Desert Fire

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Fifteen minutes later, we’re sitting at a table in the back of a Starbucks. Neither of us has touched our drinks. Gnawing on my bottom lip, which is cracked and sore from all the nervous chewing, I stare at the entrance, waiting for something to happen. Conner’s leg shakes, the muscle in his jaw working, and he’s looking at me with frantic eyes. After sitting there for twenty minutes, I start to feel stupid. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe she can’t always find me. Maybe it was a coincidence she found me before. I mean, she is the one who lives here.

“This is stupid,” I whisper, dragging my eyes away from the entrance. I look at the time on my phone. It’s almost six now. The sky has been covered in a constant overcast, so I didn’t realize how late it was. “Let’s go. We’ll go back to the airport. We may be a few hours early, but I’m sure Cadmar won’t mind.”

“You sure?” he asks with an eyebrow hitched up, sounding hopeful.

I only nod. I’m overwhelmed with relief and disappointment all at the same time, making me unbalanced. We get up and Conner places his hand at the small of my back, nudging me toward the door. I stop after only a few steps. She’s standing there, in the doorway…smiling at us.

She walks toward us, her smile glued in place. If I hadn’t seen her look outside the bus, I might actually believe this is a genuine smile. My hands shake and my bottom lip screams at me to stop chewing on it. Conner wraps an arm around my lower back, gripping my hip.

“Leaving already?” she asks in a gravelly voice, kind of like a smoker’s, when she’s only a few feet in front of us.

I can’t help but do a quick comparison to appraise what features I got from her. She’s a few inches taller than me and thin as a toothpick, her black thigh-length coat engulfing her. Her eyes are dark brown, her cheekbones sharper than mine, and her hair darker, but that seems to be the product of hair dye. When she takes another step closer, I cringe into Conner’s side with the fear of her trying to hug me, but she doesn’t seem like the hugging type.

“I’m guessing, since you’re here, Cadmar told you about me?” she prompts when we don’t answer her first question. Tilting her head, she raises her dark eyebrows, her smile never wavering. I nod, wishing I could come up with something intelligent to say or that I could not look like a coward, but it’s not happening. I’m meeting my biological mom, who abandoned me almost eighteen years ago. She nods too before moving her gaze to Conner and I notice the extra effort it takes for her to keep the smile there. “And who’s this?”

“Travis,” I answer quickly, before he can, surprised my voice doesn’t squeak as I thought it would. I will protect him at any cost. “This is Travis, my boyfriend.”

Her smile waivers at the last word, but only slightly. Conner doesn’t skip a beat; he reaches out with his free hand. Again, I notice her slight hesitation before taking it and she drops it after a brief shake.

“Travis, nice to meet you.” She tilts her head. “I’m Janet, Payton’s biological mother.”

The declaration makes my stomach clench. This woman…my mother…it doesn’t fit. I almost wish it were a sick joke. And I hate the sound of my name on her lips. She’s the one who gave it to me, but I don’t feel like she has the right to say it. It sucks how my only other option for a mother is Scarlet. One is no better than the other.

I’m pretty sure this is the most awkward, terrifying reunion to ever happen in the history of adopted kids meeting their real parents. It’s weird to think I’m meeting her for the first time, yet normalcy goes on around us. The shop is crowded and not one person has looked at us curiously.

If it’s possible, Conner clutches me even tighter, as if he doesn’t like Janet staking a claim on me. I’m probably going to have a bruise, but the pain lets me know he’s here, he cares.

“Nice to meet you, ma’am,” he says after a long pause.

“Payton.” She gives me a hard look, but the smile isn’t budging. “It’s been almost eighteen years. Don’t you think we could talk alone, just for a few minutes?” She gives Conner a pointed look.

“Not meaning to be disrespectful,” Conner grounds out through grit teeth, the politeness taking its toll on him, “but anything you need to say, can be said in front of me.”

I appreciate him trying to protect me, but I didn’t think this part through. There are things I want to ask her, things I don’t want an audience for. Janet’s face goes flat, the smile finally disappearing, which is actually a relief. I prefer reality to the illusion.

“Travis.” I clear my throat, looking up at him. His gaze snaps to mine, full of fury. He doesn’t like her; I’m glad we’re on the same page there, but I need my answers and some of them I’m not sure whether I want him to hear. “It’s okay. I would like to talk to her alone.”

He looks betrayed, as if I spit in his face. I hope he doesn’t hold it against me for too long. His jaw clenches while he lets out a slow breath. “Fine,” he says, before smiling pointedly at Janet. “I’ll go outside and make some calls.”

Janet glares at him, as if she understands he’s going to call Cadmar. His way of saying, ’don’t mess with my girl,’ and I love him for it; I love how much he cares. He kisses my forehead, giving me a pointed look, telling me to be careful with his eyes. I nod before he kisses me once more then exits the shop.

“I’m going to get some coffee,” she tells me once Conner is out the door. “Do you want anything?”

“I’m fine,” I say, more uncomfortable than I’ve ever been before. Coffee will not help. “I’ll go get a table.”

She goes to the counter to order her drink and I return to the table I had sat at with Conner. I sit facing the door in order to keep an eye on Conner, who leans against the window right next to the door, phone to his ear. Janet appears at the table, sitting right in front of me with her piercing gaze trained on me. All pretenses are gone, the traces of her smile completely vanished. Not one emotion plays across her face, which makes me even more uncomfortable. There’s no remorse, no happiness at getting to see her daughter close up for the first time in almost eighteen years. Nothing.

“That’s the boy from Chile,” she gets right to it, and it’s like a slap in the face. She laughs throatily at the shock I must be wearing; I hate the sound of it. “Yes, he’s the reason you’re in this mess, isn’t he?”

“What mess would that be?” I ask, trying for nonchalance, trying to compose myself. She knows a lot more than I gave her credit for, a lot more than she should.

“I know everything.” She smirks, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “It surprises you how I know so much, but I can help you.”

The words I was aching to hear when I first thought about coming here make me sick to my stomach. “What kind of help?”

“You could work with me,” she says it as if it’s the obvious answer. “I could protect you, better than that fool, Cadmar. You would also make great money, which I would only collect thirty percent of.” She pauses, sips her coffee. I’m shocked silent. She thinks I actually want this life and I’m quickly realizing how psychotic she is. “But you would have to cut ties with the boy. He’ll only weigh you down and he’ll end up getting killed.”

Her words are like tiny knives slicing away at me. “I don’t want to be an assassin anymore,” I whisper, realizing I probably shouldn’t have told her as much, but there’s no way I’m going to work with her.

She smiles again, but it’s chilling rather than comforting. What am I saying? None of her smiles have been comforting. “I was like you at one point in my life, when I found out I was pregnant.” I jerk back slightly, because I wasn’t expecting to go down this road, to talk about this, but I berate myself for showing more emotion. “Your father was actually happy, excited for us to have a baby. With all his optimism, I thought we could make it work. That’s why I disappeared.” She pauses, looking past me at nothing, but her face remains an emotionless mask.

“But it didn’t work. The second he found out what I was, what I had done, he shut down. He was terrified of me and he was going to turn me in. I killed him that night.” She stops again, watching my reaction. I try so hard to keep my eyes from bugging out of my head. She’s a psycho! “I couldn’t let him ruin me, ruin my career. I decided to still have you, but the second I did, I handed you over to an orphanage. I took a few months to get back in shape, then went back to the agency and never looked back.”

I’m chilled to my very core. This woman sitting in front of me is one hundred percent insane. She killed my biological father for no real reason, and even though I never knew him, it still hurts to know I’ll never have the chance to because crazy here killed him. I don’t know what I thought was going to come of this meeting, but it wasn’t this.

The panic settles in, nice and deep in my bones, the meaning of this conversation slowly making sense. I’m not stupid and she knows it. If she thinks Conner is the one keeping me from working with her or for her, she’ll kill him. After all, she didn’t hesitate killing whoever my father was and giving me up, in order to continue her work. Why would she hesitate in killing someone who means nothing to her?

In the two seconds this takes me to figure out, a smirk forms on her lips, as if she knows I figured it out. “Can you excuse me for a minute?” I sound ridiculously formal and I’m not fooling her at all, but I’m okay with that. I know what I have to do, what I should have done a long time ago, but was too selfish to consider.

“I wouldn’t run if I were you,” she says, still wearing her creepy smirk. “I’ve found you over and over again. I’ll always be able to, no matter where you go.”

“I’m not running,” I bite out, insulted she would think me a coward. At least my suspicions were right; she has a way to find me and I have to find out what it is.

“Good.” She smiles full on now, making me want to smack her. “You have five minutes.”

Holding in my retort, I turn on my heel, heading toward the exit. It was stupid to think this busy, public coffee shop would be safe. I have no doubt in my mind she would take drastic measures to keep me around. I don’t understand why she wants me so bad, but I’m not going to risk Conner in order to find out.

He’s still leaning against the window, his arms crossed over his chest. He looks grumpy, uneasy. When he sees me, he pushes off the wall, relief overtaking the grumpiness. The pit in my stomach becomes enormous, almost overwhelming. This is going to suck, plain and simple, but it has to be done. Maybe if I can get out of this alive, he’ll forgive me one day, but I’m less than hopeful for a blissful outcome.

Coming right to me, he wraps his arms around my waist, but I don’t hug him back. “Is everything all right?” He pulls back, looking down at me. “That was pretty fast.”

“Yeah, everything’s great,” I tell him, my tone flat.

“Okay,” he says, still uneasy. “I talked to Cadmar, told him we found her, how she acted.” He pauses, giving me a sharp look, but I keep my expression calm, cool. “He wants us to leave now. You did what you came here to do; he wants us to get out of here. I know she’s your mom, Payton, but we have no idea what she wants with you and it doesn’t appear she’s going to give any answers freely.”

He rubs his hands up and down my arms, trying to comfort me, as he always is, when I should be the one comforting him. Instead, I’m going to rip his heart out and stomp on it. I pull back from him, stepping out of his reach. Tilting his head, he gives me a questioning look with his brow crumpled.

“I know what she wants,” I say in a cold tone, which I hate using. “She wants me to work with her.” I shrug, as if it’s no big deal. But it is, it is a big freaking deal.

He laughs, actually laughs, as if I just said the funniest joke. “That’s ridiculous,” he scoffs. “Does she actually think you would ever agree to that?”

“It’s not that ridiculous,” I say, succeeding in getting some anger behind it, because I’m so blindingly angry at the situation I’ve gotten myself in. “She made some good points—” like inadvertently threatening to kill you “—and she has a solid plan. I think we would work well together.”

“You’re joking, right?” He smirks, but anger roars in his eyes.

“No, I’m not joking,” I spit the word, going for offense. “Look, you should go,” I say the hardest words

I have ever said, causing his head to snap back. I glance over his shoulder at the pedestrians going about their normal lives, brushing him off, but really, all I want is to run into his arms where I feel safest. “You can go catch the plane, get back to Cadmar. You should stay in hiding obviously, because of the Elites. I’m certain he wouldn’t mind helping you.” Even if I’m leaving him behind, I need him to be safe. After all, that is the point behind this.

“Screw. That.” He growls each word, getting so far in my face his breath tickles my cheeks. “You think I would just walk away? After everything we’ve been through, especially after today? No way in hell will I leave you.” His furious gaze bores into me.

“This would never work, Conner.” I shake my head, having to fight back a shiver. I drop my voice, hoping none of the onlookers hear me. “Today was amazing, but I am an assassin. I will always be one. I can try being someone else, but I’ll always be fighting those instincts and I’ll always be running. I’m so tired of running. If I do what I’m supposed to do, be who I’m supposed to be, I won’t have to run anymore. No matter how bad we would want this to work, you would never fit into my world. It won’t work.”

I absolutely loathe hurting him, but it flashes through his eyes before he glares. This is the right thing to do…at least, I think it is; I hope it is. He grabs my shoulders, his fingers digging in and I hold in the gasp when they grip my stab wound, sending a sharp pain down my arm.

“If she is threatening you, you need to tell me right now.” His eyes shift back and forth, trying to study mine while I work on keeping them blank. His anger is a palpable thing, which I can taste and feel surging into me. “I know this isn’t you. Please don’t insult me. Especially after today, what we admitted to each other, you can’t take that away. There is nothing she can do here. She can’t hurt you.”

He pauses, shaking his head some more. He doesn’t know there is something she could do and it isn’t me she’s threatening. I’m not certain I could stop her, since I’ve never seen her in action and have no idea what her fighting style is. She could out strength me and I won’t risk him getting hurt because of me, yet again.

“If she’s threatening you, we can leave right now. We’ll meet back up with Cadmar and he’ll take care of this. That’s how it should have been to begin with; he shouldn’t have let you come.”

The mention of Cadmar makes me wish he had told me no, that he would take care of this for me. He would know how to handle her and her threats. In fact, he probably would have killed her already. Regret consumes me. There are so many mistakes I’ve made, but coming here was the biggest one by far. Why did I think I needed to see her? Too bad I can’t go back. Last I heard, time travel doesn’t work yet. All I know is I’m not going to allow this mistake to get Conner killed.

“She isn’t threatening me.” I glare, trying to convey insult. “I was serious about what I said this morning, but that doesn’t negate everything else. Life doesn’t work only because you love someone.” I hold in the tears, which are fighting their way out while he stares at me in disbelief, the hurt in his eyes killing me. “You do know me, but you’ve never seen me work, you’ve never seen how good I am at it. This is what I’m good at, what I want to do and she can help me be better.” I pause again when his face crumples, his fingers gripping my shoulders tighter. Time to send it home. “Now would you please let go of my arms? You’re hurting me.”

Ha! He’s hurting me. I’m such a terrible person.

He drops his arms, giving his hands a disgusted look, before gazing back at me, his face void of emotion now. Covering the anger and hurt I know is there. “Fine, I’m out of here.” He shrugs, pushing past me, and I can’t help spinning around to watch him go. I want to stop him, want to leave with him, want to be anywhere but here. He stops, looking at me one last time.

“This isn’t something you can turn back from, so I hope you know what you’re doing.” Shaking his head again, he shoves his hands through his thick hair, making me want to do the same one last time. Or maybe kiss him once more, anything to take a good memory with me. Dear Lord, I’m going to miss him. “But don’t think I’m going to be there waiting for you to run back into my arms when you realize just how badly you screwed things up.” He walks away.

I stand there watching when he pulls his phone out and hails a cab. I know exactly who he’s calling and I wish it would actually help, but no one can help me now. A fire consumes the land before my eyes, destroying my dreams of love, of normalcy. With his absence, my hope, my beautiful Gravel Ghosts, go up in flames. Pain rips through my chest, my heart shattering to pieces while I watch his cab pull away. Once it’s out of sight, I take my phone out and send one last text before disassembling it and tossing it in the trash.

I return to the noisy shop to face the woman who carried me in her womb…who is now wearing a triumphant smile, which makes me want to tackle her to the ground. Conner’s absence is a giant hole in my chest, which I will carry until I figure out how to get this woman out of my life for good.

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