“I didn’t mean to kill him!”
My Uncle Samuel gripped my shoulders and shook me gently. “Calm down and tell me what happened.”
“I…I…was at Mrs. Higgins’ market when I heard a man asking questions about us. He said that anyone caught hiding us would be detained and brought to Industry Headquarters. I ran and hid up in the hills waiting for him to drive out of town. He was almost to the timber trail leading up the mountain, and I…didn’t know what to do…” I sucked in a breath, my heart still pounding from the two mile run through the woods to the house. Tears rushed down my cheeks. “I didn’t mean it…but I had to stop him.”
“I know, Lily. Just tell me what you did.” Sam held my face in his hands, his brown eyes studying me. Fear and concern lined his features.
“There was a boulder…I…saw him coming and I…used a tree limb to push the boulder down the hill. I only wanted to stop him—to block the entrance to the trail—but…” I choked the words out, my heart taking another plunge into despair. How could I have done it? I was a healer, not a life-taker. A new flood of tears fell as I finished the story. “The boulder slammed into the vehicle and sent it off the other side of the road into the ravine. It…rolled…so many times…then the fire…” I could still see the crushed roof of the truck and the mangled bleeding body inside, the whole mess engulfed in flames by the time I reached it.
Sam hugged me to his broad chest, the top of my head barely reaching his chin. He stroked my back, saying over and over, “It’s going to be all right.” His words rang hollow in my ears just as they had when I was six and he found me with my little brother, terrified and in shock in the secret room of our old house. He’d patted my back then, and told me everything would be all right, but with my mother long dead and having just witnessed my father’s murder, I knew nothing would ever be the same again. His voice pulled me back to the moment. “You did what you had to do.” He let me go and looked down into my eyes, his expression grim. “Do you hear me? You did the right thing. You protected yourself and your brother.”
“But he’s dead! I couldn’t save him….” I sobbed uncontrollably while Sam half carried me over to a chair at the kitchen table. My hands trembled as I wrapped them around my middle.
Zeph crashed through the screen door at that moment. “Hey, Sam, look what I…” He froze and the grin fell from his face. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
I burst into tears again. Sam explained the situation briefly, and Zeph lowered himself into the chair across the table from me, his face a calm mask. “Are you sure he’s dead?”
“Of course I am!” I sniffled and gained control, not wanting my weakness to show in front of my brother. I’d spent most of my life being strong for him—protecting him. Now he reached out a hand. To anyone else, his touch could be deadly, but he couldn’t hurt me—a fortunate side effect of our shared DNA. I had spent countless hours teaching him to control the power that he could summon at will, and trying to convince him not to give into the temptation to use it.
I squeezed his fingers and gazed into his wide black eyes. A sudden rush of peace washed over me. Zeph’s peace—the peace he felt whenever he took a life with his touch. Soothing warmth covered me like melted wax, comforting but suffocating at the same time. It was as if he were drawing the dead man’s energy off of me, trying to relieve me of my burden. I pulled my hand away.
Zeph closed his fingers into a fist. “You had no choice. He was an Industry agent. It was him or us.” His voice sounded calm, sure, eerily complacent—a tone that made me shudder.
“This is not okay.” I glared from my brother to Sam and back again, wishing one of them looked one ounce as sorry as I felt.
Sam and Zeph exchanged a look. Then Sam spoke up. “Did you leave the body there?”
“Like I had a choice,” I snapped. “What could I do? The vehicle was in flames.” My hands felt cold, so I tucked them under my armpits to warm them. It was as hot as a tropical jungle outside, but the house was a chilly sixty degrees, thanks to Sam’s geothermal cooling system that kept the indoor temperature constant year round with help from a solar generator.
Sam grabbed a sweater off the coat rack by the door and draped it over my shoulders. Aunt Beth had died years before, but I could still sense her energy in the warm cashmere sweater. I pulled it tight around me as my limbs shook.
“Don’t worry, Monkey. It could take months before someone comes looking for the man, and I’m going to make sure they don’t find him.” His voice softened and his eyes suddenly looked sad and far away. “We knew this day would come. At least we have fair warning. We’ll have to make arrangements to move on, but…it can wait.” He smiled and tried to lighten his tone, but I could see the concern and desperation behind his eyes. “You stay here and get some lunch ready. Zeph and I will take care of this.” An imperceptible nod passed between the two and Zeph jumped to action.
My nerves fired. “You can’t go out now. The sun is nearly at the zenith.” The two men ignored me. I’d had to stop calling Zeph a boy the day he saved me from a mountain lion attack last fall. Heroic and fearless by nature, he was anything but my “little brother,” even if he was still impulsive and sometimes foolish. He’d grown a head taller than me over the winter and a dark fuzz of hair lined his upper lip and cheeks. At thirteen he’d been forced to become a man in many ways, and the three years between us that had given me the upper hand was losing its advantage.
The two of them suited up in the mud room, donning protective gear to deflect the powerful solar radiation. Limited exposure wouldn’t kill them, but over time, the effects took their toll. Sam slung the Remington over his shoulder and tucked a handful of homemade shells into his pocket.
“What are you going to do?” I asked, my heart racing. I followed them to the door with the intention of stopping them, but knew arguing would be useless. The two of them were stubborn as mules on their own, but together there was no turning them when they’d made up their minds.
Sam moved with purpose, the reflective cloak draped around him like a superhero’s cape from one of his old Marvel comic books. His brown hair, a few shades darker than mine, hung to his collar and gray strands reminded me that he was getting older. He was now in his forties and not likely to live past fifty. People outside the cities were lucky to live to see sixty with the radiation poisoning and the rampant cancers that claimed half the remaining population since the polar shift. Unless you lived under the protective solar barriers that covered the major cities, time was your enemy. All those who lived outside the barriers knew that an early and ugly death was inevitable.
Sam’s eyes met mine and he gave me a reassuring nod. “Zeph and I will be fine. Midday is the best time to get close to town unnoticed. We have to get rid of whatever remains of the man and his vehicle. It’s better if no one finds him anywhere near here. We’ll be back as soon as we can.” He donned his eye-shields, slipped on his gloves, and headed out the door.
Zeph looked back. “No worries, sis. We got it under control. Those government dudes are no match for us Carmichaels.” His confidence made me proud and frightened at the same time. “What did it feel like?” He asked, turning back. His dark eyes sparked with excitement.
“Killing that man—did you feel…?” His eyes lost their glint and he looked guiltily at his feet. “I guess it doesn’t matter…” He turned away and walked out into the deadly bright sun.
I shuddered as I closed the door and drew the shade. I leaned against the wood frame, let out a slow breath, and whispered, “No, Zeph. It didn’t feel good.”