The Winding Path
Rook wandered the convenience store, already ten minutes distracted from his original task of paying for fuel. He knew that he should get back on the road and keep looking for a nice, secluded location to continue his work, using the identity that he'd been provided with, but this place was unique enough that he couldn't help but explore a bit.
Most gas station stores sold all the same things and to an extent this one did to, but it also had all kinds of odds and ends that one didn't normally see. Fascinating. He suspected that it was because the store pre-dated the gas pumps and didn't quite fit in with the usual franchise system, instead continuing to serve its small community as the owners saw fit. He loved it.
People were now giving him odd looks as he stopped in the feminine care aisle. Strangely enough, the pregnancy tests had caught his eye. He liked their labeling system. One blue line, one person. Two blue lines, two people. It made him sad though, knowing that he would never raise children. He'd seen others do it and it looked very fun. But that was not his fate. Setting the longing aside, he decided it was finally time to make it to the register and pay.
He'd barely gotten his receipt back when a young woman burst out of the restroom in tears. Puzzled and curious, he was always interested in the behavior of people, he followed her outside. People were so remarkable. She was pacing, crying, kicking stones and talking to herself.
"Oh no no no no. What am I going to do? What am I going to do? No matter what I do, he's going to find out. I am so screwed." She turned and almost walked into Rook.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" He tried to smile pleasantly.
"Is there anything I can do to help, miss?"
"No. No one can help me now."
"You never know. Would you like to talk about it?" With a sigh, she dropped down onto a nearby parking block.
"Why the hell not?" He seated himself next to her and waited.
"I'm freaking pregnant. When my father finds out and believe me, no matter what I decide to do about this that bastard will find out, he'll disinherit me. He promised everything would go to my cousin if I got knocked up unmarried and now I'm going to be penniless. I can't do penniless!"
Disinherited? Was that so terrible? He had to admit that he didn't always understand the subtle nuances of societies so perhaps it was. Fortunately, there seemed to be an obvious solution.
"What if you married the father? Very soon. Then you could say it happened in wedlock." She snorted.
"And chain myself to that loser? Absolutely not! I was only with him to piss off my old man. There's no way that marriage would last and I can't stand the thought of him walking off with half my inheritance or more, which is the only way he'd ever agree to it."
Oh dear, this was a predicament. Such a shame. He bet the child would be a riot. They did always look like so much fun. It was why he'd always wanted one, even if life didn't work that way. He couldn't have children. Or could he?
He dredged up what knowledge he held about the legal nature of marital bonds. It was possible. And this place was fairly isolated. A good spot for him to work. Why not? He could have what he wanted, get his job done and solve her problem.
"Well, why don't you marry me and say it's mine. You can write up one of those documents…a prenuptial agreement I think. I'll sign it and never touch your money. Or you. I promise." She eyed him warily, like he was insane, but the offer was clearly too good to reject outright.
"Why? What do you get out of it?"
"I've always wanted to try parenting. It seems great. And this is a nice, quiet community. I'd be able to do my job in peace here. I think it will work out nicely." She still seemed uncertain, but quickly weighed his offer with her other options.
"Fine, but if you ever lay a hand on me, I will kill you."
"Good, then we're agreed. You can follow me to our family lawyer and wait in the office, while he helps me write the agreement. You won't be sneaking my inheritance off through any legal loopholes, I assure you."
"Okay, let's go." She stood and he started towards his car when she turned back towards him.
"Oh, by the way, what's your name?" He smiled, using the identity assigned to him.
~23 years later~
Hazel lay sprawled across the couch with a pint of brownie chunk chocolate ice cream and a glass of red wine, not a great combination but she didn't really care. She was a twenty two year old, divorced high school dropout, living with her mother.
She supposed she could have stayed at her home. He had left her everything. He'd abandoned all that had been theirs and disappeared to make a completely fresh start somewhere else. Everything was hers and she didn't want it. She didn't want any of it.
So she'd moved back into her mother's house, if you could call this gaudy monstrosity a house, and spent every day the same way she had since her divorce had finalized last month. Wallowing in self-pity and watching soap operas on the nearly wall sized flat screen television. They were ridiculous but they distracted her and she needed that as she forced herself not to look over at the foyer table, on which lay her copy of the divorce paperwork. She hadn't touched it and refused to even look at it.
How had things gone so wrong? She'd been the envy of her high school. And it wasn't just the family wealth. Granted her grandfather owned this community. He had a hand in every business and no one was elected to office without his influence and approval.
And wasn't just that her family and a few of their cronies were comparatively rich. School had made her realize that most other people in her community were poor, very poor. Actually borderline impoverished.
By high school she suspected that not only was her grandfather complicit in their community's economic status, he might very well have orchestrated in or at least had done so as part of a long lineage of greed and selfishness. To which she'd been a part of. She'd never done anything about it. She'd just enjoyed how everyone flocked to her as she tossed about a few measly scraps of her family's fortune.
To top off her ego trip, she'd been beautiful. With long, thick black hair, copper-toned skin, rich brown eyes and a shapely figure, she knew that her desirability had been real and not a figment of her vanity. She was probably less so now as she hadn't really been keeping up on herself amidst her wallow but in high school she had shined. Everything had been hers.
The unfair and ironic trifecta had been her intelligence. Although she'd been failing all her classes, it hadn't been from lack of understanding but boredom. She picked it up too quickly and rapidly lost interest as everyone else required more explanation. She never did any of her work and skipped out on way too many classes, quite a few of which were exams.
It hadn't seemed important at the time and honestly, she couldn't see how it would be important now. Even if she could learn easily, should she choose to, what was she going to do with it? There was no application for it in either her purposeless current existence or the cozy little home life she'd thought she'd signed up for. It seemed like a clever move back then.
After burning through all the more enviable options her school had to offer, in senior year, shortly after turning eighteen, she'd decided on the shy boy who had seemed hopelessly smitten with her, dropping out of school and marrying. Her plan had been to be a homemaker. Well not cooking and cleaning. She hired people for that. But she enjoyed buying things and decorating.
And she'd reveled in how he pampered and fawned over her, for that first year or so. But that had gradually eased off as he became increasingly dissatisfied with their situation. She was pleased with it and thought that her wants had been clear when they'd agreed to marry. If he hadn't been down with that, he should have said so then or at least reconciled himself to it. But that wasn't what happened. Not at all.
"What do you mean you're leaving?"
"Hazel, this isn't working. I've told you over and over. I've tried talking to you about it but you won't listen or even consider counseling. No matter what I do, nothing changes!"
"Because everything is perfect. Why should it change?"
"Because I'm not happy."
"But I am."
"Doesn't it matter to you that I'm not?"
"I don't see why you wouldn't be happy. This is how we were when you asked me to marry you and you were fine with it then."
"I was a kid who worshipped you as a goddess." "And I love that. What's wrong with it?"
"Hazel, I don't want some icon on pedestal. I want a lover and a friend. Someone I can grow with, build a life with."
"I don't see why I can't be all of that at once."
"Then that's part of the problem. It worked when we were kids because I just assumed that there was more to you than your vanity, that there had to be more. Apparently, I was wrong."
Unable to find the words to answer, she just gaped as he grabbed a hold of his bag, stuffed with some clothing and a few personal items of sentimental value, and walked out on her.
She hadn't seen him since he'd left her that final day. And of all the last words to leave her with. Why couldn't she have gotten something dramatic, like in the end of Gone with the Wind? Instead this was an all-out, depressing disaster.
The doorbell rang and she ignored it. Three rings later she remembered that she was alone in the house. Her mom had fired their last housekeeper and associated service this morning before going on a shopping vacation…somewhere, probably New York or Los Angeles, not that it mattered. The important part was there would be a whole new staff starting tomorrow, so right now there was no else to answer the door. She waited for them, whoever they were, to leave, but they just kept ringing the damn bell. Persistent.
With a growl, she tossed her empty and leaking ice cream carton onto what was likely a very expensive coffee table and dragged herself to her feet. The new maid service could deal with it tomorrow. It wasn't her problem.
Cranky, she shuffled over to the door and opened without bothering to check out any of the windows first. Her breath caught in her throat. There were two guys there who looked identical to her dad.
They weren't her dad of course. She'd know him anywhere. She was his princess. Could her dad have had brothers? Was he a set of triplets? He'd never ever spoken of his family so she had no clue. After an indeterminate amount of awkward silence, one of them finally spoke.
"We're looking for Rook." She blinked at him uncomprehendingly and his companion elbowed him.
"I mean we are looking for Collin McIntyre. We were given to understand he lived here." As her past came roaring back to gut punch her, her eyes narrowed at them hatefully.
"Not for ten years now. Get lost and never come back!" She slammed the door in their startled faces and leaned back against if fighting down a sob. She remembered the day she'd lost him in crystal clear clarity.
She was excitedly discussing the details of her upcoming twelfth birthday party as the mother of one of her many ever-changing best friends dropped her off home from school. There was an unfamiliar van parked out front but that wasn't unusual. Her mother had probably hired a new landscaping service.
Then the front door was open and it was never, ever just left open. She was confused but not alarmed. When she walked in she could hear voices coming from her father's man cave, probably the most unusual usage of the term ever. The place looked like a sterile science lab that had been built as an attachment onto the back of the house.
As she got closer, she could hear the voices of two women although the way they talked kind of reminded her of those pre-recorded messages you get when you end up stuck in a phone menu system. It was bizarre.
"Surrender and come with us."
"Never! Get out of here!"
But they just kept repeating "surrender and come with us." And then she could hear her father screaming. Instead of running to him, looking for a weapon with which to save him or even calling someone for help, like the police, she ran and hid in the closet.
Through the tilted slats she watched as two identical women in business suits with grey hair pulled back into the exact same updo, dragged the unconscious body of her father by the arms through the living room and out the front door. It wasn't until she heard the car doors slam and an engine fire up and fade into the distance that she even found the courage to crawl out of the closet. Her father was gone and she'd done nothing.
The police had never really believed her account and chalked it up to the stress of the situation. It had been devastating. Her father was the parent that she loved. With her mother, the atmosphere had always been one of frigid disinterest. It was the same indifference that seemed to characterize her parents' marriage, as though she and her father were mostly unknown tenants that her mother put up with.
But her father adored her. There was never any question that she was his number one priority above all other things. He showered her with time, affection and presents and seemed dedicated to the sole purpose of making her happy. She was his little princess and she'd basked in his unconditional love and adoration until the day he'd been stolen from her. It was that same unconditional love and adoration she'd tried to recreate by getting married, but no one could ever truly be her father's equal when it came to selflessly cherishing her.
Wiping away her tears, she pushed herself off of the front door and began wandering back into the house. Before long, she realized that she was at the door to her father's lab. She hadn't been in there since before that day. It had remained untouched since his abduction.
Taking a deep breath, she pushed the door open and saw that it in no way resembled her memories. The room was completely trashed, equipment torn about, shattered and scattered everywhere. And the whole mess was covered under an inch thick layer of dust.
She suspected that she knew what the women had been after when they'd come for him but until now, when those odd look a likes had shown up stirring up old hurts, she'd never had the guts to go look for it.
Maneuvering through the wreckage that had once been her father's immaculately tidy workspace, she navigated her way to the back of the room which was covered in old crayon drawings she had made over the years.
She went to the picture of her hugging her father on a hill, a memento of that day. She'd only been ten at the time. Placing her hand on the drawing, she pressed on it. With a familiar hiss, it popped out and she could open it, like a metal cupboard. Inside was a safe. The key code was her birthday. Typing it in, the safe clicked open. Yes, it was still there, reminding her of that day on the hill. The day he'd made it.
Winded and cheerful, she ran up to the large hill deep behind their house. She'd been digging through her grandmother's trunks in the attic to find some new dress up clothes when she'd looked out the window and seen her daddy setting something up here. She wondered what it was. Maybe it was fun. He was always building amusing contraptions for her to play with.
Excited at the prospect, she'd failed to note the weather. It had just been a sprinkle when she'd left the house and didn't seem worth going back to get an umbrella for. But now that she was at the hill, it had become a pelting downpour.
She didn't let it dampen her spirits. Sometimes it was fun to run and splash in the rain. Nothing bad could happen to her with her father nearby and if she got cold or tired, he would carry her home in his arms as he'd done a thousand times before.
Looking up at the hill, she gasped in wonder. There was a two foot high, glass cylinder full of a blue-green glowing liquid that seemed to illuminate the darkness cast by the storm. It was beautiful.
Her dad didn't notice her as he was busy trying to attach a long metal pole to a really complicated looking device affixed to the top of the canister. As the lovely glowing substance swirled around, she could detect several, long metal, oddly shaped wires dipping into it from the contraption. She was about to call out a greeting to him when a blinding bolt of lightning split the sky and struck the metal pole.
Her scream was drowned out by the boom of the thunder as she watched her dad jerk around like a broken marionette before being blown several feet backwards from his project. Scrambling up the hill, hindered by the mud and slippery wet grass, she clawed her way to his side and wrapped her arms around him sobbing.
She was so sure that he was dead. Nothing living could be so cold, still and hard. And then there was a mechanical whir and he seemed to become warm and pliant again. She could hear his heartbeat now. Strong arms wrapped around her, murmuring nonsense words of comfort. In the glow of the now golden substance in the canister, she knew that her dad was invincible.
Hazel reached into the safe and pulled out the now palm sized glass container of the substance, all that remained after two years of him doing God knows what to it in his experiments. It still glowed like encapsulated sunlight. Whatever this was, she was certain that he'd been taken because of it.
Seized with a sudden and intense hatred of the substance, she spun and hurled it across the room as hard as she could, wanting to smash it into a million pieces. Instead, it caught in a hoop of wire mesh snagged on a pliant, metal strip. The vial cracked as it struck, despite the give of the mesh. And then after the momentum of her throw was spent, the metal strip snapped back straight shooting the projectile back towards her.
Stunned, she could only stand there in utter disbelief as it came back at her and shattered on her chest, splattering her in the substance. For a moment she was in awe as it seemed to absorb into her skin. And then it felt like she was being filled with molten lava that was melting her from the inside out. The last thing she could recall was screaming in agony.
With a moan, she cracked her eyes open to the painfully bright light of her hospital room. What had happened? She remembered the lab and the pain. How long ago had that been? What had happened after? She only had vague glimpses of blurring through the house, electronic appliances exploding around her, bursting through plaster walls. No, that couldn't be right. That wasn't possible.
Speaking of not right, something seemed off with her room. There was no beeping or any kind of electronic sound. Weren't people in hospitals always hooked up to some kind of monitoring equipment or another? But there was nothing of the sort in her room.
"After you blew out the first few monitors, they gave up trying and just started keeping everything expensive away from you."
She tensed up as the voice called her attention to the doorway. There stood a man in a suit, with dark hair and eyes. There was something not quite normal about him. Not disturbingly so, like the women who took her father. He was just a little bit off. Strangely, it comforted her. Her dad had always been that way too.
"Who are you?"
"I'm Director John Bishop with the Earth Defense Force." The EDF? What did they want with her?
"I don't normally handle recruitment personally, but you were such a special case that I had to see you for myself. You're quite remarkable." Recruitment? Her? And yet, as she thought about it, she found herself warming up to the idea. It gave her a sort of purpose and focus that she'd been lacking since…since always.
"I warn you that it is not an easy job, but he work we do to protect our world is important. It can be your work too, if you want it."
Well if her ex-husband could get a fresh start, then why couldn't she? It wasn't too late to reinvent herself as someone could do important and meaningful things. The shallow life she'd led up until this point had not served her well. Maybe this opportunity was just what she needed. To be someone new. Someone better.
"Yes, I think I'd like that."
"Well then, good to have you on board Ms. McIntyre." No, Hazel was the person that she was leaving behind.
"I would like to change my name." He raised his eyebrows.
"That can be arranged. To what?" She thought about it for a moment before answering.
"I wish to be called Raven Shadowheart."
"Done. Welcome to the EDF Ms. Shadowheart."