… EPISODE NINE…
“You didn’t have to drive,” I tell Draven for the third time as he puts his car in gear and backs out of the driveway.
He ignores me.
I mean it, but I’m also glad he insisted on coming. I know it’s more about the fact that he doesn’t quite trust me than from any desire to protect me. Still, now that the reality of the situation is settling in. I’m not sure I would be the best person to be behind the wheel right now.
“Turn right at the light,” I say as we leave the neighborhood.
He flicks on the turn signal but otherwise gives no recognition that I’m in the car.
Understandable. He’s just found out that one of his best friends, his cousin, is being tortured by his archenemies. And that his fate is now in the hands of two girls raised in the superhero world.
It’d be hard for anyone to take. Then again, we’re both dealing with world-shattering news…and having to trust people we normally wouldn’t.
We drive a few blocks in silence before Draven finally speaks.
“How long—” He clamps his jaw shut like he’s fighting the question. He regroups and then asks, “Did he look…strong enough?”
I could pretend I don’t know what he means, but I understand exactly what he’s asking. I could lie, but I don’t think that will help anyone.
“I don’t know,” I answer. “He was in pretty bad shape.”
Really bad. I’m not sure how long he will be able to hold on. I only hope that we’ll get to him before it’s too late.
Draven white-knuckles the steering wheel and stares blankly at the road.
“Is he… Is he the first?” I ask. “Do you know if other villains have been…” “Tortured?” Draven’s nostrils flare. “Beaten, starved, water-boarded, electrocuted? Experimented on like they were some kind of lab animals instead of human beings?”
I shrink back a little at the venom in his words. And the images they paint. “No,” he says after a minute. “Deacon isn’t the first.”
The subtext is clear. He might not be the first, but if Draven and Dante have anything to say about it, he will be the last.
I never in a million years thought I would stand with villains, never thought I’d feel so desperate to save the life of one. Then again, I never thought I’d see the day when even a single hero would do something as awful as what I saw tonight.
Whether this is a small group of rotten heroes or as widespread as Rebel says, I side with villains on this.
The torture has to stop.
Draven surprises me by continuing. “This shit has been going on for decades. Ever since the Collective formed and those assholes decided that some of you were in and the rest of us were out.”
That long? The Collective was created more than fifty years ago with the sole purpose of uniting heroes against villains. Fifty years of torture? My stomach lurches.
“I’m not one of them,” I say.
“You might as well be.” He pulls onto the highway that leads to my side of town. “Your mom is their very own Einstein, Edison, and Josef Mengele, all rolled into one.”
“Seriously? You’re comparing my mom to a sadistic Nazi freak?” “If the unethical experiment fits…”
“You’re wrong,” I argue. “She’s not like that. She only wants to help people.”
“So she told you about the secret level then?” When I don’t answer, he laughs humorlessly. “Didn’t think so. Dr. Swift may want to help people, but only if those people are heroes. How many of her magical potions and pills have been used to help villains?”
I open my mouth to answer, but he cuts me off.
“Zip. Zilch. Zero. Every possible word for none at all.” He shakes his head. “How many have been used to hurt villains? To kill us?”
It’s the word “us” that breaks me. No longer are villains some nameless, faceless evil enemy. No, now villains are Draven and Dante. Deacon.
“I-I’m sorry,” I say. It’s lame, but it’s the truth. “I didn’t know. I never thought of it that way. If I had—”
“What?” he snaps. “You would have stopped the heroes? You would have given them the Kenna Swift stamp of disapproval?” He shakes his head. “Oh, wait. I know. You would have pulled that fire alarm a lot sooner. Of course, the only one who avoids getting burned in that situation is you.”
I get it. He’s hurting. He’s upset. But just because he’s one step from losing it is no excuse to take everything out on me. I’m on his side here.
I have to remind myself that he’s still a villain. Just because I feel bad for him doesn’t mean I trust him. And it doesn’t mean we’ll be on the same side once Deacon is free.
This is a one-time-only partnership. Because while I may have discovered there are superheroes who can’t be trusted, I’m not stupid enough to think that means all villains can be.
But I can’t rescue Deacon alone, so it’s either trust Draven and Dante or just let him die. I’m not okay with that.
“If I had known superheroes were torturing people, I would have done exactly what I plan to do now,” I say.
Draven snorts as he pulls into my driveway. “And what’s that?”
I meet his mocking gaze straight on as I reply with the most truthful answer I’ve got: “Stop them.”
Then I climb out of the car and head for my front door without waiting for him to respond.
He catches up to me halfway up the sidewalk. He doesn’t say anything, but I feel him at my back.
He wants to see me as his enemy, fine. Just because we have a mutual goal doesn’t mean we’re on the same team. That suits me fine.
Key in hand, I reach for the door.
Draven grabs my shoulder and yanks me back.
I spin, ready to rail on him for manhandling me—he should know by now I don’t stand for that kind of treatment—when he lifts his finger to his mouth.
Then he points at the skinny window next to the door. The glass is shattered.
“Mom!” I gasp, panic racing through me.
I shrug out of Draven’s grip and push open the door, my only thought to make sure she’s okay. But after I step into the glass-strewn front hall, I freeze.
The door should have been locked. When I snuck out earlier, I used the back door. And Mom would never leave the front door unsecured. Between her experiments and what happened to my dad, she’s way too safety conscious to ever forget to lock up.
“Wait,” Draven whispers. But it’s too late. I’m already in the kitchen.
“Oh my God.”
Every drawer has been dragged out and dumped—on the counter, on the floor, in the sink.
Every cabinet is open, as is the refrigerator. The orange juice has been knocked over, and it’s dripped down the shelves to puddle on the floor below.
“Mom!” I scream for her again, racing through the living room, where cushions have been sliced open and the TV is lying on the floor. I hit the stairs running, take them three steps at a time, and make it to the second floor in a flash.
“Mom!” I ignore the open doors to my bedroom, the bathroom, and her home office. Her door is the only one that’s not either swung wide or hanging off its hinges.
I hear Draven’s footsteps in the hall as I reach for the doorknob to her bedroom.
My heart tries to beat its way out of my throat.
When I left, Mom had been sound asleep. Considering the damage done to the rest of the house, I’m dreading what I’ll see inside.
What if she didn’t get away?
What if whoever did this got to her?
What if they…hurt her?
I stand there, heart pounding and lungs aching, as my hand squeezes the cool metal, willing myself to twist my wrist. I can’t seem to make myself do it.
Draven comes up behind me, his presence a welcome heat at my back. He reaches around, places his hand over mine, and slowly turns the handle. He pushes open the door but doesn’t let go of my hand.
Mom’s bedroom is just as destroyed as the rest of the house. Her bed has been stripped, her mattress is on the floor, and the contents of her dresser drawers have been thrown everywhere. Her walk-in closet has suffered the same fate.
The bathroom light is on. Draven and I make our way across the room, with me holding my breath. Please, God. Please, God. Please—
My breath rushes out in a huge sigh of relief. She’s not here. There’s no lifeless body in the tub. Though the mirror above the sink is shattered, cracks and fissures radiating out from a single point of impact where it looks like something—or someone—hit the glass.
I reach out to touch the web of cracks, but feel pressure on my hand as I do. That’s when I remember that our hands are still linked, and I’m squeezing him in a death grip.
“Sorry,” I say, releasing him.
I don’t miss him shaking the feeling back into his hand, even as he tells me, “Don’t worry about it.”
“Maybe she went to the police,” I say, mostly to myself. “Maybe she wasn’t here when it happened.”
Draven gives me a skeptical look—like I’m living in a fairy tale—but I ignore it. Instead, I pull out my phone and dial Mom’s cell number. A moment later, I hear the muffled sound of “She Blinded Me with Science” coming from back in the bedroom. I follow the music to a pile of bedding in the corner. Tossing sheets and pillows aside, I find the phone at the bottom of the pile.
I hold it up, staring blankly as it continues to ring. And ring. And ring. Then the noise stops as abruptly as it started and my call goes to voice mail.
“That’s her phone?” Draven asks.
I nod dumbly.
The house is trashed. Mom’s not here. And she doesn’t have her phone, the one thing she never goes anywhere without. I punch a button, hoping to find some clue to what happened here. The screen stays black. The battery must be dead.
Where is she?
I slide her phone in my pocket and then use my phone to try her office number.
She doesn’t pick up there either.
Next, I try the lab itself. Nothing.
I decide to try another lab on our floor. After three rings, someone picks up.
“Neurotoxins,” the gentle male voice says, “Dr. Harwood speaking.”
“Dr. Harwood, it’s Kenna.” I turn away from Draven. “Is my mom around?”
“Haven’t seen her,” he replies. “Did you try her office?”
“Be careful with that bottle,” Dr. Harwood says, muffled like he’s turned away from the phone. “Do you want to paralyze us all?”
I rub the spot between my eyes.
“If I see Jeanine, I’ll tell her to give you a call.” “Thanks,” I tell him.
I stare at my phone for several long seconds. Mom lives at the lab. She mostly comes home to sleep and eat—and those only when I remind her. If she’s not there…
I keep myself from imagining a worst-case scenario.
Before I give up on reaching her, I try her office one more time. I’m about to hang up when it goes to voice mail again, but then I freeze. Instead of Mom’s distracted instruction to leave a message, a male voice says, “You have reached the voice mail of Dr. Jeanine Swift. Dr. Swift is out of the country and unable to check messages. If this is an emergency, please contact the main office at ESH Lab.”
I hang up before the beep. Then I dial again and play the message on speakerphone.
My thoughts accelerate from worry to terror.
“They took her,” I whisper.
Draven steps into my line of sight. “You don’t know that. Maybe she—”
“Someone took her,” I repeat. “She wouldn’t just take off without saying a word to me. She especially wouldn’t leave the country.”
“But why would the superheroes take her?” he asks. “She’s their poster child.”
“I-I don’t know.” I shake my head. This makes no sense. None of this makes any sense.
Everything in my world is tumbling too fast. My mind can’t keep up. Get a grip, Kenna.
I’d only let my guard down for a second, allowed myself to think about trusting villains because a few heroes are doing bad things, and suddenly my first thought is to blame the good guys? The world doesn’t change that fast
“You’re right,” I say, “it couldn’t have been heroes. It had to be villains.”
Draven scowls. “No way.”
“Yes way.” I advance on him. “Who took her? Where are they keeping her?”
He holds up his hands. “Whoa. Villains did not take your mom. We aren’t the ones with a proven record of kidnapping here.”
“You’re the bad guys!” I punch him in the chest.
He doesn’t flinch, but it feels good anyway. I hit him again and again. Harder and harder.
He grabs my wrists and holds me back. “Kenna, listen.” His voice is steady and, for once, not full of anger and snark. “You asked me to trust you and here I am,
trusting you. Now it’s your turn. Trust me when I say that villains did not do this. We try to keep a low profile.”
My fury deflates a little—even if villains took my mom, that doesn’t mean this villain had anything to do with it—and I fight the urge to snort at the idea of villains keeping a low profile.
“Besides,” he says, “who could have changed her voice mail message? We don’t have that kind of access.”
All of the tension leaves my body. Everything inside me goes still. He’s right. Only someone with the highest security clearance could have overridden Mom’s voice recognition access to her voice mail. Not even a gifted technopath could bypass that without authorization. It had to have been the heroes.
Worse, it had to be someone with status. Someone in the Collective. “But why?”
“I don’t know,” he answers. “Maybe they just took her in for questioning about the break-in last night. They’ll grill her for a while and then let her go when she tells them the truth. She has nothing to lie about.”
I want to believe him. I want to believe that Mom’s disappearance is routine and that she’ll be home in no time. But one look at the destruction around me and I know that’s a fantasy. Whoever took her was looking for something and tossed our entire house to find it. And if they took Mom with them, they must not have found it.
Besides, if it means keeping my immunity a secret, she absolutely would lie to them. In a heartbeat.
If they’d do this to the house, what would they do to her?
“We need to get her back as soon as possible,” I say. “We need to get both her and Deacon back. Tonight.”
We head back downstairs through the chaos. I don’t need to see any more. Not when my mind is too full with my new mission: get Deacon and Mom away from
the bad heroes—and pray that Rebel and the villains are wrong about the pervasive corruption.
I mentally cross my fingers, toes, and eyes hoping that whoever tossed the place didn’t bother with Mom’s makeshift home lab in the garage.
But that was a futile hope. Unlike the rest of the house, the garage hasn’t been trashed. There are no beakers smashed to pieces on the concrete, no chemical slime oozing across the floor, no cabinets yanked off the walls. No, everything in the garage is just gone.
It’s like they backed up a moving truck to the door and loaded it with every last piece of equipment, every last ounce of chemicals. Every last hope of using Mom’s secret stash of knockout serum to rescue her and Deacon.
Sick to my stomach and more frightened than I’ve ever been in my life, I turn to Draven. “We’re going to need a new plan.”
….. Posted by uc beverly…..