Friday, July 3, 2009

Raising Rachel [End](Friday Fiction)

This week's Friday Fiction is hosted by Shirley McClay @ her blog :SunnyGlade. Click here to read and share more great fiction.

Author's Ramblings: You don't even want to know how late I am with this piece-lol-and I even started since last week with it! Anyway, the ending is still a little rough (the revised version will appear in the The Cypress Times) but it works for now. Rachel's story has finally reached the end (at least for this chapter in her life). Thank you all for reading and keeping up with this story-you've been a great encouragement, especially in keeping me writing this epic drama. Perhaps now the voices in my head can pull out some new characters for next week. Enjoy! (and please let me know what you think of this final installment). Happy 4th! ~Sara

When the sunlight filtered through the window, it draped itself over the bare arm hanging out of the bed, waiting, patiently until the hand began to twitch. The fingers wiggled first and then slowly, the hand lifted upwards until it fell, slapping the face of the owner itself.

Rachel opened her mouth to protest and stopped when she realized the offending hand was her own. A moan escaped as she wriggled under the blanket, trying to find a comfortable position. Everywhere ached and her stomach was growling fiercely from the pillow she’d smothered it with.

Sleepy eyes began to droop once more until her foggy mind began to return to life. Rachel jerked upright, just enough movement to fall off the edge of the bed. A stream of incoherent babble streamed from her lips. She mumbled a few more whines for good measure, waiting for the rest of her to catch up as she tried to tug her feet free from the blanket cocoon.

Her hands froze, curling into fists as the memories of the night before flooded back, riding on the waves of a killer headache. It took a moment of silence and careful, prayerful meditation to work the annoyance to the back of her mind. “Got more important things to do today.” She told the empty room. “Bother you, Mark….”

Struggling to her feet, she scowled at the tangle of cloth on the floor. Her mind was twisting, pushing, trying to break free of the dreams that had locked her into the blackness of the night last. Her gaze lingered on the blanket and an image from the night’s dreams floated into her head. Unthinkingly, she snapped her fingers at it.

A crackle of soft blue energy emerged from her hand and the tiny ball spiraled down to the floor, covering the fluffy object in question. The blanket leapt from the floor, untangling itself before settling neatly on the bed. Rachel gasped, lurching forward to touch the tips with her fingers. She jerked back, thrusting her hand in her mouth and sucking on the fingertips. “Owwf!” The whine was muffled.

Guess I wasn’t dreaming…what did Mark do to me?

It took a few minutes for a shower, followed by a clean set of clothes and fishing around for her cell phone before Rachel finally took a moment to glance at the clock. Her eyes grew wide at the display proudly announcing it was seven o’ clock. “Only?” Her stomach rumbled again and she sighed. “He’d better be in a good mood.” Turning on her heel, she aimed for the door and out into the hallway. “I need wheels and I need them fast.”

Standing in front of Calvin’s bedroom door, she knocked matter-of-factly, waiting. “Calvin? Are you up? I need to ask you something.” When there was no immediate reply, she repeated the knock and tapped her foot for a half-second before speaking again . “Calvin? Are you up? I need to borrow your car-where’s the keys?”

There was silence for a moment. Rachel crossed her arms over her chest, waiting. It was only a matter of seconds before the door opened, Calvin leaning against the doorframe, attempting to wipe the cobwebs of sleep from his face. “You what?” He croaked.

“I need to get to town this morning, to take care of some important…stuff. Can I borrow your car?” The request was repeated very slowly and Rachel made sure she’d pulled out her best smile. “Please?”

Calvin squinted at her. “No way!”

“But it’s important-” Rachel stuck her foot in the doorjamb. “And I really can’t do this any other day.” A light blue spark crackled to life at her fingertips, a sound so faint, only the heat reminded her it was real.

Calvin’s eyes immediately went to the tiny light orb hovering on her fingertips. He swallowed. “White energy?”

“Electricity.”

“No.”

“Calvin, please! It’s just one little favor!”

“What happened to your own wheels?”

Rachel squashed the tiny blue bauble of energy. She felt it trickle up in her arm and then to her neck. It tickled. She tilted her head to the side, trying not to appear obvious in wanting to brush the feeling away. She shrugged. “Don’t have them anymore. Listen, I’ll make you breakfast.”

“You can cook?”

“Better than you can.”

“Hey!”

“Lovely!” Rachel beamed. “I just knew you’d want to drive me there yourself. Breakfast downstairs in half an hour-it’s pancakes!”

“Wha-what?” Calvin took a step out into the hallway. “I’m not leaving Jeanette here by herself!”

“Then we’ll take her with us.” Rachel’s smile wavered. “Anything else?”

He closed his eyes. “She did want to get a new toaster…all right, we’ll go.” He turned back to the room and paused. “Since when do you know how to make pancakes?”

“Since I was fifteen?” Rachel shot back. “Don’t forget to comb your hair-it looks like you stuck your hand in a-”

“Go away!” Calvin mumbled, shutting the door behind him.

Rachel grinned. “Grumpy in the morning?” She half-told herself, heading for the too pink bedroom to rouse Jeanette.

By the time she’d finished convincing her to wake up and get ready for town, her spirits had dimmed a few shades. A few minutes puttering about in the kitchen proved to be an effective remedy, for she had started humming as she set the table and checked the batter for lumps.

Breakfast was ready in short order and when the doorbell rang, Calvin and Jeanette were just coming down the stairs. “Morning, sleepyheads.” Rachel waved towards the table, her own plate in hand. “Help yourselves-if you don’t want maple syrup there’s honey in the pantry.”

“What if I don’t want pancakes?” Jeanette pouted.

“There’s frozen waffles in the freezer.” Rachel said, cheerfully. “But this pancake recipe is a special family recipe-my mom used to make them.”

“Used to?”Jeanette slumped into a chair, eyeing the stack suspiciously.

“This is your mom’s recipe?” Calvin hooked a chair out from the table with his foot and plopped down, reaching for the stack of hot pancakes. “I haven’t had them in years.”

Rachel smiled sweetly. “Told ya I could cook. Well, at least breakfast anyway.” She amended. The doorbell rang again and she sighed.

“Who is it?” Jeanette twisted around in her chair.

“How would I know? I haven’t even gotten to the door yet.” Rachel rolled her eyes, heading for the kitchen sink. She set her plate down and hurried to the front door, wondering who exactly was standing on the other side. “Hi! Can I help you…?” Her voice trailed off as Rachel stared at the short woman standing on the front porch.

She was at least a whole head shorter and somewhat stout, her arms tanned and muscular, the familiar Mark of Densen tattoo visible on her left bicep, courtesy of her sleeveless silken, brown tunic. She wore tough black pants, tucked into worn leather boots, with a dull buckle at the ankles.

“Tess.”The woman stuck a hand out. “I’m your new handler.”

Rachel opened her mouth and shut it, taking a breath instead of speaking straightaway. It took her a moment to school her features into a neutral enough expression to motion for the guest to enter. “Tess…uh, hi.”

“You’re Rachel, correct?” Tess stepped inside, her pale brown eyes darting quickly about the interior. “Mmm, something smells good.”

“Pancakes.” Rachel heard herself say. “My mom’s special recipe…want one?”

“That would be wonderful, actually.” Tess smiled, for the first time, the emotion bringing light to her weary face. She chose a seat in the same fashion Calvin had, hooking the chair over with one foot and folding herself to fit. She took two pancakes, stacked on top of the other and paused, head bowed for a moment, before digging in.

“Who are you?” Jeanette asked, point-blank. From the still half-sleepy scowl on her face, she didn’t appreciate having a guest at the breakfast table.

“She’s a friend.” Rachel said, quickly. “You guys hurry up…I’ll be right there.”

Jeanette turned the scowl in her direction. “We’re still eating.”

“Oh. Right.” Rachel forced a laugh. And so she waited. Tess took her time eating and so did Calvin and Jeanette. Calvin was the first to finish and he told Jeanette to hurry up as he carried his dishes to the sink. Minutes later, the kitchen had emptied and the two women were left sitting at the table.

“Anything I should know about you?” Tess asked, dabbing her lips with a paper napkin. “Those were some excellent pancakes.”

“Thanks.” Rachel shifted to her feet, reaching for the plate. “Can I get you anything else?”

“No…I seem to make you nervous and you seem to be in a hurry. I won’t take up too much of your time.” Tess rose from the table, taking an extra napkin and folding it into a square to tuck into her pocket. “How are your powers managing? Any more headaches?”

“You know about my headaches?” Rachel placed the plate in the sink, running water over it to keep the maple syrup from sticking until someone could load the dishwasher. She pinched her thumb, trying to focus on the thoughts filtering through the woman’s head.

“I read your file. It’s in there.” And it’s got me worried about you, girl. Whatever’s bugging you is interfering with everything else. You can trust me. I already trust you. Ben was a good friend of mine, I’m looking after you at his request through Mark. Can you please stop that now?

Rachel swallowed. Tess had known she’d probe into her mind. “Anything in there I should know about?” She tried to keep her tone light.

“You’re the only pick and drop agent directly assigned by Mark himself, that hasn’t died after your two-hundred and eighty-eighth drop. You made history. Most agents in your line die right around this point, or shortly after their first in-field assignment.” Tess stared at her deliberately. “Any particular secret you’d like to share with the rest of us?”

“He hates me?” Rachel shrugged. “I don’t know…I might not make history after all, he wants me to-” She stopped, then grabbed Tess’s arm and pulled her towards the hall. “Tess, I know what he wants.”

“Really?” A bushy eyebrow arched upwards. “Fascinating. Tell me more.” Tess tugged a toothpick out from her twist of hair.

“I know how they’re getting Pysch out and I can get a sample of it…more than one even. I also don’t know if I should give it to him.”

The eyebrows drooped. “I see.”

“He’s like this big crime boss, he goes around ordering people and-”

“and he’s made a few mistakes, Rachel, but he’s not half as bad as he’s made out to be.”

“Half as bad?”

“He does what he thinks is right and most of the time, he is right.”

“And what about the other times? He tortures people!”

“For hurting you!” Tess countered. “And me and any other one of his agents, though I did hear about that one. Ben told me he actually saw him...I didn't realize it was that serious, but he’s protective that way. Besides…how do you know-?”

“He put something in my head…like an instruction manual for my…powers. I took some…stuff, while he did that. He almost killed a Cobra supervisor.”

“You swiped a few of his memories?” Tess clarified. “Good heavens, child, whatever did you do that for? I’m sure there’s an explanation for everything he does, but it’s not in your place to question him!”

“And why not?”

“Why at all?”

“Because I don’t trust him!” The words burst from her lips and Rachel slapped a hand over her mouth. “How can I trust him?”

“What exactly are we talking about-and don’t do that!” She held up a hand, half-way to her head. “Don’t. I mean it. You don’t want to know what I’m thinking right now.”

Rachel swallowed. “Pysch kills…humans, at least. It’s a drug. A stupid one. And he wants it why? What for? Why should I give it to him?”

“Besides doing it to save yourself?”

“Besides that!”

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“What?”

“He doesn’t bite, Rachel. At least not all the time. If he asked you to do this, chances are he wanted it to be low profile-”

“Then why does he keep popping up around here all the time?”

“Because Waynesburg is a hot spot and he’s working to reclaim Viper territory. Those idiotic Cobras have been edging in and giving him a headache. Everyone up there-” Tess pointed to the ceiling. “Knows what’s going on. But you’re sticking here with your head in the ground-”

“My head is on my shoulders, thank you very much! I couldn’t stick it in the ground if I wanted to-it’s too big. I’m talking about dead people. People who died because of this stupid drug. I’m not going to willingly put it into the hands of a-a-” She threw up her hands.

Tess stared at her for a moment. “You’re serious.” She said at last.

“Yes.”

“Give it to him. I’ll see that it’s isolated.”

“What?”

“That’s my job, honey.” Tess patted her on the shoulder, turning towards the door. “I control the controlled substances. I’ll make sure it doesn’t get out back here to Earth.”

“Earth? What about everyone else? Everything else?”

Tess took a deep breath. “What do you want?”

“What?”

“You want something-that’s the only reason one of Ben’s agents usually stick their necks out on a limb like this. If I were anyone else, but his second-cousin, I’d have your-”

“You’re his second-cousin?”

“Focus, Rachel. Please?” Tess sighed. “Look, you’ve done well enough on your own, I won’t taint that record with my advice. Just do what you…know you have to. I’ll poke around up there and see what he wants it for, if I can find out. If I can’t and regardless of what I do, make up your mind before I call you again.”

“You’ll call or you’ll just drop in for pancakes.”

“I’ll call.” Tess half-smiled. “I prefer waffles to pancakes.”

Rachel rolled her eyes. “You know where the door is.” Tess turned, heading down the hallway. “Wait!”

“What?”

“I need some cash.”

“What?” Tess blinked. “What happened to your expense card?”

“I need cash, not a card.”

“How much?”

“Uh…” Rachel bit her lip.

“A thousand good?” Tess stared upwards. “Or you need more?”

“Uh, t-that’s more than enough, I probably don’t even need that much or-”

“Give me your card.”

Rachel pulled out her wallet and handed it over. Tess flipped it over in her hand, then handed it back, along with a wad of cash. “How did you do that?”

“Handler’s privilege.” Tess smirked. “We like to keep our charges happy. Good luck, Rock.”

“Tess…!”

“What?”

“What’s your right name? If I need to look you up, I mean, how would I know what you're-”

The smirk turned into a sad smile. “They call me Spiritess.”

“That’s…original.”

“Weird.” Tess corrected. “I can see it on your face. Get moving before those two eavesdroppers decide they can’t stand not knowing what we’re talking about.”

Rachel winced. “Calvin…!” She headed for the stairs as Tess let herself out, pausing only at the coat closet to retrieve her old beach tote. It was faded from years ago, but apart from a little dust inside, it was good enough for what she wanted. A sigh lodged in her throat and she tried to swallow. It was going to be a long day.

It didn’t take long before they were in the car and on the road. “Where are we headed?” Calvin clicked the locks shut, checking his rearview mirror.

“To the um, paper place.” Rachel fumbled in her wallet.

“Paper place?” Jeanette propped her bare feet up on the armrest, minus her flip-flops, she adjusted several flashy silver hair pins in a neat line down the left side of her bangs. “What paper place?”

“You should know it, actually.” Rachel twisted around in her seat, tugging at the seat belt. “Hey, no feet!”

Jeanette made a face, but moved it when Calvin coughed. “Okay, fine, what paper place?”

“There’s a printer shop, Unk goes there to print fliers and swaps it with the people where Teetu is being boarded.”

“Huh?”

“The kennel?” Rachel tried, then shook her head. “Never mind, I…” She pushed her head back into the headrest, waiting. Her mind cleared soon enough and she began to walk through it, it was harder than she remembered, there were so many new things trapped inside, the journey was now more painful than it had ever been. She gave an involuntary shudder, eyes closed as her hands closed into fists.

“Rachel?” Calvin’s voice was urgent. “What’s wrong? What’s the matter?”

“Nothing’s the matter.” Rachel forced the words through her teeth, gripping the armrest with one hand.

“Then what’s going on with you?” His hands tightened around the steering wheel.

“It’s called Marison Printers. It’s a little workshop on the edge of the town, off the main street to your left.” Her eyes popped open. Ben's exercise and Mark's instruction manual had helped her retrieve the mental image for scrutiny.

A few more minutes and Calvin swerved into the parking lot. A curious expression showed plainly on his face as he pushed the visor upwards, peering out at the building. “Busy little place, isn’t it?” He frowned. “This is Cobra territory.”

“Yeah, amazing isn’t it?” Rachel tugged a few bills out of her pocket and handed them over. “Can you buy me a pack of mints? The ones behind the counter. Not the gum, I need mints.”

The curious expression changed to one of disbelief. “You want me to go in there and buy you a mint?” He stared at the cash. “It doesn’t cost a hundred dollars to buy tic-tac.”

“But I’m not sending you in there for tic-tac.” Rachel pressed the money into his hand. “Just mints. There’s some behind the counter in there. Get one of each.”

“One of each?” Calvin repeated. His eyes narrowed. “Rachel…”

“Don’t worry about the car, I’ll stay here and wait with Jeanette.”

“I don’t wanna stay with you, I wanna go with Calvin.” Jeanette unclicked her seatbelt, rummaging for the flip flops.

“You don’t wanna go with Calvin.” Rachel countered, her voice dangerously calm. “You want to sit down and wait with me, while Calvin goes in there to buy me some mints. Okay?” A tiny spark of blue crackled on her right thumbnail. Calvin swallowed. “Go!”

With one last glance at Jeanette, he flipped the locks open and stepped out. Several minutes later, he returned with a large handful of assorted paper boxes and sparkly bags attached to metal containers. “Here.” He deposited the handful on her lap, starting up the car. “Happy?”

Rachel quickly sorted through them, a note of panic beginning to set in. “This is the one they gave you?” She held up an ornate metal container, with a white monkey embossed on the front. “Who sold it to you?”

“Some kid.” Calvin backed out of the parking lot. “I don’t know who he is.”

“They didn’t give you the right one.” She turned it over in her hands, then broke the seal and sniffed them, cautiously. “No, they gave you the wrong one. Why didn’t you tell them to give you the one behind the counter?”

“I did. That’s what they gave me.”

“It’s wrong! This isn’t the one behind the counter.”

“And you would know that because…?”

“It’s the wrong one.” Rachel repeated. “They gave you the wrong one!” She was slowly working herself up to a temper.

“I’m not going back in there.” Calvin frowned. “So don’t even think of asking again.”

“It was a simple little thing! Just go up to the counter and ask for one of each of the mints behind it-how hard is that!”

“They wanted my license for one of them so I told them to skip it.” He frowned. “I’m not from around here, so I count as an out-of-state Cobra. I don’t need to be tagged.”

Rachel scowled. “Next time, just give it to them. They won’t eat you alive!”

The car lurched out of the parking lot. “Where are we going now?” Jeanette hurriedly buckled her seat belt.

“To see Teetu.” Rachel mumbled, absently. “It’s down the road as if you’re going out of town on the west side-”

“Near the church at the end of fountain street.” Jeanette supplied. “It s a whole half-hour from here! Can we get something to eat first?”

“We just had breakfast an hour ago.” Rachel’s head snapped up. “You can’t be hungry already!”

“Says who?”

“Give her a mint.” Calvin suggested, coasting to a stop for the red light. “Empty streets today. Strange.”

“Do you have spearmint?”

“You can’t eat these.” Rachel quickly stuffed them inside the oversized tote. “They’re not good for you.”

“They’re mints. I can eat mints. They don’t have that much sugar.” Jeanette leaned forward, trying to see over Rachel’s shoulder. “I just want one-not all of them!”

“I wouldn’t mind one either.” The light turned green and Calvin drove through. “But I like cinnamon.”

“No one’s going to eat these.” Rachel snapped, zippering the tote shut, she wedged it between her feet, scowling.

“It’s just a mint, Rache.” Calvin tried.

“And she’s too young for it!” The words slipped out before she could stop them. There was a moment of silence and then Calvin cleared his throat, uncomfortably.

“Those kind of mints? That’s what you sent me in there for?”

A blush touched her cheeks and Rachel squeezed her eyes shut. “No, Calvin. I didn’t send you in there for those, but I’m serious. No one’s eating these. Look-even I’m not eating them and I asked you to buy them!”

“Which is why this makes absolutely no sense at all.”

“Exactly what kind of mints are we talking about?” Jeanette asked, innocently.

“Nothing!” Rachel and Calvin snapped at the same time.

Calvin winced. “Not the kind you want to eat.” He amended, letting the subject drop. When Jeanette begged for another mint several minutes later, he offered her a pack of gum from his shirt pocket.

“Is it sugarless?” Jeanette wanted to know.

“I don’t know.” He handed the colorful packet over. “Is it?”

“No.” Disappointed, she returned it. “I can’t eat gum unless it’s sugarless.” Rachel snorted. “I’m serious! I can’t! It bothers my teeth.”

“And mints wouldn’t?” Rachel rolled her eyes.

“Stop it-both of you.” Calvin drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Please?” They lapsed into silence until the rickety wooden kennel came into view at the edge of the lonely strip of road.

“This is it.” Rachel tugged out another handful of cash as Calvin entered the parking lot. In a sharp contrast to their earlier stop, the parking lot was empty and the building could’ve been deserted.

“This is where Mom sent Teetu?” Jeanette cupped her hands around the tinted window. “This place is creepy!”

Rachel shrugged. “Depends how you look at it-here.” She handed the money to Calvin.

He grimaced. “Don’t tell me, more mints?”

“Fast learner, aren’t you?”

Wordlessly he took the cash and exited the car. “Coming Jeanette?”

“She can’t go in there with you-” Rachel started to say, then stopped when he gave her a look. “Fine, it’s your problem, not mine.”

Jeanette shook her head. “N-no thanks. I’ll stay in the car…it looks safer.” Pleading eyes rested on the young man. “Get Teetu out of there.”

“Didn’t your mom put him in there for a reason?” Calvin hovered for a moment, waiting.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t want him in there. I’ll talk to Mr. B about it, I’m sure he won’t mind. He’ll understand.”

Calvin hesitated. “I’ll see.”

Nearly fifteen minutes later, he returned, a wilted ball of fluff in his arms. Jeanette gasped, fingers squeaking on the window as she scrambled out of the car to take the armful, but Calvin shook his head. “Get back in, Jean, quick!”

Something in his voice made her obey at once and she hurriedly slid behind the seat and then extended her arms for the precious armful. “Teetu! Teetu, I’m so sorry!”

“Be careful, hold onto him.” Calvin slammed his door shut, clicking the locks down. He roared out of the parking lot with a squeal of tires. They were some distance down the road before he spoke again. “How could you leave that dog there?”

Rachel glared at him. “They wouldn’t take my credit card.”

“Really? Why didn’t you pay cash?”

“I didn’t get any cash until this morning.”

“Really? How’d you get into town then? You walked?”

“I asked a friend.” Rachel said, pointedly. “I did not have the means to rescue poor little Teetu when I saw him. Did you get my mints?”

“I can’t believe you.” Calvin pulled over to the side of the road. “I can’t believe you!”

“What?” Rachel stared at him. “Don’t tell me you forgot them!”

“I didn’t.” He said, tightly, taking a silver tin from his shirt pocket. “It’s an expensive tin of mints and-”

“And it’s the wrong one too.” Rachel turned it over quickly in her hands, examining it every which way. “The one you were supposed to get was gold and red and it had a tiger or something on it.”

“They wanted ID for that one.” Calvin flipped the locks open. “And I’m not going back. I thought you could stand to do without them.”

“What?”

“Look, Rachel, I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing here, but it seems a little dangerous to me-”

“You’ll be the one in danger if you can’t even follow simple instructions! Ugh! Just keep driving. We’re going home.”

“Home?” Jeanette’s head popped up. “Oh no, we can’t go home. We need to buy special food for Teetu and we need a toaster, I can’t eat my pop tarts without a toaster!”

“I can burn them for you and Unk has plenty of dog food.” Rachel retorted. “Home, Calvin. Now!” She checked her watch. “Oh great…I’ve wasted plenty of good time.”

Calvin took a deep breath then slowly let it out.

“Calvin!”

“Get out.” He said quietly.

“What?” Rachel stared at him, uncomprehendingly.

“I thought maybe you’d sorted things out this morning, especially when you knocked on my door at seven in the morning and said please, after you promised to make breakfast-”

“I didn’t promise.” Rachel mumbled, cramming the new tin of mints inside the half-full tote.
“And I actually thought I was helping you, I was doing something good, that maybe whatever was bugging you for the past two weeks and-”

“Nothing’s bothering me!” Rachel hugged the bag to her chest. “I just need to get home.”

“And we still have some errands to run in town.” Calvin shot back. “We’ve come all this way and it would be a waste of gas and time to just drop you home and come all the way back here. I’m sure another hour won’t make-”

“Don’t you dare say it won’t make any difference, because it will!” Rachel felt her nose beginning to ache and her eyes starting to burn. “We are so not having this conversation!” She wailed. “Just take me home!”

“No.” Calvin said simply. “You can get out and walk yourself.”

“Walk?” Rachel stared at him incredulously. “All the way home?”

“It’s good exercise.” He said, flatly. “and you’re actually not that far away.”

“T-this isn’t Viper territory.”

“Then you’ll just have to be careful. Out. Now!”

“You can’t-!”

Jeanette giggled in the backseat. “Bye-bye!” She clapped a hand over her mouth when Calvin frowned. “Oops.”

“Look, Calvin, I’m sorry…I-I didn’t mean to-”

“It’s a little late for an apology now.” Calvin interrupted. “Especially when you can’t even explain why you needed me to use my ID for something that I don’t even want to think about.”

“You’re clueless.” Rachel half-sniffled. “You have no idea what’s going on!”

“Maybe, but at least I can keep halfway connected to reality and know what’s going on right here and right now. I mean it, Rachel, get out of the car.”

“How can you-”

“OUT!”

Her lower lip trembled and Rachel scrambled out of the car, closing the door as the window crawled down. “Should I even say thanks for the ride?”

Calvin shook his head. “You can’t even…” He started, then stopped. “Never mind. Be careful, Rachel. I’ll see you back home.”

The car pulled away from the shoulder and onto the road. Rachel watched it go until it disappeared from view. A handful of tears trickled down from her eyes as she twined the straps of the tote through her fingers. “You’re lucky.” She whispered after him. “You’re really lucky you have Jeanette with you.” She crumpled to her knees and screamed.

The sound echoed around her and the blue energy that left her spread out in a circular wave, like an invisible ripple. Rachel gasped, her body trembling from the sudden release. It was too many things, all over again. She forced herself to stand again beginning to walk forward. Her mind tried frantically to piece together the new information. She hadn’t gotten hold of Pysch after all. Biting her lip, Rachel tugged out the cell phone, she scrolled through the numbers before she realized she couldn’t call the one person she really wanted to.

You’re doing it again, God. The pain was raw, the wound fresh. I get it, okay? You don’t have to keep hitting me over the head with it! I’m a jerk and if I don’t stop hurting people I care about I’ll be walking to nowhere by myself always…just…help me?

There was nothing inside of her to add to that and Rachel topped the hill to see a glint of silver. Her stomach was beginning to rumble again. She winced. “I guess Jeanette really was hungry.” The silver turned out to be a rather familiar structure as Rachel approached, her mouth dropped open.

Ben had brought her here before. With a sudden spurt of energy, she slung the bag over one shoulder and rushed for the fence. It was easy to land on the other side and the current flowing up her arms carried a delicious tingle within. Rachel aimed straight for the giant conductors and closed her eyes as she grabbed for them.

There was nothing, at first. Then the initial flood of current sprang to life. She could feel it beneath her fingers, coursing through and into her faster and faster than she could handle it. The feeling racing through her mind made her dizzy with hysterical laughter. When she could manage it, she stumbled away and to the gravel where she half-collapsed, the laughter still sputtering from her lips.

* * * * * *

“uh, sir?” The aide standing outside the office was wheeling a shiny red bike through the hallway.

Mark looked up from the file folder he’d been studying. “Hmmm?”

“The bike, sir. The one you brought? Should we scrap it or clean it?”

A tinge of color touched his cheeks. Mark half-smiled. “Clean it.” He said, simply. “And stow it after protective upgrades. I’ll return it this afternoon.” I shouldn’t have taken it in the first place, but I had to, Rachel. The smile fully blossomed as he continued towards his office. Don’t worry though, you’ll like it much better this time around.

It was nearly an hour later that Mark threw down the necklace in disgust. There was nothing stored within the gem, yet Ben had insisted upon it. He frowned, there was far too much going on for him to keep track of. He scowled at the blue bauble. “For all I know, he simply use you.” He told the necklace. “And sent the information straight to-” He kicked the edge of the desk. “Bother you, Ben!”

The door opened. “Sir?” Cherry stuck her head through.

“Cherry!”

“Yes sir!” She stepped inside, standing at attention the moment the door was safely closed behind her.

“I need Rachel Banner retrieved and put in solitary, if you would?”

“Sir?” A smile played about her lips.

“Just do it, Cherry.” He snapped.

“Yes of course, sir. Anything else?” She scribbled the task on the digital handheld resting on top of the stack of papers in her arms.

“Yes.” He frowned. “Are you busy for lunch?”

“L-lunch, sir?” The smile quivered. “W-with you?”

“Lose the stammer, Cherry.” He reminded her, absently. “Yes, if you’re free. I need an escort and if you’re free, meet me in the next twenty minutes. The event should take an hour and wear something nice.” He frowned. “Nothing red, it’s not exactly your color.”

“Of course, sir.” Cherry dipped her head. “Thank you sir.” Her face lit up.

“Dismissed.” Mark stifled a yawn.

Cherry hurried from the office, her heels clicking softly on the tiled floors as she trotted down the hallway. Mark stared after her, one hand tapping his cheek, puzzled. The blue necklace glowed and he sighed.

* * * * * *

“Thom!” Pete burst through the office door, his face ashen. “Thom…I..”

“Pete? Sit down! Here-” He guided him to a chair. “What happened?”

“It’s Ally, Thom.” Pete struggled for a word, color began to return to his face, but it was a shade of red betraying his reluctance to elaborate on the nature of his visit.

“Ally? Allison?” Thom felt a half-twinge in his throat. “Don’t tell me, Pete.” He heard himself say.
“I’m sorry…Thom.”

“Sorry?” A burst of anger sparked through him. “Sorry! They were supposed to keep an eye out for her!”

“She gave them the slip…she thought she had a lead and she went out of the street last night and…I’m sorry, Thom.”

“No….no!”

* * * * * *

Rachel materialized inside a box.

At least, she thought it was a box. It was white all over with no sign of a door, or where the light was coming from.

“H-hello?” Rachel tapped softly on one panel. “Um, is anyone out there?”

There was no answer.

“Hello? My name is Rachel Banner…I don’t know where I am…or how I got here, hello? Is there anyone out there that can hear me? Can you help?”

Again, there was no answer.

Rachel searched every wall for an opening and finally sat down in defeat. “I don’t believe it.” She told the empty room. After awhile, her head bowed and she rested it on her knees, waiting. It had to be Mark’s doing, that was the only sensible explanation she could think of.

Time ticked by.

Keeping an eye on her watch proved to be frustrating until she realized her cell phone was still in her pocket. Retrieving it, she scrolled to the only number programmed inside. “Mark?” She made a face when the voicemail picked up. “This is Rachel, I need to talk to you…now. This is important…it’s about Pysch.” She ended the message, waiting.

The minutes continued to trickle by.

Something nudged her forward. Rachel turned, then scrambled to the opposite end of the room when the wall slid backwards and up. Mark stepped through the opening and it slid shut behind him. His eyes were tired, his hair sticking up and he slumped to the floor beside her. “Got your message.” He said, after a moment of silence.

Rachel studied him, cautious. “Yeah.”

“So?”

“Um, I know how they’re getting Pysch around.”

“Really? Pray, tell.” His lips quirked.

“Answer a few things first.”

“Depends.” He countered. “What things?”

“What do you want with it?”

“I want it for me.”

“You’re using it?”

“No, I want it for us…the Vipers-which, is me. It’ll be a credit to our name. I also don’t think it belongs on Earth streets, don’t you agree?”

“You knew about the foreign ingredient!” Rachel accused.

“I had a general idea.” He corrected. “There was nothing I could do about it.”

“People died, Mark!” She choked. “They’re dead!”

“And I’m sorry that a life choice they made led to an untimely demise, however, there was nothing you or I could have done about it.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

“Rachel, you can’t stop other people from living their lives the way they want to live it. Look at me!” He shifted forward. “There was nothing that could be done. There was no way and is currently, no way to trace the drug.”

“Then how did you know where to send me to go looking for it?”

Mark looked away. “Because of the deaths.” He said quietly. “I knew where a trail of unexplained deaths, particularly in young people, existed, it would mean that I could expect to see it around somewhere.”

“Somewhere?”

“I didn’t know what form it was in. I couldn’t stop it. If I knew…”

“If?”

“Yes. If. People don’t deserve to die for things they don’t know about, because they had no control over it. It’s not fate, it’s not coincidence, but it can be prevented to some degree. If I had known, I would never have allowed an alien drug to come close to the surface of Earth.”

Something about the way he said it and the way his eyes flashed, made her head ache more. She winced. “Why couldn’t you trace it where you come from?”

“It’s harder. I was getting close, so they shifted it and changed the form. It was originally in a powder. Typical first stage.”

“They? You know who they are?”

“I have a pretty good idea.” One hand curled into a fist. “And once I know for certain, they will be sorry.”

“Did it kill people up there?” Rachel had to know.

The fist curled tighter. “It’s close enough. It hasn’t yet, but it’s hopelessly addicting. A life half-lived isn’t really much more than being half-dead, is it?”

Rachel shuddered. There was a gentle nudge inside of her to stop questioning and simply trust. She sucked in a breath of air, then spoke very quickly. “They’re putting it in mints.”

He straightened at once. “In mints? A solid form?” He gestured towards the discarded tote bag near her feet. “You have some?”

Rachel grabbed it. “Not exactly.”

His eyes followed her movements and one eyebrow lifted in question. “Meaning…?”

“I need one…thing, before I can…complete my report.”

“Ah. So we’re doing this professionally?” s

“Is there any other way?” Rachel curled her fingers through the leather straps of the tote bag.

“Point.” He allowed. “What do you need?”

“Just like that?” Rachel stared at him. “Are you okay?”

Both eyebrows went up. “I would be touched by your concern if I wasn’t entirely sure I was dreaming.” He said dryly. “It was a bad business appointment with Cherry as a backup. She did horrible. But I’ll deal with that later. What is it you need?”

“ID.” She swallowed. “I need to change the date on my driver’s license.”

He nodded slowly, taking the information in stride. “Anything else?”

“I need it today. Like now.”

“Now?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

“I need to do this. I can’t…send someone else.”

“The date?”

“Today.”

“Today?” The eyebrows rose a notch higher. “You realize what you are asking?”

“A favor.” She met his serious gaze. “I’m sure.”

“This will change your age everywhere…” His voice trailed off.

“I know, Ben told me.”

“When?”

“A long time ago…when I asked him what his birthday was.” She forced a smile. “I know what I’m doing.”

“I don’t doubt that you do.” He sighed. “I doubt your ability to fully comprehend the reality of it.”

“Can you do it?”

“How old?”

“Twenty-one.”

He closed his eyes. “Wait a moment.”

As she watched, the soft purple glow overtook him, enveloping his entire body, the energy shimmering off of him in waves. It tickled her as it passed through, gently brushing her own energies. When it dimmed, his eyes opened, blazing purple as he drew something from his shirt sleeve. “Here.”

Rachel took it, wonderingly. Her breath caught when she realized he’d just handed her the amended license. “Why can’t you people ever do things normally?” She whispered, cupping her hands around the card. He’d snapped the picture of her right then, in the white room, her face serene. It was still glowing a faint shade of lilac.

“Normal?” He half-chuckled.

“Yeah. Make a phone call…you know…” She hesitated. “Are you okay?”

He shrugged, from the tired, weary expression, he now appeared exhausted. “Just a lot of things going on.”

“Right.” She shifted to her feet. “Can I go now?”

He shrugged again. “In a moment.”

“Okay…?”

“I need to read your mind.”

“What?”

“Ben gave you some information…I wager it’s giving you a headache like you wouldn’t imagine. If you would block what you do not wish for me to know, I’ll simply reach in and retrieve the information.”

“Just like that? What about the necklace thing you took, isn’t that what he used, what you wanted?”

“Actually, you can have that back.” Mark drew it out from a pocket and handed it over. When their fingers touched, Rachel felt a spark travel up her arm and then she couldn’t move. She stared at him in horror as she felt his gentle probing inside her mind and then he released her. “Got it.” There was a faint smile on his lips.

Rachel bit her lip. “Really?” She was trying not to wring her hands together, for lack of any other coherent response.

“Thank you.” Mark said, politely. “That was very well done. You can go now.”

“Now?”

A brief flicker of puzzlement rested on his face and then he smiled. “Sorry.” Fishing in a pocket, he pulled out a rope bracelet and handed it over. “Here, for backup. Where do you want to go?”

“Home, first, if you please.” Rachel stood at attention.

He nodded. “Your uncle’s?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

His eyes half-closed and Rachel felt the pull of his powers before it faded away. As she felt herself beginning to slowly shift apart, Mark shifted to his feet. “Rachel…don’t forget, dinner at eight.”

“Dinner?” Rachel tried to smack her forehead, but the hand passed straight through her. She grimaced. “I don’t have time for dinner! Unless…it’s got to be at Bella Vienna.”

Mark winced. “Are you sure?”

“Positive…I’ll give you Pysch when we get there.”

A slight smile played about his lips. “Bella Vienna it is. Rachel…do be careful down there. Few things are truly as they seem.” His gaze dropped to her feet, the smile grew wider. “Good luck, I’ll be by to pick you up.”

“Oh good.” She sniffed. “Because I can’t drive…you took my wheels.”

The words had just left her lips when the last of the energy swirled around her. In a brilliant flash of purple. She was gone.

* * * * * *

The house was strangely empty when Rachel inched down the stairs. She’d appeared in the middle of the hallway on the second floor. Her gaze flickered out the living room window and she moved forward to see if Calvin had returned yet.

To her surprise, he had not, but Uncle Thom’s SUV was haphazardly parked in the driveway. Biting her lip, Rachel turned back to face the house. “Unk?” She called out, cautiously.
A faint noise caught her ear. Hurrying forward, Rachel skidded to a stop when she caught sight of her uncle. He was pressed into the corner of the kitchen near the refrigerator, arms hugging his chest, eyes shut, head shaking back and forth.

“Uncle Thom?”

“Rachel?” A new voice came from behind.

Rachel whirled around, taking a step back. It was her uncle’s partner. She tried to remember his name. “Hi…uh..”

“Pete.” He supplied, taking a seat at the kitchen table, a steaming cup in hand. “Chief had me drive him home, there’s been some bad news.”

“What kind of bad news?” Rachel headed straight for Uncle Thom.

Pete hesitated. “Allison McVain is dead.”

“What?” Rachel jerked around in mid-reach. “She can’t be dead.” She growled. “She can’t…oh Unk!” Rushing forward, she threw her arms around his waist. “I’m sorry.” She whispered. “So sorry.” Tears dripped from her face to splatter on his wrists.

He remained motionless, no sound, no tears.

“How long has he been like this?” Rachel pulled away, turning to quiz Pete. He was sitting too calmly, sipping his coffee as if it were normal to see her uncle backed up against a refrigerator.

“Hard to say…about a good two hours.” Pete shrugged. “More or less. I can’t do anything with him.”

“How’d you get him home, then?”

“He was ranting and raving about how unfair life was.”

“Oh.” Rachel snuck a glance over her shoulder. The tiny prickle feeling in the back of her neck had started up again. “And was it?”

“Huh?”

“Life.” Rachel inched towards him. “Is that coffee?”

“Sure, help yourself.” Pete nodded towards the kitchen, but his eyes were still focused on a point, the same point he’d been trying not to stare at since Rachel’s arrival.

She could feel his eyes on her, so she asked the first question that came to mind. “Where’s Calvin and Jeanette?” She bit her lip again, trying to ignore the soreness as she attempted to focus and read his mind. To her surprise, there was a wall…a block, just like Ben. A sliver of panic slid through her.

“Hmmm?”

“Calvin…and Jeanette. They should be home by now.” A glint of silver flickered. A familiar silver glint.

“They forgot…something, so they went back out.” Pete shrugged. “Something wrong?”

“Yeah.” Rachel took a deep breath. “Where’s the dogs?”

“What?”

“We were all out of the house, Unk keeps dogs, remember? Did you feed them? I don’t see them anywhere…I don’t hear them either.”

“Oh…the uh, dogs.”

“Yes, Pete.” Rachel spoke with exaggerated patience. “And did you hear from my mom? Call her, she’ll be able to get him out of that.” She jerked a thumb over one shoulder, turning. “Where’s his cell phone? The number’s programmed in there. I’ll call…I just got a new phone and I don’t have all the numbers in yet.”

“I think he left it in his bedroom.”

“Oh good. I’ll go get it.” Rachel backed out of the kitchen and headed for the stairs. She flew down the hallway and to her uncle’s room, retrieving the phone. She snuck back down the stairs to peep around the corner into the kitchen.

It took every ounce of self-control to stay quiet when she saw Pete select a large kitchen knife and disappear from view. Please don’t let this be happening, please! Daddy?

The last few steps took her slightly inside the kitchen and Rachel couldn’t speak when she saw Pete calmly slice a lemon in half and then squeeze it into his cup.

He was drinking coffee…how can he put lemon juice in coffee?

The nightmare started when the head turned and looked straight at her, a smirk touching the lips. In a move fast as a flooded stream, Pete whirled from the counter and lunged towards Thom.

“No!” Rachel yelled, throwing herself forward in the same instance. She reached out to everything she could and mentally caught hold of the knife, struggling to pull it away from Pete’s iron grasp.

“Stop it!” Pete gurgled. “What’s wrong with you!”

“Don’t you dare hurt him!” Rachel was shoved away from him, sliding across the floor. She mentally gave the knife a jerk as she slammed into the wall. “You’re not Pete.”

“Excuse me?” Pete rolled to his feet, straightening his jacket collar.

“Pete can’t use a mental barrier.” Rachel forced a smile. “But you’ve got one now. And you can’t put lemon juice in coffee…it turns the milk. Humans don’t drink turned milk.”

“Humans?” Pete laughed nervously. “Rachel, dear, I’m sure you’ve had a shock with your uncle-”

“Stay. Away. From. Him.” Rachel staggered to her feet, it took her three steps to position herself between her uncle and Pete.

“You troublesome little girl!” Pete roared, throwing himself towards her.

And the fight began.

Ducking, dodging and throwing in a punch wherever she could, Rachel struggled against an opponent she couldn’t even match. The fight took a turn for the worse when Pete slammed her into the French sliding back door.

Her body rebelled, but her eyes focused. In the corner of the kitchen, leading to the basement, Rachel could hear loud thumps and then the door burst open. Calvin charged up and tackled Pete to the ground.

Somewhere, Jeanette screamed. “Stay back!” Rachel shouted, throwing herself into the fray once more. With Calvin’s help, he was easily wrestled to the wall and kept there.

“Can you fry him?” Calvin’s face turned red with the effort of holding his new prisoner immobile.
“No, you’re touching him!”

“I’ll let go.”

“Calvin!”

“Rachel!”

“I can’t-”

“Just zap him!” Calvin barked. “He isn’t human!”

And because there wasn’t much else she could do, Rachel did. She felt her stomach drop as her hands crackled to life and she pushed them firmly into the chest of the struggling man. There was a choked gurgle, then nothing.

Rachel felt herself go numb. "C-calvin?"

Calvin leaned against the wall, panting. “Good job, cuz.” He tried to smile and winced. "Don't worry...it was her or us. This time I think you really got her."

"This time?"

"The last time you just gave her a headache, so she got up again and came back here."

"So what happened to Pete?"

Calvin shrugged. "I don't know. Was there really ever, a Pete?"

Rachel mirrored the shrug, but it took another dose of energy for it. "I don't know either. Unk was always a loner...he didn't do partnerships very well."

"I can see why." Calvin winced again, testing his arm.

“You’re hurt!” Rachel exclaimed, forcing herself to pull energy from the kitchen appliances to allow her to stand up and pull him up beside her. “What happened? Are you okay?”

"He's fine. He's indestructible." Jeanette's trembling voice supplied the information. "That lady tried to kill him!" Her glasses were skewed, her hair a mess. "But he wouldn't die."

Rachel felt her mouth drop open. "Oh, Jeanette!” She beckoned to the girl, sorting through what she'd just heard. "Super-hearing and invulnerability?" Calvin almost smiled.

Jeanette sprinted forward, grabbing them both in a hug. She was babbling incoherently, her arms locked tightly around them both.

“Shhh, hey, it’ll be all right.” Calvin smiled, for her. “It’s okay, kiddo.” He winced again. “Rache, check Unk, I don’t know what she did to him.”

“She?” Rachel turned back to the body, confused. It jerked, twitched and then contorted until it resembled a familiar, slender figured woman. Rachel felt her mouth go dry. “Calvin?” There was something too familiar about it.

“I should have been a little more…honest with you. I was here on business.” He nodded towards her. “She’s an assassin, on my boardwatch. It’s my duty to track her when she deviates from the norm and I’m sorry I made you walk home.”

“and she…deviated?” Rachel ignored the apology. It was the last thing on her mind. “Calvin-elaborate?”

“She got an illegal job.”

“Killing is legal?” Rachel snorted, she was trying to place the body. It was the lady ninja who had found them hiding upstairs. “She didn’t die, did she? That’s how come no one could find the body…”

“Rachel.”

“Okay, fine!” She held up her hands, hurrying to her uncle. “Unk? It’s Rachel, are you okay? Can you hear me?”

“She’s Gatorian.” Calvin said quietly. “And she got what she was here for.”

“What?”

“Allison McVain. I didn't realize-” He gestured helplessly towards Jeanette.

“What?!” Rachel closed her eyes as the understanding dawned. “This is all my fault.”

“How?” Calvin asked, gently. “Look…don’t you have a dinner to go to?”

“I do?”

“Yeah.” Calvin caught hold of Thom’s arm and guided him to the table. “Get yourself out of here and I’ll bring a few Cobras and clean up, okay?”

“Is she really dead?” Rachel’s eyes skittered to the woman’s body. The hair was red at the roots. Her head began to ache terribly. There was someone else she remembered with red hair.

Calvin shrugged. “If you juiced her enough.”

“No, I mean, Ally…Allison.”

“No!” Jeanette burst into tears. “Stop it! Stop talking!”

His head bowed. “Go Rache…I’ll take care of this.”

* * * * * *

When the motorcycle pulled up outside, Rachel stared in disbelief at the shiny red and the familiar logo. “You-!” She started to say, but couldn’t. “You brought my bike back.”

Mark smiled. “I couldn’t take it away from you…just like that. You deserved it, I just needed to get it cleaned and refitted for Waynesburg. And I couldn’t take any chances on it being traced back to you.”

“I didn’t know I was riding a bike.” Rachel stared down at her outfit, a nice silvery, flowing dress, with knee-high boots. “But I guess you did. Was it you or Tess that left these on my bed?” He shrugged. “Nice hint.” She said, sarcastically. “Very subtle.”

“Get on.” He handed her a helmet. “Nice outfit.”

“I have good taste.” She slid her arms around his waist. “So much for my hair.”

“Hold on.” Was his only reply.

They arrived at Bella Vienna in short order. Rachel was surprised to find the parking lot full and as they entered and were led to the private rooms, she realized she’d never asked what it was about. “Uh, Mark?”

“Business.” He said smoothly, as if he’d read her mind. “I’m having dinner with my parents. We have a few things to discuss…though it would go a lot better if we actually had Pysch with us…”

“Us?” Rachel said, flatly.

He perked a brow.

She sighed. “Okay, fine…I’ll get you the report and everything-”

“Later.” He finished. “Just get me the actual product in my hand.”

“What for?”

He smile faintly. “Rachel, I hope you never know the full extent of my powers, but I’ll put it this way, all I need…is to touch it.”

Rachel swallowed. “Gotcha.” She let go of his arm. “I’ll be right back…I’ve got buy a mint.”

“We’ll be through there.” Mark pointed. “The table with the pink carnations. Hurry up.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Rachel patted her hair into place, walking up to the check-out counter. The bored-faced kid staring back at her triggered another image. She swallowed hard. “Hi Marty.” She made her voice sound cheerful. “I’d like a pack of mints, those ginger ones.” She pointed.

The face came alive, hardening into a stone-like expression. “I need to see some ID.”

“Right here.” Rachel pulled out the requested item and handed it over.

“I’m sorry, you’re underage-” Marty began.

“It’s my birthday.” Rachel interrupted, pushing the card into his hand. “And I’m not underage. My mints?”

The cobra tattoo flickered from beneath the thin white dress shirt. Marty hesitated. “I would like-”

“To sell me a pack of gingermints.” Rachel finished. “Now.” She drummed her fingers on the edge of the counter, accenting it with a touch of light blue energy. The lights in the restaurant dimmed and flickered briefly.

Marty jumped. “Right here.” He snatched a box from the rack behind him and punched a few buttons. “Two hundred dollars.” He licked his lips. “Cash only.”

Rachel smiled, reaching into her dainty purse and drawing out two, hundred dollar bills. “Here you go.” She took the mints as she handed over the cash. “Pleasure doing business with you-I hope I don’t have to do it again.” With a sweet smile, she tucked the tin in her purse and turned on her heel, heading for the private rooms.

It took a half-minute to scan for the table with pink carnations and when she finally reached it, she nearly choked. “Crazy dragon lady?” The words tumbled from her lips.

“Little girl.” Pearl greeted. “How nice to see you again, Pearl is most delighted.”

Mark held out her chair for her, then held out a hand. Rachel handed over the tin and the receipt. “Have a drink.” Mark nudged a long-stemmed glass towards her. “It’s sparkling apple cider.” Pearl’s eyes watched the exchange with a darkness about her. “Now-” Mark began. “Is there anything else, either of you would like to say on this subject?”

Pearl twitched and the distinguished gentleman beside her gave a long, loud sigh.

“Good.” Mark said quietly. “You are sure, Mother?”

Rachel choked on her sparkling apple cider. “Mother?”

Mark calmly thumped her on the back. “Yes…and-”

“Don’t tell me, that’s your father?” Rachel took another long swallow, relieved when it traveled smoothly down her throat.

“My father, Ademus.” Mark nodded towards him. “Rachel.”

Ademus tilted his head. “Charmed.”

Rachel frowned. “Ademus?” She swirled the glass lightly. “That’s weird…you know…” Her face paled considerably. “You’re not!” She heard herself say. “You’re absolutely not, you can’t be-”

“I’m not.” Ademus said, agreeably. “Whatever it is. More cider?”

Rachel didn’t want to go there. She smiled weakly. “Actually, I think I’m going to need some air.”
“Take deep breaths and stop thinking.” Mark nudged her foot with his. “Focus, please.” She nodded weakly. The tin was opened and Mark sniffed the contents delicately. “I’m sorry about your Gatorian spy, mother.”

“Pearl knows not what you are referring to.”

“I would offer the body for burial, but she was not taken by a Viper.” Mark frowned. “But the lives of all who have suffered for your carelessness are your responsibility. If you thought bringing Pysch to Earth would drive me back to you, that was your first mistake.” Mark slowly selected a mint and popped it in his mouth.

“NO!” Ademus lurched forward a half-second too late. “Mark!”

Soft blue eyes flashed purple. “I’m fine, father. Please don’t draw attention to us…this is a small town, I would hate for rumors to get around.” A smile touched his face, the first inklings of weariness trickled away. “You both worry too much about me…and I belong to neither of your worlds.” There was a degree of sadness to him that Rachel had never seen before. "I am also extremely disappointed at the way you individually targeted several of my agents."

“Pearl worries because her son is foolish. He throws away good things, to scrobble in the dirty gutters of the streets of the filthy.”

“I’m worried you’re darkening like her.” Ademus interjected.

“And I’m worried you two might end up together again.” Mark retorted. “Please, just do me a favor and stay far away from each other. It makes my life much easier and it goes much smoother when neither of you interfere.”

“We didn’t interfere.” Both parents chorused at the same time. Pearl drew herself up tall, with a sniff. Ademus sighed.

Mark’s pager beeped and he glanced downward. The smile touched his entire face. “Mother, Father…we’ll be going now.”

“You didn’t even buy something for your date?”

“She’s not my date.”

“I’m not his date.”

They exchanged a lot and Mark offered his arm. “I’ll take you somewhere else if you’d like. Shall we?”

“Gladly.” Rachel took his arm. “Um…nice meeting you guys.”

“Are you leaving without me, Mark?” The new voice was musical, with a laugh to it.

Rachel turned to see a near mirror of Mark. She blinked. It would almost him, except for this newcomer was a woman. “Uh…”

“Trish!” Mark dropped his arm to grab the woman in a hug. “That was fast.”

Trish smirked. “As if a teensy bit of Pysch could keep me down.” She laughed. “I am much too stubborn for that and you know it.”

Mark pulled away. “When the Raven and the Viper meet-” He began.

“The Raven grows scales and the Viper loses its fangs.” Trish finished. “Miss me brother? Or did you like running about without a conscience?”

“Trish?” Ademus rose from his seat, wonderingly. “You’ve grown.”

She flashed a smile, tinged with sadness. “It’s been nine years, Father, I’d expect to have changed just a bit. Hello, Mother. Thanks for poisoning me and thank you, Mark, for finding that poison in time for an antidote to be made for me.” She turned to Rachel. “I believe you were instrumental in a great deal of this…adventure.” She stuck out a hand. “Hi, I’m Trish, Mark’s twin sister. Well, actually I’m more his conscience, when I’m around, he’s nowhere near as grumpy as he is now and I make sure that those two stay far away from each other.”

Rachel’s head was swimming, but she was slowly processing the information. “That’s why you wanted it?” She licked her lips. “To save your sister?” She stared at Mark. “I thought you were a-”

“It’s over, Rachel. You can leave it be.”

“Actually, there’s a few things I need cleared up.” Trish frowned at her parents. “We need to talk. But it’ll have to wait, Mother, why don’t you try to steal that new thing that hasn’t reached Mark’s sector yet? And Father, why don’t you annoy that friend of yours? I’ll send you a note when I’m filing the official reports. I’ll distract Mark now and you can go away while he’s busy.” She turned on her heel.Trish caught Rachel’s hand. “C’mon girlfriend. Let’s leave them to trade last words.” She pushed her towards the door. "I'll be right behind you, the silver car's mine."

“You’re not getting off that easy.” Mark frowned. He took another mint from the container and reached across the table to drop it into Pearl’s glass. “Drink up.”

“Mark!” Trish protested. “Is that really necessary?”

“Yes it is.” Mark scowled. “She almost killed you…and she didn’t even care! I’ve killed her two-hundred and seventy-eight times, the seventy-ninth won’t make that much of a difference.”
Pearl smiled, then lifted the glass and downed the contents.

“Do me a favor mother.” Mark said, conversationally. “Don’t try to surprise me by coming back two days or two weeks later. Try something really drastic, like two decades, then I’ll really be surprised.” Pearl’s complexion changed several shades and then her head rolled forward to slam onto the table as her body went limp.

Ademus rose from the table and started towards the door. “Mark!”

“Well?” Mark waited, glad that Trish had taken Rachel outside.

“She’s a good kid.” Ademus said, quietly. “Nice choice, but you have a strange way of courting her. Bringing her to dinner and not eating anything and all that.”

“Maybe if I wasn’t busy saving other worlds and worrying about the human population dying from an alien drug, or trying to make sure my parents stay on opposite sides of the universe, so their respective powers don’t cause a chain reaction that would kill us all, I might actually consider the option of ‘courting’ as you put it and doing it properly.”

“You like her.” Ademus observed.

“Not going there.” Mark interrupted. “Good bye.”

Trish’s laugh echoed in their mental connection. So tell me, brother of mine, who is this Rachel, really and are you truly courting her?

Shut up, Trish. You’re mad. All of you, the whole lot of you…you’re all insane!

* * * * * *

Rachel waited on the front porch, trailing her fingers along the line of her jeans. She was waiting for Mark to come pick her up. She’d welcomed the break from the family hug-fest happening inside the house. Trish had dropped her off so Mark could continue his business dinner.

Allison’s return had brought quite a few changes with it. She’d been in time for her return and her uncle’s immediate proposal. It had taken an effort to keep her tears to herself and then to keep the smile on her face when Allison offered her a chance to stay with them and extended the offer to Calvin as well. A bittersweet feeling had registered as she excused herself for some air.
Mark was bringing her bike. Several minutes later, the bike cruised into the driveway, his silhouette occupying the seat.

“Mark?” Rachel took a deep breath. “I need to ask you a question.” Mark handed her the helmet.

“What?”

“How did Allison-”

“I made her an offer and she agreed to it, so we could catch that alligator scum.” He paused. “and to clear Ben’s name as this…uh, bodysnatcher. Congratulations on your new aunt. Is that good?”

Rachel half-shrugged. “That’s fine. She likes Unk and he likes her and they’re happy, so I guess I’m happy for that. I think the wedding will be soon.”

Mark smiled nodding towards the bike. “You want to drive?”

“I’ll ride.” Rachel climbed on behind him. “You being nice is something I’ll have to get used to.”

“It’s not that hard.” Mark chuckled. “And it’s easier now that Trish is back. Can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear.” Rachel was puzzled as he pulled out of the parking lot. “Oh. Right.” She blushed. “I hear you.”

His laugh echoed in the helmet communicator. “Does this make up for a lousy dinner? Considering that we didn’t actually eat anything-I’m sorry if that was confusing back there. I was a little…overwhelmed.”

“Oh. So why did you ask me along for that…back there?”

He shrugged. “I thought you needed to know a few more of the secrets around the operations, so when I promote you, things will run smoother.”

“P-promotion?” Rachel tried to breathe normally.

“Naturally. You’re an excellent agent, I’m not about to let you slip through the organization just like that. You could help a lot of people.”

“Tell me about these people.”

“It’s pretty simple, actually. There’s several groups…classifications if you wish. We’re Vipers and we’re the second largest. The largest group, the majority, is the Dragons, my mother’s…pets. Below them is my sister’s group, the Ravens, and after them, the Cobras, which are fairly equal almost. There’s the Jaguars and then the Spiders.”

“Wow.”

“It’s not complicated, I know it sounds that way though.”

“So I’m being promoted and I’m getting my bike back?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks.”

“Are you staying in Waynesburg?”

“I don’t know. I guess…but my school’s back home. Allison told me I could stay if I wanted to. She told Calvin the same thing too.”

“Waynesburg is known for being…unusual. There would be plenty of adventures here for you, if you decide to stay.”

“My mother!” Rachel felt her grip around his waist tighten, all thought of things adventurous and unusual had left her mind. “Mark…!”

“She’s fine. She’s home now.”

“That’s it?”

“Pearl did it, I didn’t. It took me awhile to find her, but she was staying with your brothers in Florida and she thought she was doing you a favor by not answering, courtesy of Pearl’s detailed instructions. She’s fine and she likes it down there.”

“She’s okay?” Rachel felt an ache beginning in her eyes again. “I’m glad.”

“You should talk to her…the number’s in your cell and so is Tess’s and Ben’s.”

“Ben’s?”

“You can’t call him yet, but the number’s there. Thanks to the information he left in your mind, I was able to retrieve the hunters after him. The contract has been removed, he will return, shortly, now that he’s been officially recalled from protective exile.”

Thank you, Lord! “That’s the best news I’ve heard all day!”

“All day?”

“Yeah, well, besides Unk getting married and Mom being safely home and getting my bike back and everything. Ben coming back?”

“He’s pretty important to you, isn’t he?”

“He’s the dad I don’t have anymore.” Rachel smiled into her helmet. “The one that understands all my crazy cloak and dagger business.”

“That’s wonderful.” There was laughter in his voice. “I’m glad for you. You have needed some good things to happen. Thank you for that tip, by the way.”

“What?”

“In your head. You didn’t realize, but the excess memories gave me some valuable information…I found the other traitor in our midst.”

“Who?”

“Cherry.” Mark chuckled. “I always wondered why you didn’t like her and how conveniently she showed up after Trish’s illness, but the glimpses of her that you saw, that was the last of the evidence I needed. She was convincing the Cobras to move into our territory and mixing things up so you wouldn’t find Pysch. That’s why you had such a hard time in town, she alerted everyone she had to and put the whole thing in charge of a Kimberly Wallace.”

“The lady at the kennel?”

“Yes. She was the second in command mastermind down here.”

“Mark?”

“Yes?”

“Can we stop talking about this?”

“If you like.”

“I would.”

“Ice cream or dinner?”

“What?”

“I didn’t buy you dinner, but perhaps some dessert, unless you’re really hungry, then we can aim for dinner.”

“Strawberry sundae?”

“Sounds wonderful.”

“Mark?”

“Yes?”

“Can I take my helmet off now? I mean, you are the last person on Earth that would ever crash into anything-”

The helmet disappeared from her head and the cool night air rushed int. The feel of the wind fingering through her hair was the most beautiful moment of the day. Rachel closed her eyes and drank it all in.

No matter how twisted my life is, you still clean it up, smooth it out and set me back on my feet. I love you, Daddy. Always. Even when I forget and you remind me…and thanks, for everything. Even Mark.

"Happy birthday, Rachel."

"Thanks...does this mean I get cake?"

© Sara Harricharan

2 comments:

Joanne Sher said...

Oooh boy. LOVE the whole thing, girl! Love the dialogue, especially, between Mark and Rachel. You are an amazing writer, little girl! Love ya, Sawa!
JJ

Karlene said...

Smooth writing! I obviously missed some installments. I'll have to be sure to read when it hits CT.