Chapter Twenty-Two

Monday, December 14th, 2015

Sasha’s body bucked in protest when Garrett tried to slide his hands under her. “No!” Her fingers probed at the metal strip protruding through her chest. This was bad. This was very bad. Her blood spilled freely to the ground, pooling around her, and Sasha could do nothing to stop it. Even sitting up seemed impossible.

Garrett frantically withdrew his hands. “What do I do? What do you want me to do? Sasha, tell me what to do!”

It hurt to speak. “Garrett,” she moaned. A gurgle followed, rather than the words she had carefully chosen. “Where…where is s…she?”

“Christ, there’s blood in your mouth—”

Sasha shook her head with much effort. “Move, Garrett.”

“Where?”

Sasha did not look up. She gulped, downing the thick, coppery fluid accumulating in her mouth. “Anywhere.”

They were too vulnerable. She was too vulnerable. They needed to get inside as soon as possible, before the Chameleon could wade through the rubble enough to find them. And then they needed to find medical supplies, or Sasha would be dead anyway. Her screaming may have already given them away for all she knew.

“You’re hurt, I can’t lift you,” he reasoned.

Sasha tested the blade driving her in two and steeled herself against another scream. “You…you have to.” She would have said more, but those last few words left her breathless.

“I’ll hurt you—”

“Now!”

He was not gentle, although Sasha assumed he was trying to be. He scooped her up at an inhuman speed, clutching her against his chest to muffle her cry of pain. She kept perfectly still. Her mind was clouded by the agony, but she still searched for a way out. There had to be a way out. There always was.

Garrett sighed with frustration. “There’s people everywhere.”

Her eyes flickered in every direction, taking in the sight of the aghast pedestrians and the construction area they were lucky enough to stumble across. There were three commercial buildings, all in various stages of production, although they all seemed stable enough to hold the two of them. Any workers would have come out to take in the sight of the wreck. Any others could face Garrett for all she cared.

Sasha nodded to the site. “There.”

He did not question her. Holding her close, he ran, ignoring the wails of the onlookers behind them. With every contact between Garrett’s foot and the ground, Sasha’s maimed flesh erupted anew. She felt the blood spilling off of her body.

“Oh God,” he kept saying, looking between her and the door of the building. “We’re leaving a trail.”

“Go.”

Sasha should have cared more that they would easily be tracked by the Chameleon, but her closing window took precedence. She knew what she should have been doing, given the circumstances. She should have been applying pressure to the wound and keeping her eyes open, but there seemed to be some kind of disconnect between her mind and body that forbade it. All she wanted to do was sleep. To give herself over to the peace and quiet that rest offered.

And that was exactly why she refused to do it.

Because, even though she had only delivered death to others hundreds of times, she already knew that this was what it had to feel like. Sasha was losing blood too quickly. Death was creeping into her thoughts, whispering that she should sleep. She refused to give in, especially not to something that she had bested many times in her two decades of life. There had to be another way.

Garrett stopped, shaking Sasha from her thoughts. Her eyes had closed against her will. “What do I do? What do I do?”

He placed her on what had to be a table. It was covered in saw dust. Sasha swallowed blood. Something was very wrong.

“Oh my God. Sasha, tell me what to do,” he pleaded.

Her mind was racing, but she could not tell what she was thinking at the same time. Nothing productive was surfacing. “I don’t know.”

“What?” he looked her over with glassy eyes. “I need bandages. And…um…alcohol. This place is too dirty. It won’t be good for you.”

Sasha cracked a little smile. “I’m going to die.”

“No! No, you’re not,” he insisted. “Just hold on a little longer and I’ll figure it out.”

Sasha did not have a little longer. As much as she hated to think it, the fatigue was becoming too much for even her to fight. Oblivion was so close. Too close. And she was afraid. “Garrett…” If she had the strength, she would have reached for his face. She wanted to touch him. She could not even find words to say what she wanted.

“Stop it, you’re not dying,” he snapped. Under his breath, he continued, “Not again.”

She wished she could have known if she had been Poppy once. The thought came out of nowhere. After all, it did no good to wish for impossible things. She knew that. But now, on the edge of death, did it really matter what she wanted or wished or waited for?

“Garrett—”

“What?” he countered, ripping her shirt enough to display the huge red ring around the sharp steel killing her. “What do I do?”

What would it have been like to be her? Sasha imagined it. She saw herself, sitting in a school cafeteria with a boy that was completely bewitched by her presence. She saw a carefree life, without training or fighting or killing. She wondered if she could have enjoyed a life like that.

“Garrett,” Sasha spat through the blood in her mouth. “Am I her?”

“What?” he hissed. “Now’s not the time, Sasha! We have to think—”

“I wish I was her.”

He froze. “You do?”

She nodded. From far away, she could tell that there were tears running down her face. It was already too hard to ignore how tired she was, but she was accustomed to being strong. “I wish I could be what you want.”

“Stop it, stop talking.” He wrapped his hand around the steel and pulled, but Sasha’s body refused to let go. She sobbed. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry.” His face reflected her tears. Garrett grabbed for her hand, holding it tightly between his larger, much warmer ones. “You’re everything I want.”

She smiled. “I want you, too.”

“That’s why we’re going to figure this out. Just stay with me. We need to think.”

“I can’t—”

“You can and you’re going to. Just think. You’re so smart. Help me think.”

It was too hard. Everything was too hard. How could she think when she could not even stay awake? “I don’t—”

“You’re going to live, Sasha!”

He was talking too fast, she could hardly understand him. Her head was too full. “I’m not strong enough.”

Garrett laughed, albeit shakily. “God, who are you?”

She did not know what to say, so she said it again. “I’m not strong enough.”

“No,” the revelation came over his face like a bright light. “No, but I am. I can save you.”

“What?” she slurred. Her eyes slid shut.

He shook her by the shoulders, snapping her back to semi-awareness. “My blood. If I give some to you, it would heal you. It could save you!”

Something about his blood meant something to her, but the rest of his words got jumbled up in her head somewhere. She only looked at him, smiled again, and closed her eyes.

Wednesday, October 13th, 1993

Somewhere in the building, a door slammed, sending a ripple of echoes my way. A familiar scream followed, pleading wildly, “Let me go! Please! Please, let go!”

“Oh, relax, my dear, it’ll all be over soon,” Summit replied.

“Poppy?” I called, grasping for anything I could reach. I ran faster around the room, hand still poised over the wall. “Poppy?”

I could tell in the dark that her voice was full of tears. “Garrett!”

“Where are you?!” I yelled.

She sobbed loudly, her only answer.

“Where are you?” I was forced to a halt by something flat and hard, bruising my face. I bounced off. “What—”

The lights abruptly turned on, blinding me. I masked my eyes with my palm and found Summit Freeman holding Poppy just before my eyes.  His arms were wound around the woman’s waist, holding her still against him while she reached for me, kicking and screaming. I reached for her, only for my hands to hit the same hard surface my nose had just met. “Baby,” I whispered, knocking on her face.

A mirror.

I looked around, only to find the same picture surrounding me in every direction. Mirrors stood in every direction, reflecting the nightmare before me hundreds of times. The walls were made up of mirrors, the door was covered by mirror, the ceiling, the floor, and everywhere I looked. All I could see was Poppy and Summit. Each one looked the same, but only one would be the real thing. “Pretty isn’t it?” Summit asked over Poppy’s desperate pleas.

I was not in the mood. “What do you want?” I weaved through the mirrors, knocking on each one I passed to be sure that was what it was.

“I want you to stop moving.”

I did not stop, just kept investigating the glass. “You know I can’t do that.”

Summit smiled. “Fine, then she dies right here!”

Poppy’s unintelligible sobbing turned to a series of “No! No!”

I simultaneously froze, finding one reflection to stare at and entreating it to sympathize. “Please, she has nothing to do with this.”

“I think she does, Garrett,” Summit continued. “After all, she’s here isn’t she? You told her about us didn’t you? You made her a part of this!”

I shook my head. “She doesn’t know anything about you, I swear.”

Summit laughed. “Oh. Well, isn’t this awkward. I suppose I shouldn’t have told you all about it, my dear.”

“Just let her go—”

“I’m afraid that would be impossible.”

Poppy was still screaming.

My head was feeling light from the rush of adrenaline in my system. I struggled to speak clearly, wanting nothing more than to run to my wife and leave. Dispatching the weak, mortal man should have been all too easy. “What do you want?”

“I thought you’d realized by now,” the villain hissed, groping the love of my life. “I want you to suffer.”

“It’s done. I’m suffering. I’ll do anything, Freeman,” I swore. “Just give me my wife.”

Summit appeared to consider this for a second. “I suppose I could be persuaded. But I want you to do something first.”

“Anything. Anything.”

“Beg.”

My pride evaporated into thin air. “Please, Freeman—”

“Sir.”

I winced. “Sir, I’m begging you, don’t hurt my wife. I will do anything, if you don’t hurt my wife. Have mercy.”

Summit stood silently, thinking it over. “If you want her, Garrett, come get her.”

I didn’t move. “I did what you told me.”

“And now I’m telling you to come get her.” Summit bowed theatrically. “Now, Psionic Soldier. Do it now or she dies!”

It was all I needed to hear. I spun in every which direction, searching for the flesh and blood image of Summit and Poppy. I could have sworn the scream she released was close, even beside my ear. I swung out at the nearest man, only to imbed my fist and wrist in glass. “Garrett!” she cried, tears marring her face. Her mouth was covered by her captor’s palm.

“Garrett, Garrett, Garrett!” he mocked, shaking his head. “Yeah, Garrett, hurry up, or I might do something you regret.”

Despite the obstruction over her mouth, I could hear her sobbing freely.

I briefly thought that I could use his mind to shatter the mirrors, leaving only the true image in the room with me, but it was too dangerous. The shards would hit Poppy, and that was the last thing I wanted. I could not try anything with Freeman, the slightest hint of funny business would mean certain death for Poppy. Without option, I walked the hall of mirrors, hunting.

I continued to swing, striking another mirror behind me. “Coward, where are you!?”

Summit’s laugh echoed through the facility. “I’m with Poppy, Garrett, you know that. If you work a little harder, I might let you see her again.”

“Let go of her!” Another mirror crashed to the floor.

“I don’t think I will,” the man’s face twisted deeper into a sneer, all anger in his expression turned to dark glee.

My eyes only widened. Summit’s hands were moving, sliding from Poppy’s mouth down to the underside of her jaw and yanking her up to face him. “Get off me!” she whimpered, shoving uselessly at the monster holding her hostage.

Summit placed a kiss on Poppy’s lips, to which she fought and cried in protest. “I can see why you like this one, Garrett.”

“Don’t touch her!”

My plea was useless. “It really is a shame, though.”

I struck another dead end, finding myself buried in another pane of cold glass. “Don’t hurt her.”

“Or what?” Summit got a better grip around Poppy’s head.

I choked when I tried to swallow. Poppy was still screaming my name, scared, and it was making it hard to think. Garrett, Garrett, Garrett.

“I’ll come back to work for you!”

Summit grinned victoriously but did not loosen his grip. “Too late.”

“Garre—” Poppy was cut off by the sharp crack of her breaking neck.

Time stopped around me. My head pounded along with the harsh beat of the heart in my chest and then stopped altogether, just like hers. Each inhale was like a scream in my ears, but it was the only thing I could hear at all. It was the only thing that assured me that I had not somehow ended up underwater. Or in molasses. I could not move.

The sound of the crack replayed in my head. Or was that really happening? I could hardly stand to see. Could hardly stand at all. No, no, no, no, no… Was I speaking out loud or in my head? The ache in the back of my throat told me I might have been screaming.

Summit, or one of his many reflections, released Poppy. She crumpled to the floor unnaturally, limp limbs flailing out and around her. I did not see where Summit left to, only that he was there one minute and the next I was alone with the shell of my wife. The world slowly came back into focus around me I shook myself to awareness. “Poppy?”

She did not answer.

I approached her slowly, only to smack my face against the cool surface of another mirror. I turned to another Poppy and hit another mirror. “Christ!” I shrieked, flinging my fists wildly into mirror after mirror. There were so many. Sweat beaded up on my face, tears welled up in my eyes, and I shoved the final standing mirror to the floor. Glass erupted around me, tearing my clothes and skin, which frantically scrambled to heal itself. It didn’t stop me.

I faced the true image of my love on the floor. Her face was still, eyes shut like she had fallen asleep, a sight I was all too familiar with. Her hair was splayed in every direction, covering her mouth and nose. Her legs were bent underneath her. Her chest had abruptly ceased rising long ago.

My knees gave out beneath me. Words failed me. I just shook her shoulder lightly at first, then harder when she still gave no sign of waking. “Baby?” I whispered, just as I would to get her up in the morning. Still ignored, I grew annoyed. “Baby.”

The tears in my eyes made it difficult to see, and they only fell harder and faster. I lifted her up by her shoulders so her face would be in line with mine and studied her. Poppy’s head lolled back and away from me, too heavy for her broken neck to support. She still looked like she was sleeping.

It was there, holding her on the floor, that I came to the realization. She was still warm, but that would be short-lived. Her face would never light up. Eyes would never open. Smile would never shine on me again.

I did not care about where Summit had gone or what he would do next. All that mattered in the world was that I loved Poppy. And now she was gone.

“I’m sorry,” I whimpered. My heart felt like it had dropped to my feet. My entire body must have been falling to pieces. “I’m so sorry.” The ceiling of mirrors shattered under the weight of my mind’s influence, raining glass bits down on me.

I embraced her tightly, hoping it would hold me together like she never would again, but it did not help. Nothing would.

Chapter Twenty-One

Wednesday, October 13th, 1993

“Don’t drop me!” Poppy shrieked, flailing her legs.

I rolled my eyes, clutching my new bride closer while I carried her toward the house. The place was not very impressive, it was all we could afford with the money I had snuck from Freeman’s account and her relatively small income, but it was big, enough for the two of us and, eventually, a few kids. For the down payment, we had needed a little help from her parents. But, no matter the way it had come into our possession, it belonged to us now.

“I’m not going to drop you,” I vowed, shifting her to one arm so I could throw open the front door. As so many other couples had done before us, I carried her over the threshold, placing a wet kiss to her mouth. She squealed, wrapping her arms around my neck. I kicked the door shut.

The living room had been filled with furniture while we had been gone on the honeymoon. Photos of the wedding hung, framed, around the room, along with a few others Poppy’s father had chosen. The man had done too much; he had even paid for the honeymoon to Cancun, an experience I hoped to recreate one day, when I made the money on my own. I looked around the room for a moment before I broke away from Poppy, lowering her to the floor. “Wow.”

She looked around for the first time. “Yeah, he really outdid himself.”

“Tell me about it,” I said, looking around the room with a sense of inferiority.

“It’s a wedding gift, Garrett, enjoy it.”

She took my hand, leading me further into the home. The walls were desperately in need of a fresh layer of paint, it was clear that the previous owners had not taken good care of the place, but I could easily complete that task within the hour. “A number of wedding gifts. I’ll never be able to pay him back.”

“He doesn’t expect you to,” she insisted, embracing me and forcing me through the room. Her meek, mortal strength was nothing in comparison to what I was capable of, but I allowed her to shove me around.

“It must’ve cost so much.”

“Oh, relax,” she laughed. “That armchair was in our garage. It’s not all new.”

I suspected she was lying, but I could not call her on it. “If you say so.” She clutched one of my large hands in both of hers, yanking me toward the stairs.

“I do. Come look at the upstairs. It’s gorgeous!”

I grinned, bounding up the staircase. “I know you are. I don’t need the reminder.”

As usual, her face pursed, her eyes rolled, but her smile remained completely intact. “The rooms,” she reminded me unnecessarily. “They’re gorgeous.”

“Oh. Right. Sorry, I forgot.”

She stopped me for only a second to peck my lips. “Love you.”

“I love you, too,” I sang, teeth bared. She did not let me finish before she was dragging me up again. I tripped, catching her foot on the way down, and sent us both sprawling across the floor. She laughed first, shrieking, and I followed, curling her into a hug before I helped her to her feet.

It was amazing to me what difference a single person and a few years could make. All of my life had consisted of misery, responsibility, and caution while he lived with my mother. Before my father had left, I had suffered through the nightly fights, screaming, and cursing between my parents, keeping me awake, giving me nightmares, and ostracizing me from his classmates. Misery was a term I knew well. And that was only before my mother had given up.

Given up on work, given up on sobriety, given up on life, and given up on me.

Becoming a hero had given me a sense of purpose I did not know I would ever feel in my lifetime. Marrying Poppy had made me happy.

It was something so many people took for granted, to be able to feel perfect contentment all day and every day. To look forward to the future. And I could finally say that I was among one of those who could say that I longer looked forward to the end of the day, when I could finally sleep. My waking dream, my life with Poppy, had become so much better than unconsciousness had ever been. And I was loving it, every minute of it.

And I knew without a shadow of a doubt that life with her would only get better.

“I’m sorry,” I said, carrying her to the landing. “Completely accidental, I swear.”

“Sure, sure,” she muttered, tapping my nose. “Put me down!”

I obliged, daintily placing her on her feet. “Fine! Lead the way, baby.”

She did so without a word, bringing me to the first door. “Are you ready for this one?”

“Yes.”

“Are you absolutely sure about that? It’s pretty intense.”

I rolled his eyes, a mannerism we seemed to share. “Yes, Pop, I can handle it.”

She smiled. “Good. Brace yourself.” She struck the door with her shoulder, opening it with more effort than was probably necessary. “It sticks.”

The room was clearly a nursery, and a heavily furnished one at that. An oak crib was front and center, sitting below a colorful mobile of butterflies. Matching dressers, a changing table, and a foldable playpen lined the walls. The walls, again, needed paint, but the place was beautiful. I looked from Poppy to the room around us, halfway between the point of smiling and crying.

“Are you trying to tell me something?” I inquired.

She stroked my face. “I’m not pregnant.”

The disappointment that filled my stomach was a shock. “Okay.”

“But I want to be.”

Words did not come easily, but the look on my face said everything I knew she wanted to hear. I wanted it, too.

I lifted her easily up to my level, peppering her with kisses. She giggled and returned each one with equal fervor. “Bedroom?” she gasped. “Should we move into the bedroom?”

I nodded. “Lead the way.”

She held my hand, bringing mw across the hall to another door. She did not hesitate with another dramatic entrance, we were both beyond that point, and shoved her way in. I was quick to follow, holding her by the waist until we had made it to the bed. I looked up for only a minute through my efforts at removing her clothes and froze.

“Honey?” she whispered, reaching for my face. “You okay?”

“What’s that?” I demanded, pointing to the black box on the dresser.

“A television.”

“Does it work?”

She laughed, sitting up so her shirt would open and fall around her. I kept my mouth closed, but it was a losing battle. “Of course it works,” she said. “Why would I get you a television that doesn’t work?”

“I’ve just never had one in my room before.”

She smiled in such a way that I felt like a kicked puppy. “Well, now you do. I promise it will be the least of the wonderful things I’ll force on you. Now, where were we?”

I loved her enthusiasm. It was contagious. “Can I turn it on?”

“If you’d like. Go ahead!”

As much as I did not want to move away from her, I stood, going to the television. A single button brought it to life. The voices of whatever was playing in that moment greeted me before the picture did, and, whatever it was, it was screaming.

“—at a standstill. Ten blocks have been evacuated on either side of the building and police have diverted traffic away for the public’s safety. The police have advised that everyone in the Newark and Trenton areas please stay inside until the alert has passed.”

The picture appeared, displaying a younger man at a desk, reporting the news. The live footage of a Newark street played in the corner of the screen. Police milled about, setting up barriers at intersections. I stood up straighter, recognizing the news I’d been watching religiously since I had taken on my vigilante responsibility. “How do I make it louder?” I asked.

Poppy threw herself off the bed, running to turn up the volume.

“It is unknown at this point whether this mystery criminal has left bombs anywhere else, but we have been assured by the police department that every effort is being made to locate and end this threat,” the anchor went on.

“Bomb?” I repeated.

“Garrett,” Poppy mumbled pointing to the screen. A building had appeared in the center of the footage, marked off by crime scene tape. The corner of the brick walls was destroyed toward the bottom, ruining the foundation with what must have been a previous explosion. Beside the hole, scrawled in black spray paint, read, Psionic Douchebag.

“Well, I’m sorry to cut our evening short, my dear,” I said, kissing her cheek.

Poppy pulled her shirt off the bed. “Garrett, no! Please, stay.”

“They’re calling me, Poppy, I’ve got to go.”

“Exactly,” she whimpered. “There’s a bomb, and they’re calling you. They’re trying to hurt you, please don’t go.”

I combed her hair with my fingers, hugging her to my side. “They can’t hurt me. No one can hurt me but you.”

“You don’t know that.”

I kissed her nose. “I’ll be back before you know it.” When she tried to protest, I kissed her lips, softly. She kissed back, holding my head in the hopes that it would keep me from leaving. I pulled away only to breathe. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

This time, she said nothing. She could only nod.

“It’s what I do. It’s what I’m good at. I’ll be okay.”

She bit her lip. “You were never okay. You’re always perfect.”

I said the same for her, but maintained my statement nonetheless. I dressed quickly for the event, took the car, and made my way toward Newark.

I had hidden the car in a parking garage a few blocks away, as the police had blocked off anything closer than that. The chief of police stood behind a series of blockades and a wall of cars before the building I was searching for. I went to him first, masked face to face.

“Was wondering when you’d show up,” the man said. “Long time, no see.”

I shrugged. “I’ve been on vacation. What’s the story?”

“The first bomb went off at eleven, killed two. Police investigated, found another, a bigger one, in the basement. Bomb squad’s not due for another hour. I take it you saw the message?”

I chuckled, nodding to my mock name above. “It’s pretty hard to miss.”

“I figured you would. What’s your plan?”

“The building’s trash and it won’t survive, but I want to check out the basement. Whoever it is obviously wanted me here. I want to see what they left for me. I’ll wait for the professionals to deal with the bomb. I wouldn’t want to cause any more damage.”

“By all means.”

I left it at that. I strode, head high, passed the ranks of officers surrounding the building and through the opened door. Dust littered the walls, the floors, and the furniture, all having fallen from the ceiling in the explosion. I ignored the destruction as best I could, wading through the garbage on my way to the basement.

The bomb was easily recognizable against the furthermost wall.

“Damn,” I whispered, approaching the box cautiously, preparing myself to lunge at it, and wondering if I would heal as I normally did if my limbs were torn from my person. I really hoped so; that was likely to be my fate down there. I didn’t regret the decision yet; I took a few calculating steps in its direction. So far, no tricks. It almost wasn’t worth tearing myself away from my wife for.

A fierce beep erupted from the bomb, startling me into stillness. Then, a cell phone rang.

It was easy to find, the light it emitted broke the darkness, but it was an unknown number that was calling. When I did not answer, a voicemail notification surfaced in its place, the next in a line of six. I opened the phone, searching for the voicemails that had been left, all by the same number. I played the first.

An unintelligible scream broke the silence. A scream I knew well. “Get off me! Don’t touch me!”

Poppy.

“Oh my God,” I said as it ended.

The next was of someone else. “Good afternoon, Mr. Daniels. I think you know where I am, and I think you know who I have with me.”

Next. “You should hurry, Garrett.”

Next. “I hope you’ve enjoyed my diversion, Garrett, but you should really get moving.”

There was a loud boom from the box before me. In an eruption of flame, I was propelled across the room and the building collapsed.

Chapter Twenty

Monday, December 14th, 2015

Sasha looked away from the road for the fifth time in the last two minutes to place a silencing hand on Garrett’s chest. “Quiet, Daniels.”

“What’s wrong?”

That truck. Sasha recognized that truck behind them as it got closer and closer to their bumper on the long stretch of road. Still, it was not close enough for her to make out the digits on the license plate. She said nothing as she searched for a turn in the road. For as far as she could see, the only obstruction in the brush on either side of the street was a single construction complex on her right. “I think we are being followed.”

Garrett immediately spun to look out the rear window. “Where?”

“Do not look back. If they see we are aware of them, they will attack.”

Garrett returned to his seat. “Pull over.”

“Absolutely not. If Contagion is with her, we are both in grave danger. Our best chance is to lose them on the road. If it is them.”

Garrett placed his hand on the door’s handle, coiled to jump. “I could throw them off the road before them come close. You wouldn’t have to worry about them—”

“Do not leave this car!”

Sasha jerked the wheel, turning into the construction site without warning. She practically stood, bracing herself against the window. Garrett held tight to the door, but he still managed to fall partially into her lap. “Christ! Slow down.”

Sasha stared into the rearview mirror. The truck made a similarly uncalled for turn into the complex at speeds that brought it closer to them. Her foot had already floored the gas; there would be no speeding up. They were still coming closer. “Hold on.”

“I can’t hold on any tighter.”

The screech of metal on metal preluded the crash. Sasha’s stolen car quaked and her control over the wheel was lost. The world around them spun before her eyes, turning the world on its side, upside down, and then right-side up again. Sasha felt her heart jump into her throat as she realized that the car was flipping into the air.

“Sasha!” Garrett screamed, undoing his seatbelt to grab for her.

The car landed on its wheels, but only just barely. It idled on its side for a moment before settling, rattling its occupants. Sasha held her head. Everything was moving too fast. Her heart beat wildly in her chest and she felt dizzy.

“Are you alright?” Garrett demanded.

“Fine.”

Sasha tested the steering but the wheels would not move. She stomped on the gas, eliciting a roar from the engine, but the wheels spun deeper and deeper into the loose dirt beneath them. Power steering was lost. They were stuck.

“What’s wrong?”

Sasha shook her head. “We have to get out of here. Now, Daniels.”

Garrett threw his door open with a speed that could only be described as inhuman. Sasha grabbed for her door, but was temporarily captivated by the sight that met her through the windshield. The truck was stopped a few hundred feet before them, lights on and glaring into Sasha’s face. Through the windows, she could see amber eyes in a lizard-like face. The Chameleon.

“Sasha, come on!” Garrett cried.

She was not paying attention. Her head was reeling with all the possibilities of escape routes. None that came immediately to her mind boded very well for either of them. To stay in the car meant death. To get out of the car meant death. She knew her skills to be unmatched by mortal men, but she was not so conceited that she thought herself able to outrun a car.

“We are stuck,” she mumbled.

The truck’s engine bellowed a similar roar.

“You’re about to be worse if you don’t get out of the car, Sasha!” he snapped.

The truck lurched into motion. Sasha’s choices were evaporating into thin air. To leave meant to be chased down like a dog and crushed under the wheels. At least, in the car, there was a metal barrier between her and the Chameleon. Keeping that in mind, she pulled the seatbelt tighter against herself, gripped her chair in both hands, and braced herself for impact.

“What’re you doing!” Garrett growled.

The Chameleon steered for her, pushing the vehicle to speeds that made it cough and creak. Garrett looked between her and the car coming for her. Cursing loudly, he reached through the passenger’s side door to fumble for her seatbelt. She slapped his hands away. “Go, Daniels!”

She could not have braced herself for the impact between the two cars. The windshield shattered in a split second, showering her with glass, and the hood of the vehicle folded like a tin can. She covered her face with both arms. Each glass bit clawed at her like a knife, shredding her forearms. Something stung around her midsection.

Garrett was thrown from the door upon impact. Sasha’s face struck the steering wheel. Dazed, she laid there, tallying the injuries she could feel popping up along her flesh. The airbag deployed, throwing her back into her seat. She stifled her groan. Blood trickled along her nose and cheeks. Her legs felt compressed by the crushed front of the car.

Then, finally, all was quiet.

Sasha did not dare to make a move. The Chameleon would come for her at any second, or maybe she would not, she seemed much more interested in Garrett anyway, but if she came, Sasha was committed to making herself as inconspicuous as possible. All she could hope was that the creature would not have a gun and put a bullet in her head while she laid there. A car door slammed shut, too close. Sasha slowed her breathing, stifling her desire to search outside for Garrett.

She heard it against the car’s frame when the Chameleon’s claws rested near her head. Sasha kept very still. She held her breath. After ten seconds that felt like an eternity she sensed that she was alone. As time rolled on seeing her so still, the pain her midsection began to nag. Her fingers prodded at her stomach, searching for the problem.

“Sasha.”

She held in her scream. Jerking her head toward the window, she relaxed at the sight of Garrett, grabbing at her seatbelt. “Where is she?”

“Looking for me. Have you lost your mind? You could’ve been killed, you should’ve been killed. Why would you stay—?”

The pain was becoming more insistent by the moment. It took her breath away. “Daniels, she’ll hear you.”

“Get out of the car, we have to move.”

The door was crushed. “It will not open…” She trailed off, clutching his shoulder for support.

“Are you okay?”

“It hurts.” Garrett pulled at the door, yanking it off its hinges with a shriek. She could not hush him, her lungs would not allow for it. As he fought back the airbag, she shook her head back and forth. She repeated, “It hurts.”

“Oh my God,” he gasped.

Well, she mused, that cannot be good. She let her gaze fall into her lap, but she could not see that far. A metal shard protruded from her abdomen, drawing blood into the black material of her sweater and pinning her to the leather upholstery.

Chapter Nineteen

Monday, December 14th, 2015

It had taken hours to get him to shut up his boyishly optimistic crowing, though it was only with bad news. Sasha had tuned him out long ago. She had her own thoughts to work out.

Summit could not have known that Canis was a freak like the others. It was not possible. If he did, that would mean that he had known about Contagion and the Chameleon’s existence and had not told her. He was her best friend. Her only friend. He told her everything.

At least, she thought he did.

Summit was a liar, even if she had thought herself immune from it long ago. Her resemblance to Garrett’s Poppy was too striking to be a coincidence. Somewhere in all of this, she could feel that her father had withheld something from her.

The expanse of trees thinned, threatening to reveal them to the brightly lit outside world. Sasha stopped, halting Garrett as well. “What?” he asked.

“We ran out of forest.”

“So? Don’t you know the way?”

“Of course. My problem is that my face is broadcasting on every news channel from here to London and I am without my mask. If someone sees me, they will call the cops and our excursion will be over.”

Garrett rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. His chest puffed out a bit. “As much as I respect the police, I would not be worried about them if I were you.”

“I think you would be opposed to killing them if it came to it.”

“Why does it always have to come to it?” he hissed.

“You said you would do anything for me. You killed for me already—”

“And I meant it. I’m only implying that there could be an alternative to just killing anyone that gets in your way.”

Sasha chuckled. “Right. An alternative. They will throw me in jail, Garrett. What are you prepared to do then?”

“I have some sway with the police.”

“Correction: you had some sway with the police, but I would say a vast majority of them are retired or dead by now. If you really want to help me, then please find me a way to keep hidden.”

He bit his lip. “We need a car.”

“Best thing you have said all day.”

“Do you…” he began. “Um…I’m assuming you know how to hotwire a car?”

“Hmmm, I love it when you talk stealing. Unfortunately, no. It never came up in my course on practical skills. Usually, I just stab the driver and take it.”

“Of course you do,” he deadpanned. “I guess I’ll take care of the car, then.”

“If you think you can handle it.”

They waited until midday to seek out a car, by Sasha’s demand. It would be easy to blend in then, and plenty of cars to choose from. She kept to the shadows while he did his work.

Garrett stood beside her for a long time, watching the cars go by. She could practically feel the regret pouring off of him, more than likely wondering why he had agreed to sign on for such a horrendous dead.

First eggs, now this?

Sasha chuckled to herself but Garrett was not amused. “Are you ready to jump in?”

“I am ready whenever you are,” she countered with a roll of her eyes.

He chose a bland, four-door piece of garbage. It was not at all what she would have chosen for herself, but she would not complain. Not when they were so close to making it home. He threw himself into the road ahead of it, causing the driver to veer into the next lane. The other cars driving alongside of it honked and skittered in every direction.

“Sir, I need your car!” Garrett yelled, smashing his fist repeatedly into the hood with enough force to make a dent.

Sasha figured that was her queue. She walked casually toward him, just as he pulled open the car door.

The old man in the driver’s seat looked confused. “I’m not supposed to, it’s my brother’s car and—”

“Please, get out of the car!” Garrett cried.

She had to suppress the guffaw in her throat. “Your way looks very efficient, Garrett.”

He scowled at her.

“I just need to pick up milk, my wife wants cereal—”

“Get out of the car!”

Sasha approached the man, fisting her hand in the material of his winter coat. She tossed him out onto the asphalt. Another car honked and veered around him, but she did not look to see if he had been struck.

Garrett pouted. “You said you’d let me do it.”

“I thought I would save you the humiliation of the worst carjacking in history. You should thank me for it. It was pathetic.”

“We’re stopping traffic.”

“Then get in the car.”

Saturday, February 8th, 1986

I ducked, covering the boy with the top half of my body when the ceiling creaked and dropped another plank and surge of embers. The kid screamed, curling into me, despite his initial reluctance to follow. It took no more effort for me to cradle him to my chest, but the plank collapsed me for a mere second. My spine suffered what must have been a break, but it repaired itself almost instantly. “Shh, shh,” I whispered.

The kid was beyond the point of being comforted.

The fire was fairly run of the mill. Assumed electrical. No foul play was suspected. Unfortunately, the building was four stories high and full of apartments which meant full of families, as most of the buildings in Newark seemed to.  I’d arrived without Poppy only fifteen minutes ago, despite her begging and pleading to come along. I’d insisted on leaving her behind, knowing I would not be able to concentrate if I was worried about her outside.

The large collection of blaring sirens and lights had been enough of a beacon to lead me into downtown Newark, but that was my goal in the first place. In addition, the smoke stack rising from the flames spelled bad news. The police had been afraid of me, even raising their guns when I approached. “Excuse me,” I had said, turning to the fire.

“Don’t move!” It was more than one officer that made the demand, but I did not falter in my steps toward the building.

“I said don’t move!” another announced.

When I still did not stop, there was a shot. There was a sharp pain in my shoulder, followed by the warmth of blood flowing down my back. Then, it was gone.

“Hold your fire!”

I was unmoved. I turned to them, finding faces in varying degrees of shock. A light clink of metal on concrete drew my attention downward. A bullet lay at my feet, flattened. I presumed from the impact to my back.

“I said,” I countered, “excuse me.”

A loud explosion echoed behind me. Firefighters flooded from the front door like water, coughing up bits of the air from the building. “Third floor is collapsed. Stairs are gone. There’s no way we’re getting up there,” one reported, unable to see me through the smoke.

Someone was screaming high above us.

“Is that a kid?”

“The first and second floor are clear, there’s no way to get any higher.”

A woman threw herself through the crowd, shoving strangers out of her way. “My son,” she shrieked in heavily accented English, “my son, it’s my son! He’s on the fourth floor!”

The leader of the squad of police peeled his eyes off me only enough to hold her back from the apartments. “Ma’am, I need you to calm down.”

Another scream from the fourth floor window pushed me back into motion. “Don’t move, freak!”

“Mommy!” the kid screamed again. It was all the motivation I needed.

There had been a few more shots before I entered the building, all of which fell uselessly to the ground. A burst of fire exploded from the front door as I entered, torching my skin, but it repaired itself as quickly as it came. “I’ll be right back,” I promised, looking at the woman who did not look back, still screaming in the captain’s face.

Inside the lobby was a hell even I had never seen before. The walls were black where they were not engulfed by flame, but that was not much. The hall was separated on both sides by four apartments, each with their doors open, and the stairwell was just passed them, against the left wall. Fourth floor. Knowing that they would be unstable, I dove across the room, throwing open the entrance to the only stairwell. The steps were crumbling, even at the very bottom. My first step put my foot through the wood.

“Crap,” I growled, viciously extricating myself from the splinters. I tested the step above that. Even in its prime it did not seem very sturdy, but it held my weight with a loud creak of protest. I was just as careful with every step above that, bringing me up to the second floor. And that was where I stopped, because the next flight of stairs was laid out in a pile of lit wooden shards on the ground. “Alright…it’s fine. I can work with this.”

The third floor’s landing looked to be about ten…maybe twelve…feet above my head. Getting up should have been easy, my main concern was that it, too, would crumble beneath my hands. Pushing the thought to the back of my mind, I crouched low, putting all of the strength I could into my legs, and threw myself up and over the ledge of the third floor. The ground beneath me groaned, threatening to drop me. The last flight of stairs was just as reluctant to hold me, but I managed to makes my way to the top floor, coughing and sputtering from the smoke hanging around me.

My eyes, thankfully, did not burn as badly as my lungs. “Hello?” I called into the dark.

There was no answer.

I yelled, “Hello?”

“I’m here!” someone called back.

I followed the sound down the hall to one of the furthermost doors. “Where are you?”

“Here! I’m here.”

Really helpful. Throwing aside the door, I entered the apartment. “Follow my voice! I’m at the door.”

“I’m scared!”

“I know, but you’ve got to trust me.”

I squinted through the smoke, watching the small body detach itself from the closet.

“Follow me. I’m here,” I continued, waving to him.

Tears were streaming down the small boy’s eyes. The smoke was almost too thick for me to see him, and vice versa. When he was close enough to get a good look at me, he stopped. Shaking his head, the kid took a few steps back, ready to run.

“No, no, no,” I pleaded. “Come here, I’m here to help you!”

The kid just kept backing up, kept shaking his head. Then, the roof gave way.

I threw myself the few feet it would take to reach him, covering him with my massive body. The flaming planks came down on my spine with a force that would have paralyzed a mortal, but I was resilient, and I threw the fallen ceiling from us instantly. The child cried, clinging to my suit, though he desperately seemed to want to get away.

“Shh, shh,” I urged, looking for the fastest way out.

The ground was next to go, sending us falling to the third floor with a duet of screams. I held tight to the boy. “Hey,” I whispered soothingly, leaning back to look at my companion. The boy, however, was not listening. “Hey!”

Shocked, big brown eyes gazed up at me.

“What’s your name?”

“D…David.”

I smiled, even if it was not visible through the mask. “Nice to meet you, David. I need you to give me a hand, okay? I need you to hold on tight so I can get us out.”

David obliged, taking as much of the material of my costume into his little hands as he could. No sooner did the floor collapse, sending the building down in a heap around us. The weight was extreme, even for Garrett, but it was nothing in comparison to the impact of my forearms hitting the cement foundation. David fit himself into the curve of my chest, pressing his head against my bicep.

Screams echoed around us, muffled by the stack of wood and flaming debris crushing my back. My abnormal strength was not enough to get us free, but it was not my only option. I called forth the knowledge I had so far used only for parlor tricks, like lifting the blankets for Poppy, and let my mind dig us out of our shallow grave.

“Wait! What’s that?”

I willed the ruins to throw themselves away from us and they did. Within moments, precious sunlight became visible again. We gulped the fresh air the moment it was available, facing the reporters and emergency services with faces that explained our exhaustion better than words. The ruin that had only just been crushing us remained floating above our heads.

 

Chapter Eighteen

Sunday, December, 13th, 2015

Sasha should not have been shocked anymore. Seeing the Chameleon and Contagion after a night of fighting a genetically engineered superhuman should have been the icing on the cake, but she found herself much more concerned by the wolf that had been in their possession.

A wolf that could turn into a child.

A wolf that bore a striking resemblance to her father’s pet.

She was quiet as they slowed to a walk. The sticks and rocks littering the floor clung to her bare feet. It was unpleasant, but it was the furthest thing from her mind. Garrett did not speak. With every passing moment, his face just seemed to turn a deeper shade of green. He refused to release her hand.

The man crumpled to the ground, dragging Sasha with him.

“Garrett?” she gasped with too much concern. “What is wrong? Were you hit?”

He shook his head. Before Sasha could speak again, he turned onto his hands and knees and unleashed a torrent of vomit onto the ground. She cringed away, but his hand held tight. When it was clear that she would not be getting away, Sasha placed her free hand on Garrett’s back. While he released the contents of his stomach, she rubbed soothing circles into his shoulders.

He had killed for her. A young boy lay dead a few miles back because Garrett could not stand to see her hurt. She felt…strange.

“Are…are you alright?” she asked, awkwardly brushing her fingers through his knotted, blonde hair.

“I haven’t killed anyone in twenty years.”

She did not know what to say. He sat up and leaned heavily against her side, but Sasha said nothing.

“I guess you wouldn’t understand,” he chuckled. “You kill people all the time, don’t you?”

“You get used to it.”

Sasha could not tell what she was feeling anymore, but she supposed guilt was close. But guilt for what? Rejecting him? She had been rejecting him almost every hour since she met him, why did she feel so bad about it now?

“We have to keep moving, Garrett.”

“I can’t,” he mumbled. “I killed that kid.”

“He was hardly a kid. Do not think such things if they upset you.”

Garrett dropped his face into his hands. “He looked like he was eight years old, Sasha. You saw him!”

“And how were you supposed to know that the animal was going to turn into a child? It was defensive. You were helping me.”

He raised his head. “I would do anything for you.”

A warm tingle went through Sasha’s body despite the chill in the air. The sincerity in his voice was clear and his nose was so close to hers that she could feel the warmth dancing between them. His eyes grew heavy, roving over her face from her lips to her eyes. His pupils expanded with desire, as she had seen many others’ do before.

She pondered whether her eyes did the same.

He leaned in, brushing his lips against hers. She let him, but she told herself that she did not enjoy a second of it.

But, whether or not that was a lie had yet to be determined.

Garrett’s eyes were closed. Sasha did the same, but behind her lids, she could not shake the image of the boy lying dead in the grass. She wrenched her head back, ignoring the regret that ran down her spine.

She wanted to kiss him again. It was becoming much harder to tell herself that she only wanted him for his powers.

“What’s the matter?” he pleaded, gripping her chin between his thumb and forefinger.

“Something is wrong.”

“I’m sorry, I thought…” he mumbled. “You looked like you wanted to. I should’ve asked you—”

“No. That’s not it.” That wolf. It could not have been a coincidence. “The wolf that attacked me was familiar.”

“You’ve seen it before?” She nodded. “When?”

She knew what he would say before she had even gotten the words out. “In my father’s home.”

“Of course!” he snarled, pulling himself to his feet. “I knew he had to have something to do with this!”

As he stalked off, she called, “Where are you going?”

“To ‘your father’s’ house!”

“You do not know where it is.”

He growled, “Then take me to him. You’ve got to want answers just as badly as I do!”

“Answers about what? We cannot be sure that my father knew the creature was…different. For all we know, it could have been stolen!”

“What do I have to tell you to make you realize that he is not what you think he is?”

She knew what he was. Summit was a killer. A liar. A thief. But she highly doubted that he would keep something of this magnitude a secret from her for twenty years. Canis was a strange looking animal, but she had only seen him around the manor in the last year. Summit collected strange things, it was hardly enough time for him to build a trust with the beast.

“No. He did not know.”

Garrett pulled at his unkempt hair. “He isn’t even your father!”

“We do not know that!”

She bit her tongue. She should not have said that, the proof was in the way his face lifted. “You’re remembering, aren’t you?”

“No.” What was the sake in lying to him? He had to sense the confusion in her every look. She could feel herself…changing. “It does not make sense, and I should not, but…”

“But?”

“Something is not right.”

It should not have made sense. She did not know how Summit would have put fake memories in her head of being starved at a desk. Of falling asleep at the table waiting for the answer to a question to come to her so she could be gifted with a box of raisins for dinner. She did not know if such a thing were possible. All she knew was that he knew something about Poppy, and it could not have just been a coincidence that she bore such a striking resemblance to Poppy Daniels.

He was lying to her, but she would make him tell her the truth.

Saturday, February 8th, 1986

“It’s too bright,” Poppy said of my third drawing, flipping passed my newest imagining of the suit we were about to sew me into. Unfortunately, I could not get the mask just right. And if I could not get the mask just right, I could not get the suit.

I chuckled, putting down the red colored pencil I was using. “You said that about every color.”

“They were all too bright.”

“Then what would you suggest?”

Poppy tapped her pencil against her bottom lip, looking to her sketchpad. “Let’s get the shape first. Then we’ll try the color.”

I silently agreed, beginning the hours of work we would be putting into another version of the suit. “I’m not really concerned about how it looks, Pop.’ Practicality should be number one.”

“And it will be. That doesn’t mean you have to run around looking like you picked something up at Party City.”

I laughed, kissing her again. I just could not seem to stop doing that now. All of the weight Summit had dropped on my shoulders had evaporated into the air, and, for once, I did not care whether our new house was taken, or our shiny new possessions were repossessed. So long as Poppy was around, that was enough.

“Focus,” she giggled, turning her head away from me.

I obliged, albeit reluctantly.  The costume had been her idea; it certainly had not been my first choice to fight crime like a second-hand Superman in skin-tight spandex, but she had high hopes for the public’s opinion of my cloaked alter ego. Personally, I would have been fine with hiding under the hood of a sweatshirt.

We settled with solid black, which would have been easy enough to make in my bedroom in a night, along with red slits where the eyes would be. So long as we found a material that would not catch fire or tear too easily, I could take care of the practicality on my own. My enhanced body could take care of itself, I really just needed something to hide my face from the public. And if it made the public recognize me as a hero, Poppy had me convinced that that was just a bonus.

By the time the suit itself was sewn, it was like a second skin, clinging to me tighter than my underwear. We had opted to cover my arms, even if it did restrict my movement the slightest bit, and my legs were completely covered down to the ankle. On one foot, I wore a single, black combat boot. The other was bare; she was not finished with that leg yet.

“Does it have to be so…snug?” I inquired, hesitant to move my arm even to scratch myself. I would not be surprised if it burst at the seams.

“Yes,” was her only reply before she was silenced by the needle and thread between her teeth. “Stay still. I’m not done.”

I thought I was being still. “If I stand any more still, I’ll fall over.”

“No special balance powers?” she mocked. “What kind of a superhero are you?”

“Apparently the unpractical one in the spandex. Just like all the others.”

Poppy rolled her eyes and got back to work with the needle, stitching the leg of my suit from the knee to the ankle. I thought I saw her prick me on purpose a few times, but it never penetrated the skin and, as usual, I could not feel it. “Oh, stop it, Garrett, you look great.”

“I look like a comic book.”

“What’s wrong with that?” she demanded, rising to face me.

Looking in her eyes was a strange sensation, one I always seemed to look forward to as much as I dreaded it. My tongue felt like it had swelled considerably since I last opened my mouth. Stammering, I replied, “Nothing. Nothing at all.”

“Glad you agree,” she said, dusting off the shoulders of my entirely black suit with her hands. “Can’t go wrong in all black.”

“I like it. It’s good camouflage.”

“Not really recognizable, though.” Poppy pondered this for a moment. Then, she turned back to the desk, covered in scraps of cut, black spandex and red mesh. I took a step to follow her, but she hastily halted me with the wave of her hand. “Stay still! I don’t want you to see.”

“What is it?”

“I can’t tell you.”

I sighed, crossing my arms. The stretchy material of my costume moved with me, growing even tighter over the thickness of my biceps, but it did not tear, a fact I was grateful for. I could imagine no worse of a scenario from here on in than ripping my costume and standing naked in the busy street. “It’s my suit.”

“Don’t move.” Apparently, her newest task was a big one. It was over an hour later that she had even finished drawing the outline on the red mesh. Cutting it out took even longer. “Close your eyes.”

“Poppy, let me see—” I pleaded.

“Garrett!”

I closed my eyes before I could meet her wrath again.

She worked carefully, sewing the addition on with expert precision. It was large, I could tell, taking up most of my chest. I could only imagine that it was red, too, a stark contrast to the black covering nearly every inch of my exposed flesh. When she finished, her voice went up a few octaves. She hugged me. “Done. It’s done!”

I did not ask permission to open my eyes, I could not help it. From my perspective, it just looked like a red blob, cut into a series of perfectly straight shapes. “What is it?” I asked, squinting.

“Look in the mirror!”

I obliged, finding a strange figure looming in my reflection. I still only wore one shoe, but the rest of my body exuded seriousness. My chest was marked with a red eagle, wings spread. I did not need her prompting to pull on my mask next, completing the costume that would carry me through my penance. “Wow,” I whispered.

If making me look like a hero was her intent, Poppy had failed. I looked like a demon, sent up from the depths of hell. Still, I felt compelled to stare into my reflection as I laced up my second boot, completing the look. “You like it?”

“I do,” I nodded. “What do I do now?”

“Now you’ve got to go do the work. Save the world.”

I did not even want to fathom how I was going to do that. “That’s seems kind of hard, how do I do that?”

“Start small I guess. Do you have a TV?”

“My mom’s down there. She can’t see me like this,” I argued.

“Then let’s think of somewhere to go. Where do bad things happen?”

We did not have to think long.

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Sunday, December, 13th, 2015

She hated running.

She never ran. What was it about him that had her running scared?

No, never scared. Confused.

Sasha had taken up residence on a rock, but she did not know for how long. She had just been reclining, staring up into the sky as it turned pink, then orange, then blue. There were no clouds, only the frigid, winter air. “What am I doing?” she whispered.

Running. Being pathetic. Being…weak.

She had to go back.

A growl from the woods froze Sasha as she pulled herself to her feet. It was an eerily familiar sound, one she felt that she had heard before. At least, she thought so. She did not have enough experience with wild animals to say that one could be distinguished from another.

Her thoughts raced as the growling came closer. If it was a bear she needed to avert her eyes, if it was a wolf she needed to intimidate…or was it the other way around? Did this area even have bears and wolves?

She could not help but look for the sound as she backed away slowly. If she concentrated hard enough, she swore she could hear something else from the darkness of the thick brush. A whisper. A woman.

Sasha saw its nose first, then the white of its perfectly straight fangs, bared to snarl at her. As it emerged from the tree line, she wondered how many wolves in the wild could be so big and flawless. The wolf’s fur was grey, without spots or stripes or marks. Its eyes were black and staring at her with feral anger and some kind of knowing. Intelligence.

She continued to back away as it left the cover of the bushes. Her lungs prepared themselves to scream. The beast came to nearly her shoulder on all fours. If it stood up on its hind legs, Sasha had no doubt that it would stand nearly eight feet tall.

“Canis,” that whisper said. The wolf’s ears flattened against its head.

Sasha made the connection as if it came from another life. She knew that name. She knew that wolf.

The beast needed only one word. “Attack.”

It lunged, front paws outstretched, striking both of her shoulders like cement blocks. Its teeth snapped within an inch of her face. Sasha reflexively shrieked, “Garrett!”

The breath was knocked from her body as she struck the ground. The weight of her attacker was crushing. Its breath was powerful. Her stomach flipped.

She screamed for Garrett again but her exclamation was cut short by the wolf’s teeth. Its jaws clamped around her throat, just tight enough to choke her and break the skin, but not tight enough to kill her. Sasha coiled her body, preparing to kick the beast away but even she knew that it would be in vain. He had at least a few hundred pounds on her.

She was not trained to fight animals.

Mere feet away, two others left the cover of the brush. The first was Contagion, arms crossed, eyes bored. The other was the Chameleon, bedecked in the same form she had taken when they had last met in the forest. Unlike her companion, she was grinning.

“There you are, Sasha,” she said. “We have so been looking forward to meeting with you again.”

Sasha could barely breathe. “That is nice.”

“I feel like you have been avoiding us.”

She mocked a shrug. “I have been busy.”

The Chameleon rolled her eyes, dropping the smile on her face. She stooped beside Sasha, pulling at strands of her hair while she lay in the grass. “As much as I enjoy our back and forths, I do have things to get back to. We can make this very quick. Tell me where your friend is.”

Sasha did not have any idea how to fight a huge dog, but she did have a vast amount of experience in withholding information despite torture. She showed her teeth. It seemed to irk the wolf, because the grip on her throat got just a little bit tighter. She wheezed, “Friend? I do not have any friends.”

“Canis.”

She tried to scream when the teeth cut deeper into her flesh. It did not last long before he loosened his grip, allowing Sasha to cough, desperately seeking breath. When she could speak again, albeit with some difficulty, she replied, “Canis. What a unique name for a pet. Where did you come up with it?”

The Chameleon flashed a smile. “I will ask you again. Where is Garrett?”

“Who knows? I do not keep tabs on him all day.”

“Canis.”

The grip on her throat choked her again. It lasted longer this time. Despite all of Sasha’s pride telling her to appear strong, she gagged when she could breathe again.

Contagion approached them. “Don’t play with her, Kim, we’ll sniff him out. Just kill her.”

“That barrier of his is too thick,” she snapped. “You sniff him out.”

“He can handle it.”

“If he could handle it, why would he send us? Why would he need to do any of this? Canis would have sniffed him out twenty years ago.”

Contagion picked at his nails, bored. “Canis wasn’t trained twenty years ago. Just kill her and be done with it.”

“Fine!” the Chameleon grumbled. “Canis, kill.”

As excited as Sasha was to find out what that command would get her, she was grateful when the wolf was thrown away from her by the juggernaut she was hoping for. Garrett grunted as he barreled into the animal, throwing them both into Contagion and the Chameleon. The four of them fell into a pile against a further bush.

“Contagion, spit on him!” the Chameleon grumbled. Garrett threw himself to his feet, grabbing at Contagion’s jaw. He held his mouth closed. The best shot at poisoning him that their attacker could get at was the dribble of saliva dripping on the ground, singing it.

“Mouth shut!” Garrett ordered.

Sasha struggled to get to her feet. Three on two. She had faced worse odds. She threw herself into the fray, dodging Canis as he shook himself back to awareness. She curled her arm around the Chameleon’s throat, hoping to choke her as she had done to her. “Who do you work for?” she snarled.

“Go to hell.”

“You first. Who do you work for, Kim?”

The Chameleon thrashed against her. Sasha wrapped her legs around the creature’s waist, holding herself in place when she tried to throw her over her shoulder. It was clear to Sasha that she had been trained. Extensively.

“Make it easy on me, Kimmy.”

“Get off of me!” she grunted.

Canis snarled nearby. The Chameleon jerked her head, and Sasha’s arm, in the wolf’s direction. Sasha tried to cover her mouth, but it was too late.

“Canis!”

The wolf whipped around to face them. It bowed, drawing its lips back over its teeth.

“Attack!”

Sasha noticed a few things as she faced her impending death. Garrett looked back over his shoulder at her. He threw Contagion to the ground by his face. The Chameleon connected her elbow with Sasha’s torso, doubling her over enough to get free. The wolf lunged at her face, mouth open and seeking her throat.

Someone screamed. “No!”

Its teeth met her neck just as its body hit hers, knocking her back to the ground. Its black eyes bore into hers. The teeth cut through her skin. As she felt the blood begin to pour down her throat and chest, Sasha shrieked with pain.

There was a crack. Several cracks, actually, but Sasha could barely hear them over the sound of her own screams. The weight on her chest fell away. The force constricting her neck immediately went slack.

She pried her eyes open. Somewhere in her mind, she expected to find the afterlife. Flames. Pitchforks. All off the stuff she really did not believe in. There was no blackness like she initially thought. There was pain.

“Cane!”

As Sasha sat up, she looked around at the crowd convened around her. Garrett’s face spelled horror, whereas the others standing beside him appeared grave. Contagion’s visible ire grew with every passing second.

But where was the wolf?

The ground was painted with red. Sasha assumed it was her own until her eyes found the body just inches away. It was not a wolf.

The boy laying prone on the ground was naked. His head was bald, just like the acid-spitter standing beside Garrett, but he could not be any older than ten. His eyes were open and black, but unseeing. Dead. His jaw was missing. Hidden in the grass somewhere. Jagged, white teeth lay scattered around him.

Where was the wolf?

“I didn’t know,” Garrett whispered. “I didn’t…I didn’t mean to.”

“You fucking killed him!” Contagion growled, shoving at him. The Chameleon grabbed him by the shoulder, even when he spat at Garrett’s naked chest.

Garrett was staring at the body on the ground, he was not in any shape to dodge the acid sailing through the air at him. Sasha threw herself at him, knocking him onto his side. “Garrett, get up.”

He did not. She curled her arm under his armpits, hurling him back to his feet. He would be of no help, it seemed. Because of him, she would have to run again.

“Move, Garrett.”

His eyes were glued to the body. Contagion’s eyes flared with rage. He spat at them wherever he could reach, forcing Sasha to throw Garrett into the trees. Her body curled away from the acid. Even one hit would mean death.

“If you are not going to help me then run!” she ordered.

Garrett shook his head, blinking back to reality. He nodded, outstretching a hand for her to hold. She took it. Contagion fell to his knees behind them, but the Chameleon gave chase, following them into the woods.

“Make it easy for yourself, Sasha,” she exclaimed. “Now, I am going to make it hurt!”

Garrett stopped, raising a hand. Just as before, the Chameleon struck the invisible barrier. Sasha doubled back, taking Garrett by the arm. “We have to go,” she urged.

He was not listening. He approached the wall as the Chameleon got to her feet, shrieking obscenities while she pounded her fists against it. “Come and face me you coward! How dare you hide behind your parlor tricks!”

He was calm. “I’m so sorry.”

Sasha pulled at him. Finally, he turned his back on the wall. “Garrett, I do not understand,” she whispered, leading him into the trees. “What happened to Canis? What happened to the wolf?”

Garrett heaved, but nothing came out. He struggled to get out the words, like he was talking around cotton balls in his mouth. Finally, he replied. “That was the wolf. That boy was the wolf.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Friday, February 7th, 1986

The bed was becoming my sanctuary. I supposed I should take advantage of the time I had left in it, after all, once Summit noticed the fairly large sum I had siphoned from the bank account after our falling out, the house would be gone, along with all the finery inside.  My mother would be forced back into the hole we had come from, where she would need to work to keep it. I was not going back. I could not go back. If I was not arrested for theft, rather than the murder I deserved punishment for, I would be running to avoid it like the criminal I was.

The woman downstairs expressed her worry days ago, the first time I did not leave the house to work. Since then, she had stopped asking. She never liked the answers. In fact, she resented me for being lazy, a view she had spoken out loud. I was beyond the point of caring. She had no idea of the things I had done to keep her well taken care of and as far as I was concerned, it was time for her to return the favor.

My phone rang again. This was not out of the ordinary; I was accustomed to Poppy’s calls around this time. They had become much more frequent ever since I had stopped answering, but, still, I did not pick up the phone. What was out of the ordinary was that my mother had not answered the phone by now, telling Poppy I did not want to speak to her. The sound usually got to her by now.

Eventually, the ring stopped on its own, the caller having given up. Alone with the silence once again, I closed my eyes, ready to welcome more sleep. It would only take a moment. Mary Daniels was much quieter these days, making rest so much easier.  I did not miss her presence much.

I missed Poppy. I missed seeing her. Touching her. Even just our nightly phone conversations left a void in my chest that I did not know how to fill. A void I didn’t try to fill. I didn’t deserve it.

I was a murderer. Besides that, I was a danger to anyone that dared come near me. Without even meaning to, I had ended a man’s life. I had barely even touched Dr. Hartl and still managed to spill his brains out onto the hard floor. How could I let Poppy, sweet, innocent Poppy, get wrapped up in something that could get her maimed like that?

And even worse yet, I had angered Summit Freeman. I’m sure I was still angering him. Retaliation could have been imminent. He clearly had no problem with ending lives if he would ask me to do it for him, and if he was unable to cause me harm, what would stop him from hurting someone like her or my mother?

I was not naïve enough to think I would be getting away with the breach of contract and the theft.

A noise from downstairs gave me pause. The creak of the stairs had not reached me since Mary interrogated me about the job, but it reached me now. Someone was scaling the steps to my room, someone lighter and faster than my mother. As they grew closer, my body tensed up to spring, anticipating the stranger’s arrival. By the time the door had opened, I could hear the shortness of breath my visitor had developed, along with a distinct sniffle.

Poppy threw the door open with a force that must have put a dent of the knob into the wall it struck. I saw her through a little hole in the blanket, tired, sweaty despite the cold, and frazzled. Her hair stuck up from her ponytail and her glasses were bent. “What’s wrong with you?!” she exclaimed.

I could hardly believe she was really there. The words would not surface.

She grabbed at the blanket on my head. “Garrett, are you dying?”

“No,” I murmured, holding tight to the quilt. She had not seen me since the procedure, my new body would frighten her, I was sure.

“Are you sick at all?” she demanded. When she made no ground in her efforts at disrobing me, she gave up. “You don’t sound sick! You had me worried out of my mind, Garrett! Not answering my calls, never coming back to school. Your mom said you didn’t want to talk to me. Did I do something?”

I didn’t know what to say. “No, Poppy.”

“Then what is it? What’s going on?”

I begrudged having to look away from her, but I rolled onto my other side, showing her my back. “I want to be alone. Go away. Please.”

I didn’t have to see her to know what face she was making. Her gasp was clue enough. “Garrett, what’s wrong?” she asked, voice weak with her upset.

“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong.”

“No, you’re being weird. What happened? What’s wrong?” She sat on the edge of the bed, placing her hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

I shook her off, though it pained me to do so. “I’m fine, Poppy, I just want to be alone.”

“You can tell me,” Poppy said. Not to be deterred, she put her hand back to my shoulder, lightly caressing it. Despite all of my strength, and my new tendency to be inadvertently violent, it raised goose bumps on my flesh. “Please, Garrett, I can help.”

I flopped over so I could see her and reared back, out of reach. “Poppy,” I snapped, wide eyed. “I’m fine, I just want you to leave. Please, leave!”

Poppy didn’t cry. She didn’t look to be moved at all. Her voice was even enough as she said, “Garrett. What happened?”

What else could I possibly say to get her to leave? That I hated her? That I never wanted to see her again? How could I possibly be so cruel? My own eyes welled up with tears when I met her gaze, full of so much concern for me already. I choked. “I did something terrible.”

Her face pursed. “What happened, Garrett, please tell me!”

I peeled the blanket off, throwing my legs over the edge of bed. My head fell into my hands. “I did something terrible.”

I couldn’t see her reaction, but there was a moment of stillness. My mutated body had startled her. “Garrett,” she whispered. “What happened to you?”

“I don’t know.”

“You look so different! Wh…How did you get so tall? So…big!”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Garrett, what happened?”

I clenched my fists, gagging on my own tongue. “I hurt people. I hurt someone. Worse than that…I…I…”

“You what?”

“I killed a man.”

Silence. Complete silence.

“I killed him. Dead. He’s dead. And he’s not even the only one, I killed someone else before him.”

She stared. And stared. And stared. And still, she did not say a word.

I chuckled under the weight of my discomfort. “See? I’m sure you wish you could’ve gotten out when you had the chance.”

“What happened, Garrett?” she demanded, stone-faced.

“What does it matter?”

She kept her hand on my shoulder. “Garrett.”

I did not speak. Could not stand to even look away. Rather, I kept up that uninterrupted stare and thought of the blanket behind me. It barely took any concentration at all for me to lift it without the use of my hands. It was only then that I looked away.

Her gaze followed mine up to the blanket floating overhead. Then, she stopped breathing. “Garrett.”

“Yes?”

“I think there’s something wrong with your blanket.”

I shook my head. “No. Poppy, there’s something wrong with me.”

“How?” She looked down at my hands, ensuring they were still in my lap. “Are there strings?”

“Go ahead and check.”

She did. “Garrett, what is this?”

“That’s what happened.”

When she did not immediately stand up and run, I went on, explaining to her the details of the experiment that altered my entire human structure. And everything that led up to it.

“Oh my God, Garrett, this is all my fault,” she exclaimed, hugging me to her chest as best she could. My size made it difficult.

“What?” I asked. “How is it your fault?”

“I went to the Brickhouse! And got you fired! That’s why you did it,” she said. In the same breath, she continued, “Oh my God, what else can you do? Can you show me?”

I almost laughed. “What?”

“Show me what you can do.” When she received no answer, she added. “Is that a problem?”

“No, no,” I mumbled. “I guess that’s okay, I just didn’t really think it was going to go this way.”

“What’d you expect? Screaming and running?”

“Kind of. I guess, there’s still time for it if you feel the need.”

She laughed, which made me laugh, as it usually did. “I don’t think it’s going to happen, Garrett. You’re like a superhero. Just like a superhero.”

“You just haven’t heard the worst of it,” I assured her while I stood. “Stay still.” It only took one hand to lift the bed, and Poppy, off the floor.

“This is so cool,” she shrieked, holding onto the sheets to keep still. “Put me down, put me down.”

I set the bed gingerly back onto the floor.

“That was so cool,” she yelled. “You are a superhero! How are you not loving this? Does it hurt or something?”

“He had me do awful things with it, Poppy. You don’t understand. He told me to kill a man, and you know what I did? I did it.”

She froze. “Why?”

“I didn’t know what else to do! He said he’d turn me and my mom out onto the street. She can’t live on the street. So I did what he said.”

She hesitated. “Are you going to do it again?”

“No. Absolutely not. I ended the contract and I’m done with it. I can’t live with myself now.”

“And the other? Was that for the contract, too?”

I shook my head. “No! It was an accident. I didn’t even know I did it until I saw the body and I can’t believe I did it.”

She held my face. “You’re showing remorse, that’s a good first step. That’s how you’re forgiven.”

“What’s the next step?” I groaned.

“Repent. You have to make it up. I think your powers can be used to an advantage.”

“What? Tell me what to do, I’ll do anything,” I swore, leaning in.

Poppy pressed a light kiss to my lips before she said anything, and smiled. I smiled back instantly, readying myself to kiss her back. “You used your powers for evil. Now use them for good.”

I nodded. “I think you’re right.” Then, I kissed her back, higher now than in any other moment I could recollect. She came up with the name. Psionic Soldier. With her help, I vowed to redeem myself.

Chapter Sixteen

Monday, February 3rd, 1986

“I can’t do this anymore!”

I frowned, holding my head while I stared at the floor. Beside me, Summit stood from behind his desk, bracing himself on its shining mahogany surface. James Quint was curled into his chair, yanking his hair out at the roots.

“What, exactly, is the problem, James?” Summit muttered, rolling his eyes heavenward. “Your business is thriving, isn’t that what you wanted?”

“I can’t handle the sneaking around! The press is hanging me, and you’re leaving me out to dry! My brother called me to tell me I need religion. They think I’m some kind of Hitler out there.”

Summit shook his head, disappointed. “Oh, morality. It always kills my good men. Pathetic. Would it help to remind you that you have no choice?”

Quint was clearly crying, eyes flickering from Summit to me. I did not make eye contact; my own morality was clambering to the surface. “They know they’re getting the guns from me. They’re bringing on more police which means more taxes, more traffic, angrier citizens and the crime rate is still at an all-time high! They’re blaming me.”

“God forbid you not be the popular kid, Quint,” he snapped. “But I feel like you’re missing the point. You don’t have a choice. You do what I tell you, or Garrett breaks your kneecaps. That was the deal.”

Quint shook his head. “I think I’d rather take the busted kneecaps.”

“Really?” Summit said. “Should I up the deal then? Is it worth your life? I’m guessing not.”

The tears streaming from Quint’s eyes grew larger in number. “Please, have mercy.”

“Mercy? I’m not your friend, James, and I won’t act like it. You’re a business partner and a tool in my plans. If you won’t cooperate, then you’re no longer useful to me. Certainly, you of all people can understand how that sort of thing works.”

“It’s not right.”

The man laughed, loudly and without end. “Right? Why should I care what is or isn’t right? It’s what I want. And I get what I want. As far as I’m concerned you will give me what I want or suffer the ultimate price.”

“Please,” James cried. “Please, I can’t, I can’t. I can’t be responsible for all the death anymore.”

“You didn’t care about that when it was the army buying your stuff. Don’t they kill people?”

“Children. Children are dying. Innocent men, women, and children are getting caught in it.”

Summit circled the desk, taking a seat on its front. “Innocent. Who is innocent?”

“Don’t make me do it anymore. It’s tearing me apart.”

The angry partner heaved a deep sigh, looking for the answers on the ceiling. “Well, if you’re unwilling to help me, Mr. Quint, I really can’t force you to obey me.”

James fell to his knees, pulling Summit’s hands into his. He kissed them repeatedly. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“However,” Summit said, yanking himself away from the sniveling man. “I’m sure you can also understand that I can’t keep someone with knowledge of all my secrets just running around free. Who knows what you’d say, who you’d tell, to preserve your own image.”

The fear returned to James’s face. “No, no, Mr. Freeman, I promise I won’t tell.”

“I’m not so sure about that, James,” Summit countered leisurely. “You have a bit of a big mouth when you drink, and you drink an awful lot.”

I winced, hoping to God that Summit was exaggerating. It was never in our agreement that I would be taking lives, only intimidating and, occasionally, providing a little physical persuasion. I wrung my hands together.

“Garrett,” Summit called, “I think your services may be required.”

“No!” James shrieked. “Garrett, your services aren’t required.”

Summit looked down into his newest victim’s face, “James, you said the moral conflict is tearing you apart. I don’t think you know exactly what that feels like. Would you like to find out?”

The old man shook his hung head, crying with a fury that wet the carpet beneath him. He chanted, no, no, no, no, mixed with the occasional please.

Summit looked to me, forcing me to stand with a gesture of two fingers. “Garrett, I want you to tear Mr. Quint apart.”

I hoped that I had heard him wrong; my heart was beating loud enough in my ears to make it a possibility. “Sir?”

Summit’s jaw dropped. The act of defiance on my part was a clear embarrassment. “I told you to tear him apart, Garrett. Do it.”

My head shook fervently back and forth. “Sir, I don’t think I can.”

“You will do as you’re told, Garrett. I want this man dead. Get to work.”

I looked down at James, who was crawling over to my feet. He wrapped his arms around my thick legs, “Please, don’t kill me. Please, please, I’ll do anything.”

I hushed him, but it only made the sobs louder. I could offer no words of comfort when I was the one in need of them most. I did not know what to do.

“What are you waiting for?” Freeman said.

I could not think, could hardly stand to speak. “I can’t do it, Mr. Freeman, it wasn’t in the deal. I can’t kill a man.”

“In the deal? I am the deal! I make the deal! If I tell you to kill someone then you do it.”

I was shaking my head without listening. “No. I can’t. The deal said—”

“You coward. All the power of the Gods themselves and you won’t use them. And for what? This sniveling worm? Who will mourn him, Garrett? No one!”

James was crying and begging me, muffling the words pouring from Summit’s sharp tongue. It was making it very hard for me to think. “Please, shut up.”

“You killed Hartl! Are you so high above that now? He made you who you are today, like a father. But you wouldn’t know much about that would you?”

“Stop,” I insisted.

“Stop? Why don’t you make me stop, Garrett? Oh, right, I forgot, you’re a sniveling worm, just like that thing kissing your feet. Don’t kill him, Garrett, I’ll do it myself. And when I do, I’ll turn you and your worthless mother out onto the street!”

James begged me, over and over again to spare him, but it only fueled my upset. I shook my head, covering my ears. “Please, shut up.”

“I’m sure it’ll be exactly what she needs! No money, no house means no booze. Starvation can kill her instead!”

“Enough,” I exclaimed, throwing my arms out in either direction.

Summit and James went flying back, Summit into the comfortable arms of a cushy chair and James into the wall. His back struck first, knocking the breath from his lungs and his chest hit the floor, silencing his protests. I had not needed to touch them.

Summit laughed, clapping along in ecstasy, “Ah, yes, how perfect, Garrett. I knew you only needed a little persuasion.”

James slowly pulled himself to his feet, moaning through the pain.

“Finish the job.”

I froze, clenching and unclenching my fists. The trinkets on the desk were shaking, moved by the strength of my mind. It would be too easy to end the old man’s life and it would only take a second. I comforted myself with the knowledge that our victim would hardly feel a thing. It would only take a second. So why was I so worried?

“For your mother, Garrett.”

For my mother.

I kept the words circulating in my mind while I crossed the room. It was all I cared to think about while I stooped to the floor, lifting the unfortunate man off his feet by the throat. The chant echoed in my ears until the job was done and the life had left James Quint.

However, while I was doubled over, vomiting in the corner of the office, it was not those words that played over and over again in my head. Instead, it was, I have to get out of here.

Sunday, December, 13th, 2015

“So you did it?” she inquired after a long moment of chewing her eggs.

He nodded, shamefully biting his lip. “Yes. I breached the contract that night. Broke off the deal.”

“And he let you live?” Sasha inquired, eyeing him with suspicion. “That is unlike him. If nothing else, he would have gotten someone else to do it.”

Garrett’s dim eyes narrowed. “Believe me, Summit is more than capable of carrying out his work on his own. He made sure to make me pay in other ways.”

She averted her eyes. Garrett did not need to tell her about her father’s plans. She knew very well what he was capable of. “With this Poppy girl you’re always going on about,” she finished for him, noting the way he tensed. He said nothing. “Was it not?”

Garrett took a deep breath, keeping his lips pressed tightly together. “Poppy is gone. That is all you need to know.”

“Gone? That’s not what you seem to think. You call me by her name. Constantly. Is that what someone who’s accepted a loss would say, Garrett?”

He looked away from her. “I know she’s gone. Better than anyone else. I just hoped—”

Sasha snorted. “Hope. No wonder you look so crushed. What good does it do to hope for impossible things?”

“Summit and whatever doctor he’s recruited now are capable of very impressive things,” Garrett snapped. “They made me the way I am, immortal, inhuman. Far be it from me to say it’s impossible for them to bring someone back from the dead.”

Manipulation came so easily.  “So, he killed her. Well, that isn’t something I would’ve expected.”

“Fine,” Garrett replied, “now you know. Poppy’s dead. And your father killed her. That’s all there is to it.”

“How long has she been gone?”

He replied without missing a beat. “Going on twenty-one years next fall.”

Sasha neglected to say that she would be turning twenty-one next fall. Not much younger than he appeared to be, despite his story that spanned decades. “Then why did you say her name when you saw me.”

Sasha felt Garrett’s eyes look her over for the millionth time and fought back a shudder. She grabbed at the grass beneath her, tearing it out. He did not look at her like she was accustomed to being looked at. It made her feel vulnerable, even near the point of retreat, which she refused to allow. “No one would recognize her better than me. Your hair is shorter, but it’s the same color. Your eyes…I can live forever and I’ll never forget exactly what they look like. I looked into them every day for a decade. You’re thinner, more athletic, and you’re missing the scar she had.” He pointed to her unblemished hairline. “Right there. You look too much like her. The exact, spitting image. There was no way you couldn’t have been her.”

“Was?” she circled him. “Has your mind changed in that regard?”

“You act nothing like my Poppy. You’re cruel, you’re angry, and you’re vicious. She wasn’t like that. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t her.”

“What theories have you come up with then?” she crossed her arms. Her urge to slap him back to reality was nearly insuppressible, but she did not. It would do no good, and it would only hurt her hand. “Did they hit me on the head? Brainwash me? If she is dead, I think it might do your feeble mind some good to realize she’s staying there.”

She recalled a childhood. It was miserable, but it was hers. Sasha’s. Her father was there, albeit only occasionally, and her mother…she had none. Not even a picture. Still, did that mean at all that she had lived a life as Poppy?

He shook his head. “I don’t know how they did it. I only know that there isn’t any possible way that someone can look so similar. And if anyone has the resources to make that happen, it would be Summit Freeman.”

Sasha leaned away, stone-faced and pondering his words. She had seen her father do terrible, ruthless things, and she was sure he had done more that he would never let her see. It must have been insanity that made her wonder. Could it be possible that she had lived another life? A life with this man? “If that were at all possible, do you think there’s a way to bring those memories back to the surface?”

“I could hit you.”

Sasha could not help the raucous laughter that erupted from her chest. “Hit me? Poor boy, I think if that would do it, our chameleon friend would have beat it into me by now!”

“You’re right,” Garrett submitted. “Other than that, all I can think is that you would need something to snap you back to attention. My story hasn’t jogged anything?”

“Not a whisper,” she said with a roll of her eyes. Obviously not.

“What if I kissed you?”

He sounded far too eager for her taste. “You already tried that. Remember?”

“Yes, but you were so focused on running, maybe it clouded anything else. It couldn’t hurt to give it one last try.”

She scoffed. Loudly. “And if it doesn’t work?”

He offered her a small, soothing smile. “And if it doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. I will never stop trying to get you back. To get you out of there.”

An alien tightness formed in Sasha’s chest, compressing her lungs. Sympathy? Did she really feel sorry for this poor, broken man before her? She squashed the emotion before it could be made visible on her person.

“If you’re so devoted to trying,” she stood, arms crossed. “I’ll submit to your experiment. But a kiss is all you’ll get. I won’t allow for any other manipulation. I am Sasha Freeman. That’s who I am, who I was, and who I will always be. Your insignificant presence in my life will never change that.”

Garrett’s expression dropped, but Sasha could still see the strange glint of hope in his eye. He reached for her, pushing himself up to his feet. His hands cupped her face, fingers intertwining with her hair. She slapped them away, taking an instinctive step back. “Stop.”

There was something. Not a memory. Not even a whisper of Poppy. It was more like an anxiety. Her stomach lurched, dreading his kiss.

He came closer. “What?”

There was something about him that was so pathetic she could not fight back the small bit of sadness stirring inside of her. He was like a kicked dog.

“It’s fine.” She looked over his face again, nearly hoping that it would spark some kind of long lost lover in her mind. Someone who insisted on loving her, despite the absolute torment she had put him through. But she saw nothing but an unstable, broken man.  A thing she could never love. Incapable of feelings, incapable of love, incapable of everything he asked of her, she shook her head. “This isn’t going to work.”

“Please,” he said, cupping her face in both of his hands. “Try.”

She leaned in . He shut his eyes. Sasha closed her own eyes, waiting for the feeling of his lips on hers to take over her mind. It was wet and unpleasant, just like the first time, when he had forced his affections on her. He opened her mouth with his tongue, and, this time, she let him, if only to say there was no point in trying again.

She broke them apart, opening her eyes to find his face had not moved, lips still pursed, eyes still closed, savoring the moment she knew he would never have again.

“Daniels—”

“No,” he interjected, eyes forever closed. “Just let me keep it for another few seconds.”

She waited in silence, watching him. Her chest hurt. She felt dirty, but she did not know why. She wiped at his drool on her mouth. It did not help. What had she done? To him? To herself? She wanted to spit venom in his face and demand that he stop looking at her like that. Stop thinking of her as that wonderful Poppy. That was not who Sasha was and she knew it. She was the cruel, angry, vicious thing, just as he said, that had maimed his body and broken his heart.

“Please, tell me you felt it,” he said.

She lowered her brows at him, “Did you feel it?”

His head bobbed up and down with a fervor that should have rattled his brain. The fact that he did not cry out was a miracle. “Yes! Yes, I did. Did you?”

She stood, withdrawing her hands from Garrett’s skin like it had burned her. She did not like this. Did not like how hopeful he was, did not like that he thought she was his dead wife, did not like that she kind of wished he was right. And, most of all, she did not like how upset the whole ordeal was making her.

“No,” she whispered, turning on her heel.

“Sasha,” he called, grabbing her by the shoulder. “Sasha!”

“Do not follow me.”

“Sasha, please,” he whimpered. The threat of tears loomed in his voice.

“I need to think.”

Sasha did not need to see him to know that he was crying. As she ducked into the trees, she chose not to believe that she was crying, too.