Baden could taste victory. He toiled the past half century in this alternate world, plotting and scheming despite being castrated by his enemies. He bided his time, the endless, boring stream of time, to make this happen. Now he would have his revenge.
He walked across the eagle seal embroidered in the carpet and took great pleasure in stabbing the beak of the bird with the toe of his shoe. These pretentious, silly people with their meaningless traditions were so tiresome. He was glad he’d gotten rid of most of them.
Baden wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep up the charade. He’d played the game long enough and was tired of pretending. He wanted to return to glory and get his powers back.
A brisk knock at the office door interrupted Baden’s thoughts. He smiled as it opened.
“Jacob, come in, come in.” Baden remained seated behind the mahogany desk.
A tall lean man with sharp bird-like features glided into the room dragging a terrified teenage boy behind him.
“Ah, I see you have a guest,” Baden said softly. “Is he one of the five?”
Jacob threw the boy into an antique wooden chair and glared at him.
“No,” he hissed.
The boy’s blond hair clung to his forehead and neck in stiff bloody clumps. His head drooped to his chest as if the tendons had been cut.
Baden’s eyes narrowed. He hid his displeasure and bit back a criticism, focusing on the boy. Jacob was less tolerant of fools than Baden. That’s why he liked him. There must be a reason Jacob brought him here.
The boy raised his head and glanced at Baden, his eyes widening in surprised recognition. He cocked his from side to side scanning the room.
Baden didn’t need special powers to know what was going through the boy’s head. He wondered why he was in the most important room in the country. Jacob strode in front of the boy and put a finger under his chin, lifting it to see the defiance in the teen’s blue eyes.
“He knows more than he’s telling,” Jacob said patting the boy’s cheeks threateningly.
Jacob took a step back and perched on a sofa arm, sliding a thin boning knife from a sheath tied around his thigh. From another pocket came a sharpening stone. He ran the blade against a limestone rock, back and forth in a hypnotic rhythm.
The boy’s eyes bugged slightly, his body trembled. Baden saw sweat roll down the side of his face, making tracks through the grime. The boy wasn’t bound, but there was no need. He couldn’t go anywhere. Baden’s security had tripled since the flu epidemic.
Baden leaned back against the soft leather of his chair. He enjoyed a little torture now and then. “Why don’t you search his mind?”
Jacob fixed Baden with a look that said, been there, done that. “He thinks of only one useless girl. But I know there’s more. He was with the telemover.” He pocketed the stone and held the knife up to the light.
“Ah,” Baden said cupping his chin in his hands, leaning on his desk. “Well, boy it looks like you ought to say something before Jacob here slices off an ear. Please do an ear instead of a finger Jacob. Fingers are so messy.”
A small smile tugged at Jacob’s lips as he slipped off the sofa and approached the boy. “But I like blood.” Jacob leaned onto the arms of the boy’s chair.
“Yes, but it is hell getting it out of the carpet,” Baden rose and strode toward the northwest door that lead to his secretary’s chambers. He liked the squirming and moaning, but wasn’t keen on the gore. “I’ll be back later. Do you think you’ll make progress?”
“He isn’t one of the brave ones. That’s why I snatched him.” Jacob showed teeth when he smiled this time, making him even more menacing. He pressed the knife against the side of the boy’s head. A dribble of blood appeared.
“Enjoy yourself.” Baden slipped out of the room. He heard the boy’s first scream ten feet down the hallway.
“Crap,” Jamie yelped as she rubbed the reddish scrape on her leg. The skin was peeled back and blood beaded in the wound. In a few days it would look like the bruised meat of a peach.
As an avid mountain biker she was used to scrapes and bruises covering her body. It was part of being a cyclist, a life that was a long time ago. She hadn’t ridden a trail in months so the pain was new to her now.
In a moment of weakness Jamie’s foot slid off the pedal and led to shin damage. Tears pricked her eyes and she bit down on her lip to stop the flow. There was no crying in mountain biking.
Her foot slipped because she had no energy. Starvation will do that to you. The hunger was a gnawing pit of pain that never went away. She’d always wondered why pictures of starving children in Africa had bloated bellies and looked fat. Was her stomach going to swell?
Jamie was near the farm she’d been raiding. The house stood surrounded by rich, apple green fields of corn. Seeing the farm normally gave Jamie a sense of relief because her pain would soon be dulled. Not today.
A few feet down the driveway she saw a teenage boy and a dog circling each other like wrestlers in a ring. The boy was lean and tall with a mop of dark brown hair that hung in his face. His toned, bony arms were tight with tension as he gripped an aluminum baseball bat.
The dog looked like some grotesque, 40-pound fly. A pair of filmy, lace-like wings grew out of its back. The fur was matted with blood, dirt and puss from untreated sores. At one time it was probably a cute and cuddly pug. Now it was a vicious predator with the ability to fly and tear its prey apart with its jagged teeth.
Jamie leaned her bike up against the mailbox as she watched the pair. A small cloud of dust rose from the boy’s red sneakers as he danced around the pug.
“Don’t tease the thing put it out of its misery,” Jamie called out.
The boy glanced at her quickly as if he just noticed her. He didn’t respond and turned his attention back to the hideous dog. The canine ignored Jamie too. Its lips peeled back from rotting, yet deadly teeth as it snarled. Spit flew out of its mouth and a string landed on the boy’s arm.
“Great,” he muttered as he wiped his arm on his knee-length shorts. A strand of yellowish spit hung from the dog’s mouth and clung to its shoulder.
The boy readied himself to pound the dog with the bat, but instead it backed up and then took a running leap and flew through the air. The dog’s wings flapped like a hummingbird’s as it hovered out of the boy’s reach. It hung about four-feet above the boy’s head, its wings fluttering at a breakneck pace. After a few seconds circling, it surged toward the boy’s head, reaching in to snap at skin.
The boy ducked out of the way, rolled on the gravel driveway and landed untouched in a crouch like a cat.
As the dog flew toward the boy it started to sniff the air and halted as it smelled something of interest. The dog followed the scent, slowly at first. Its head swung around as if curious about the new fragrance. It started to pick up speed as the smell got stronger, its wings were a blur.
It was too late when Jamie realized it was heading in her direction. She shrieked in panic and skittered away. When the dog was within five feet, it abruptly dove like a kamikaze pilot toward her wounded, bleeding leg.
“Do something,” she yelled at the boy as she leaped out of the dog’s way. While dodging the dog, she tripped over the shoelace of an untied sneaker and landed with a thump on her ass. Sharp edged stones poked into her bottom. When the dog was within reach of her legs, she yanked them toward herself in a tuck so that the animal landed on the road.
The dog assessed her briefly and then jumped on her. Jamie had no time to think, she put her hands up to protect her face and neck. The dog hit her chest like a punch in the gut. The air left her lungs and Jamie was thrown onto her back. She gasped for breath as her hands held back the dog’s snapping jaws.
The stench of the dog was astonishing. It made Jamie’s empty stomach swirl with nausea. The dog’s breath smelled like rotting garbage mixed with body odor. If Jamie’s hands had been free, she would have plugged her nose, instead she breathed through her mouth.
Jamie fought to throw the dog off her chest. But days of no food had left her weak and lightheaded. She’d be lucky if she could keep the snarling beast from tearing out her throat.
Goopy saliva dripped from the dogs open jaws. Its tongue flickered in and out of the gaps between its teeth.
“Please, help me,” she moaned.
Jamie could feel the dog’s hot breath as it pressed forward. Its claws dug into her as its rear legs scrambled for position. She wasn’t sure how long she could keep it at bay. Her arms trembled with the strain and his fingers slipped on the gooey fur.
“Hold still,” the boy said from her side. “Keep your hands away from the left side.”
“Your left or my left?” she said as she tried to get a better grip on the dog’s slippery, goober-covered fur. Before he could clarify, Jamie heard the hollow sound of an aluminum bat hitting its target and the dog suddenly flew off her chest out of her line of sight.
“Get up, get up,” the boy urged.
Jamie scrambled to her feet, but almost fell over as wooziness made her head spin. The boy jumped in front of her as the dog raced back toward them from where it had landed in the grass. The boy got into a baseball stance as if he were going to swing at a pitch. Jamie backed away, careful this time.
As the dog launched itself like a missile toward Jamie, the boy swung forward and made contact with the dog. It gave a squeak at the sound of crunching bones. The dog landed 10 feet away and didn’t get up. The boy walked over to the animal and pounded it with the bat. After an initial squeal of protest, the dog went silent. The only sound she heard was thwack, thwack, thwack.
Jamie stumbled backward and rested against the warm wood siding of the house. When the boy was done, he walked toward her and leaned on the top of the bat as if it were a cane. The bat dripped with blood and tendons.
Jamie’s stomach dropped as if she were on the plunge of a roller coaster. She looked away from the bat and instead focused on the boy’s face. His skin was tanned and smooth for a teenage boy. There wasn’t a blemish in sight. Black, curly eyelashes ringed emerald-green eyes that were a couple of shades darker than the corn crops. His penetrating gaze pierced her own blue one as she pushed herself away from the house.
“It’s dead,” he said gruffly, deep lines appearing in his brow.
“Thanks,” she said folding her arms across her chest. Her caramel-colored shoulder-length hair blew in her face and she let it stay that way to hide her expression. She felt very self-conscious for being so weak. She had not had to rely on anyone to protect her and it was a new, uncomfortable feeling.
A shadow moved across the teen’s face. “What are you doing out here alone?” he barked.
Jamie frowned. She didn’t like his tone. “What do you mean?”
“Well, if I hadn’t been here, you’d be dead. Where’s your weapon?”
“I don’t need one.” As soon as she said it, she felt stupid. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. After what they’d just been through, a bat would have come in handy. The boy snorted.
“Right,” he laughed. “What world do you live in?”
The boy pushed off from his bat and stalked toward the back of the house. He wiped the bat in the grass to dislodge the dog’s innards before he stuffed it into a backpack. He yanked open another pocket and pulled out a folded knife.
“Here,” he thrust the amber-handled weapon to Jamie.
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
“Uh, let’s see,” he said as he unfolded the knife. “You plunge and then twist.”
He demonstrated gutting and disemboweling. Jamie squeezed her eyes shut at the image and shook her head. “I can’t do that.”
“Sure you can.”
Jamie shook her head, her eyes still closed.
“Suit yourself,” he grumbled as he threw the knife back into the backpack.
“It’s not what you think-,” she said but the teen wasn’t listening. He’d already given her his back and was walking into the small field behind the house. She wasn’t sure what she was going to say but she just didn’t want him to think she was helpless.
The guy was walking toward the small vegetable garden Jamie had been pillaging all summer. She obviously wasn’t the only one who relied on the patch. She got her pannier bags from her bike and marched into the fields. She ignored the boy harvesting tomatoes a little distance away as she stripped corn from stalks. She stuffed a tomato in her mouth and sucked the juice from the fruit. She slurped her snack, chewed without thinking of anything. The feeling of having her hunger satiated was thoroughly distracting. She wiped her mouth with the bottom of her t-shirt and unearthed fuzzy zucchini and detached green peppers. She was filling a second bag when she felt the boy staring at her.
She turned around and sure enough the boy was standing with his feet apart staring at her. But instead of a look of disgust on his face, he seemed perplexed like he was seeing a puzzle he’d like to put together.
“What’s your problem?” Jamie said wary of his impression of her.
“I’m just wondering how you’ve survived this long. That’s all.”
The boy looked curious, not hostile. She wasn’t sure how to answer him so she didn’t.
“You must be some Remarkable.”
Before he could answer the ground started to shake with light vibrations and Jamie could hear a mechanical growling noise coming closer. Jamie looked around in confusion and then saw a tank crest a hill west of the farm.
“Crap,” Jamie said as she looked around for a hiding place. For a minute, she wondered if she could run into the corn crop and hide in a row but it was too far away. The boy grabbed her arm, dragged her toward the house and pushed Jamie into a bush in full bloom, its white flowers opened and closed like little mouths.
“What the--,” she said angrily as she stumbled to her knees in the dirt and swallowed a cloud of dust. She started coughing as she bumped against the bush’s talon-like thorns.
“Get out sight,” he hissed
“What about-,” Jamie couldn’t finish her question because the boy gave her butt a shove and she rolled into the heart of the bush. The razor-sharp thorns tore her clothes and scraped her arms. She could see beads of blood rise up through broken skin. As she tried to find a comfortable position, the bush wrapped itself around her like a mother’s embrace. Jamie struggled, but the more she moved the deeper the thorns dug into her skin. She froze as she heard the tank come down the driveway.
Jamie couldn’t figure out why the boy wasn’t hiding too, but these days everything surprised her. Nothing was the same. Everything was unpredictable. The ground trembled like aftershocks of an earthquake. The bush swayed back and forth, the thorns tore more skin off her arms and face. The tank came to a stop about 10 feet from the boy, who didn’t look scared. If anything, he oozed confidence.
Jamie’s pulse raced as she watched anxiously. The soldiers posed as much danger as the freakish dog. She tried to form an escape plan in her head if the boy were unsuccessful.
A soldier manning a machine gun was visible through the opening of the tank. When the vehicle came to a stop, he jumped to the ground, leaned the gun on a knee and coughed without covering his mouth.
The boy took a step backward. He seemed more worried about the cough than the gun.
Three other soldiers spilled out of the tank. They all looked the same. They had closely cropped hair, dirt streaked faces and wore sand-colored camouflage fatigues. They lined up around the tank as a tall, skinny black man with a sergeant insignia on his shoulder took charge.
“Papers,” he demanded. The skin sagged around his eyes as if he hadn’t slept in a month.
The boy didn’t say anything. He ran a hand through his hair.
“Papers,” the solider barked again as he put a hand over the handgun that rested in a holster on his hip. Seeing the move the other soldiers hoisted their guns to waist level instead of having them pointed at the ground.
Jamie’s heart sank. Maybe the boy wasn’t going to get out of this. Being a confident jerk wasn’t a ticket to success. But the boy didn’t move and still seemed calm.
Sweat broke out on her forehead and beads of moisture rolled down her face making her itch. She desperately wanted to wipe it away, but the bush wouldn’t let her move.
“Sergeant, I don’t need papers,” he said calmly.
“No,” the boy said in a smooth, almost seductive voice. “I live here. I am registered. Don’t worry. I’m not a threat.”
The man blinked a few times and seemed to lose concentration. He took his hand off the butt of his gun and his shoulders relaxed. The soldier looked at the teenager with a blank expression on his face.
“You’re supposed to have ID cards with you at all times,” he said dully still blinking as if to clear his eyes of a fog.
“I’ve just forgotten mine. No big deal.”
“Yes, no big deal,” the man said almost robotically.
Jamie was confused. What was he doing to the solider? He seemed to be under a spell. Even stranger, the boy seemed to have spun it.
“You should probably get going now,” he said motioning his arm to the other soldiers.
“Of course,” the soldier said turning around.
“Back in the tank,” he barked at the other soldiers who seemed as confused as Jamie.
“But, sir-,” one started to say but was cut off.
“Are you challenging me grunt?”
“No, no sir,” the solider said scrambling after the others to get into the tank.
The sergeant swung himself up to the tank opening and then looked back at the boy.
“What was your name again,” the sergeant asked.
“I never said,” the boy said. “Bye.”
The sergeant climbed inside the tank. Its engine revved up as it made a u-turn in the driveway. It crushed some of the vegetable field as it swung around. It took several minutes before it exited the driveway and disappeared down the road.
Jamie would have left the bush if she could, but it didn’t want to give her up.
“You can come out now,” he said as he walked toward her.
“I can’t,” she cried. There were thorns within inches of her eyes.
The boy came over and crouched down. He spoke softly to the bush and murmured a few words.
“Let the girl go,” he whispered enchantingly. “It’s ok. She won’t hurt you anymore. She’s very sorry for disturbing you.”
Jamie could feel the bush loosen its grip on her.
“That’s right. She didn’t mean to bother you. She’ll be going now.”
Jamie just stared at him. His green eyes gazed at the bush lovingly then he glanced at her. She couldn’t read his expression. Did she see concern there?
He reached a hand into the bush and grabbed her fingers. The bush branches opened up like a blooming flower. The boy pulled her to her feet and she stepped through the opening.
The boy stared at her with a slight smile playing on his lips. “You look like hell,” he said.
Jamie’s hands flew to her face. It felt sticky. She drew back her fingers and they were smeared with blood. Her arms and legs were covered in long, angry red scratches.
He reached out a hand as if to sooth her wounds, but Jamie pulled away.
“Don’t touch me,” she said stumbling backward. She over-corrected herself trying to balance and bumped against the boy’s hard, warm chest. She put out her hands for support, and for a moment she felt his racing heart beneath her palm. She yanked her hand away and swayed again, her own heart beating faster. The boy reached out and gripped her upper arms in his smooth warm hands that were rough on her bare skin, making it tingle. An embarrassing flush crawled up her neck and her pulse raced with excitement. The boy was standing so close, sharing her space, she felt the heat radiating off his skin. It was as if she had suddenly stood in front of a heating lamp. She sucked in a breath but didn’t pull away because she enjoyed the closeness, a feeling she hadn’t had in so long.
He dropped his hands once she was steady and she felt the void, the sudden space between them open and allowing a breeze to flutter over her skin making her shiver even though every surface of her skin burned and itched.
To avoid his penetrating gaze, she dug a napkin out of her shorts and dabbed at her the blood on her arms.
“Give me that,” the boy said as he took the tissue. When his fingers touched hers she felt a jolt like a small electric shock. He gripped her shoulder with one hand as he blotted the wounds on her face with surprising gentleness.
“You’re a mess,” he said with a small smile. Jamie couldn’t help but smile back.
“You already said that.”
When she realized she must look goofy, she turned her head to the side and pulled her body reluctantly away. Jamie staggered toward the pannier bags that she’d dropped in the mad rush to hide. She walked slowly to her bike and hung them on the side. She turned back to the boy who hadn’t moved and had his arms crossed over his chest.
“How did you do that?”
Jamie waved a hand in the direction of the departed tank. It couldn’t be seen or heard anymore.
“How did you… what did you….”
Jamie gestured lamely.
“How did I get him to leave?”
“Yes,” she breathed.
“That’s my gift,” he said. “Didn’t you feel it?”
Jamie frowned and shook her head. She didn’t understand. “Feel what?”
Now it was the boy’s turn to scowl.
“Can you feel this,” the boy said in a seductive voice that sounded fake to Jamie’s ears. “Come here.”
Jamie stared at the boy. Was he crazy?
“Seriously, come here,” the boy didn’t use a commanding tone instead it was like a cat’s purr.
“You’re a nut job.”
The boy stared at Jamie, disbelieving that his words had no effect on her.
“Let’s put it this way, I’m usually good with words.”
“I’ll say,” Jamie muttered.
The boy walked away, gathered his bags and got on his bike as Jamie swung a leg over hers.
“I’ll take you home,” he said.
Jamie wasn’t sure she wanted him to know where she lived.
“Not necessary,” she said pushing off and pedaling. The boy followed.
“I beg to differ,” he said coming up beside her. She pedaled fiercely but didn’t get a lead on the guy.
“What’s the rush?” he said. Jamie didn’t answer.
“I saved your life and now you’re not talking to me?”
“You did not,” Jamie said indignantly. “Save my life that is.”
“Sure I did.”
“Well, maybe. But that doesn’t mean I owe you anything.”
“I didn’t say you did.”
Jamie looked over at him. The setting sun made his eyes glow moss green. His hair was smoothed off his forehead by the wind. Her heart stuttered at his earnest expression. Jamie knew it was a trick, but couldn’t resist slowing down to a cruising speed to get a better look at the boy.
“What do you want from me?”
Jamie didn’t believe him but she was tired of fighting. Perhaps his skill with words included wearing down his opponents until they gave up.
“Fine,” she said defeated. “You can escort me home.”
“Don’t sound so excited about it.”
They biked to her subdivision in silence. Jamie led the boy to her house and stopped outside the garage.
“You should know something before we go inside,” the boy said. “I’m Sean Grey.”
He didn’t offer to shake her hand as the custom had been annihilated since the virus.“And I’m the one girl who can resist your charm,” she said pulling her bike into the garage. “But you can call me Jamie.”