Chapter Eighteen - Traitor
Her wet hair caught up in a white towel, Charlotte dabs on concealer. It’s time to go back to school. Dad is confident his new vaccine, using a virus to infiltrate her cells, will stop the degeneration. Charlotte isn’t afraid of Anna Povic now. Her powers give her the confidence to face anything at all. And anyway, it’s not like she can go to the police with her story. Who would believe Russian spies and secret corporations amassing genetic material? For the moment her biggest concern is not becoming a zombie. The Anna Povics of this world are not much of a threat. She can deal with them.
Going back to school feels… weird, but she needs a sense of normality. True, she’s a different person with a different social position, not at the top like she is accoustomed to - more like somewhere out on the fringe. She’s pushing aside old barriers and creating new space for herself. A new identity. She picks up her hair drier and watches her chestnut brown hair fly around her face. Her cheeks are rosy. The eyes staring back at her are bright, the mouth pursed in a cheeky half smile.
Maybe all this has been a good thing. Maybe I needed to break free anyway.
Finishing her hair she leans towards the mirror to apply mascara. Her phone beeps. She picks it up and realises she hasn’t painted her nails for over a week. It’s been a long time since she’s gone natural. Does Gabe like it? She taps the screen. It’s a message from Tessa.
‘U back 2day?’
‘Yep. c u in Eng.’
‘Cool! news to tell u.’
Charlotte smiles to herself. How weird that Tessa still talks to her, after all that’s happened. It’s like getting to know a whole new person. The shallow, ditsy blonde Charlotte has known for years is actually a good, decent friend. Charlotte stares at her reflection in the mirror.
“Could I tell Tessa my secret?” she muses aloud. Her fingertip traces the bump which covers the dead spot on her face. “Maybe she’s already figured it out. I wonder what her news is.” She packs up her things and enters the walk-in-robe. As she flicks through the hangers she mutters, “God, I hope it’s nothing to do with Evan, that sleaze!”
Charlotte pulls up in the parking lot. Students are staring at her, pointing, talking behind their hands. She sighs, turns off the motor and gathers her things.
“Good morning.” Gabe is leaning on her car, grinning confidently. Gone are the days when she’d rather be caught dead than with a nerd.
“Morning.” She locks the car with a beep and slings her bag over her shoulder. She carries a satchel now, not a glittery Gucci with matching shoes and purse. God! Was she really that uptight? She can hardly believe it herself. She watches other fashionistas totter past, smugly looking down at her from their lofty social perches. Her jeans and cropped white leather jacket over a white lace top are perfect. And the boots are killer-gorgeous. No, I haven’t lost it at all. Just moved on. While the rest of those pathetic girls are still trapped in the dark ages. She walks with Gabe into the admin building. As they pass the Principal’s office, Mr MacMahon appears, clad in his usual suit and tie.
“Miss Campbell, a word please.”
Charlotte waves Gabe on to class. “I’ll be there soon. Save me a seat.” Gabe nods, looking worried. Charlotte smiles to herself.
“I can assure you, Miss Campbell, that this is not an amusing matter,” says Mr MacMahon standing at the door. “Step into my office please.” Charlotte stares at him. He’s serious! She steps lightly into the room. A large window overlooks the car park, beyond are the orderly pattern of streets and roofs.
Charlotte seats herself in the narrow chair facing his imposing desk. Mr MacMahon sits on the corner of it, his hands in his lap. He’s a man in his late fifties, with flaming red hair, a long, bent nose and bushy red eyebrows shading dark, deep-set grey eyes giving him the look of a tall, lean viking. It seems like an endless moment. She swallows.
“Do you know why you’re here?” He finally asks, his voice noticeably patient in tone, his craggy face unreadable. Charlotte’s heart is tapping a lively cadence. She grips her seat.
He leans back stiffly, purses his lips. The eyebrows scrunch down like two shaggy bears about to fight. “I’ve received a complaint, backed up by several students.”
Charlotte’s heart taps faster. A complaint? A volley of images flash through her mind. Abbi, Shona and her friends, Anna Povic...
“And I intend to get to the bottom of it,” he continues. “Frankly, I was shocked to learn that you were involved.”
“I’m... not sure what you’re talking about, Mr MacMahon.”
He regards her with scepticism. “This is your opportunity to set the record straight, Charlotte.” He folds his arms.
“If I knew what I was being accused of, I could tell you, but...” she spreads her hands. “I honestly have no idea.”
The Headmaster’s eyes glint and his tone hardens.
“You will apologise to Miss Macdonald and pay for the damage. Do you understand?”
“Or her father will be up here quicker than you can say lawsuit!”
Charlotte’s mouth drops open. Mr MacMahon gets up and rifles through papers on his desk, hands a sheet to her. Charlotte’s eyes blur. She can’t believe what she’s reading! Abbi is claiming Charlotte went on a rampage in Abbi’s car, smashing it into a power pole, causing damage worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. And broke Abbi’s arm. Charlotte looks up at Mr MacMahon, mute.
“I’m not sure you comprehend the gravity of this situation,” he adds gently. “Your behaviour has been strange of late. Is everything all right at home?” Charlotte stares at him.
“Everything’s fine, Sir.”
“Then explain your actions, young lady.”
She knows he’s being kind, trying to help her, but the piece of paper in her hand carries a lot of weight, for him personally as well as the school. How has it come to this, so soon? She thought she’d handled things pretty well. Is that pity on his face?
“I... can’t. It’s a lie, Sir. All of it.”
He sighs. “Is that your final say on this serious matter?” She nods. He’s watching her carefully, like he’s weighing up a decision. “You may go.”
In a daze, Charlotte leaves his office, clutching the paper and heads down the now empty hall to class. She finds the books she needs in her locker, slams it shut and comes face to face with Abbi, smirking at her, one arm in a sling.
“You bitch!” Charlotte drops everything and lunges towards Abbi.
“Get your hands off me or I’ll sue your arse!” Abbi’s eyes glitter with rage, fed by her humiliation. Charlotte picks up the sheet of paper and shakes it.
“You know this is all lies! I can’t believe you seriously think this will work. We used to be friends!”
Abbi drops her voice and leans in close. “I don’t know how you did it the other day, Campbell. Some trick.” She spits the words. “But you made me look like an idiot in front of everyone. And I will not allow that.”
Charlotte stares at her former friend. How can she explain what happened? Abbi’s eyes are black rimmed and evil. She really can’t stand that Charlotte beat her. Somehow that thought is gratifying. She tears up the piece of paper right in front of Abbi’s face.
“I’m not afraid of you. You’re the loser now, Abbigail MacDonald.” She taps her own chest. “Come on. Give it your best shot. And I’ll show you what I can do.” Charlotte is pleased to see fear in Abbi’s eyes. Then, the girl puts a hand to her ear and says quietly,
People appear in the corridor. Strangers. Abbi runs past them and away. The strangers advance towards Charlotte. There are at least eight of them, all tall, well-built men. A woman steps out from behind the lockers and Charlotte gasps. It’s Anna Povic.
“You’re trespassing on school property! Get lost!” Charlotte shrieks, desperately looking around for an escape route.
“Come quietly. There is no need for fuss,” says Anna Povic in her strange accent.
“NO! Leave me alone! I won’t go with you!” Doors are opening. Students and teachers are appearing, curious to watch the scene unfold. Tessa is standing next to Becka, her face white. The strangers advance closer, carefully, like a human net, watching every move Charlotte makes.
“Come with us and no one will get hurt,” says Anna Povic.
“Yes, Charlotte, I think that’s best,” says Principal MacMahon, appearing at Anna’s side. “Best for everyone if you go quietly with the doctor. She only wants to help you. It’s for your own good.”
Charlotte backs up against a wall, pointing at the Russian agent. “She’s not a doctor! She’s Anna Povic, from the Genetic Security Alliance and she’s trying to kidnap me!” Laughter breaks out among the students and teachers.
“Campbell’s a lunatic!” shouts one of the boys.
“Lock her up, Doc!” shouts another.
Anna Povic is within reaching distance. Charlotte looks around wildly for Gabe. Footsteps pound down the corridor.
“Leave her alone!” roars Gabe, his eyes savage, his hair wild. He crashes through the gaping students and teachers, hauls one of Anna Povic’s men by the arm. The man turns and lands a punch. Gabe staggers back.
“No!” screams Charlotte. Why is Principal McMahon doing nothing? With a snarl of fury, Gabe launches himself at the man and smashes his fist into the man’s face. Blood gushes from his nose. Two men grab Gabe and punch him in the guts. He coughs and drops to his knees as one of them twists his arm behind his back.
“Gabe!” Charlotte shrieks. “Don’t hurt him!”
Anna Povic’s voice is low and menacing. “If you use your powers, I will make sure that everyone you love dies. Do you understand me?”
Charlotte looks into the woman’s eyes and sees a tiny strand of fear and uncertainty there. You’re afraid of what I might do. Charlotte takes one last look at Gabe. Despite his agony, his eyes are fastened upon her.
“Don’t let them take you!” He croaks. She offers him a wobbly smile.
“It’s ok.” She closes her eyes.
“I would not do that, if I were you,” growls Anna Povic.
“You’re not me,” murmurs Charlotte. She feels a jerk as the agent grabs her arms, pinning them behind her back. Heat from that internal furnace is rising up through Charlotte’s body, caressing her with power that yearns to be unleashed. She pictures strands of light reaching out, like hands, to grab Anna Povic. There’s a rush of air. A gasp. Then a scream. Charlotte’s eyes fly open. Her enemy is hovering in the air, legs flailing, arms pinned by the exact strands of light Charlotte imagined. The hall erupts in screams of terror and shock as students point at the strange phenomenon. Mr MacMahon is aghast, his face white. Abbi peers out from behind the safety of a locker. Charlotte is tempted to do the same to her.
“Traitor!” she shrieks at Abbi, her concentration faltering. The strands thin. Anna Povic gives a shrill cry of horror as she plummets towards the concrete floor, stopping inches away as Charlotte refocuses, a hand to her head. Raising the woman higher, Charlotte flicks a hard glance to the men holding Gabe. “You want the same treatment?” They drop their arms and back away. Gabe gets up stiffly, cradling one of his hands.
“You can put her down now, Charlotte,” he says calmly. “I’m the one who promised to protect you, remember?”
“I will not have them beat you up!” she hisses, her eyes glued to Anna Povic’s distorted face.
“I’m serious, Charlotte. Put her down,” he says firmly. “There’s gonna be a hell of a fallout from this. Are you ready for it?”
“What do you mean?” Charlotte spins to face him and her concentration snaps. The strands of light disappear and Anna Povic falls to the floor with a scream. Charlotte explodes into laughter. But everyone is watching her silently. Some are filming the whole thing. Anna Povic’s men surge forward to assist her to her feet, but her leg is broken and she can do nothing but gasp. Gabe chews his lip.
“The media, Charlotte. It’s already on the net.”
“So?” Charlotte is unwilling to let the thrill of her victory fade. Mr MacMahon is staring at her, his mouth open, while students tug at his sleeves, gibbering excitedly. Taking her hand, Gabe’s voice drops.
“I think we’d better get out of here.”
“Argh!” The pain stabs into Charlotte’s brain. She leans heavily against him, a flood of despair washing over her. Why does this always have to happen? Why can’t I just have my moment? Gabe picks her up as if she weighs nothing and heads for the car park. He deposits her gently in the passenger seat and buckles her in.
“Where are your pills?” His face is inches away. She looks into his eyes, afraid of the pain. Afraid of what is to become of her.
“In... my…” She can’t speak. It hurts too much. It feels like she’s holding her head together with her bare hands.
“This is much worse.” He touches her cheek lightly. “I’m taking you to the hospital.”
“No!” She rasps, shakily snatching the pills from his hand. “Dad...” Charlotte swallows the pills with a slurp of water and lies back, her hands over her eyes to shut out the light. Despair is creeping over her. Gabe is right. It’s worse this time. But she knows she had no choice. God knows what experiments they’d be conducting upon her innocent person right now. All she wants is to lie down on her bed, her father sitting nearby, and fall into blissful sleep. But now he will find out about her powers from the media. And she will have to deal with the look of betrayal on his face.