Aspen was like a mother to me. And I was like her teenage daughter, about to sneak out.
I knew she would never let me leave until I was fully recovered, but I felt fine. My raw skin just felt like a bad sunburn, but it was manageable. It was walking I was worried about.
The gash in my right thigh shouldn’t be a problem, as long as I was careful not to tear out the stitches Aspen had given me.
But I still couldn’t put weight on my left ankle. It was probably sprained. I’d need some kind of crutches if I was going to go anywhere. I considered asking Aspen for the pair she no doubt kept on hand, but if she suspected I was going to be leaving already, I’d never make it out of there.
I considered staying. Did I really need to leave in such a rush? I could catch up on two decades worth of sleep and rest. But I was already antsy. I’d had twenty-two years to laze about, and this was the time for action. So I pulled myself out of the bed, wincing at the creak, and tested my ankle.
Yeah, it still hurt like blazes.
I grabbed the lacrosse stick propped next to the bed. What did an eight year old even need with a lacrosse stick anyways? But it was too short to use as a crutch.
It took me a couple tries to stand up. The wooziness in my head really didn’t help my balance as I fought to stay standing on one foot.
I didn’t have a plan, which was unusual for me.
But this wasn’t really something you could plan for ahead of time.
My eyes were drawn to the window. I was still on the ground floor, so not a very far drop. Probably manageable with my injuries.
I snatched a superhero notebook and matching red pen from the bedside table drawer. I scrawled a quick note to Aspen, just so she didn’t have a complete heart attack. She knew I could handle myself.
Ripping out the page with the note, I tucked the notebook neatly back inside that filthy drawer and carefully positioned my note on the pillow.
It was time to leave. I squeezed the cell phone into the tiny pockets on Aspen’s shorts, praying it wouldn’t fall out and break. Honestly, what was even the point of adding pockets if they were going to be that small?
I wondered if Aspen was in the other room. Could she hear me hopping around? It didn’t make much sense to sneak out if she knew immediately.
For the first time, I felt a bit guilty. She was just worried about me, and that was something to be thankful for. Who was I to throw that away?
The ringing sound of the doorbell broke the silence. It was like a sign from the heavens, a distraction telling me to leave.
The window opened smoothly on the first try, and I perched on the sill. I paused, trying to figure out how to navigate the opening.
I hopped back out of the window and tried again, but everything I did pulled uncomfortably at the stitches in my right thigh. The last thing I wanted was to tear them.
With a huff, I hopped my way over to the door and opened it a crack, just enough to peer out.
I couldn’t see the front door from my vantage point, but it sounded like Aspen was talking to someone. I thought I heard a little girl talking, and a deeper voice, neither of which I recognized.
I pulled the door open a bit more and slipped out as stealthily as I could on one leg. All this hopping was giving me a headache.
With the door shut firmly behind me, I made my way to where I remembered the back door being. It finally occurred to me how weird it was for Aspen to still be living in the same place. Back then, her and Vera had been roommates, but it looked like Aspen could afford the rent on her own now. What a stroke of luck.
With trembling fingers I couldn’t seem to control, I twisted the lock on the back door and jerked my way outside.
As I moved around the house and on to the crowded city pavement, I found myself wishing for my knives. They seemed so childish now, a plaything I had grown out of, but they had been my loyal companions for so long.
My aim had gotten quite good, but I was fairly sure the protection the knives offered was mostly in my head.
[maybe add flashback about knives here? Or add it to flashback about meeting Elliot?]
I prided myself on staying in fairly good shape, but this lumbering progression was tiring me out quickly. I’d made it out of the row of houses on Aspen’s street, into a more commercial section of the city where people began to give me strange looks.
I couldn’t blame them- I was probably still quite the blazing mess. Cuts, burns, a wad of bandages on my lower thigh, you name it. And, of course, the one-footed hop. It still hurt too bad to even limp properly. What was I doing, running away from the only person willing to help me?
That cynical little voice in my head had an answer for that, but I didn’t want to hear it. Could you tell yourself to shut up? You could if you were crazy. Which I wasn’t. But who wouldn’t be crazy after what I’d been through?
Walking around here was a weird feeling, like revisiting your first grade classroom after years of gradual changes.
I knew this street fairly well, this whole section of the city. But it was different. The biggest difference was probably the lack of cars.
When I’d roamed these streets, cars clogged the road. Everyone seemed to have them, and those who didn’t used a variety of ride-hailing services to get around. It was common practice for every sixteen year old to learn how to drive, even if you didn’t get a license. Now, the streets were full of people walking and the occasional bus.
I filed that away in my brain as something else to research on the phone. It was almost painful, how little I knew of pretty much anything.
The walk to the cafe shouldn’t have taken as long as it did, but I thought I’d made good time considering my predicament.
On a good day, I could have walked it in five or ten minutes, easy. Today it took me over a half hour, with a few stops to check the map I’d found on the internet. The city had changed.
Aspen had been right about one thing- The Council was trying to keep rumors of rebellion from running rampant. But after some serious digging, I’d found a rather sketchy article talking about some recent graffiti near a certain corner cafe I knew well enough. It was as good a place to start as any.
Over the years, I’d gotten good at sitting at cafes and restaurants without ordering anything. It’s all about messing with the organizational system- make all the waitstaff think someone else is serving you, maybe bring something of your own to spice it up a little. If you’re feeling adventurous.
But The Sassy Kettle had an impeccable organizational system, and they would have sent me packing when I first sat down twenty-four years ago if it wasn’t for one waitress. Rachel.
She’d been in her early thirties when I’d known her, so she’d probably be about fifty or so now. She always used to let me sit at the corner table outside if they were having a slow day, and made sure no one badgered me about ordering. It was nice to have a place to go.
For old times sake, I sat down at the corner table. The only thing that had changed was the addition of a single plaque, stating “Justix Angel Commemorative Table.” But I didn’t stop to reminisce. Unless the cafe had lost all it’s organizational backbone, someone would be coming to get my order soon and not long after that I’d be kicked out.
I extracted the phone from the little pocket and pulled up the site about the graffiti, and sure enough, I was in the right spot. I could see it there, across the street. The article, unprofessional as it was, was very recent, and I was sure the graffiti was too.
It was only a single angel, made of simple lines and a circle for a halo, but it spoke volumes.
It made me so frustrated that my only lead was day-old graffiti, and I wished there was something I could do. All I could do was watch, ready in case anything happened. If I wasn’t so tired from my trek here, I might have stood up and hopped around near the graffiti, get a closer look, but for now I was content to sit and wait.
“Welcome to The Sassy Kettle, can I take your order?”
The voice startled me, and I whirled around to face the waitress. She was in her mid-twenties, if I were to guess, and there was something so familiar about her.
She blinked at me.
“I’m sorry, what?” She kept her tone polite, but I didn’t like the way she was looking at me. She thought I was completely off my rockers. I shook my head.
“Never mind, sorry. I thought you were someone else.”
“Right.” A strange expression crossed her face as she turned around and walked back inside without so much as giving me a menu.
Five minutes later, I was still winded and short on new leads. This had probably been a horrible idea anyways. I should have just stayed in bed, getting spoiled rotten by Aspen.
“Welcome to The Sassy Kettle, can I take your order?” It was a new voice this time, completely unfamiliar. I looked up to see a heavy blonde waitress staring at me expectantly.
“I-” I couldn’t seem to force the words.
“I’m so sorry I’m late. Got caught up in traffic.” A metal chair scraped against the concrete and I turned to see a mildly familiar face. Before I can say anything in response, he turns to face the waitress. “Could we get two menus, please?”
She nodded and walked off, leaving me with the stranger who saved my life. I wasn’t sure what to say, but he readily filled the silence.
“Ara, is it? Pleasure to meet you fully conscious. Pretty rude to leave like that though,” he chattered through a nervous smile.
“Yes, sorry.” What was his name? I was always terrible with names, so I stuck with my tried and true strategy- avoid using the name if possible and hope they bring it up in conversation at some point.
“So.” His feet tapped beneath the table, and the inconsistent rhythm of it drove me nuts.
“Yes?” What was I supposed to say? I was fairly certain this was the most awkward situation ever to take place, anywhere. He brought me to Aspen, and I have no doubt in my mind I would have died in the memorial if he hadn’t. But nothing about it made sense. If my muddled mind was to be believed, I’d been semiconscious in the graveyard, un-succumbing to my various injuries, perfectly preserved in ash, for over two decades. So what changed?
“So, what’s your story?”
“Don’t have one.” This got me a weird look.
“What, you just magically appeared in the Justix Angel Memorial, covered in ash and blood, with no story?”
“Pretty much, ok?” When would he get the hint?
He let the silence grow to a monster before he reached in his bag and pulled out the envelope. He slid it across the table towards me while I pretended to know his name.
“What is this?”
“It’s from Ms. Kane.”
Ms. Kane. Huh. Never thought I’d hear Aspen called that.
I opened the envelope cautiously, careful not to rip the paper. Inside, a slightly crumpled sheet of notebook paper marked with a cartoon figure in a cape was pressed against a glaring white card with a gold swirl at the head matching the envelope. Of course Aspen had a stationary set.
I read the note, then I read it again. Once I was sure I had understood the neat cursive script, I slapped the paper to the table in frustration and admiration. What would I do without her, honestly?
My Dear Ara, I will try not to be offended by your sudden departure. I knew, in my heart, you would be far too foolish and hot headed to rest properly, but I suppose I hoped you would give yourself sufficient time to recover. In lieu of that, I have elected to help you find Cade, for I am sure that is where you have gone. There is a fairly recent act of vandalism by that cafe you used to love, which was most definitely left by our dearest friend. I sent this pigeon in shining armor in the hope of finding you, and with him my love. In addition, I worked very hard on those stitches in your leg and would very much appreciate you not tearing them. If your quest is too urgent for two days of bed rest, I must ask you to visit my old friend on Lita Road. Her name is Laura Smith, she owns a medicinal shop at number 17, and she owes me several favors. You should be able to procure a pair of crutches from her. And for the love of all things good in this twisted world, get some fresh bandages from her for that thigh of yours, and change the wrappings regularly. As for Cade, his ‘organization’ is very much in the business of recruiting new members. Call the number written at the bottom of this note and request an appointment, and you should be able to find him. Come visit soon and don’t you dare die on me again. With love, Aspen Kane.
I shook my head at the way she wrote. She sounded like some fancy rich lady from the Council side of the city. But she was being very helpful.
“I think I’ll get the everything bagel with spiced cream cheese and maybe a latte, what about you?”
I jumped a little in my seat when he spoke. I’d almost forgotten he was there at all. I glanced over to see him staring at the menu with an eyebrow raised. I’d been so deep in my own mind I hadn’t even noticed the waitress drop off the menus.
“What are you talking about?”
“Right, it’s nearly lunchtime now, isn’t it? I shouldn’t be ordering from the breakfast menu. This is such a lovely cafe, I should really come here more often.”
“Look, I’m leaving, ok? You can stay here and eat your blazing bagel, I don’t care.” I lurched to my feet and started my limping hop away from the table. I didn’t make it five feet away before I stopped and mumbled my thanks over my shoulder.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch that.” He was actually smiling. Smiling. He had no clue, did he? I scowled at him and repeated myself a little louder.
“I said, thank you for saving my life. I guess.” I started to leave again, but he kept talking.
“You’re welcome, I guess.” I could hear the laugh in his voice. “But I need your help, and I think you could use mine as well.” That made me turn around and look at him, really look at him. The boy had sandy, dark blonde hair and brown eyes shimmering behind the lenses of his glasses. He didn’t look any older than me, and not that much taller. He must have towered over Aspen, though, that midget of a woman. The thought made me smile a bit, which I immediately forced down.
He rose to his feet, slowly, and walked towards me. I didn’t try to hop away, and he stopped only a foot or so away from me.
“What do you want?” Up close, I could see that his eyes were hazel, not brown, with speckles of green, and that his cheeks were brushed with small freckles. His brow was wrinkled in an unpleasant expression, which made his glasses slide a bit.
“I want to know what’s going on.”
“Trust me, I do too.” This seems to confuse him, like he thought I had all the answers. I wish.
“Then why are you here? Where are you going? Can I come with you?” He looked desperate. I took in his high-end sweater, his polished shoes, his shiny glasses, the air he had that just screamed money. And if you screamed money, you were one of the few people in Justix who were in the Council’s favor.
“Trust me, you don’t want to go where I’m going.” I hobbled back to my commemorative table and pulled out the cell phone from the graveyard. I had a call to make, and there was no point in giving up a good chair in a good spot, especially if this guy’s wallet was going to buy me extra sitting time.
He returned to his seat and stared at me. I was having difficulty finding where to dial a number on this ridiculous phone regardless, and the staring wasn’t helping matters. I sighed and set down the phone.
“That’s the phone, isn’t it?” He wasn’t looking at me anymore, his gaze was locked on the phone in question.
“What do you mean, ‘the phone’?”
“The one that exploded. At the graveyard. I’m pretty sure that’s the same phone, just different.”
“Why do you think so?”
“Am I wrong?”
“No, but how did you know?” He gave me a strange look, like I was an alien in disguise.
“Well, it’s definitely not any brand I’ve ever seen, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the phone Molly gave me was so similar. It looks to me like the bulky, older model look was just a shell for that weird mist bomb thing.”
I had a lot of questions, but I had time to ask them after I made a quick appointment.
“Hello?” I waited, wondering if anyone would pick up.
“Yes, this is Bob from The Church of the Angel speaking. Are you interested in a service?” I was not expecting the chipper voice that blasted from the phone.
“Yes, yes I am. I’d like to… convert.” I had no clue how people joined churches, but I was also pretty sure this was no church I had on the phone.
“Yes, and I saw a help wanted sign outside your chapel. Any chance I could get a job interview?” I fought to keep my voice light, but could only hope I was doing this right.
“That could be arranged.” The voice on the other end of the line dropped to a conspiratorial whisper.
“Today?” The phone dropped into static and I waited in anticipation for a long minute until, with a click, the line transferred and a woman spoke.
“If you don’t hate the Justix Council for what this city has become and don’t have the calling to fight them with every bone in your body, I would have to suggest you get off the phone right now.” The words sent a shudder down my spine and I smiled. These were my kind of people.
“Sign me up.”
“Good. Show up at the alley by 93 Cobb Street one hour from now. No weapons, and no more than three people or we won’t come. If you alert the Council Police or try to fight us, rest assured your fate will be far worse than ours. We must work together to fight this tyranny, and plant the seeds for a better future. We are The Devout of the Angel.”
She hung up, leaving me with a silent phone and a staring stranger. I wish I could remember his name, but I didn’t, and asking him would make him think I cared. Which, of course, I didn’t.
Our words twisted together as we both asked our questions at the same time. I sighed and gestured for him to go first.
“What just happened?”
“Doesn’t matter. Who’s Molly?”
“Hey, if you won’t give me an answer I don’t have to give you one.”
“I told you, it doesn’t matter. Not for you.” I stared him down, daring him to contradict me. “Now tell me, who is Molly and why is she supplying you with bombs?”
He buried his face in his hands. His words came out muffled when he spoke. “It’s not like that. At least, I don’t think so. She was… a friend, and she just quit her job and left town all in a hurry, right after giving me that weird phone and a note. Seems a little weird, don’t you think?”
It did sound weird. It sounded very, very weird, and I didn’t like it one bit. None of this added up.
“Well, what did the note say?”
“Nothing much. Just that I shouldn’t show anyone the phone under any circumstance.” His eyes darted to the cell clutched in my sweaty grip. “And that worked out wonderfully, didn’t it?”
“Right. Well, it was lovely meeting you, but I should really get going.” I had questions, so many questions, but I had a meeting to keep and I frankly wouldn’t mind if I never had to see this strange nameless boy ever again. Once again, I pulled myself to aching feet and hopped out of the outdoor cafe.
A hand on my arm stopped me by the gate, and, nearly losing my balance, I turned to see the waitress from earlier, the first one, looking at me funny.
“Did you know my mother?” She was staring at me intensely, and I blinked at her.
“My mother.” She ran a hand through her hair, keeping the other firmly planted on my arm, like I was going to run off. With my leg? Not a chance. “Rachel Spring. She was the owner here, until two years ago.”
So, this was Rachel’s daughter. That explained the similarities. Looking into her face, I couldn’t pick any features they shared, I hadn’t really known Rachel well enough for that. But there was just that familiarness, like she had the same essence Rachel had.
“Yes, I knew her. Is she…” I didn’t want to say what she knew I must be thinking. “Well?”
“She passed away the winter before last.”
“I’m sorry.” I was.
She looked down, shaking her head. “How did you know her?”
“I used to come here a lot.” It was the truth.
“Really?” Her gaze was accusing. “I’ve never seen you before in my life, and I’ve been working here since I was twelve.”
I wanted to tell her I’ve been coming here since before she was even born, most likely, but that was the kind of stuff that didn’t really come across that sane.
“Well, isn’t that funny. So weird. Anyways, I should be going. Pleasure meeting you…”
“Grace.” She was suspicious, I could tell. But frankly, I didn’t care.
I didn’t tell her my name, and she didn’t ask.