Heir Of Doom
I should have accepted Vincent's offer to drive me home. It was painfully cold outside, with brown piles of slush heaped on every corner, keeping the sidewalks icy and slippery. Frigid gusts of wind froze my nose, my neck, my lips. Even my eyeballs felt frozen. Of course I should have expected it. After all, it was the end of December in the city that never sleeps. Despite, or in spite of the angry heavy gray clouds and the freezing temperature, it was a cheerful, optimistic time. Red and green lights danced to happy Christmas tunes, fat and skinny Santa Clauses rang bells of every size and shape, along with their eternal companions, the elves and reindeers. And of course, there were the decorated trees. Live ones, plastic ones, sagging ones, printed ones. All glowing cheerfully against windows of vehicles, shops, homes, restaurants, boutiques.
It was the season of holidays, forgiveness and optimism, of exchanging gifts, of celebrating. Of friends and family reunion.
The city seemed fuller than before, people spilling out of every gap, every doorway in herds, crowding the streets, malls, shopping centers. It felt like all the homes in the city and surrounding suburbs should be empty.
It was somewhat peaceful to my lonely soul. Or serene I guess was the word.
The day had been sweaty and tiresome under Vincent's relentless training, and although my muscles still screamed from the straight eight hours exercise I endured, I wanted to walk home. It was a six -block walk from the compound to the small ground floor apartment the Hunters, a government affiliated group that policed our kind, had provided me for a living, and most days I completed the track with no problem. Today, however, felt colder than any of the other evenings.
With my hands tucked warmly inside the pocket of my black coat and a wide ruby-red scarf covering the bottom half of my face and neck, I walked briskly, seeing only the legs of people with my head lowered against the cold.
That's why I didn't spot her at first.
I was contemplating a white spot on my black boot, wondering if it was toothpaste or if I'd spilled some of the yoghurt from this morning, when I sensed eyes on me and glanced up. She stood like a statue against the current of pedestrians, a boulder in a river.
The chill racing down my spine had nothing to do with the early evening sudden decrease in temperature. Nothing to do with the vague recognition in the back of my mind that I couldn't place. Nothing to do with the fact that she was definitely waiting for me. No, it was the nervous anticipation in her eyes, black that shifted to yellow after a second of meeting, and the almost non-existent silvery shine of her blue aura.
Dhiultadh. A rejected.
A child, no older than ten, a small eleven maybe.
My steps didn't fault, my expression didn't change. The uneasiness I felt was covered underneath an indifferent façade.
When I was but two feet away, I stopped. There was no need for pretense. I knew she was there for me; she knew I knew.
Someone bumped my shoulder and called me a filthy name I pretended not to hear.
Her eyes, now as black as mine, were keen, wise in a way no child should have the right to have. Her body was short, bearing on the side of thin, but she was dressed nicely and expensively. The brands were just another thing from my childhood I could no longer name from the top of my head. Her dark-brown coat reached beneath her knees and looked warmer than the black cheap one I wore.
The recognition in the back of my conscience stayed out of reach, and when I pushed, it slithered farther away, like a slimy snake.
“Hi,” she said, her voice clear and pleasant.
I cocked my head to the side, as if it would make it easier for me to reach that thing in my brain eluding me. “Hi,” I replied.
This time the hesitation was longer. “My name is Mwara Longlan.”
I inclined my head in acknowledgement, “I'm Roxanne.”
“Mwara Whitmore Longlan,” she clarified, a little embarrassing blush adding more color to her already pink cheeks.
A dim bulb in my head brightened.
“You're Elizabeth's kid.” I said, my tone almost accusatory.
She nodded and looked away, scanned around for a second. Maybe because she'd glimpsed the flash of suspicion in my eyes.
“Can we go somewhere to talk?” she asked.
I looked around, searching for familiar black eyes. There were literally thousands of people nearby. One could easily be hiding on Broadview and I couldn't tell if she was alone.
This couldn't be good, my inner voice said, but I nodded to the café across the street, unwilling to go anywhere farther with Elizabeth's kid, even if I lived a block away. We both made our way across the clogged street amidst screeching horns and shouting drivers, the season and rush hour working in our favor.
At the glass door of the crowded café Mwara hesitated. She looked up at me, an open expression of doubt and – fear? Making her seem younger.
Despite my better judgment, I gave her a reassuring smile and held the jingling glass door open for her, then followed.
Like any other venue in the city, the café was packed with bodies of every shape, size and color. Rock music competed with shouts and laughter. Here and there a lonely figure sat, either texting on a cell phone or just browsing the time away. The smell of coffee and sweet pastries filled the room, along with undertones of sweat, perfume, and – not so pleasantly – feet. Nonetheless, my stomach reminded me that I hadn't eaten anything since that morning. I shrugged out of my coat and motioned to the line with my head. Mwara nodded, shrugged off her own coat. She was wearing a nice creamy button down shirt with lilac butterfly buttons and brown slacks. Cute.
It was very loud and lousy for a conversation, but Mwara didn't look like it mattered.
I stopped at the back of the order line and Mwara signaled to the rear with a finger and pointed chin, telling me where she was headed.
Because I had nothing else to do but wait for my turn, I watched her move away. Like any other predator I ever met, she moved with a fluidity I associated with jungle cats in a role.
Her hair, loosely brushing her shoulders, was a shade darker than I remember, a honey color, a shade darker than Elizabeth's. Of course, I'd seen her only once in a picture, so I could be wrong.
By the time it was my turn to order, I gathered a few things by watching her whenever there was a clear line of sight. One, if she was sent here by someone, they didn't want to be seen. Two, whatever reason she had to approach me, it was making her nervous.
She avoided direct eye contact with me, looking instead at the people around her or at her hands, lacing and unlacing on the tabletop in front of her. Sometimes she lowered them under the table; sometimes she drummed her fingernails on the vinyl top. Every now and then she would scan the room in a way that would have made a detective proud, absorbing everything. Not once did she glance in my direction. If she had, not once did I catch her.
I ordered a hot chocolate for her and plain black coffee for myself, then couldn't resist the delicious looking brownie with hot chocolate sauce and yummy chocolate chunks. I got four pieces of those.
If Mwara didn't want any, I could eat them all.
It took me a few minutes of maneuvering through the crowd to reach the table Mwara was seated at, but the coffee and brownies reached intact. I handed her the hot chocolate and two brownies, then placed the rest on the table before pulling the chair to the side so I could also watch the entrance.
We ate in silence, and while I savored the rich-flavored sweet, Mwara was clearly building up courage to speak. I gave her room instead of prodding her, acting like I had nothing to do and nowhere to go but sit there in that crowded place and try to get fat.
Someone shouted an obscenity to my right and laughter followed. Mwara glanced up, scanned the room once before returning her attention to her plate.
After she finished both the brownies and hot chocolate with not a word but a few surreptitious glances when she thought I wouldn't notice, my patience began to wear thin.
“Elizabeth knows you're here?” I asked in a normal voice, glad I wouldn't need to shout to be heard.
She shook her head and focused her gaze at something above my right shoulder.
I held back a sigh and tried again. “It's a long way between Sacramento and here. She must be already worried, looking for you.” I added the latter casually, wondering how much trouble she'd be in – if she was telling the truth, of course. I kept an eye on the entrance, in case she hadn't come alone after all.
She shrugged and, still fascinated with something behind me, said in a clear voice, “It's a fast track through the paths.”
Oh? That gave me pause. Hmmm. Should ask Vincent about that. If travelling from coast to coast could be done faster through the paths, that was definitely something I wanted to learn. I'd call and ask as soon as I got home.
That is, if Mwara ever got the nerve and said whatever it was she had come here to say.
“So how's your mom?” I asked half an hour later, after I exhausted all the small talk I could think about. School, finals, grades, boys, weather, bicycles, tennis.
To my surprise, Mwara met my eyes straight on and it was bone-deep fear I saw there. She was truly trying to hide it, and a small tremor fluttered in my stomach. Something had happened to Elizabeth. Mwara had really come alone.
And… I hardened my heart against worry. I didn't care. She could die a million deaths from here to tomorrow and it was none of my concern. Not. My. Concern.
Except a part of me, deep down but not very well buried, still thought of her as my mother.
I shooed away the fear, telling myself she wouldn't – and hadn't –minded whatever torture I had gone through, and that was quite a lot. But what Mwara said next was the last thing I had expected to hear.
“Is she?” she asked, and along with the fear, defiance shone in her eyes.
“Is she what?”
“Is she my mother?”
For a moment my mind went blank, then understanding began to dawn.
I leaned back and studied her. Her cheeks were a little flushed – from the cold or emotion, I couldn't tell. And the fear, now that there was a context, could have been either worry or anger. “What makes you think she's not?”
She waved a small hand. “I – I eavesdropped in a meeting a few days ago, and I heard about you, what happened… why… what the scientists did. My mom's part in it.” She fell silent, and her eyes lowered in shame. After a few moments, she looked up again, and panic filled her eyes. It was the oh-shit expression when you realized the building was coming down with you in it. It was so prominent, so clearly there, I couldn't help it; I reached across the table and took her small hand in mine and gave a gentle squeeze.
“What is it?” I asked, but I already knew.
The contact seemed to have reassured her. She squeezed back, took a deep breath before blurting, “What if she's not my mom and she sends me there, and I can't run away and no one comes for me? I'd spend years and years being tortured like you over and over, and no one would even care. What if she's not my mom and there's already a contract out there for me? I'll be eleven in a few weeks. What if I get my period early – like when I'm eleven instead of twelve and I can't shift either? Linda Johnson got hers when she was nine. It was all the school talked about for days. What if the scientists don't wait for puberty like they did for you? Will they take me then?” A small sob escaped and she lowered her head, her hair concealing her face from me. Her hand shook once, but she didn't let go.
Pity prickled my senses. A thousand thoughts ran through my head, reassurances and comforting words. Things I could say to ease her mind and send her home with no worries. Underlying them all was the question: what if she's not? I mean, in my wildest imagination, all the scenarios I had conceived as the reason for Elizabeth's desertion, her not being my mother had never been one of them. For one, we had the same eye color and pale complexion. There had always been a resemblance, and coming from the same species had never been the reason for it in my mind. For instance, Mwara had the same black eyes, though her complexion was slightly darker than mine. Or Elizabeth's.
No, I had no right to give her all the reassurances she had come here to hear without knowing if they were true.
Sure, I could just say the words, give her a pat on the back, then wash my hands of a problem that was not mine to begin with, but I'd been there in that place. I'd lived her fears for a decade.
Hell, I'd just begun to shirk the fear less than two months ago.
Perhaps if she had waited another few years to approach me, once the fear had faded enough to loosen the tight grip it held around my neck, dictating my every action like a general still uttering orders at the sidelines of my conscience, perhaps I could have reassured her enough and still go home with a lighter heart.
But the fear that this security wouldn't last, that I'd wake up in the morning and realize it had all been a hallucinogenic-induced dream, held back all the words.
As if sensing my thoughts, her shoulders slumped and began shaking in earnest. I kept hold of her hand, although it was a small comfort.
“If I stay with you…”
“No,” I said at once, shaking my head, but she wasn't looking at me. Because my denial had sounded abrupt even to my ears, I tried to soften my response. “They'll find you. There's Diggy and there's Vincent –”
“Would you come for me?” she clenched my hand tightly in hers, strength no ten-year-old should possess. “Would you come? If they take me, would you come for me like you did for Archer?”
“I – I don't know,” I replied.
She let go of my hand, and I missed the warm connection.
“I can talk to Vincent,” I offered, not knowing what else I could do.
“No! Uncle Vincent would only send me home. If there's a contract for me, he won't interfere.”
I fell quiet, at a loss for words.
“I'll run away now. I'll jump leeways every time I sense someone,”
“No – no,” I cut her off, “No, don't do that. What if there is no contract? What if whoever you sense is just someone trying to bring you home? There are other things out there, monsters with more horrific intentions than the PSS. It's too early to say.” I frowned, because maybe she was right. “What about your father? Couldn't you talk to him?”
“If she's not my mother, then he isn't my father. And he left for Austria yesterday. I don't know when he'll come back.” She got up, wiped at her tears with the sleeve of her coat before shrugging it back on. “I have to go. If she finds out … please don't tell anyone I came to see you.”
She was afraid of Elizabeth. I had never been this afraid of her when I was growing up. Even when I did something worth being grounded for, I had never been this afraid. Maybe she wasn't her mother after all and treated her badly. I had been the first, so she was more tolerant? Maybe her disciplinary punishments were fierce with Mwara?
I followed Mwara outside, my mind spinning with questions that I couldn't answer. Before Mwara could cross the street, I stopped her with a hand to her shoulder.
“Look, Mwara, If … if they take you, I'll vouch for you.” It wasn't a small thing, considering if I vouched for her I'd be announcing we were part of a pack and she was my responsibility. I could, inadvertently, be putting myself back in the clutches of the PSS.