Mr. and Mrs. Haben – Flappers and Their Secrets

“It’s not right. Not fair!” Collette Haben slammed the hand-tied pink bouquet on the closed piano-forte in a flurry of petals and leaves. “It’s not. It’s not. It’s not!”

            George, her husband and most frequent sparring partner, pressed two fingers between his eyes, grimacing like he always did. “Dear-”

            “No!”

            “My Dear,” he began reaching for her, but she backed away, hands on her hips, indignance at its best.  “You know I agree with you,” he tried anyway.

            She scoffed, shaking her head at some imaginary spot in the corner between the plaster walls and newly refinished ceiling.

            But he still pressed on. “I am as disgusted by this as you are. You know that.” Though he screamed his plea at her, his voice was a barely audible whisper.

            She kept shaking her head, but yet, her chin puckered.

            “Surely you must know that.” With smooth strides, he conquered the distance between them. His fingertips had barely come into contact with the skin of her elbow before they were interrupted.

            “All done here!” The man was short and squat, with shiny black boots that no matter how they sparkled, could never outshine his bald, pink head. “Thank you for your time Mr. Haben. I hope this wasn’t too much of an inconvenience.”

            Collette couldn’t help but chortle. Just once.

            “My apologies, Ma’am,” he bowed his cherry head, even as he walked the long corridor with a brown box balanced between his hands. It was practically bursting at the seams with all the files and papers he’d pulled form their home-office. “I can see you have a lovely day planned.”

            His beady little eyes looked her up and down, and she had to swallow the urge to spit on him. Or slap him.

            George draped an arm around his wife’s shoulders. “No apologies necessary. As I said to your boss, we have nothing to hide.”

            As if on cue, three more shiny-shoed minions appeared in the hall, each carrying their own box and before Collette could bore a hole in their heads simply through glares and strength of will alone, George showed them to the door.

            With the deadbolt clicking in place behind them, it took everything Collette had to keep her feet glued to that floor until they could be certain the men had left. Moments took an eternity to pass, but eventually, they were in the clear.

            Just one peak in the office, and the duo let out a simultaneous breath of relief. The desk was unmoved, the panel in the floor undisturbed, and that?

            That was everything.

            It meant they were all still undiscovered. All of them. Anonymous. Undisturbed.

            Safe.

            For it was the loose panel in the floorboards that held the secrets so many police officers, politicians, doctors, lawyers… an endless list really, were after. It was those secretes they believed themselves entitled to. For you see, concealed within those four panels of wood was a list.

            A very special list.

            It boasted the new names and contact information for innocent, honest women and children seeking a new start. A new life. It was also a contact list of all those who either had, or were willing, to help them along that journey.

            In this day and age, society had decided women were simply to take angry or drunk punches and then go about their day, a smile plastered on their face. Battered women and children had few friendly doorsteps to turn up upon.  But the Haben doorstep? That would always be a safe haven, no matter how fake a smile the Habens wore, all to ensure those victims could smile freely again.

            So, Collette fixed her flowers. She straightened the band in her hair. And she walked arm and arm with the kindest, bravest man she knew as they headed to their photoshoot.

            Of course, this wasn’t your typical photoshoot. No. You see this? This photographer was married to a lovely young woman named Gloria. Gloria’s sister had recently visited the Habens and told of a once jubilant little sister who had been beaten within an inch of her life dozens of times in the past few years.

            A story, about a photographer’s wife, who needed some light shone back into her life.

* * * Note: if you are interested in buying the original photograph, please visit Mr. and Mrs Haven Flappers and their secrets | Etsy Once sold, the instant short story and use of photograph in short story will remain unchanged.

If One Man is Allowed to Kill Democracy

An ice-laden wind howled at my back, ripping and whipping unkept blonde strands across my face. No matter how many times I tried to combat my hair’s frenzy, they demanded one last dance, as though peeking out from under my hood would somehow convey a cry for help.

Bitter laughter pushed through cracked lips. Help. That was the only thing more mythological than hope. And if there was no hope, why in the world would anybody bother to help? Help to what end?

“Ouch.” I made the mistake of bending my arm to swipe running mascara from my cheek. Pain was quick to remind me that the arm had long-been tourniquet bound. Defeated, I let if flop back to my side.

Barrrrnnnng! An anonymous barge lumbered up the channel, spewing enough black soot to block out entire swaths of city lights along the coast. It was the sight of that giant silhouette cutting through waves, not the ice-cold air, that made every hair on my body prick.

A feral cold coursed through my veins. The blaring horn, the driving wind… that was exactly how that fateful night had started out too. Cold. Hard.

Life-altering.

My good hand roved gently up and down, up and down, along my swollen belly as the smattering of frozen rain droplets moved in. Their frozen fingertips thrummed along the waves and rooftops ever louder as the storm approached. Eventually, the sound grew loud enough to subdue the tedium of nighttime traffic playing at my back. So, when a city bus suddenly belched past, blaring its horn and jostling the bridge so much I nearly slipped from the ledge, a terrified scream escaped my throat.   

“Aah!” I grabbed at the rust-mottled rail I sat upon. “Idiot!” I growled when I realized what I’d done. The innate instinct to survive had secured my safety and thus, condemned me to my decision-making. And that? Well, that was when the sky’s little icicle spears decided to attack.

“Freaking idiot.” I chided myself again. In the hours since I’d plopped on the edge of this bridge, I’d done everything I could to convince myself to ease over the edge. I mean, heck, just look at me! My feet dangled hundreds of feet in the air, with my now very numb butt barely balancing atop this narrow strip of metal. My left arm had gone numb hours ago, waiting below the tourniquet as I contemplated returning to old habits.  

What difference did it make, really? Shooting up was the only escape from pain. True, it was fleeting, momentary and achieved only by sacrificing all the progress I’d made… But a moment free of this agonizing, pulsating pain? Of that inescapable feeling of life leeching right out your body? A moment, just one single, solitary moment without hurt… That was a moment I’d do just about anything to experience again.  

My clothes were soaked. Everything hurt. My teeth set to chattering, and the cold… God. The never-ending, world-numbing cold. It served only to make me more miserable, enunciating the hurt.

My belly had grown too large to close my jacket months ago. Instead, tired orange floral peeped through threadbare holes and tares in my once-green sweater.  The too-long sleeves went wonky years ago, but by cutting a hole in the side, I’d formed the ends into haphazard mittens. Well, I had my right mitten in use anyway. The left? All three layers of that sleeve were rolled all the way up.

I hadn’t given myself over to needles since the day I discovered I was pregnant. That put me at seven months sober. Seven months of no drugs. No alcohol.

No relief.

I pulled the tourniquet a bit tighter, not even bothering to wince from the pain. And to think… it all started on your average, miserable, feral ol’ night… a night just like this.

I’d been walking home after a ten-hour shift, my second of the day, when I made the mistake of taking a shortcut through the docks. I’d known better. I wasn’t an idiot, but I was tired. Too tired to walk the extra two miles. I couldn’t justify a ride-share either, not when every penny I made went to healthcare. I’d been diagnosed just a few months before. But my boss at the time didn’t offer insurance, especially not to women. So, I had to get a second job, and then a third job just to bring home as much as any one of my male co-workers made at any one, single, job.

I mean, I can’t blame him. The male co-workers made more because they were worth more. Right?

It wasn’t long before I had to give up my apartment and move into a dilapidated, bug-infested studio further in the city just to afford the monthly premium of my private insurance. Still, the co-pays often left me choosing between medicine and food, and so, I’d had to look for medical relief elsewhere. Not only did it leave me enough money to actually put some food on the shelves, but what I bought on the streets was a fraction of the price the healthcare liaison demanded. Plus, it made the pain completely disappear.

At least, it did at first, but it seemed that with each new day, my haggard body demanded more. I spent every waking moment working my fingers to the bone so that with a needle rammed in my arm, I could snag a few hours of sleep and do it all over again. My routine had grown monotonous. Wake. Work. Suffer. Shoot up. Sleep. Wake. Work. Suffer. Shoot up. Sleep.

Wake.

Work.

Suffer.

Everyday, I woke more tired. I worked longer hours. And I suffered more. So, that night, I took a short-cut, and that foolishness had cost me. Barrrrnnnng! The barge had lumbered out of the cove, having already deposited its team for the night. I was halfway through the docks when I heard it. The raucous laughter and trading voices fell silent. In their place, were shuffling footsteps and whispers.

“No,” I breathed as I pulled my jacket tight and hurried, hurried where I didn’t know. All I knew was that I had to hurry… somewhere. Anywhere. Anywhere but there.

“What have we here?” I giant blocked my path. He towered over me, and as I tried taking a step back, I ran right into three of his buddies.

“Hey!” The middle man barked as he pushed at me roughly. I stumbled forward, nearly crashing into the first giant. His hand swooped under my chin, compelling me to make eye contact. To this day…. I can’t remember what the monster had looked like. Only snippets.

I remember his pale face, well… not his face, but that it was streaked with grime from his work on the barge. And I remember his eyes, an evil blue that seemed to glow like flame in the moonlight. I remember the sheen of sweat that beaded along his skin. I remember a pink tongue flicking across crooked teeth and the stink of his breath. But that’s it. The rest of his features didn’t register, not but his size, his teeth, and his evil, icicle eyes.

He had stared at me for a long time, his gaze lingering until it felt like a thousand slimy worms slithered along my skin. Evidently, I was worthy, because with no warning, he attacked. He ripped my jacket open, and a knife appeared out of nowhere, cutting the length of my shirt. A rough hand moved inside to cup a breast, and tears streamed down my cheeks. Then? He squeezed, blunt fingers burrowing deep into my flesh.

An oath of pain escaped. I was quick to swallow it, just not quick enough. Angry by my outcry, his elbow crashed into my nose before he gripped my shoulders and spun me around. I eyed his three buddies then, but their faces too, are lost to me. I only remember their leers, their hunger, their male need.

They slammed me against the wall, jagged brick biting into my cheek. Greedy hands pulled at clothes. Fingers snaked into the back of my pants, pulling. “Please,” I cried, “no,” only to have my head slammed into the wall again. I tried pulling at my waste, desperate to keep my pants up, but one of the anonymous monsters pinned my hands to the wall and squeezed so hard, I felt sure he’d just ground my bones to dust. “Please.” I foolishly tried again.

“Shut it!” That time, when my face slammed into the blood-slicked wall, little stars exploded at the edges of my vision.

A voice raged as one of the shouting demons shouted something, but I couldn’t hear him, not between my heart thumping in my ears and all the ringing.

Still, “no!” I shouted back as my pants surrendered and dropped to my feet. “No!” I tried breaking free, but my hands were only squeezed harder. “Please.” An arm dropped to the back of my neck, pressing and forcing me forward as though he were trying to press me through the solid brick wall. “Please!”

I spied a man down the alley. He was tall, at least 6’3” and strong as an ox, stronger than my attackers could even dream. His arms bulged through his jacket, and his neck was nearly as wide as his head, a result no doubt of a lifetime spent performing grueling tasks for the Elite, or for any man really, whose skin, like mine… was white.

He wasn’t like my attackers, and I will never forget his face. Not the furrowed unibrow as he spotted us. Not his kind, brown eyes or beautiful skin. Not the full lips that disappeared when he grimaced, recognizing what he saw as an attack.

“Please!” I cried feebly, even as the beasts attacked.

And I will never, ever forget the shame that lined his every feature as he ground his jaw. Regret pained him as those kind eyes dropped to the cracked asphalt and he dragged himself away.

“Please,” but my sobs fell on deaf ears. As my feet were kicked apart, I felt all hope drain from what remained of my life. Instead, I remained mute as the beasts tore at me, traded me and savaged me.

I think I threw up, and my reward was a swift right-hook. With that, the world went dark. When I woke, the sallow lights of night tried to filter the world before me, but it didn’t make sense. My attackers were gone… or rather, the initial wave of anonymous attackers. Instead, the view before me was of a man, a new man, this one dressed in a police uniform.

He was zipping his pants and readjusting his belt, but I knew the dark linen markings.

“Help.” I tried feebly.

The Officer’s head shot up, stunned mouth agape, as his hand hovered over his service weapon.

“Please. Help me.”

He took two steps closer, but he didn’t protect and serve. Instead, his boot lifted high and slammed right down on me.

Barrrrnnnng! The ship’s last call lulled me back to the present, as I sat poised upon the proverbial edge between this life and the next. My fingers continued to contemplate my swollen belly. Since discovering there were two of us now, I’d never felt so alone. I had no way of knowing who the father was. No way of providing for another mouth to feed. No avenue to help.

I remember my grandmother telling me that there used to be programs for new mothers, programs that helped them find housing and food. And jobs. But that was a long time ago. That was before the fall of democracy and the nightmare that followed. That was from a time when women were supposed to have been treated the same as men.

When minorities had rights. When all people were people, or at least, were supposed to be seen as the same.

It seemed so long ago now, it was like a fairytale because the United Americas, they weren’t like that. Not anymore. Here, in the now, women were expected to shut their mouths and service men. They were to keep their legs closed unless opened by men, and then they were to deal with the fallout of that anonymously in the shadows so as to not be deemed guilty of sin.

Grandma hated what this county became. She said women used to vote, single women, not just married women casting votes their husbands allowed. She spoke of something called Roe v. Wade and equal pay as though they were norms. I remember listening to her tales in wide-eyed wonder, at least, I’d listened right up until the day she never made it home.

And the moral of every story was that after the final President: Trump; The United Americas were never the same.

I’d been a good woman. I’d played by the rules. And still, look at where I’d ended up: sitting on the edge of this life. I’d given my all, but I was a woman in a post-democracy world.

Where being a woman? It’s never enough.

Black Until Proven Innocent

Because this isn’t a short story or fiction, I thought it best to leave this post here…

*             *             *

There’s something I’d like to share with you, with all of you, with anyone who might stumble upon this blog. You see, I haven’t been generating content for this site as of late. In truth, I haven’t been writing for my other projects either. I try. Truly. I do.

I just can’t.

I can’t seem to find the inspiration to spin tales that entertain or take readers on an adventure. I can’t birth stories of fictional horror or madness that supersedes what is taking place in our world every day. I can’t find uplifting shorts or humorous diatribes in my heart right now. How can I write, when I can’t even find the strength to sleep gently through the night.

Now, you, whoever might be reading this… you aren’t an idiot. You know of what I speak. From pedophiles, rapists, murderers, and disease, this world is filled with darkness. But at the moment, I must confess, much of what fuels my thoughts, what haunts my waking hours, is much simpler than any of that.

Hate.

Nobody can feign ignorance when it comes to the current Black Lives Matter movement. Not one American can honestly say they don’t know why the movement exists. True, many argue the movement is unjustified, but that type of ignorance is not but a verbal manifestation of hate.

For centuries, black people have been unjustly treated by Americans. From buying and selling humans as though they weren’t people, degrading them, owning them, beating, raping, murdering and pitting them against insurmountable odds… it was evil. I think now, in our “modern” society, people can agree slavery was bad.

But so too is ignoring a people’s request to be equal. From the moment slaves were freed, Americans found new ways to restrict them. From blatant segregation to interred communities, voting requirements to deny their voice, marriage restrictions, property right withholdings… the list is endless. Whether we discuss denial of admission into private universities or even local schools, incarceration rates, unemployment, pay rate… the one truth of all of it is this: time has made no difference.

If we don’t mention year, can anyone truly tell if we are talking about the 1960s or today? In nearly 80 years of our “modern” society, what has truly changed? I’m not going to go into the gross incarceration figures in this post. I’m not going to outline sentence longevity of white v. black crimes. I’m not going to reiterate the wide margin in pay rates between the races. I’m not going to discuss the difficulties inner-city people face when only one parent can work (at reduced wages) because the other parent is serving an egregious sentence for a minimal crime (or one they didn’t even commit). I’m not going to sit here and question “wealth” when some white American families have had estates passed down through the generations, but black families haven’t even had a full generation of property rights. I’m not going to walk through white privilege or the advantages that can be bought with the color of our skin. However, if you do believe white privilege a myth, I’d highly recommend you check this video out:

As for me, today, I’m simply not going to talk numbers here. You know them. We all do, but if you, somehow don’t know the statistics or can’t calculate the discrepancies automatically in your mind, your phone is surely in your pocket. So, use it.

Educating oneself on this topic is something you must do on your own.

Today, what I’m pondering is perspective. Nothing more.

Why is it that store clerks and security guards latch onto innocent, non-descript black people who enter the store, but not the white unless they are acting out of sorts? Why is it that when an upper class “suburban housewife” (as Trump would call them) gets pulled over she gets a warning but a large black man who committed the same offense will be removed from his car, placed in cuffs, interrogated, searched, his car searched, cited and still delayed on his way in to work for over an hour? Why is the fact that this has happened to most innocent black people more than once? And how, I wonder, is that conducive to maintaining promptness for their job?  

One could argue IF that is a problem (that many doubt), perhaps they should leave for work earlier. But then we have an issue of black people “loitering”. Many will say I’m exaggerating, that black people aren’t treated differently than white. To that, I say open your eyes.

Whether pulled over for more often for nothing, questioned as to what they are doing in a store that they own after hours, asked to show what’s in their bag in a store, asked to leave if they are standing on a public sidewalk too long, told to dress appropriately so as to not incur suspicion, on and on it goes. They are required to speak different than they would normally speak, stripping them of their identity. They are told music preferences are an indicator of illicit behavior. They are told not to make eye contact and practically have to have a written waiver before engaging in intercourse with someone who might later regret it and claim rape. This is important because black people are seen as predators, and even with no evidence, convicted at a significantly higher rate by a jury of their “peers”.

Black people have to excuse themselves in every aspect of their life. They have to rationalize their equal existence in our world. They have to be special to compete with our normalcy in education, grant funding, job hiring, etc.

And yet… so many of us don’t see this as a problem. People claim they aren’t a racist simply because they’d previously made an exception. What I mean is, if they’ve had one “black” friend, they think it exempts them from their ignorance.

It doesn’t.

If you recognize black people as anything other than people just like you, you are part of the problem.

Now, you may sit there and question how I can highlight differences yet claim we’re all the same, I say only this. I recognize a difference because there is a group of people who have been victim of an unending plight for generations. They’ve spent centuries asking that we all accept them as our own. They’ve made this request over and over because they know, just as I know, that they are just like you and me. They live and breathe, love and hate. They forgive and strive and dream. They are people, people who shouldn’t have to ask to be recognized as such. That? That is why I recognize a difference. I can not pretend they aren’t treated differently. There is too much proof in studies that disprove it, not to mention the truth I see with my own eyes.

They are tased, attacked, shot, taken down and choked by the police at a much higher rate. They are targeted by police and presumed guilty to a point that an innocent black man with raised hands still runs the risk of being shot on sight.

Police play Judge, jury and executioner daily in this country, so long as the gamble is only with black people’s lives. Whites are cuffed and brought in, they are reasoned with and treated with soft, gentle hands.

Black people however, they’re condemned in countless ways in this life.

So yes, I support the BLM movement. Yes, I understand why it has grown violent, why property damage and altercations are happening. It’s because they’ve been asking politely for too damn long. Over the decades, deaf ears they pleaded with went blind too – video evidence wasn’t enough to even begin a discussion of reform in the police departments, much less society.

So yes, we are asking louder now, asking that people stop turning the familiar blind eye. We are taking steps to get attention. We are challenging the ignorance and meeting face to face with the hate. Our voices will not be ignored any longer. We wanted peace – all of us – but it wasn’t freely given.

Peace cannot begin until equality is no longer a dream, until racism is conquered, for only then, can we as a society truly win.

Now, we’ll fight for it, but make no mistake. We’re only fighting for it because you made us. You forced our hand by deeming the simple act of “being black” a sin. And I pray, I hope, I dream that these voices never quiet until a black man and white man walking down a street are met with the same terms and offers in life.

Chapter Four – Boys and their Toys

 After what couldn’t have been more than three hours, Colton stirred at my feet. He slid away from Emilia silently and rose to his knees. Without making a single sound, he placed his hands on either side of me, propping his palms on the box I sat upon and rested his forehead to mine. Wordlessly, he simply wiped away my renewed tears with his thumbs. Then he kissed me with a force, a desperation that forced the reality of the situation from my mind for the briefest of moments before he pulled away. Mimicking me, he patted the ground he had just risen from and used my own words against me, “What? You gotta get some sleep.” 

I knew he wasn’t actually giving me an option. So, I switched places with him, where armed with the knowledge that he was looking over me, I slept soundly.

Daybreak had not yet arrived when I felt Colton moving at my side. Darkness was giving way to warm light and shifting shadows, though the air remained heavy and dense. A subtle, sour smell emanated from the cloth covers, sun-faded tarps and patched plywood, the pungent aroma of makeshift structures that had suffered years of neglect. The Underbelly was silent and calm. In other circumstance, another situation, the morning might have been picturesque, serene… glorious, but we weren’t in that place. Of course, the opportunity for people to enjoy any aspect of life, to choose how and where they wanted to live, was one of the very reasons we were in such a predicament. 

 I rubbed lightly at my chilled nose as I surveyed the room. Everything was as it had seemed a few hours prior. There was no movement outside the dilapidated walls, no sound, seemingly no life.  Colton rummaged through the stacked bins and crates behind him, but found nothing. Seeing that I’d woken, he motioned for me to resume watch as he moved to the metal shelves and larger items stacked within the interior of the room. He removed a burlap cover from items near the doorway and pocketed something just before he tensed, froze. He tilted his head to listen before quickly retreating to a defensive position, too late.

I turned from the window on my haunches but was not able to rise before the tarp door was whipped to the side abruptly by a tanned and strong male arm.

 The same old man from the night prior stepped through the open doorway.

 “Now, now.” the old man cautioned, wagging his finger at Colton before he had an opportunity to strike. “What good’s that gonna do, huh? Is that how you thank me for lettin’ y’all stay here, in my quarters overnight?” He tisked his tongue. 

 As he shook his head in dismay, two larger, significantly younger men entered the room behind him. The man in the rear released the tarp as he too entered the room, without fear that they may have been followed.

Seeing this, I could assume only that they had allies in the area just outside the doorway.

Emilia had jolted awake when the men entered the room and now clung desperately to the back of my leg, only peeking one eye out to look at them. I gathered her to my side and kept her moving, working to maneuver to the other side of the men, opposite Colton.  

Seeing the movement, each man quickly drew their weapons, one on both Colton and myself.

“Tst, tst,” The old man shook his head. “Y’all ain’t bein’ too gracious to your host, now are yas?” He turned toward Emilia before saying “Hi there, Puddin’,” as he crouched on rickety knees to waive at Emilia.

Her only response was to tighten her hold on my leg and withdraw a bit further behind me.

“No?” he asked her before rising to his feet again laboriously, a loud tick sounding from his knees within his worn denim pants. “Well, ok, then. ‘Least I tried.”

“What do you want?” Colton demanded, his voice firm and without any of the feigned speech dialect from the night before.

“What do I want? Ha! What do I want? Heck, I just wanna get through my night without some outsider breakin’ in. I wanna go through my day without them Military Nats pokin’ their damn noses in my business and assaultin’ me in the middle a’ the night. But you know what I want, what I really want?” He turned back to face me, his back straight. His walk was victim to a bit of a labored swagger, though his steps remained confident. “I wanna go ‘bout my day without an Elite, hell, a Premier, ‘specially you showin’ up.” He pointed at me angrily. “What do you people want from me? That’s what I wanna know.”

Colton began to move towards us, but was promptly blocked by the larger of the two men, drawing his weapon a bit more precisely at Colton‘s eye level. As Colton looked to step around him, the man chambered a round, keeping him at bay for the time being. His denim jacket was ragged and tight at his raised shoulders; he was larger than Colton, who only moved subtly now, maintaining eye contact with me around the man’s frame.  

“Excuse me?” My darkest fear that our identities had been found out began a sinister dance of joy in my heart. “Especially me? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

He laughed bitterly. “You in my place, here, firl. I ask the questions. Not the other way ‘round.” His voice strengthened as he drew closer yet. “What does a Premier piece of trash like you want from an old man like me?”

Cornered, I felt myself give way to my training, but more so, to my true nature.

I had been selected as a Premier for various reasons, not the least of which was my tendency towards strength of will and violence. I had a short fuse but enough control to manipulate scenarios, using my aggression to achieve containment of most situations. This was often achieved by escalating moments to a level above most people’s comfort, but well within my own.

I edged Emilia away from me, motioning for her to retreat to the wall. She did as I had hoped, moving slowly and I crept a bit further from her, ensuring she was no longer in the line of fire.

My movement brought the second man’s weapon to the ready, focusing his attention on me. “Premier trash like me, huh?” I moved to circle the old man.

He didn’t move to keep me in view, which surprised me. He didn’t even move his head but instead remained alert to my actions, even as I moved into his peripheral. “Ah. So ya did hear me? Clever girl.” his voice dripped with sarcasm.

I laughed satirically and the gunman began to move in. The old man only raised his right hand, commanding him to stop.

‘Superior.’ I thought to myself. He commanded their respect, one way or another. Meeting my eyes, Colton indicated that he too was aware of the situation. “And just who, exactly, do you think I am?”

He said nothing, allowing me to complete my circle of him. Once I was directly before him again, and within arm’s length, he looked at me levelly. “Harper Eckles.” he stated without emotion. 

I didn’t risk a look at Colton but instead kept my gaze locked on the old man’s. “Who the hell is Harper Eckles?”

“Girl, don’t ya play me for a fool, now. Harper Eckles, the lil’ darlin’ of the Premier Elites. I’d know you anywhere. You look like hell, but I figure you got your reasons for that. So, I ask again, what is a Premier piece a’ trash like you, doin’ in my quarters? Huh?” His voice hardened with every word.

I gave no response. My mind raced while I struggled to remain in control. It wasn’t impossible that some people might recognize me here. Cautioning myself to ignore the disbelief, I tried to remember that it was also possible individuals had been placed throughout the Underbelly, who were underestimated or misplaced. In truth, I simply hadn’t expected to encounter it to this degree. After all, the guards I had spoken with while entering the Middle just the night before hadn’t any idea of who I was, despite the fact that they sought me out. I wasn’t exactly a public figurehead for the Elites. Admittedly, I was a top level Premier, but not one who regularly gave interviews or issued statements. Any praise I received for missions I completed successfully was almost always given anonymously, and never widely communicated or broadcast. 

Upon receiving no response, the old man continued. “Harper, you and me, we can play this a couple a’ ways. One, you answer me and we move on from there. Two, I kill her,” he motioned a thumb toward Emilia, who tried to conceal herself behind a shelf.  “you get pissed off and try to attack me. They kill your friend, who I’m guessin’ idn’t your brother, and put you down. Then, ya answer. Three, we take you both down and hold yas ‘til ya answer. You pick. I get my answer from ya, any way you choose.” He clasped his gnarled hands in front of him casually.

“We were just passing through.” I issued, my voice level.

“Hm. Right. Sure.” He nodded, jutting his jaw out in feigned good humor. “Try again, Premier.”

“We were passing through, needed a place to crash.”

“Passing through to where?” It was then that the old man began to move, better positioning himself in the room.

Before I could answer, Colton lunged at the armed man nearest him. Instantly, the gunman before me shifted his weapon in their direction, but I began to grapple with him mid-motion. With just a few, swift movements, Colton had his man pinned to the ground, the man’s own weapon drawn at his back, and I had the tip of my knife dug into the jugular of my intended captor, his right hand still on the weapon, now raised in the air in surrender as each breath he took drew the tip of my blade further into his throat.

Just as the subtly sweet feeling of freedom began to enter my thoughts, Emilia’s shrill scream pierced the air. “Harper!”

I felt the mouth of a gun dig into my spleen, held there at the hands of a man I had not seen slip into the room, just as the tarp door gave way to yet four more armed men.

“Tried doin’ this the civilized way, but you Premiers just don’t know how, do yas? And then, yous act like you’re better than us, like we’re the animals?” he shook his head in disdain. “You got ‘nother thing comin’.”

I saw the fist too late and then, only darkness.

                                                                             *     *          *

Thoughts moved through my consciousness as quickly as old oil from a generator on a cold winter’s day. With some doing, I realized I was unable to move or talk and my world had grown dark.  I attempted to make sense of the shadows and patches of light but everything was hazy. Standing was impossible, as were my attempts to lift my arms.

Sounds from the repeated efforts at movement merely echoed amongst the outcry of high pitched ringing in my ears. Panic fought to reach the surface, but I lacked the presence of mind to focus on the fear. My thoughts were muddled and forced. It was not until I attempted to utter “Colton, Emilia,” that I even realized my mouth had been gagged. Another layer of confusion worked to settle in before a sharp kick to the back of the chair I discovered I had been bound to brought the memories of recent events filtering in through the haze.

“Welcome back.” a harsh voice taunted. 

Unsure of my surroundings, my captors, my location, I gave no response.

What light I did see was blocked as a man’s large frame leaned over me, his hands clamping onto my forearms and the chair. I could feel the heat of his sour breath. “Hmmm…” he said lowly. “Maybe there’s something we can do to get you to talk, Princess.”

“Princess?” another voice hooted. “Ha! Something tells me she ain’t afraid to get dirty. I’ll bet the only time this one’s a Princess, is when she’s on stage,” the second man’s voice grew closer, “bumpin’ and grindin’ to earn her wages.” He then tightened the straps that bound my torso and shoulders to the back of the chair. “A’course, you do look real good bound.” he laughed in my ear.

I gave no response and my heartbeat remained steady, my breathing even as the fog lifted from my mental cognizance.

The man leaning before me gave a throaty laugh before standing and spitting on me as approaching footsteps approached. These steps were not trodden upon desert sand as was the normal ground in the barracks of the Underbelly. It sounded, solid, concrete, perhaps even flooring. I assumed it was a hallway of some sort, though due to the structures in the Underbelly, it was a bit difficult to determine.

“You two got her under control?” the approaching man called.

“Yes, Sir.” They called in unison.

“She come to?” 

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good. Guess that means I get to play.” With that the third man removed the shroud from my head and let the gag fall to hang loosely around my neck.

The man who had been standing behind me eased to my right as I met the third man’s gaze. “And what is it you want to play?” I asked coyly.

“Hmm. A feisty one, huh? My favorite.” He crudely applied a clear tape to my mouth as he smiled, taunting.

The first two men laughed as they sauntered off to the far wall of the dingy room. The expression worn by the second man caught me off guard.  As he leaned against the wall, I caught the fleeting look of remorse, of sadness, pass across his bright green eyes. 

Seeing me study him, he quickly set his jaw and feigned harshness and disinterest though his eyes belied the attempt. Realizing I saw through his ruse, he began to look casually about the room, refusing to risk another moment of eye contact.

I began to look at my surroundings as well. It became clear that this location had been framed and the walls were still relatively intact; sunlight was unable to pierce the neglected, stained linoleum and the sounds of the Underbelly could not be found here.

Instead, I focused my attention on the newest addition to the room. He was a lean man with hollow cheeks, and stood over six feet tall. He wore dark slacks, a light sweater and black leather jacket that were not tattered; his clothing properly fit.  He was well groomed, left wrist adorned by a gold smart watch, his shoes clean.  His voice too was polished, pointing toward an educational background. It was clear this man was not from the Underbelly, unlike the other two men in the room who were of large frames, strong but unkempt. 

I attempted a verbal challenge but only managed an inaudible mumble.

“What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” asked the first man from the wall.

The second man smirked but the well-groomed man acted as though he hadn‘t heard their childish antics. “Got something to say already, huh? Shame. I haven’t even gotten started.” Without further ceremony, he ripped the tape from my mouth and I noticed the briefest flash of disappointment play across his face as I gave no response to the pain he had intended to cause.

“Where are they?” I asked evenly.

“No, no. See? You’re confused. You’re the one tied to a chair, with these two morons just waiting to get their hands on you.” He leaned so that his face was directly before mine, hands clasped around my forearms which were angled so that the thumbs of my balled fists were up, and fingers closed toward me. He smiled smugly “Don’t you see? You’re mine now. I ask the questions. You answer. It’s simple really. I -”

“Where are they?” I repeated calmly, knocking him from his imagined soapbox.

The angles of his face sharpened, but he didn’t react. “Not too smart are you? See now that, that surprises me. I would have expected more from you.” he repositioned his fingers and began to squeeze them around my arms, cutting off circulation while simultaneously tearing holes in my flesh with his fingernails.

“What did you do to them?” I asked, refusing to react to the pain.

He laughed joyfully while he squeezed harder yet.

Frustrated and in pain, an animalistic growl escaped my chest as I gave him an abrupt, sharp head butt. “Where the hell are they?” I demanded.

“Bitch!” he roared as he stepped back and brought a swift backhand across my face.

My heart rate was beginning to increase as rage crept up from within. “Answer me!”

“Answer you?” his voice broke along the edge of agitation. “Answer you? Who the hell do you think you’re dealing with?”

“A lowly, pathetic, shell of a man,” I began as he rushed and put his hands to my neck. “who thinks he’s more important than he truly is.” My voice had grown more and more strained as I struggled for precious, precious air. “You’re nothing but the go-to boy of an old man afraid to get his hands dirty.” I was barely able to choke out the last few, strained words.

He continued to cinch his hands tighter around my throat.

“You’re nothing.” I managed. “Not even smart enough to know that if you kill me, you lose on this intended interrogation.” My last words barely more than a whisper.

Snarling, he released my throat. “Who are you?” he asked attempting to regain his composure, haphazardly brushing a wisp of hair from his forehead.

“That’s,” I struggled to pull air into my lungs, “all it takes to set you off?” I laughed maliciously between gasps. “No self-control?”

I watched as irritation and duty warred within him. “Who are you?” he repeated sullenly, duty winning out.

“Funny, your old man claims to know the answer to that question. He didn’t tell you?”

“Why are you here?”

“Ah. So you do know.”

“What is your purpose, Premier Eckles?”

“Like I keep telling you people, just passing through.”

“To what end?” his voice was growing dark.

“Why the hell would I tell you anything. Where are they?”

He turned from me, every muscle in his back taught. He paced the length of the room twice, rage growing within. I couldn’t help but think he looked like a caged an animal. “They’re secure.”

“Gonna need more than that.”

Instead of responding, he walked to a table, grabbing and polishing a blade from atop same.

I only laughed in response and settled back into the chair. “Boys and their toys.”

“I am going to kill you.” He stated matter-of-factly.

“Oh, well, sure. Naturally.” I laughed again.

“That’s funny to you?”

“If you were going to kill me, you would have already. Instead, you tied me to this chair, or more likely, you had one of them tie me to this chair.” I watched as the two other men exchanged surprised expressions at my indifference. “Oh. I’m sorry, was I supposed to say -” I allowed my voice to rise an octave, sounding like a child, feigning fear, “Oh, no, please don’t!” and laughed raucously.

Without further ceremony, my captor rammed the blade through the fleshy underside of my left forearm, mounting it in the arm of the chair below.

I bit back a verbal reaction to the pain and instead pulled forward against the tethers, struggling to break free.    

“Talk.” he said lowly.

Knowing it was juvenile, pain and anger propelled the response, “Bite me!”

He looked at me briefly before shrugging and biting me hard, on my left shoulder.

I fought and kicked, trying to angle my head to fight him off, but was unable. Instead, a subhuman roar clawed at my throat as my efforts achieved nothing. After a brief moment, he pulled away and spat my own blood in my face. I was shocked to see the look in his eyes as he did so; I had expected to see an ice, an animalistic glee, but instead found only sadness, regret.

After the slightest hesitation, he crudely pulled the knife from my arm, drawing a scream of pain and a flood of dark blood as he did so.

“Talk.”

I gave no response and so, he brought the edge of the blade more lightly across my good forearm twice. As my blood spilled too from the new wounds, he looked at me expectantly.

“Do what you want to me. I’m not going to give you a damn thing.” Between the pain and hot waves of anger, fear had no room to enter my thoughts.

He regarded me a moment before launching his fist into my face followed immediately by a solid left hook. “Oh, you will. Eventually. Everyone does.”

I laughed again and spat blood at him.

He smiled wryly before bringing a hard kick to my left ear.

A searing pain ricocheted through my head, shooting down into my neck, my shoulders. The world grew a bit fuzzy around the edges as I swooned. He returned to the table that displayed his toys where he selected a thick linked metal chain. He jostled it theatrically as he approached, the eerie sound ominous enough to bring me back to a state of clarity.

“What are you doing here?”

I gave no response, as I recognized the warmth of blood running from my nose and noticed that my right eye must have begun to swell, its angle of view growing smaller.

After getting nothing, my captor feigned indifference though I witnessed a weight settle into his shoulders. Reluctantly, he tossed the chain to the closer of the two men and nodded slightly.

The second man approached me from behind, wrapping the chain around my neck and tightening it viciously.  Hopelessness clogged my throat; I couldn’t grab at the chain but tried bucking out of the chair. Using every amount of my remaining strength I pressed my feet against the ground, my body against the tethers but managed only to tip the chair over as the chain grew tighter still. My neck felt as though it might collapse inward even as the chain pinched and tore at parts of my flesh. Stars began to dance along the edges of my vision as my head grew heavy from the lack of oxygen.

The heartbeat that had been pounding in my head began to slow, fade away, and it was not until it began to increase again that I even realized the chain had gone lax. My gasping body and the chair I was bound to were once again righted on the floor while my torturer said something.

I didn’t hear what was said, as I focused instead on the rather arduous task of breathing.

Frustrated by my continued lack of response, he forced his knife deeply into my flesh and dragged the large blade the length of my left thigh drawing a shrill screech of pain, along with the blood.

As I regained awareness of the situation, I noticed that my interrogator’s attention had moved to the doorway. After focusing my vision, I heard a commotion in the distance. It sounded as though it was drawing near but I couldn’t trust my perception.  Within moments, two more men burst through the door, followed by a bloody and clamoring Colton.

“Stop!” he began as the other two men within the room rushed to restrain him.

“Stop!” the old man who had been in charge commanded from behind him. “Release him!”

They did as ordered and stepped back as Colton scurried over to me. He crawled before me and held my face gingerly in his bloodied hands. “Oh, Baby. What the hell did they do to you?”

I breathed laboriously through my mouth and cried in relief at the sight of him.

“Untie her!” he demanded. “Cut her loose. Now!’

The man who had been torturing me was speaking animatedly with the old man who seconded Colton’s demand. As such, my captor returned with the knife still dripping my blood, but this time it was only to cut what bound me to the chair.

Once freed, I stood shakily and before my legs gave out from under me, managed to land a single, forceful blow to the man who had moments ago brought so much agony. Then, I could do little more than watch as the floor rushed to greet my face.

Monster Feet

An easy breeze glided across my skin, and I was grateful for it. Grateful not just for the cooler air, but for being upwind from the death and decay that had claimed the city. A full moon cast long shadows amid the wood and stucco ruins I picked through, but the only movement I saw was the calf-high weeds as they swayed. With any luck, the lonely sound of roiling weeds and debris would be my sole companion for the night.

Now, I wasn’t an idiot. I knew moving at night was dangerous, what with the ugly beasties hunting for fresh meat. Still, those of us who still breathed had learned early on: moving at night might kill you, but it’s a heck of lot better than the nasties that killed you during the day.  

Vschzzzzzzzzzzzzzz! A cicada’s song called out, drawing out the others that lurked about.

“Ught.” I struggled to lift a toppled wall, and? Nothing. I pushed and shoved some more before, “unghhh!” it finally gave way. But my curiosity, my haste, had made me a fool. It crashed into an upturned beam I hadn’t noticed and Crash, crack, clack, a segment of hanging clay roof tiles clattered to the pavement.

“Shit!” With no time to move, all I could do was tuck my back into the thing that most closely resembled a standing wall and unsheathe my blade.  

Vschzzzzzz-gsh! The cicadas’ endless chant came to a halt, and the terrified girl in the back of my mind readied to pray.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Little stabby feet moved toward me at a lightning pace. Vdt-dung, vdt-dung! The black shadow bobbed on its eight spindly legs as it crested a nearby wall. Holding my breath, I gripped the hilt of my weapon tighter even as Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, another rounded the wall to my left and Vdt-dung, Vdt-dung yet another launched atop the very wall whose fall had announced my presence.

Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeekkkkkkk. The closest little demon screeched only for its friends to undulate and screech at me too.

“Not today.” I slashed at the air when the first leapt for my throat.

Heeeeeeeeeeeeeek! It screamed as three of its feet were sliced away. Two non-amputated feet tore through both my jeans and flesh as I scrabbled away.

Riieeekk! Riieeek! I managed to roll under another, but the round armored body of his friend slammed into my side so that I crashed into a pile of glass and jagged cement.

I might have screamed in pain if the collision hadn’t knocked all the wind out of me. Instead, I coughed and sputtered as I crawled on frantic hands and knees. Fighting for air, I tried for the blade that had been knocked away.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. A terrifying shadow jumped between me and the blade. With me on all fours, we came face to face. Tufts of hair lined a black scaled face with six sickly yellow eyes. “No.” We might have been the same size now, but that horrid creature had four times the legs and about nine-hundred times the speed. I’d never make it in time. So, I pulled the another blade instead.

The injured beast finally stopped screaming, but all three were coming right at me. Riieeek!

I rolled off a ledge of concrete, and splayed on my back,  ran my blade along the leaping monster’s underside. Heeeeeeeeeeeek!

A fetid black sludge coated me from head to toe. It oozed into my hair, up my nose and seeped through my clothes. And the smell? Oh, God. The smell!

If I weren’t in a fight for my life, I would have hurled. But there was no time. No time to puke. No time to panic. No time to do anything but move.  

I rolled once, twice, and then hopped to my feet, but rdddddddllllll, the uninjured beastie tucked in its legs and rolled. I tried jumping over the giant ground-laden cannon, but to no avail. He hit me so hard, I could hear my leg crack. “Shit!” Down, I went.

Snap!

I heard it, I felt it.

Felt my jaw snap, “Fuuuuuuu-” I howled as one side of my face sagged, before, pop, pop. “Letty!” I tried, but all I did was cry.

Pop, pop. Pop, pop. The crack of our father’s gun challenged the creatures’ screams.

“Come on!” Letty was two years older than me, and she was bigger. Stronger. I leaned on her shoulder and tried to think of anything but the pain. “We have to hurry.”

But we were too late.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Monster feet called out by the dozens.

“Sorry.” I managed.

“It’s ok.”

But it wasn’t. Wasn’t ok.

“I’m a fool.”

“A damn fool.” She agreed, as our mother would say. “I told you, I don’t need anything for my birthday.”

‘Sweet Sixteen.’ I tried, but the only thing that came out was an oath of pain.

Letty was good enough not to respond, not to blame me for costing our lives, for something as silly as a birthday surprise. As we hurried toward the compound, she screamed, “Jorge!”

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

“You two aren’t gonna make it!”

We crossed under the first string of generator lights.

“Jorge now!”

“You’re not-”

“NOW!”

The ground shuddered as an explosion rocked the world to our back. Dirt and concrete clawed at my skin even as my ears rang. Suddenly heavy, gravity pulled at me, but somehow, Letty continued to drag me. Grey dust and blood coated her face. I saw her mouth moving but  couldn’t hear one freaking thing.  

Another explosion caused her knees too to give way. I couldn’t breathe through all the dirt that charged the air. Couldn’t see. Couldn’t think.

There was just ringing and haze. And everything hurt. But slowly, slower than I could crawl, the world began to shrink.

I could see it. Darkness claiming the corners and drawing me in as the world shuddered one last time, and….

Never again.  

Chapter Three- Promises

We eased into the Underbelly at the closest access point, ducking under torn textile, withered ropes and creeping over years of accumulated dirt and trash.  The intermittent light cast by open fires only penetrated dusty patches of our path where the rickrack shelter had given way to years of heat, wind and abuse. It wasn’t long until we entered what must have been an alley, its characteristics defined only by the open sky above and slightly less toxic smell of rot and decay. 

“Are you sure this is the only way?” My words flowed a bit more freely here.  Though the drones still patrolled, they tended to patrol at a higher altitude more concerned with pattern, congregation, and a broader scope of random communication. It was generally believed by the Elites that should there be any amount of dissent amongst the inhabitants of the Underbelly, they lacked the means, resources, structure and even the intelligence, to pose any true threat to the Nation.

“What’s your plan?” His agitation practically clawed at my skin.

“Colton, this…. I…. okay. Maybe I don’t have a plan,” I rushed to keep up, pulling at his arm, “but if we stick to the last plan, it could have just been a…. a misunderstanding.”

He turned on his heel, bringing his eyes directly before my own, furious. Instead of exploding at me he took a knee before Emilia. Scanning our surroundings wearily, I spotted dozens of anonymous eyes and shadows peering at us, but it was only mildly unnerving. They were the neglected residents of the Underbelly. The instinct to survive left them anxious of everything, everyone. They were watching us keenly, for here, we were outsiders.

I was far more concerned with the possibility of shadows that might have followed us from the Middle than any Underbelly residents, or even the prying eyes up above, who wouldn’t yet be able to identify us.

“You doin’ ok?” His words were soft, caressing her as he spoke.

Emilia only shrugged and looked toward the cracked concrete at our feet.

“I know this is a lot, but you’re doing great.”

She began tracing a half circle to her left with the toe of her shoe.

“That man you were talking about, the one who looked like he might have been in a fire, do you remember anything else about him?”     

Another shrug. “I dunno.”

“Ok. That’s ok. How long ago did you see him? Do you remember that?”

“Hmmmmmmmmmm, six days ago!”

I caught Colton’s fleeting glace of fear.  “Are you sure?”

“Uh-huh.”

More concerned with this than any attack from outside, I too bent down to Emilia’s level, my hands to the sides of her small shoulders. “Do you remember anything else about him? What about his face? Do you remember anything else about his face?”

“Hmm….. Yeah! He had a, uh, a thing” she motioned with her fingers just below the bottom right corner of her mouth, pinching, “A, ah,” she gave a bit of a growl, struggling for the word, and, then finding it “Pucker! He had a pucker right, here.” She again motioned with her fingers. “And he had one eye that was kinda…. It was slower than the other one.”

I felt the remaining denial I had clung to so desperately drain away as my head fell to my chest. That was him; a nice man who carried candy, looked like he might have been in a fire, lack of hair, deep scar just below the right corner of his mouth and lazy right eye. That was the exact way most anyone would describe the Leader of our beloved Legion, Mr. Braden James.

Yep. The Leader of the Legion had been working to betray us.

Unable to think of what to do, what to say, I instead fell forward to my hands and knees, my breath uneven as panic snaked into every corner of my thoughts. If what she said was correct, if this was the truth, the resulting reality was so terrible, the corruption so complete, living through the next twenty-four hours was only the tip of an ever-expanding iceberg.

From the time we’d been just children Colton had been cursed with the desperate need to dissuade uncomfortable situations. When faced with a difficult scenario, he always offered an inappropriate joke; it always made him appear callous, but in truth, he did it to veil his vulnerability.

It was this moment that Colton chose to say, “Well, there is some good news here.”

Seeing my reaction and undoubtedly thinking of her parents, I watched a solitary tear roll down Emilia’s pale cheek. “He’s not a good man is he?”

Unable to think of any possible answer, I could only shake my head.

“Good news.” Colton repeated with a sheepish grin.  We both looked to him befuddled.

“What?” I finally conceded.

“This means I was right.  Again.” he snickered, despite the sorrow in his eyes.

Appreciative of his attempt, I chose to focus on action and rose to my feet. “Ok. New plan.”

“New plan?”  he asked feigning intrigue and shooting Emilia a quick wink.  “And what plan would that be?”

“I don’t know yet. For now, we just have to find a place to crash, to sleep, to think.”

His demeanor softened, recognizing my acceptance of our new predicament. “Good call Chief. Let’s see what we can find.” 

Having never been in the Underbelly before, Emilia kept a tight grip on each of our hands. The shadows danced ominously, taunting us and constantly moving in the dark, dank tent city as sinister flickers of light teased in the wind.  Shadows wrapped around us, drawing us in.  The resulting anonymity brought a bit of reassurance as we delved further into the maze, deeper into the obscurity.

After just thirty minutes of walking, Emilia began to slow, her eyes growing heavy. When Colton scooped her up, she quickly nestled her cheek atop his broad shoulder. She drifted off in a fitful sleep as the surroundings hardened, grew more primitive. Light sources became more infrequent while the division between dwellings blurred.

Though the location wasn’t enough to jar my nerves, our situation, coupled with the surroundings and exhaustion was enough to weaken my resolve. Surrendering to the need for reassurance, I allowed myself an ounce of weakness and I too fell into Colton’s side.  Of course, there was no escaping the guilt which gnawed at me as the dust that surrounded our new reality began to settle.  With every step it became clearer that Colton had just given up everything for me. If this went south, if something happened to him, or to Emilia, the culpability would rest solely with me.  

I had cost them their world.

We wound our way through yet another ominous section of the Underbelly before clamoring into what appeared to be an uninhabited storage area. Groggily, Emilia helped me place her backpack under her head as a pillow once she curled in the nearest corner. My sweater acted as her blanket as I snuggled into her side tightly, allowing just enough room for Colton to slide in next to me against the makeshift wall. He placed his right hand on my propped knee, giving it a gentle squeeze as he kept watch on the world just outside the wall.  Though terror clung to every one of my thoughts, Colton’s presence granted me the sanctuary needed to fall asleep.

After little more than an hour or so, I felt a quick rap to the inside of my knee. Jolted back into a nightmare more horrid than any that could be found behind closed eyes, I snapped my head up to meet Colton’s gaze. The night only allowed enough light to see his silhouette raise his index finger to his lips. He was still crouched as he spun on the ball of his right foot to peer through a tear in the upper portion of the canvas wall.  Hushed voices could be heard outside and footsteps moved in unison toward our location. 

I counted six sets of footsteps. Aware they would likely be able to see our heat signatures, I fought the urge to see, to move. Undoubtedly, the death we had painted within Emilia’s home earlier that night had been discovered. Despite the retrieval being a farce, her parents still had to be eliminated if we were to have any chance of making it out alive. Allowing them to live would have made Emilia more easily tracked, more vulnerable, and after intense interrogation, her parents’ lives still would have been taken.

We’d had no choice but to kill them. After all, they had wanted her safe, no matter the cost.

However, the men we killed inside their home had been reporting to somebody, and when they didn’t check in, we could be certain their bodies, along with those of Emilia’s parents, had since been collected. If they truly had been connected to Braden James, I was being hunted. My orders to retrieve Emilia had come from the Legion, meaning they had sent me to my death.  In the wake of my survival, drones were unquestionably patrolling the skies above, and their infra-red cameras would be monitoring and recording, searching to destroy us.

While their technology and manpower made it impossible to hide, we were still allowed anonymity. If able to maintain our composure and act like any other residents of the Underbelly, our heat signature silhouettes were just like those of the residents all around us.  

The waning moonlight illuminated a slant of Colton’s face as he continued to observe the men outside. Squinting in an effort to see them a bit better, I saw his eyes close in disappointment as, with the slightest shake of his head, he confirmed that these men were indeed what we feared.

Voices called out in the night, some irate and surprised, while others ordered the armed strangers from their makeshift homes. The uproar indicated one thing: Premises Inspections.

The six soldiers we had concerned ourselves with clearly were not alone. Throughout the night, soldiers inspected the various pockets of the Underbelly, searching for young Emilia and more to the point, looking to eliminate us before we became a threat. I was being hunted by the Elites and by my beloved Legion alike. Emilia’s future was in jeopardy, she and Colton’s lives were at risk, and the guilt for such truths cinched ever tighter around my heart.

As the voices moved ever closer, Colton gathered the fabric that had been covering the items stacked behind him. I used my hand to cover Emilia’s mouth and woke her. I shushed her at her ear, no louder than a breath as her hands came to mine in alarm. Hearing me, she slowly nodded in my arms, and releasing her mouth slowly, I gathered her hair back into a tie before easing my own hat onto my head. Colton gathered the fabric around his torso and arms. In the light of day, it would look as though he had in fact, wrapped worn canvas fabric around him. However, by the isolated beam of a flashlight, it might just appear he was wearing tattered clothing like any other resident here. He moved silently, placing himself between us and the entryway. Without turning to face me, he placed himself into another patch of moonlight and motioned for us to stay down.

I tightened my hold on Emilia as the footsteps outside broke into three teams. They moved almost silently; the loudest sounds were those of them chambering their next rounds and engaging the lights mounted atop their weapons.

“Clear.” A calm voice called from thirty yards away.

“Clear.” echoed another from a different direction.

Within moments, an altercation could be heard, this one only fifteen feet from us, “Hey, you get the hell outta my quarters!” 

“Sir!” a strong voice cautioned. “I am a Soldier with the Military Nationals. We are conducting a -”

“I don’t give a rat’s fart who you are. You ain’t got no right bein’ in here. That’s plain. So, you need to be gettin’ on.”

There was a brief scuffle before a solid punch landed and a body dropped to the floor.  “That’s enough.” Ordered another male. “We are not to engage.”

“Clear.” said the first bitterly.

Knowing we were next, I tucked Emilia in my embrace. “Shh.” I urged once more as I felt her little head nod again against my chest.

Colton was ready to spring, and as the tarp that served as the door was lifted and the first flashlight beam searched the room, we both knew the clutter was not enough to conceal us. That, coupled with their night vision readings ensured we had no choice but to react to their presence.

Colton leapt to his feet, angry, hostile. Then, sounding slow and uneducated, he challenged the men “Ay, you people killed our parents and what? That ain’t ‘nough for you. You gotta come here’n harass me and them? Huh? You already took all our parents. What more do ya want?”

Ignoring him, the two flashlight beams continued their search until they landed on Emilia and I in the corner.

“Hey!” Colton roared, banging on a metal cabinet to his left, establishing himself as the aggressor, the interest in the room. “You hear me?”

Both lights moved to him. Watching. Waiting.

“What more you people want, huh?” Acting as though nerves and emotion were causing his voice to teeter and crack, he continued. “We ain’t got nothin’ left to give.”

The first man who had entered the room again moved his light to us.  Overwhelmed by everything she had endured, suffering the loss of her parents, having been subjected to this environment and having to tolerate my embrace when it was I who had caused all of her pain, Emilia’s resolve finally broke and she began to sob uncontrollably in my arms. Her emotion was raw and powerful enough to move me. I felt my own tears break free as regret took hold of my heart. I had taken everything from her and yet, I was demanding she play along, that she participate in a ruse for my benefit.

I began to recognize a hollow, a void in the center of my being as I accepted a single truth: I was the most horrible person in the world.

I held Emilia tightly as we remained on the floor, my guilt-ridden tears falling to her dark hair as she wept. Her anguish came in loud jerks and shudders. I kept my head tilted low, kissing the top of her head repeatedly in a futile attempt to quell her grief and admittedly, to limit the likelihood of being identified by the armed men in the room.

Witnessing the torrent of emotion and receiving it as genuine fear and panic, the flashlight returned its unwavering focus to Colton, who then leaned against the cabinet, his hands continually moving to his face in what appeared to be an attempt at maintaining his masculinity amidst his forced emotions, but was really nothing more than an attempt to keep his face too, concealed.

“If your parents died, it wasn’t our fault. Our job is to protect trash like you.”

Giving an ironic chuckle, Colton spat on the ground between them in response.

“Clear.” the second man issued as they moved back through the doorway. “Freakin’ parasites are so ungrateful; everything we give them, and they always want more.”

“The damn truth.”  The first man snorted in agreement.

The tarp fell closed behind them and we listened as they cleared various quarters moving down what seemed a long alley or corridor. We must have taken refuge in a storage room for a Compound in the Underbelly. Those who were deemed even less worthy than other Underbelly residents were often grouped into the larger of the few remaining buildings here, in Compounds. Often, they were filled with the old and dispensable, the irate and intolerable, anybody they thought useless. Stacking them in broken buildings that had once been apartment complexes allowed the Municipal Capital Elites an easy source of fresh meat. It made it easy to select people from a sardine can to throw into the next skirmish or anything else to suit their needs. After all, why throw away good meat?

Occasional altercations were heard amongst various teams and residents, but thankfully, their voices continued further into the night.

As they progressed, I persisted with my attempts to sooth Emilia. Slowly, her sobs lessened even as she clung to me, her arms wrapped around my neck. I stroked her hair and rocked her while Colton walked the perimeter of the room. We were less concerned of how our heat signatures might appear to the surveillance drones above now that we had been deemed no threat. We could be all but certain that the audio surveillance had moved on as well as they too searched for us further into the Underbelly.

 “I’m so sorry.” I whispered. Emilia’s breath continually caught in her chest, causing her to suffer three convulsive sobs with each inhale. “I’m so sorry, Sweetie. There is nothing I can say or do to make up for what I’ve taken from you.”

Before she could utter a response, the tarp that served as the doorway was whipped back. Colton sprang toward the doorway to meet the aggressor.

“Hey!” the same voice we had heard earlier arguing with the soldiers called to us. “How’d you get in my quarters, huh?”

“We don’t want any trouble, Sir.” Colton issued, steadying himself as he halted his attack.

Stepping into a patch of moonlight we saw that the man was older, appeared to be in failing health and was holding his hand to the side of his bloodied head. “No trouble.” he muttered sourly. “You don’t go on into someone’s quarters if you don’t want no trouble.”

“Look, we just,” I rose to my feet, Emilia still crying in my arms. “We just needed someplace to sleep for the night. We’ll be gone in the morning, Sir. Please.”

He looked Emilia and I over, then back to Colton who was circling behind him. “You the ones who was just talkin’ to them?”

“Yes, Sir.”

He sighed and looked at his blood-soaked hand, shaking his head in disbelief. “Anyone who hates them Elis much as I do is ok in my book, I ‘spose.” He sighed heavily. “Don’t touch any a’ my stuff.” He turned back to the doorway and with his arm still holding the tarp up added. “And, sorry ‘bout your parents.”

“Thank you.” I called as the tarp returned to its post.

“I am sorry.” I reiterated to Emilia, my hands rubbing the sides of her arms. “So sorry.”

I felt her small right hand come to rest on my cheek as she whispered, “I know.” The gesture brought more tears to my eyes. She had more strength, resiliency and heart than I could ever know.

Pulling away, she adjusted her backpack a bit as I covered her with my sweater once more. Colton returned to us, but I scrambled to where he had been earlier, peering through the tare in the wall.

He looked at me expectantly.

“What?” I whispered, patting the floor between us. “You gotta get some sleep.”

He said nothing but I knew he was weighing his options. He had known me long enough, and knew me well enough, to understand that arguing was futile. Conceding, he dropped into the spot between us with a frustrated sigh.

She instantly turned and clung to his hand, pulling it closer in an embrace. He scooted down a bit, trying to get comfortable while I kept watch over them both.

“You good, Sport?” he asked, his voice showing fatigue.

Emilia nodded with a grunt.

“You, Chief?” he asked me in turn.

“Don’t know about good, but I got this.”

With balled fist, he gently knocked me on the knee. “This isn’t your fault.”

“No, but it’s up to me to fix this.”

We’ll fix it. Together.”

“I’m sorry I got you…” Emotion cut off my whisper.

“My choice. Nothing for you to apologize for.”

I took a deep breath, fighting back a wall of tears.

“Hey, Chief, this … I couldn’t have it any other way. If you’re in the shit, I’m right there with you. If I can go into it and keep you out of it, I do. But, I will never let you be in it without me. Just how our world works.”

Hot tears rolled down my cheeks yet again as I continued to stare into the night.

“Can’t let you have all the fun without me.” He paused, his voice sobering. “I’ve always got your back, Chief. Only way to get rid of me is to kill me.”

To that I gave a small laugh. “Don’t tempt me.” I grasped his hand, which he squeezed.

“Me too?” Emilia’s small voice wondered.

“Absolutely!” we whispered in unison.

“We’re not going anywhere, Champ.” he reassured her.

“We’ll never leave you.” I agreed.

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

We eased into the Underbelly at the closest access point, ducking under torn textile, withered ropes and creeping over years of accumulated dirt and trash.  The intermittent light cast by open fires only penetrated dusty patches of our path where the rickrack shelter had given way to years of heat, wind and abuse. It wasn’t long until we entered what must have been an alley, its characteristics defined only by the open sky above and slightly less toxic smell of rot and decay. 

“Are you sure this is the only way?” My words flowed a bit more freely here.  Though the drones still patrolled, they tended to patrol at a higher altitude more concerned with pattern, congregation, and a broader scope of random communication. It was generally believed by the Elites that should there be any amount of dissent amongst the inhabitants of the Underbelly, they lacked the means, resources, structure and even the intelligence, to pose any true threat to the Nation.

“What’s your plan?” His agitation practically clawed at my skin.

“Colton, this…. I…. okay. Maybe I don’t have a plan,” I rushed to keep up, pulling at his arm, “but if we stick to the last plan, it could have just been a…. a misunderstanding.”

He turned on his heel, bringing his eyes directly before my own, furious. Instead of exploding at me he took a knee before Emilia. Scanning our surroundings wearily, I spotted dozens of anonymous eyes and shadows peering at us, but it was only mildly unnerving. They were the neglected residents of the Underbelly. The instinct to survive left them anxious of everything, everyone. They were watching us keenly, for here, we were outsiders.

I was far more concerned with the possibility of shadows that might have followed us from the Middle than any Underbelly residents, or even the prying eyes up above, who wouldn’t yet be able to identify us.

“You doin’ ok?” His words were soft, caressing her as he spoke.

Emilia only shrugged and looked toward the cracked concrete at our feet.

“I know this is a lot, but you’re doing great.”

She began tracing a half circle to her left with the toe of her shoe.

“That man you were talking about, the one who looked like he might have been in a fire, do you remember anything else about him?”     

Another shrug. “I dunno.”

“Ok. That’s ok. How long ago did you see him? Do you remember that?”

“Hmmmmmmmmmm, six days ago!”

I caught Colton’s fleeting glance of fear.  “Are you sure?”

“Uh-huh.”

More concerned with this than any attack from outside, I too bent down to Emilia’s level, my hands to the sides of her small shoulders. “Do you remember anything else about him? What about his face? Do you remember anything else about his face?”

“Hmm….. Yeah! He had a, uh, a thing” she motioned with her fingers just below the bottom right corner of her mouth, pinching, “A, ah,” she gave a bit of a growl, struggling for the word, and, then finding it “Pucker! He had a pucker right, here.” She again motioned with her fingers. “And he had one eye that was kinda…. It was slower than the other one.”

I felt the remaining denial I had clung to so desperately drain away as my head fell to my chest. That was him; a nice man who carried candy, looked like he might have been in a fire, lack of hair, deep scar just below the right corner of his mouth and lazy right eye. That was the exact way most anyone would describe the Leader of our beloved Legion, Mr. Braden James.

Yep. The Leader of the Legion had been working to betray us.

Unable to think of what to do, what to say, I instead fell forward to my hands and knees, my breath uneven as panic snaked into every corner of my thoughts. If what she said was correct, if this was the truth, the resulting reality was so terrible, the corruption so complete, living through the next twenty-four hours was only the tip of an ever-expanding iceberg.

From the time we’d been just children Colton had been cursed with the desperate need to dissuade uncomfortable situations. When faced with a difficult scenario, he always offered an inappropriate joke; it always made him appear callous, but in truth, he did it to veil his vulnerability.

It was this moment that Colton chose to say, “Well, there is some good news here.”

Seeing my reaction and undoubtedly thinking of her parents, I watched a solitary tear roll down Emilia’s pale cheek. “He’s not a good man is he?”

Unable to think of any possible answer, I could only shake my head.

“Good news.” Colton repeated with a sheepish grin.  We both looked to him befuddled.

“What?” I finally conceded.

“This means I was right.  Again.” he snickered, despite the sorrow in his eyes.

Appreciative of his attempt, I chose to focus on action and rose to my feet. “Ok. New plan.”

“New plan?”  he asked feigning intrigue and shooting Emilia a quick wink.  “And what plan would that be?”

“I don’t know yet. For now, we just have to find a place to crash, to sleep, to think.”

His demeanor softened, recognizing my acceptance of our new predicament. “Good call Chief. Let’s see what we can find.” 

Having never been in the Underbelly before, Emilia kept a tight grip on each of our hands. The shadows danced ominously, taunting us and constantly moving in the dark, dank tent city as sinister flickers of light teased in the wind.  Shadows wrapped around us, drawing us in.  The resulting anonymity brought a bit of reassurance as we delved further into the maze, deeper into the obscurity.

After just thirty minutes of walking, Emilia began to slow, her eyes growing heavy. When Colton scooped her up, she quickly nestled her cheek atop his broad shoulder. She drifted off in a fitful sleep as the surroundings hardened, grew more primitive. Light sources became more infrequent while the division between dwellings blurred.

Though the location wasn’t enough to jar my nerves, our situation, coupled with the surroundings and exhaustion was enough to weaken my resolve. Surrendering to the need for reassurance, I allowed myself an ounce of weakness and I too fell into Colton’s side.  Of course, there was no escaping the guilt which gnawed at me as the dust that surrounded our new reality began to settle.  With every step it became clearer that Colton had just given up everything for me. If this went south, if something happened to him, or to Emilia, the culpability would rest solely with me.  

I had cost them their world.

We wound our way through yet another ominous section of the Underbelly before clamoring into what appeared to be an uninhabited storage area. Groggily, Emilia helped me place her backpack under her head as a pillow once she curled in the nearest corner. My sweater acted as her blanket as I snuggled into her side tightly, allowing just enough room for Colton to slide in next to me against the makeshift wall. He placed his right hand on my propped knee, giving it a gentle squeeze as he kept watch on the world just outside the wall.  Though terror clung to every one of my thoughts, Colton’s presence granted me the sanctuary needed to fall asleep.

After little more than an hour or so, I felt a quick rap to the inside of my knee. Jolted back into a nightmare more horrid than any that could be found behind closed eyes, I snapped my head up to meet Colton’s gaze. The night only allowed enough light to see his silhouette raise his index finger to his lips. He was still crouched as he spun on the ball of his right foot to peer through a tear in the upper portion of the canvas wall.  Hushed voices could be heard outside and footsteps moved in unison toward our location. 

I counted six sets of footsteps. Aware they would likely be able to see our heat signatures, I fought the urge to see, to move. Undoubtedly, the death we had painted within Emilia’s home earlier that night had been discovered. Despite the retrieval being a farce, her parents still had to be eliminated if we were to have any chance of making it out alive. Allowing them to live would have made Emilia more easily tracked, more vulnerable, and after intense interrogation, her parents’ lives still would have been taken.

We’d had no choice but to kill them. After all, they had wanted her safe, no matter the cost.

However, the men we killed inside their home had been reporting to somebody, and when they didn’t check in, we could be certain their bodies, along with those of Emilia’s parents, had since been collected. If they truly had been connected to Braden James, I was being hunted. My orders to retrieve Emilia had come from the Legion, meaning they had sent me to my death.  In the wake of my survival, drones were unquestionably patrolling the skies above, and their infra-red cameras would be monitoring and recording, searching to destroy us.

While their technology and manpower made it impossible to hide, we were still allowed anonymity. If able to maintain our composure and act like any other residents of the Underbelly, our heat signature silhouettes were just like those of the residents all around us.  

The waning moonlight illuminated a slant of Colton’s face as he continued to observe the men outside. Squinting in an effort to see them a bit better, I saw his eyes close in disappointment as, with the slightest shake of his head, he confirmed that these men were indeed what we feared.

Voices called out in the night, some irate and surprised, while others ordered the armed strangers from their makeshift homes. The uproar indicated one thing: Premises Inspections.

The six soldiers we had concerned ourselves with clearly were not alone. Throughout the night, soldiers inspected the various pockets of the Underbelly, searching for young Emilia and more to the point, looking to eliminate us before we became a threat. I was being hunted by the Elites and by my beloved Legion alike. Emilia’s future was in jeopardy, she and Colton’s lives were at risk, and the guilt for such truths cinched ever tighter around my heart.

As the voices moved ever closer, Colton gathered the fabric that had been covering the items stacked behind him. I used my hand to cover Emilia’s mouth and woke her. I shushed her at her ear, no louder than a breath as her hands came to mine in alarm. Hearing me, she slowly nodded in my arms, and releasing her mouth slowly, I gathered her hair back into a tie before easing my own hat onto my head. Colton gathered the fabric around his torso and arms. In the light of day, it would look as though he had in fact, wrapped worn canvas fabric around him. However, by the isolated beam of a flashlight, it might just appear he was wearing tattered clothing like any other resident here. He moved silently, placing himself between us and the entryway. Without turning to face me, he placed himself into another patch of moonlight and motioned for us to stay down.

I tightened my hold on Emilia as the footsteps outside broke into three teams. They moved almost silently; the loudest sounds were those of them chambering their next rounds and engaging the lights mounted atop their weapons.

“Clear.” A calm voice called from thirty yards away.

“Clear.” echoed another from a different direction.

Within moments, an altercation could be heard, this one only fifteen feet from us, “Hey, you get the hell outta my quarters!” 

“Sir!” a strong voice cautioned. “I am a Soldier with the Military Nationals. We are conducting a -”

“I don’t give a rat’s fart who you are. You ain’t got no right bein’ in here. That’s plain. So, you need to be gettin’ on.”

There was a brief scuffle before a solid punch landed and a body dropped to the floor.  “That’s enough.” Ordered another male. “We are not to engage.”

“Clear.” said the first bitterly.

Knowing we were next, I tucked Emilia in my embrace. “Shh.” I urged once more as I felt her little head nod again against my chest.

Colton was ready to spring, and as the tarp that served as the door was lifted and the first flashlight beam searched the room, we both knew the clutter was not enough to conceal us. That, coupled with their night vision readings ensured we had no choice but to react to their presence.

Colton leapt to his feet, angry, hostile. Then, sounding slow and uneducated, he challenged the men “Ay, you people killed our parents and what? That ain’t ‘nough for you. You gotta come here’n harass me and them? Huh? You already took all our parents. What more do ya want?”

Ignoring him, the two flashlight beams continued their search until they landed on Emilia and I in the corner.

“Hey!” Colton roared, banging on a metal cabinet to his left, establishing himself as the aggressor, the interest in the room. “You hear me?”

Both lights moved to him. Watching. Waiting.

“What more you people want, huh?” Acting as though nerves and emotion were causing his voice to teeter and crack, he continued. “We ain’t got nothin’ left to give.”

The first man who had entered the room again moved his light to us.  Overwhelmed by everything she had endured, suffering the loss of her parents, having been subjected to this environment and having to tolerate my embrace when it was I who had caused all of her pain, Emilia’s resolve finally broke and she began to sob uncontrollably in my arms. Her emotion was raw and powerful enough to move me. I felt my own tears break free as regret took hold of my heart. I had taken everything from her and yet, I was demanding she play along, that she participate in a ruse for my benefit.

I began to recognize a hollow, a void in the center of my being as I accepted a single truth: I was the most horrible person in the world.

I held Emilia tightly as we remained on the floor, my guilt-ridden tears falling to her dark hair as she wept. Her anguish came in loud jerks and shudders. I kept my head tilted low, kissing the top of her head repeatedly in a futile attempt to quell her grief and admittedly, to limit the likelihood of being identified by the armed men in the room.

Witnessing the torrent of emotion and receiving it as genuine fear and panic, the flashlight returned its unwavering focus to Colton, who then leaned against the cabinet, his hands continually moving to his face in what appeared to be an attempt at maintaining his masculinity amidst his forced emotions, but was really nothing more than an attempt to keep his face too, concealed.

“If your parents died, it wasn’t our fault. Our job is to protect trash like you.”

Giving an ironic chuckle, Colton spat on the ground between them in response.

“Clear.” the second man issued as they moved back through the doorway. “Freakin’ parasites are so ungrateful; everything we give them, and they always want more.”

“The damn truth.”  The first man snorted in agreement.

The tarp fell closed behind them and we listened as they cleared various quarters moving down what seemed a long alley or corridor. We must have taken refuge in a storage room for a Compound in the Underbelly. Those who were deemed even less worthy than other Underbelly residents were often grouped into the larger of the few remaining buildings here, in Compounds. Often, they were filled with the old and dispensable, the irate and intolerable, anybody they thought useless. Stacking them in broken buildings that had once been apartment complexes allowed the Municipal Capital Elites an easy source of fresh meat. It made it easy to select people from a sardine can to throw into the next skirmish or anything else to suit their needs. After all, why throw away good meat?

Occasional altercations were heard amongst various teams and residents, but thankfully, their voices continued further into the night.

As they progressed, I persisted with my attempts to sooth Emilia. Slowly, her sobs lessened even as she clung to me, her arms wrapped around my neck. I stroked her hair and rocked her while Colton walked the perimeter of the room. We were less concerned of how our heat signatures might appear to the surveillance drones above now that we had been deemed no threat. We could be all but certain that the audio surveillance had moved on as well as they too searched for us further into the Underbelly.

 “I’m so sorry.” I whispered. Emilia’s breath continually caught in her chest, causing her to suffer three convulsive sobs with each inhale. “I’m so sorry, Sweetie. There is nothing I can say or do to make up for what I’ve taken from you.”

Before she could utter a response, the tarp that served as the doorway was whipped back. Colton sprang toward the doorway to meet the aggressor.

“Hey!” the same voice we had heard earlier arguing with the soldiers called to us. “How’d you get in my quarters, huh?”

“We don’t want any trouble, Sir.” Colton issued, steadying himself as he halted his attack.

Stepping into a patch of moonlight we saw that the man was older, appeared to be in failing health and was holding his hand to the side of his bloodied head. “No trouble.” he muttered sourly. “You don’t go on into someone’s quarters if you don’t want no trouble.”

“Look, we just,” I rose to my feet, Emilia still crying in my arms. “We just needed someplace to sleep for the night. We’ll be gone in the morning, Sir. Please.”

He looked Emilia and I over, then back to Colton who was circling behind him. “You the ones who was just talkin’ to them?”

“Yes, Sir.”

He sighed and looked at his blood-soaked hand, shaking his head in disbelief. “Anyone who hates them Elis much as I do is ok in my book, I ‘spose.” He sighed heavily. “Don’t touch any a’ my stuff.” He turned back to the doorway and with his arm still holding the tarp up added. “And, sorry ‘bout your parents.”

“Thank you.” I called as the tarp returned to its post.

“I am sorry.” I reiterated to Emilia, my hands rubbing the sides of her arms. “So sorry.”

I felt her small right hand come to rest on my cheek as she whispered, “I know.” The gesture brought more tears to my eyes. She had more strength, resiliency and heart than I could ever know.

Pulling away, she adjusted her backpack a bit as I covered her with my sweater once more. Colton returned to us, but I scrambled to where he had been earlier, peering through the tare in the wall.

He looked at me expectantly.

“What?” I whispered, patting the floor between us. “You gotta get some sleep.”

He said nothing but I knew he was weighing his options. He had known me long enough, and knew me well enough, to understand that arguing was futile. Conceding, he dropped into the spot between us with a frustrated sigh.

She instantly turned and clung to his hand, pulling it closer in an embrace. He scooted down a bit, trying to get comfortable while I kept watch over them both.

“You good, Sport?” he asked, his voice showing fatigue.

Emilia nodded with a grunt.

“You, Chief?” he asked me in turn.

“Don’t know about good, but I got this.”

With balled fist, he gently knocked me on the knee. “This isn’t your fault.”

“No, but it’s up to me to fix this.”

We’ll fix it. Together.”

“I’m sorry I got you…” Emotion cut off my whisper.

“My choice. Nothing for you to apologize for.”

I took a deep breath, fighting back a wall of tears.

“Hey, Chief, this … I couldn’t have it any other way. If you’re in the shit, I’m right there with you. If I can go into it and keep you out of it, I do. But, I will never let you be in it without me. Just how our world works.”

Hot tears rolled down my cheeks yet again as I continued to stare into the night.

“Can’t let you have all the fun without me.” He paused, his voice sobering. “I’ve always got your back, Chief. Only way to get rid of me is to kill me.”

To that I gave a small laugh. “Don’t tempt me.” I grasped his hand, which he squeezed.

“Me too?” Emilia’s small voice wondered.

“Absolutely!” we whispered in unison.

“We’re not going anywhere, Champ.” he reassured her.

“We’ll never leave you.” I agreed.

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

After all the pain I had caused her, after stripping away her entire world, it was the least I could do.

Ice-Cream

“Out! Out! You get out of this house! Right now!”

“Mom, you don’t under-”

“No!” Tears exploded as her voice cracked. “How dare you sit here, at this table, and lecture me on-”

“Mom, I’m not,” my voice was soft as my mother’s hands when I reached for them.

“No!” but she startled away as if I’d shocked her. “You cannot sit here, at your father’s table, and say that to me. I won’t allow it. Not in this house. Not after everything we’ve lost.”

Loss. It was a demon our family knew all too well.

Five years ago, my father, Officer Derrick Strasberg, was gunned down when refueling his car on his way home. Surveillance video showed an old sedan pull into the pump across from him. Acknowledging the man, my dad nodded and said something. Though we could never be certain, I knew he only offered his usual “Heck of an evening, isn’t it?” After all, to my dad, this world was filled only with a ‘heck of’ a morning, afternoon and night.

But that man didn’t share in the wonder of the cool night air. Instead, he had responded by putting a bullet in my dad’s neck. 

“I’m not trying to disrespect Dad.”

“Yes, you are! To say that these riots are a good thing? That it’s good the police are targets by these animals?”

“That is not what I said!”

“May as well have.”

“All I’m trying to say is-”

“That you think it’s a good thing your father died.”

“Mom.”

“Those monsters shot him, for no reason other than they spotted an Officer in uniform, and left him on that concrete like he was trash…” Mom hyperventilated, and I lost the ability to hold back my own tears. “You’re telling me that was good?”

“I never said-”

“What would your father say if he could hear you now?”

“I don’t know Mom, but I know he’d listen.” I knew it wasn’t fair, but it was the readiest ammunition at my disposal.

Shaking her head, mom only cried harder, and I couldn’t blame her. Dad was a bit of an odd duck; he loved a good debate. Whenever any of us disagreed on a topic, he practically made a gameshow out of it. ‘Two minutes!’ He’d clap his hands together and draw two chairs to face one another. The rules were simple: each person had two minutes to present their side. If there was no surrender or agreement, he’d put it to a family vote. Whichever side had four votes won. Their reward? They got to pick where we went for ice-cream.

The man was nuts. I don’t think any one of us ever changed our mind, but as I got older, I began to understand. Winning an argument? That was never the point.

“What would Dad say if he were here right now, Mom?”

She bit her lip, but if looks could kill? I’d be dead. “Two minutes.”

Two minutes. I had exactly two minutes to speak my mind with no interruption. It didn’t matter what blasphemy a person wanted to spew. It didn’t matter how insulting, how ignorant or how utterly ridiculous. The moment the game was on… we were free to stand atop our chosen soapbox for two. Full. Minutes.

“I’m not saying that it’s good these Officers are being killed, shot, harassed or even spat upon.”

Mom crossed her arms across her chest, even as her chin trembled.

“I’m saying that every day, black people in this country face injustice. If it’s 100 degrees out, they have to choose whether they want to risk wearing a white tank top outside. If they do, people will judge them. If they do, the police may pull them over for no reason. If they do, they have to be careful not to drive two miles per hour over the speed limit because for sure, the combination of white “wife-beater” and “speeding” will see them pulled over. But that Officer? He’s not just going to talk to him. No. He’s going to be pulled from his car, frisked, handcuffed. But they are also at a much higher risk of getting shot, harassed, or their face slammed into the sidewalk.”

“But-”

I raised my hand to silence her, my index and middle finger raised to reminder her, two minutes. “Just look at the numbers. I’m not making this crap up.”

“Even if they do “dress right”, they have to be careful. They have to be absolute sure they don’t put their hands in their pockets in a store. They’ll have to smile at the security guard that follows them for no reason. They’ll have to be certain not to make eye contact with any middle-aged white, Caucasian. They have to be careful of the volume they listen to their music at in their car. They have to be careful what color clothes they wear, depending on where they are.”

“They have to be careful to avoid going for a walk in the wrong neighborhood, but for them, those neighborhoods are many. If they go into a bad neighborhood in the middle-of-the night, they’re at risk of being robbed or attacked, just like you and I. But if they walk in a safer neighborhood, say a neighborhood where they live, neighbors will suspect them a criminal. Look at Trayvon Martin – shot for no reason. Look at Ahmaud Arbery – shot for no reason. Look at Botham Jean – shot because a stupid Officer got lost and assumed an innocent black man must be guilty of something, simply for residing within his own home.”

“And this is without discussing the systematic disadvantages they face, the discrimination they face, every single day when it comes to healthcare, education, affordable housing, equality in the workplace, likelihood of being hired, incarceration rates, equal opportunities of defense, evidence suppression, jury selection… .the list goes on and on… and on.”

“But if we focus on just the interactions with Officers, that list too never ends. When a white man is pulled over, he is cited and sent on his way. The same interaction for a black man sees his car getting searched, resulting in a delay that could see him late to work. A white man is suspected of a crime, he’s easily cuffed and brought in for questioning. A black man? It’s especially bad if that black man is taller or stronger than the Officer. If so, back-up is called because the big black guy is presumed guilty. He’s taken down, pinned, cuffed. Excessive use of force is all but guaranteed. Look at George Floyd. Look at Freddie Gray. Manuel Ellis. Alton Sterling. Terence Crutcher. Philando Castile. Walter Scott. Eric Harris. Tamir Rice…. The list is endless, and circumstances may vary a little, but it was the color of these individuals’ skin; it was the prejudgment and racism and hate that resulted in murder. Yet, because these murderers wear a badge, society thinks they’re free from sin. They ignore the fact that these people too are rapists, pedophiles, drug runners, thieves. But society says no – that can’t be true.”

“Yet, an innocent black man, an innocent black woman? What does society call them? The men are thugs. The women are whores. The children? Little punks that’ll grow up just like their crack-smoking mama or their gang-bangin’ daddy. The fact that these labels, and countless others, are hurled at them on the regular…. It’s unfair. Two minutes doesn’t even begin to give me the time to discuss the injustices black people face every moment of their lives. Because you see, these people? They’re just like you and me. They love. They strive. They achieve. The only difference is that our complacency makes it so that they have to walk through this life in fear.”

“And that? That is why I say… it sucks that the Officers have to live in fear, but maybe…. Maybe that’s the point. That crippling fear that Officers now have to face, that their families are burdened with… it is not okay. I never want to see another Officer murdered in cold blood simply for policing and trying to keep us all safe. But that fear? It is what black people face every day. They live it. They breathe it. Yet somehow, and I have no clue how… they choose to forgive us. To remind us we’re the same. That is a strength I can never know.”

“The public outcry over the injustices police face? Why does that take precedence over the injustices black people face? The outrage over vandalism, over the inconvenience protests create in white society’s daily lives? Why is that worse than what black people face every day? It only matters when white people are inconvenienced. It only matters when white businessmen face the tedium of insurance claims.”

“It only matters when white people encounter a fraction of the fear all black people face.”

“And what of those murderous Police Officers? They only face charges when something goes viral, when the pressure becomes too much to face.”

“That’s all I meant Mom. Murdering an Officer is never okay. I know that. You know that. But… the fear is maybe, in some weird way… the point.”

To her credit, Mom had given me more than two minutes before, “I can’t look at your face.”

Now, as I stand here, facing my parents’ front door and hearing that lock click into place… I can’t help but wonder if Mom and I will be able to get past this. I hope so, but I don’t know so. This isn’t a matter of time healing wounds. This isn’t an issue we’ll one day move past or learn to forget.

No.

Mom is going to have to come to my side. Equality. Humanity… call it what you want. This is a soapbox I will never get down from.

So… no.

Time can’t fix this. Mom is going to have to understand. The world is going to have to understand. Black people matter. Black lives matter. Black people are the same as us, if not better.

Better because they allow time to heal unhealable wounds.

Better because they see us the same as them even when so many of us don’t.

Better because they never make us validate ourselves and never ask us to prove that we, as white people, matter.

I’d love nothing more than to change the world and drive out the ignorance and hate. But I don’t know how. Until I figure it out, I’m going to work at it, one day at a time, leading by example. And who knows…. Maybe one day?

Maybe mom will take me out for some ice-cream.

Chapter Two – Unplug

Three solemn faces welcomed us to the kitchen. True; the family had actually waited for us, but their faces were ashen, and their shoulders were hunched. I’m sure at least one of them was silently kicking themselves for not running off into the night.

Being this close to the Underbelly, this family was lucky; they had cupboards in their kitchen. Most were missing doors, and the few that hung askew were darkened by dirt and grime along the corners. Each of the exposed shelves was bare. Harsh overhead light displayed tired walls devoid of family portraits but riddled with time. Dirty handprints, hand-marked height measurements and holes littered the walls. The sadness in their surroundings engulfed me, mirroring the emotion pooling in the family’s eyes. The tiny round table between us wobbled when leaned upon, and the chairs didn’t match, nor did they all have the expected four legs. For a few uncomfortable moments, nobody spoke. The mother couldn’t even look at us; she just kept fussing over her daughter, constantly smoothing her hair.

Colton leaned back in his chosen chair, draping his arm across the back of mine. “Care to explain?”

The father studied his hands as he cleared his throat. The little girl kept batting her mother’s concerned hands away as she watched me, her massive acorn colored eyes wide, intrigued. She gathered her feet under her in the chair as she rose to her haunches, the only member of her family brazen enough to make eye contact.

The only one brave enough to speak. “You killed them?”

“I did.”

“Yeah,” she kicked back to her rump and tracing her finger in a circle on the table said, “I didn’t like them very much anyway.”

“Neither did I.” I responded plainly.

“How come you didn’t die?”

“I was better than them.”

She nodded knowingly.

Colton leaned forward; elbows propped on the rickety table. “Aren’t you scared?”

The mother was overcome with fear as she leaned into the crook of her husband’s shoulder. Dark circles lurked below red, puffy eyes, and she swiped at her tears, revolted.

The girl watched her mother. “No,” her voice was level, calm. “Not scared.”

“How come?” Colton wondered as her innocent gaze met his.

“‘Cause.”

“‘Cause why?” I urged.

“‘Cause you didn’t kill me.”

Her mother stifled a sob and buried her face in her husband’s embrace.

“How do you know we’re not going to?” Colton continued.

She stopped tracing circles on the table, her hand still propped at an angle in the air. “Are you?”

As the husband tried soothing his wife, I offered only, “No.”

She resumed tracing circles.

“Oh, Jesus.” the mother sobbed as she rose from the table, placing the back of her hand to her forehead. “I can’t…”

“Sit down!” Colton barked.

Quivering, she did as instructed.

“Back to the first question. You want to tell us what happened?”

The father returned his wire rimmed glasses from atop his short brown hair to his nose. “I, uh,” he struggled to push words through his lips. “We…. I don’t know. We didn’t tell anybody, honest. We wouldn’t risk that. We just… I have no idea. We worked with Christian. We thought everything was….”

“We didn’t say a word!” the mother managed through her stifled sobs. “How dare you accuse us!”

“Nobody accused anybody of anything.” My words were firm.

The little girl laid her hands flat on the table and watched her parents’ desperation. After contemplating, she moved one hand to her mother’s arm who quickly covered it with her own. “Mommy, what didn’t you tell?”

“Nothing, Baby.” She patted the top of her daughter’s hand dismissively.

“You told me lying is one of the worst things a person can do.” I was taken aback to find her voice as strong and confident as her word choice, considering her age. “Why are you lying to me Mommy?”

I couldn’t help but smirk.

Ashamed, her mother could do little more than look to her husband. “We’re not lying,” he lied.  

Disbelief furrowed the girl’s brow, but she turned from her parents slowly, accepting their lie as truth. “Kay.”

Colton squeezed my knee under the table and I had to nod in agreement: It was no wonder this child had been dinged so young.

The system was designed to rule out all those who would become a drain on the system, eliminating those who could not contribute. Those unlucky souls were driven into the Underbelly or just killed outright. However, the system was just as effective at finding prospects, individuals who with the proper… guidance, would become Sovereign Elites.

Sovereign Elites were the highest tier of Elites, and for all intents and purposes, the highest tier of society. Each Municipal had what was known as the Municipal’s Inner Assembly, comprised solely of Sovereign Elites. It was they who became the politicians, Czars, Generals, etc.; they made the decisions, controlled everything from policy to humanity. Becoming a Sovereign Elite was the highest, and wealthiest, Selection one could aspire to. It meant power in a country, in a world, where power was everything.

Though she was barely five years old, sweet little Emilia Katzenberg had been dinged, destined to become a member of the Municipal’s Inner Assembly. While this was the dream of many, the highest Selection one could aspire to, in actuality the news was quite devastating.

True, she would have wealth, power and live among the highest-ranking Elites, but the process of getting there, it breaks the soul and strips you of all aspects of the human condition.

In fact, it was the process of conditioning that made these people so successful, so powerful, and certainly, so ruthless. Members of each Municipal’s Inner Assembly wouldn’t bat an eye if they were to witness an innocent child being tortured to death, much less raise a hand to prevent it.

I had witnessed the truth of this statement with my own eyes. My selection was as an Elite Premier, or a member of the Military Nationals. It saw me grouped into the same round of training and conditioning as those belonging to the Inner Assembly. There, I saw such atrocities take place on the regular – lives offered in the name of education.

One time, I witnessed three Inner Assembly Assholes watch on as a child, who couldn’t have been more than four years old, was burned over and over again with a rusty branding iron. They claimed the boy knew of a stockpile of food and clean water hidden in the Underbelly. The child was too young to understand what a stockpile was, much less provide detailed directions.

Yet, boredom had painted the expressions worn by the three Elite spectators a horrible shade of indifference. In all likelihood, they had each endured worse as they were groomed for their own Selections. At one point, that rusty iron was tipped into the child’s eye, and the tallest of the three spectators only yawned in response. After all, witnessing another person endure personal horror, to members of the Municipal’s Inner Assembly, is a way of life.

As for me, I nearly died that die, my Instructors holding me under water until I finally reached a point that I surrendered and agreed to participate only as spectator.

My point?

Those who were considered a success in this life were not but broken souls. They would never know happiness in this life. It was one of the worst fates to befall anyone.

Poor Emilia had been sought after already, her intelligence condemning her to an Elite future. Her family had been notified of the Selection and told that she would be removed and placed into the structure of the Inner Assembly within the month. There was no request to do so, because frankly, they weren’t asking. They would simply take their daughter, ruin her, transform her into a devastated shell of a person, and her family would never see or hear from her again.

Fortunately, Emilia’s parents had wanted more for her. Luckier still, they belonged to the Opposition, or the Legion, as it had been known of late, just like Colton and myself. We were a collective of Americans who dared to believe in democracy and fought to return the power to the people.

The Legion was our one hope, our one chance at reclaiming life, liberty, prosperity… freedom. The Legion’s uprising would not happen in my lifetime, I knew. Truth be told, it might never happen, but we had to work for it; we had to try. The prospect of discovering true equality in a tomorrow not too far on the horizon was the only thing that buoyed me from one day to the next. That dream, the belief that we were working to create something better… it was the only thing worth living for. It was certainly the only thing worth dying for.

“You do know why we’re here?” I addressed Emilia’s parents.

Ignoring their daughter’s inquiring eyes, each nodded in turn.  

“Did they say who they were?”

The husband gave a miniscule shake of the head.

“Did they say what they were here for?”

The couple looked at each other for a long time until withdrawn, the wife peeled from her husband’s side. “They uh, they knew.”

“Knew what?” Colton demanded.

She regarded him warily before addressing only me. “Somehow, and I don’t know how, they knew what you were going to do.”

“Look, Mrs. Katzenberg, we gotta get back. Care to move this along?”

Getting no response from either of us, she pressed on. “We didn’t know when, or even how… We made the request weeks ago. I had no idea when…. When you….” she stifled her sobs.

“We did this for our daughter.” Her husband rubbed her back. “We want what is best for her. I don’t know if this is the right choice, but I know the alternative, and I know that’s the wrong choice. Hell, we weren’t even sure if Christian could help us. We risked everything when we reached out. Then, Christian had us tell Braden, and he helped us get everything in order.”

“Braden?” Colton was as shocked as I was.

“Yes.”

“Braden who?”

“Um, I, I don’t remember.”

“Braden James.” the mother chimed in. “His name was Braden James.”

“We don’t have much time.” I jumped from my chair, nearly tripping over the two bodies Colton had spent upon his arrival as I scurried down the hall. Then, before I could pass through the doorway, empathy compelled me to turn back. “You have five minutes.”

The mother tried to quell her tears as she smothered her daughter in affection. The father’s arms encircled them both as he buried his head between them.

“Check them for weapons, money, anything useful.” Colton rushed into the room behind me as I scooped up my bag.   

“Shit!” Rummaging, we found one set of handcuffs, a .38 revolver, two quick reloads, two knives and some chord.  

“We’re made.” Colton admitted the obvious as he pulled a knife from one of their pockets. “It has to be clean if we’re going to have a shot.”

Sighing I gave only a resigned “I know.”

“We’ve got to unplug.”

I nodded and offered my back. He felt along my neck gently, tracing toward my spine. Finding a knot, he felt it again to be sure and quickly inserted the tip of a knife blade into my flesh.

Moving fast, he plucked out the data chip that had been implanted years prior, back when I had first taken my post as an Elite Premier. He let my chip fall to the floor even as he placed the knife in my hand. When I turned to face him, his hands rested comfortably at my waist. A dopey grin flashed across his face as he tipped his head to the right allowing me to trace his left collarbone with my fingers. Finding the target, I hesitated.

“What’s the matter, Harper? You’ve got a green light to stab me. Why the hesitation?”

“Colton-”

“Do it.”

I dipped the knife into his skin, fishing out his data chip. His jaw clenched in pain as his chip was larger, more crude. All Military National Soldiers were chipped the moment they were selected for incorporation. We had both belonged to our government, but the proof of the Nation’s ownership of us would remain there, on the blood-soaked floor.

There could be no going back.

When we returned to the kitchen, the father swiped away tears. “I guess this is it.”

Tears streamed down Emilia’s face as she squeezed her parents, grabbing onto them one last time. “I’m sorry Mommy. Sorry Daddy.”

“For what, Angel? You haven’t done anything.”

“It’s because of me.”

“No!” soothed her father. “We just want you to be happy. We want you to choose your own path in this life. We want you to live, Baby, really, live for us ok?”

Temper flared within me. “Stop it! Now. You can’t say this. You’re not supposed to be able to -”

“We didn’t tell her!” the mother hissed before turning back to her daughter. “We say these affirmations every night, don’t we, Baby?”

Crying, Emilia nodded, “but tonight you’re going to die.”

Shock gripped the room as her parents froze.

“Get her out of here.” Colton grumbled as he began to usher the couple down the hall.

“No, please!” begged the mother trying to free herself.

“How did she -?” the father tried swatting Colton’s arms from him. The scuffle escalated within just a moment, and the mother managed to slip from his hold.

She fell to her knees before her daughter and sobbing pulled the girl to her chest, only for me to rip Emilia from her grasp. “How did you know?! How did you know?”

Seeing that he only wanted to comfort his wife, Colton let the man go.

“This is a mess!” Colton snapped as I marched toward him.

“You don’t say?” I plunged the girl into his arms and turned on the parents.

Before I could take a step, Colton’s hand cinched around my arm.

“No.” I issued forcefully. “I’ve got them.” I could actually feel anger shooting from my eyes as I bit out my next words. “They. Are. My. Responsibility. Understood?”

He pulled at my arm feebly, but I shrugged him off. Knowing better than to argue further he carried Emilia out the back door.

“Up. Now.”

The couple worked to collect themselves, stalling. “How did she know?” asked the husband.

“Funny. I was going to ask you that very question.”

“Please. Just -”

“No! This ends now,” and with a push that caused both to stumble forward, I commanded, “Move!”

I managed to herd them both down the hall. They clawed at each other desperately, begging, crying, pleading; I heard none of it. My mission was clear. I never should have given them the opportunity to talk. Once those men had been handled, I should have done what I was supposed to:

Kill them.

Retrieve the girl.

Stupid! I chided myself. We’d sought answers, but all it had done was create more of a problem.

They entered the bedroom. “Please!” begged the mother.

My only response was to reach up and snap her neck. Swiftly. Mercifully. The husband took a swing at me, then another and uttered something incoherent. Blocking each blow, I simply pulled one of the knives I had taken off a dead man and slit his throat.

Grasping at the slit with slick hands he clamored to his wife, using his final moments to lay at her side. They gazed at one another; their wordless mouths open wide.

Summoning indifference, I stepped into the cool night air where I was greeted by two sets of solemn eyes. Without a word, Colton took the lead as we angled around the house, and I noticed Emilia had donned a small blue and red backpack at some point.

Despite the fact that gunshots had reverberated along those very streets only minutes before, nobody left the safety of their homes to inquire. Instead, all curtains had been drawn a bit tighter as the neighbors snuggled into their cocoons of ignorance for the night.

Colton leaned to my ear, “Play it nice and easy. Anybody asks, we were ordered to relocate for an assignment tomorrow. Underbelly isn’t far. We’ll be fine.” He looked to Emilia in a feeble attempt at reassurance.

Acknowledging the effort, she sighed, adjusted her backpack and placed her hand compliantly in his.

My mind raced, its roar barely recognizable above the angry fist of my heart. As we turned the corner toward the unknown, I rested my hand on Colton‘s forearm, “We can’t do this. This is crazy. We have to go back. This…” I knew I was spouting nonsense, but I couldn’t hold the words in. “It won’t be an issue. We still have the girl. We can still get her protected. We can return to our lives.”

I could read his eyes as clearly as pen on paper.

“What?” I eased away defensively.

“You’re cute when you’re naïve.” Then he too dropped his voice. “Look, if we do what you want, we all end up dead. If we make a run for it, until we can get our heads around this and find out who the hell we can trust anymore, we might have a chance.”

“But-”

“Death,” he held one upturned hand to the sky. “or… maybe not death.” The other hand.

I felt sick.

“Which way you want to play this, Chief?”

I studied Emilia who still clung to Colton’s hand though her heart compelled her eyes down the street, back to her home, her parents.

Her former life.

“What if it wasn’t really Braden?”

“Not a risk we can take.”

“They could have just been given the name. It doesn’t mean it was him. If they never met him -”

“He was a nice man.” Emilia kept her voice low too.

“What did you say?” Desperation dropped me to her eye level.

“He was a nice man.”

Trepidation, fear… betrayal caused every one of Colton’s muscles to tense as he heard those words.

“He was very nice when he came to see us. He kept pretending all our stuff was real nice, and he gave me candy.”

Colton grew more rigid still.

“Who did?”

“The man…. He was tall and real strong. But it looked like he might’ve been in a fire. His face was pink even though his skin was darker. He’s not dark like you,” she motioned to me shyly, “but it was pretty dark, and he had no hair, like it got burned off.”

“Quiet!” Colton dropped to our level. “No more! We’ve got to move!” and with that, he yanked to our feet. Realizing I was still wearing them, I pulled the gloves from my hands and placed them solemnly in my pocket. Considering I had already been found out and left my data chip in Emilia’s home, it was clear that whether I left prints or not, we were still being hunted.

Without another word, we hurried into the Underbelly, leaving every aspect of the life we’d built further behind with every step.  

Apology Cake

Honk! Hooooooonnnnnnk! “What kind of moron slams on their brakes because of a few raindrops?” I scream, despite being entirely aware that the moron? He can’t hear me. “Idiot!”

Personally, I’m glad for the rain. The angry thrumming along the windshield and roof of the car quell some of the voices in my head. Of course, they also conceal the teardrops that race down my cheeks from passersby.  

I let out an exasperated sigh as my windshield floods red with taillights. “Guess I’m not getting home any time soon.” Not that it matters.

I could sit on that freeway for five hours and still make it home early. After all, it’s not even 9:30 a.m. I flip on the radio only to hear our local reporter droning on about our latest economy woes. “Give me a break.” I flip the radio back off, preferring to sit in rain-spattered silence than listen to the radio mock my current situation in life, thank you very much.

I spare a side-glance at my passenger seat where a simple brown box sits, holding all my hopes and dreams. I’d taken the job at the newspaper two years ago on a whim. Others called me ‘crazy’, ‘reckless’ or claimed I must be having some kind of mid-life crisis. But I’d ignored them; each and every one.  

Sure, leaving my six-figure job at the bank was a gamble, a risk. I mean, I turned my back on full benefits and a retirement plan, simply to sit at a rickety old desk that paid less than I’d made in college.

Still, in that moment, it was the only risk I could have made. Andre had just filed for divorce to chase after a girl barely old enough to drink, which was fine; the marriage had been long over anyway. Lex, my best friend since birth, had just lost her battle with cancer. Work was trying to ship me off to Australia, and I couldn’t bring myself to pull Allie out of school. I couldn’t do that to her, just pull her away from her teachers and friends. She had already gone through so much.

When I saw the writing job, I thought: this is it! Finally, it was something I wanted. Something I’d always dreamed about. I wanted to set a good example, teach my little girl to follow her dreams. I wanted to show her that hard work and never giving up hope in difficult circumstances was worth it because happiness and fulfillment were two of the most important things a person could fight for.

But now? Everything I stayed for, everything I fought for… I can feel it slipping away. We’re going to have to move. Again. There’s no way I can stay in this neighborhood, not anymore. Allie is going to have to change schools and leave her friends. I’m going to have trade in my car for something cheaper.

And worst of all? Honk, honk!

Worst of all, I’m going to have to tell Steve… tell him everything.

“Oh, God.” I grumble. I can already hear his annoying ‘I told you so,’ and picture his big dumb face. As I near the next freeway exit, I can’t help but wonder if I should pick up a bottle of “Because I Feel Pathetic Wine”, on the way home.

But, pfffft. Who are we kidding? That bottle would be a box, and even that? Well, it’s a box I can’t afford right now. Whelp, guess I’ll be baking Allie an apology cake instead.

*          *          *

“Okay Pumpkin, go put your backpack away.”

“Kay.” Allie scampers down the hall as I pull the sad and very lopsided cake out of the fridge.

“Ah!” she squeals, “cake!”

“Yep.”

“Whose birthday is it? Is it your birthday, Mommy?”

“No Pumpkin. It’s just a cake, but there is something I wanted to talk to you about.” I barely pause for breath as I tell her all about how journalism is dead, that mommy doesn’t have a job anymore. I tell her how I’m a terrible mother, how I don’t know how I’m going to provide for us, where we’re going to live, and certainly, that I have no idea what I’m going to do next. I explain we have to move again, move into something even smaller than the two-bedroom box we already share and expound upon just how very worthless I am.

I’m careful to choose words my little girl can understand. I’m even more careful to present those words in a way that doesn’t freak her out. Instead, it sounds more like “Mommy is going to be starting a new job soon. I don’t know where, but it’s going to be so cool. We’ll get a new house, and you’ll be able to go to a new school and meet new friends.” But, no matter how chipper I force my voice to sound, I’m sure the fact that I’m a complete failure was easily enough conveyed.

“Why are you sad, Mommy?” She wonders when I finally run out of words.

“Because… because…” Yep. Those words are long gone now. I can’t think of a single one, and it’s the perfect reminder really, a reminder of why I can’t make it as a writer.

“Don’t be sad, Mommy.”

But my face is burrowed in my arm on the table top; I feel a tangle of curls flop over into the dark icing of my slice of uneaten cake. “I’m sorry Pumpkin.”

“But we’re going on an adventure!” she punctuates the air with a chocolate covered fork. “I love adventures. You think our new house will let us have dogs? You think we’ll have a pool, or, ah!” She gasps, her eyes huge saucers of hope. “You think we’ll have a ghost? That’d be so cool, Mommy, if we had a ghost. Then, I could take the ghost to school and show it to all my new friends. What do you think my friends will be like? Can I still see Lupe and Kate? Can they come over? What do you think my new school will be like Mommy? Will it have grass? Do you think it’ll – that it’ll have swings? Ah!” she gasps again. “Do you think they’ll give me a tablet to bring home for homework? You know Lupe’s sister? She goes to a school that gives her a tablet.”

On and on, she rattles. I can’t hardly keep up, but somewhere between new friends and taking a ghost to show and tell, something inside me shifts. Suddenly, I can’t stop smiling. “To a new adventure!” I raise my own chocolate covered fork in the air in cheers. “And to making friends with ghosts!”

Allie only giggles as her fork collides with my own, and I can’t help but marvel over the hope I just found in the face of my love and a little dry cake.

Chapter One – Retrieval

Just stick to the plan. Stick to the freaking plan. Despite best efforts, my hands clenched into anxious fists when dangling at my sides. So? I jammed them into the pockets of my fitted blue sweater instead. Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t. Freaking. Think.

Lights began to flicker on in store windows to my left even as blinds were drawn in the residential windows beyond their wrought iron gates to my right. A car hurried past, and I was instantly reminded of my graduation, a day when a young man had been brazen enough to question the status quo. His inquiry had been answered with death, a death he succumbed to while tethered between two opposing cars of the same make and model as that which had just rushed past. Somewhere, a baby cried out, and memories of the infant I had witnessed being skinned alive rose to the surface. Though I knew it to be nothing but a barbeque, the pungent aroma of seared meat wafted from a backyard nearby and brought with it the familiar scent of charred flesh. Of death. I rounded the corner and adjusted the strap of my bag as though somehow, that simple action could shake the memories.

It didn’t.

As I headed east, I noticed a man’s long shadow tuck in line behind me, matching me step for step. He was several yards back, but the setting sun announced his presence just the same. I hurried another mile, and as I, and whomever tailed me moved, we passed through the gradual shift between the Elites, or “Elis” as they were known in the Upper – the Municipal’s Capital – and the Middle.

In truth, there was nothing gradual about the variation between the Upper and Middle at all. The homes on this side of the divide were all but encased in marble and the finest of materials, each filled with life’s little luxuries, while just across the street, lay dilapidated homes with patched roofs. Further in, some of those homes didn’t even have the option of electricity. Of course, there was a row of dense hedges and their millions of tiny green leaves, a twenty-foot-tall cinderblock wall with barbed wire and electrical barriers, and the ever-present guards posted at various intervals to ensure the “gradual” shift didn’t become muddied.   

Nightfall licked at the edges of the valley, and the ominous shadow that had tucked in behind me began to meld into the increasing darkness. I struggled to keep calm, emotionless as the air cooled. Once I reached the seventh guard station, I held up my left wrist, bearing my identification bar code to the scanner, and walked through the sliding glass doors to present before the guard posted there.  Removing my hood, I heard the doors swoosh closed behind me and the airlock click into place. 

“Name.” A large female issued in a monotonous tone. She wore the standard garb worn by all guards: dark blue linen pants and matching long sleeve button shirt tucked into her bulging waist. The only adornments allowed were their dark belt, lanyard, various Municipal patches on the tops of each arm and white identification numbers sown into the left breast for identification and reporting purposes. Though I couldn’t see them, I was certain that her shoes were appropriately shined and black laces laced all the way up.

“Harper Eckles.”

“Purpose?” The light within the chamber was a brilliant white, making it difficult to look far beyond the chamber into the night.

“Running a job.”

“Hmm.” she snorted in disbelief turning her tired, brown eyes to look me over. Her hair was dense and curly, but neatly trimmed. Her skin, which should have been dark and rich fell victim to the harsh lighting and instead appeared sallow and dull. Nearing the end of her day, I saw her shifting her weight between her feet. Despite the guards’ twelve-hour shifts, the Municipal didn’t provide seating, or anything of comfort, to help them through their day. This was a simple reminder that while they may have been selected to maintain a perimeter for the Municipal Capital, they were in no way members. “I’ve seen a lot of runners in my day, Honey. None of ‘em look like you, and they sure don’t got shoes like yours, a bag like that or come through this station, goin’ into the Middle after dark. No, Ma’am. It don’t work like that. I know this job, and I know runners come through here and try n’ go into the Upper for the night. Not the other way ‘round.”

Runners might have been a tattered lot, but they were also prideful. Each worked hard to appear part of the Upper they frequented. Of course, they also lived in utter denial of the fact that the Upper they longed for would never adopt them as one of their pets.

“Just running a job.” I said evenly. “And if you don’t mind, I’d like to move this along so I can get back before lockdown.”

“Back?” Her eyebrows shot up in amusement.

“Yes, Ma’am. Home.”

To that she shook her head and gave a loud guffaw. “Honey, you ‘n me? We got a problem,” she tipped her fingertips across her screen. “2-0-0-8 dash 1-1-9, we got a crosser.” A brief pause before, “Isolated. No threat.”

“Are you freakin’ kidding me?!” Irritation and annoyance slithered along my every word.

“Alright Honey, unless you want to die tonight, you’d best do exactly as I say.”

I sighed and put my hands out at her urging.

“Remove your bag. Place it in the tray.”

I placed my errand bag into the clear drawer and slammed it back to the other side, where she unceremoniously dumped the contents onto her metal counter.

“Is this really necessary? You haven’t even -” I began to reach in my pocket.

“Uht!” She clicked her tongue and pointed at me. “Keep your hands up! Don’t even think ‘bout it.”

So? I kept my hands up, even as two armed men entered the guard station behind her. I remained locked in my chamber where they couldn’t access me, and I? Well, I couldn’t access them. Nobody said a thing. The taller, slenderer of the new guards, had balding hair that exposed his pink scalp. His head was cocked to one side as he kept his gun trained on me, though we both knew the walls, while a clear polymer resin glass, were bullet-proof.

Against all odds, I felt the fear I had been waging an internal war with, begin to slip away. In its place came purpose and mission, flavored with a lovely hint of agitation.

“Put your arms behind your head. Turn.” The second guard urged with a curt motion of his squared head. His clay colored skin had baked in the desert sun over the years, and his singular eyebrow was furrowed in an attempt to seem more threatening than his small, albeit strong, stature commanded.

Once my back was to the door I had not yet passed through, I heard the lock disarm and the familiar whoosh of opening doors. Firm hands slammed me against the chamber wall where I was cuffed, the metal tightened to a point I felt sure they had drawn blood. But? I refused to flinch.

The second guard was already emptying my pockets while the tall, rail-thin guard stepped back and had me turn to face him. I then found myself face to face with the barrel of his gun instead.  

Stupid. I thought. It’s like he wants me to take it from him. Instead, I acted as though it weren’t there, keeping my eyes locked on his, unwavering even as the second guard frisked me. He was rough and inappropriate in this endeavor, but I refused to react, refused to give him that power over me. Having had enough and getting no reaction from me, he returned to where he placed the items removed from my pockets.

“Nice knife.” He tested the weight in his hand, arching his eyebrow at me, questioning.

“Thanks.” I replied sourly.

Whack! The first guard rammed the side of my face with the butt of his gun for the insubordination.

I licked the blood from my lip and spat it at him which promptly drew the knee of the second guard to my ribs. After the initial shock, and after managing to draw my next breath, I straightened but remained silent.

The female guard who had summoned these goons now had her round arms crossed triumphantly across her chest.

“Quick question.” I asked plainly.

“We ask the questions here. What’s with the knife?”

“It’s my pocket knife.” I said dismissively. “Come on now, even you ought to have been able to figure that one out.”

Whack! He struck me again. “You know the mandate. No weapons.”

“Forgot the rest of that mandate, did ya?” I paused, as he proceeded to pocket my knife. “No? See if this rings a bell; if a blade is to be used as a tool for your selection, you are free to carry it on your person for the purposes of your trade.”

After they exchanged a brief look of surprise that I could recite the mandate verbatim, the female guard wondered, “And what is your trade Honey?”

“Like I told you. I’m a runner.”

“What the hell do you need a knife for as a runner?” The second guard demanded.

“Anything.” I shrugged, wishing the handcuffs were looser. “Use it dozens of times a day.”

“Mine now,” he responded in an attempt to end the tit-for-tat.

“Again, quick question.” I reminded him as he eyed the envelope that had been removed from my pocket. “Anyone going to look at my Order?”

Holding the envelope, he regarded me, considering. Eventually, he cleared his throat, only to look back to the female guard. “You didn’t check her Order?”

“No. I – she- she, uh…” Her eyes flicked between them desperately.

“She… tried reaching into her pocket for the Order?” I suggested.

Pulling the first page from the envelope, the guard scanned the text as he sighed. “This is legitimate. She’s got an Order. She is just passing through. Aw, hell.” His hands fell loosely to his sides as he face paled several shades. “She’s a Premier.”

“Premier?” the first guard choked on the word, lowering his weapon and quickly freeing my wrists from the handcuffs.

“Premier.” 

In a frenzied scramble, the female guard put everything back in my bag. “I, we, ah-”

“Let me guess,” I snatched my bag back through the slot worked to re-fill my pockets. “You’re incredibly sorry, no idea what came over you? Sound about right?”

“Look, Miss-” the first guard tried feebly.

“You kneed me in the ribs!” I turned on my heel to face him. “I think we are well past ‘Miss’, here, don’t you? I should report all of you. You’ll be eliminated by this time tomorrow.”

“Come on. We didn’t know.”

“No. You didn’t,” I said matter-of-factly, “but you should have. You broke protocol. You assaulted without provocation and you conducted an inspection of a Premier without prior authorization. All three of you will be …. provided for. Not to worry.”

“Look, we -” there was desperation in Guard Unibrow’s voice, as he paled yet another shade.

I stepped directly in front of him and held out my hand expectantly. “Knife, Sir.”

“Honey -” began the female, her voice softer than I’d previously known it to be.

I pointed at her, commanding silence, my eyes fixed on the guard.

“Knife.” My whisper was made of venom.

“Look, we don’t -” the first guard was fighting back tears, his emotions completely overwhelming him. “No, no, no, no, no.” Leaning against the clear wall, he slumped slowly to the white linoleum floor. “No.”

I placed a dark gray ball cap on my head, lifted the hood of my sweater and pocketing my knife, turned to leave.

“Please!” begged the female, her voice cracking with emotion.

As the doors whooshed opened, I stopped, and with a heave, turned back to them, doing everything in my power to conceal my smirk of victory.  

The first guard rose to his feet, hope defying the weight of despair.  I reached into my bag, found the frequency jammer that luckily, the female hadn’t been able to identify, and held the connection down. “Give me your phone.”

 She grabbed for it, fumbling in her haste.

“Dial base.”

There was hesitation, fear, but deciding the risk was worth trying for, she moved her hand slowly to the screen, dialed and placed the handset into my waiting hand.

Mocking the voice of the female guard I said calmly, “2, 0, 0, 8 dash 1, 1, 9 requesting manual override.”

Interest moved into the voice on the other end of the line. “Repeat.”

“2, 0, 0, 8 dash 1, 1, 9 requesting manual override.”

 “Authorization?”

“Charlie, 0, 0, 0, 7, 4, 3, 1, 4, 4, Alpha, Oscar, Sierra.”

A renewed sense of fear washed over the second guard as he realized I kenew their override codes.

“Authorization approved. Go ahead.”

“We got a problem with our electrical. Honey, it’s givin’ us all sortsa problems. Requesting manual reset.”

“And the crosser you reported a problem with?”

“False alarm. He had some sort of twitch. He’s long gone by now.”

“Any need for review?”

“No. He was nothin’ but a common passer. Your two guys are headed your way now.”

“Friendly reminder, we do the reset, you lose the past fifteen minutes recorded video and audio.”

“Understood.”

“Override initiating.”

“Thanks, Honey.”

“Reset starting in 3, 2, 1,” and with that, the lights blinked out.

I handed the phone over to the female guard, forced the doors open just enough to pass through and scurried along the pedestrian path into the night. There was a sense of urgency, of jubilance, of terror all coursing through me at once. Now, if only the rest of the plan went as smoothly as that had, everything might actually turn out ok. 

After nearly a quarter mile, I heard footsteps fall in behind me again. I slowed my pace; so too did the footfalls at my back. Almost there. I encouraged myself.

To my left, civilization began to drop off.  I cut across a desert field following a trail of nothing but angry rocks, bits of sun-worn trash and endless tumbleweeds down a dusty embankment. I continued on through yet another barren field of dirt, rot and gloom, and without need for cinderblock walls or guards, the Underbelly uncurled before me.

The streetlights there were nothing more than open, burning barrels. The occasional conversations that could be heard through open windows within the Middle didn’t exist there. Instead, peoples’ diseased coughing, mewling cats and scuffling feet were the only soundtrack to the night.

While Air Security did conduct limited surveillance over the Underbelly of each Municipal, it was on a reduced, and often existential basis. There were no street cameras or other forms of ground surveillance. In fact, buildings did not generally remain intact in that part of the city. Instead, the majority of the Underbelly’s residents lived in something akin to a tent city with tarps strewn across partial walls and poles, in makeshift shelters.

Of course, there were exceptions to this generalization; there were pockets of old buildings that had managed to stand the test of time in spite of the relentless desert and political qualms. However, the Elites did not allow electricity to be routed to the Underbelly, resulting in only intermittent power created by the generators found in the quarters of a lucky few. Running water was even rarer, enjoyed infrequently and untreated? Deadly if consumed. The residents of the Underbelly did not dare enter the Middle without authorization, and certainly didn’t commit crimes against them. If they did, and if they were found out, such criminals would each be made an example of, suffering a public, drawn out death, but only after watching their loved ones endure the same horror. As such, no barrier was needed. Instead, the bitter stench of injustice doled out by Elite Premiers like myself kept them at bay.

It never ceased to amaze me the extremes that could be found in less than a two-mile radius. While the Middle was quite expansive itself, the path I had chosen skirted the bulk of their city, serving instead as the most direct route to the Underbelly from the Capital. As it stood, the luxury was incredibly close to the horror.

As anticipated, my tail broke off from the path and continued toward the abyss of mix-matched tents. He was at a near jog as he continued on to the Underbelly. As for me, I turned down the last street of the Middle and struggled to remain calm. Forcing deep breaths, I slowed my pace. At the fourth house on the block, I followed the broken concrete path to the front door and gave two quick raps on the metal panel. Finding no answer, I responded with three much louder knocks at the door. “Delivery!” I called out. Still receiving no response I banged at the door with the back of my fist causing the front windows to rattle in the dilapidated walls.  There were no lights, no sounds of life within.

Resigned, I returned to the street and noticed the same dark figure that had been following me turn the corner, relentless as an ocean wave. Easing back to take cover from prying eyes beside a low wall, I quickly turned on my radio and spoke hastily. “Eckles to report.”

“Go ahead.”

“At destination now. No response.”

“Verified?”

“Yes.”

“Understood. Return to base, will reattempt tomorrow.”

“Acknowledged. Will return now. Signing off until within range of the Capital.” And with that I turned off the radio, promptly removed the tiny battery, placed it in my pocket, used my knife to shred the outer portion of my black canvas bag and ran my shoes through the dirt. I used some of that same dirt on my hands and face before clawing at the wound the guard had created on my lip until blood ran anew and fought desperately to hear my own thoughts over the din of my heartbeat. All this was accomplished while careful to ensure I spent just a few seconds at this rather arduous task of blending into my surroundings, fearful of being found to be the Elite Premier I was.

Other than the man who had been following me, it appeared nobody else was out; he had slowed his pace as he approached but was coming nonetheless. I turned my back to him and hurried across a dried front yard interspersed by weeds, halfway down the block on the other side of the street. I skirted the worn stucco one story home, careful to remain silent and in the shadows.

I picked my way around frayed, fallen shingles and discarded wood feeling my way to the back of the house where I peered through broken blinds into the lamplight. My training cut through the heavy veil of fear as I canvassed the interior of the room and slipped gloves onto my hands.

There she was, radiant, sweet, naïve. Her parents were sitting on either side of her, talking and laughing, though there was something that seemed … out of place, a forced demeanor. My tension was barely manageable, but somehow it seemed to have edged its way into their home, their conversation. There was an energy, an ice, present in the room with them.

Retreating back along the jagged brown wall, I struggled desperately to make sense of it. No! I warned myself with a silent outburst of air. This can’t be right! My thoughts tangled around one another. How? It couldn’t be possible! No. It wasn’t possible. They didn’t know I was coming tonight. We had taken every precaution. The plan had been implemented just as it always was, with every retrieval.

Confused, horrified, I shook my head in a feeble attempt to shake away the fear. There was no time for this! Every fiber of my being screamed Abort! but that was no longer an option. Instead, I moved just a bit further and crouched below the window of the next room, which as expected, had been cracked to allow the cool night air into the home. Sliding it open, I climbed into the dark room.

I crept along their worn carpet toward the doorway adjacent to the kitchen the family sat in, striving to maintain control of my nerves. I reminded myself that the violence was necessary. They had known what they were getting into. As tragic as it may be, I had to assume it was the easiest decision they had ever made.

Their lives for hers.

As a parent, is there any decision more simple? Besides, the transaction wasn’t my call. I was following orders and was only here to help them, to save her, and exhaling a long breath…

To kill them.

Back pressed to the wall on the blind side of the interior doorway, I dropped my bag to the floor with a loud thud.  

“What was that?” urgency clouded the mother’s voice.

“Yeah, what was that Daddy?”

“Shh-shh.” her father uttered as his chair scraped on the linoleum.

One, two, three, four. I counted his steps as he approached, but the vengeful clamp of terror enveloped my heart as I heard three, perhaps four more sets of footsteps join in.

The first man that entered the room was short but stocky. On impulse, I brought my knife to his massive throat and traced a thin line of death from one side to the other before he could do more than grab at my arm with his meaty hand. 

As he collapsed to the floor, I used his momentum and tucked into his deathly embrace which gained me protection from the first blow the second, much larger man.  Before the short man fully gave in to gravity, a small caliber gunshot rang out, immediately followed by a second, sharp burst. I managed to fall to the floor in time and lunging, rolled just enough to avoid the bullets as I felt the spray from the second lodging in the wall just inches from my face. The room was furnished sparingly with only a metal framed bed, a thin legged nightstand, modest dresser and small chest. As such, my options for cover were limited and I had no choice but to rush the large man. He was a wall of dark muscle and towering over me, landed a solid punch to the side of my head that left my ears ringing. Within moments, he had me dropped to the floor. He was on top of me, his massive hands encircling my neck.

Though he was doing everything in his power to squeeze the life from my body, he was actually a bit of a blessing. With the bulk of his frame between me and the weapon, the likelihood of getting shot was momentarily reduced. I struggled for air and rammed my knife deep into the left side of his abdomen three times, none of which wiped the gleeful snarl from my predator’s face. I saw the shooter angle for better access around his partner and quickly shifted. I fervently refused to be a victim, but as I couldn’t even manage to draw air, I was running out of options. Instead, my futile attempts to roll out of the way of the third man’s weapon only caused the large man’s grip to tighten around my neck. I felt the edges of my reality growing dim, nausea rising in my throat. I knew I was running out of time; in a final moment of clarity, I made the desperate decision to drag my knife crudely the length of his left forearm.

Before I could finish the task, he pulled away howling “You bitch!” Blood spewed from the flesh of his arm, just above where the knife protruded.

I struggled to my feet, fighting for air and grabbed to retrieve my knife too late. He was out of reach. Instead, I dove for the shooter as he tried for a third shot. I heard panicked yelling emanating from the main area of the house and the fourth man who had remained in the doorway turned on his heel, sprinting toward the shouting voices.

I rushed the shooter, interlocking our arms as we fought for control of the weapon. A wild shot bit into the floor. The larger man yanked the knife from his arm, and wielding it in his good hand, came at me. Struggling to maintain my grip on the shooter and simultaneously avoid being stabbed I was unable to free the gun from the man’s grasp. Instead, I managed only to fire the weapon at the stumbling man as we both continued our struggle for the weapon.

The bullet caught the him in his stomach, and he released my knife instantly. Though he staggered, he managed to keep his feet beneath him. A shot bellowed from the main living area, followed by a woman’s frantic scream.

In utter desperation, I used my remaining strength to push the shooter, knocking him off center, relinquishing my efforts to secure the gun and instead attacked him. As he planted his feet and began to draw his weapon toward me once more, I all but pounced, my left hand to the back of his head and right to his jaw. In one swift motion, I snapped his neck, just as the fifth bullet cascaded through the window I had used to enter the home. His body too slumped to the floor.

More shouting and struggling could be heard from the living area, but nobody returned to the doorway. So? I focused my attention on the large, staggering man. He had placed his right hand to his bullet-wound but still reached for the gun now lying in the center of the room. I walked over to it as he dropped to a laborious crawl. When he grabbed for the weapon feebly, I placed my foot over it. He tried fruitlessly to remove it from under my step. Instead, I brought my other knee to his face swiftly, knocking his head back on his neck like a box-lid.

He rolled back against the floor and breathed loudly, his hand still applying pressure to his wound.

“Who sent you?” I commanded in a hushed whisper.

His eyes lulled slightly before focusing on me.

“Who sent you?”

His only response was a smile.

In return I stamped forcefully on his stomach wound, the crimson pool in his plain gray t-shirt growing exponentially.

His face contorting horrendously even as the last of his life drained onto the floor.

 “Guess your face really can freeze like that.” A man called from the doorway.

 I didn’t startle or even turn to face the voice. “Yep.”

“You good in here?”

 “Yep. You good out there?”

“Yep.” he matched my tone which brought a slight smile to my face.

“You shouldn’t have come.”

“But you knew I would, knew I did. Don‘t play dumb. You knew I was following you.”

 I sighed, unwilling to admit the truth.

“I broke off. Secured a weapon over in the Underbelly. Wouldn’t want to try something like this unarmed, right?”

I couldn’t help but snicker.

“Come on,” he beckoned. “We gotta finish this.”

“No!” I turned to face him now. “This is mine. You already shouldn’t be here. What if….” anxiety dripped from my words. “You can’t risk this.”

“For you, I’ll risk everything.”

“Colton, I-”

“No!” Again, he matched my tone. “Don’t you dare! You are not a liability. You are not going to get me killed, or eliminated or made a martyr. We’re not going to have that conversation again. I will not leave you!” His voice dropped to a tortured whisper. “I can’t Harper. I won’t.”

I fell into his arms, resting my forehead to his, my hand on his heart. It beat brisk and strong. This? This was my home. Colton Sanders was home.

Even surrounded by all the death, past and present, I was never as safe as when I was in his arms. Here, just here, I was invincible. The world waned to the background, became softer, kinder, less malicious. He knew every secret, every aspiration, fear, plan and dream. He knew every fiber of everything that made me. We had grown, trained, learned and achieved together. He was my heart, my soul and though countless things continually kept us apart, our hearts were one, just as they had been since we shared our first kiss on my twelfth birthday below celebrating starst just ten years before. Ten years, and it had seemed ages. Reality was unkind, but when he held me, when we were allowed something so small as to be near each other, hope, actual hope, always clawed for freedom. Tears of love, of joy, of heart sprang to my eyes. He tipped his chin forward until our lips met and a torrent of tears ran down my cheeks.

Too soon, he pulled away. “You big baby.”

“Hey! I’ll show you a baby!” I joked as I tried to punch him in the chest.

His reflexes were so impeccable that he had already grabbed my fist and kissed it before I realized he had. Smirking, he said only, “Love you too.”

And then, ah, and then. We both sobered and turned to the doorway.

“They’re waiting.”

I only nodded in response. Reality, ever the relentless bitch, was right where we’d left her.