A Forthcoming End: Sneak Peek

Like I’ve said during my Friday posts: I’ve been busy at work planning for Summer Reading. What does that mean? It means I don’t have a lot of time to write–at least, not write chapters in my current stories that I think are up to the quality they should be. And yet it is story day on the schedule, so… quite a dilemma. But then I thought it might be fun to try my hand at some “flash fiction.” It would be a good writing exercise for me and still (hopefully) provide an enjoyable read. So I found a prompt and challenged myself to write that story in only 500 words or less.


As per the prompt, I decided to head back to Todd Everett the crazy world of spies and prophecies. To read the first story in the Forthcoming series, start here.

Prompt: Write a “sneak peek” of a story that you haven’t worked on in a while.

It wasn’t simply raining–torrents were lashing against the window, streaking along the glass like clear snakes across black sand.  The view outside the window was dark.  The trees that surrounded the small house were invisible to the storm outside–the only evidence that they even existed were the sounds of branches thrashing in the wind.  Nothing could be seen save for the reflection of the man staring fervently at the glass.  He was a rough man, with a beard as coarse as the thoughts racing through his mind. 

Henbane eyed his reflection, though he was hardly taking any notice of it.  He numbly realized that his blonde tresses were longer than he liked; some of the bristles were actually beginning to resemble hair.

            But time had been a precious commodity lately, and personal grooming was among the lowest of his priorities.  The highest priority, however, was the cell phone placed carefully on the table in front of him.  He refused to look at it, unsure of what sort of news he was really wanting–he knew what he was expecting.

            And what he was expecting would surely be a good report.

            For Cyrus, at least.

            Henbane turned his head slightly.  The image in the window copied the action, displaying the black patch that was placed over his eye.  Golden thread was finely woven into the material, but the elegance of the fabric did not detract from what it hid–a gaping hole where his eye used to be.  Henbane’s jaw clenched at the memory.

            Losing an eye was dramatic.  But a person was supposed to lose it because a bomb exploded, sending shards of glass into the retina.  Or a stray bullet struck the iris.  Heck, Henbane would’ve even settled for a bee-bee gun accident.

            He glowered, his fingers tightening reflexively into a fist.  It wasn’t the injury itself, it was how he’d gotten it–a pen shoved right into the socket.  Not dramatic at all. Not spectacular.  In fact, it was comedic. 

            Henbane didn’t do comedic.

            But, of course, there are some people that laugh at everything.  People who make jokes to hide their insecurities.

            Henbane thought this made those insecurities all the more visible; it was like putting a building in front of a neon sign–it might be concealed, but the sign’s light can still be seen, flashing dangerously below the surface.

            Henbane preferred fighting–there was no way anyone could doubt how he was feeling if his fist was connecting with someone’s jaw.

            He grinned.  Some people only feigned control over their emotions–and by “some people” he meant the exact person responsible for his missing eye.  Henbane breathed deeply.  That certain person (he thought each syllable with venom) had slipped past him too many times.  His luck was bound to wear out soon.

            Henbane would make certain of that.


Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

Forthcoming: Past Life

Like I’ve said during my Friday posts: I’ve been busy at work planning for Summer Reading. What does that mean? It means I don’t have a lot of time to write–at least, not write chapters in my current stories that I think are up to the quality they should be. And yet it is story day on the schedule, so… quite a dilemma. But then I thought it might be fun to try my hand at some “flash fiction.” It would be a good writing exercise for me and still (hopefully) provide an enjoyable read. So I found a prompt and challenged myself to write that story in only 500 words or less.


Additional note: This one is a little bit over 500 words. (I think it hits about 555… which is oddly satisfying. In accordance with the prompt, this some backstory for Chay from Forthcoming. Haven’t read that one? It starts here.)

Prompt: A prequel moment from a story you’ve already written.

“Who were you?”

            Chay hadn’t expected his new partner to speak. The previous silence in the apartment had suited him.

But apparently his partner didn’t share the same preference.

            But the apartment’s silence had suited him. 

            His partner moved toward him, sitting beside him on the couch.  Chay instantly tensed.  He wasn’t exactly the “social type,” but it seemed as though The Department had partnered him up with a real talker.

            Great.

            “You’re not very talkative, are you?”

            Chay didn’t respond–that should be answer enough.

            Somehow that didn’t stop the other man from continuing. “If you’re that concerned about rules, you’ve joined the wrong organization.”  Chay felt the other man lean back, as though in contemplation. “I know The Department says we should forget about… before… but who can really forget?”

            “I would like to,” was all Chay replied. He’d hoped his bluntness would send a clear message: No more talking.

            But no–this was the most persistent person Chay had ever met.

            “Well, what’s your name now?” 

            Chay looked up. This question was simpler, safer.  “Chay.”

            His partner considered it, his lips twitching slightly.  “Interesting choice.”  Chay couldn’t help but notice how his eyes seemed to have a permanent sparkle to them.  In fact, this was the closest that Chay had ever been to his partner. Before now, he’d only ever seen him from a distance.  He was a fairly young man, though older than the barely 20-year old Chay.

The Department had insisted upon pairing him with a veteran, but he looked more inexperienced than Chay did.  In fact, his partner had a very adolescent quality.  He had dark hair, which fell slightly below his ears and limbs that seemed to need constant movement in order to be happy.

            “So what was your name before?  It must’ve been something boring for you to pick a name like Chay.”

            Perhaps he was more experienced than Chay had given him credit. He’d worked the conversation back to his initial purpose:  to find out Chay’s past.

            Good luck with that.

            His partner frowned as Chay did nothing more than stare resolutely at him.

            “Fine, keep your secrets,” he shrugged, and in an instant, his frown was replaced with a crooked smile.

            Chay didn’t respond. This good-natured personality was going to get on his nerves quite quickly.

            He was glad when his partner left to begin reading a file that Chay wasn’t permitted to read. (Which was the worst; The Department had sought Chay, and yet they were treating him as though he was a child.) So Chay was more than surprised when his partner returned and held the file under his nose. “Wanna read?”

            Chay knew his eyes had widened.  His partner was ignoring–no, blatantly disobeying–a direct order from The Department.

            And he didn’t seem the least bit worried.

            “I think The Department has the habit of underestimating people,” he explained.  “In fact, I think knowledge is power, and power is what we need against a person like Cyrus Stokes.”
            “Who?” 

            “Well, technically, I can’t say anything.” Another one of those stupid grins.

            “Give me the file,” Chay spat, snatching it and beginning to read greedily.

            His partner laughed. “I think we’re going to get along, Chay.”

            Chay didn’t respond, but he had to admit–his partner, he supposed, could have been worse.


Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

Forthcoming, Chapter Twenty-Five: Home

Mom had been halfway insane when she’d seen the bandages.  She’d helped take the ones of my hands, but I’d convinced her that my arm was still too sore for the bandage to be removed.  I’d unwrapped it privately; it didn’t look as sickening as I’d expected.  

     The weekend had passed quietly–I’d had no idea what day it had been, but apparently I’d returned from my “fishing trip” on a Friday.  I was glad because that gave me two days to rest before school.   

     Mom was still furious at me for missing over a week of school.  Fortunately, she felt so upset over my injuries that she didn’t have the heart to ground me.

     That made Monday seem a little better.  At least I’d be free to hang out with Reb after school.

     I sat on my bed long after the alarm clock had rung.  The room was dark.  I could hear a bird outside my window.

     I exhaled, sitting up.  It felt strange–even now–to be in my room.  I wondered how it was even possible for a whole slice of my life to feel unreal, as though I’d lived through a dream.

     My eyes flitted to the bare corner in the room.  If the space didn’t make me so angry, I would have laughed: even after being kidnaped and tortured I was still upset about my record player.

     “Todd!”

     “Coming,” I said, so quietly that I was sure she couldn’t hear me.  I rose, throwing on a Pink Floyd t-shirt and sliding into a pair of jean.  I combed my hair quickly than ran down the stairs before my oatmeal could get cold.  (Mom had been particularly motherly since I’d returned.)

     I sat at the table, watching the television from the kitchen.  I listened deftly as the reporter discussed a bank robbery in Philadelphia.  I shoveled the oatmeal in my mouth–I didn’t really like it, but Mom thought it was a “comfort food,” so I let her make it for me.

     “Authorities have still been unable to determine the cause of the explosion at the IMPOS headquarters in Chicago,” the reporter began, her tone sickly-professional.

     The story caught my attention.  I scowled as the picture changed to an interview with Cyrus, himself.  He seemed very composed, his features well-practiced.  “We believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was an accident.  We are looking into the system, trying to determine what went awry.”

     “Wasn’t there a security breach the same night as the explosion?” one reporter asked, shoving her way through the crowd.

     Cyrus’ face hardened for an instant.  “A flaw in the system.  We believe there was a virus that caused the accident and the confusion.  Again, we are working to fix this.”

     “Mr. Stokes, do you think this will disrupt production?”

     Cyrus eyed the reporter, his gaze lowering.  “I assure you, this minor dilemma will be dealt with effectively.”

     The picture returned to the anchorwoman, though I was no longer listening.  I’d pushed my oatmeal to the side, reaching for my backpack and running to the door.

     “Todd?”

     “Don’t wanna be late, Mom,” I hollered over my shoulder.  I was suddenly furious, and there was no way I’d be able to explain my rage in a way that was logical.

     The spring air was bracing and it cooled my temper instantly.  I began to breath normally and my pace began to slow.

     “So how was France?”    

     I jumped. 

     Reb grinned at me, pulling his car to the curb. He waved, motioning for me to get inside.  I nodded, opening the door and throwing my backpack inside.

     “Hey, Reb.  What did you say?”

     “Asked how France was.  You were drafted into the Foreign Legion, right?  That’s why you disappeared?”

     I laughed.  Well, Reb was a bit closer than Mom. “Nah, fishing trip,” I lied.

     Reb narrowed his eyes, pulling back onto the road.  “Didn’t know you liked fishing.”

     “I don’t.  It was more of a bonding thing.  My long lost Uncle Chuck all of a sudden showed up–long story.”

     I’d practiced the story so often with Chay that I told it easily, as though it really was the truth.

     Reb raised his eyebrows. “Wow, sounds like a soap opera.  Now all we need is for your long lost uncle to get amnesia, and every middle-aged woman in the world will want to watch us!”

     I laughed.  “You forgot his evil twin.”

     Reb slapped his hand against he wheel.  “Ah, of course–that’s what’s going to win us an Emmy!”

     We both chuckled. “Man,” he said, “It was way too quiet without you here.  I forgot how much eating alone sucked.”

     I nodded.  “Yeah.  So anything interesting happen at school?”

     “You’ll never guess!” He turned to me.  His hair was an even darker shade of black than normal, the ring returned to its normal place in his lip.  “Someone stole Carling’s car!”

     “Really?”

     “Yeah, and you wanna hear the really funny part?”

     “Okay?”

     “She’s convinced it was you!  She said she saw you jump in!  Can you get any more paranoid?”

     I laughed, hoping that it sounded genuine.  “I told you she had it out for me.”

     Reb nodded.  “You weren’t kiddin,’ but that’s really low.”  He shook his head.  “I think she’s just looking for a scapegoat.  She’s had to hitch rides with Erwin.”

     “Ha!” I chuckled so hard that my cheeks hurt.  “Erwin and Carling?”

     “Love is in the air,” Reb sang, and I began to laugh harder. 

     “Okay, okay.” I breathed heavily.

     “The latest rumor is that you hijacked the car and ran away.”

     “Any idea as to where?”

     “I think I heard someone say Vegas.”

     If it wasn’t for the seatbelt, I would have fallen to the floor.

     “That’s fantastic.  I’ve n-never heard any-anything that fun-unny.”

     Reb was laughing nearly as hard as I was. He was gripping the steeling wheel harshly, straining to keep his eyes open.  “The rumor’s have served as sufficient entertainment.”

     “Yeah!”  I sighed as we pulled into the parking lot.  We were one of the last cars to pull in.  Reb leapt out of the car and I quickly followed.

     “Thanks for picking me up.”

     He shrugged.  “When you said you’d lost your bike, I figured I’d do you the favor.  Then you disappeared.  I’ve been running by your house, trying to figure out what the heck was going on.”

     “Well, now you know.”

     Reb laughed, walking toward the school. I

followed, making sure my backpack didn’t rub against my arm.  I stared ahead, spotting a girl getting out of a bus.  She didn’t look familiar, and–in a small school–it’s rare to see someone you didn’t know.

     “Hey, who’s that?” I asked, nodding toward her. 

     Reb followed my gaze. “Who?”

     “Her.  The one with the brown hair.” I didn’t add that her hair was unbelievably shiny. 

     “Oh.  Janine Colly.  She moved in last week.”

     “What grade she in?”    

     Reb eyed me suspiciously.  “Ours.” His lips perked.  “Don’t give me reason to tease you, Todd.  Believe me, I will.”

     I shrugged. “I didn’t say anything.  I was just surprised that you forgot to mention someone decided to move to Middle of Nowhere, USA.”

     “I’m ashamed,” Reb said, feigning seriousness.  “How could I forget such a rare phenomenon!”

     That statement created new laughter as we came closer to the school. 

     “You hanging out with freaks now, Shakespeare?”

     I looked up.  Alvin stared at me, his eyes glassy.  Maria chortled beside him.

     “No,” I said simply.  “I stopped doing that a while ago.”

     I turned my back on them, walking more quickly.  Reb caught up, sniggering.  “Nice.  I don’t think they got it, though.”

     “Probably not.” I shrugged.

     We continued into the building, stopping at the doors to allow a very-flustered Miss Carling to pass us.  She stopped when she was level with us, eyeing me disdainfully. 

     “You!” she hissed through her teeth.

     “Yes, Miss Carling?”  I tried my best to look innocent, but I think all I managed was smartalec.

     “I know what you did, Everett.”

     “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

     She seemed to swell.  Miss Carling was silent for so long I considered continuing my walk.  Instead, I stayed where I was, keeping eye contact with her, waiting patiently.

     “You still have a detention to serve with me.”  She said the final word with a deathly finality, then stalked into the building.

     Reb released a low whistle.  “You’re lucky to still have your life after that, man.”

     I laughed.  “I saw my life flash before my eyes.”

     We walked into the building, the day beginning remarkably well for a Monday.

#

     “And that is why the school would die without french fries,” Reb finished, plopping another fry into his mouth.

     I raised my eyebrows.  “A real revelation.”

     He nodded.  “Yep.”

     We were silent for a long while.  I had a notebook balanced on my knee, but I was ignoring it.

     “Well, there’s the bell,” Reb announced, grabbing his tray and running to a trash can.  “See ya’ in Spanish!”

     I nodded in response, walking toward the hallway.  I was pushed into the mass of students.  I followed them, stopping at my locker to grab my favorite pen.  I turned sharply, running into someone.

     “Shoot–sorry!”

     “No, it’s my fault.” 

     I froze.  The voice that answered me was absolutely beautiful–soft and alluring.

     I realized quite suddenly that I was staring into the eyes of Janine Colly.

     “Hi.” I muttered stupidly.

     “Hi,” she said uncertainly, holding out her hand.  I shook it numbly, staring at her eyes.  They were a beautiful hazel color, brown with green streaks ebbing the pupil.

     “–Janine.”

     “Todd.”  I hadn’t heard most of her statement, but I told her my name instinctually.

     She nodded. 

     “It was really my fault, though,” I said, my words coming out too quickly. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

     She smiled.  (I felt suddenly warm.)  “Don’t worry about it, Todd.”

     I grinned.  “Yeah.”

     The bell rang and she shrugged.  “Well, there’s the bell.”

     “That means it’s time to go to class.”

     She narrowed her eyes.  “Yeah, either that or the signal for the prisoners to go back to their cells.”

     Janine turned to leave and I smiled after her.  “Only if you’re going to math!” I managed to say, but I doubted she heard me–she was already halfway down the hall.

     “A bit late on the punch line.”

     I spun on my heel.  Reb was standing behind me, trying–and failing–to hide laughter.

     “Shut up,” I snapped at him, grabbing my notebook and pen.  I sprinted for study hall, barely making it without being late.

     I sat and fumed for a few minutes, before shaking my head.  I had something more important to do than worry about a girl.

     I opened the book to a clean page and poised my pen above the paper, waiting to see if the familiar feeling of falling came.

     It didn’t and I breathed a sigh of relief as I began to write.

#

     “Who’s that?” Reb asked, staring across the parking lot.  Chay was leaning against a small black car, his hands shoved into his pockets.

     “Ch–my Uncle Chuck.”

     “What’s he doing here?”

     “I… don’t know,” I began.  For once, I was telling the truth.  I’d been hoping to hang-out with Reb after school, but–apparently–Chay had other plans.

     “I’ll see ya’, Reb.”

     “Later.”

     He waved, walking toward his car.

     I shrugged, repositioning my backpack and ran toward Chay.  He saw me coming, and nodded, getting into the car.  I recognized the vehicle as the one he’d threatened to run me over with–the memory seemed distant and unreal.

     I opened the door, throwing myself into the seat.  “Is something wrong?”

     Chay shook his head.  “No, I just wanted to keep an eye on you.”

     He turned the key, pulling out of the school.  I didn’t argue with him, though I did feel slightly aggravated.

     I’d never seen the inside of Chay’s car before: it was strangely neat.

     “So,” I began, “what happened to Carling’s car?”

     Chay released a low laugh, turning to the left.

     I noticed after a while that the radio was play softly in the background.   

     “Since when do you like The Who?”

     Chay shrugged, parallel-parking in front of the Agenton Apartments.  He killed the engine, jumping out of the car.  He kept the door open, waiting for me to follow.

     I complied, stepping around the car so that I was level with him.  We headed toward the apartments, both of us silent.  Chay was in quiet concentration.  I, on the other hand, was thinking about what was in my backpack.

     “Um… Chay?”

     “Hmm?”

     “I wrote something.”

     He stopped halfway up the stairs.  “Really?”

     “Yeah?”

     He blinked a few times, continuing upward. “I’m surprised.  I thought you’d avoid writing for a while.” He chuckled.  “I was afraid I’d have to force you.”

     “No, I…uh… wrote something really important.”

     Chay turned to me, his features calm.  “Can I see it?”

     I handed my notebook to him and he flipped it to the first page.  He walked as he read, his face stiffening the longer his eyes scanned the page.

     I pursed my lips, refusing to look directly at him.  Instead, I watched each step as I advanced toward the upper apartments.

     “Todd–”

     I closed my eyes, waiting for the lecture that would come. I was a prophet and my writings shouldn’t be taken lightly–what I had done was very irresponsible.

     Chay snorted.

     Then laughed, closing the notebook and throwing it back at me.

     “Chay?”

     “Nice try, Todd.”  He laughed some more, stopping me in front of an apartment.  “But I wouldn’t ever call Aislynn ‘babycakes,’ even if we were dating.”  He chuckled again.  “Thanks for the laugh.  I needed that.”

     “It was supposed to be a hint.”

     Chay raised his eyebrows.  “Some people just aren’t compatible, Todd.  It’s not your fault.”

     I shook my head.  “Those people don’t include you and Aislynn, Chay.  I know that ‘cuz I’ve written it.  I know you don’t feel that way about her.”

     Chay shrugged.  “It’s not really any of your business, Todd.”

     He opened the door for me, nodding for me to enter.  I walked through the door as he flipped on the light. 

     Chay’s apartment wasn’t anything like I’d expected. Somehow, I’d thought that someone who worked for the government would be living in a place that was… cooler.

     It was smaller than Derek’s apartment.  There was a kitchenette along the far wall and a door that led to a bathroom.  There was a television placed in front of a futon–there wasn’t even a bed.

     Chay sighed. “It’s not much but it’s where I need to be.”

     He closed the door, tossing his keys onto a small table.  I walked forward, stopping when I reached the window.  There was a chair placed beside the window and a filing cabinet across from that. 

     There was also a pair of binoculars.  I opened the blinds, staring at the street below–the exact place where I crossed the street to get home.

     Well, Chay most certainly was thorough.

     “Hungry?”

     Chay tossed a bag of chips in my direction and I caught them.  “Thanks.”

     Chay nodded toward the window.  “Hope that’s not freaking you out, Todd.  You know I’m just doing my job.”

     “I know.”

     I heard Chay sigh, and I looked up at him.  “This, however,” he began, “isn’t part of my job.”

     He turned to the closet, reaching inside.  I heard the sound of the wheels against the carpet before I saw it.

     “My bike!”

     He jerked his head upward, but didn’t smile.  “Thought it would be easier for you.  And what’s easier for you is easier for me to keep tabs on.”

     “Thanks.”

     “I shouldn’t have done this, though.”

     I squinted in confusion.

     “It’s in the closet.”  He turned back to the kitchen, reaching into the refrigerator.

     I walked into the closet, stopping dead in my tracks the moment I had a clear view of what was inside.

     I couldn’t speak, I could just stare at each individual album–at the record player.

     My record player.

     “My albums,” I whispered.

     Chay’s voice sounded closer. “I know you tend to write when you listen to music.  The more you write the better.”

     I whipped around.  “Thank you.”

     “It wasn’t a favor, Todd, it was business.”

     “Sure.” I smiled, not listening to Chay’s retort. I picked up the player and the albums, setting them beside the nearest outlet. “Mind if I listen?”

     “Help yourself.”

     I reached for the albums, placing a record atop the turntable.  I didn’t even notice what album I’d selected until Eric Clapton’s familiar guitar began to fill the room.

     I smiled, settling myself into the chair beside the window.  I grabbed at a nearby notebook and pen–this felt normal.

     I closed my eyes, listening and relaxing.  Chay didn’t say anything, just moved about the apartment.

     It wasn’t until I heard a knock on the door that I looked up.  Chay jogged to the door, opening it quickly.  Aislynn stood there, looking solemn.

     “Aislynn,” Chay greeted.

     “Chay.” She let herself inside.  “I just came to check in.”

     “Things are great.”

     “I see that.” She bit her lip, eyes darting to the side.  Her eyes landed on my notebook.

     “Did Todd write something?”

     “Not really.”

     She didn’t listen to Chay’s response, but grabbed it quickly, scanning the words hungrily.  Her face froze.

     Chay smirked.  “Todd felt a bit guilty.  He decided to try and patch things up between us.”

     Aislynn was silent.

     Chay frowned. “I thought it was funny.”

     She didn’t move.  

     Chay walked up carefully, taking the notebook from her.  “Please don’t feel obligated to do anything.  Todd wasn’t doing any sort of prophesying when he wrote this.”

     She remained perfectly still for a moment, before she opened her mouth, as though in shock. “Babycakes?”

     Chay howled with laughter, Aislynn quickly joining in.  They leaned against the wall, supporting each other.

     I felt my face redden. “It’s the best I could think of.  I only have a forty minute study hall.”

     They laughed even harder.

     I rolled my eyes, flipping open the notebook.

     If they’re going to be like that, then….

     “Chay!”

     I nearly jumped when I heard Aislynn shriek.  I looked up quickly.  Chay had his arms locked around her, smiling cheekily.  “You know what I like about fighting?”

     “Chay, let go!”

     “Making up.”

     Chay allowed his lips to brush her cheek and she froze.  I stared at him in shock.  I’d never seen Chay show such outward emotion.  I was downright startled.

     Aislynn seemed equally surprised. She turned to stare at him.  “Chay?”

     “What do you say, babycakes?”

     “Urgh!”

     “Nope, don’t think so!” He held onto her more tightly, and she shrieked again. “Chay!”

     “Aislynn.”

     She stared at him furiously, before sighing, allowing herself to lay against his chest.  He sat straighter, his lips twitching.

     “You’re such a jerk,” she muttered.

     “I know,” Chay whispered back.

     I grinned, flexing my hand.  I grabbed the pen, poising it above the paper.  The only sounds were those of the record player–the music still playing steadily–and Chay’s whispers.

     I smiled.

     I didn’t know if this lifestyle could possibly be permanent–in fact, I highly doubted it could be.

     But I hoped that it would last for a while, because I could get used to this.


Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

Forthcoming, Chapter Twenty-Four: Separations

If Miss Carling could see her car, I know I would have been expelled: there was mud splashed across it and there were several dents in the doors.  I didn’t take the time to consider what the car had been through–I didn’t care.  My head was heavy.  I felt as though I was beyond sleep–I needed unconsciousness.

     Aislynn was sitting in the driver’s seat, drumming her fingers against the wheel.  She didn’t acknowledge Chay as he opened the door for me to get in.  I sat, bending my head backwards and resting. 

     I heard another door open and close; I was surprised that Chay was sitting directly beside me.  He reached over, buckling my seatbelt.  I opened my eyes.

     Actually, if Miss Carling saw her car, expulsion would be too light a punishment–she’d probably kill me.

     Strapped to the back of the passenger’s seat was–unmistakable–a bomb.  Multi-colored wires wove themselves around a black box, where a red light was blinking steadily.  Chay reached for a pair of pliers on the floor, snipping the red and blue wires simultaneously.

     “What was that for?” I managed to croak.  Fatigue had swept over me so suddenly that I felt ill.  I wondered if this meant the shock had finally worn off–erased by my outburst.

     Chay shrugged.  “In case we need another distraction.”

     I tried to nod, but was too tired.  I just closed my eyes, listening to the engine purr to life as the car began to accelerate.  The steady hummmm of the road beneath the car sounded like a lullaby and I released myself into it, counting my breaths.

     One, two, three….

     I felt Chay grab my hands, then felt liquid washing over them.  They burned as the alcohol washed over the cuts, but I was barely aware of what was occurring on the other side of my eyelids.

     There was pressure and warm gauze as Chay wrapped bandages around my palms.

     He grunted, tearing my t-shirt so that he could better see my arm.  It began stinging again, and I squinted my eyes in response.

     “Don’t want this to get infected,” I heard Chay mutter, as he poured the alcohol into the area. 

     This burned far worse, and I jerked.  “Ow.”  My voice was faint and I didn’t bother to open my eyes.

     “Hold still, Todd.”

     There was pressure as Chay cleaned the area, then the soft gauze again.  The pressure remained as Chay wound a bandage around my arm. 

     I sighed.  The burning began to ebb–whether because the pain really was lessening or because I was nearly asleep, I didn’t know.  I leaned my head against the coolness of the glass, allowing myself to finally sleep.

#

     The car was silent when I woke up.  Sunlight hit my eyes harshly and I blinked several times.  I sat straight almost immediately, watching as trees blurred past my window.

     “Where am I?”

     Chay turned toward me.  He was leaning against the window as well, his head resting on his hand.  “You’re okay, Todd.  We’re going back to Agenton.”

     I nodded, the events of the evening slowly filtering through my sleepy brain.  “How much longer?”

     “Couple hours.”  Chay turned back to me.  “You weren’t asleep long.  You can rest more if you want.”

     He turned back to the window, obviously in deep thought.

     I shook my head.  “No, I’m awake.”

     I eyed my bandaged hands and set them in my lap gingerly.

     Neither of us spoke; Aislynn drove as though she was unaware there were passengers in the backseat.

     “Good job, by the way.”

     Chay’s voice took my by surprise.  “Excuse me?”

     Chay shrugged.  He still wasn’t looking at me, but had his eyes focused on the rapidly changing view beyond the window.  “I wanted to congratulate you.  At the gas station, you were very convincing.  I would have honestly believed you’d run away.  No wonder Henbane didn’t notice it was a set-up.”

     I bit my lip.  Yeah, it had been convincing alright–not because I was a great actor, but because I was gullible and untrusting.

     “Thanks,” I mumbled.

     Chay nodded.  “And with Cyrus.  You were very… noble.  That took a lot of… a lot of courage.”  Chay cleared his throat.  He was now staring resolutely at the front seat.  “You surprised me.”

     I blinked.  “Thanks,” I said again.

     Chay jerked his head forward.  “Keep it up.”

     I didn’t respond.  Instead, I licked my lips, contemplating a compliment of my own.

     “You really surprised me, too.” I whispered.

     Chay shot a strange look toward me.

     I continued, not making eye contact.  “At the gas station, you told me to go back to–”

     Chay shook his head, his eyes darting to Aislynn.

     “Don’t take it too seriously.  I was doing a lot of acting.”

     I nodded.  Somehow, from how wide his eyes had grown, I couldn’t help but feel as though it hadn’t been a complete act.

     I smiled, watching as the sun glinted off a lake outside my window.  Maybe I wasn’t as alone as I thought I was.

     There were a few birds flitting between the trees as we sped through a small forest, and the sky was a clear blue–not a single cloud in the sky.

     I chuckled at the irony–it seemed impossible that last night had been real.  The bandages on my hands and arms disagreed, but my mind felt downright calm.

     It was a very welcome change to the frantic chagrin.

     The rest of the trip passed soundlessly.  Aislynn never once spoke, nor did Chay.  The tension between them was so thick that I opened the window, just to give myself some fresh air.

     I couldn’t help but feel guilty.  Their silence was intolerable compared to the flirting I’d seen through my writing.

     Well, I’d created this mess.  Surely, I could fix it.

     Those thoughts were the only ones that swarmed my mind as we finished the journey.  By the time we pulled into Derek’s apartment, I was forcing myself not to smile.

     Chay opened the door for me, telling me to “not move that arm much.”  I hadn’t needed to be told, but allowed Chay to be protective.  It was better than Aislynn’s uncaring gait as she flitted into Derek’s apartment.  I followed them, Chay walking beside me.

     “Finally!”

     Derek’s voice was high and irritated.  He ran up to us as soon as we were inside the apartment.  His eyes scanned me briefly.  “You’re mom’s going to freak.”

     “Why?”

     “She won’t leave me alone.” He said, his mouth twisting around each word. “It’s driving me crazy.”

     Chay chuckled.  “Let me speak to her.”

     “Be my guest.”  Derek thrust the phone at Chay and he dialed it quickly.  He waited as it rung and I watched him closely.  “Hello?  Cheryl?  This is Chuck. Yes, Milo’s brother.” (He winked at me and I laughed.)  “I just wanted to let you know that our fishing trip went swimmingly–no pun intended.”  He laughed convincingly, sounding remarkably like a stereotypical uncle.  “I apologize again for just snatching Todd up like that.  It was a terrible misunderstanding.  I’d like to know how that voicemail got lost.  All’s well that end’s well, I guess.”  Another laugh.  “What’s that?  Oh, Todd is fine.  Got in a bit of a boating accident.  No big deal.  Just fell out and scraped himself up a bit.  I’ll explain late–I said he was fine.  Well, he-uh….” Chay inhaled sharply.  “Hit the motor when he fell.  Just a couple of scratches though, he’ll heal quickly–”  Chay held the phone away from his ear and I could hear Mom’s shouts clearly.

     I was laughing so hard that I had to sit down.  Chay placed the phone carefully against his ear, saying, “Would you like to talk with him?  I thought so.”

     He handed me the phone, rolling his eyes.

     I coughed, swallowing the rest of my laughter.  “Hi, Mom.”

     “TODD NICHOLAS EVERETT!”

     I dropped the phone.  Chay caught it easily and tossed it back to me; Derek muttered under his breath.

     “Hey, mom,” I said nervously.

     “Did you even think about how worried I was?  Just going off and leaving with some uncle I’ve never even heard of?”

     “He said he’d called you–it was… er… sorry, Mom, I know I should’ve–”

     “Yes, you should’ve, Todd.  I can’t believe you would even think of–”

     I sighed.  Mom didn’t know the half of it–heck, she didn’t know a sixteenth of it.  Chay had assured me that it was best to keep things secret–the fewer people who knew the situation, the safer it was for everyone.

     “I’m really, really sorry, Mom.  I can’t apologize any more than that.”

     I heard Mom sigh and I could picture her sitting, rubbing her temple.  “Just–are you on your way home, Todd?”

     I looked questioningly at Chay.  “Yeah, I think so.”

     “Just–just get back here.  I’ve been so worried.”

     “I know.” 

     There was that guilty feeling again.  I said goodbye, telling her I loved her and that I’d see her soon, before hanging up the phone.

     Aislynn was standing beside the door.  “Chay, give me a hand with some stuff.”

     Chay nodded. 

     He followed her to the car, leaving Derek and myself alone.

     “So your computer crashed?”

     Derek glared at me.  “Could you sound any less considerate?” he snapped.  “Yes, it did as a matter of fact.”

     I nodded.  “Umm….”

     “What?”

     I reached in my pocket, extracting my IPod.  “Could you take that thing out of my IPod.  It’s making it slow.”

     Derek growled, snatching it from my hands.  “Whatever you want, prophet.”

     He tossed it to the side.  “Can’t let you go without your music.”  He stalked toward the kitchen, muttering to himself.

     I rolled my eyes.  Derek wasn’t the best company.  I walked toward the door, stopping when I saw Aislynn and Chay standing close.  My heart perked slightly….

     Until I heard what they were saying:

     “You aren’t taking him back there?”

     “His mother’s worried sick.  It doesn’t do any harm.”  Chay’s expression was unreadable, but he wasn’t meeting Aislynn’s eyes.

     She was breathing stiffly, her head cocked to the side.  “Chay, you have to think what’s in his best interests.”

     “That’s what I’m doing, Aislynn.”

     “How much longer do you think you can pull this off?  The Department’s not going to let him stay in Agenton when Cyrus knows–”

     “I know, I know.  It’s not the safest, but I can protect him.”

     “Chay–”

     “He’s still my responsibility.  It’s still my judgement that matters.”

     “You’re judgement is going to get him killed.”

     Chay huffed.  “I won’t allow that.”

     “Chay–”

     “I’m keeping him in Agenton as long as I can, Aislynn.  I’m not stupid enough to believe it will be long, but I can’t take any more away from him today.”

     Aislynn opened her mouth to speak, then sighed, admitting defeat.  “Do what you want, Chay.”

     Chay nodded, turning back toward the apartment.

     I bolted back into the living room, leaning against the nearest wall I could find.  I banged one of my hands against a lamp and grimaced, staring at the bandages.

     Chay found me and smiled.  “Don’t worry–those’ll heal.  You’ll probably be able to write again soon.  The cuts weren’t very deep.”  He frowned.  “The spot on your arm will scar, though. I’m so sorry about that.”

     I shook my head.  “You don’t need to–”

     Chay stopped me, putting his arm on my shoulder.  “Let’s get you home, Todd.”


Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

Forthcoming, Chapter Twenty-Three: Real Explanations

“Everett!”

     Cyrus’ voice curled around my surname and I opened my eyes.  Chay still stood resolute, though Cyrus was no longer interested in that exchange.  His focus was on my motionless stance.  “Move!”

     Cyrus didn’t notice Henbane’s eyes widen as they became unfocused, staring into the distance.  He raised his gun reflexively, firing toward an upper window.

     “Bitch!” he yelled.  He fired again toward the ceiling.  Several windows broke, but not a single bullet struck Aislynn as she ran down the stairs, the metal clattering under her quick steps. 

     Chay kicked Henbane in the chest.  He fell to the ground with a grunt, raising his gun at Chay.

     Chay advanced quickly, kicking the gun to the side, and throwing Henbane across the room.  His face was serious as he turned back to Cyrus.

     “Drop it!” he screamed.  I was surprised by how loud his voice was.

     But Cyrus was staring beyond Chay. 

     “It’s a shame that such a formidable opponent has been so weakened, Chay.  I would have thought you were capable of fighting your own battles.”

     I didn’t move.  The gun’s position hadn’t changed, and I was afraid to do so much as even breath.  Aislynn was now beside Chay.  She handed him another gun (a larger one) and held her own defiantly toward Cyrus.

     I heard her whisper something toward Chay, then cover her mouth.  Chay didn’t move, but spoke quickly:

     “The odds are against you, Cyrus.  You’ve lost this one.”

     “Oh, I would disagree.  Henbane!”

     I thought it was impossible that Henbane was still fighting.  No matter what Chay had done to him, he had retained consciousness.  I wondered if it was an extreme physical advantage, or just a growing sense of hatred that motivated Henbane to push himself from the floor time and time again.

     “It’s a fair fight, Chay.  Two against two.”  Henbane spoke softly, his voice lacking the ferocity it had once contained: logic had entered the fight, taking away the fun.

     I noticed that Henbane had his mouth covered.  He wasn’t breathing more than he had to–nor were Chay or Aislynn.

     I felt like I was missing something.

     I realized what it was at the same moment Cyrus did.  His eyes widened as he stared at the green mist that was filtering through the factory.

     Chay smirked.  “Problem, Cyrus?”  He covered his mouth.

     “Idiot,” Cyrus mumbled.  “You have no idea what you’ve done.”  He grabbed my around the elbow, pulling me forward.

     “Help!”

     I shouted; I was again trying not to breath.  I’d spotted the small, spheric object that Aislynn had thrown.  I’d seen it only once before, hurtling out of a car window toward Henbane’s motorcycle.

     Chay ran forward, leaving Aislynn with Henbane.  Neither fired immediately at each other.  Aislynn retreated toward the warehouse door, while Henbane leapt for the control panels.  Holding his breath, he began pressing buttons, Aislynn firing wildly at him.

     “Chay!” I shouted, but Cyrus placed a hand roughly over my mouth.  “Don’t breathe, prophet!” he muttered.

     Chay was beside him in an instant. The green gas seemed to be expanding, seeping through the air slowly. Cyrus tossed his gun to the side.  He leapt at Cyrus, tackling him to the ground. 

     I fell, underneath both of them. 

     “Todd,” Chay muttered, reaching behind him for the dropped gun.  His voice was strained from lack of air, but his message was clear.

     I squirmed from beneath them, running toward Aislynn.

     Henbane had deserted his post beside the control panel.  He was hurrying toward the doors, firing random shots behind him.

     He disappeared first.  Chay threw Cyrus to the side, running from the room. From the corner of my vision, I was able to see Cyrus lift himself from the ground, reaching for his cell-phone.  He ran as he shouted, “Accident on section B–evacuate premises!”

     He fled from the room, coughing.

     Chay was suddenly behind me, lifting me off my feet. “Don’t breathe, Todd,” he whispered, ducking my head and pushing me forward. 

     We ran toward the door, past a massive tank.  Bullet holes poked through the metal, a clear liquid shooting through them.  It smelled like bleach and gasoline.  I nearly slipped in a puddle and Chay pulled me upward, throwing me out the door.

     The air was sweet in my lungs and I fell to against the pavement.  The sky was a rich blue–the final shade of night before sunrise.

     Aislynn lifted me to my feet, muttering, “We have to keep moving, Todd.”

     I glanced over my shoulder long enough to see Chay running from the building, coughing into his shoulder.

     I also saw the first flame.

     The gas hit the liquid, and it combusted almost immediately, sending a blue-tipped flame leaping into the air.  Others quickly followed, and I began to run faster, tripping over myself in the process.

     Chay put an arm around my waist, guiding me as Aislynn ran ahead of us, muttering things to Derek.  “We’re on our way.  Yes, I lost it.”

     There was an opening in the surrounding fence, and Chay hurled me through it, motioning for me to keep running.  I did as I was told, stopping only when Aislynn did. 

     We were about a mile away from the factory, though I had barely noticed the distance.  I no understood why my lungs were searing and why I was so hot.  I fell to the ground, breathing heavily and coughing.  Chay did the same.

     Aislynn stood above us, watching as the fire gradually grew.  “It’s gonna catch onto something,” she muttered.

     Chay nodded, gasping. 

     “You okay?” I asked.

     He nodded, his eyes shut tightly.  He stood, clearing his throat.  “We should move.”

     “Why–”

     Ba-sha-ooooommmmm!

     I jumped, whirling around.  The factory was completely engulfed in flames as the gases and countless other chemicals exploded.  The flames were red and orange.  Black smoke filled the air, ballooning toward the early morning sky. 

     It wasn’t simply a boom that erupted with the explosions. There were so many others sounds: breaking glass, crackling flames, falling debris. 

     The smell was horrid–too many scents at one time, all of which reminded me of a chemistry lab.

     Chay stood beside me, breathing dejectedly.  “Let’s go, Todd.”

     “That’s it?” I mumbled, staring at the flames.  Cyrus and Henbane–I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt–were safe.  “What does the Department do now?”

     Chay tugged at my arm.

     “Ouch.”

     Chay narrowed his eyes, pulling me closer to him.  He turned my arm over; his eyes widened when he found the cut that Henbane had left.  Chay touched it lightly, his face suddenly furious.

     “Who did this?” he growled, but I could tell from his voice he didn’t need an answer.

     “Isn’t the Department going to come get them?” I demanded.  “We’ve got proof, right there.” I pointed toward Aislynn, but she shook her head.  She held out her empty hands as though to emphasize her next statement, “Lost it.  Sorry, kid.”

     I groaned.  “But you guys know what’s there. Isn’t that enough proof?  Can’t the Department–”

     “Doesn’t make arrests.  We’re here to find things out, then we turn it over.”  Chay’s tone was dry.

     I was breathing heavily again.  My heart was pounding against my chest.  This couldn’t be true.  After everything that Cyrus had done–everything he was going to do–we were just going to stand here?

     No.  No, I wouldn’t let that happen.

     “Chay, you work for the government!  Go get them!  They can’t just–”

     “This isn’t one of your stories, Todd.”  Chay’s voice had returned to the same gruff tone I knew so well.  “The hero isn’t going to be raised upon the shoulders of his supporters and then ride triumphantly into the sunset.” He sighed. “This is as close to a victory as you can hope.”

     “That’s not right!”

     “That’s the way it is.”  He turned away.  I noticed that Aislynn was no longer with us.  I deftly realized that she must have already left, but that didn’t matter.

     I only understood that Chay was walking away from me, after everything I’d done.

     “Don’t turn your back on me!” I shouted.  I could feel my face growing red.  My voice was so loud that I rivaled the burning factory behind me.  “Not after what I went through!  I deserve for them to be locked up!”

     I’d been tortured and kidnaped and everything else so that Chay could fulfill his little “project.” I’d suffered for him, for the stupid Department that I knew so little about.  If he didn’t want to give me answers, I’d take them–I was willing to do anything.

     “Don’t walk away!”  

     Chay stopped.

     “I need to–”

     “Do you even know what IMPOS is, Todd?”

     I swallowed.  My throat burned.  “No.”

     “IMPOS is the largest supplier of artillery to the US government.”

     “So?” I managed whisper.

     “So,” Chay’s voice was strained.  It was evident he was forcing himself not to yell–it was a difficult fight.  “So, do you honestly think the US government wants to lose the influence of IMPOS?”

     He lost the fight.  When he spoke, it was a harsh shout that echoed across the entire area.  “Do you honestly think they’re going to lose that, Todd?  Cyrus is smart!  I told you he was under the radar! He made himself untouchable!  Why else do you think the DPR’s the one handling this mess!”

     “I thought you said the DPR knew more than anyone else.”  My voice was soft in response to his shout.  I could tell by the way he had turned so quickly that he wasn’t angry–he was frustrated.  Frustrated by the situation, by things he desperately wanted to control but couldn’t.

     “I didn’t say they always listen.”

     I took a step forward.  “I don’t–”

     “Yeah, yeah, I know.” Chay shook his head. “I don’t understand it either.”  Chay was level with me.  “The DPR deals with prophets, astrology, and psychics.  The CIA deals with….” He laughed. “Well, they sure don’t deal with the stuff we do.  Who do you think they’re going to believe, Todd–

     “The CIA who has no physical evidence that suggests the government should persecute it’s largest weaponry ally?  Or the DPR when all we’ve got is ‘this teenager’s a prophet and he wrote that they’re the bad guys.’ Use some common sense.”

     “Chay, you saw it–”

     “Yeah, and we’ve got no evidence.  The plans Aislynn was getting, we lost.  After Derek hacked into the system, his computer crashed–there goes that link. He had the disc I stole in the hard drive when it happened–completely destroyed.

     “We have nothing?”  My voice was much higher than usual.  I felt like I was going to fall over–whether from shock or exhaustion, I wasn’t sure.

     “Yep.  And Cyrus will cover up the explosion–say it was an accident.  He complains to the government about us and suddenly the suspicion’s on him.  If he keeps quiet, then there’s no reason for the CIA to investigate.”

     “And you can’t do anything because–”

     “Because in an age of pinpoint technology and science, no one believes anything without evidence.” Chay nodded.  “And that includes you, prophet.”

     He said the final word sadly, his eyes suddenly heavy.

     “That’s not right.”

     Chay gave a hollow laugh.  “Who said that working for the good guys automatically meant it was right?”

     And it suddenly clicked: the last piece of the puzzle, the final clue in the riddle.

     Prophets could see things on a world-wide scale. That’s why I could see Cyrus.  He was already on the global scope–he had power.

     He just wanted more.

     And he was a man of theatrics–a man who enjoyed the idea of immortality through impossibility.

     I allowed my brain to put two and two together.  It wasn’t–and I doubted that it ever had been–that fact was stranger than fiction; it was that the two collided so often that the whole world seemed like a strange place to live sometimes.

     Especially in this moment.

     “Come on, Todd, you’re tired.”  Chay approached me carefully, holding out his hand.  He seemed worried that I was going to start shouting again.  “Let’s go.”

     I didn’t shout, just nodded, and allowed Chay to lead me away.  I was tired.  I’d had enough excitement to last a lifetime.

     But–I had an intense feeling– this was only the beginning.    

TO BE CONTINUED.

Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

Forthcoming, Chapter Twenty-Two: Leaps of Faith

At least something was going right: I must have slept, for the next thing I remembered was the sound of a clock chiming from some other part of the building.  I had no idea what time it was, nor how long I had lain against the chair, but the room seemed untouched.

     I raised my head, my eyes landing on the notepads and pens scattered across the floor.  My arm gave a painful throb, and I groaned, setting my head against the chair.

     I didn’t move, but stayed perfectly still, begging my arm to stop hurting.  My eyes moved to the gash, my mind barely responding to the mess; I wondered if I was going into the shock.

     Well, it’s about time.

     Where the eye had been carved into my skin, the flesh was still raw.  The dried blood that surrounded it was black and sticky.  Crimson ran along my elbow and down my forearm like red rivers.  That, too, had dried, but my arm was still aching as though Henbane had left only minutes ago.

     The sky seemed darker–though this could have been a result of my fatigue; I could barely keep my eyes open.

     I needed to sleep.

     My eyes returned to the notebooks, all of which seemed strangely devilish in the faint light.

     I didn’t want to move–more importantly, I didn’t want to write.

     I tried to close my eyes, only to be greeted with the image of Henbane above me, the dagger slowly advancing toward my arm.

     I shivered.

     Apparently, the shock wasn’t intense enough for me to fall easily into sleep–that time had passed.

     I needed a distraction.

     I turned my entire body so that I was facing the computer.  I eyed my IPod derisively, mentally willing it travel to me.

     Apparently, being a prophet didn’t include telekinesis. 

     I gave a wan smile that was more of a grimace, and lifted myself.  My arm didn’t ache as much as I’d expected it would, but I tried not to move it as I staggered toward the computer. (My legs had fallen asleep, and they tingled as I moved across the room.)

     I reached the table, grabbed the IPod quickly, and returned to the couch. I lay down, breathing deeply, and placing the earphones in their proper place.

     I glanced again at the notebooks, and my arm convulsively twitched.

     I didn’t think I could write, even if I wanted to. All that made sense right now was escaping into–what I hoped–would be a dreamless sleep.

     I pressed play, waiting for a song to begin.  The familiar “Behind Blue Eyes” began to play, so I relaxed, releasing myself into it.

     And I slept.

#

     I couldn’t remember leaving the elegant room, but I was no longer lying in the chair.  In fact, I was standing.  I felt as though I needed to sit–my head was heavy and my legs were weak–but there didn’t seem to be any furniture in this new room.

     The room was black–there wasn’t any clear boundary between the floor and walls, except that I was surely standing upon something–

     Something wet.

     I lifted my feet.  Though I couldn’t see anything, I could feel the steady dripping of thick liquid as it splashed onto the floor.  I set my foot back onto the ground.  I realized that my shoes were filling with the liquid, and I tried moving–to no avail.

“Riders on the storm,

Riders on the storm.

Into this house we’re born….”

     There was music.  I wondered whether it had been playing this entire time, or if it had just begun.  Numbly, I realized that I liked the song.

     There was a strange smell in the room: it was the heavy stench of no scent at all.  Instead, the air left a strangely metallic taste in my mouth. 

     I reached downward, my arm screaming in protest.  It was a pain that began around my elbow and traveled to my fingertips and up my shoulder.  I frowned.  It was too dark for me to see anything, so I allowed my fingers to travel along my bare arm.

     It was then I realized that I was without a shirt. The air hit my body like punches, sending shivers down my spine.  I crossed my arms over my chest–another jolt of pain spread through my joints, and I let my hand caress the wound.  I scowled as my nails brushed the raw area that Henbane had left.

“Like a dog without a bone,

An actor out alone–

Riders on the storm….”

     The liquid sloshed in my shoes–it was very warm.  My eyes widened, and I clamped my hand around the gash.  How much was I bleeding?

     Because the liquid surrounding me had to be blood.

     I looked at the floor–even in the darkness, I could see the shimmering crimson sea that surrounded me.  I was up to my ankles in the mess.

     I felt like I was going to puke.  My ears were ringing–as though there was a siren in the center of my brain.

     I clutched at the eye-shaped hole in my skin–remarkably, it was dry.

     Then where had the blood come from?

     I didn’t know, nor did I care.  I simply needed to leave.  The fact that there weren’t any doors or windows didn’t stop me from turning sharply.

     I slipped, falling into the blood.  It wasn’t sticky, but it stained my skin and the few clothes that I was wearing.

     “Todd?  Todd!”

     The room began to shake, and I covered my head instinctively as the blood sloshed around my body.

     The ringing in my ears was louder still–echoing against my skull with a strange finality: whee-rheee, whee-rheeeee…..

“Girl, you gotta love your man.

Girl, you gotta love your man.

Take him by the hand….”

     I held my breath; the room was shaking so violently that the blood was sloshing against the walls.  The room somehow became brighter–the crimson stains evident on the walls.

“Our life will never end,

Gotta love your man….”

“TODD!”

               #

     My eyes flew open.  I was breathing heavily, and it took several moments for the room to come into view. I wasn’t in the space of my dream–there was no ocean of blood, no lack of windows and doors.  It was the same elegant area where Cyrus had spoken with me, where Henbane had–

     I fell back into the chair, closing my eyes again. There was the same music–from my IPod.  I turned it off, yanking my earphones off.

     “Todd, wake up!”

     I recognized that voice.  It wasn’t the tone I had hoped to hear, but it was the best one I’d heard in hours:

     “Aislynn?” I whispered, sitting straighter and blinking.

     “Good, you’re awake.”

     Aislynn was standing behind the chair, leaning against the back.  Her hair fell over her face, tickling my forehead.  Aislynn’s eyes were so serious that their beauty was lost to the concern.

     “What are you doing here?” I managed to splutter.

     She frowned.  “Were you listening at all when we discussed the plan, Todd?”

     I sat as straight as I could.  “It’s working?”

     “What did you think?”

     I stood, careful to keep my arm in the same position.  It wasn’t aching as much as it had earlier, but I didn’t want to irritate the sore.

     “Let’s go!”  She grabbed me by my other arm, pulling me toward the door.  She wrenched it open, releasing a tirade of wailing.  Red lights were flashing along the hallway, sending the elegant portraits and statues into sinister shadows.

     So I hadn’t dreamt the sirens.

     “What’s going on?”

     “Todd, act like you have half a brain!” Aislynn snapped, leading me to the right.

     “I–did you set these off?”

     Aislynn sent me a scathing look, and I closed my mouth.  When she spoke, it was through the corner of her lips, yet the sound traveled clearly, “Yes, he is.”

     “Who is?”

     Aislynn grabbed my hand, throwing me down another hallway.  She pointed to her ear, and I understood immediately–she was talking to Derek.

     So the plan hadn’t failed.

     Which meant one thing–I actually had an option I’d thought I’d lost.

     If it wasn’t for the fact that Aislynn was pushing me so harshly, I would have turned around and hugged her.  Instead, I just listened carefully to what she told Derek, trying to fill in the blanks.

     “Yes, I’ve got him.  He doesn’t look like he’s hurt–stunned is a better word.  I know–yes, I’ll look him over more closely when I get the chance.  No, I can’t right now!” She paused, listening intently. “Where now?  Right?  Are you sure?”

     She tugged at my shirt, causing me to a stop.  We’d stopped in front of an ornate door that seemed as though it would be far more at home in a museum.  Aislynn was listening intently to Derek; I eyed her sharply as she allowed her hand to rest above a keypad.

     “Are you sure?  Shut-up, Derek!  Well, why don’t you try coming out here next time?  That’s what I thought, now say it again–”

     “Where’s security?”

     “Occupied,” was Aislynn’s only response as she began to hit buttons.  “Zero, eight…. zero, three…. then what?  Ninety-one?”  She pressed the final keys, holding her breath.  I couldn’t help but notice how the jeans she was wearing complimented her figure, or how the green hoodie made her eyes explode from her face.

     I really had never done her justice in my writing–come to think of it, I’d never done anyone justice.  Inner eye or not, my writing had somehow failed to grasp the full intensity of reality.

     “Come on, Todd,” Aislynn said, leading me into the room.  The door swung closed behind us, and I froze.

     I wondered if it was possible for the door to have transported us to another dimension, rather than another room.  The space we had entered wasn’t just different from the hallway we’d exited, it was downright alien: the walls of this room were made of concrete and void of exotic ornaments–there wasn’t any room for decoration.  Every inch of space was filled with whirring computers and video screens.  They were organized in rows, like super high-tech filing cabinets.  With only two steps, we’d gone from “lifestyle of the rich” to “lifestyle of the nerdy.”

     Aislynn made her way quickly to a computer at the far end of the room.  The screen was larger than the others, and there were more wires, knobs, and buttons surrounding it.  She continued speaking to Derek, swiping a loose lock of hair behind her ear.

     “Okay, I’m in.  Yes, I did that already–just get on with it!”

     I closed the door quietly behind me, edging closer to Aislynn.  I didn’t stand directly beside her, but stayed near a corner.  On the same wall as the main computer, there was a window.  I craned my neck, gazing through it.  It looked out into what appeared to be a factory.  Along the right side of the vast room were more windows, presumably from higher rooms like the one where Aislynn and I now stood.   The factory was dark, but a few lights cast shadows across machinery that I couldn’t describe: the room looked like the carnage-ridden battlefield of some strange machine war.

     “Yes, I hit that button!”

     Aislynn’s indignant shout caught me off guard, and I spun so that I was again facing her.  She had placed both of her hands on her hips, though she hadn’t raised herself from her crouched position.  “Well, just shut-up and start explaining this and maybe I won’t yell so loudly.” She paused, twisting her mouth.  “Stop complaining.  What’s next?”

     She gave a curt nod, and began hitting keys again.  She reached into the front pocket of her hoodie and extracted a disc.  It flashed in front of the computer as she inserted it into the drive.   The computer froze for a moment, before changing to a new screen; it was black with white letters proclaiming:

PASSWORD

     Aislynn stood, biting her lip.  “It wants a password.  What do you mean you weren’t expecting that! Even I was expecting that, and I’m not the one who–!”  She paused.  “I’ll be as sarcastic as I want to be.”

     “Aislynn,” I spoke hesitantly, edging closer to her.  “What exactly is this?”

     I made to motion to the factory, but she just shot me a scathing glance.  I closed my mouth immediately, continuing to stare out the window.

     “Well, you better come up with some ideas, Derek!”  She straightened herself.  “Why would he know?”  Aislynn seemed to consider Derek’s next words, before she spun, her hair lashing her face in the process.

     She was again facing me, her eyes turned upon me imploringly.  “Well?”

     “What?” I asked.

     “Password?”

     I came closer, studying the screen.

     (They went to the elevator, typing in a password–42sToke!sIMPos)

     “Try this–” I reached across her.  She stiffened, evidently hesitant to let me anywhere near the computer.

     “Just tell me,” she spat, “I’ll type it.”

     “What’s it matter if I do it?”

     Aislynn grabbed me by the collar, though her grip was incredibly lax.  “Everett, this is complicated enough without you adding any of your teenage whining into the mix.  Now–password.”

     I felt the muscles in my throat tighten. “You sound a lot like–”

     CRASH!

     I jumped backward the same time Aislynn leapt forward.  She elbowed me in the chin (causing me to drop clumsily to the floor) as she rushed to the window, looking frantically into the factory.

     She stared angrily through the window, her cheeks flushing.  “Chay,” she sneered. 

     I picked myself from the ground, walking eagerly to the window.  The mention of the name made my chest feel suddenly lighter–as though rocks had been loosened from my lungs.

     “Chay?”  I asked, standing beside her: the source of the crash was evident.  There was a hole in one of the upper windows, large enough for two men to topple through. The edges were jagged and bits of cloth clung to edges of the glass.

     But I was looking at the lower floor, unaware that a grin was beginning to spread across my face:

     Chay had his fists raised as he and Henbane circled each other.  Chay’s hair was tousled and there was a long tear along his pants, but he seemed–

     My grin turned into a downright beam.

     He seemed like Chay.

     Chay dodged Henbane’s punches, jabbing his own fists in Henbane’s direction.  Even from this distance, I could see the adrenaline fueling Chay’s expression.

     “You’re getting slow, Henbane!”

     Henbane released a growl, jumping out of the way.  “Would you just die already!”

     Henbane’s voice echoed through the entire building as Chay laughed, leveling himself with Henbane.  I couldn’t hear Chay clearly, but his lips seemed to form the words, “you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

     “This is great!”  I turned to Aislynn, smiling so widely that I was practically laughing–

     That was a mistake.

     Her eyes were so icy and her face was so hard that my face fell immediately; in fact, I twitched slightly.

     “Typical Chay,” she muttered, “Always having to make an entrance.”

     She turned roughly on her heel, stalking back to the computer.  I stared after her for a moment, before returning my attention to the fight downstairs:

     Chay and Henbane were each throwing punches so quickly that it was difficult to tell who was winning.  The room below was so dark and they seemed so far away that the only thing that was discernable was who was who was standing and who was on the ground. 

     That position changed quickly: Henbane threw a punch toward Chay, who dodged it quickly, kicking Henbane as he ducked toward the ground.  Henbane fell, but as he did, he reached for Chay.  Henbane was on top of him.  I squinted my eyes, trying to see specifics: injuries, looks of pain, strangled shouts.  It seemed as though Henbane’s hands were trying to find Chay’s throat.  Chay didn’t seem to have any plan of action–Henbane had pinned him against the wall. 

     Henbane’s mouth was moving, but I couldn’t hear the word he was saying.  Henbane’s eyes were scanning the surrounding crates, his elbow pinned beneath Chay’s chin.  Chay was struggling against Henbane, his face rounder than usual.

     “Todd, are you paying attention?”

     I spun around.  Aislynn was eying the computer, where the PASSWORD page was still flashing dangerously.  “Derek’s been trying to hack the system.  The virus that was placed in your IPod is only allowing him to do so much.”

     I stared at Aislynn in disbelief.  “Aren’t you going to help Chay?”

     “He can take care of himself.”  Her voice cracked around the shortness of her tone. 

     My gaze shot back to the floor in time to see Chay kick Henbane in the chest.  Henbane seemed to have faltered slightly, reaching for a crowbar (which flew through the air, skidding several feet away).  Chay was now on top of him, holding him in the air slightly.  He threw him into a pile of crates, turning his back.

     The crates fell to the ground with a loud crash–the sound of metal hitting against wood as it smashed into concrete.  I could hear the noise clearly even from this distance.

     I tried to keep my eyes on Henbane, but I lost him as the mess spread across the floor.  Many crates had split, the contents spilling across the ground.  Yellow straw sprawled the area.  I squinted, trying to determine what the straw had been cushioning.  All I could see for certain was that they were metal objects–long and lethal.

     My eyes widened: guns.

     Chay turned, staring directly at the window where I stood.  The glass must have been tinted, for he made no indication that he saw me. 

     “Future-boy!”

     I flinched, glaring at Aislynn. “Did Derek suggest that nickname?”

     She smirked.  “In case you forgot, Everett, we’re here to confiscate contraband, not enjoy the show downstairs.  But if you’d rather watch, I’ll get you some popcorn.”

     I scowled; only Aislynn could be sarcastic and professional simultaneously.  “What do you need?”

     “Password.”

     “T42sToke!sIMPos.

     Aislynn didn’t wait any longer.  She turned harshly, typing quickly and carefully.  Her expression fell, her eyes wide when she said, “It worked.”  For the first time since I’d met her, her tone was void of any spite. 

     I didn’t watch her any longer–she was getting exactly what she needed.  I turned back, looking for Chay–

     And I found him.

     My optimism completely abandoned me, leaving a section of me feeling hollow.  I felt like half of my body had jumped off a cliff and the other half had remained in this spot.

     I didn’t know where Henbane had come from, but he’d obviously been able to avoid the crates.  He had a gun held firmly in his hands, his head cocked to the side.  Chay was perfectly still, the gun pointed at his chest.

     And all I could do was watch.

     Suddenly, I was wishing that this was one of my stories–a real story, not the twisted reality that had decided to adopt the guise of my chapters.  If that would only be true, then Chay would have already won and we’d be on our way home.

     But I could only just grasp the ledge of the window, the sounds of Aislynn arguing with Derek fading into the background as I watched the battle (because it was a battle, after all–a test of will) below me.  I was the audience rather than the director.

     And I had no control over it, no way to alter what was happening as the seconds dragged.

     That thought made me sick: my mind actually seethed because whatever happened next would change my life forever.

     The thought was selfish, but absolutely true. I didn’t care about the prophecy that I knew would change the world.  I cared about what would happen to me….

     What would happen to Chay.

     I gritted my teeth–when had I started liking Chay?  When had I started to feel as though our fates were intertwined?  When had I stopped thinking he was this stubborn, smartalec jerk who just needed to get out of my life?

     Probably the minute my life had completely left my authority.

     I was powerless.

     I don’t know why that statement caused me such sudden fury.  It wasn’t anything new–I’d never been in control of anything, let alone my own life.  I’d never had any sort of reign over Virgil, or school, or….

     Dad’s accident.

     I gulped.  There were some things I would never be able to change, but there were others that could be altered.

     But I still hadn’t changed; I was still waiting for a backbone, even now as I watched Henbane advance closer to Chay, his mouth moving in quiet words that I couldn’t hear.  Even as I saw him cock the gun and his finger float dangerously beside the trigger, the only thing I could think about was how pathetic I’d allowed my life to be.

     Power and control–

     Cyrus was right: everybody wants them; everybody needs them.

     And it was about time I’d gotten some of my own.

     I backed away slightly, eyeing the buttons.  I wondered if a backbone could develop in a matter of seconds–only moments had passed since Henbane had first raised his gun.  It had seemed like much longer, but my thoughts had been racing so swiftly that I’d been thinking of several different things at once: my future, my past–

     What I could do to help.

     The latter was the most important, and the only thing on my mind as I scanned the buttons, knobs, dials, and wires around me–it was a metallic mess, a digital disaster.

     I closed my eyes, hitting the button nearest to me, hoping that “self-destruct” buttons were reserved only for Saturday morning cartoons.

     At first, nothing happened.

     But Henbane heard it before I did.

     He stopped suddenly, stiff and listening.  He didn’t let his eye leave Chay, but his face had tightened.

     Chay didn’t alter his gaze either, but I knew he could see the movement from his perirhinal vision.  He was smirking, the corners of his lips perking.

     I smiled as my eyes found the source of the noise:

     Whiiiiirrrrr-cha-clunk!

     A crane–dark and foreboding, but so tall that it even toward above the room where I stood–had begun to spin.  There was a long cord, at the end of which was a hook.  I wondered what such a large crane could be used for, then saw that there were some smaller floors above the ground floor where Chay and Henbane now stood–it must have been used to move finished products.

     But it’s use meant very little to me.  What did matter was that the hook was moving towards Henbane–

     And that Henbane had moved in response.

     Chay grasped the opportunity.  He kicked the gun out of Henbane’s hand, reaching for a weapon of his own.

     Henbane turned harshly, knocking Chay to the ground.  They were battling with their fists again, each trying to grab a weapon.

     “What did you do!”  It wasn’t a question, but I answered Aislynn as though it had been.

     “Saving Chay’s life, not that you’d care!”

     I eyed something that looked like a joystick from a video game, and clutched it, moving it forward.

     “Don’t touch any–”

     Aislynn didn’t have time to finish.

     I’d managed to lower the hook.  It was rushing toward Henbane; Chay lay in a crumpled heap on the floor, where Henbane had tossed him.

     Henbane was laughing, brandishing another gun–

     But all I heard was a loud “rah!” as the hook banged against him, sending him flying across the factory.

     “Yes!” I shouted, watching as Chay righted himself.

     I heard Aislynn groan dramatically, before turning back to the computer.  I pushed against the joystick, trying to find Henbane again.

     I pushed too hard.

     The crane moved more quickly than I’d thought was possible, the hook raising drastically.  I tried to fix my mistake, but all I did was cause th crane to begin to spin again.  The hook was level with the control room–it was level with me.

     I had enough time to see the hook and act on instinct.  I fell to the floor, covering my head with my hands and closing my eyes.  The crash that followed was loud–the glass broke easily.  I was reminded of a time when I was five–I’d been playing baseball in the backyard.  One of my hits had gone terribly awry and had hit a window.

     My stomach had seemed to sink straight to my toes.  It was the ultimate form of trouble–I’d broken something; Mom and Dad were going to be furious.

     I had the same feeling now–the sense that I’d broken something very important and that I was going to be grounded for life.

     Except that–now–the emotion had multiplied itself by one-hundred.

     I lifted my head carefully, some glass falling from my hair.

     Aislynn was staring at me furiously.  Her cheeks matcher her hair and her mouth was hanging open.

     Great, she was so angry that she couldn’t even shout.  Now I knew I’d done something terrible.

     I stood, careful to make sure that glass didn’t fall into the cut that Henbane had left on my arm.

     “Whoops,” I managed to mutter weakly.

     “Predictable!”

     I jumped.  The voice was louder than I would have expected.  I hear it clearly, and averted my gaze back to the floor.

     Henbane looked as though he’d swallowed a bee.  His Adam’s apple quivered in his throat; his face became more twisted the longer he glared at me.  When he spoke it was strangled, unintelligible yell.

     Chay was halfway to the stairs, any sort of weapon completely forgotten.  He was running toward us–his features suddenly vehement.

     “Todd, run!”

          Aislynn’s frantic voice caught me off-guard.  For a moment, I’d forgotten that she was there.

     “Run!”

     Her voice was suddenly closer and I fell forward; I hadn’t even heard her approaching, nor realized that she was close until she’d given me a rough shove, hurling me forward.

     I fell into the glass, cutting my hands copiously.  The blood eased through my fingers as I struggled to right myself.

     “What was that–”

     BANG!

     I lurched, reflexively balling my hands into fists.   I winced in response, looking toward the door; Chay had suddenly appeared in the room, slamming the door against the metal frame.

     “What’s Todd still doing up here?” he spat at Aislynn.

     “Why’d you lead Henbane straight to us?”

     His face stiffened and he opened his mouth to retort, but was interrupted as Henbane crashed against the door–it reverberated against the weight, echoing around the small space.

     Chay threw himself against the door, motioning toward Aislynn. “Gun!”

     “Where’s yours?”

     “Long story–”

     BANG!

     Henbane hurled something against the door–it was far heavier than Chay, and his face grew red from exertion.

     “You tryin’ to be Superman, Chay?” Henbane scoffed between grunts.  “That leg about to wear out?”

     “Aislynn!”

     “Idiot, you could have grabbed one down there!”

     “GUN!”

     Aislynn sneered in his direction, breathing through her nose as she reached into the pocket of her hoodie.  She threw a small pistol in Chay’s direction and he caught it easily.  He eyed it for a moment, before positioning it between his fingers.  “How dainty,” he mumbled to himself.  He didn’t budge as he aimed the handgun at the door.

     “Chay–” I began, walking forward, ignoring the stinging of my palms.  “How–”

     “Are you still here?” Chay finished, staring furiously at me.  “Todd, go!”

     My eyes widened slightly.  “You want me to go through the door?” I spat, though the statement didn’t hold the sarcasm it normally would have; after all, at this moment, the only person I felt any true annoyance  toward was… me.

     I grimaced at how easily I’d allowed my imagination to get the best of me.  How I’d nearly been able to–almost–talk myself into surrendering to Cyrus. 

     But I wouldn’t do that again.  I had power–the exact thing that everyone in the world desired.

     All that changed was why we wanted it.

     And that made all the difference.

     Chay gave an aggravated groan that sounded remarkably like my name.  He pushed more harshly against the door as it opened slightly, revealing a haggard-looking Henbane.  It closed quickly, but I still took a few panicked steps backward.

     A round of bullets hammered against the door–none of which penetrated the thick metal–though Chay ducked slightly, stiffening as the sound ricocheted around the factory.  He shot me a strange look, jerking his head toward the window.

     “Chay, are you crazy?”

     “Do you want to live til morning?”

     Henbane gave another mighty heave, and Chay nearly toppled over.  He barely maintained his stance as his leg buckled beneath him.  Pain passed so quickly across his face that it was almost unrecognizable.  “Go,” he mouthed, struggling against Henbane’s force.

     There was no point in disagreeing, no matter how rapidly my brain was yelling arguments.

     I turned to the window, my breath catching in my chest as I suddenly realized that I was afraid of heights.  I hadn’t judged the distance well–I was easily five stories from the factory floor, but–somehow–the machinery below seemed to be a million miles away.  I felt suddenly dizzy and wondered if that was because of my acrophobia or loss of blood.  Either way, it didn’t matter–if I could just pass out now then my life would be so much easier.  I closed my eyes–urging unconsciousness–but all that I accomplished was the easing of my vertigo.

     Dang it.

     “Todd!”

     This time it was Aislynn’s voice , and I turned to notice that she, too, was no angled against the door, staring ruefully at Chay as he attempted to remain upright.

     I shook my head–it wasn’t fair for me to desire such an easy escape when everyone else was working so hard to protect me.

     Stupid new backbone.

     I took a deep breath, stepping onto the frame of the window.  I barley avoided the shards of glass as I steadied myself, using balance that I hadn’t known I possessed.

     I eyed the crane ahead of me; it looked very much like a noose that I was going to use to hang myself.

     Henbane released another shout behind me, and Aislynn retorted, her voice high from struggling.  I couldn’t make out words, just the steady beating of my pulse pounding against my skull as I held my breath and jumped.

     Every instinct in my body screamed for me to close my eyes as the air rushed around me, but–miraculously–they remained open.  My bloodied hand reached in front of me, grappling for the chain.  My hands slid along the cord, staining the iron crimson.  I began to slip and I clenched my fists more tightly against the wire, my palms screaming in response.  My arm was also burning–I could hear skin breaking around the sore.  The entire upper half of my body–even the muscles that were unharmed–begged me to let go.  But my brain….

     I felt suddenly nauseous.

     My brain reasoned that the drop from this height would hurt far more than any cut ever would.

     I crossed my legs around the cord, gulping audibly.  My vocal chords seemed too shocked to realize that they should be screaming.  The world felt like it was pressing against my ears–the surrounding noises were muffled.

     (So maybe I was screaming–I just couldn’t hear anything except my heart.)

     There was a terrible clanging sound behind me.  I heard it, but my mind couldn’t make any sort of connection as to what it was; for all I knew (or cared) it could have been a pot falling in a kitchen.

     The sound was followed by the subtle sparking and buzzing of destroyed computers–

     Henbane had gotten inside.

     My brain came back to my body, situating itself into place as I continued to swing back and forth.  I kept my eyes wide, focusing on the room.  I couldn’t see anything, just listen to the shouts:

     “Aislynn, take it and run!”

     “Where do you think you’re going?”

     BANG!

     The gunfire blew a hole through my eardrums and I cringed.  There were more shots, and the sound of a door being swung open.

     Henbane appeared suddenly in the window, his gun still aimed toward a corner I couldn’t see.  He’d withdrawn a small radio and was speaking into it.

     “Security to level 5, section B.  Subject is female–red hair.  Confiscate anything on her person and–” He paused, firing the gun again. “You can’t hide there forever, coward!”

     He cocked his gun, firing again.  Henbane groaned, turning back to the radio.  “Confiscate or kill, whichever is easiest.”

     He tossed the radio the side, cocking his gun again and moving out of view.  “CHAY!”  His voice was shrill despite it gravelly texture. 

     There was another shot.  Henbane backed up slightly, his eyes wide and his features loose.  His chest heaved as he spat, “Where’d you store the prophet, Chay!”

     I held my breath and closed my eyes. He didn’t see me?  I was hanging here like an apple ready to be picked, and he didn’t even see me?

     Maybe I really hadn’t reached the cord.  Maybe I’d fallen to the ground and was having some sort of strange out-of-body experience.  Why not?  Heck, if I could believe that I was a prophet, then I could believe I was a ghost.

     I tilted my head slightly, casting a quick look to the ground.  There was nothing except neglected weapons and machinery–no bodies.

     I sighed slightly, closing my eyes again.  I felt like a little kid playing hide-and-seek; if I can’t see Henbane, maybe he can’t see me.

     It was worth a try.  What else was I supposed to do?

     A crash.  More shots.  Swearing. 

     I listened, waiting for any hint that I should start thinking of an escape plan.

     “Comfortable, prophet?”

     And there it was.

     My eyes flew open.  Henbane was staring at me, his patch removed.  Where his eye used to be was nothing except a hole–black and empty.  His right eye was working overtime to make up for its fallen twin. I had never seen so much hatred–

     Nor so much triumph–

     In one person’s gaze.  His iris seemed to encompass the valor of a million revolutionaries at the end of a war.

     “It would be in your best interest not to move.” Henbane sneered.  He jumped upward, standing easily atop the ledge of the window.  “But you have a habit of doing the very things you shouldn’t.”

     I released my grip, sliding further along the cord.  It was a reflex–I didn’t realize what I’d done until I was falling, the only things stopping me from splattering against the floor were my legs and my hands, wrapped loosely around the wire.

     I wasn’t playing hide-and-seek with Henbane any more.  This was like a pole on a playground.

     Except that–instead of landing on pavement–I was going to fall.

     The wire shook, swaying back and forth so quickly that I couldn’t focus on anything except the hook at the bottom.  I eased my hands from the wire, letting myself drop.

     And then I clenched my fists tightly, grappling for the hook.  The sharp point poked my hands, opening the cuts slightly. I grimaced, swallowing to stop myself from screaming.

     I looked up: Henbane was sliding along the cord, just as I had done.  He was graceful though–there was no reason to fear falling, not when he was so close to his prize.

     My legs dangled below me, writhing in the air. My shirt was raised, the breeze spilling around my bare abdomen as the hook swung.

     “Todd!”

     Chay’s voice shocked me, and I nearly let go searching for his voice.  I didn’t find him, but did hear the bang, then the sound of snapping metal.

     The wire dropped, whistling as it flung itself toward the ground.  I curled my legs upward, holding onto the hook desperately. 

     And then it was over.  The cord jerked, and I fell the rest of the distance.  I landed against the concrete ground, though the fall had been no more than a few feet.  I looked up, desperately searching for Henbane. 

     “Todd!”

     I jumped upward.  My back protested against the sudden movement.  “Chay?”

     I found him quickly.

     He was running down the stairs, toward the factory floor.  He was taking the steps two at a time, despite his heavy limping.  I looked him over: his shirt was torn and bloody; his face was white.

     I ran closer to him, but his voice stopped me.

     “Todd, there’s another door.  Go through it.  Security shouldn’t be anywhere near there.”

     He was pointing and I followed his finger.  “Door” was an understatement: it was large enough for a truck to fit through.

     “I’ll get it open for you.  Then you run.”  Chay was still sprinting down the stairs.  “You are to call the number we gave you, then go where we told you.  Understand?”

     He had reached the floor.  Chay grabbed the nearest gun he could find, scanning the area as quickly as I did.  “I said, do you understand?”

     “You’re hurt.”

     Chay gave an aggravated groan.  “I’ll live.  You on the other hand….” He ran toward a control panel near the center of the room, pressing buttons expertly.  “Get out of here, now, Todd.”

     I didn’t hesitate.  I ran for the door as it opened, watching as Chay retreated toward another set of stairs. 

     Bang, bang, bang!

     Three clear shots rang around the factory, so deafening that I stopped where I was, spinning around.  Henbane was running towards Chay, firing his gun so rapidly that there was a shot for every step he took.

     Chay hit the ground, hiding behind crates.  I followed his lead, ducking behind a conveyor belt.

     “You think it’s that easy, Chay?” Henbane snarled.

     “Only when I’m fighting you!”

     There was another round of bullets, and I saw Chay run for better cover.  He found it behind a large machine.

     “You use humor when you’re scared, don’t you, Chay!  You laugh at everything so no one knows what you’re really thinkin’!”  Henbane released a crazed laugh, firing into the air.

     I ran further, trying to hide from Henbane; I didn’t even realize I was retreating farther from the door (I was beyond dazed and confused) until my back brushed against the railing of a set of stairs.

     I could see Henbane perfectly from this angle–there was a cut behind his left ear, the blood trickling down his neck as he continued to cackle.  “I know what you’re thinkin’, Chay!  You’re thinkin’ it’s over.  We’ve won and you know it.”  The last sentence was several octaves lower: deathly and final.  “You’re putting on these theatrics for your own good–letting yourself know that you at least tried.” 

     Henbane growled, the sound ripping from his throat.  “You want to go out with a bang.”  He cocked his gun.  “I can give you that much, Chay.  That’s the one thing I will do for you.”

     He fired again into the air, the bullet striking the florescent lights.  Sparks showered around the factory, Henbane directly in the center of their downward spiral.  He was laughing insanely, his lone eye resting on the place where Chay was hiding.

     I could say Chay’s shadow.  His gun was raised against his chest, and he was breathing heavily.  I’d been writing as The Man In The Shadows far too long–I could see (even from this distance) what he was considering. 

     I knew what he’d decided even before he jumped out, gun raised.

     “Prove it to me, Henbane.”

     Henbane smiled–it was an expression of pure and honest glee.

     “About time, Chay.”

     They stepped closer to each other, shadows dancing across their faces.  All that I could see clearly were their eyes; they sparkled in the dark, like jaguars preparing themselves to pounce.

     I felt a lump form in my throat–it wasn’t a fair fight.  Chay seemed to have grabbed the smallest weapon available–I wondered if he had been flustered.

     It was an emotion that I never would have expected from The Man In The Shadows.

     But it was something that seemed possible from Chay, because he was human–he was real.

     And so was the gun that was pointed at his chest.  So was the man that held his finger above the trigger as he said, “Is this the best you’ve got, Chay?  I’m really disappointed.”

     My eyes darted to the side.  I moved my hands over my ears, not wanting to hear what–inevitably–would happen next. 

     And I saw it.

     I stared at the weapon carefully.  Calling it a gun was a crime: it was too beautiful, too definite.  It was a small and shone brightly despite the limited light.  There were designs etched into the handle–which was made of deep mahogany–that resembled the crest of an ancient clan.  There was gold finely slipped along the barrel, sliding around the curves like a snake. 

     And it looked so innocent.  I didn’t know who it had been made for–because a work of art like this must have been specially designed–but I did know one thing–

     I knew what would happen if I pulled the trigger.

     “Drop it, Chay.”

     I didn’t allow my gaze to waver from the gun.  I didn’t need to see Henbane to know that his smile had widened: Chay was as good as dead, but Henbane wanted a complete victory, a full victory.  He wanted Chay disarmed and helpless when he made his–

     When he won.

     But he couldn’t win if Chay had some help.

     I had never fired a gun in my life.  I didn’t know how to aim, but I knew that Henbane was very close.

     Surely, I wouldn’t be able to miss him.

     I swallowed.  The impact of how much that little gun was capable of tore through my veins.  It could end a life, and save one at the exact same time.

     But was I capable of the former?  Could I really stop a heart from beating, force someone to take their final breath?

     Even someone like Henbane?

     “I said drop it, Chay.”

     I reached for the gun.  My brain felt like it was running a fever; my body seemed strangely detached from the rest of the world.  My fingers brushed the metal of the handgun; it was cool and slick.

     “I wouldn’t, Todd Everett.”

     I froze.  The voice as soft–so quiet that I was positive that Henbane and Chay were oblivious to the new arrival.  I gulped, slowly straightening myself as I raised my eyes, looking directly into Cyrus’ face.

     His features had completely drained of the little color they had contained.  Purple veins tightened along his neck and his breathing was slight and even; I could barely see the rise and fall of his chest.  He had never looked more like a statue than now–Cyrus was perfectly still, his anger becoming so tangible that any sort of shouting would have ruined the moment.

     I was sure no one else could master the type of energy he was radiating.

     And I’d been afraid of Virgil?

     It seemed silly that I would ever have considered mundane Virgil to be frightening.  He seemed very laughable right now.

     If it wasn’t for the intensity that Cyrus was layering upon me, I would have laughed at the memory.  His gaze was so heavy against my skin, that I began to wonder how I’d justified a fear of Henbane.  Sure, Henbane’s entire persona leaked brute force, a complete coolness toward death or pain.

     Cyrus held the same nonchalance, but beneath that raw emotion was something more terrifying: purpose.

     Cyrus eyed me, his skin tight around his would-be handsome features.  He continued in the same soft whisper, “Forgive me for assuming you would be a quick learner, Todd Everett.  I’ve underestimated your… recklessness.  But I can assure you that I won’t make the same mistake twice.”

     He withdrew a gun from inside his suite.  It was very similar to the one on the floor.  He raised it slightly so that it was pointed directly at my chest.  My heart began to beat faster; it felt as though a hummingbird was trapped in my chest and was trying to break through my skin.

     Cyrus took a step closer, the barrel inches from pressing against my shirt.

     “Drop it, Chay!” Henbane’s shout made my ears ring, and my eyes darted to the side.  Their positions hadn’t changed: Henbane was still triumphant and Chay was still adamant.  They were still unaware that Cyrus had entered the room.

     Chay didn’t lower his eyes, nor did his expression change as he heaved one, giant breath.  His fingers loosened and the pistol fell to the floor.  It clattered against the concrete as Chay raised his hands, never once breaking eye contact.

     “Perfect,” Henbane hissed, cocking his own gun.  The sound (a deathly, final click) seemed to break the strain on my vocal chords.  I forgot about the gun pointed at my chest, about the injuries covering my body.

     “Chay!” I shouted, my voice cracking on the syllable.

     Henbane twisted slightly.  Surprise flitted across his face as he saw us, quickly replaced by an even fiercer exultance than before.  Chay tilted his head slightly, shock slowly forming across is brow as he registered the scene.  His eyes widened only slightly, but he paled as though he was suddenly ill.  Chay turned back to Henbane without speaking his hands still raised.

     “Why so surprised, Chay?  How long did you honestly think it could last?”  Henbane raised his gun so that it was level with Chay’s temple.  He pressed the metal against the skin.  He didn’t have any other sarcastic comment, nor another snide offense.  The gleam in his eye was enough as he set his finger more firmly upon the trigger.

     I didn’t want to see what came next; I didn’t want to hear the shot, or smell the blood.

     I didn’t want to be here.

     Cyrus seemed to read my mind.  “Start walking, prophet.”

     But I couldn’t move. 

     Cyrus pushed the gun the final centimeters to my chest. “I said walk.  Henbane–”

     “Of course.”

     I closed my eyes.

TO BE CONTINUED.

Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

*I do not own “Riders on the Storm.” (But it is an awesome song!)

Forthcoming, Chapter Twenty-One: Deals

I was nauseous.  I didn’t open my eyes, nor did I try to sit.  I was content to lay where I was, listening to the silence.  The quiet was a comfort, and I wondered if I’d been to the fair; the twisted, flipping knot in my stomach reminded me of a summer from–five years ago?  Six?

The time didn’t matter.  What did matter was that I’d eaten a corn dog and an ice cream cone before riding the Tilt-a-Whirl.  Dad had warned me, but….

I swallowed, my dry throat objecting to the sudden moisture.

I felt the same as I had that night after the =fair–tired and weak.  There must be some reason for my frailty, yet my brain was refusing to supply the answer.  It was acting like a stubborn teacher who repeatedly told me to “look it up in the book.”

I inwardly groaned; my brain was acting like Miss Carling.

(Miss Carling’s car was parked outside the store.  It was the only vehicle nearby, and I didn’t stop Chay from–)

My eyes snapped open and I sat, bolt upright.  My stomach protested almost as effectively as my aching head.

Chay had been protecting me. 

The fact came flooding into my mind as quickly as my other memories: I’d willingly abandoned his protection; he’d come to get me; he’d… failed.

Though I hadn’t thought it possible, I felt even dizzier.  I remembered the sound of a body hitting the ground during a gunfight, then an explosion….

I was sweating; whether from the heat of the memory or the sudden impact of danger, I wasn’t sure. 

There had been an explosion–a great, fiery blast

that would have had enough magnitude to appear on the five o’ clock news.  Though my brain itself had been lost in the thick fog of near-unconsciousness, my imagination quickly fabricated a memory:

Henbane had sneered as he’d said, “with pleasure.”  The usual twisted grin had spread across his face as he’d raised his gun.  Taking aim would have been so second nature that–despite the blast that would follow–Henbane would have felt slightly monotonous as he’d pulled the trigger.  The bullet had hit the nearest tank of gas, the explosion following so closely that Henbane had barely had the chance to jump into the limo as it sped from the scene, the tires squealing loudly.  We had fled the flame-engulfed station, where everything was burning: the stale candy, the rusty tires, and what remained of the clerk. (I felt a sharp pang of guilt at the thought–if I hadn’t stopped at the station, then the old man would’ve still been alive.)  Chay must have–

I stood, running a hand through my hair.  I didn’t even want to assume the worse, because if it was true–if something had gone so horrible wrong–

I shuddered.

I was in trouble. 

I fell back into my seat, for the first time noticing that I was sitting upon a couch.  If it wasn’t for the fact that I’d been drugged and kidnaped, I would have noticed how comfortable the cushions were.

I closed my eyes, telling myself that the worse thing I could do was panic.

When I opened them again, I allowed my eyes to rove across the room, relieved that mild surprise had taken the place of panic.  My disorientation had eased slightly, allowing my senses to reenter my mind.

I don’t know what I was expecting: a dark dungeon with rats, torture devices, and assorted skeletons?  Maybe bars on the windows? 

I grimaced at the incredibly childish image–this was the twenty-first century, not the middle ages.  After all, the room I was being held within was more of a palace than a prison:

I’d never been in a room this large; my bedroom could fit comfortably within its walls–with plenty of room to spare.  It was painted red and white, with gold accents.  The furniture matched perfectly.  The walls were covered in shelves, all of which displayed treasures that were foreign to me–a person who’d never been outside of the county where I’d been raised.  Every corner was filled with furniture, exotic plants, or expensive knick-knacks.  The room somehow managed to be so busy that it was elegant–a statement of its owner’s wealth.  There were two chairs beside the couch where I had been sitting, both of which were angled so that they faced a large fireplace directly in front of me.

The fireplace itself wasn’t simply a decoration, it was a work of art.  Each brick seemed to have its own personality (if that’s even possible for rock and mortar).  The mantle seemed to be made of marble.  I raised my eyebrows; if the fireplace looked this beautiful now, I wondered how lovely it would be with a crackling fire within it.

I hesitantly turned my head.  To my right, there was a window the length of the entire wall.  I stood where I was, squinting questioningly at the view: it was dark outside, though I couldn’t gauge how late it was–not because my head was still spinning (though that most certainly wasn’t helping)–but because the sky seemed too bright for nighttime.

Wow, my first trip to a major city and I’d been abducted.  I maneuvered between the couch and the chair, approaching the window carefully.  I felt my courage perk slightly when poisoned darts didn’t shoot from the walls. (My imagination was making the situation even worse than it was–not that this was difficult.)  I jogged the rest of the distance, gazing at the view with wide eyes.

I wasn’t directly in the city.  The city limits were easily five miles from where I was standing, but I was also high up (this building was so tall that it could eat the Agenton apartments for breakfast).  I could see the skyline perfectly, and I gasped the moment I saw it. 

The city was so bright that it erased the stars.  The skyline seemed to be more of an imprint of a city against a sheet of black paper than actual buildings.  They pushed from the night, each light reflecting from the windows.

I smiled.  It wasn’t an honest grin of happiness or laughter, but it was better than the frown I’d been wearing.  The sudden uplifting of my lips caused my jaw to pain, but I didn’t care–it felt good to smile. 

There was no reason for my smiling.  In fact, I’d never had less reason to grin. Yet, I stood there, leaning against the cool glass of the window, smiling stupidly.

I didn’t know what was going to happen to me; I didn’t know where I was, but somehow I could no longer panic.  I could just look out that window, thinking how amazing it was that I’d actually seen a city and how beautiful the view was.

I’d have to tell Mom about this.

My smile faltered.

Then fell.

I took a step backward, my face loose in sudden realization.

I wasn’t ever going to see Mom again.  It was a fact.  There was no “what if”–I was trapped.

(“Consider the score even.”)

And no one was going to help me.

I moved hastily from the window, retreating to the couch.  I didn’t let my eyes leave the view of the skyline–it was as though that city was the only proof of normalcy that remained.  In each of those buildings–in the crowded streets and noisy traffic–there were average people doing average things.

And I don’t want to–

“Ouch!”

My leg banged against a table and I fell, my head hitting the couch.  I sat up, rubbing my head, eyeing the table responsible for my paining shin and throbbing skull.  It was located directly in front of the couch where I had been lying earlier.

I hadn’t even noticed that table.  I’d obviously surpassed nervousness, and was wading into some new area of alarm.

Or maybe I was just going crazy.

I huffed, wondering if I was desperate enough to prefer insanity over reality.

I decided I wasn’t.

Not yet at least.

I shook my head, picking myself up off the floor.  My hand slid across the table, and I looked at it questioningly.  I noticed that the tabletop was scattered with–what I would call–a writer’s smorgasbord.  I stood, picking up different notebooks and flipping through them idly.  The paper was clean and white.  There was a dictionary and a thesaurus, as well as large collection of pens, ranging in size and color.  I picked up the nearest one.  It was a fountain pen similar to the one I’d lost to Henbane’s eye.

The memory made me cringe and I replaced the pen.  I plopped onto the couch.  Unlike the one at home, the springs didn’t creak when I sat.  There were two other tables on either side of me.  There was a coffee machine carefully placed on the table to my right; the one on my left had several books.  I heaved them toward me, thumbing through the pages. 

I squinted my eyes in confusion.  They were my favorites: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Huckleberry Finn, and The Chronicles of Narnia (my dad had read the later to me as a child).

I tossed them onto the couch, setting my head in my hands.  Somehow, between Chay’s constant supervision and the glimpses I’d seen into the future, I’d always thought that being Cyrus’ captive would be more… terrifying.

A small voice in my head suggested that he might be going soft.

I scoffed at the idea, an indignant chuckle clutching my throat.

Whirr–clunk–whirr….

I jumped, the books falling to the floor.  I looked toward where I thought I’d heard the sound, and saw a computer’s glowing monitor staring back at me, casting bluish light across an oriental rug.

I shrugged, walking towards it.  The quiet in the room had lasted so long that it was beginning to feel thick, as though the air was made of gravy.  I decided that the printer had made the sudden noise, though there didn’t appear to be anything wrong with it. 

I rolled my eyes, turning back toward the couch, when something else caught my eye.  I spun sharply, my eyes narrowed in concentration: setting next to the computer was my IPod.

At first, I didn’t think it was mine.  I picked it up gingerly, balancing it in my hand.  It was black and had the same scratch across the back that I’d come to recognize.

I turned it on.  It moved more slowly than it normally did, but eventually a list of songs appeared: “Behind Blue Eyes” was at the top of the list.

Yeah, it was definitely mine.  I swallowed hard.  The plan was a disaster because Chay had failed.  There was no way he could come and get me because….

I shook the word away.

I couldn’t say that I was feeling remorse.  I wasn’t even feeling sad.  If anything, the emotion I felt was nothing less than selfish–if Chay was gone, then I’d run out of options.

But the plan was all I had, so I bit my lip as I did exactly as Derek had told me: I plugged my IPod into the computer, and pressed the buttons in the exact order Derek had indicated.

Why had I been so stupid to agree to this?

I sighed, setting the IPod back onto the table.  I eyed the computer screen.  It didn’t seem to have changed. 

Well, at least something had gone right.    

Not that it did me any good.

“The computer’s yours, by the way.  Feel free to download whatever you want.”

I jumped backward, nearly tripping over myself as

I whipped around, searching for the source of the voice. 

“I thought I’d go ahead and plug it in for you, Todd Everett.  Consider it a friendly gesture.”

At first, I couldn’t find where the voice was coming from, but I recognized it immediately: it was cold and calculating.  Each word sounded as though its owner was carefully observing me, analyzing each move I made. 

I stopped when I was facing the back wall.  There were steps leading to a small, darkened room.  At first, I couldn’t see clearly into the chamber, but my eyes finally adjusted, revealing a desk.  There was a shadow behind the desk; it began to move as soon as I locked eyes with it, slowly stepping into the light. 

I felt my heart begin to beat faster as Cyrus moved toward the couch, his eyes set upon where I was standing.  A logical part of my mind–a part that seemed impossible to listen to–wondered how long he had been sitting there, how long he had been watching me.  The rest of my brain–or rather, my adrenaline-induced body–didn’t care.

I didn’t let my eyes leave his.  He seemed to be

waiting for me to respond, by my throat had constricted and my only clear thought–remarkably–was how little I’d truly been able to see in my stories.

I wondered if my own inhibitions had censored what my prophecies had been trying to tell me.  I’d known that Cyrus was a threat, but my stories had never given me enough detail.  It wasn’t simply that Cyrus was dangerous; he embodied danger. 

He stood resolute, his hands visible and his features without expression.  The suit he was wearing was expensive; it was a forest green color–almost black.  His tie was a deep, crimson red.  His dark hair was short, though it curled slightly near his temple, giving him a dignified appearance that matched his stance.  His hair was streaked with gray–another detail that I’d never noticed when writing. 

He lowered his head slightly, his eyes seeming to smolder in the action.  It was a silent command that I didn’t comprehend, so I stood where I was.

His face tensed, his wrinkles becoming more prominent.  The lines of his face–rather than implying old age–simply suggested dignity and difference.  They seemed carefully carved into the marble-like skin.

Because he was pale.  It was a whiteness associated with vampires and foreboding–a tone that even a goth like Reb would never be able to equal.  After all, beneath Reb’s startling exterior was always laughter.  But beneath Cyrus….

I gulped.

Beneath Cyrus was simply more Cyrus.

Like it or not, there are simply some people in this world who have nothing to hide.  Unfortunately, the people who are the most honest–like Cyrus–also tend to be those who are the most dangerous.

“Please, Todd Everett, take a seat.”

The request was simple enough, even polite, but I didn’t move.  Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to take a direct order from Cyrus.  Blame it on pride, or teenage rebellion, but I simply couldn’t do it.

Cyrus, however, seemed unfazed.  “Ah, I see,” he began.  “You feel the need to play the hero.”  Here he gave a small smile; it was easily ruined by the malice it contained.  “You’ve spent far too much time around Chay.  I’m afraid he may have been an influence.”

I didn’t argue, just listened.

“You see,” he continued, “Chay was never able to grasp the necessity of the moment. Do you understand what I mean by that, Todd Everett?”

I swallowed again at the use of my full name; he said it as though I was a product.

“No?  All that I’m saying is that I’m going to talk to you whether or not you are sitting or standing, whether you want to hear me or not.”  His voice lowered an octave, and he took a seat.  When he spoke again, the polite tone had returned.  “Now, I’m going to be sitting.  I would suggest you take a look at the bigger picture here.”

Again I didn’t respond.  I was watching him carefully as he crossed his legs, setting his hands upon his knee. He entwined his fingers, his head inclined toward me.  “The bigger picture is simply that there is no bigger picture.  We are going to talk, and it would be best for you to sit, rather than stand for the entire exchange.”  He paused.  “There is no threat, no game.  I am simply suggesting that you save yourself the trouble.”

Despite his words, I couldn’t help but detect the menace beneath his delicately manufactured phrases.  I obliged though, stumbling slightly as I advanced from the computer toward the sitting area.  I avoided the couch where I had awoken (it was far too close to Cyrus), and tripped slightly on my way the chair.  I sat on the edge, nearly falling onto the expensive hardwood flooring.

Cyrus seemed slightly amused.  When he began talking again, his voice had an edge to it that seemed unnatural, almost forced.  He sounded cordial, as though we were discussing the weather during a soirée.

“I trust your trip was relaxing?”  He laughed again, as though enjoying an inside joke.  The sound was soft but pronounced, like leaves thrashing in a tornado’s wind.  He didn’t once lose eye contact.  “I apologize for the inconvenience.  But certain precautions had to be taken with Chay being so… resistant.”  He raised a hand, setting his head in it casually.  I couldn’t help but feel as though he had rehearsed his motions.  “Of course, you wouldn’t have given us such problems.”

I narrowed my eyes, listening deftly.

He no longer seemed to expect a reaction.  Cyrus continued to talk in an offhand voice, but his constant scrutiny was unnerving.  He hardly blinked, attentively watching my expressionless face.

“What all have you been told, Todd Everett?  That this is far too complicated for you to understand?  That you can’t be told anything?”  He paused.  “I would like for you to know that what I offer is simply cut and dry.  No strings attached.  Whatever euphemism you prefer, the situation remains the same.”

I straightened slightly.  I looked around the room again: the best writing supplies possible, my favorite books, a coffee machine set atop a nearby table….

My jaw tightened; I knew why Cyrus was being so welcoming.  He wasn’t acting as host, he was acting as negotiator.

Again he smiled, showing all of his perfectly white teeth.  “You noticed the room?  It’s nice, isn’t it?  Everything anyone could ever ask for: comfort, a nice place to work–”(here he nodded to the desk in the  chamber behind us)–“music–”(he gestured toward the computer).  “Yes, I think you have everything you need.  I’ve heard that writers are quite accustomed to coffee?”  He looked at the machine wistfully.  “I also thought a few of your favorite stories were in order.  In case you needed inspiration.”  Cyrus shrugged.  “I thought they were a nice touch.

“The fireplace was specially made.  The colors were selected for their warmth….” Cyrus sounded remarkably like a realtor, listing the reasons for purchasing an expensive estate.  “And the view.  I noticed you were able to appreciate the view.”

I twitched; he’d been watching me.  For the first time that thought held firmly in my mind.  Somehow, the shock stimulated my vocal chords, yet–

“Yes,” was all I could respond.

For the briefest of instants, I thought Cyrus looked impressed, but it disappeared quickly.  Perhaps it was merely the dim lighting.  After a moment, he said, “So you have taste.”

There was silence.  I wondered if Cyrus was weighing his words as heavily as I was weighing my choices.  If no one was coming–

No, I thought irritably, There isn’t anyone coming.

Then I had only one choice.

“What are you suggesting?” My voice was quiet.  No matter where Chay was–dead or alive or injured or whatever–I know he would’ve cursed me for the statement.

Cyrus seemed surprised, but pleased.  He lowered both of his hands to his lap.  He didn’t grin, but spoke in a business-like manner.  “Luxury, Todd Everett.  It is no secret that you are quite an… advantage.”  He nearly sneered, but swallowed it in his next words.  “The Department has little to offer except secrecy and experiments.  I choose to use what I have been given–a prophet.  I would be happy with whatever insight you would give me–no needles or test tubes.”

Liar!, my brain practically screamed, but I ignored it.  “What about my home?”

Cyrus faltered slightly.  “No operation is perfect.  You would need to be under the effective security of IMPOS.  Surely you wouldn’t want to risk The Department seizing you?”

You sure can talk. 

The sentiment was furious, yet my voice–and myself, for that matter–was downright uncaring.

“It’s wrong.”

That was my only argument.  No matter where I ended up–with Cyrus or with Chay–my future was the same: imprisonment.  The only thing that changed was how everyone else was affected.

(“Prophets predict things on a much larger scale” quote)

Global was a big word.  What was even bigger, however, was the lump that had formed in my stomach at the thought.  I looked back at Cyrus and the lump turned icy and melted, sending shivers through my body.

“Would you like a fire?”

His words seemed genuinely concerned, but I shook my head.  I looked away; Cyrus had begun staring eagerly at me–it was the same feverish look that a person would wear if he’d just discovered the Fountain of Youth.

Well, he’d discovered something, alright: the Fountain of Future.  Apparently, I was just about as —— as water.  Yeah, here’s Todd Everett, the amazing mythical wonder of the world, easily switching sides as long as the price is right and I manage to continue existing. (However pathetic that existence may be.)

After all, it’s not as though Chay would have treated me any differently… not in the end.

You don’t believe that.

Why shouldn’t I?

“Very well, then.”  Cyrus rose.  He walked around the couch, coming closer to me as he spoke.  “I believe I’ve made my point clear.”

“It’s wrong.”

“I heard you the first time.”  He stopped directly behind my chair.  I could almost feel myself pale.  He didn’t sound perturbed, but I didn’t dare turn to see his expression.

“I believe I’m going to be forced to disagree with you.”  There was movement.  When he spoke again, his voice was much closer.  “Your welcome to relax, you know.”

Yeah right.

“What exactly is your definition of wrong?”

Cyrus’ question caught me off guard.  I turned sharply.  He was between the window and where I sat.  The sky was darkening further; the city was a bright blur, dulled by the surrounding night sky.

“What?”

The corners of Cyrus’ lips twitched.  “What is your definition of wrong?  It’s a simple question.”

It was simple, yet I found myself unable to answer.

“Is it what your parents taught you?  What you saw on television?  Just where do you draw the line?”

“At you,” I whispered.

There was a heavy hush over the room.  Cyrus’ attitude changed so quickly and completely that I could feel it spreading to the corners of the room like a disease.

“You think that Chay is right and I am wrong.  That is where the line is.”

I bit my lip, as though simply breathing would offend Cyrus.

     “Let me offer you this thought, Todd Everett.  Do you think that everything that goes on in this world is right?  Do you think that war is right?  Do you think that what The Department plans to do with you is right?”  He didn’t wait for a reply; not that it mattered–I didn’t have one. “I didn’t think so.  What makes you think I can’t do better?”

“What makes you think you’re so righteous?”  I turned sharply.  I didn’t know where my anger had come from, but–apparently–directly beneath fear is fury.  “It’s wrong because you kill people.  I’ve seen you do it.”  He watched me carefully, half of his face concealed in shadows.  If I had seen the full intensity his rage, I would have stopped my rant.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see it, and I continued talking, my voice growing stronger with each word:

“Don’t forget who you’re talking to–I’m a prophet.  I’ve seen everything you’ve done and all the things you will do. I know how twisted you are, how–”

“Enough.”

He didn’t shout, yet his tone was so thick that I shut my mouth immediately.  His voice had sounded like caramelized venom–heavy and lethal.

He approached me so quickly that I hardly saw him move.  Cyrus stood before me, his features severe.  He leaned in closely, placing his hands on either arm of the chair.  He leaned so close that his scent was clear to my nose: it was a fusion of cigars and cologne.

When he spoke, his voice was barely above a whisper.  “You tell me, Todd Everett–if your heroic Chay would ever get the chance–what would he do to me?” 

I pushed myself as far into the chair as I could, my head turned away from him.

“Look me in the eye and tell me the answer.  You said it’s wrong to kill people, so tell me what Chay would do.”

I refused to look away from the crimson material of the chair.  I knew the answer–and it was exactly what Cyrus wanted to hear.

He breathed through his nose, apparently satisfied.  “That’s what I thought.”  When he stood again, the same regal manner had returned.  I hesitantly looked toward him; he’d been unable to hide the darkness that was brewing behind his eyes.

“What do you say, Todd Everett?”  Cyrus asked.  “You answered my question–oh yes–” (meekness had swiftly swept over me) “–you did answer me.  Care to explain yourself?

“Why is it ‘right’ for Chay to do me harm, and yet I am so wrong for what I do?  Again, you fail to grasp the necessity of the moment–the necessity of every moment.” 

I stayed where I was, squared into the corner of the chair.  He turned to me, no longer pretending to be polite or friendly.  His intentions were as clear as the tight frown on his face as he said, “The world revolves around control, Todd Everett.  There are those who have it, those who want it, and those who are at the mercy of it.  But–above all–there are those who need it.”

He stepped closer yet again.  He stood above me like a monument, his features so engraved that the entire room seemed to dwarf around him: all that mattered was that he and I were alone.

“What would your excuse be for the difference between Chay and myself?  You think he cares little of this control?”  He laughed; it was different from the forced humor of earlier–this was so genuine that my throat became dry.  “What does he do to you, Todd Everett?  Chay desires control just as much as everyone else; he just does it in a way that society prefers.

“But it still ends up hurting you.”

He walked away, back toward the window.  I didn’t turn to watch him, but listened intently as he continued:

“Is it the greater good Chay works for?  Tell yourself that if you will, but I think you and I both know the truth.”

He paused for so long that I thought he had finished, then–so quietly that I had to strain to hear him–said, “Chay’s human, Todd Everett.  The Department is human.  They aren’t immune to basic human impulses. Humans at their core are selfish: here’s a prophet we can use to help us.  At least I don’t sugarcoat it.”

There were soft footsteps, and suddenly I felt pressure on the chair.  I looked up warily.  Cyrus’ hands were clamped mercilessly upon the ——–, and he was looking down at me blankly, as though whatever I said wouldn’t matter–this preliminary speech was for his benefit.

“I will be using you, Todd Everett.  You are precious commodity.”

He stared at me for a long while, then raised his head, straightening himself.  “And that is all I have to say on the matter.” 

Cyrus straightened his tie, checking his watch.  I stared at him in disbelief.  Every ounce of darkness had left him.  He was Cyrus, the businessman–and prophets were simply a good investment. 

He gave a smile–a quirk of his lips that lit his eyes with a such a fiery passion that my heart skip a beat.

“You have been given your tools.  You have been given a very… adequate introduction.  You will begin work at once.”

He turned toward the door, pulling at his sleeves.

I was frozen to my seat, my mouth hanging open slightly.  It wasn’t until he reached for the doorknob that my brain slapped itself awake.

“No.”

Cyrus froze.  “Excuse me?”

I shook my head.  “No.  You’re wrong.  It’s different.  Chay–you–no.” 

He turned slightly, the smile growing.  He seemed amused, but–rather than lightening his features–he just appeared to be demented.  His hair seemed to curl in the process, though he hardly made a move. Cyrus seemed like a firework that had just been lit, the wick slowly curling until it flew into the air, setting fire to whatever it hit.

But he remained composed.  “You know what I find so truly amusing?  People who claim to be so–what was the word you used?  I rather liked it… righteous?”  He nodded.  “People like you.”  He turned back to the door.  “If life is so sacred, then there is no difference or any exception.”

I didn’t respond.  The logic sounded correct on the surface, yet its depths seemed murky and dank. 

“I worried that we might reach this snag, but unfortunately I need to be somewhere.”  Cyrus opened the door.  “But I’m sure this will be fixed when I return.”

From where I was sitting, I couldn’t who Cyrus was talking to, but I couldn’t help but feel as though the statement hadn’t been completely directed toward me.

“Shouldn’t be too difficult.”

I pressed myself so far into the chair that my back began to hurt.  Cyrus was quickly replaced by Henbane, who walked slowly into the room, closing the door behind him with a soft click.

He stayed beside the door, refusing to look away from me.  Henbane’s face was contorted into a look of purest loathing and–somehow–pleasure.  He stepped closer, his lips twitching.                                      

     I noticed that his patch was different–it was a dark blue.  He spread his hands in front of his body, laughing.

“We’ve had a good fun time together, prophet.  I can tell by the look on your face.”  He leaned against the chair opposite me.  (We were mere feet apart now, but my legs were refusing to move me from the chair–where would I go, anyways?)

“Let me tell you something about myself, prophet.”

(This was far worse than being addressed as ‘Todd Everett.’) He sneered cheekily.  “Bet you didn’t know I was a history buff.”

He shot a look my way that I would have flinched, but I couldn’t even move that much.

“You know we can learn a lot about our present from our past.”  Henbane took a step closer.  “You want to know how to get someone to–” He shrugged. “–cooperate, you can get a lot of ideas from our ancestors.

“I like the Renaissance myself.  Fascinating time period.”  He leaned downward, picking up a few notebooks and pens.  “You probably know all about Billy Shakespeare.  That’d be your cup of tea.” 

He threw the books at me, and they hit me in the chest, the pens falling to the floor noisily.  The action aroused me enough that I shook my head in reply.

“Not a huge Shakespeare fan?  Pity.”  Henbane reached for the fountain pen, studying it carefully.  “I like the punishments of the Renaissance myself.  Absolutely fascinating.”  He looked at me, balancing the fountain pen between his fingers.  “I rather liked their philosophy back in the day… an eye for an eye.”

My legs responded.  I leapt from the chair, jumping behind it.  I didn’t cower, but stood shakily, as though waiting to run.  I knew there was a window behind me….

I shook my head. 

“Don’t look so worried, prophet.  Cyrus isn’t as fond of the idea as I am.  He doesn’t want me doing anything that will stop you from writing.”

He hurled the pen at the table; it broke apart, ink spilling across the carpet.

“Thing is Cyrus isn’t around.”  He grinned.  “And I’m not afraid of a little reprimanding from the boss.”

He was beside me in an instant, his strong hands gripping my shoulders tightly. 

“Don’t hurt me!” I spluttered between struggles.  I kicked my legs furiously, twisting my body in ways I wasn’t aware it could move.

Henbane was unperturbed.  “This is too easy,” he muttered, picking me up and throwing me back into the chair.  “Now, prophet, I think you’re going to be smart, but I don’t want you second-guessing the right option.”

He pinned me to the chair, standing above me.  His knees were bent around my body, his hand held over my head.  I was twisted so that I was on top of my arms.  I squirmed and screamed, not caring who could hear me, just hoping that someone would.

“You’re far louder than I would have expected,” Henbane’s voice held a note of mild surprise as he reached behind him.  “Now let’s see how creative I can get….”  Henbane pulled a knife from behind his back. It appeared as a pointed shadow from where I lay, struggling against Henbane’s weight.

“You know what they called this during the Renaissance?  They called it flaying.”  He gave a throaty laugh.  “And it is just as uncomfortable as it sounds.”

I jerked my body upward.  “Don’t please!  I’ll write something!  I swear I will!  Just don’t!” The knife came closer, reflecting Henbane’s odd grin.  “Please!” I shrieked.

“Now, I won’t do much.  Calm yourself down.  This is just a reminder.  I’d hate for you to get cocky.”

He reached for my arm, holding it steady.

My eyes widened; my screams became unintelligible as I thrashed against the couch.

“You make me cut a vein and you bleed to death, it’s your own fault, prophet.”

His voice was calm, as though he was a nurse preparing me for a flu shot.  I half expected him to whisper, “This is hurting me more than you.”

The comparison barely registered in my mind.  It was beneath the surface, beneath the screaming and the aching of my limbs.  My legs had gone numb and my eyes had grown so wide that the skin surrounding them was beginning to throb.

“I have all night, prophet. Eventually you have to wear out.”

The knife came closer–it was similar to a dagger. The metal was raised and pointed so that it looked like an elongated arrowhead.  The handle was carefully carved from ivory, with elegant designs dug into it.  Henbane held it tightly, as though he worried that I would harm his precious treasure.

“Let go of me!  Please, please!”

Henbane released a bark of laughter, turning so that he had a clear view of my upper arm.  He held my elbow, clutching it so tightly that I could feel my pulse. 

The dagger was inches from my skin, and I jerked, the blade slicing my AC/DC t-shirt.

Henbane pursed his lips, as though in concentration.  His eye met mine, and he grinned.  “I think I’ve had an inspiration.”

I tried to move, but found I couldn’t.  The dagger was lodged into my skin, barely breaking the surface.  It slid finely through my skin, like a knife cutting a slice of cheese.

My stomach objected to the truth of that statement: Henbane was taking a slice of me.

“Stop,” I muttered weakly, my eyes burning as they watered.  They were now shut so tightly that even my eyelashes hurt.

Henbane gave a low chuckle.  The room was quiet, save for my quiet pleading.  I breathed shakily, trying to muster the energy to scream. 

There was a terrible tearing sound, and I clamped my lips together.  The pain was clear as the skin ripped from the rest of my body and the blade dug back into the raw area, carving into untouched skin.

My arm began to feel wet–as though someone was spilling water down my elbow–and I realized I was bleeding.  “Stop it, please,” I whimpered.

“Just about finished.”  I felt the cool metal leave my skin, and Henbane’s weight lift from my body. “Just a reminder, prophet–don’t forget who’s in charge here.”

My eyes opened slightly, my vision blurred from the tears that were still at the edges. I realized that my cheeks were also wet–I must have been crying, though I hadn’t noticed much more than the skin peeling from my body.

I was again dizzy, so I didn’t sit up, just watched as Henbane cleared the now-bloody dagger with a cloth he’d retrieved from his pocket.  Crimson smeared the white material, and I closed my eyes again.

“I believe that’s fair,” was Henbane’s only reply as he left, the door closing behind him.

I rocked slightly, gulping and gasping.  I didn’t dare move my arm; it was aching horribly: the pain traveled along my elbow to my fingertips. 

I turned my head hesitantly, eyeing my arm with a type of repulsion I didn’t know I could muster.  Where skin had once been was pink flesh–raw and burning as air hit it.  Blood leaked steadily from it, staining the red couch.

I stared at the gash, my eyes widening in disbelief.  It was shaped like an ellipse, with sharp points at the edges.  My throat choked on the laugh that was threatening to escape me.  Instead, I heaved a dry sob, gulping uncontrollably.

The slash looked very similar to an eye.

And now the score was even.

It was downright poetic–

A writer like me could appreciate it.

I began laughing quietly–soft sniggers that fell silently in the room, as I closed my eyes again, wishing that I could sleep.


Copyright Sarah Davidson 2020

Forthcoming, Chapter Twenty: Runaway

I didn’t care what Derek said.  I’d been walking in the direction of Agenton for so long that my feet felt like jelly–that is, jelly with spikes sticking through it. 

     At this point, however, I was hoping for any hint of civilization: the only indication that I wasn’t completely separated from all of society was the occasional sign, proclaiming “LeesCreek: 10 miles,” or “Oaksboro: 20 miles.”  I hadn’t seen any of these towns, just the same road and the same surrounding forest.  Despite the hours I’d spent walking, I knew I’d only gone a few miles (between my breaks and my slightly nervous gait, I wasn’t going as fast as I could.) 

     One part of me still wanted to turn back, but every part of me knew that it was too late.  Each passing car made me cringe, and my palms were sweating profusely–not from the sun, but from the nervous beating of my heart.

     So I didn’t care what Derek had said: I needed a distraction.  I jerked my IPod from my pocket and rammed the earphones into their proper place.  I didn’t take time to locate a song; I just listened to whatever was playing, making sure that the volume was full-blast:

“To everything–turn, turn, turn,

There is a season–turn, turn, turn,

And a time for every purpose under heaven.

A time to be born, a time to die….”

I hastily skipped to the next song, convincing myself that I didn’t believe in omens and that my IPod wasn’t trying to tell me something.

     Yet, a week ago, I hadn’t believe in prophets either.

     I shook my head, trying to concentrate more heavily upon Dave Davies’ guitar riffs.

     It was a good distraction until I saw a gas station slowly appearing over a hill–the halfway point. (I must’ve traveled farther than I’d thought.)  I was halfway home, and yet not a single thing had happened.  I breathed a sigh of relief, checking my watch: it was five o’clock.  I’d been a runaway for nearly a whole day.

     And I was beginning to hope that things remained this way–if nothing happened (if I could get home safely), then maybe Chay would leave me alone.

     I grinned–the idea seemed too good to even dream about

     I turned off my IPod, shoving it back in my pocket.  There were a few dollars in my pocket, and I wondered if I could get a Coke at the gas station–it would be a welcomed break.

     I walked more quickly than I had all day, stopping at the station: it appeared to be taken directly from a textbook, specifically a chapter discussing the 1950’s.  The station was small with peeling paint and there were only two pumps.  It seemed like the perfect place for any passerby to stop before being attacked by mutants yielding chainsaws or inbreeds yielding banjos. 

     At this moment, however, I’d never seen anything that looked more like a piece of paradise.  I approached eagerly, entering the store area.  The room was lit with a flashing florescent bulb that gave the room a greenish glow.  The air smelled stale: a mixture of cigarette smoke and age.

     The man behind the counter looked as old as the candy he was trying to sell (most of the brands I hadn’t even heard of).  Yet he turned the minute he heard me enter.

     “You lost, kid?”

     “No, I’m goin’ in the right direction.” (I’d seen enough horror movies to know not to take directions from strangers.)  “I was just wanting something to drink.”

     The man closed his mouth, his bottom lip overlapping the rest of his mouth.  He moved slowly, like a cheap wind-up toy, stopping every once in a while to straighten his glasses or touch his fisherman’s hat.

     I was beginning to get impatient, constantly

glancing over my shoulder–I no longer wanted to see anyone.  Not until I got home, that is;  I couldn’t wait to get back to Mom and Reb.

     Heck with the plan–I was running away. 

     I was going home.

     The man finally returned, licking his lips.  He passed me a Coke (in a glass bottle–I grinned; this gas station really was lost in yesteryear).  “Two dollars,” he mumbled.

     I passed him the money, pulling at the cap on the bottle.

     “Need a hand?” the man asked.

     I nodded, handing the bottle back to him.  He muttered angrily about teenagers, reminding me of something Chay would say.

     I bit my lip.  If I was lucky–really lucky–then I wouldn’t be hearing from Chay ever again.

     I took the bottle back, shoving the cap into my pocket and taking a long swig.  “Thanks,” I said, turning to the door.  The man didn’t say anything in response, just picked up a newspaper and began reading.

     The sun was blinding, and I picked a shady spot to relax.  I sat on a rusty tire, watching the desolate road in front of me.  I decided that I should hurry–the less time I spent in one place, the better–but the soda was surprisingly cold, so I could only drink so quickly.

     I felt suddenly peaceful–as though everything was going right.

     “Todd?”

     Dang it.

     I closed my eyes, hoping that I’d been hearing things.

     “Todd!”

     The voice was angrier this time–gruffer.

     I stood, taking the last drink of soda and setting the Coke on the sidewalk.  I turned slowly–my worst fears confirmed.

     Dang it, dang it, dang it, I thought, as though repeating the phrase would make Chay suddenly disappear.

     He was standing diagonally from me.  Miss Carling’s car was parked haphazardly–part of it in the road, the other part in the gas station.  I noticed the angle of the car, and frowned: it appeared as though Chay had been traveling toward Derek’s rather than away from it.

     Chay approached me, his steps swift and quick; he barely seemed to touch the ground.  I’d never seen his short hair so tousled, nor his jaw so tightly clenched.

     He reached me quickly, my back hitting against ice box.  He grabbed me by the wrists, his face inches from my own.  “Fancy running into you, Todd.”  His voice was low and grave.

     But the last thing I felt was fear.  In fact, I felt angry–furious, actually.

     I’d never been more easily angered than when I was around Chay.  Maria and Alvin had gotten on my nerves; Miss Carling had been a thorn in my side; but Chay was… was….

     Chay was like a whole thorn bush that was being shoved down my throat, twisting just the right way to push buttons I didn’t even know I had.

     Because I’d been so close. 

     I’d almost been out of this nightmare.

     But Chay wasn’t going to let me leave.

     Well, I wasn’t going back without a fight, that was for sure.

     I jerked my wrists, but Chay’s grip was harsh: rather than breaking his grip, my writs twisted awkwardly, paining as Chay shifted slightly as I struggled to remain upright, tripping over my own foot and falling into the tire.

     Chay didn’t let go, just leaned forward, his expression grim.  “Don’t embarrass yourself, Todd.”

     “Let go of me!”

     Chay’s chest heaved slightly in frustration.  His face didn’t change however: his mouth was still taught and his jaw was strained beneath his hard features.  “You will keep quiet, Todd.”

     “Let go!”  I squirmed, feeling very childish but not caring.  “Let go of me!  Help! Someone help!”

     “Todd!” Chay lifted me easily, pushing me from the tire and throwing me to the ground.  I scrambled against the dirt, beginning to run.

     Chay was faster.

     He pinned me against the building, whispering, “Todd, you’re making a scene.  You’re going to be quiet.  You’re going to accept what is happening–”

     “I’m not letting you take me there!”

     “No one’s taking you anywhere!”

     “I heard you and Aislynn talking!”

     “Todd, will you stay still!”

     “No!” I struggled, kicking my legs in every direction and twisting my body the best I could beneath Chay’s weight.  “You’re on her side!”

     Chay’s grip loosened slightly.  I yelled incoherently, squeezing between Chay and a pump.  “I’m not an idiot!” I shouted again. 

     Chay was watching me strangely.  His face had loosened slightly, his eyes without the edge they had implied as he’d cornered me. 

     “You think I fell for that?” I spat, keeping my gaze on Chay, afraid to look away.  “You’re just like her!  You don’t… don’t–” It was getting harder to speak.  I was walking away, shouting as loudly as I could.  “You don’t know anything about me!”

     “Don’t know anything?”  Chay came took a step closer, and I nearly tripped again, taking a few quick steps backward.  Chay stopped approaching.  He swallowed.  “Todd, you need to understand.” He paused.  “I don’t have a lot of say in this situation.”

     “Liar!”  My voice cracked and my eyes burned. “I’m your project.  Liar!”

     Chay came closer.  I noticed he was reaching behind his back, and my blood seemed to stiffen–it was a sensation that made my legs numb and my heart clench.  “Chay, don’t.  Please, Chay, just leave me alone!”

     “Todd, you know I can’t do that.”  Chay’s voice was somber.  This was business–nothing personal.

     Yeah, to him.  Not to me–this was my life.  A life that I’d thought he’d cared about.

     I don’t know why I was so surprised by my idiocy: I’d been fooled before.  I’d thought that Chay would protect me, but suddenly–so suddenly that I had to blink away the intensity of the realization–I realized the truth.

     I didn’t know how much control Chay truly had over me, but the facts were simple: if he had to, he’d surrender me to Aislynn.  This was simply his job–the ole’ nine-to-five.

     “No.” My voice was weaker this time.  I don’t know where my anger had gone, replaced by empty hopelessness.

     I could see in Chay’s persona that the battle was over.  “Todd, you’re going to come along with me.  You’re going to come quietly.  And you’re not going to try something as stupid as running away again.”

     I didn’t say anything, just continued to back away. 

     “Todd, do you realize how long we’ve been looking for you?  I thought you’d be in Agenton, but when you weren’t there….” Chay trailed off.  I could again see both of his hands: they were empty.  He’d obviously decided against using force.  “Todd, I assumed the worse.”

     “Yeah,” I agreed weakly. “It would have been such a shame for the Department.”

     “Todd–”

     “Get away from me!”

     “There some trouble out here?”

     Chay whirled around so quickly that I didn’t even see him turn: one instant he was dangerously eyeing me, the next he was facing the elderly gas station clerk.  The old man had slowly wobbled outside, his hand clasped around the receiver of a nearby payphone.

     Chay’s entire demeanor changed.  When he spoke, it was with a strange, almost amused tone.  “My nephew just tried running away from home.  His mom’s worried sick.  She’ll be so glad to hear that he’s safe.”

     The old man still seemed suspicious.  He raised his eyes, looking past Chay.  “And what do you have to say?”

     I began to open my mouth, but the voice I heard wasn’t mine:

     “Wanting to fill up.”  The voice was monotonous, but the tone didn’t take away from its menace.

     Chay whirled around almost as quickly as I did.  The surprise on his face seemed unnatural as his grey eyes fell on the figure that was leaning arrogantly against one of the pumps. 

     Henbane didn’t grin, nor did he even appear to notice that Chay and I were mere feet from him.  Behind him was a limo, the windows tinted and the engine roaring softly, like a panther readying itself to strike.

     Henbane didn’t move, just kept his eye on the clerk.  I noticed with a sudden jolt of terror that one of Henbane’s eyes had been covered with a patch.  His beard was rougher than it had been since I’d last seen him, his coarse face stretching into a would-be-good-natured grin, was it not for the venomous glint in his gaze.

     He took a step forward, and Chay immediately jumped in front of me.  Neither man spoke, and I ran closer to Chay.

     Henbane glanced toward me, his lips twitching.  “Isn’t that sweet?” he hissed.  “Ducking for cover under mother hen’s wing.”  He laughed, reaching into his back pocket.  He kept his hand behind his back, but I could still see the sunlight reflecting dully against metal.

     Chay noticed as well, and I saw his eyes widen.

     “How much you want?” 

     I know I twitched at the sound of the old man’s voice.  Chay, too, seemed to have forgotten he was there, though he didn’t look away from Henbane; nor did Henbane let his eye leave Chay.

     “On second thought,” Henbane began, “I think the tank is full.”

     In one swift movement, Henbane’s hand was in front of him, a pistol poised neatly between his fingers.  He didn’t even look at the old man as he took aim….

     “Todd!”  Chay pushed me to the ground, commanding is a harsh whisper to “stay down and don’t look up!”

     I covered my head with my arms, closing my eyes against the loud bang, and the quiet condolence as Henbane muttered, “Just couldn’t afford a witness.”

     There was a thump, and I barreled my face into the dirt, trying to ignore the sound that–somehow–was still replaying in my mind.  It had sounded like glue squirting from a bottle.  There was no gasping, no moaning, and I tried not to imagine where Henbane must have hit to have had such an immediate kill.

     The thought made me ill, and–tentatively–I looked up, making sure my eyes didn’t stop anywhere near the door to the gas station.

     Instead, I watched Chay, who now also held a gun in his hands.  His face was somber, his eyes unblinking, as he watched Henbane.

     They were circling each other, and I noticed that I was right in the middle of their fight.  I gulped audibly, clasping my hands so tightly across my head that it hurt.

     “Todd, I said not to look up!”

     I obeyed Chay immediately, the loose dust rising into my nose and making my throat itch. 

     “You came to play, didn’t you, Chay?”  Henbane’s voice lacked the sarcasm it’d held last time; I swallowed hard–today, he meant business.

     Chay didn’t respond.  He’d obviously noticed the change in Henbane’s demeanor. 

     “What an interesting predicament you’re in, Chay.”  I didn’t dare look up, but I could feel Henbane’s heavy footfalls surrounding me.  “Let’s take a look at your options.  One, you start shooting.  That would cause me to shoot–” Another laugh.  “–Wonder who would get hit?  I think I know.”

     Though I wasn’t watching the exchange, I could feel Henbane staring in my direction.

     “Option two, you wait for me to start shooting–same outcome.”  Henbane paused.  “Option three, you stop playing and let me have the kid.”

     “You wouldn’t dare shoot the prophet.”

     I cringed at Chay’s response.

     Henbane cackled.  “I didn’t say I’d kill him.” 

     “I didn’t say I’d let you.”

     “Of course not, Chay.  You’re always the valiant one.” The sneer in Henbane’s voice was so evident that I shivered.  “The brave, the noble–”

     “You forgot impatient,” Chay snapped, and I jumped, clutching my hair as another bang filled the air.

     There was a shout–not of pain, but of surprise.  I didn’t have the time to register who had yelled.  A strong arm was pulling me to my feet.  I struggled, trying to keep my eyes closed and my head down.

     “Todd, run!” The order was brief, but welcomed.  I opened my eyes gingerly, watching as Chay ducked, dragging me along beside him. 

     “Trying to be sneaky are we?”

     There was more firing, and Chay fell to the ground, plunging behind a pile of rusted tires.  A bullet grazed the top of the stack, red dust sprinkling over Chay and myself.

     Chay reloaded his gun, taking a deep breath.  “Todd, I want you to run, understand?”

     “Chay, I can’t just–”

     “Go back to Agenton.”

     My mind seemed to stop working, as though some little man inside my brain had pressed the “pause” button.

     “What?” I managed to whisper. 

     Henbane yelled another insult, and a bullet shot through the tires, causing the pile to wobble precariously.  Chay grunted, jumping from his place and shooting.

     “Go back to Agenton, Todd.”

     I blinked a few times.  Never had Chay given me permission to leave.  He didn’t say any more, but leapt over the tires, shooting so quickly that I didn’t have time to recognize where one shot began and another ended. 

     “You playing the distraction now, Chay?  Isn’t that a demotion?”

     Chay had actually given me permission to be normal–to go back to the life I’d used to enjoy.  The life with school, and Mom, and Alvin, and Virgil….

     I frowned.

     My eyes darted to the side, my thoughts racing so quickly that my body couldn’t keep up.  Everything good that had ever happened to me was connected to writing: my dad, my albums, Reb….

     My life hadn’t just included The Man In The Shadows, it had depended upon The Man In The Shadows.

     “Ha!”

     There was a loud groan, followed by an even louder thump–the sound of someone hitting the ground.

     “Consider the score even.” Henbane’s mumble was barely audible above my own dizzy thoughts, but somehow it shook my from my stupor.  I rose, scurrying to my feet.

     I stopped when I spied Henbane, watching him carefully.  I continued to retreat toward the surrounding woods, but my feet were refusing to act logically.

     “Looks like its down to us, Todd Everett.”  Henbane gave a twisted grin.  The sleeve of his yellowed t-shirt was torn, his arm bleeding from where a bullet had grazed his skin.  His jeans were ripped and dirt-covered.  Henbane seemed more threatening than ever, and I wildly scanned the area for Chay.

     Because, whether he liked it or not, I was connected to the stories I’d been writing for years. 

     And there wasn’t any easy way out.

     “What’s the matter?  Not so easy being brave without your bodyguard?”

     Henbane was closing in quickly, but I still couldn’t bring myself to move.  I glanced around the station, trying to ignore where the clerk now lay.  My eyes refused to look away, however, and I clutched my stomach, gagging.

     “Don’t like blood, kid?” Henbane snapped.  “You’re in luck.”

     I forced my eyes back to Henbane, stifling a gasp.  The gun had been replaced by a long needle; the liquid within shimmered in the sunlight. 

     I took two quick steps backward, losing my balance and falling into a tire.  Henbane laughed, closing the distance between us.  “Now, this is going to sting.”  He jammed the needled into my arm, twisting it slightly as it broke the skin. 

     My breath caught in my lungs and the veins in my neck tightened.  Henbane pushed the syringe, the serum slowly seeping into my body.  “This is going to make the trip go a lot faster,” he whispered, mocking the tone a parent uses when putting a toddler to bed.  “Just relax, prophet.”

     My heartbeat slowed, despite the desperate racing it was longing to do.  I felt my limbs go numb, and my head began to feel like a marshmallow. 

     I watched Henbane.  His lone eye seemed satisfied as he lifted me into his arms, walking carefully toward the limo.  I didn’t move–couldn’t move as I hit the floor of the vehicle.

     My body couldn’t detect the coolness of the limo, nor the roughness of the carpet.  There was a voice–soft and low–but I couldn’t understand what it was saying.

     “With pleasure,” was Henbane’s throaty response, and my ears dimly recognized the sound of gunfire. 

     There was movement, and the sound of the car door closing.  There was little light, and I could feel my senses ebbing away from the rest of my mind.

     I was angled so I could see out the window–there was a flash of red and orange.  Rubble filled the air, but it meant very little.  Somewhere between the rumbling of my ears and the soft voices above me, there was pain–that was all that mattered.

     And yet the pain was nothing more than a wayward thought, a subtle recognition.

     I was in pain.  I was going somewhere.

     I was tired.

     Now, that’s what was important.

     “Search him.”

     The command came from the other man.  His voice held all the sincerity of an atomic bomb, and he sat like a statue–tall and foreboding.  The man with the gun–what was his name?–reached toward me, his features stern.

     Then–though I could not remember closing my eyes–the world went black.


Copyright Sarah Davidson 2020

Forthcoming, Chapter Nineteen: Answers

The voices were muffled.  I couldn’t tell if this was because they were whispering, or because half of my mind was still in the future.

     It wasn’t until I’d shaken my head a few times that I realized no one was whispering at all.  In fact, they were shouting.  This wasn’t an argument–this was a downright fight.

     My head was hurting–not from the vision (I inwardly cringed at the word)–but from the fact that I hadn’t eaten in so long I’d forgotten how food tasted.

     And the yelling was making my head pound even more harshly against my temple.  I pushed the notepad to the side, noticing a bag of potato chips on the table in front of me.

     I snatched at them greedily and crammed them into my mouth as quickly as I could without choking.  Grease and salt had never tasted so good.

     My headache was slowly subsiding, so I put the chips down and took a drink of the soda that had also been left for me.  It was a Coke, which was personally my favorite soda.  Dad had always liked Coke, too, but Mom had always insisted on drinking diet.

     I put the Coke down, and turned away from the kitchen, where Chay was now standing, yelling at someone I couldn’t see.  Derek was sitting at the table, watching Chay with both amusement and worry.

     Worry–my mom had to be worried sick about me.  I’d skipped school and then not come home.  She probably thought I’d been kidnaped or something. 

     That was the last thing I wanted Mom to be thinking about. 

     I didn’t want her pacing the kitchen, thinking that I was lying in a ditch somewhere.  She’d already lost Dad… I didn’t want her to lose me, too.

     “Would you sit down!”

     Chay’s voice shook me from my thoughts–for which I was grateful: the idea of Mom organizing a search party made me feel guilty–not that I had the choice to leave, or even to tell her that I was alright.

     “Chay, you need to listen to reason!”

     “You need to hear what you’re saying, Aislynn!”

     I sat straighter.

     So Aislynn was here.

And whatever she was saying was making Chay angry.  I thought of how little emotion Chay had shown–he was The Man In The Shadows, after all–and felt suddenly nervous.  Whatever was making Chay this upset couldn’t be good.

     I leaned closer to the kitchen, listening intently.

     “Right, Chay,” Aislynn began, “because suggesting that Todd is actually safe and that we can use his powers to their full potential is insane!”

     “More like inhumane, Aislynn!”

     I watched the kitchen as though it was a particularly interesting soap opera.  I could see all three of them now: Derek still looked uneasy, and Chay remained defiant.  Aislynn, however, had risen her fist and was standing on her toes. 

     She was even more beautiful than I’d ever written her to be: her dark red hair rolled across her angular face the same way fields roll across the earth. 

     “And what is that for, Aislynn?”  Chay snapped, pushing her fist to the side.

     “Give me a reason, Chay!”

     “Would saying that this isn’t your project and that you should keep out of my business be a reason?  Would telling you that I’ve seen vipers with more compassion than you be reason?  Would–”

     Chay fell backward, and I tried not to laugh. 

     “I said give me a reason, Chay!”  Aislynn whirled her fist in the air, not the least bit upset that she’d hit Chay.  Derek’s eyes had grown wide–where I was repressing laughter, he seemed ready to run from the room.

     Chay stood, his look furious.  His nose was bleeding and he was breathing heavily. 

     “Ooh, can’t Chay think of a good comeback?” Aislynn spat.  “Maybe he’ll actually listen to me.”

     “Maybe Aislynn can shut-up long enough to realize that she’s dealing with a human life, not some sort of stupid experiment!”  Chay yelled so loudly that his voice seemed to linger in the apartment long after he’d closed his mouth.

     “The precise reason why we should try to protect him in a way that is actually effective!”  Aislynn was yelling, too, her voice almost as loud as Chay’s. (It was certainly more shrill.) “Human life is sacred and should be preserved!”

     “Like bacteria in a petry dish?” Chay snapped.  “Poked and prodded and tested?  You think that’s best for Todd?”

     I fell into the cushions.

     For the first time, I felt grateful to have Chay on my side.

     “Maybe you,” Aislynn shouted, “should stop thinking about Todd and start thinking about what the world will be like if we don’t use him!”

     I could honestly feel my heart beating faster. I was very warm and wanted to run into the kitchen and punch Aislynn myself.

     Because to her, I was apparently nothing more than a tool.  Forget that I have only one life to live–I life I want to live as a person, not an experiment!

     “So you’re saying Todd doesn’t matter at all as long as we can use him?”

     You tell her, Chay!

     “I’m saying that if Todd has something to contribute to the world then he should–”

     “Should what, Aislynn?  Give up living his life for everyone else?”

     “How is that different than what we did, Chay?”

     “We wanted to!  We didn’t have anything else!”  Chay was standing inches from Aislynn, his face now red.  “And last time I checked, he is contributing!”  Chay gestured to the side.  I saw my stories scattered across the table.

     “Oh yes, that’s working brilliantly, Chay!”  Aislynn snapped.  “Glimpses of the future that have ALREADY HAPPENED!”

     Chay looked as though he was about to speak, but Aislynn continued:

     “Face it, Chay, you don’t know any more about Todd’s powers than we do!  We need to send him to researchers who can figure out how to channel his visions for whenever we need them!”

     “He’s writing now, isn’t he?”

     “Oh yes–maybe he’s seeing that you and I are going to break up!”

     “I knew it!”

     Chay and Aislynn both rounded on Derek.  He shrunk back into his chair.  “I… uh,” he mumbled, “Knew you were dating.”  They continued to stare, Derek wringing his hands.  “Carry on–you were talking about psychic boy.”

     Chay turned back to Aislynn, his voice softer.  “Is that what you want?”

     “Yes, Chay.  I want Todd to be protected and–”

     “No.  You want to break-up?”

     I felt suddenly uncomfortable.  Derek seemed to think the same way I did, because he’d become very interested with the grains in the table.

     “Well, Chay, they say that you shouldn’t date people you work with.”

     “Yeah.”  Chay’s voice was heavy.

     “Okay, then.”  I heard a chair skid across the linoleum.  When I looked up, both Aislynn and Chay were sitting.

     “What are we going to do?”  Aislynn asked quietly.

     “Well,” Chay began, “We could always try eHarmony.com.”

     “Oh, shut-up, you big jerk!’

     “Wow, jerk–I am so offended.”

     “Chay–” Derek’s voice was stiff and forced.  “Now may not be the best time for sarcasm.

     Chay nodded.  Both he and Aislynn had their backs to the living room and I had to strain to hear what they said next.

     “Admit it, Chay, you’ve run out of leads.  Everything Todd’s written has already happened.”

     There wasn’t any response.  Aislynn breathed heavily, speaking slowly.  “Most of it’s ruined anyways.  But what isn’t… well, it’s not very important.”  Aislynn reached her hand out to touch Chay’s, but he moved it away quickly.

     “Chay, he’s written about you and me.  About Derek–”

     “So you’re saying we weren’t ever important?”

     “Chay, I didn’t say that!”

     “No, of course not, Aislynn.”

     “Chay–”

     “He wrote about me getting hurt, Aislynn.  He wrote about stealing the disc.  He wrote that Cyrus is just as confused about Todd’s powers as we are.”  Chay’s head snapped back to Aislynn.  Even from this angle I could see the emotionless shine that Chay’s eyes had adopted.  “The importance is in the details, Aislynn.  And I didn’t need research to tell me that.  I am perfectly capable of understanding Todd’s visions.”

     “So you knew that Henbane was going to come after you?”

     “I knew that something was going to happen to cause me to get hurt!  Why do you think I’ve been trying to get Todd out of Agenton as quickly as I could?”

     “Oh yes, smart, Chay.  You tried to get him away from Agenton, but you didn’t think of having a weapon with you?”

     “I had something with me!  I didn’t use it immediately because Todd would have probably breathed in the gas!  I only used it when I knew it would be safest for him!”  Chay’s voice was raising, his face growing more stern with each second.

     “Calm down, Chay.”

     “You stop mocking my abilities in protecting my project, Aislynn, and maybe I will.”

     “Letting Henbane anywhere near Todd at all means you’re not protecting him!”

     “He’s safe isn’t?  I brought him here–far from where Cyrus will think to look for him!”

     “You want him some place safe?  Why don’t you take him–”

     “I’m not letting The Department interfere with this, Aislynn!”

     “You’re lucky The Department hasn’t intervened!  They’re just letting you do this because you were at the warehouse!  You’ve been working against Cyrus longer than anyone–”

     “Anyone who’s lived to tell about it at least,” Derek muttered. 

     Chay didn’t respond immediately.  When he spoke, his voice was quiet.  “The Department’s too caught up in bureaucracy to even halfway understand the situation.”

     “The Department just wants what’s best for everyone.”

     “Except Todd,” Chay muttered.

     “Especially Todd.”

     Chay was about to open his mouth, when Derek cut across him.  “Listen, you two, Todd’s been in there writing.  Maybe he has something fairly decent for us–if he does than maybe we can leave research out this for a little while.”

     “That still leaves his protection–”

     That was it.

     I’d had enough of three of them planning my life as though it were a game of chess–as if I was piece for them to move around a board.  Heck, I wasn’t even anything decent, like a knight or a king.  No, I was a pawn: I didn’t get to know anything–the game plan, the next move, nothing!

     I glanced to the side, my head spinning from the fury that had leapt into my veins.  The notepad stared back at me, each carefully written word reminding me of a future I wanted nothing to do with–a future I

wished I was oblivious to.

     A future that Chay was oblivious to.

     A future that no one knew except me.

     I licked my lips at the very thought–I had a bargaining chip.  For once, I was actually in control of this situation.

     And I could get some answers.

     I grinned, standing and grabbing at the notepad so quickly that it nearly slipped from my hands.

     “Listen.”  Aislynn was speaking again.  Her voice was strained as she tried to keep it level.  Chay was watching her carefully. “Even if Todd’s latest prophecy is important–”

     “I have something.”  I was surprised by how forceful my voice sounded. 

     Chay was standing at the island instantly.  I couldn’t help but see a moment of relief on his face before it disappeared into nonchalance.  “What is it, Todd?”

     “Let me show you.”

     Chay nodded, and sat back down.  I noticed how tense he was, and regretted for a moment what I’d decided to do.  But now was not the time for me to feel sympathetic.

     When I came into the kitchen, Aislynn smiled up at me.  “Hi, Todd.  You and I haven’t technically met.  Nice to meet you.”

     She held out her hand, but I stood where I was. Aislynn was the last person I wanted to be friendly to right now. 

     But–more importantly–I wanted as much distance between the secret agents and myself as possible.

     Especially with what I was going to do.

     “Todd, what did you write?”  Chay’s voice was incredibly calm–almost uncaring.

     “I heard you guys talking,” I said.  My voice was very casual as I moved across the kitchen, staring ruefully at the three of them.

     “Todd, you have to understand that this is a very delicate situation.”

     “Why can’t you three understand that this is my life!”  I snapped.  I was proud of how much teenage angst I’d managed to cram into that sentence–it was the perfect distraction.

     “Todd,” Chay began, “You need to understand that there are some things that need to be discussed.”

     “Yeah, at least you’re on my side, Chay!” I spat.

     “Todd, we’re all on your side!” Aislynn retorted, sitting straighter.

     “You sure have a strange way of showing it!”  I moved to the opposite edge of the kitchen, between the stove and the refrigerator.  I stared at them, hoping that my eyes displayed the anger that they should.  (Not that this was hard–I was doing very little acting.)

     “Todd,” Chay began, glancing toward Aislynn and Derek.  I noticed that his nose had stopped bleeding from Aislynn’s punch; he’d cleared the blood onto his sleeve.  “I think you’re overreacting.”

     “Overreacting?”  My voice became high-pitched.  I leaned nonchalantly against the stove, saying, “Chay, you and Aislynn broke-up over me!  This isn’t something simple–I should be overreacting!”

     I watched Chay carefully.  No one else was speaking; it was evident they’d decided Chay was the best negotiator among them.

     “Todd, how much did you hear?”  Chay asked quickly.

     “I heard enough.”  I straightened.  “I don’t know what you guys are planning on doing with me, but–”

     “Todd,” Aislynn cut across Chay, who had opened his mouth to speak.  “We’re only concerned with keeping you safe.”

     “No, you’re concerned with using me.”  I spat.

     “Aislynn, will you let me handle this!”  Chay snapped.

     “Yes, Chay because you’re doing such a brilliant job.”

     I didn’t let my eyes leave the pair of them.  They were arguing again, though I’d stopped listening to the fracas.  What was important was getting answers–

     I reached carefully behind me, turning the knob on the stove.  I felt the heat of a blue flame, inches from my back.

     “Would you two be quiet long enough to answer my questions!” I spat.

     Chay and Aislynn whirled around.  They were both standing again, faces red.  “Todd, I’ve explained that I can’t tell you everything.”

     “Good to see we’re on the same page, Chay,” I said slowly.

     “What are you talking about, Todd?” Chay tensed, watching me carefully.

     I smirked.  “Everything I write is on a ‘need to know’ basis, Chay.  And right now, I don’t think you need to know.”  I spun around quickly, facing the stove and throwing the notepad on the white-hot flame as quickly as I could.  The paper caught immediately, curling and burning to ashes: first brown with purple tipped edges as the ink bled into the flame, then black, the crumbling pieces of my story falling into the stove.

     Chay was at the stove in an instant, pushing me to the ground.  He grabbed at the notepad, dropping it quickly against the heat.

     “Smart, Chay!” Aislynn snapped, pushing him to the side.  “Let me handle this.”  She turned the knob harshly, the stove creaking as the flame died.  The notepad still sizzled slightly, light smoke lifting into the air and filling the kitchen.

     “Derek, open a window!” Chay snapped, scooping the sad remains of my latest chapter into an oven mitt.

     Aislynn walked over where Chay was staring at the mess in his hands, and huffed.  “Nice going, Chay!”

     “This is my fault!”

     “If you’d just had a bit more control over your project–”

     “Well, if you hadn’t been distracting me–”

     “Would you shut up!”

     Everyone turned back to me.  Derek frowned from the window, his head cocked to the side.  Chay rounded on me quickly, fuming.  “Todd, do you have any idea what you have done!” he spat, throwing the ashes into my face.  “This was the last lead we had!  It was our only–no, Todd–you’re only chance!  Don’t you understand that!” He grabbed me by the shoulders, throwing me into a chair.  “Do you have any idea what you’ve gotten yourself into?” he whispered, his voice so low that I was the only person who could hear.

     “I know exactly what I did,” I said, my voice equally as quiet.  “I’ve gotten myself some answers.”

     I rose, sliding past Chay so that I was in the dead center of the kitchen.  “I just destroyed the only clue The Department had into the future.”

     “Nice thinking, Todd,” Derek mused, his lips twitching arrogantly.  “What are you going to do now?”

     “I’m going to ask you what’s on that stupid disc.  The disc I knew about before anyone did–before Chay stole it.”  I walked carefully toward Aislynn.  “For all you know, that pile of ash over there was the key to stopping Cyrus.”

     “For all I know, you’re bluffing,” Aislynn said, her voice curving around each syllable.  She leaned downward, her dark hair falling across her shoulder.

     “You’re right, it could’ve been your next date with Chay.”

     “We’re through,” Aislynn snapped, her voice icy.

     “You don’t know what the future holds.”  I smirked.

     “No one likes a smartalec, Todd,” Chay snapped from the corner, where he still stood, leaning against the wall so that he was mostly covered by shadows.

     “Yeah, Todd,” Aislynn began, looking at Chay rather than at me, “You’d better watch your mouth–you might end up like Chay over there.”

     “The point is,” I continued, “I know what was in my… vision.”  I gulped slightly.  “And you don’t.  If you even want a hope of finding out, you’ll answer my questions.”

     “You don’t think,” Aislynn began, “That The Department has methods for extracting information?”

     Chay was suddenly behind me.  “Don’t even think about it, Aislynn.”  I felt his hand on my shoulder; he was gripping me so harshly that his touch seemed to reach to the bone.

     “Chay, I honestly do think you’re going soft.”

     “You want to destroy his gift?  Want him to sustain so much pain that we lose all insight into the future until the next one?”

     “Next one?”

     Chay looked at me carefully.  “There is one prophet per generation, Todd.”  He eyes snapped back to Aislynn.  “And with Cyrus on the move, we can’t afford to wait.”

     For what seemed like an eternity, Chay and Aislynn stared at each other: Chay’s features were unchanging, his grip upon me tightening with each second.  Aislynn pursed her lips, her eyes on fire.

     She was the first to look away.

     Chay smirked, his eyes not leaving Aislynn’s form as she crossed her arms, staring resolutely at the floor.

     “What are your questions, Todd?”

     I sighed.  My heart had been beating at what seemed like one-hundred miles per hour.  I’d never been more nervous in my life, but apparently it hadn’t shown.  I swallowed, hoping to ease my racing heart and collect my thoughts.  “I want to talk about my stories.”

     Chay frowned.  “Todd, you’re seeing the future.”  He clapped his hands in would-be-jubilance.  “Well, that was easy.  Now, moving on to more pressing matters–what did you write?”

     I shook my head.  “You said all that stuff that I wrote has already happened?”

     “Which is why it’s so important for you to tell us what you wrote,” Chay implored, his eyebrows raised.

     “I want to know more about it.  I mean, my writing’s so vague.  I always come in right in the middle of the action.  I don’t really see the whole future–just a snippet.”

     “That’s typical,” Derek supplied, sitting straighter.  “The future is a confusing, questionable thing–it’s impossible to see everything.”

     “The key,” Aislynn began, her voice so sharp I half-expected her tongue to slither out of her mouth like a snake.  “Is interpreting what a person is able to see.”

     “I want to know more about what I have seen, like the warehouse fire, and–”

     “Todd, those things are in the past.”  Chay’s voice sounded so heavy that it caught me off guard.  When I looked at him though, his face was stern.  I wondered if I’d imagined the emotion.

     “But it could be important,” I began.  “And besides, if you don’t answer my questions, then I won’t answer yours.”

     “Todd, none of that matters.  What’s important is what we can avoid now.”

     Chay’s voice was so definite that I didn’t press the matter.  I couldn’t help but notice how quiet the room had become.

     “Do you have any more questions, Todd?”  Chay’s voice was again harsh.  He was standing–as far from Aislynn as was possible in the small kitchen–watching me expectantly.

     “What’s on the disc?”

     “That isn’t something that you should know about, Todd,” Aislynn demanded.

     “Aislynn, I think he has a right to know.”

     She didn’t turn her head towards him, but when she spoke again, it was through gritted teeth.  “Chay, I think you’re getting confused.”

     “Listen, even Derek can’t make sense of what’s on the disc,” Chay’s voice was reasonable, as though commenting that dark clouds must mean rain.  “Between his latest vision and what’s on the disc, Todd may be able to filll in the blanks.”

     No response.  I was beginning to miss the awkward mornings with Mom after a fight with Virgil.  They would be far more welcome than the menace that was playing between Chay and Aislynn.

     “In fact,” Chay began, “Todd is probably the only person who can fill in the blanks.”

     Aislynn turned toward him, her voice grim.  “Do what you want, Chay.”

     She turned and took a seat at the table, crossing her arms and legs.  “But I won’t be a part of going directly against The Department’s orders.”  She turned her nose to the air, looking at the wall.

     “Congratulations, Todd, I think I’ve found someone with your same maturity level.”

     “I don’t pout!”  I shouted, but Aislynn seemed unperturbed.

     Chay laughed.  “Oh no, of course not!  ‘They’re not real, they’re stories!’” he said in a high-squeaky voice.  “‘Stop bugging me big, scary spy-man!’”

     “You’re not big and scary!” I spat.  “And I don’t sound like that!”

     “If you two ladies are done fighting,” Derek said slowly from the living room.  “The disc is loaded and waiting for examination.”

     Chay’s face suddenly became serious. “You better understand this, Todd.”  He turned toward the living room, leaving me alone with Aislynn, still glaring at the wall.

     I followed him quickly, watching as Derek began to click on files.  “I have no idea what any of this means.”

     “Like a piece is missing from the puzzle,” Chay explained as I sat down. 

     “What is it?” I asked.  The screen was blank, save for a single folder. 

     “That’s just it,” Derek said, scowling.  “Watch.”  Derek clicked the file, then rolled away from the screen so that I could have a better view.  At first, nothing happened: the screen remained completely black. 

     “Do you hear that?” I asked, looking from Chay to Derek.

     “Hear what?” Chay asked, still watching the screen.

     I turned back to the computer.  I couldn’t take my eyes away from it: a small, white light was growing in the background.  I squinted my eyes, listening to the quiet voice that was steadily growing louder.

     “That!  Don’t you hear that?”

     “Todd, are you feeling alright?”  Chay instinctively put a hand to my forehead, but I pushed him away.  The white light had grown into a clear image:  at first I could hardly make out what I was staring at.  But the louder the voice became (because there was a voice–it was echoing clearly in my ears), the larger the image grew.

     It took me several moments before I realized that I was staring at a pattern that moved with the voice–the louder the voice was, the more pronounced the lines became.  The higher the voice, the higher the bars reached.  It looked very similar to the program that played whenever I put a CD into my computer.

     “Is it a CD?” I asked; I knew the question was stupid, but I received an answer nonetheless.

     “It’s a program of some sort, Todd.  Derek is certain of that much.”

     (–a disc that contained blueprints for a new product that IMPOS was planning for release in early 2010.)

     “It’s a blueprint for a program,” I said suddenly, staring at the screen. The lines had turned into blotches–as though someone was dripping milk on a black background. The voice was the same–more pronounced than before, yet its message was still unclear.  “It’s a blueprint,” I repeated.  “I read about it in the news.”

     “I read that article, too, Todd.  Do you think that Cyrus would hint that publicly?”

     “I think he’d find it romantic,” I continued,

watching as the lines continued to spread and contort.  They didn’t lose rhythm with the voice.  “Winning despite foreshadowing his own conspiracy….urgh!”  I groaned, reaching for the volume and turning it to full blast.  “There is no way you can’t hear that!”
     “Todd, we don’t hear anything,” Chay said, he leaned in closer as though he was trying to hear, but just continued to shake his head.  “Nothing–”

     “Shush!”

     Chay was livid for a moment, but it passed.  The noise was finally clear; I could hear each word distinctly.  They were crisp and clear and seemed to engrave themselves in my brain:

“The time is nigh for death

And you are its keeper.”

     “What?” I asked aloud.

     “Todd?”

     “What does ‘nigh’ mean?”

     Chay frowned.  “Imminent, coming, on the horizon.”

     I leaned closer to the screen.  “It’s almost poetic.”
     “What is, Todd?”

     The voice was replaying so rapidly that I could hardly tell where one word ended and the other began; I wasn’t using my ears for listening.  Instead, I was using my memory.  My brain played each word over and over, as though it had turned into a giant tape-recorder.

     “’The time is nigh for death and you are its keeper.’”  I nearly laughed. “Sounds like something Poe would write, doesn’t it?”

     Chay frowned. “Todd, there isn’t any voice at all.”

     “Yeah there is.” My tone was faint.  I had become far too interested in that voice.  It sounded as though someone was whispering in my ear (someone who had sucked helium, that is.)

     I shook my head.  “Turn it off,” I muttered.  My head was aching.  The image on the screen was beginning to look less and less like something I recognized.  The lines were floating like wisps, darting further along the screen as the voice become more crazed and more high-pitched.

     “Hold on, Todd.”

     “Chay, there’s something wrong with this!”

     “Well, obviously, Todd!  If there was something right with it, then The Department wouldn’t waste their time.”

     “Chay!”

     “Todd!”

     I shook my head, still staring at the computer, and bit my lip.  The voice wasn’t simply an undertone–it was strong as it repeated the same message.  Any sort of poetry was lost; it had turned into a string of shrill screeches.

      I couldn’t look away–the image (though meaningless) was hypnotizing.  It filled the screen the same way a gypsy danced in front of a fire.  It was mystifying and impossible to ignore–even Chay was watching it carefully.

     Derek was suddenly reaching across from me, turning the volume down.

     “What’re you doing?” I spat.

     “Listen,” he muttered.

     I heard it first–it was the sound of weeping and gunfire.  It was also the sound screaming guitars and smashing drums.  It was country twang and steady rap.

     My brain felt as though it was going into overload–it sounded as though every station on the radio was being played at once.  It was like some sort of strange musical collage–every once in a while, news reports would be thrown in.  It was impossible to distinguish one thing from another–

     Except for that voice–that stupid voice.

     It was crisp.

     “Turn it off,” I practically yelled.  My hands were balled into fists.  The image on the screen was bouncing rapidly, contorting with each new sound.

     “Todd, we need to see if anything reminds you of something you’ve seen!”
     “I get it!  I get it!  Just shut it off!” I was screaming.  I couldn’t turn away–the lines had spread out against the black.  As the noises continued, they seemed to form a shape around the rhythm–they were beginning to look like a face melting into the computer.  As I stared at it, I began to see the cavities where eyes should have been.  It was as though a ghost had been sucked into the computer and was trying to get out.  Its mouth was open and sagging, like a zombie, and the voice continued to chant the same phrase again and again:

“The time is nigh for death

And you are its keeper.”

     “Turn it off!”

     “Get it, Derek,” Chay shouted; he had to be very loud to be heard over me.

     “But if there’s more, Chay–”

     “TURN IT OFF!”  I reached for the computer, pressing the button on the monitor.  The computer buzzed; the image disappearing into a single white line before it faded.

     “Don’t touch!” Derek shouted, far too late.  “She’s very delicate!”

     “Your computer has a gender now?”

     I was breathing heavily, barely recognizing Aislynn’s voice behind me.  The voice was still echoing in my ear, and I if I closed my eyes I could still see that strange image.

     “I’m sorry, are you looking for something?” Chay spat.  His face was directly in front of mine, though his features had turned hard.

     “What does he think?” Aislynn asked quickly.

     “I thought you weren’t going to deliberately go against The Department.”

     She huffed. “The dark deed is done,” she said dramatically, pushing Chay and sitting in front of me.  “I might as well enjoy its spoils.”  Aislynn turned back to me, her expression stiff.  “What do you think, Todd?”

     I breathed slowly, regaining myself.  “Did you hear it?”

     “I heard the music.”

     “No, the voice before it,” I explained.  I was certain that I’d hard something.

     Aislynn frowned, shaking her head.  “What is he talking about, Chay?”

     “He claims to have heard something we couldn’t.”

     Derek snorted.  “Like some sort of secret code.”

     I sat, bolt upright.

     “I know something you don’t!”  I exclaimed.

     “Well, obviously, Todd,” Chay began. “None of us was born with an inner eye.”

     I threw a pillow at Chay, surprised that he didn’t react with some sort of karate.

     “No,” I explained, watching Chay closely.  “No one else could hear it because I’m the only teenager.”

     Chay seemed about to retort, but Aislynn shushed him.  “Go on, Todd.”

     “Teens are getting this new ringtone–its high-pitched, and for some reason only other teens can hear it.”

     Derek sat straighter.  “I know about that.”

     “Congrats,” Chay drawled, “you get a gold star.”

     Derek glowered, spinning in his chair.

     “What’s your point, Todd?”

     “My point is what Cyrus is planning.” I paused.  “You guys don’t have any idea, do you?”

     “Our insight is your writing and that disc, Todd,” Aislynn continued.

     Chay nodded. “The government has been interested in Cyrus for years, but he’s stayed under the radar enough to make it impossible for the CIA or FBI to act.”

     “He’s not actually broken any laws,” Aislynn explained.  “Everything he’s done is theoretical.  There’s not really any proof.”

     “And he’s good at buying silence,” Chay continued.  “Which is why you are such an asset to The Department.  We’re the only ones who can watch him, because we don’t technically exist.”

     I sat straighter.  “What do you mean by that?”

     The room had grown silent.  “Tell us about Cyrus’ plan if you know it, Todd,” Aislynn said quietly.

     “How can you not exist?”

     “Todd,” Chay was looking at me strangely.  “I wasn’t born ‘Chay,’ but that person died a long time ago.”

     “According to official record,” Landon mumbled.

     “Todd, you need to tell us about Cyrus.” Aislynn was leaning toward me.

     “I think,” I began, “that Cyrus is planning to kill a lot of important people.”

     “Tell us something we don’t know, Todd.”

     I turned to Chay.  “Okay, he’s planning on tricking them into doing it–that program holds some sort of message.  He’s planning on sending signals telling people to kill.”  I paused.  “I don’t know how he’s going to do it, but I know he’s getting close to a success….  I’ve seen it.”

     Everyone was quiet.  Chay’s expression didn’t change, but Aislynn’s lips were pressed into a hard line.  Derek’s head was cocked to the side and he was tapping his fingers impatiently.

     “Todd,” Chay began, “that doesn’t sound… plausible.”

     “Alright, fine,” I said.  “When there are all sorts of crazed people ripping each other a part, then I guess you’ll know I was right.”

     “You saw that?”  Aislynn’s tone was disgusted.

     I nodded.  “There’s just one thing I don’t understand.”
     “What’s that?”  Aislynn was asking the questions now; Chay had subsided into quiet contemplation.  He was watching me, his forehead creased in concentration.

     “I was the only one who could hear any of this because I’m a teenager.  In my… vision–” (I nearly choked on the word) “–there weren’t any teenagers, especially the people who were being tested.”

     “Obviously Cyrus isn’t just interested in teenagers,” Aislynn supplied.  “He wants to do a lot of damage.  If he really wants widespread damage, then he would target more than one group with this subliminal messaging.”

     Derek nodded.  “He’s probably planning on transmitting this signal through any sort of audio media.” He sounded as though he was reciting information from a text book.  “Radio, MP3s, IPods, television–anything that has sound.”

     “The question is how he’s going to get it there,” Aislynn agreed.

     “I didn’t see that.”  I leaned back in my chair.  “I saw him successfully operate an experiment.”

     “So he’s getting close.”  Aislynn cast a sideways glance to Chay, who didn’t turn away from me.  His gaze was beginning to make my skin crawl; I wished that he would look away.  Aislynn was still talking:

     “Todd, you’re visions seem to happen within a weeks of when they’re written.”

     Derek nodded.  “Poor little prophet boy is still in training,” he smirked.

     “What?”

     Aislynn straightened.  “A mature prophet should be able to predict things on a global scale, both in the near future and the far future.  Don’t worry, Todd, The Department has methods for helping you to get there.”  She grinned in a way that she must have thought was motherly; I thought she looked vampire advancing for a kill.

     I shifted so that I was looking at Chay; his stance hadn’t changed.

     “Anyways, Cyrus is getting close.  Something needs to be done, right?”  I asked.

     Aislynn nodded. “Yes, absolutely.  If Cyrus already has this blueprint for teenagers, and its evidently only a matter of time before he gets success with adults–according to Todd–then we need to start taking action.”

     “I still don’t understand why he would waste time on this program for teens when he’s planning on using adults, too–wouldn’t they cause more damage than the average high school cheerleader?” Derek laughed at his own joke, sneering.

     “He thinks the youth is very easy to manipulate,” I argued; I felt suddenly irate as Chay raised his eyebrows in what was–unmistakably–agreement.  “He said so in what I just wrote, and they were young adults.  If Cyrus thinks he can manipulate them, then teenagers would be simple–according to him,” I added as an afterthought.

     Aislynn grinned cheekily.  “Sounds like someone else I know.”

     Chay glanced at her; he didn’t appear to be angry, but when he spoke his words were terse.  “That still leaves the main problem:  what are we doing about it?”

     Aislynn opened her mouth, but didn’t respond. 

     “We’ll never be able to get into IMPOS after I broke in.  Security has to’ve increased tenfold.”

     “Chay,” I began, “in my vision Cyrus was somewhere else.  He wasn’t at his main headquarters.”

     Chay frowned. “You were seeing into the future, Todd.  When I broke in I was at the hub of this blueprint–where all the planning’s going on.  Cyrus isn’t ready to start experimenting yet–what you saw is probably somewhere he’s going to be going soon, but not yet.”   

  I nodded.  “Then how do we get in.”    

Chay sighed.  “As far as I can see, we don’t.  Breaking in is pointless if the odds of getting caught outweigh our chances of success.”

     “And if we can’t get in, we can’t do anything,” Aislynn said slowly.

      Everyone was silent.  I felt as though I’d jumped off a cliff–everything that I’d seen was terrible, yet we’d run into a dead-end.  There was simply nothing we could do.  It didn’t seem fair.

     My blood was pulsing more quickly than it ever had–both from anger, and–somehow–excitement.  For once in my life, everything actually made sense.  For once, I could actually be in control.  I knew exactly how to fix this unfair situation.

     “I can get in,” I said, shocked by how quickly all three of them turned to stare at me.

     “What?” Derek exclaimed.

     “You heard me.  Cyrus and Henbane want me as badly as The Department does–I could get in.”

     “Todd, I’m not using you as bait,” Chay voice was deep and guttural like a growl.

     “Chay, I won’t get hurt.  That’s the last thing that Cyrus and Henbane want.”  I smiled encouragingly.  “They’d be really stupid to hurt me.”

     “Chay, he has a point,” Derek agreed.

     Chay seemed as though he was holding his breath; his chest was puffed before him, his cheeks flushed.

     “Chay, he may be the only way to get in there.”

     “I think it would be best for us to use The Department,” Chay said stiffly.

     “Chay,” Aislynn implored, “If we bring The Department into this, you know what will happen.”

     Chay continued to stare at her. “I’m not using Todd as bait.”

     “You know what will happen to Todd the moment we let The Department in, Chay.”

     “I thought that’s what you wanted, Aislynn,” Chay snapped.

     “The situation has changed,” she turned back to me and grinned.  “We have the upper hand as it is, and changing things could be detrimental.”

     “Chay, it’s not big deal,” I began.  Chay’s eyes flared as he said:

     “It is a big deal.”

     “We’ll play it smarter, Chay,” Derek said from his chair. 

     “Yeah,” I agreed, “smarter than Cyrus.”

     Chay acted as though he was cornered: he didn’t speak; his hands reflexively balled into fists.  It was a long while before he spoke, and when he did, it was forced.  He said only one word, before sitting, scowling in a corner: “Fine.”

     Aislynn grinned.  “Very well, then.”

     “I think I know what to do,” Derek said, his eyes shining beneath his glasses.

     I watched Chay closely.  His expression was dark, his arms crossed as he watched and listened.

     “Todd?”

     “What?”  I turned my attention back to the other two.  They nodded for me to sit, so I obliged.

     “Okay,” Derek began, “Here’s the plan.”


Copyright Sarah Davidson 2020

Forthcoming, Chapter Eighteen: The Disc

The sound of crunching Cheerios woke me up.

     I rolled over noisily, nearly falling from the couch.  At first, I couldn’t remember where I was. 

     Then I noticed Derek staring angrily at me, shoveling soggy cereal into his mouth.

     “What?” I asked, sitting straighter, and ruffling my hair.  I noticed that someone had covered me with a blanket, and I couldn’t help but think it hadn’t been Derek.

     “He took my table,” Derek explained, motioning toward the kitchen.  His voice was harsh, as though this was all my fault.

     I followed Derek’s finger, and found Chay.  He was pacing, and looking downward in deep concentration.

     “What’s he doing?” I asked, and Derek huffed, setting his bowl on the on the floor harshly.

     “Trying to make sense of your writing.” 

     I leaned against the couch.  “Maybe he’ll have better luck than me.”

     “If he doesn’t, then we’re done for.”  Derek spat.  He walked into the kitchen, leaving me alone.

     Except for the pen and notepad.

     Chay must have set them nearby, in case I wanted to write.

     (“I can’t make you possibly comprehend how important your writing is.”)

     That still didn’t mean that I wanted anything to do with writing.

     I tried to keep myself occupied by watching Chay and Derek, until they saw me and sent me furious looks.

     My eyes wandered back to the arm of the couch, where the pen and notepad were balancing.

     It felt as though they were staring at me, begging me to write.

     I attempted to concentrate on the fact that I hadn’t eaten in twenty-four hours, yet the last thing I felt was hunger.

     Two very boring moments later, I’d begun tapping my foot anxiously.

     It couldn’t hurt to doodle.

     I grabbed at the pen, and began drawing the first thing that came to mind.

     It wasn’t until I was finished that I realized I’d drawn Cyrus’ heartless gaze.

     I closed my eyes, trying to ignore the feeling I’d been neglecting for days–the door to another world was opening, yet all I wanted to do was remain tethered to reality… or rather, to the present.

     When I opened my eyes again, however, they were staring at the page, which was quickly filling with words.

     I didn’t remember actually moving my arm, or clenching the pen.

     But I couldn’t help but love the rush that I was feeling.  The rush that I had thought was gone forever.

     Yet here it was, so natural that it felt as though it had never left.

     I grinned.  I felt as though I was falling, as though I was losing control.

     And it was the best I’d felt in days.

     My grin stretched into a wide smile, as I stared at the paper, the surrounding apartment slowly fading to darkness–

     Talk about beating Writer’s Block.

#

            Cyrus was very quiet.  There was no need to speak when he was so intent upon listening to the news that Henbane was giving him.  His lone eye was lit with a type of satisfaction that Cyrus couldn’t name or place–but he could describe it, for he was feeling it, too.  It was the sense of purest elation.  Cyrus didn’t feel as though he was walking on clouds; no, Cyrus felt as though there was a great fire welling within him, and his emotions were rising on the steam, much like air would rise when hit by a geyser.  It was completely enveloping and it took all of his self-control to keep his face set in strict lines of professionalism.  He nodded his head every once in a while when Henbane spoke, crossing his fingers over his desk. 

            “A complete success.”

            Cyrus stopped, mid-nod. The words seemed to coincide with each other, yet hearing them together was like….  He shook his head.  It was too much.  Cyrus rose, standing beside his window and smiling.  “A complete success?”

            “Yes.”

            Cyrus’ face fell.  His muscles were suddenly tight as he turned slowly, watching Henbane. It was difficult to see his associate–the office was dark and most of Henbane’s face was concealed by shadows.  Despite the good news, Henbane’s tone had been heavy.  “And do you see a problem?”

            Henbane shook his head.  The action was fluid, and seemed to cause the office to grow darker as Cyrus refocused his attention on Henbane’s stoic form.  When Henbane spoke, it was unemotional and matter-of-fact.  “You don’t think there will be an investigation?”

            Cyrus grinned.  “One thing that is certain about the losers of society is that they are easily ignored and neglected.  No one goes looking for those they didn’t want to see in the first place, Henbane.”

            Henbane didn’t seem convinced.  He frowned, and straightened his back. 

            “Let me worry over the legalities, Henbane,” Cyrus said, his voice throaty as he walked briskly toward the door.  “First, I would like to see the progress.”

            “It’s not been cleaned.”

            “Excellent, excellent.” Cyrus was practically moaning with pleasure.  “I want to see what it’s capable of it.”

            Henbane stayed where he was.  Cyrus frowned, twisting his head slightly in order to eye Henbane.  “Aren’t you coming?”

            “I saw it happen.”

            Cyrus narrowed an eyebrow.  “And it bothered you?”

            Henbane ‘s head snapped back to attention.“I’m offended that you would think so.  I just don’t see any need in witnessing carnage.”

            Cyrus shrugged.  “Have it your way.” He was turning again, when Henbane’s voice caught him off-guard:

             “What’s leftover hardly shows the intensity of what you’ve created, Cyrus.  It doesn’t give it justice.”

            Cyrus frowned.  “What do you mean by that?”

            Henbane didn’t respond; he shrugged the answer away.  Cyrus closed his eyes, shaking his head. He wanted to get away from Henbane–he’d been working too long and too hard to have this moment ruined.  He wanted to enjoy this victory–this crucial advantage.  He didn’t need someone to point out every flaw–he knew the weaknesses and he’d accounted for them.

Let’s go,” he ordered, nonetheless. Henbane was an important part of this project–he would need his expertise in evaluating this “complete success.” They went to the elevator, typing in a password–42sToke!sIMPos2814–and descended downward, beyond any floors that were on any blueprints.

            Cyrus found that he was walking faster than he’d intended.  He’d reached the room before he’d even realized he’d gotten there.  The door was plain and white with the number 5 painted across it in bold, professional black writing.  Everything in this building was white–Cyrus hated the color.  It hurt his eyes and reminded him of nasty things–hospitals and offices.  He preferred warm earth tones; they made him feel at home.  But this experiment needed to be completed far from prying eyes, or–more importantly–nosy reporters.  Cyrus gritted his teeth–no plan was perfect, and his was most certainly fallible.  But it was simply a matter of being two steps ahead of everyone else.

            He frowned at the sudden frustration that had welled in the pit of his stomach; that was a prize he would never be able to gain.  However, that didn’t mean he couldn’t still try.  Cyrus wrenched open the door, shaking his head.

            The space on the other side of the door was equally as white and just as blinding.  There were two men on the other side.  They were small men with glasses that were always askew no matter what they were doing.  They were young, because the youth were always the easiest to manipulate.  Morals were still flexible and easily tarnished with the lure of money and the promise of promotion.  Cyrus resisted the urge to grin–people were easy.

            They looked up as soon as Cyrus strode into the room, his face sculpted into careful lines of seriousness.  “I’ve been told there’s good news.”

            The older of the two stood, nodding his head.  He was incredibly pale, and his face was sleek with sweat. “Yes, Mr. Stokes.  Things occurred exactly as you… uh… wanted.”

            Cyrus didn’t allow his features to loosen. He looked at the other man.  “Wallace, do you say the same thing?”

            Wallace wouldn’t look at him.  He nodded, gulping audibly. 

            Cyrus looked at a wide window.  The blinds were closed tightly.  “And can I see it?”

            Wallace didn’t move, nor did his partner.

            “Burnett, let me see.”

            The oldest remained still. 

            “Burnett.” Cyrus’ voice turned grave. Burnett appeared frozen; he watched Cyrus carefully, breathing slowly through his nose.  His hands were shoved into his lab coat.

            Cyrus was losing his patience; everyone was intent on disrupting his excitement when all he wanted was to revel in it.  “Is there something you need to tell me, Burnett?”  His voice was soft, like the sound of a snake slithering across sand. 

            “Actually, yes,” Burnett began.  He glanced at his partner; Wallace was still staring at the ground.  Cyrus noticed that a tremor seemed to vibrate through Wallace’s body; his head shook in an odd spasm, as though a discreet signal for Burnett to keep quiet.

            Cyrus saw it.  He felt suddenly furious.  When he spoke, his voice was so level that it was unnatural.  “By all means, Burnett, here at IMPOS we want all of our employees to be satisfied.  What is your problem?”

            “I’ve never seen a man killed before.”

            Cyrus didn’t frown.  He didn’t do anything except mutter, “Burnett, you were warned of the nature of this work.”

         “I wasn’t aware that… that the intensity would be….  Death isn’t something I think I should be dealing with.”

            “You aren’t capable of performing this duty.”

            Wallace was so stiff that he looked as though the slightest touch would cause him to shatter.  Burnett, however, seemed to be growing stronger.  His breath was coming quickly; it expanded his chest with each forceful word.  “I’m quite capable, Mr. Stokes, I’m just not interested in pursuing this any further.  This is murder.”  His voice shook on the final sentence.

            Cyrus frowned.  “This is an experiment.”

            “People are dead.”

            “Show me.” Cyrus couldn’t contain his excitement any longer.  He crossed the room in two long strides and yanked at the blinds.  They flew open, revealing the other room.

            Cyrus felt as though he couldn’t breathe.  Henbane had not been speaking lightly–carnage was precisely the word needed to describe the… success.  Somehow, “success” wasn’t an appropriate term. Sprawled before him was everything that he’d desired, yet the sight was repulsive: it was raw and real.

            Cyrus was grateful that he had a strong stomach.  He knew the smell had to be stifling–looking at the mess didn’t allow the mind to truly see what was spread across the floor and up the walls; he had to stare at it.

            There was blood.  Red was smeared along the walls as though a toddler had splattered red paint during a temper tantrum.  But the blood wasn’t the problem–blood was normal.  It only highlighted the gore–a sideshow to the main attraction.  There were pools of blood that reflected the fluorescent lights like dark mirrors.  Cyrus gulped in an attempt to maintain his composure–the puddles would have been very mirror-like, except for one flaw:  mirrors were smooth.  The pools of blood were hardly smooth–they were interrupted in their fluidity by the pieces of flesh that had been tossed into them like discarded pieces of a puzzle.

            Cyrus thought the comparison was sickening. He nearly gagged–the body in the center of the room had been torn apart like a puzzle.  He allowed his gaze to wander to the corpse–at first glance it seemed perfectly whole.  Its arms and legs were sprawled on the ground.  It was face-up; unseeing eyes stared at the lights above it.  The skin was bloodstained and copiously cut, but the man appeared to be whole.

            But a closer look–Cyrus straightened himself and flexed his hands; these were movements he performed throughout the day when emotion threatened to escape from him.  He needed to remain in control.  He’d never found the task more daunting than in this moment–there was too much swirling in his body at one time: the victory of a success, the shock of the appalling sight, and–surprisingly–the apprehension of the future.  He wondered, briefly, if there was any sort of line he had crossed.

            But where did he draw that line?  Was he willing to run from his

goals simply because his ambitions had finally evolved?

            No.  The answer was simple. There was nothing that could quell the desire that was pulsating through his veins and squirming through his body like some sort of sweet disease–as though his blood had turned to molasses.

            He wasn’t crossing a line–he was breaking a boundary; he was tearing it

to shreds and spitting on its sad remains. 

            Cyrus forced himself to look at the body.  There were chunks ripped from the skin–holes swept his body.  The muscle beneath the skin was visible; fine tendons twisted into the air. 

            Cyrus spun around; Burnett was staring at him, arms crossed.  There was a knowing look in his eye; it was a gaze that seemed to say, “You and I both know how wrong this is, and I’ve just convinced you to change your ways.”

            Cyrus nearly shook his head in disagreement.  Nothing had ever been more wrong–this was progress.  This was good news.  And any one who dared to say it wasn’t….

            Cyrus breathed heavily. “I regret that you will no longer be offering your services to IMPOS, Burnett.”

            Burnett faltered for an instant, but regained his composure quickly. “I–I can’t do this.”
            “Not all can.”  Cyrus frowned.  “Not all can grasp change when it is thrust upon them; they must look upon it with fear.”

            “This is… is a crime.  I want no part of it.”

            “And aren’t all great leaps in humanity a crime?  For the great to prevail, the weak must perish.  It is the law of the land–survival of the fittest.  Humans are animals like all others, and we desire the same things.  It is simply that some of us desire more than other.  And the more we desire, the more we need.”  Cyrus faked a frown.  “It is a shame that you are unwilling to embark on this adventure, Burnett.”

            “I am.”

            Cyrus nodded.  “Your capabilities fall short of my expectations.  All you had to do was sit aside and take notes.  You couldn’t eve do that.  It’s a pity.”  He turned away from Burnett.  The full intensity of his gaze was on Wallace. “Where is the subject?”

            Wallace didn’t speak.

            “I don’t pride myself on my patience, Wallace.”

            “You didn’t see?”  Wallace’s voice was shaky and he still refused to look from the floor.

            Cyrus didn’t respond.  He moved slightly to look more closely into the room, his eyes narrowed.  “What didn’t I–”

            “We couldn’t stop it!” Wallace was shouting.  The tone was completely adverse to his prior whimpering.  He was still sitting, yet his form was erect and his beady eyes were large behind his thick glasses.  “There was nothing we could do!  No control!  Nothing!”  He seemed to be pleading with Cyrus; he was nearly begging as he leaned forward, shaking his head and raising his voice.  “NOTHING!”

            He was standing now–everything about him was wide with fear: his eyes, his mouth… even his face seemed to have expanded.  “There isn’t any way to control what’s been created, don’t you understand that?  THERE WAS NOTHING WE COULD DO ABOUT THE–”

            BANG!
            Burnett leapt backward, ramming himself against the wall.  Wallace was perfectly still as he fell to the ground–Cyrus hardly flinched.  He hadn’t heard Henbane enter the room, but his presence was tangible as he lowered his gun and stared at the mess that was spilling across the floor.

            “Pessimism isn’t something that Mr. Stokes can afford in this operation,” he said quietly.  He glanced at Burnett.  “Anyone is expendable.”  He said it as a fact, not a threat.

            Burnett slid along the wall, keeping his feet up from the mess that had–only seconds ago–been his partner.  He seemed unable to speak; his mouth was open, yet only a strangled rasping sound escaped his lips.

            “The test subject?” Cyrus asked calmly.

            Burnett didn’t look at him, but nodded.  “Dead.”  He murmured something under his breath that sounded remarkably like, “They’re all dead,” but Cyrus wasn’t completely sure he’d heard it.  Burnett could have simply released a shaky sigh.

            Cyrus looked into the room again.  He was giving Wallace a wide berth, as he craned his neck.  Cyrus found the subject quickly: he was on his back.  His fingers were opened like claws and his bloodied face was filled with a blankness unrelated to death.

            “What was the problem?”  Cyrus’ tone was furious.  “The directions were clear.  The signal–”

            “Did what it was supposed to do, Mr. Stokes,” Burnett whispered. “We saw it.  He killed him quickly and mercilessly.” His spine gave a harsh tremor. “Violently.”

            “And?”

            “And we sent the second signal, as we were instructed.  Theoretically, he should have ceased the… rampage–” (he spoke the word as though it was sharp liquor on his tongue) “–but he didn’t.”  He shook his head.  “As Wall–as my part–as was already said, there was nothing we could do.  Going in ourselves would have been suicidal.”

            “You have not answered why he’s dead?”

            “That would be me, Cyrus,” Henbane muttered.

            Cyrus turned to him.

            “He was completely out of control.  It was a matter of time before he left the testing area and destroyed anything–or anyone–he came in contact with.”

            “I thought you said we had a complete success.”

            Henbane shrugged. “I don’t see a problem in disposing of tools once they have outlived their purpose.”

            “Blind killing doesn’t amount to much if we can’t make it stop,” Cyrus mumbled.  He was silent for a long time.  At last, he turned to Burnett, his features were rigid. “Henbane,” he began, “Burnett would like to express his resignation.”

            Henbane grinned.  “Of course.”  He cradled his gun carefully.

            Burnett shook his head; his glasses nearly fell from his face. “No, no.” He stood, nearly slipping on the floor.  “My mistake.  I… uh… have much to contribute to this project.  Allow me to continue my work–”

            “Report to the head your observations,” Cyrus said simply.  He moved toward the door; Henbane followed.  They both stepped carelessly over the body.  Cyrus paused at the door, his voice icily calm.  “And clean up this mess.” He looked from Wallace to the two bodies in the other room.  “All of it.  I know how difficult it is to work when your area is cluttered.”   He closed the door behind him, a smirk pulling at his face.


Copyright Sarah Davidson 2020