“He’s going to kill you.”
Lucia Sanchez said nothing.
“Did you hear me? You’re dead.”
Her gaze flickered to the rearview mirror. The boy sat in the middle of the Nova’s sagging back seat, his features schooled into the remote mask she’d come to expect. Pale green eyes stabbed into hers, as hard and opaque as the jade they resembled.
“I am not afraid to die,” she told him softly.
“Everyone is afraid to die.”
How dismissive he sounded. How callous. It never failed to appall her.
“Even the ones who pull the trigger themselves,” he added cruelly, purely for spite.
A direct, piercing hit, but Lucia didn’t flinch. The boy was like a shark in bloody waters; any weakness would be devoured. No matter the chaos that churned within her, she must be unwavering. Steadfast. And so she only turned her gaze back to the hypnotic, dotted line of freeway. The vibration of the uneven pavement made the steering wheel shudder in her hands, an echo of her fiercely pounding, terrified and angry heart.
Thud-thud. Thud-thud. Thud-thud.
Be calm, she told herself. Destiny is not for the weak. But deep within, she knew better. Deep within—ay, yai, yai, chica, what have you done? Muy estupido! You should have waited, should have planned, you will pay—they will pay—and now there is no going back—because four hours and three hundred miles lay behind them, and the lights of the city had faded long ago. To the east, the first rays of sunlight were creeping across the desert scrub brush, and the wheels she’d set in motion were spinning far beyond her control. But the panic that sat in her chest like a lead weight was nothing compared to the fury that burned in her veins, so hot and caustic and volatile she knew she could not allow it escape. Enough damage has already been done. She had jumped; it was too late to worry about landing now. No matter the furious, frantic beat of her heart.
“You know he’ll come,” the boy continued, and his tone might have been flat with resignation, but his eyes…they glittered at her in the mirror, a bright, dizzy sheen of fear he couldn’t hide.
She had pushed him with this action, right to the edge. He stood beside her now.
“Sí,” she acknowledged.
He growled, a low, rumbling sound few would believe him capable of. “Then why are you doing this?”
Lucia took him in: chiseled bones, hinting at the man he would become, a strong jaw and stubborn chin. Pale, jade green eyes lashed with thick ebony crescents; a tiny beauty mark kissing his right cheek. Only ten years old, but already so beautiful that sometimes just looking at him hurt. “Because someone must, mijo.”
“Not you,” the boy said, and there was something in his voice that made her squeeze the steering wheel until the worn plastic abraded her skin. He looked down at the small form sprawled across his lap. “You aren’t…enough.”
An infuriating—if accurate—assessment. But it changed nothing. She would have to be enough. A grim reality, and not something she could change. She’d tried.
“You can’t win,” he added, as though it were fact. What goes up must come down.
Which only fed the fury that threatened to blind her, so toxic and unstable, something she must not allow to control her. But Lucia was sick to death of being told her limits, her place, of being relegated to someone else’s definition of her existence. It had taken years to carve a path out of the madness of her childhood; blood, sweat and tears to travel that path. No one would tell her what she must accept, what she must allow. Not any longer. Because the monstrous present had raised the equally grisly past, and she would not stand idly by as it repeated itself before her.
Perhaps this rash, dangerous act would change nothing; perhaps the evil men did was already written, something no one—her least of all—could change. But she refused to be complacent, to be silent. To watch it happen again. Others might turn away, but she would not. Because for her, evil was not merely an idea. A stranger she had never met. No, malevolence was an old enemy, one with whom she had been long acquainted. One she was introduced to in childhood, whose shape and form and scent she knew intimately.
One she recognized as if it were family. Family. Something she had not had in over a decade. Something that same evil had taken from her.
And now it will take even more! Your future, your dreams, your life—
But that would not stop her. She would not run and hide, not again. Not ever again.
No matter the specter of death Alexander spoke of.
“You underestimate me, mijo,” she replied finally, darkly. “You should never underestimate anyone.”
“You’re nothing,” the boy said, certain.
A roar filled her throat, begging for escape. She wanted to pound her fists against the ancient dash and make him understand. But that would only egg him on and—probably—crack the dash in half.
“Everyone is someone,” she told him, calm, hard, equally as certain. “And anyone can change the world.”
“Is that what you’re doing?” he derided, his mockery honed to knifelike precision. “Changing the world?”
She met the sharp glitter of his eyes. “Your world,” she said.
His gaze dropped. He looked out the window, to where the sun was steadily rising in a fiery arc of orange and pink. Fingers of light speared across the road before them, highlighting the tar lines that held the pavement together.
Thud-thud. Thud-thud. Thud-thud.
The old Nova sliced through the cold morning air at eighty miles an hour, shuddering in effort to meet the demands of her lead foot. The car smelled of aged vinyl and cigarettes, and a long crack arced along the windshield, shearing the pane in two. Traffic was light, the road littered with garbage and the occasional animal carcass.
But no police. No Ivan the Terrible. Not yet.
“When he catches us…” The boy shook his head. “Do you know what he’ll do?”
Lucia knew; she didn’t care. Not anymore. That fear was useless, a waste of time she no longer had. “Sí.”
“No, you don’t.”
But she did. She knew exactly. And even if the knowing woke terror in her heart—because the man who would come, he would want blood, he would enjoy her pain—such a thing would not stop her.
Nothing would stop her.
“Some things,” she told him, “are worth the risk.”
“Not this. Not to me.”
Her heart fluttered painfully in her chest, like a panicked bird fighting its cage. She only ignored it and watched the boy in the mirror, her resolve like steel, no matter his doubt. Her own. “No?” Her eyes fell to the child he held. “What about to him?”
The boy wanted to hit her. She could see it flaring in his eyes, the suppressed violence that always simmered there, just below the surface. The hate and rage that lived within him like a second self.
It had taken her eight months to understand. Eight months too long.
“You can make choices for yourself,” she said. “But not for him.”
“I can’t, but you can?”
Such fury, like a whip snapping through the air, but she said only, “Sí, I can, mijo. I am.”
The boy looked away. The stoic line of his profile and the hard, unforgiving line of his jaw where a muscle ticked uncontrollably made Lucia want to do violence. She’d known horror and pain and devastating loss; blood so thick it would not run, the sickening stench of death. The dreams still were, as they had always been, and she would not have believed it would become something she would embrace.
Something she would use.
She’d been wrong.
A child should not know this pain.
But Alexander wasn’t a child. He hadn’t been for a long time, certainly longer than she’d known him. His decade might as well have been a century. There was nothing at all child-like about him.
That had been her first clue.
“You don’t understand,” he muttered, a small crack in his cold reserve.
“What don’t I understand, mijo?” Lucia asked. “What he will do to me? Or what he will do to you?”
The weight of her question filled the car like a thick, sulfurous cloud. But she knew he wouldn’t respond.
He never did.
She had only her own conviction, the proof evidenced by her own eyes. The sickening truth she could not—would not—deny. Not even for him. She’d been too young the first time, too weak. Too ignorant and naïve and stupid. Not so now. And while she understood the boy’s silence, it wouldn’t stop her. Nothing was going to stop her—nothing but the death of which he spoke. No matter her mistakes, her panic, the regret eating at her, berating her for allowing her fury to control her, she would stop at nothing.
She would save him. Save them both. No matter the odds against her, the men who would come, the army that would hunt them. Because the alternative was unthinkable, and not something she could live with. Not again.
She’d abandoned all that she was, all that she could ever hope to become for this mission. The phoenix that had risen from the ashes of her childhood would die a sudden and brutal death, buried as effectively as any corpse, its grave barren and unmarked. All she’d fought for would be anted up on the alter of this sacrifice: every precious, hard-won day of survival, the life she’d built brick by painful brick, the education she’d worked nearly into the grave for, the future of which she’d dreamed. Gone. All gone. And part of her screamed at the injustice, mourned profoundly the loss, but what drove her was unconcerned with that loss. Life was loss. Sacrifice and pain were nothing new. If the tradeoff was their future, she would happily make it. Because it was not death she feared, it was failure.
“You’ll just make it worse,” Alexander hissed, another fissure forming in his diffidence.
“No,” Lucia disagreed quietly. “There is no shame in truth; there is only strength.”
“Truth.” The boy’s mouth twisted. “Yours or his?”
“There is only one truth, mijo.”
He shook his head again. The muscle in his jaw quivered. He wanted so badly to deny it. Lucia could see the words trembling on his lips, the cry welling in his thin chest.
But he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. They both knew the truth intimately, even if they did not speak of it. She had tried, more than once, but he would not be swayed. He was too ashamed—the burden of which no victim should carry—and no matter what she said, he wouldn’t accept that he wasn’t responsible, that he’d never been in control. A victim, not a participant.
He couldn’t seem to tell the difference, which only enraged her more.
So many casualties. She hadn’t expected it to find her again. More fool her.
“What will we do?” Alexander demanded tightly. “Run forever?”
A valid question.
Lucia’s gaze flickered to Benjamin, who slept fitfully in his brother’s arms, his ruddy cheeks flushed. She wanted so many things for them both, so many wonderful things…things she would never be able to give them. These children, who had come so unexpectedly into her life, whom she hadn’t expected to change her. To love. And Alexander was right: they deserved more than the nomadic existence she was damning them to, more than a life driven by uncertainty and a constant fear of discovery. A life spent running instead of living.
Because the one who would come for them—for her—would not stop. Not until she was dead. But the alternative was worse, and one she could not allow. No matter the price.
Destiny is not for the weak.
“He’s going to find us,” Alexander said coldly, his belief absolute. “And then he’s going to kill you.”
Lucia’s hands tightened on the steering wheel until her knuckles ached. “He is going to have to.”
Copyright 2016 Hope McKenzie * All Rights Reserved