Chapter 1 - Aaron
The memorial was as quiet as the grave, which was quite suitable considering its inhabitants. When Aaron first entered the black metal gates guarding the small garden, the sun had only just crested the horizon, casting the graves in deep shadow. Aaron looked around, a little unnerved, but determined all the same. He was going to find out who sent the cell phone.
He had said phone in the back pocket of his pants, and he pulled it out when he entered the memorial.
It was a clunky, older model, with a small screen and even smaller buttons disproportionate to the size of the phone, and very different from the sleek newer model in his other pocket. There was no brand name on the phone, and it had no photo matches on the internet as far as he could see. Probably some knock-off brand.
Regardless, even if the interface was unfamiliar, Aaron was familiar enough with technology to see the single notification, from an unknown id. It read only: “Find the Justix Angel. Or else.”
Everyone had heard the stories, had to write papers about it in school, seen the countless tv specials... The Justix Angel was an icon. A legend. A hero.
Aaron had done his research nonetheless when he first got the phone late last night. He’d been furious, searching for clues.
Ever since the incident, his family’s status had been on a downhill slide. But Molly mysteriously retiring and leaving town would be the final nail in their social coffin. The family maid had left only this phone and a note telling Aaron it was important and not to show anyone, before packing up and leaving. Gone. Someone must have threatened her, someone truly sinister, probably the same person who’d given him the phone.
So he’d poured over the internet, looking over anything and everything relevant to The Justix Angel. All he’d found were florists- and endless articles all telling the same propagandized story:
Twenty-two years ago, on a chilly November day, terrorists had attacked the prestigious Council building in southern Justix, planting bombs that killed 547 people. But on the fifteenth floor, a seventeen year old girl who had reportedly never set foot in the building before that day somehow took charge. She gave directions that saved about 42 people, most notably a small boy named Theodore Bane. Several survivors reported seeing an angel roaming the halls, escorting people to safety. Further investigation pinned a thick coat of nearly luminescent dust and ash to these claims.
Obviously, most of the reports must have been greatly exaggerated.
Although she unfortunately did not make it out of the fire, this hero, later identified as visitor Sitara Lynn-Parks, became a mascot for the city. A beacon of hope. A martyr, even. They dedicated a memorial in her name, to honor everyone who died that day. This memorial.
It was quiet, even for that hour in the morning. Aaron had left before Ce-ce woke up, but had waited until after his mother left for work. He didn’t have a very large window to work with before he needed to be back to watch her- Ce-ce was a very early waker for her age. God, his mother would kill him if she knew he’d left her home alone, even if she was sleeping. Plus, he really should be studying, not on some crazy wild goose hunt. He should probably just have turned in the weird phone to the Council Police and let them take care of it. But in his gut he knew that wasn’t a valid option. Whoever sent the phone and the message meant business.
So he started his search, poking around the corners of the graveyard for another hint. The roses were everywhere. Bushes of the white flowers clung to the fence, and wreaths lay scattered at the feet of the markers. He found himself frequently checking the odd phone for some clue he might have missed, some kind of guidance.
It was then that Aaron noticed the ticking. Tick, tick, tick... like a bomb. Without thinking, he threw the phone to the ground just before throwing himself out the gate and as far as possible before it blew up.
He saw the irony, of course he did, in leaving a bomb at a memorial for victims of a bombing.
But it never blew. Well, it did, but not quite as dramatically as Aaron might have imagined.
Just the pop of a canister breaking open and the hiss of a gas being released. Aaron covered his mouth and nose with his jacket sleeve, even a few yards away from the blast, while he fished around blindly for his glasses. They’d gone flying off when he’d dove, and he wiped them several times before resting them back on his face. Grave dirt in your glasses probably wasn’t a very good omen.
Of course, being gifted a ticking bomb wasn’t the best omen either, if you happened to believe in that stuff. Which of course, Aaron didn’t.
With his vision intact, he could now see that the fog, which was still relatively contained in the bounds of the graveyard, was beginning to dissipate.
But Aaron thought it was probably best to keep his distance regardless.
Which is why, at first, he thought his ears were playing tricks on him when he heard the laughter.
His first reaction to the laughter was anger. Mostly at himself, then some embarrassment. Had this all been some elaborate prank? Maybe the maid leaving had been a coincidence after all, and someone from school had decided to prank him?
But the laughter sounded... off. Strained, wheezing, not laughter of mirth or [gile? idk something sneaky and mean], but of disbelief. This was the laughter of someone who couldn’t believe the insanity that was happening to them and chose to laugh instead of cry. Aaron could relate.
The fog was nearly gone now, and with it the laughter dissolved into a grunt of pain.
Cautiously, Aaron stepped back through the gates. Sitting with her knees to her chest, back to a grave marker, was a girl. Aaron hadn’t been able to see her from outside, but he could have sworn the graveyard was empty when he was in there earlier. When had she snuck in? But she didn’t look able to do much sneaking now.
She was covered in blood and grime and... was that ash, falling over her shoulders in glowing white piles? Her skin was tinged a violent pink beneath a resonant [terra-cotta] light brown.
She, or her parents, must have been from out of the city, for her skin was several shades darker than most in Justix. Immigrants had become rarer and rarer throughout the years, until the Council closed their doors altogether about... four years ago? Aaron had never particularly liked learning recent history.
She wasn’t looking at Aaron, but she had to know he was there. He could tell in the way she stilled, one hand still cradling her right thigh.
They waited like that for a few heartbeats, both of them struggling to figure out what to do. Then, Aaron pulled his cell from his pocket and began dialing the CESD. He’d never needed to call an ambulance for someone before, but the Council Emergency Services Department seemed like the right people to call.
The girl let out a weak cough, leaning forward so locks of dark hair fell from her braid and in front of her eyes. She raised her head then, looking him dead in the eyes.
“No.” Her voice was gravelly, but firm. Aaron’s fingers came to a stop above the phone.
“...No?” He echoed, unsure. She swallowed, face pinched like it pained her.
“Don’t call the CESD.”
“Why- Why not?” Aaron’s mind was buzzing now. She needed to get to a hospital soon. He couldn’t see the extent of her injuries, but if the steady-growing pool of blood beneath her feet was any indication, she’d bleed out soon. She needed his help.
“Because I said so.” She winced, clearing her throat. “Just... just don’t, ok?”
Aaron was nodding, slowly, mainly to appease the cornered animal sitting before him. “Look... you need professional medical help. Can I drive you to a hospital, at least?”
She seemed to consider it, and Aaron felt his hopes rising. What in the world would he do if she refused? Leave her? She looked on the verge of passing out anyways.
“My mother is a... doctor.” He couldn’t quite tell if she was a horrible liar, or just in pain. By the looks of it, probably both. “I just need a ride home, ok?”
“Right, sure. I can do that.” She nodded, eyes closed, and Aaron shifted his weight back and forth awkwardly. “So, uh, do you need a hand up, or-”
“Oh- uh, ok.” Another few tense seconds passed. “You sure?”
“I’m fine, just give me a second.” She snapped.
True to her word, she hoisted herself to her feet with a white-knuckled grip on the grave marker. Her eyes still firmly shut, she swayed where she stood. Aaron found himself moving closer, in case he needed to catch her.
But he still flinched when she shot out a trembling hand to grab his arm. She opened her eyes, slowly, and began to walk with hesitant steps, leaning heavily on his arm.
She favored her left leg, even though it was the right that bled, which Aaron found odd but didn’t comment on. If he was being honest with himself, he was a little afraid of this girl. Sure, she was injured, yet still... she was kind of terrifying. Probably about his age, a couple inches shorter, but she carried herself like a war hero.
Not that Aaron had ever met a war hero, but he could imagine well enough. She looked like a victim but acted like a soldier. It was in the way she held herself, the fire in her eyes, the jut of her chin, and the flat line of her lips.
Who was she?
They walked in silence down the hill the memorial stood on, following the path through the small park on the edge of the city. When they reached the parking lot, Aaron pointed out his car and she led the way.
He opened the door to the backseat of the minivan, expecting her to lay down on the backseats. Instead she swung open the passenger side door and collapsed inside, about as gracefully as could be expected. Aaron shrugged it off, crossed to the drivers side, and fastened his seatbelt. And hers, though she ignored him.
Some days, his mother drove their car to work, but she usually preferred the bus. The Council had decided when Aaron was a toddler that the masses of cars swarming the city and surrounding areas was horrible for the environment. So they’d placed extreme taxes on everything automobile- gas, repairs, licenses, etcetera. Now, Aaron’s family was one of the few that could afford cars. And maids.
Of course, that was all residue from his father, but his mother worked hard so they could keep up the lifestyle. That didn’t mean they’d be able to hire another maid now that Molly was gone.
Once they’d pulled out of the parking lot, Aaron turned to the girl, who sat straight as a rod, eyes staring resolutely at the asphalt ahead. He cleared his throat, but she didn’t so much as look at him.
“Can you enter the address into the GPS?”
“Hm?” She faced him then, and with a jolt he saw just how unfocused her eyes were and just how pale she had become.
He repeated himself, half-hoping she’d pass out before giving him an address. Then he could take her to a real hospital. This whole thing was making him very nervous.
She nodded, her whole upper body swaying with the movement. Then she looked at the state-of-the-art GPS system in his car and flipped the motion, swinging her head side to side.
“How about you do it instead?” she mumbled, so quietly he almost didn’t hear it. But the sharp, determined edge was still there, even as her posture began to sag.
Of course, it had been rude of him to assume she’d even know how to manage the GPS system, let alone do it in the state she was in.
Thankfully, they were still on the relatively empty roads at the edge of the city, and Aaron pulled over to enter the address she gave him. It wasn’t far at all, maybe a ten minute drive at most.
As they drove, light began to pour over the edges of the buildings and people bustle along on the sidewalks, which only made Aaron more anxious. He needed to get home soon, he needed to get this girl safe, he needed to research job options, he needed- he needed to get his thoughts in order.
“What’s your name?” The girl didn’t answer, and when he glanced over her eyes were closed again. Was she... asleep?
“Keep your eyes on the road.” She growled, eyes still closed, startling him. It took him a couple of seconds to figure out what she had said, slurred as it had been, but at least she was conscious.
“Right, of course, my bad.” Aaron looked away quickly, sheepish. Time dragged on, with only his thoughts to keep him company. He still didn’t turn on the radio. He couldn’t bring himself to.
The sound of his fingers tap-tap-tapping on the wheel echoed in his head, a steady beat that focused his thoughts.
Before long, they were on the street the girl had given him, and Aaron craned his neck to see the numbers of the row houses slide past. Aaron parked his car on the edge of the street in front of number 73, glancing over at the girl in the passenger’s seat. Her face was deathly pale, her eyes closed, but her lips were pressed firmly together and her chest rose with sharp, shallow breaths.
Aaron left her in the car and jogged to the front door. He knocked twice and nearly knocked again before the door swung open. A woman opened the door, nearly a foot shorter than him and very round. He was fairly sure she was pregnant, but she was definitely old enough to be the girl’s mother.
“Hello?” The woman was watching him intently, eyes far harsher than her sweet face and matronly red bun alluded to.
“Excuse me, miss, I think your daughter is about to die.” Aaron flinched even as the words passed his lips. That did not come out right.
Her eyes bulged, then flickered down to her round stomach. “Daughter?” She asked, and for a second he thought he’d gotten the wrong house. But then her eyes focused on something behind him and miraculously got even wider.
He followed her gaze to see the girl from the memorial leaning against the wall, eyes locked with the woman before him. Aaron could have sworn he saw her mouth “Just play along, ok?”
But that was probably just his imagination.
The woman nodded slowly, looking like she’d seen a ghost. Time seemed to stand still, and Aaron shifted on the balls of his feet, uncomfortable in the strange, familiar silence between the two.
“Right, of course, let’s get you laying down, dear.” She darted forward on slightly tottering steps around her full stomach.
The girl leaned on her arm far more readily than she had on Aarons.
He held the door open for the pair, who stumbled together like only family could, though they couldn’t possibly be biologically related. The woman, short and pale, had a head full of striking ginger hair. The girl, a few inches taller, whose skin looked even darker next to the woman’s, had hair like the night and sharp eyes.
Aaron hesitated in the doorway after them, unsure what to do.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” He asked.
“No, no, dear. You’ve been plenty help already. How about you go sit down on the couch and I can fix you something to drink?”
Aaron smiled, hesitant, and walked past them to the small living room.
His foot restarted the anxious tap-tap-tap he’d abandoned in the car while he waited, uncomfortable on the plush couch. The red-haired woman led the girl through a door marked with a handwritten sign in a child-like scrawl Aaron couldn’t read. Inside, he could see a tattered red rug and child-sized bed. The woman kicked aside toys as she walked, and the two passed out of Aarons sight before coming to the bed.
Aaron felt bad watching them, so he flicked his eyes instead to the pictures on the wall. The woman, smile bright and stomach significantly flatter, had one arm around a small boy with hair like fire. Her son? Her other arm was around the shoulder of a man, but that was all of him that was visible with the cropping of the photo.
He saw more photos like that, cropped oddly to exclude the man. Before he could look any further, the woman came bustling into the living room, closing the door firmly behind her.
“So sorry dear, I didn’t catch your name,” she said with a smile, coming to sit on a chair across from Aaron. “I’m Aspen Kane.”
“Aaron.” He shifted to face her. “Aaron Kent.”
The name on his birth certificate was still Aaron Bryce, but he’d opted to go by his mother’s maiden name since... well, for the past 5 years.
“Kent?” Aspen’s smile flickered in surprise, but was back to full wattage a second later. “That’s... that’s a very popular surname, isn’t it, dear?”
Aaron forced out a brittle laugh. “Yes, you’d be surprised how many people I meet with the name.” That seemed to relax her, but she was still looking at him strange.
“So, Aaron, how did you meet my dear Ara?”
Aaron’s mind was turning far too slowly for his liking, and it took him a few seconds to connect the dots.
“Ara? Oh!” He felt the blood leave his face. “No, I didn’t do that to her, if that’s what you were thinking.” His voice pitched higher in panic and embarrassment.
“Of course not.” Aspen’s voice was calming, sweet as sugar. Aaron was beginning to see that this woman used smiles as weapons, and she unleashed them far more than anyone he’d ever met.
“I was just.. walking, you see, I like to walk. In the park. The park near here, but not the one on 7th street. The one with the graveyard? The memorial?” Aaron had always been a terrible liar, and he was pretty sure Aspen noticed. But she just sat, quietly, listening.
“Then, I stopped by the memorial. The one for the bombing, with the Justix Angel? You know the one. I just- like to stop there, sometimes.” Aaron swallowed. Was it always this hard to swallow?
He wasn’t even guilty of anything, was he? He hadn’t hurt the girl, had he? Ara? He just didn’t feel like trying to explain the whole exploding phone and magically appearing dying girl thing. He certainly didn’t understand it, so how could he possibly explain it to Aspen?
“Then I saw this girl.”
You are not guilty.
“She- she was bleeding.”
You didn’t do anything wrong.
“So I walked up to her, and-”
“And I offered to call an ambulance,”
“But she asked for a ride instead.” Aaron fought unsuccessfully to steady his erratic heart rate. “Here.”
He’d barely even lied. Just... told a different version of the truth. A logical version. Probably the correct version. Right?
Aspen only smiled. Again. She seemed perfectly nice, but he’d decided he hated her smile. It was the human equivalent of baring her fangs, and he was sufficiently intimidated.
“Look, I need to get home. But is it ok if I come back? To check on her, make sure everything is alright?”
“Of course, dear.” She leaned forward and patted him reassuringly on his arm. “You saved her life today. You’re a hero.”
Aspen’s words echoed in his ears as he walked out the door, opened his car door, climbed inside, and slipped the key in the ignition.
“You’re a hero.”
He pulled out of the crowded neighborhood, towards the glittering lights of his home.