Working title- Jen’s Story: Chapter 6

I followed the instructions on the note, and I didn’t view the contents of the SD card until I was completely alone, an event which happened several weeks later. During that time, however, I didn’t just sit around.

The rookie arrived the very next day, and I discovered that she was assigned to take Sarah’s bed in our hall. I helped her move in, though I really just wanted to protest her presence.

She was a tiny little thing, and blonder than almost anyone else that I’d seen. Privately I wondered how she had gotten into the MRA in the first place, but I didn’t ask. She might have been Sarah’s replacement, but that didn’t mean she was going to replace Sarah as my friend.

Her name was Autumn, and she was way too loud, in my opinion. And that was just the first impression. When I took her to training with the team for the first time I saw exactly how viscous she was.

Because of her, it felt like I was never alone. Autumn showed up everywhere, and there was no way I could get rid of her. She picked up on my dislike and tried to ask me about it.

“I can understand why you might not like me,” she began the conversation. I had been filling out some paperwork and I paused, startled and confused by this. We had been sitting in silence for about a half hour, and I had almost forgotten that she was there. Which was how I liked it.

“Oh?” I asked, setting down my pen but refusing to look at her. I could feel her stare, burning the back of my neck, and I fought the urge to squirm.

“I’m new,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m doing half the time. I couldn’t stand showing someone like me around, if I was you.”

“There’s a lot more to it than that,” I said sharply.

“Obviously,” she said. “You also lost one of your team-mates. Squad members. You wish that I was her.”

She said this so bluntly that I all could do was stare. She had pegged a large portion of why I didn’t like her, but not all of it. My fingers itched to pull out the SD card, to find out what was on it. And I couldn’t do that if she was there.

“That’s part of it,” I conceded. “You’re a rookie. You haven’t lost you best friend to a mutey. You live, work and train with these people. You trust them with your life.” With each word I had become far more emotional. Autumn shifted uncomfortably, and I stared at her.

“I’m sorry,” she said in a small voice.

“No, you’re not,” I said coldly. “You don’t know yet what it’s like to lose your best friend.” I turned away, not wanting to talk anymore.

A couple of minutes later she left the room. After the door closed behind her I rested my head in my hands, giving in to the weakness I felt inside.

I just wanted to cry, again, but I knew that it wouldn’t do me any good. Besides, my eyes were beginning to burn from the constant tears.

I wonder how much time I have before she comes back, I thought by way of distracting myself from my misery, sliding a hand into my pocket, my fingers curling around the micro SD card. I slid it out and looked at it.

Suddenly I felt like precious time was slipping away. I pulled my laptop into the center of my desk and turned it on while I rummaged around for my adapter for the card.

With trembling fingers I inserted the card into my laptop. The seconds stretched out, each one feeling like an eternity as my laptop slowly read the card.

Twenty-five folders met my expectant stare. Each one had a series of numbers as its name, Dates, from the look of it.

I selected the first folder, which was dated two years ago. Inside it were three documents, each titled with a name.

“Alex,” “Jack,” and “Jen.” Adrenaline and confusion rushed through my body, and I opened my document. I was terrified I’d get caught, and yet eager to know at the exact same time.

Dear Jen, the document read. If you’re reading this, it means that something happened to me. It also means that I can’t explain to you in person what’s going on here.

The MRA is more than just a tagging and registration program, like they told us when we were recruited. They’ve been working on a way to “cure” the mutants. In other words, to neutralize the powers.

I know what you’re thinking, but let me tell you, it’s not as great as it sounds. The MRA has a team of scientists that specifically work with cloning and genetics. They also have unlimited lab rats. 

Some of the muteys (take that, spell-check!) we bring in have no records of family or a permanent address. Sometimes they refuse to tell us their names, and they’re entered into the system as “John” or “Jane Doe.”

Who cares if these unknowns go missing for the sake of science? But even with the people who have families, sometimes the family gives the MRA permission to experiment on the mutey.

I don’t know exactly what happens in those labs, but I do know one thing- when the mutants come out, they’re either powerless (and test clean of the drugs, too) or dead. I saw them removing the bodies while I was on watch one evening, and I went to Iron Silk about it.

He told me that he’d look into it, but he hasn’t gotten back to me and he’s been treating me differently since then. I think I might be in trouble here, Jen, BIG TROUBLE.

Anyhow, I’m sure you’re wondering what all of this has to do with the rest of the SD card. They’re profiles organized by the date we collected the mutey on.

When you open the larger folders, that’s by month and year. I went back two years and copied every John or Jane Doe, every mutey whose family turned in a form saying they could be used in experiments, and every mutey we’ve lost, or who’s gone missing.

I don’t know exactly what they’re doing to them, but this is not what I signed up for. Look into it for me. Promise me, Jen?

Lots of love,

Sarah

I stared at the screen for a moment, tears welling. On one level, this explained so much. On another, it opened a whole new world of questions.

I knew in that moment that I had been thrown into a whole new world of problems, and I didn’t like it. If what Sarah had told me was true, then I didn’t want any part in it. If what Sarah had told me was true, that explained why she had been killed.

Even if it wasn’t true, Sarah had died believing it, and I wasn’t going to just ignore her last request. The letters on the screen blurred as I stared at it. I knew in my heart what my response was.

“I promise,” I whispered.

“Promise who what?”

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Working Title- Jen’s Story: Chapter Five

Oddly enough, I wasn’t nervous as I made my way to Iron Silk’s office. It didn’t feel like a death march or anything that dramatic.

When I tapped on the door, there was a slight pause before the door opened. During that pause, I smoothed my sweat pants and ratty old t-shirt, and ran a hand through my hair. There was no sense in looking as bad as I felt, now when I was already in enough trouble as it was.

Iron Silk opened the door himself, and ushered me in. There was a closed look on his face, and I hovered in front of his desk nervously. I could only be in his office for one reason, and that reason was punishment. I had known that I’d had it coming, from the moment I’d gotten out of the van.

“Take a seat ,” he said, motioning to the one chair on my side of the desk.

I dropped into the chair, still very nervous. He seemed to be aware of my state of being, and he shifted awkwardly in his seat.

“Miller, I know that it is never easy to lose a friend in the line of duty,” he began. “But it happens, unfortunately. It’s a tragic fact in our line of work, and while I wouldn’t say that you need to get used to it, I would advise you learn how to remain professional. Castello knew what she was getting into.”

I lowered my gaze to my hands. I couldn’t say anything, not without getting into even deeper trouble. He apparently didn’t expect a response, because he kept talking.

“Sarah Castello’s death was an unfortunate and unforeseeable accident, and we will miss her membership in the squad. She was a good woman and a good soldier,” he continued. “But she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now, I’m not trying to minimize her or to make her death sound like a trivial matter, but soldiers die. A good soldier knows how to follow orders, regardless.”

I looked up at him, my anger not able to be contained any longer. Just as I opened my mouth to protest, he cut me off.

“You’re a soldier, Miller, regardless of what your relationship with Castello was. You chose to disobey orders, did you not?”

“I did, but-“

“You know the rules, Miller. Didn’t they teach you in boot camp?”

“They did, but-“

“You have no excuse for what you did,” he cut me off again. “You’re not a rookie. You knowingly disobeyed orders. You know the punishment for that. That’s not the only reason I called you here today, though.”

I looked up, startled. A thousand thoughts flitted through my mind, but I knew that not a single one would be a good response to that, so I kept my mouth shut. Apparently he wasn’t expecting any reply.

“There will be an empty spot on the squad. A new member will be chosen. You’ve been on the squad the longest of any of our current members. I want you to show the new kid the ropes. And Miller?”

“Yes, sir?” I asked, fear coursing through my body. He was looking at me oddly. I didn’t like that look. It was almost like he knew that Sarah had tipped me off.

“Stay out of trouble.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Dismissed,” he said, lowering his gaze as my paranoia kicked into full gear.

What does he know? Does he know I know? What am I talking about? I don’t know anything except that I’m not supposed to trust him. And that someone’s a traitor. Damn it all, Sarah! Why couldn’t you have left better notes? Or, I don’t know, not died? Or not left me any notes. God, Sarah, what were you thinking? Why? What’s going on?

I made my way back up to the dormitories and began unpacking my overnight bag. As I put my clothes in the wardrobe that was supposed to be mine and Sarah’s I was hit once more with the empty feelings of loneliness.

Within seconds, I went from feeling fine to severely claustrophobic, and I pulled my jacket out and on. I needed to move, to get away. The room was too small, and all five people currently in the room were five too many.

I walked around the compound briskly, trying to keep from crying, again. A cool wind blew steadily, stinging my cheeks and clearing my aching head slightly.

Iron Silk can’t possibly know that I know anything. I don’t know anything. I’m being totally unreasonable. Besides, Iron Silk must trust me. He’s having me show the rookie the ropes, I thought pausing beside a trash can. I started to clean out my pockets when my fingers closed around a neatly folded piece of notebook paper.

Curiously I pulled it out and unfolded it. Something small fell out of it, and hit the concrete. I bent to pick it up, confused as to where it had come from.

Turning it over in my hand, I realized that it was a micro SD card. I didn’t remember getting one, and I stared at it dumbly for a moment, before looking at the note it had been wrapped in.

Sarah’s handwriting stared back at me again. Top secret. Seriously- don’t view this info in front of ANYONE!

I studied the message for a moment before glancing around. There were people loitering around the yard, but no one seemed to be interested in what I was doing. The SD card felt like incriminating evidence, and it felt uncomfortably warm in my hand. I slipped it back into my pocket, trying to act innocent.

You don’t know what’s on the card, I thought, feeling like I was overreacting. For all I know this is some joke Sarah was playing on me. I don’t know anything. It doesn’t have to be something suspicious. I’m not doing anything wrong.

All the same, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something much bigger than I knew had found me. Sarah’s death hadn’t been an accident. She had known something, something important. I just knew it.

Working Title- Jen’s Story: Chapter Four

The rest of breakfast was rather awkward, but otherwise it wasn’t noteworthy. I took Alex back to his mother’s home when we’d finished, and then began my drive back to the MRA base.

Once I was alone, my mind began working overtime to process everything that I’d been trying to ignore for the last several days. Things just weren’t adding up. Why hadn’t the mutey, if Sarah really was killed by a mutant, used their power to do her in? Why was she shot?

Where had the gun come from? If there was a registered firearm at the address we were going to, it would have been mentioned in the briefing. However, our commander mentioned no such gun to us, which meant that either the gun was an illegal one, of that it was one of ours.

“I’ll ask the commander about that,” I murmured, exiting the highway and making my way down the small road that led to the base. It was a lonely winding road, and I had often enjoyed the solitude as I drove on it.

It’s so nice to be alone sometimes, I thought, relaxing slightly and slowing to match the new speed limit. Suddenly something occurred to me, and I swerved to the side of the road violently.

Sarah was alone when I found her, I thought. She was alone, and I didn’t see anyone else on my way in. That’s not standard protocol. She should have been guarded by at least one person, even if the squad had split up.

                With trembling hands I yanked my notebook out of my purse, and flipped through it. A loose sheet of paper fluttered out, and I fumbled with it as I caught it.

In Sarah’s messy scrawl were four solitary words. As I read them, I felt as though all of the blood had drained out of my body.

“Don’t trust Iron Silk.”

When we’d been assigned to our squadron, Sarah had taken it upon herself to nickname everyone, so she could talk about them without them knowing. I’d laughed at her, but then I’d learned the nicknames anyhow.

Iron Silk was her nickname for the commander. Sarah had explained her reasoning to me- “He’s from the South, and he’s been raised to be a gentleman,” she’d said. “Southern gentlemen are bred to be an iron fist in a silk glove.”

Why shouldn’t I trust him? I wondered, flipping to the page I had doodled on during the funeral. It occurred to me that Sarah liked to leave notes in sneaky ways, and I traded my pen in for a pencil.

Carefully I shaded the page, looking for anything. The indents from Sarah’s note appeared, and then at the bottom of the page was a single word.

“Traitor”

I set the pad of paper aside and sat in my car, thinking. Did Sarah mean that our commander was a traitor? Was she referring to herself? Or maybe to me? But that made no sense.

What should I do? I wondered, resting my head against the headrest. Sarah told me not to trust the commander, and I can’t go any further above him without him finding out.

                I studied the road ahead of me, feeling trapped and confused. The notes Sarah had left made no sense and I felt like the entire thing was beyond my comprehension, let alone control.

I need a plan, I thought, determined to change my current status of helplessness. What do I need to do? Find out who, and why, Sarah told me not to trust, and who she called a traitor. How can I do that?

My frustration was growing the longer I sat there. It was like I’d hit a dead end.

I won’t get any answers by sitting here, I thought, turning the car on. I’ll ask the commander about the gun thing. See how he reacts. Do a little digging. Play it by ear.

Quickly I pulled back onto the road and made my way back to base. A churning in my stomach that had nothing to do with my drinking the previous night had started, and I almost wanted to throw up again.

Don’t waste those pancakes, I thought determinedly. They tasted pretty good going down, and I can guarantee they won’t be anywhere near as good coming back up. Besides, they didn’t cost you anything. You can’t just waste a free breakfast.

I parked my car, and turned my keys in at the office, signing myself back onto the premises. The lady at the desk looked up at me oddly- with a mix between boredom, sympathy and curiosity written on her face.

“You went to the funeral, didn’t you?” she asked, staring at me, scrutinizing my face for any betrayal of emotion.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You going to be okay?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said again, forcing a grin this time. It felt odd on my face, like a leer, and I let it fade away.

“Good to hear it, sweetie,” she said, looking away. “I have a note here, telling you to report to Commanding Officer Murphy’s office ASAP.” I grimaced, and a slightly dry smile crossed her face.

“You sure you’re going to be okay?”

“Yeah,” I said. “What’s the worst that can happen to me?”

“You don’t want me to answer that,” she said, turning away from me, her swivel chair squeaking under her.

“No, I don’t suppose I do,” I said with a sigh as I left the office. And you don’t even know the half of it, I added silently.

Chapter One to other nameless story

“You’re looking especially beautiful tonight,” my boyfriend whispered to me. I smiled up at him as we came to a stop outside of my door. “I guess we should say goodnight.”

“Do we have to?” I asked, leaning into him, my hands on his chest, sliding down the slick leather.

“I don’t think your daddy would be all to happy with me if I didn’t get you home by curfew,” he said, grinning. Then he leaned in and kissed me.

I jerked back in shock, a gasp escaping from between my lips. Pain, unlike any I’d ever experienced shot through my heart and body. He stared at me, confused.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, seeing the hurt in his eyes. “I’m sorry.” I leaned in to kiss him again.

The moment our lips touched it was like a surge of hurt pulsing through me. I pulled away, covering my mouth with my hands. What’s happening? What’s going on? I thought, trying to push away the pain.

Images and blurry memories filled my vision, memories that weren’t mine. A man, hitting me with a paddle, again and again, cussing me out with every swing. A twisted ankle in the middle of a football game. A throbbing in my head. A girl yelling at me, then slapping me before turning and walking away.

“Kelly, are you okay?” he asked, gripping me by my upper arm. I looked up at him, surprised to feel wetness on my face. “Kel, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” I whispered.

“Are you okay?” he asked me again, urgently.

“I’ll be okay,” I lied, drying my face. Pain, both physical and emotional had filled my body, and although it had numbed a little now, it was still a dull throbbing ache in every fiber of my being. I leaned against him, wanting nothing more than to be comforted.

“Should I knock?” he asked, concern written all over his face. “You don’t look too good.”

“I’m fine,” I insisted, straightening up. I knew that if my parents saw me like this, they’d think that he’d done something. I reached for my house key, fumbling with the button on my coat pocket. Finally I got it out, and I hurriedly unlocked the door, with shaking hands.

“You’re white as a sheet. You sure you’re okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine.”

“I don’t believe you,” he said.

“You don’t have to,” I said, pushing the door and turning to look at him again. Guilt sliced through the pain like a dull knife, that I had pulled away from him twice in pain.”I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” he asked as I closed the door behind me. “Kel, you just can’t do that!”

I didn’t care. I wanted to get away before I started crying again. I felt positively miserable. I didn’t know why, I just wanted to make it stop.

“Kelly, is that you, sweety?” my mom called from the living room.

“Yeah, mom,” I said, making my way to the steps, moving quickly.

“How was your date?” she asked.

“It was great,” I said, hoping my voice didn’t betray me.

“That boy leave already?” dad asked, also from the living room.

“Yeah.”

“Good,” he grunted, and I made my escape up the stairs, three at a time. When I shut my door I finally let myself cry, sliding the the floor.

Everything had started out good. We’d had supper, gone to see a movie. Then he took me for ice cream, and brought me home. Everything had been good. Great, even. He’d treated me gently, sweetly, and with respect. He hadn’t tried anything. That kiss had been the first time he’d even touched me anywhere but my hands or upper arm.

I covered my face with my hands as I tried to figure out what was going on. It didn’t make sense. It was almost as if it was the kiss that had caused this pain. Everything had been fine before that.

I’ll take a shower, and then I’ll go to bed, I told myself, trying to catch my breath between sobs. I was calming down slightly, though I still hurt. I forced myself up, and went through the motions of my night time routine, zombie like.

I cried myself to sleep that night. The first time out of many nights to come. My life had changed that night.

The next morning I went to school. I was antsier than I had been in a long time, all day, jerking away from the smallest touch and jumping at even small noises. My friend caught me in the cafeteria, where I was sitting alone at lunch time.

“What’s going on?” she demanded, sitting down across from me. I stared at her blankly. “Come on, don’t play dumb. You’re acting weird. Did something happen on your date last night?”

“No, not exactly,” I said.

“Oh come on, either it did or it didn’t,” she said, impatiently, leaning forward.

“Well, something weird happened last night,” I muttered, stabbing the rather unattractive fettuccine with my fork. It looked even less edible than normal, and it made my stomach turn, just looking at it.

“What happened?” she asked. Avoiding her stare, I started to explain.

“Well, when he kissed me good night-”

“He kissed you? Is he a good kisser?” I glared at her, and she blushed. “Sorry, continue.”

“When he kissed me, it was like things that had hurt him hurt me.”

“What?” she breathed out, surprised. “What do you mean?”

“It’s like the memories of things that had hurt him came into me. At least that’s as near as I can figure.”

“So, like, telepathy? Like he shared his memories?”

“I don’t know,” I muttered, dropping my fork. My hands were shaking again, and I ran my fingers through my hair, staring at the table miserably. “But I’ve hurt since then.”

“What do you mean, hurt?”

“It’s like they happened to me,” I said, trying to think of how to explain the gut wrenching pain. “It’s like I went through it.”

“So you’re ampethizing with it?” she asked.

“Empathizing,” I corrected. “And no. It’s like I was the one they happened to. Like it was real.”

“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” she said, reaching across the table and patting my hand, which was now resting on it. Her touch felt like a burn, and more pain washed through my body again. I gasped out, and slid my hands back into myself.

“What is it?” she asked.

“It happened again, just now,” I whimpered, closing my eyes and willing myself to not cry. Fresh memories crowded my mind, her memories. It was like a film of the most painful memories in her life. I looked up at her, pity filling me.

“I didn’t know that you hurt that badly about George,” I muttered. She blinked at me blankly.

“What’re you talking about?”

“George,” I said. “Your ex. The one who cheated on you.”

“Yeah, I know,” she said, looking confused. “What are you talking about? I’m not upset by him. I mean, I am a little, but I don’t-” suddenly her eyes got big. “You took my hurt, when I touched you.”

Working Title- Jen’s Story: Chapter Three

We went back to my place and did exactly that. It must have been successful, because I woke up on my couch with no memories of the night before.

Alex was fast asleep on the coffee table, his shirt off, but otherwise clothed. Bottles and cans littered the floor of my tiny apartment, and I grimaced when I saw some of the clothing I was wearing yesterday mixed into the mess.

My head was throbbing with a passion, and I cradled it as I made my way to my bedroom. Quietly I shut the door and I gingerly crossed the room to my closet.

Having gathered an outfit and my towel, I let myself into the bathroom. A warm shower will definitely help, I told myself, pausing as I searched through my medicine chest for an Advil. I downed it dry, and turned on the shower.

As the water fell on me I began to panic. None of this is real. It can’t be, I thought, punching the wall of the shower as my knees gave way beneath me.

All of my disgust, my frustration, and my alcohol came rushing up, and I doubled over, vomiting hard. Coughing and spluttering I changed how I was siting, tucking my knees under my chin.

She’s really gone. You have to move on. Keep going. Sarah would be annoyed by how you’re behaving, I told myself, the water still falling on me. I hated myself and the way I felt. I hated the muteys for killing Sarah, and above all else, I hated her team. They had let her die. They hadn’t been there for her when she needed them the most.

The water was now turning cold, but I didn’t feel like turning it off. I knew that my water bill would be high, but I didn’t care.

I jumped at a knock on the bathroom door, which sounded and felt like a gunshot to my poor aching head. The shock was enough to convince me to turn off the water, and I did so.

“I’ll be out in a moment,” I called, wrapping myself in my towel, drying off vigorously as I moved.

“Okay,” Alex said. I heard the rasp of fabric against the wood of the door frame, and I sighed, throwing on my clothes.

I need to scrub down the tub, I thought, eying the floor of it. I guess I’ll do that after Alex is gone.

As soon as I was decent I pulled the door open, stepping back a half step as I came face to face with Sarah’s brother. He still hadn’t put his shirt back on, and there were dark circles under his eyes.

“What’s a guy got to do to find an empty bathroom around here?” he croaked, grinning at me.

“Try waking up earlier, dear,” I said sarcastically. “It’s first come, first serve around these parts.”

He laughed and pulled the door closed behind himself as I turned away. I made my way down the hall, pausing at the doorway of my room to swap my towel for my hairbrush. When I returned to the living room, I took a deep breath, surveying the floor.

Where do I even start? I wondered. I guess at the door, and work my way across the room.

I heard the shower turn on, and I sighed. Alex was leaving me to clean up on my own. How typical of him. At least the shower wasn’t at the top of my to do list anymore.

By the time he had reappeared, I had most of the mess cleaned up. He watched as I threw the last beer can into the recycling bin and stood up.

“Would you like to go out for breakfast?” he asked, leaning against the door frame again.

“I can’t afford it right now,” I said, turning to face him. My headache, although numbed by the Advil, was still ferocious, and it was not helping my temper any.

“I’ll treat,” he said simply.

“Is that Alex or his hormones speaking?” I asked, the sarcasm practically dripping from my words.

“I just took a cold shower,” he pointed out drily. “And I’m pretty sure my head hurts just as much as yours, so there’s no need to get snappy with me.” He eyes we with his steady brown gaze.

“Fine,” I said, reaching for my hairbrush. “Just let me do my hair first.”

“Ugh!” he scoffed. “The famous last words. I’ll be waiting for hours while you crimp and blow dry and smooth it.”

“You’ll be waiting ten minutes with I drag a brush through it,” I countered.

“That’s what they all say,” he said, grinning as I vanished into my bedroom.

The brush slid through my short hair easily, and I was done within two or three minutes. Instead of rejoining Alex, though, I studied my reflection in the mirror.

My eyes betrayed my exhaustion, bagging slightly underneath, and my skin looked pallid in the morning light.My lips, on the other hand, didn’t look as colorless as the rest of my face, nor as terrible as the rest with the exception of a relatively recent cut.

Hesitantly I probed the cut, straining my aching head to try to remember where it had come from. I knew that I hadn’t had it before the funeral yesterday.

I’ll ask Alex, I thought, turning away from the mirror and grabbing my handbag.

“Told you I’d only take a few minutes,” I said as I walked back into the living room.

“I suppose you’re right,” he responded calmly. “Now, are we going?”

“Sure,” I said, making my way to the door. “That is, if you want to go.”

“Trying to get rid of me?” he asked, grinning easily.

“Wait, what?” I asked, completely confused by this shift in tone. He laughed and led the way out of my apartment and down to the parking lot.

“You’re not the only woman who’s been anxious to see me go,” he said, sliding into the passenger seat.

“I can’t imagine why,” I responded, backing out of the lot.

Silence fell as I made my way to the local diner. It wasn’t until we were seated that Alex spoke again.

“Sometimes I disgust myself.”

“Oh?” I asked him, disinterestedly. “You finally noticed how gross your eating habits are?”

“No,” he said, pausing until he had given me a satisfactory glare. “I find it disgusting how we can play pretend, how we stuff our true thoughts and feelings deep within as we drink and party and make out. How, when something’s not comfortable to our sensitive little selves, we try to ignore it.”

“True,” I murmured, resting my chin on the palms of my hands. “That reminds me. I was wondering if you remembered what happened last night.”

His lips twitched slightly, amusement appearing in his eyes. A sudden feeling that I wouldn’t like the answer to that made its presence known in my stomach.

“We drank,” he began. I bit back the urge to make a nasty comment again. “And we danced and kissed.”

“Was that all?” I prodded, my blurry memory agreeing with what he said. An uncomfortable warmth from shame and humiliation was filling me steadily.

“Even if I remember are you sure you’d want me to tell you?” Alex asked curiously.

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling a slight blush coloring my washed out cheeks.

“Well, I see that point where you’ve had too much to drink for you to remember clearly a blessing,” Alex said, leaning back. There was a brief pause in conversation before a tired looking waitress came up to take our orders.

As she vanished into the kitchen, a smirk appeared on his face.

“If we’re going to talk about last night, can I just say that you have very nice legs?”

The blood rushed to my ears, pounding and thundering like a stampede of elephants was running through my hurting head. Half-consciously I wished that the booth would just open up and swallow me. Alex was laughing, and the way he was looking at me told me that he remembered far more than he claimed to.

“You bastard,” I hissed angrily.

“Has anyone ever told you that whatever you feel shows on your face? Your expressions are very entertaining,” he said, every ounce the younger brother. It made me feel sick to my stomach with shame and I felt disgusted with myself.

“I’m going to kill you,” I told him, taking as dignified a sip of my tea as possible while glaring over the rim of the cup.

“Now, is that how you react to a compliment?” he asked, laughing at my rage.

“You bastard,” I repeated.

Working Title – Jen’s Story: Chapter Two

“Jen, are you okay?” someone was speaking to me, and I groaned.  I opened my eyes partially, admitting the slightest bit of blinding light into my black world. “Jen, wake up.”

“Go away, Alex,” I muttered, knowing who it was without looking.

“Is that any way to treat the bereaved?” he asked.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that I’m taking this harder than you were,” I said, opening my eyes the rest of the way and easing myself into a sitting position. I was laying on the carpeted floor of the church, and he was kneeling beside me. “What happened?”

“As near as I can tell, you passed out while everyone else was leaving. You’re just lucky mom sent me back in here to look for her earring,” he said, glancing at his watch. “Damn it, she’s gonna kill me.”

“Why?” I asked, rubbing my head. “What’s the matter?”

“The procession has left the church,” he said. “And I was supposed to ride with mom. Left my car at her place.”

“My Jeep’s in the lot,” I said, hauling myself to my feet and swallowing back the wave of nausea. “You dry enough to drive?”

“You kidding?” he asked, taking my hand. “Mom hasn’t let me have a drop of the good stuff all week. She even took my hard lemonade.”

“You had hard lemonade?” I asked, a little surprised by this. He’d never really seemed like the kind of guy to drink any kind of mixed drink.

“Trust me, it’s better than it sounds,” he said, leading me out to the lot, where my Jeep was the only remaining vehicle.

As I slid into the passenger seat, I felt the sudden urge to cry. Sarah was the one about to be put six feet under, but here I was, talking about booze with her brother. Silently I handed over my car keys, and we were off.

“It’s not right,” Alex said, glancing at me with concern. “For this to happen. I don’t know how it’s even possible for everything that’s happened to happen.”

“Everything?” I asked, confused.

“Sarah getting shot, the complications, the funeral prep,” he said, staring at the road very fixedly. “Everything that’s happened.” Silence feel for a moment before he spoke. “What was it like?”

“What was what like?” I asked, a sinking feeling in my stomach taking precedence. I knew what he wanted to know, and I didn’t want to answer.

“What was it like to be with her that day?” Alex asked, turning into the cemetery and pulling up behind the slow moving procession. I didn’t answer immediately, staring at the bumper in front of us, the tears I’d been trying to suppress all day filling my eyes.

“Terrifying,” I answered finally. “She was with half of our squad, and I was with the other half. She was shot and screamed. I went running to help her. She was dying already when I got to her.” I choked. The tears were falling freely, and I could see the mascara I was wearing drip from my lashes.

“And then?” he prompted, pity and fear on his face.

“She’d lost too much blood. There was no chance of saving her when the medics arrived. They took her in the ambulance, and she died at the hospital,” I continued, sobs racking my body. “Oh, God, it was horrible, and I couldn’t do anything. I was useless. All I was able to do was sit there and watch my best friend die.” He reached out and gently squeezed my upper arm. The words were spilling out of me, and I couldn’t stop.

“They took her to the morgue, and then the doctor came in with the fax to preform an autopsy, and an order for me to stay in the waiting room, that an escort was on the way. I left the morgue and I spent a good ten minutes in the waiting room,” I continued.

“Wait, an escort came with you?” he interrupted, obviously bemused.

“I had broken two of the basic commands. When I left the van, and again when I rode in the ambulance up to the hospital with her,” I said, wiping the last of the tears from my face. “I’m on the MRO’s version of parole. If I behave everything will go back to normal. At least that’s what they say.”

By now the funeral procession had reached her grave site, and Alex quickly turned off my car and returned my keys before getting out. I followed him with a leaden heart.

“Didn’t think you were coming,” Jack whispered to Alex as he sidled up to the rest of his family.

“Couldn’t find the earring, but I did find something else,” he whispered back, shooting me an encouraging glance over his shoulder. Jack followed his gaze, shooting me a questioning glance, which I returned with a shrug as the ceremony began.

I followed the progress of the coffin as they lowered it into the grave with my eyes, and I watched as they began to shovel dirt into the hole. Each shovelful felt like someone was pounding nails into my heart.

Finally I could take it no longer and I made my escape back to my Jeep. Once I was safely behind the wheel, I pried off my high heels, trading them in for flats.

None of this is real, I thought. There’s got to be something going on here. None of this makes sense. One gunshot, one casualty. No one saw the target except for my commanding officer and Jenkins, and where were they when I got to Sarah? I sighed, frustrated, and slid my notepad out of my purse, doodling to distract myself.

A loud thumping noise came from the passenger door and I jumped, my pen sliding up through my sketches. Alex stood there, waiting outside of the car. I smiled slightly and leaned over to unlock the door for him.

“You okay?” he asked. “I saw you leave, but I had to stay there.”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I lied.

“Good,” he said, sliding in. “Cause I really need that drink now.”

“Let’s go get some booze, then,” I said. “And head back to my place, cause I need one too.”

“I thought you said you were fine,” he said gently, his lips twitching slightly. Without further comments, though, he directed me to the nearest spirits store, and he disappeared into it. About five minutes later he exited with a decently sized bag.

“You worry me at times,” I said, watching as he buckled in.

“What?” he asked, a disbelieving laugh startled out of him. “Why?”

“Well, think,” I said. “What did Sarah say when you’ve had drinking parties in the past?”

“It’s not healthy,” he said, miming her voice. Then he grinned at me roguishly. “But you can’t lecture me this time.”

“This time,” I promised, pulling out of the lot and into traffic.

I’m going to get drunk, and forget about all of this for a night, at least, I thought determinedly. I’m going to feel good tonight.

Working Title- Jen’s Story: Chapter One

The sea of black was threatening to drown me. There were hundreds of faces, some smiling politely, some sobbing or tear stained, while still others looked bored with the service to memorialize her.

It had been a week since she had died, and I still couldn’t believe it. Work was painful, because I’d turn to tell her something, but her desk was empty, or I’d go to order our meals before realizing that there was no longer any need for two.

“Sarah Rose was always a sweet girl,” her mother whispered loudly to some family member as the woman on the platform trilled her way through some hymn. Sarah lay in the coffin up front, beside several poster-board collages that boasted hundreds of pictures of her. A bouquet of roses lay in her hands, and I could almost here her telling me why they had to be roses.

“Do you know why I like them so much?” she asked, studying the bouquet he fiance had sent her for Valentine’s Day. I turned away from my desk to give her my full attention.

“Because your name is Sarah Rose?” I guessed. She smiled and set the vase of lovely red flowers on her desk.

“Wrong,” she answered, leaning in to try to smell them. “They’re so beautiful to look at, but when you pick one up you have to be wary. They’re dangerous, you know.” There was a dreamy look on her face.

“Dangerous?” I echoed, doubtfully.

“Dangerous,” she responded. “You touch them in the wrong place and you could hurt yourself.” I laughed at her and leaned back in my chair.

“You’re afraid of being hurt by the thorns?”

“No, not at all,” she said. “I want to be like one. Pretty, but able to draw blood. Even though the red ones don’t have much scent, they’re still nice, aren’t they?”

I was jerked out of my trip down memory lane as the singer managed a note that should never be heard on this side of Hell’s gates. Resisting the urge to cover my ears and cringe, I could almost hear Sarah’s comment on it. It was almost as if she was still beside me, not laying up front.

“What does she think she’s doing?” Sarah would say. “Summoning harpies?” I laughed quietly to myself.

I’ve got to stop this, I thought. It’s not healthy to hear voices. I bit down on my lip and forced myself to return my attention to the remainder of the service.

Everything seemed so surreal to me. It was so confusing. Sarah was so young, so alive earlier this week, and then she was laying a a pool of her own blood, the life draining out of her with every heartbeat. I’d seen her with my own eyes. This picture made no sense. How could it be happening?

She’d died less than two hours after I’d found her, and first the forensics team had to go over the scene, causing a fuss because the EMTs had not left everything as it was. Then someone, somewhere, had demanded an autopsy. The next thing I’d heard was that there were complications with the autopsy, so her body wouldn’t be released for a few more days.

Finally, the Mutant Replacement Organization* had released her body to the mortician and contacted Sarah’s family. They went through the motions, putting together her funeral and informing the near and dear. Today was the result of their work.

I rose and joined the line of mourners saying their last goodbyes. Sarah’s parents, a divorced couple, were standing at the foot of her coffin with her little brother standing between them. Sarah’s fiance stood on her mother’s other side, trying to calm, or stop, the hysterics before they even began.

“Thank you for coming,” Jack, her fiance, told me, hugging me awkwardly. “Sarah couldn’t have had a better friend than you.” I smiled slightly up at him.

“Squadron six will do that for you,” I told him. “For the record, she couldn’t have had a better guy than you.” He returned my smile distractedly as Sarah’s mother started another bout of badly suppressed sobs.

“Mrs. Castello,” I said, taking her hand. “I know it must be hard losing a child, but you need to be strong, for Sarah’s sake. What would she say if she were to see you now?”

This attempt to comfort her was cut off abruptly with a loud wail and a huge hug. Awkwardly I patted her on the shoulder as she sobbed into mine, and waited a few moments until she had calmed considerably.

“Thank you… You’re right, of course,” she said, releasing me as she dabbed at her eyes with a ratty tissue. “Sarah would think that I was a silly old thing, acting like this. But it’s not easy losing your child. Never easy.” With that she dissolved into another puddle of tears, and I shot a pleading glance at Jack, who quickly started to soothe her. I made my escape down the line, finding myself being hugged once again by Sarah’s brother.

“Alex, is this appropriate behavior for a funeral?” I asked him in a fierce whisper. He chuckled slightly, grinning easily as he let go of me.

“At this point, I couldn’t give less of a damn about what’s acceptable of not,” he said, looking around, a distant look in his eyes. “And do you have any idea how badly I need a drink or a smoke or anything?”

“Alexander Castello, you do not need either a drink or a smoke,” I scolded gently, earning an approving look from his mother.

“You have no idea how badly I need something,” he muttered. “Dad’s being in town has upset mom just as badly as Sarah’s death, and she’s swinging between tears and shrieking. I can’t take any more hysterical women.!”

“You’re just like Sarah,” I said quietly, reaching up and touching his face gently, without thinking. For an instant I had seen the passion, the humor and the life that had filled Sarah’s being in Alex’s large brown eyes.

“I hope you don’t mean that I’m best friends forever material,” he said, wrinkling his nose and making a face that only a little brother can make. “I’ve been friend-zoned way too many times this year already.”

“Alex,” I protested.

“Actually, I was hoping that you and I could go out for a drink after the dinner,” he said.

“Alright,” I said, the desire to forget and escape this waking nightmare overruling my better judgement.

“It’s a date, then,” he said with a wink.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” I returned darkly. With that I moved on to Mr. Castello.

I had never met the man before, and neither Sarah nor Alex had thought very much of him. Because of this, I had heard nothing but bad things of him.

He was a short man, and his Italian heritage was obvious, just as Alex’s was. Sarah, on the other hand, looked nothing like him.

“And who might you be?” he asked. His tone was brisk, and he didn’t seem to care that his daughter was laying in the coffin beside him. Revulsion rose in my chest, and I had to swallow before answering.

“I was one of Sarah’s friends and squad members,” I said, hoping my tone didn’t betray my disgust.

“The MRO,” he said, his lip curling derisively. “I don’t understand why Sarah felt the need to go join the government.”

“Technically, the MRO isn’t part of the U.S. government,” I said, tensing up. My distaste for the man was now personal. I, like Sarah, had joined the MRO out of feelings of patriotism. For this man, the father of one of our deceased comrades and friends,  to sneer at the work we did did not sit well with me. “We receive our funding from them and are required to report to the Senate semi-annually, but we are not part of the government.”

“Of course,” he said. “My mistake, Miss-”

“Miller,” I said, my tone a little sharp. “Jen Miller.”

“Jen? Nice name. Short for Jennifer, I suppose. Nice to meet you, Jen,” he said, offering me his hand, which I forced myself to take. As soon as he had released me, I sidled as far away from him as possible.

I paused as I neared the head of the coffin and looked down at Sarah. Her face was serene and composed, more peaceful than I had ever seen it in life. With the exception of the little wrinkle in her brow- which only appeared when she was thinking hard- and the petulant set of her lips, I could be looking at someone else completely.

What were you thinking about, Sarah? I thought, studying her. What caused so much thought that death itself couldn’t erase that wrinkle?

I heard impatient murmurs behind me, and I made my way back to my seat, wondering what could have been so confusing to her.

Surely not the mission. That was straight forward, until she got shot, I thought, watching the rest of her friends and family proceed past the coffin.

One of her high school classmates started crying loudly behind me as they lowered the lid finally, and the pall bearers flocked around, removing her coffin from the stand.

I wanted to run after them, to stop them from taking her to the burial grounds. I wanted to scream that it had to be a mistake- that we were here for nothing, that it was all wrong.

Sarah can’t be in that coffin. She can’t be dead. She’s going to walk in, laughing and joking, I thought as they carried the coffin out the door. But you saw her die. You were by her side until the EMTs took her into the ICU. That blood was hers. All of that blood.

Suddenly I couldn’t get enough air. The church was emptying out around me, but I didn’t notice. My world spun and I felt like I was drowning in blood. Her blood.

*Author’s note: I’m not sure if this is what I’m gonna call them or not. The name I was going to use got changed. If you have any suggestions, please post them in the comments below.