Desert Fire

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Sixteen

Reiley

“How much longer?” I ask Cadmar while staring out the window at the sun setting over the mountains.

We’re almost to Salt Lake, the lights of the city looming ahead of us. I can’t wait to be closer to civilization, even if we’re going to do some mission. After the smaller towns of New Mexico, Colorado, and now here started blending together, I’m ecstatic to be in the city.

“Only forty-five minutes,” he clips out, seeming to be pissed still.

He was angry I texted Payton, but became even more so when Conner called to tell him Janet found them and basically demanded to have a private conversation with Payton. The fact her mom has some way to find her means she’s probably been following Payton on all her assignments. I can’t help wondering what Janet would want to talk to her about in private and why the hell Payton would agree to it. When Conner told Cadmar how Janet was acting, he commanded they leave the second they were done talking, but I’m not sure Payton will listen. I hope she does.

With things slightly calmed down for us now, Payton’s all I can think about; well, her and everything Cadmar told me about my mom. He said she is nothing like Scarlet or Janet, which is apparently a huge relief. I want to know more about her, maybe even about when she and Cadmar were together. Was he different with her? Maybe even fun? I want to ask, but I’m certain he wouldn’t want to talk about it right now.

“Check on Kay, would you?” he asks, pulling me from my thoughts.

I spin in my seat as he’s had me do a few times during the drive. She’s mostly just slept, only moving a couple times, but he’s worried she hasn’t eaten anything and drank barely any water. Where she had some color coming back earlier, she now looks much paler and she’s staring at me with wide, agonized eyes.

“Help me sit up, please?” she croaks.

“You should stay lying back, Kadence,” Cadmar argues before I can respond, sounding slightly worried. Even the slightest bit of worry in his tone scares me.

“I’m extremely uncomfortable,” she tells him, sounding anguished, desperate.

‘Uncomfortable’ has to be an enormous understatement. But other than the tone of her voice, I would never know she’s in pain, let alone has a bullet hole in her side. With how much she reads and how little she spoke about her assignments, I never would have pegged her as tough. But she is, and I envy her. When my strength was put to the test, I was found seriously lacking. The memory of Bryn and Eva hammering on me with satisfied looks in their eyes still haunts me; their knuckles cracking against my face, then their feet pounding into my sides when I curled into a ball on the floor like a coward, a wimp.

“Do you need more pain killers?” Cadmar asks, ripping me from the awful memory. “I gave you very little earlier.”

“They couldn’t hurt.” She chuckles at her joke, but instantly gasps in pain, gripping her side, sweat beading on her forehead.

I glance at Cadmar, whose jaw is tightened, his hands white-knuckling the steering wheel. He seemed so sure she would be okay earlier; now he appears to be pissed and unsure, in turn, making me hate myself even more. I caused this worry.

He doesn’t respond, but signals for the shoulder, even though no other drivers are on the road. The second he’s pulled over and we’re parked, I turn to watch while he opens her door and rummages through the first aid kit. Pulling some pills out this time— apparently he’s a pharmacist as well as a doctor—he hands them to her.

“I need you to shift, so I can take a look,” he tells her.

If possible, even more blood drains from her face, as if the thought of looking at it scares her, making me realize she hasn’t even asked to do so once. She still has Cadmar’s jacket draped over her middle, so I’m not sure whether she’s seen her shirt yet, either. It isn’t pretty and we probably should have changed it at the motel while she was unconscious, but I didn’t think of it then. I hate for her to have to stay in it.

While he moves his duffle bag to help her sit up, I hop out and go to the back. Finding a plain gray t- shirt in her bag, I go to where Cadmar’s standing. He has the jacket removed, her shirt lying in tatters from her boobs down while he inspects her bruised, seared side. The bruising is an awful purple around the circle of the bullet hole where the skin is melted, which has my stomach jumping up my throat. Her head is turned away with her eyes screwed shut, making me briefly consider holding her hand or something for comfort, but I think better of it.

“Is that normal?” I ask, pointing at the purple skin.

“The bruising, yes,” he answers without looking up. “If it were spreading further, we would worry, since that would indicate internal bleeding. We’re just lucky it wasn’t a larger caliber. Really, we’re lucky all around.”

Kay keeps her head turned away with her eyes closed, making me hate the whole situation. This is my fault. My sister is in agony because of me. When he’s done inspecting, he puts the jacket back over her, urging her to take the pills and drink more water. Once she’s complied, I snatch the jacket, holding it out to Cadmar while they watch with wide eyes.

“Hold it up,” I tell Cadmar. He takes it with a confused look, but does as I ordered. “Arms up,” I instruct her, holding the clean shirt up.

Giving me a look of relief, she holds her arms up, cringing slightly. I help pull the bloodied, ripped shirt off and she finally glances down at the branded skin then back up quickly with glistening eyes. I hurry to pull the clean shirt on, so she can’t look at it any longer.

“Thank you,” she says, her throat clogged with tears, her eyes still shining, but not one falls.

She’s so damn strong. I would be blubbering like a baby if this were me. For the first time ever, I want to be her, have the strength she has.

“Yup,” I pop the ‘p’ in efforts to keep things light, which is basically impossible, but one can try.

“We good?” Cadmar asks when I snatch the jacket from him.

Before either of us can respond, his phone vibrates in the cup holder next to me. I grab it while he comes around to his door and see the ‘Co’ on the screen before handing it to him.

When he answers with his usual, “Yeah?” I can’t help wondering what it means that it’s Conner calling and not Payton. Shouldn’t she be done talking to her mom? Shouldn’t they be headed back to the airport now? My stomach knots up, while he remains silent for a minute listening to Conner.

“You did what?” he yells, making my heart drop to my ass. I need to know what’s being said on the other end.

“I don’t care what she said; you know she’s lying. Something Janet said to her made her think she needed to protect you.”

He pauses again while my entire body itches with anticipation. If Payton’s in trouble, we have to help her! We can’t leave her to deal with her crazy mom all by herself.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” he sounds stiff. “Good. Keep an eye on her. I don’t think Janet would hurt her, but I want to know what’s happening.”

My phone buzzes during his next pause and I whip it out to view the text.

P: I screwed up...I’m so sorry. Please make sure Cadmar keeps Conner safe. I love all of u.

A choking noise escapes my throat, bile rising up it, making Cadmar’s questioning gaze snap to mine. Kay reaches forward, touching my arm, obviously wanting to know what’s going on. After showing her the text, she leans back with a heavy sigh while I quickly text Payton back.

Me: WHAT?!!

But it doesn’t go through, as I guessed it wouldn’t. She dumped her phone and now we have no way to get ahold of her.

“No, I’m almost certain she won’t hurt her,” Cadmar continues his conversation, both Kay and I listening helplessly. “She can take care of herself. Just keep watch and keep me updated.”

With that, he ends the call then looks at me with his brow creased, still gripping the headrest. “What did she say?” he demands.

I open and close my mouth then stick the phone out to him since I can’t seem to find my voice. From her text and his conversation with Conner, she’s obviously in some form of trouble, which I can’t stand; I can’t handle another of my sisters suffering today, especially not Payton. He stares at the phone for a second, his hand gripping the headrest harder, before he pulls back and punches the back door, making it slam shut. Staring off in the distance, he runs his hand through his hair then sighs before slowly getting back in the Jeep.

“What did Conner say?” Kay asks him, which I appreciate, because my voice is still missing.

“Payton broke things off with him and told him to leave,” he answers through grit teeth, wringing his hands on the steering wheel while we sit, unmoving. My stomach jumps up my throat again while we wait for him to say more. He stays silent for a long second in which I want to scream, but then he sighs. “She told him she wants to work with Janet.”

“Well that’s bullshit!” I yell, finally finding my voice.

“You don’t have to shout, Reiley,” Kay says, back to her calm self. Her scolding me at a moment such as this angers me, but when I look back at her to see her hands massaging her temples, I actually feel bad. She exhales heavily before going on, adding yet another layer of guilt to my unending pile. “We all know how much she dislikes this life, and from the sound of her text, she obviously didn’t want to leave him. There is only one way her mom could convince her to leave Conner.”

“Exactly,” Cadmar growls, glancing at both of us. “Janet must have convinced her she would kill him if Payton didn’t join her.”

“Do you think it’s only that though?” Kay asks.

“What do you mean?” I demand, my anxiety at its peak.

“Do you think that is all her mother wants?” she directs her question at Cadmar. “Does she really only want Payton to work with her or is there something else she wants with her?”

“I don’t know Janet anymore,” Cadmar answers. “But, I have the feeling she is even less sentimental now than she was when I did know her. This probably has very little to do with her wanting to work with her daughter. She usually only ever does things to benefit herself, such as, getting rid of Payton so she could continue her work.”

He pauses, taking a deep breath, making me want to scream. He rubs his hand over his neck, gripping it while he stares out at nothing. “We can’t worry about this right now,” he finally says, making my eyes widen in shock. Kadence gives me an apprehensive look as if she knows I’m about to explode. “We need to get back on the road and get this done.”

“But what about Payton?” I demand, leaning toward him, but he gives me a fierce look, which has me pulling back slightly. “We’re going to just leave her all alone with her psycho mom? We aren’t going to do anything?”

“She can handle herself,” he tells me what he told Conner earlier. “We will get this done tonight, no matter what.”

“But this is Payton, Cadmar!” I yell, ignoring the anger vibrating off him. “She tossed her phone. And if she thinks her mom would kill Conner, what makes you think she’s okay? We should be on our way already!”

“Enough, Reiley,” Cadmar snaps, his fierce gaze piercing me, but I’m not afraid of him. I glare with my arms crossed over my chest, holding my ground as best I can. “She’s strong, well trained. I have to think she knew what she was doing getting rid of Conner, that she had some form of a plan. She can take care of herself much easier if she isn’t worrying about protecting him, as well. And he’s watching her, so he can contact us if anything happens.”

“You don’t know for sure she’ll be okay.” I shake my head while stupid tears prick at my eyes. “You don’t care if anything happens to her.”

“I said, ENOUGH!” he shouts, slamming his hands on the steering wheel. He stares out the windshield, breathing hard. Okay, so maybe I said the wrong thing, but if it motivates him, I don’t care. His breathing slows, but the muscle works in his jaw. “What we are doing is going to help all of us. We cannot put it off.”

“Your plan sounds like it’s going to take forever, though,” I argue. “Why don’t we just blow the place up or something?” This seems like the simplest option to me, rather than infiltrating some system and rummaging through files. I don’t understand why no one has mentioned it as an option until now.

Kay gives me a weak smile, as if she likes the idea. “That would be ideal.” She nods. “But it is basically an underground bunker, in which we would have to place multiple bombs throughout the facility in order to destroy the entire thing. And even if we did that, they have other locations with access to the digital files. This location holds all of the paper files, so we can be sure those are destroyed. But we will have to hack into the database and destroy all files they have on us. If we blew the place up, they would still be able to access our electronic files in other locations, since the Cloud server would still be intact.”

What?

Cadmar nods his agreement with her assessment, but still looks pissed. I huff out a breath. This all seems too complicated, and if it’s going to take a long time, Payton could be killed in the meantime. “But this sounds like it could take forever,” I argue, not ready to give in. “Can’t it wait until we have Payton back? We should go get her from Janet first and you could kill her mom so she doesn’t bug Payton anymore.”

“You speak so lightly of death, Reiley,” Cadmar scolds and I’m slightly ashamed, because he’s right, but if someone’s threatening my sister, all morals go out the window. “This will take some time, but my contact is waiting to help us, so it must be done now. Without doing this, we would never be able to disappear for good, because they have all our photos on file. Even if we change our appearance, they have technology, which can scan our faces, matching them with our files. If we went anywhere with live cameras, they could find us.”

I want to argue, but it won’t accomplish anything, other than pissing him off. His reasoning does make sense—even though I don’t want it to—especially if he has someone who is willing to help us. And no matter how furious I am about it, he’s right about Payton. I hate the possibility of her being in trouble, but to pass up an opportunity to erase all of us from the Elites’ files would be stupid. I’m really not stupid, no matter how many tantrums I throw.

“She’ll be okay,” Kay tells me, leaning forward to touch my arm again, yanking me from my thoughts. “She’s been on more assignments than any of us, and she did most of those by herself. She really can take care of herself.”

I only nod, because I have nothing to say. Payton has been on a ton of assignments, a hundred to be exact, but her most recent one is the reason why we’re on the run. Kay leans back, only grunting slightly in pain. Cadmar puts the Jeep in drive without another word, getting us back on the road, while I obsess over the millions of ways Payton’s mom could hurt her.

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