Sadie rushes back to the couch in the center of the living room.
Sitting down, she tries to pretend that she wasn’t watching for their car out the front window. Swallowing her feverish panic, Sadie picks up her book and flips it open. If anyone was paying attention they’d realize she couldn’t have read that far in the amount of time they were gone.
Car doors shut and a moment later, keys jostle and scrape in the locks. The front door opens, her Dad stepping in. His eyebrows jump upon seeing her sitting there. The man’s face, gentle but framed with nervous anger just a few hours prior, is now one of fatigue. He breaks eye contact with her and walks into the house.
Silence. It’s the silence that sends her anxiety into overdrive. No one is speaking. As her mother comes in she spares a similar glance for Sadie and then looks to her father. Aunt Amber and Uncle Burt file in behind after that. They stalk past the suitcases lined up next to the door and move to the couch in front of the living room window, just opposite her own. Uncle Burt sits down with a heavy sigh. Other than that, no one utters a sound.
Her mother moves around behind her and puts a hand on her shoulder. Sadie looks straight up, but her mom won’t meet her eyes. Her father stands at the end of the couch, head bowed, hands jammed in his pants pockets. The other three adults look back and forth between one another. All eyes seem to settle on her dad.
He lifts his head after a moment. His furrowed eyebrows slacken, and his hairline slinks back into its normal position. The creases in her father’s face even out like pulling a bed sheet after a night of fitful sleep. He smiles. And then he laughs. A slow building chuckle that bursts into full on hysterics. It is the release of a week’s long held tension.
Uncle Burt joins in, an uproarious belly laugh that personifies the ample gut it comes from. Aunt Amber loses control, her laughter a mix of high pitched elation and trying to catch her breath, the way she gets when she is truly lost in the moment.
Something wet hits Sadie’s neck. When she looks up again she sees her mom laughing along with the rest of them, except tears are streaking freely down her face. They hang from her chin and jaw like raindrops clinging to a gutter before being jarred loose by the convulsive shakes of laughter. She meets Sadie’s eyes, her gaze full of relief. Her mother gives her shoulder a firm squeeze.
“I’ll go put the coffee up,” she says, pulling away and heading into the kitchen. Her hands go to her eyes. It’s lost on no one.
“I can’t…” her father says in between dwindling chuckles. “I can’t believe we did it.”
Sadie jerks around to the three faces still in the room. Uncle Burt with his round head and bulbous nose. Aunt Amber with drooping jowls and thick glasses, framed by strawberry blonde hair. Her father. A one time slab of rock, chiseled and defined, now weathered at the edges by civilian life and present circumstances. “You did it?” she asks her Dad. “It’s really over?”
Though his face is firm, his eyes are glassy when he returns her gaze. “We did it baby.”
Sadie pops up and sprints across the couch. She leaps into his arms, Aunt Amber letting out a tiny cry of alarm in response . Her father catches her and holds her tight, caressing her long black hair with a calloused hand. It almost reaches the small of her back now. Uncle Burt laughs louder.
“You should have seen your Dad Sadie. James Bond himself couldn’t have done any better.”
“You didn’t do so bad yourself dearest,” Aunt Amber says, leaning in to kiss him on the cheek. Uncle Burt waves a hand in the air.
“Me? Nah. David was the one with the plan. Without him we never could have pulled this off.”
Her father unclenches his eyes and sets her down. “Yeah Burt, but you were the one that wrote the program. Without that the plan was meaningless. And Amber, having the access. Knowing exactly where the samples were in the lab.”
“It took all of us. And we did it. Thank God, but we did it,” her mom says from the kitchen amidst clicking mugs and the drip of the percolator.
Sadie lets go of her father and rushes to the other couch. She drops into her aunt’s arms. The woman wraps them around her tightly. “Oh my darling Sadie girl. We told you we wouldn’t let them have you.”
She begins to sob again. “Thank you,” Sadie whimpers. “Thank you all.”
Her Uncle sits up and pats her thigh. “There there, little one. You know this family has you well looked after.” Burt turns his attention to her father. “Whaddya say Tom? Ready to put some finality to this?”
Her father nods, the gesture full of solemn purpose. He pulls his hands out of his pockets and strides over to the fireplace. The wood and kindling had been arranged before they left, in case they had to do this in a hurry upon arriving back at the house. Taking a box of matches from the mantle, he strikes one and touches it to a piece of newspaper at the bottom of the pile. Within moments the flames spread and grow, encapsulating the wood and sending pops of embers up the flue.
Sadie picks her head up off her Aunt’s chest and looks to her Dad. Taking off his jacket, he tosses it over the arm of the other couch and then pulls his button down shirt free of his pants. Reaching behind his back with both hands, her father produces a stack of manilla file folders. He stares at the paperwork, a gladiator staring over a downed foe. There is happiness in survival, but also a tinge of sadness in the life that must be taken. The life that he had hoped for her, no doubt. Before everything went wrong.
He looks up and locks eyes with her. Her father smirks, and then tosses the files onto the flames. Aunt Amber pats her shoulder and Sadie shifts to let the woman stand up. Always the meekest of them, Sadie is taken aback by the forcefulness of her Aunt’s posture. Amber stands tall and proud, not at all like the stooped scientist who still collected Flash Gordon comics. Picking up her purse she strides forward. Her aunt reaches into the bag and pulls out a small cloth package.
She turns and smiles at Sadie before placing the package down on the brick in front of the fireplace. The sound of glass tinkling against glass precedes the sudden crunch emitted by her foot stomping on top of it. Lifting the package by the corner Sadie can see a dark splotch of reddish purple spreading through the cloth. Her Aunt Amber tosses the package into the fire. Turning, she wipes tears from her eyes. Uncle Burt gives her hand a squeeze as his wife walks by him and sits back down.
“I guess it’s my turn then.” He has to build momentum to get himself up off the couch, finally doing so on his third thrust upward. Assuming the spot where his wife just stood, Burt reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a 3 ½ inch floppy disk. He holds it in one hand, the fingers of his other running over the surface.
“What’d it do Uncle Burt?” Sadie asks.
“This?” he replies, looking at her with a sad smile. He almost looks remorseful. “When this went into the computer, it delivered a virus that scoured the lab’s network for any data associated with your research honey. The virus destroyed everything in the computers and leaped into the phone lines. Then I used the dial up to contact Europe and released it out of the local network. Even as we speak you’re being erased from the world.”
He lets out a heavy sigh. “The code on this disk is the only chance they could ever have of recovering the erased data. It’s the finest program I’ve ever written. My Picasso. My Monet.” Burt looks up and locks eyes with her father. The man nods once to his brother in law. Burt shakes his head and chuckles again. “Oh well!” The disk melts quickly in the roaring flames.
The jingling of mugs and spoons rattling on a tray comes from behind them as her mother returns from the kitchen. “Coffee anyone?”
Burt slaps his belly twice. “None for me Dotty but Tom if you’re up for it, I could use something a bit stronger.”
Her father smiles and points a finger at him. “I have just the thing Burt, you old pirate. How’s an eighteen year Macallan sound?”
“Sounds about six years better than I would’ve expected.”
Laughter fills the room again as coffee and scotch is passed out. Sadie begs them until they relent, and slowly they regale her with the story of their victorious mission.
The driver takes the corner too fast and the tires screech as a result. “Goddammit Jeffers, slow down! We’re trying to surprise them you idiot!” Captain Callesano spits from the passenger seat. The hand microphone in his right hand continues to bark orders from the radio it’s attached to. He pulls the ranting appendage back to his ear and after a few moments keys up. “Yeah Doc. Yeah. Yeah okay Doc, we got it!” At the same time he lifts the microphone in his left hand. “Units 2 and 3, what’s your position? Over.”
Sitting behind the driver, Sergeant Alquist stews in anger. How? How did they get away with this? Four bookworms. Four amateurs. Well, at least three of them were anyway, but still. The father’s operating days were long behind him. He was little more than a brokedick now.
Every boxer has one last fight in him, deep down. His own father’s tutelage from the gym long ago. Alquist had failed that lesson tonight. They had bested him and his men. On his watch. A group of nobody’s, and now the weapon could be lost to them forever.
He would make it right. The bookworms were making the same mistake now. They were the ones underestimating their opponent. Not only would he come out of his corner again, but he would make them pay for last round’s knockdown. Somehow he would make them all pay dearly.
“Okay Doc!” the Captain roars into his hand mike. A second later he twists around to address the cabin. Beside Alquist, Corporal Sheen sits in the rear passenger seat, with four more assaulters wedged in the back compartment of their Chevy Suburban. With all of their gear and weaponry, there’s barely room to pass gas.
“Listen up! The house is at the end of a cul de sac. We’re lead in. Units 2 and 3 will flank to our east and west to set up a perimeter. I want a clean dispersal. We need to be in that front door—” The radio with the doctor crackles to life again. “Dammit, hold on.”
Callesano exchanges another rapid dialogue with the man. The Doc is the epitome of a bookworm. Scientists. Fuckers were always tinkering with things that should be left alone. Now look at the mess they’re in. Should’ve just put two in the girl when they found out what she was capable of and ended it right there. Her and her mother.
“Alquist!” He looks at his Captain who snarls back at him. “As soon as we exit you put that cryo round through the front window. Doc says freezing her is the only way we’ll be able to preserve her DNA should anything go wrong. Got it?”
“Yeah, I got it.”
“Don’t fuck this up like you fucked up back at the lab.” The Captain twists to look at the rest of the men. “Target is the girl. Everyone else is eliminated. In and out. We need to be back down the street and on our way home before anyone in the neighborhood knows we were there.”
“If she can change then how are we supposed to know which one is her?” one of the men in the back replies.
“Doc says she can only change her face right now. So grab the one that has the body of a sixteen year old girl. Knowing some of you deviants that shouldn’t be a problem.”
The men laugh but as the Captain turns back around, he makes a concerted effort to stare the Sergeant down. Callesano twists into his seat to face forward, pointing out a turn while he relays his orders to the other trucks converging on the house.
Alquist clenches his jaw amidst the continued laughter. The bookworms needed to pay for this. To be taught a lesson. He couldn’t allow them to get away with making a mockery of him. A thought creeps into his head and he smiles. They’re going to be eliminated anyway. He’ll just make sure he’s the one to do it.
Cracking open the breech of his M79 grenade launcher, he pulls out the cryogenic round and returns it to a pocket on his tactical vest. Fingers moving deftly, he replaces it with a breacher round. Half the power of a normal grenade, it’s meant to blow open heavy duty doors. It wouldn’t shred them to pieces, but it should do the trick. After all, from what he heard DNA could be harvested from a dead body just as easily as a live one.
Alquist snickers as he snaps the weapon closed, and then smiles broadly when he realizes no one noticed the switch. Any second now. The truck rounds into the dead end street. The driver accelerates as the other two Suburbans swing in behind them. They race up to the end of the road and the driver stomps on the brakes in front of the house. Another squeal of tires sounds out. In a heartbeat the doors are open and the assaulters are rushing along the right side of the vehicle.
The Sergeant steps onto the truck’s running board and props his elbows on the roof. He aligns his sights, not on the front door, but on the glass pane of the front window. The one with the light on. The one with the figure peeking out from behind the curtain. Alquist squeezes the trigger.
Their laughter had turned from a release of tension into outright jubilation. Sure, on more than a few occasions she’d seen Uncle Burt drunk. Thanksgiving. Halloween. Her seventh birthday at Chuck E. Cheese. But seeing her Dad imbibing, that was completely new. He and her mom, arms around each other. Glasses of scotch sloshing in their hands. Even Aunt Amber was sneaking it into her coffee when Sadie wasn’t looking.
Every so often her Dad would go to the window and look out into the cul de sac. Ever the soldier. Always on patrol. After a moment of peering he’d turn around and smile, sipping his glass deeply. It got to the point that Uncle Burt started in on him because of the frequency.
“Dammit Tom, settle down. The taxi ain’t getting here any faster with you looking for it every thirty seconds.” Dad stopped looking as much after that, although she knew he wasn’t worried about the taxi.
Sadie sits at the head of their dinner table in the space just to the right of the kitchen. She watches as the guardians of her secret, of her life, celebrate. She can’t help smiling. Her mother gets up from the couch facing the window and starts collecting mugs. She waves Aunt Amber back down onto the couch when she tries to get up to help.
As her mother rounds the furniture towards Sadie and the kitchen beyond, her father pops up again and crosses to the window. He looks out and a second later his glass tumbles from his hand, smashing on the windowsill. Outside, tires screech on the pavement.
Her father whirls about and dashes for her. “Sadie get down!”
Another sound of shattering glass followed instantly by a bright flash. Her ears go deaf. An explosion rocks their living room. A blast wave blows her Aunt and Uncle off their couch and out the front window, tossing them as if they were weightless through the shards of shattered glass.
Her father, attempting to leap the opposite couch, is caught by the concussion and thrown clear across the room. He smashes through the bannister on the stairs and slams into the wall, caving in the sheetrock and tumbling down several steps. The blast swirls into the fireplace, ricochets off the brick of the chimney, and carries back into the room. Flaming logs lift and streak through the air hitting walls, carpet, the ceiling. In a mere moment their flames catch and spread. Smoke fills the room.
At her husband’s cry Sadie’s mother drops her tray and just manages to throw herself on top of her daughter. As the impact hits them they tumble over one another, wrapped in each other’s embrace. The dinner table and chairs are lifted and thrown towards the back door. The broken furniture stacks against the exit, barring any escape. Tossed aside, her mother crawls over and lays herself on top of her daughter before going limp. Sadie reaches up and grasps her mother’s arm tightly.
Her hearing begins to return with the sounds of muffled shouts and boots on debris. There are men now. Men in all black, storming into their home. Beams from flashlights attached to their rifles cut through the swirling smoke caused by the spreading fire. More thunder, more flashes. Not as loud as before, especially with her ears the way they are. Somewhere far off Sadie realizes they came from near the stairs. Somewhere even further she fears they are gunshots. Sadie squeezes her eyes shut and delves deeper than she has ever gone before.
The explosion blows out all the windows in the house. The assaulters, seasoned veterans of conflicts unknown, sprawl to the ground. A wave of shattered belongings washes over them. Two bodies crash into the lawn, battered and broken. Captain Callesano is the first to lift his head.
“Goddammit Alquist! What kind of fucked up round did you use?” The officer has no time to wait for a reply. The blast has woken the neighborhood. Already lights are winking on in windows as dogs bark and howl wildly in the night. “Inside! Get the girl!” he shouts to his team.
The group rises and sprints. A series of shots ring out as rounds are put into the bodies. The assaulters stack up and kick in the front door. Another man lies on the stairs, moaning. Three more shots silence him. The team spreads out, stalking through the room with rifles at the ready. Flames crawl up the walls and spread across the carpet. Stifling heat adds to their sweat while they choke on the black clouds pooling at the ceiling.
Corporal Sheen’s light passes over a pair of legs to the right of the kitchen. He moves over. The girl, clad in pajamas, lies on top of her mother. “I got her! Here! Here!”
He scoops her in his arms and rushes out of the house. The fire has already reached an almost impassable level. Captain Callesano calls out the order to exfiltrate. The shadows flow back out of the house as fast as they arrived. One of them hesitates at the door. He spins and puts a round into the woman the girl had been covering, hitting her in the side. Callesano shoves him through the door, forcing him to abandon a second shot.
In moments the teams are back in their vehicles. Doors slamming, they reverse in hasty three point turns and peel out. Residents rushing across their front lawns scream, some at the trucks, others at the house. Sirens rise in the distance.
Sergeant Alquist twists in his seat, ignoring the beratement of his Captain. Looking past the men in the back compartment he stares at the burning house through the rear window. As they pull out of the cul de sac he can see that the flames have reached the second level. Alquist turns around and sits back, a smile of sinister satisfaction creasing his lips.
That’ll teach ‘em to fuck with me.
Deputy Collins acknowledges the transmission and replaces his hand mike on the dashboard. It slips from the hook and he slams it back into place with annoyance. Yet another repeat of the same APB. Dispatch keeps reminding them of it every fifteen minutes or so. An old Ford pickup, possibly with a sixteen year old female passenger.
He had asked the Sheriff about it after roll call. Why the sudden urgency? Apparently the pressure was coming from the Feds in Omaha. They wanted local law to keep an eye out to help broaden their net. A net that someone had already slipped through. For some reason this was a priority on the highest level. Of course the Feds wouldn’t say why. They never did.
Forgetting the FBI for a moment, Collins eases into his ride along highway 92, headed west towards the Sherman county line. Supposedly the kids from Litchfield High are doing their homecoming game after party right on the border with Custer county tonight. The Deputy wants to make an appearance early on to set expectations.
He’s mildly impressed. The kids had picked a smart spot. By setting up right on the county line, they were effectively splitting the difference between the two departments. Collins has the entire northwest sector to patrol tonight. He certainly can’t afford to be riding out this far west multiple times during his shift. He’s sure the same can be said for his counterpart riding east over in Custer county.
Hence the reason for his drive now, at the start of the shift. Hopefully a stiff warning would keep them in line and he could have a quiet evening. The radio crackles again, the APB coming over from dispatch. Nine minutes in between this time. Collins growls under his breath. There’d be no hope for a quiet shift with the transmission coming at this rate.
His annoyance grows. What in the hell was with all this attention? Normally these things were always more bluster then substance. After all, what chance did a local four man Sheriff’s department have of catching sight of a Federal APB in the entire state of Nebraska? The cynical thought is still rolling around his head when he comes up on a vehicle nearly identical to the one he’s supposed to be on the lookout for.
Collins sits up in his seat, slowing his cruiser to follow close behind. It’s an older make and model. The color matches. The plate doesn’t fit, but it is from out of state. He rides a little longer, observing for more signs. Up head he can see a bonfire roaring about a hundred yards to the right of the road. His intuition kicks in. Collins hits his lights, the blue and red circling through each other as they cut the night.
The old Ford slows and then puts on its blinker. As the two vehicles pull onto the shoulder they come to a stop even with the bonfire. The high schoolers stare but don’t scatter. Good, Collins thinks, two birds with one stone.
He throws the cruiser in park and radios in his position, deciding to leave out the correlation to the APB until he’s had a closer look. A second later the Deputy is out and walking cautiously up to the truck. His breath puffs out in front of him, his heart just slightly elevated over normal. After all, how often is it that you potentially find a Federal watch list in your jurisdiction?
Hand back by his service pistol, he inches towards the driver’s window which is already down. Collins peeks in and then rounds to face the driver. She’s a woman approaching the latter half of her sixties. Her straggly chestnut hair is blended with streaks of silver, and her face is lined with a roadmap laid out from years of physical exertion. Her body is saggy and stocky at the same time, decades of hay baling and high calories clashing into one another. A thick flannel jacket covers her frame.
She cocks an eyebrow at him. “Something I can do for you officer?”
Collins eyes the cabin quick before responding. Nothing out of sorts there. “This your truck ma’am?”
The woman laughs. “I should think so. Been driving it since I was ‘bout their age,” she says with a nod towards the bonfire.
Collins gives her his best reassuring smile. Traffic stops always went better the more comfortable you made someone. “I don’t doubt it ma’am. Unfortunately this truck fits the description of one I’m on the lookout for. Afraid I’m gonna have to see your license and registration.”
The woman’s eyes narrow, if only for a second, before she smiles back at him. “Of course darling. Got it here in the glove box. Okay that I grab it?”
“Yes ma’am, but only one hand if you please.”
She nods and Collins takes a step back, hand resting on his pistol now. A hoot rises up from the cornfield bonfire and the Deputy shoots a quick look over the flatbed at the teenagers. “Here you go,” a deep masculine voice says.
Collins looks back at the truck and jumps. Instead of the older woman he sees a young black man, his eyes shining brightly in contrast to his dark skin. The man’s hair is cropped close in a tight flat top. He’s thick in the shoulders and broad across the chest. He wears a distressed leather jacket with white stripes running down the sleeves. The man smiles with beaming white teeth as he hands over his license.
“What the— Where in the hell is she?”
The young man’s face furrows with concern. “Officer?” he says in a deep southern accent. “Where is who?”
“The woman! The woman who was driving!”
Collins steps up and grabs the man’s license. Nathaniel La Croix, out of New Orleans. That explained the plates, but where was the woman? “Alright. Kill the engine. Step out of the vehicle.”
The young man does as he’s told. The Deputy directs him to stand by the tailgate. Once in place, Collins searches the cab with his flashlight. Empty. The kids in the field start to holler again. Could he have missed the man in the cab earlier? Could the woman have slipped down to the party? He pops out and rounds the back of the vehicle.
“Hands on the tailgate. Don’t move. I’ll be back in a second.”
The Deputy hurries down the embankment and crosses into the field. Some of the kids scatter, running further from the road but the juniors and seniors stay put. They know that more often than not the Sheriff’s department will turn a blind eye to their shenanigans, so long as they keep it within reason. Collins looks about, seeing nothing but seventeen and eighteen year olds. A few of them ask what’s he’s looking for or if they can help, but the Deputy tells them nevermind. Best to not rile anybody up.
Collins spins around and catches a glimpse of a saggy bodied individual closer to the bonfire. He crosses over, noticing the same red flannel the woman was wearing. Putting a hand on her shoulder, the Deputy spins her around. “Alright, where did you—” His breath catches.
The face of the man from New Orleans stares back at him.
Collins jumps back a step as the person’s face creases with alarm. “Sheriff? You alright?” they say in the same Cajun accent. The Deputy spins to look at the road, seeing the young man still standing at the rear of his tailgate.
“Deputy? Everything okay?”
Collins turns only to find the same face again, this time attached to the body of a letter jacket wearing linebacker. The Deputy’s mouth works open and closed, but no sound escapes. Sweat breaks out on his forehead. He spins again. Another patron, a young girl. Her body clad in tight leggings and a hoodie denoting all of her seventeen years, but her face that of the young black man. Collins’ heart begins thumping in his chest. “What in the… What the fuck is going on?”
He twists and turns. The bodies move through the gathering. The kids are taking note, looking at him strangely, but each time it’s the same face. The face of the man up the embankment. The eyes. Those unmistakably white eyes set in that face. They glare at him across the cornfield in every body he beholds.
Collins stumbles over himself and falls to the ground. More of the party goers come towards him. The crowd begins to close in. As they do, their bodies… form. Each step nearer, their physicality morphs like wax in a lava lamp. No longer just the same face, each person takes on the body of the man up on the road. Their clothes shift and change to become the same uniform jeans and distressed leather jacket. They come closer. They ask him what’s wrong. The voices are all the same pitch. The same tone. Cajun Louisiana.
“No! Get back! Get back all of you!” Collins screams and twists himself up to his feet, his boots digging through the harvest mud. He scrambles back up the embankment and sprints to the driver’s side of his cruiser. Ripping open his cruiser door, he points at the man standing behind the tailgate of the old Ford.
“Get the hell out of here! Don’t let me see you again!” he screams. The Deputy drops back into his vehicle and cuts the wheel, peeling out with a shower of gravel as he guns the engine and heads back east.
The young man takes his hands off the tailgate and ambles back to the front of the truck. Climbing in and turning it over, he signals left and eases the Ford into the road. After a moment Sadie looks at the retreating red and blue lights in the rearview. She uses her own eyes, her own face, if only just for a second. Close. Too close. She should have memorized the young man’s ID earlier. Another lesson learned.
Sadie puts a hand on her side. The wound throbs each time she delves, the flesh refusing to shift along with the rest of her body. She’ll need a new vehicle soon, and with it a new face. That maneuver wouldn’t work twice. Sadie figures it will take them some time to sort out what the Deputy will be rambling about. By morning then, at the latest. She thinks on it for a moment. Better safe than sorry. Sadie delves again.