Chapter Nineteen - Firelight
“What’s going on?” Robert Campbell opens his front door, spilling Gabe and Charlotte inside. Gabe is carrying her in his arms. “Charlie! What happened?”
Gabe starts to say, “She used her…”
“No!” Charlotte mumbles. “Not now.”
“Bring her in here.” Her father says, showing Gabe into the lounge room where he deposits Charlotte on a soft leather sofa. “Let me look at you, Charlie. What have you done to yourself?” He cries in horror, seeing her arms, covered in the grey, dead spots. “I thought you were on the mend?”
“She was.” Gabe says grimly. “And then she went and did something stupid.”
Charlotte opens her eyes. “I saved your sorry arse and this is how you thank me?”
“You have to stop. Please. Your body can’t take it,” Gabe pleads, holding her hand.
“Stop what?” Says her father.
Charlotte gives Gabe a stony look.
“I’m fine, Dad,” she mutters. “I can handle it.”
“But you don’t seem to be able to control yourself!” Gabe says, frustrated. His reproach stings her.
“Yes, I can!” She snaps. “I did what needed to be done.” Her voice softens. “You were hurt trying to defend me, but you couldn’t, Gabe. I knew I could take control of the situation.”
“But the cost, Charlie. The cost to you!” His voice breaks. Beside him Robert Campbell stands, feet apart, arms folded over his chest, frowning.
“Charlotte Emily Campbell, you will tell me this minute what is really going on.” He holds up a finger. “And I mean the truth.”
“The truth, Charlie.”
Charlotte sighs, feeling her body sink into the soft cushions of the lounge. “Okay,” she says softly. “The other day, when I told you about the near accident I had with my car and that truck, I said I had focused and somehow the accident didn’t happen.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“Well, I didn’t just focus. I actually slowed things down. Um, not actually slowed things down. I sped things up.”
“Charlie, what are you saying? I’m confused.”
“Dad, Gabe and his friends think I created a space-time bubble around myself and my car, which sped up time inside it and thus allowed me to avoid crashing into the truck. Everything outside the bubble seemed to be going at half pace, slow motion, so it was easy for me.” Her father looks at her, his head on the side, a furrow in his brow.
“I have powers now.”
“Yes. The power to create a space-time bubble around myself. I didn’t know I could do it. I didn’t know I was going to do it. It was instinctive. I felt this surge of heat inside me bubble up in the next thing I knew I was navigating my way around the truck and onto the gravel verge safely. Then the bubble snapped and everything went back to normal time.”
“Charlie… This is fantastical. Science fiction. How do you know it’s real?”
Gabe looks at Charlotte and raises one eyebrow. She looks away, feeling guilty.
“Because I did it again.”
“And again,” adds Gabe firmly. “And every time she does it, it costs her physically. But so far that hasn’t her stopped doing it.”
“It costs you, physically?” Her father says.
“Dad, I you just going to repeat what we say?”
He shakes his head. “I’m just trying to get my head around this. When I discovered the Infinity Gene I had no idea there would be consequences like this.”
“Well, it’s good actually. For once I could stick up for myself, take control.”
Gabe chokes. “For once? Take control? Are you kidding me? You are the most controlled person I know.”
She scowls at him. “The sort of control I want is control over my own destiny. And I did it. Anna Povic got what was coming to her.”
He shakes his head. “And you think that’s the last we’ll see of her?”
“Yes,” says Charlotte. “She knows what she’s up against now. She can’t beat me.”
Gabe frowns. “Do you really think…”
“Charlie, you look terrible,” her father says, stroking her hair lightly. “You should get some rest. Let your body heal itself.” He looks at Gabe. “Would you mind taking her upstairs? I need to do some more research on this.”
When Charlotte is safely huddled among her pillows and drifting off into exhausted sleep Gabe quietly withdraws. His footsteps retreat on the soft carpet, then the door closes with a quiet click. Muffled, low voices drift up the stairwell. They’re talking about her, Gabe and her father. Why can’t they just trust her? She knows what she’s doing. Her recovery was fine after a day or so because Dad’s vaccine works. What’s the big deal? What matters is that Anna Povic was vanquished. There’s no way she can take Charlotte. She’ll just have to find some other guinea pig. Charlotte snuggles down in the covers, a smile on her face. There’s no way her father will insist she go back to school now that everyone knows about her extraordinary abilities. Charlotte is glad. School sucks anyway. As she falls into sleep once more Charlotte remembers her father’s face when she told him she could control a space-time bubble around herself. Pride, fear and anger wrestled on his features. Did he believe her? No matter how powerful she thought she was, how independent, to him she was still just his precious daughter. The one he didn’t want to lose again. Somehow, Charlotte knows she will work this out. She will stand up for herself. She will protect herself. She will never surrender to the GSA. As she drifts off to sleep, a thought snakes its way into her head. The incident was filmed and is probably now all over the Internet. Everyone saw Gabe being held by Anna Povic’s goons. Did someone from his past recognise him?
There’s a chill in the air up on the summit of Great High Wood, but Charlotte is warm and snug, her legs stretched out to the stone circle enclosing the fire. It’s Saturday night, three days later. No one knows where they are. This is Gabe’s special spot, hidden by a bank of fir trees, with a 180 view of the twinkling city of Harlington, spread before them like crystals scattered on a velvet rug. The moon is a silver disc, high and imperious in the sky. Gabe sits beside her on the log, his head bent, writing in his journal. Behind them stands his shiny motorbike, so warm and sleek and beautiful Charlotte is beginning to understand his devotion to it. It’s like a wild, living thing.
Her father is talking about a cure. She dares to hope. The dead spots on her face, arm and legs have actually improved, but she covers up all the same. Gabe has stayed at their house ever since that last disaster at school. She wonders how his parents feel about him staying at her place and whether they’ve seen the videos on the net. Cory’s video has had over a million hits, but judging from the comments, most people seem to think it was all a hoax. Reporters camped on the lawn for the first two days, but when nobody emerged from her house to talk to them they gave up. A couple hung about, hoping to get an exclusive, but Charlotte just waved as she pulled out of the garage and drove away, Gabe sitting beside her, hunched over, his face hidden by a cap. So far, he’s kept his identity a secret. As to her super powers, Charlotte’s father remains unconvinced. And perhaps that’s for the best. She doesn’t plan to use them again anytime soon. And perhaps she won’t need to. There’s been no sign of Anna Povic or the GSA for days.
There’s a strange new rhythm to her life that she never expected. Gabe hasn’t mentioned returning to school. For Charlotte, that chapter is over. She is determined to move on. But what about Gabe’s dreams for his own future?
Charlotte steals a look at him. His dark lashed eyes are focussed on the page of spidery writing. The skin on his face and neck is smooth and tanned. God, he’s gorgeous. How did I not see this before? He no longer wears the stupid glasses when they’re together.
“Hey,” he says, eyes still on the page. “Want another drink or something?”
“No thanks. I’m fine. What are you writing?”
“Nothing much. Just random stuff.”
Memories of reading Gabe’s personal thoughts flood her cheeks with heat. She’s glad he can’t see in the firelight.
“May I have a look?” She flashes him a cheeky grin.
“It’s not that good. And I don’t normally show anyone.” He leans back, smiles at her. “But seeing as it’s you.”
She shuffles closer and cranes her neck. She can smell his cologne. It always makes her slightly breathless. Without a word, he places his journal on her lap. His hands brush hers, sending a shiver up her back. Her heart is pounding all of a sudden. Why do you do this to me, Gabriel Murray? Embarrassed, her eyes avoid his and instead feast upon the intricate map of his written words.
Your music reaches out to me with hissing fingers,
Glaring against the black hush of night.
Glowing memories, ashen tears of regret,
Crumple, twist and vanish in a flash of blue.
Summon me into the golden abyss,
Where all is consumed - the ache of eager, pulsing heart,
The raging tyranny of fear and loss,
The crackle of unexpected joys -
The texture of life,
Spiralling into numb tranquillity
Of pure light.
“It’s beautiful. How do you write like that?”
He shrugs. “I dunno. It just comes out. It’s not always this clear. Sometimes it’s a bit like archaeology. You have to unearth it from all the rubble.” He leans closer to take back the journal. She can feel the heat from his body. She blinks and tries to stay focussed.
“But it seems so effortless, your writing. Where do you get your inspiration?” She can’t stop looking at his face. Without those silly glasses he looks so different. She’ll never get tired of looking at him. He shrugs again.
“From everything around me. Whatever’s happening.” He closes the journal and places it on the ground beside him. “The people around me.” He grins. Charlotte blushes, poking the fire with a stick.
“Do you ever, you know, write about me?” She feels stupid asking such a self-centred question, but that poem he wrote weeks ago, which resonated so strongly with her own inner world, is still so sharp in her mind.
“Can I see it?”
He looks at her, assessing.
“You can trust me,” she says with a shy smile, opening her eyes and batting her eyelashes at him. “I’ll never make fun of your writing. I am in awe of it.”
He smiles at her.
He flicks through the notebook. “I wrote this the other day, when we were all in my room. Just some ideas for a song.”
“You wrote a song for me?” A tingle of happiness floods over her. He hands her the notebook. She devours the words, immersing herself, trying to remember the tune he was humming that day.
I can’t see you in the dark,
but I can feel you near me.
I can’t hear your voice,
but your heart speaks to me.
I can’t tell what you’re thinking,
but I trust in your soul.
I don’t know the future,
but I know you’re beside me.
Through the dark, through the pain, through the loneliness and confusion,
There’s only one thing I need, one kiss will set it right. The taste of you.
I can’t change the past,
but I can give you today.
I can’t heal your hurts from long ago,
but I can guard you with my life.
I can’t change your mind, or how you feel,
but I can accept you as you are.
I can’t promise life will be perfect,
but I will sacrifice anything for you.
Through the dark, through the pain, through the loneliness and fear,
There’s only one thing I can give you. One thing will set it right. My love.
Charlotte looks up in surprise to see Gabe watching her.
“I had no idea…” She whispers. He leans towards her and his soft lips caress her cheek. She closes her eyes. It feels so good. It’s like a spell, drawing her in. She instantly forgets the lingering pain in her head, the fear that grips her in moments of contemplation. Instead, she turns her head slightly and their lips meet. Gushing warmth and heady taste. His hands are gentle, either side of her face. Her own are around his neck, pulling him closer. He tastes so delicious it sends shivers all over her body. At last, she giggles and they pull apart.
“What?” he says, his breath heavy, his eyes boring into hers.
“I just feel... so amazing.”
“Good.” He kisses her again, drawing her onto his lap, his mouth tasting the skin on her neck. She groans. Her fears are dwindling to nothing. Gabe is everything she wants and needs right now. She doesn’t care what happens, as long as she can have this feeling of warmth, security and excitement.
The moment is shattered by the arrival of two cars, spraying gravel as they skid to a halt in the car park, their headlights slashing the tranquil night. Gabe and Charlotte watch stunned as men get out of the cars and swarm around Gabe’s gleaming motorbike. Charlotte can feel Gabe’s arm tense to hardened steel around her waist. One of the men kicks over Gabe’s bike. They laugh, standing with legs apart, arms folded, waiting for him to react.
“No, not now, please not now!” murmurs Gabe, getting to his feet.
“What? Why did they do that?” Charlotte demands, her face flushed with anger. “Who the hell…”
“Stay here.” Gabe’s hand pushes firmly down on Charlotte’s shoulder.
“But why? They can’t…” She tries to rise.
“Stay here!” he snaps, turning back to look at her. There’s an awful quietness about him that frightens her. It’s like fate has finally caught up with him and he faces it grimly, like a solider going into battle. “No matter what happens, stay here, do not speak.”
“Gabe…” She whines, catching his hand. “What if you need me to…” His eyes harden, darting from her to the men.
“No, Charlie. Let me handle it.”
She stares after him as he strides away to intercept the group of men. Getting to her feet, she waits to see what will happen, her hands clenched by her sides, her breathing shallow, while the fire in the core of her being grumbles to be released. Gabe has halted, standing tall, shoulders squared, speaking to a tall lithe man dressed completely in black. The other men cluster about them, like wolves scenting their prey. The leader suddenly pulls back his fist and punches Gabe in the stomach. He staggers. Two men grab him and wrench his arms behind his back. In the moonlight his face is pale, his body hunched over.
“NO!” Charlotte lunges forward. “Leave him alone, you bastards!”
“Stay out of it, Charlie! Please!” Croaks Gabe, his eyes wild. Charlotte approaches the men, her eyes holding their gaze. Her voice drops to a growl.
“You let him go. Now.”
The leader turns to watch her, his thin, angular face slightly amused. He clicks his fingers and the men yank Gabe’s arm up behind his back. Gabe cries out.
“I said NO!” Charlotte raises her hands, defocussing her eyes, she imagines the two cars caught up in strands of light. She focusses hard, her jaw clenched, her fingers splayed, imagining the shiny black cars squishing together, mangling them to a twisted clump of metal. She is gratified to hear, above the yelling, the groan of twisted, imploding metal. Focussing her eyes now, she extends the space-time bubble that surrounds her to include Gabe, bouncing off the two men holding him. Outside her gauzy bubble, figures are fuzzy and slow moving. The mangled metallic mess rotates sluggishly in the air, as her fingers roll it around like a suspended toy. Gabe limps over to stand beside her. She expected a look of shared triumph, but his face is deeply worried. With a wicked grin, she claps her hands shut. The metallic mess implodes further and plunges to the ground as the bubble snaps. She is panting hard from the effort, but stands tall, her lips pulled back in a snarl. Tilting her head back, she addresses the grim leader.
He regards her calmly, like some strange new animal on exhibit. The fact that she’s just done something extraordinary doesn’t seem to faze him at all. In the pale light reflected from the city below she can see his dead-looking eyes. Gabe’s warm hand grabs hers.
“You Charlotte Campbell?” says the leader, his voice sharp, used to obedience.
“Who wants to know, loser?” She replies, trying to sound fearless, but the pain is about to hit, any second. Already her face is tingling and her body feels cold. The inner furnace has burned itself out.
His chuckle is a deep, rasping sound.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter who I am, sweet thing.” His eyes roam over her body greedily. “What matters is who has your father, right now.”
“My… father?” Charlotte’s stomach drops.
“Message from Elkwood, little girl,” he barks, spittle landing on her cheek. “Give yourself up or you’ll never see him again.” His mouth twists into a strange smile. “Of course they’ll suck all the knowledge out of his brain first. Then give what’s left back to you.” Something catches the corner of her eye. It’s a plain, white business card fluttering to the ground.
“I… how…Argh! ” The pain spears through her brain like a javelin and she staggers, disorientated. Gabe grabs her firmly. A large four wheel drive car appears from nowhere and swerves into the clearing. The men clamber inside and it speeds away.
“They’ve got Dad. How?” Charlotte gasps. Like a bad dream, the world is tilting slowly, all the sparkly lights sliding down to the far end of her vision. As her knees collapse and the world slumps into darkness Gabe’s strong arms hold her and she realises, at least he’s all right.
“Charlie… wake up.” A hand is patting her cheek lightly. She opens her eyes. Gabe is crouched over her, the dim light from the fire casting shadows over his face. Her head is exploding in shuddering waves of pain. Tiny gasps escape her lips. She wants to be anywhere except inside her body right now. Suddenly she swings upright and leans over to vomit on the grass.
“You really did it this time,” he rumbles, stroking her back. He hands her a tissue. “Sorry, this is all I have.”
She wipes her mouth. “It’s all right.” He helps her to her feet and they move away from the puddle of stink. They stand, embracing in the moonlight, her head against his chest but she barely notices the fantastic scatter of city lights below. She can still smell vomit. Her hand pushes against her right temple. “How long was I out to it?”
“A couple of hours.”
“A couple of HOURS!” She pulls away from him. “How could you let me sleep when my father has been kidnapped by those… those… bastards!”
“Charlie, I had to let you recover a bit first.”
“But who were they? How did they know to find me… us here?”
He looks away, his face in shadow. “I don’t know.” Chills grip her and she shivers violently. “We should go, before you faint again,” he says quietly.
Hot tears prickle in her eyes. “How are we going to find my dad? Oh, Gabe, what if they torture him? It’s all my fault!” She sobs weakly.
“We should get you home first. You need a transfusion or something.”
She puts a hand to her throbbing head. The fire is moving in circles with a bright red trail, like a comet.
“I thought the modified virus had cured this.” She sniffs, looking up at Gabe as helplessness gathers around her like a cunning demon. “I really thought…”
He grips her shoulders. “Charlie, you shouldn’t have used your powers! You know what it does to you. Every single time!”
“I wasn’t about to let them hurt you! You could have been killed!”
“They weren’t going to kill me. They could easily have done that years ago!”
“Who are they? What does this have to do with you? I don’t understand.”
“It’s payback. For what my parents did.”
“What did they do? What kind of people are they, Gabe?”
His eyes lock onto hers. In the dim light of the fire she can see the heartbreak.
“They both went to prison. For murder.”
Oh!” Charlotte feels a violent flush of heat, loses her grip on his arm. Gabe scoops her up and carries her to the bike.
“Here,” he says gently, placing her hands on the padded seat. “Can you stand?” Shivering, she looks up and smiles weakly.
“You’re calling me Charlie. Like Dad does.”
The adoration in his eyes feels wonderful, even in her present state. A warmth, easing into her cold, distant body.
“You don’t mind?” He leans down and brushes his lips against her cheek. She nods, trying to ignore the pain. This moment should be wonderful, but it’s marred by who she is now and what she just did. And the taste of vomit in her mouth. Her eyes scan the crumpled mass of metal on the ground that used to be shiny cars. It’s unrecognisable.
“Why weren’t they shocked by what I did?” She whispers.
Gabe shrugs. “They knew.” He helps her into his leather jacket, adjusts her helmet strap and after lifting her onto the seat, settles himself in front. Pulling her hands around his waist he kisses them and presses them together. With a huge effort, she manages to get her feet up on the supports. The bike roars to life and with a snarl, swerves out of the clearing. Charlotte holds on tight, her head spinning and buries her face into Gabe’s back. He skilfully negotiates the steep, winding road down to the valley. Streetlights flash past in a bright blur that makes the dizziness worse. She retreats behind closed eyelids, hoping she can stay conscious until they get home. Home. Will her father be there? Perhaps it’s all a hoax, something Abbi has engineered to frighten her and win back some points. Charlotte holds tightly to Gabe’s well-muscled back, trying to block a persistent, jabbing thought - Gabe is the son of murderers.