm of her hand and I nodded nervously. Natalie leaned forward and whispered into my ear. “Just breathe, Zachary. It’s going to be okay. I promise.”
I nodded before I stood and slipped past the woman blocking the doorway.
“I should go keep a watch on my stuff,” Ms. Pratt said with a sneer as she turned to follow me. “The little brat will probably rob me blind.”
“No, Ms. Pratt.” Mr. Thompson said in a stern voice. “You’re going to take the chair that young Mr. Brody just vacated. Close the door while you’re at it.”
“If he takes anything, it’s your fault,” Ms. Pratt said loud enough for me to hear before the door clicked shut.
I took a seat in one of the chairs opposite the counter and tried to make myself stop trembling. There was complete silence until I heard the muffled yelling coming from the Principal’s Office.
“I can’t believe you would do this, Ms. Pratt!” Mr. Thompson shouted. “You of all people!”
I glanced up as the door opened and a girl with long black hair and piercing green eyes stepped into the office. She froze in her spot for a moment before I tore my eyes away from her and focused my attention back on the floor. The girl sat down next to me but remained silent much to my relief. Then, the yelling continued, and I trembled with fear.
“That’s bullshit!” Ms. Pratt yelled at that moment. “All because some little foster brat got his feelings hurt?”
“Oh, shit.” The girl mumbled under her breath.
“That’s what I fucking thought, Ms. Pratt!” Mr. Thompson said fiercely. “I read his entire file! Everything! From start to finish! I know the truth about what this boy has been through! Not you! You only know some half-assed attempt for getting gossip on someone! Just enough for you to render a superficial judgement of character because you’re miserable in your own life.”
I sniffled quietly as a tear rolled down my cheek.
Fucking emotions, I thought miserably as I sniffled again. I wasn’t sad or scared. All I could feel was shame at the thought that somebody else had heard of my misery. Another person outside of my circle was learning of my deepest secrets without my permission. Two in one day. How much worse can this get?
“Are you okay?” The girl asked me before she gently touched my back with the palm of her hand. I sniffled and nodded and tried to force myself to smile, but it didn’t work the way I wanted it to. The girl frowned and rubbed my back gently. “It’s okay if you want to cry. I promise that I won’t tell anybody if you do.”
I smiled shyly at the girl as another tear ran down my cheek.
“Sorry,” I sniffled.
“Do you know what’s going on in there?” The girl asked curiously. I could have lied to her, but I didn’t want to really begin my new career at the school that way. I nodded grimly. “What is it?”
“Ms. Pratt is getting yelled at,” I replied quietly.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Natalie demanded angrily which caused both of us to fall silent. “That boy has spent the last six years of his life getting beat on a regular basis! He died because of it! And now, you want to mock him? It’s taking everything I have not to reach out and slap that ugly smirk off of your face! Do you even know what it’s like to spend the past six weeks of your life being nursed back to health from being dead? You’re the exact definition of a hateful person!”
The girl squeezed my hand as the tears fell faster.
“I promise that I won’t tell,” she reassured me. “Your secrets are safe with me.”
She bumped her shoulder into mine.
“I make a better friend if you tell me what your name is,” she said with a slight smirk.
“Z… Z… Z… Zachary…” I stuttered out nervously.
“I’m Deedra,” the girl said as she squeezed my hand gently. “Don’t worry. Ms. Pratt had this coming.”
“You’re fired, Ms. Pratt!” Mr. Thompson shouted. “No amount of apologizing is ever going to change that! I hope you’ve learned your lesson before you take on another position working with children!”
The voices in the office went lower to where we couldn’t hear them. Deedra just leaned into me as I trembled. A moment later, the office door swung open and Mr. Thompson came down the hallway with a frown on his face.
This is it, I thought sadly. The moment where they always turn against me.
Mr. Thompson kneeled in front of me which brought me to eye level with himself. His brown eyes gazed into my own. I could see the remorse on his face.
“Zachary, I would like to personally apologize to you for what Ms. Pratt said to you.” He said softly. Deedra gasped in surprise. “Not a word about this to anyone, Deedra. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, sir.” Deedra replied quickly.
“You will never encounter that type of situation again while you are part of our school, Zachary.” Mr. Thompson promised me. “I’ll make certain of it.”
“Yes, sir.” I stated meekly.
“Now,” Mr. Thompson rose to his feet. “I’m certain that Deedra was misbehaving in her English class again, but I’m willing to give her a slight reprieve for a favor.”
“What favor?” Deedra asked.
“I’m going to need you to give Zachary here a tour of our school for the next hour, Ms. Miller.” The principal stated as Deedra’s eyebrows went up in surprise. “Unless, you would rather spend an afternoon or two in detention…”
“I’m good, Mr. Thompson!” Deedra stated hastily as she grabbed my hand and dragged me to my feet.
“Zachary, go ahead and wait in the hall.” Mr. Thompson said. “I need a quick word with Ms. Miller.”
Deedra’s shoulders slumped as the principal directed me to the door leading out of the office. I was quick to obey and stood with my back against the wall across from the office. I could see into the windows, but I tried to keep my gaze directed at the floor. I saw Deedra point towards the door in the back and to her own ear before Mr. Thompson’s eyebrows rose in surprise. He took a quick glance at me before he nodded to Deedra and handed her a pink piece of paper that he had scribbled something on. Deedra left the office as Mr. Thompson turned back down the hallway towards his own personal office. Deedra smiled nervously as she joined me across the hallway and waved the paper at me.
“Are you ready?” She asked with a wide smile.
I shrugged my shoulders sadly.
“Trust me, Zachary.” Deedra said with a smile as she took my hand again. “You’re safe with me. I promise.”
I smiled shyly and nodded as Deedra led me down the hallway to give me my tour of the school. I took one last glance towards the office and saw Ms. Pratt in the process of gathering her belongings off of her desk while Mr. Thompson and Natalie watched. The woman had tears streaming down her cheeks as she suffered the consequences of her own actions.
Someone will make this my fault, I thought sadly. They always do.
The woman glanced up at that moment and met my gaze. Her expression was filled with sadness as remorse as she held up a hand and waved gently.
“I’m sorry,” she mouthed before I turned back to follow my tour guide and new friend.
It’s going to be different this time, I told myself.
“Well, when does he start school?” Greg asked after he had set his briefcase on the counter. He walked over and hugged and kissed Natalie before he gave me a hug as well.
“Monday,” Natalie replied with a smile as Greg tousled my hair like he usually did when he got home from work. I didn’t mind. It made me feel loved. “Did you make any progress on the big case?”
Greg laughed and rolled his eyes as he sat on the stool next to me.
“It’s becoming my life’s work, apparently.” My foster father said in an amused tone. “They really want to move forward with their purchase of the tech company, but they don’t want to pay the price that the CEO of the tech company is asking for.”
“Rich people problems,” Natalie said with a laugh that made me giggle.
“Those could be our problems if I can convince them to take the deal,” Greg replied with a smug grin. “Fifteen percent commission fee, plus the partners have offered me a place on the board.”
“You’re joking?” Natalie asked in disbelief.
“Nope,” my foster father said. Greg pulled me into his side and hugged me tightly. I sighed happily which made Greg chuckle. His next question completely ruined my happy mood, though. “How did the registration go?”
Natalie sighed as she took a quick glance at me. I trembled slightly.
“It could have went better, honestly.” Natalie said in a tone that meant they would discuss the topic later. “Zachary did make a friend, though.”
“See, Zachary?” Greg said as he tickled me lightly. “I told you that you would be making new friends in no time! Nobody can resist that smile or adorable giggle of yours! You’ll be the President of the Student Council before you know it!”
I giggled softly and burrowed further into Greg’s side as I felt myself blush.
“I’m proud of you, buddy.” Greg said before he kissed the top of my head. He got up from the stool and walked back over to Natalie and kissed her again. “I’m going to go get changed out of this suit.”
“I like you looking all snazzy for me,” Natalie replied with a grin as she grabbed the front of his brown suit jacket and pulled him closer for a moment.
“Behave, lovely!” Greg told her before he gave her another quick kiss. “There’s children present!”
I giggled and rolled my eyes as Greg disappeared from the kitchen. Natalie laughed and glanced over at me.
“What would you like for dinner, buddy?” She asked me.
“I get to choose?” I asked in disbelief.
“Of course, you do, Zachary.” Natalie said with a smile as she leaned on the counter across from me. “You’re a member of this family, too.”
I smiled shyly.
“I don’t know,” I said with an embarrassed shrug of my shoulders. “I’ve never gotten to choose before.”
Natalie came around the counter and hugged me tightly.
“You’re going to be having lots of first times in this home, Zachary.” My foster-mom told me. “Don’t ever worry about any of them, buddy. I will always have your back. Now, how about I give you some suggestions for dinner.”
I smiled and nodded shyly.
It only took us about ten minutes to decide on spaghetti for dinner, so Natalie set to work cooking the pasta.
“Go watch television while I make dinner, Zachary.” Natalie told me with a smile. “It won’t take too long.”
“Yes, Mrs. Harris.”
I slid off of the stool and went into the living room just as Greg sat down on the sofa.
“What’s up, buddy?” Greg asked with a smile. He patted the empty seat next to him, so I sat down. Greg instantly pulled me into his side and turned on the television.
“Mrs. Harris is making dinner,” I informed him as he surfed through the different channels before he settled on a news program.
“Oh yeah? What are we having, tonight?”
“Spaghetti,” I replied nervously.
“Good choice, Zachary.” Greg agreed. “I love all types of pasta.”
I settled into Greg’s side with a sigh and lazily watched the news with the man that had been more a father to me in the past month, than I had experienced in my entire life. He greeted me every day, and he always made sure to take any amount of time I needed for him to be with me. I was never an intrusion with Greg or Natalie. They teased me relentlessly during dinner that evening about how much I turned out to love pasta. I was on my way for a third bowl of spaghetti when Natalie warned me that there was still dessert on the way. The Harris’s didn’t seem like the nightmare foster families I had heard about on the news or from the other orphans. They loved me as if I was their own son.
Natalie and Greg both made it a point to take me to school on my first day, but they didn’t show me any more affection than a quick hug when it came time for me to go inside the office and check-in. Ms. Pratt had been replaced by a small gray-haired woman that appeared to be busier than she could handle. I waited by the counter until the secretary spotted me.
“Can I help you, young one?” The woman asked with a hint of stress to her voice even though she smiled at me.
“I’m Z… Z… Za… Zach Br… Br… Brody, ma’am.” I said nervously. I hated it when I stuttered.
The woman’s smile widened.
“I’ve been expecting you, Mr. Brody,” she said pleasantly as she approached the counter. The woman handed me a piece of paper and a folder that was stuffed with other paperwork. “I know it seems a bit overwhelming, but this is the packet that will help bring you up to speed in all of your classes. You don’t have to worry about it today, but I would suggest taking a look at it once you get home, Zach.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I told her nervously.
The secretary smiled and held out her hand to me.
“I’m Mrs. Young.” She said pleasantly. “I’m the new secretary.”
I nodded and looked relieved for a moment as my eyes scanned the office for Miss Pratt. I knew that she wasn’t going to be there, but it still worried me how everybody was going to react. Especially, if they found out that the long-time position was vacated because of me. I felt myself beginning to tense up as I fought the urge to cry. I had a gut feeling that everybody was going to hate me at this school.
“Mrs. Coster is assigned to be your homeroom teacher for the remainder of your sixth-grade year, Zach.” Mrs. Young continued, oblivious to the inner battle as I was having. “She’s down in room 109.”
“I’ll show him the way, Mrs. Young,” I turned at the familiar voice and found myself staring into bright green eyes. Deedra smiled happily and hugged me. “I’ve been going crazy waiting for you to start school, Zach!” She told me excitedly.
“Thank you, Deedra.” Mrs. Young said with a smile and a wave of dismissal. “Don’t be late!”
“We won’t,” Deedra called out behind her as she grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the office. I caught a glimpse of Natalie and Greg standing off to the side talking to Mr. Thompson, and I quickly pulled back on the girl. She immediately turned around with a worried expression on her face. “What’s wrong?”
“I need to give this to my…”
Deedra didn’t even answer as she saw the packet in my hands. She saw the look of distress on my face and looked concerned as she immediately started scanning the crowd around us. Natalie and Greg were easily visible and Deedra pulled me towards them.
“Hello, Deedra and Zachary.” Mr. Thompson greeted us pleasantly.
“Hey, buddy.” Greg greeted me warmly. “What’s up?”
“I… I… I…” I held onto the packet nervously before I just thrust it out towards Greg, unable to find the words I wanted to say. Greg glanced at the packet for a moment before he smiled and nodded to me.
“It’ll be on the kitchen table waiting for you, buddy.” He reassured me with a quick squeeze of my shoulder. “We’ll be out front at the end of the day, okay?”
I nodded and Deedra pulled me away from the adults.
“Come on,” she urged as she threaded her way through the other students in the hallway. “Mrs. Coster doesn’t like people being late.”
I groaned inwardly and tried to keep my head down as Deedra pushed her way through the throng of students trying to get to their own classes. Finally, Deedra led me into room 109 and took me straight to the teacher. Mrs. Coster had black hair that was streaked with silvery-gray and was pulled up into a tight bun against the back of her head. She wore wire framed glasses and smiled politely as Deedra and I stood in front of her desk.
“Good morning, Deedra.” The woman greeted her pleasantly before her blue eyes flashed over to me. I swallowed nervously and let my gaze fall to the floor. The woman clearly knew that it was my fault that Miss Pratt had gotten fired. Deedra had a tight grip on my hand, so I couldn’t pull away as I felt the slight tremble race through my body. “Who is your friend?”
“This is Zachary Brody, Mrs. Coster.” Deedra introduced me happily to the teacher. “This is his first day, so I decided to help him find his way into your classroom.”
The woman nodded at Deedra pleasantly.
“Go ahead and take your seat, Deedra.” Mrs. Coster said with a grin. “I’m not going to bite him.”
Deedra chuckled before she left me alone with the teacher. I could feel the lump forming in my throat as I knew the teacher was studying me intently. I wanted to run but judging by the quieting sounds in the classroom behind me, it would just everybody another reason not to like me. Too many people were watching me now.
“Relax, Zachary.” Mrs. Coster whispered only loud enough or me to hear. “Nobody is mad at you for what happened with Miss Pratt.”
I glanced up sharply to see the woman smiling at me.
“Trust me, Zachary.” She said softly. “You’re safe in this room. Now, there’s an empty seat next to the window, why don’t you go make yourself comfortable while I get your schoolbooks ready for you?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I replied sheepishly before I found my way to the empty desk. I set my bookbag next to the desk as I took my seat. I glanced at my schedule and saw that I would have Mrs. Coster for Reading during my first period of the day. I was immediately accosted by Deedra as she turned around from the seat in front of me.
“Can I see your schedule, Zach?” She asked me curiously, so I passed it over to her. Deedra took the slip of paper from me and scanned it carefully before she smiled happily. “We’ve got Reading, Algebra, and Choir together!”
“Snore!” Said the boy to my right with a dramatic roll of his brown eyes. I giggled slightly as he leaned over in his chair and held his hand out to me. “I’m Sheldon Cooper.”
“I’m Zach,” I said nervously as I shook his hand. His eyes were the color of fresh dirt with tiny flecks of gold splattered throughout them. His smile drew me in, and I trembled as I felt the familiar twisting of my stomach. I pulled my hand back quickly once I realized that I had been holding Sheldon’s hand a bit too long and mumbled an apology. Sheldon seemed to not notice and continued to chatter away with Deedra.
“You’re such a drama queen, Sheldon.” Deedra teased the brown-haired boy. “At least he doesn’t have Mr. Cafferty for gym.”
“What?” Sheldon asked in shock as he snatched my schedule away from her. He glanced at it furiously before he slapped it down on my desk with a pout. “How did you get so lucky, Zach?”
I shrugged indifferently and pulled out my notebook and a pencil so I could draw. Homeroom lasted thirty minutes before school, and it was a time that the students were supposed to use to catch up on homework or their studies. I used the time to draw a picture of Sheldon and Deedra as they sat there and squabbled with each other. I could tell that they were friends, though.
“Tone it down, children.” Mrs. Coster warned them with a smile as she set five textbooks on my desk. “These are yours for the remainder of the year, Zachary. Sheldon here has volunteered to help you go find your locker so you can get your stuff stored away.”
Sheldon groaned until Mrs. Coster handed us each a pink slip of paper.
“These are your hall passes, gentlemen.” She informed us. “Sheldon, I want you to use the next ten minutes to show Zachary where his classes are going to be, so he doesn’t get lost later on.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Sheldon replied with a brief nod as Deedra pouted silently. As Mrs. Coster turned away from us, Sheldon stuck his tongue out at Deedra before he grabbed three of the books from my desk and ran from the room. I grabbed my Algebra and Health book and followed behind Sheldon.
“Welcome to Eastwood High Academy, Zachary.” Sheldon said with a mock smile as he showed me the way to my locker. “It’s really not that bad here. We’re only in school for seven periods a day, we get a half of an hour for lunch, and the class sizes are smaller. Oh, here it is…”
Sheldon cut off from his directive to point out the shiny black locker with the number 303 printed on the door next to the combination lock. Sheldon glanced at my schedule before he began to twist the knob quickly. After the second twist to the left, Sheldon lifted up on the handle and the small door swung open. He slid the three books in his hands into the locker before he took the two I was carrying and repeated the process.
“Thanks, Sheldon.” I mumbled nervously. I was afraid to meet his gaze, because of how it drew me in. I didn’t want to ruin my chances of making any friends if they knew the truth about me. I felt my cheeks flush red for a moment.
“You’re cute when you blush, Zach.” Sheldon said making me snap my head up and meet his gaze. He was smiling sheepishly, and his brown eyes seemed to be peering into my soul. Then, he said what I expected all straight guys to say. “I’m certain the girls are going to be going crazy over you.”
I blushed again before Sheldon grabbed my shoulder and turned me towards another doorway.
“That’s your Algebra classroom, Zach.” The boy informed me without moving his hand from my shoulder. “It’ll be easier for you get your books on your way here since it’s right across from your locker. Now, let’s find your Health Class…”
I went home happy that day, even if I did have a ton of homework. I had managed to have at least one of my friends in almost each of my classes, and that helped me adjust to my new surroundings. The only time I was in a class without anybody else in my grade was during my fifth period and during lunch. Somebody had decided to put me in the seventh-grade class due to the results of the test the school had given me before I started. Natalie and Greg both listened with smiles on their faces as I told them about Deedra and Sheldon. Natalie even managed to tell me that both of the kids lived on our street, and I couldn’t help but smile.
“Do you need any help with your homework?” Greg asked as I set my bookbag down next to the spot I usually occupied during dinner.
“Not really,” I said softly. “It’s just Reading, Health, and English. I… I… I did my Algebra in Study Hall.”
“Then, why did you bring home all of your books?” Greg asked me in confusion.
I felt myself flush red as my gaze fell to the table in front of me. I trembled knowing that the panic attack was aching to spring up from my soul at any moment.
“I… I… I…” I couldn’t tell him that I didn’t want to get in trouble. He would have thought I was being foolish for certain. I couldn’t lie to them either. It had been programmed by the monster into my very being. That was how I got the majority of my beatings were from the monster accusing me of lying to him. The tears fell from my eyes before I could stop them, and the embarrassment from my crying made me start to shake.
Greg instantly had his arms around me and was holding me tightly.
“You’ve got nothing to worry about, Zachary.” Greg reassured me. “Natalie and I trust you to know how to keep your grades up. Just make sure you get your homework done, and study properly. That’s all we ask, buddy. You don’t have to do this…” Greg motioned towards the stack of books. Then, Greg whispered in my ear. “You’re safe now, Zachary. That’s all that matters.”