Authors: Amy Rench
NEW YORK CITY
Energy fumed inside her head, clawing to come out. She let it surface, unable to fight the intense force anymore. Unwilling to fight it.
Harper summoned the hatred, the need for vengeance, and the grief for her brother, harnessing all of it with her psyche into a resounding dynamo. She then spread her arms and willed the raging force out of her mind.
Her flesh seared, as though every fiber underneath was pulling away from the bone. Molten heat swept through her, like she’d been turned inside out under a volcano as the power flowed from her mind, down her arms and to her hands.
She let herself go, giving in to the furious rapture. A deafening hum rippled through her ears, and her body lurched backward as powerful energy shot from her open palms. The near invisible wave flowed toward the dazed men standing before her, stirring the air and space between them. The energy engulfed her enemies.
A heartbeat later, the raging heat was gone. Harper felt light-headed. Sheer destruction lay before her. Dead. They were all dead. And she’d killed them.
“What’s happening to me?” she managed to howl before she passed out.
The blur of greens and browns filtered into the shapes of countless pines and firs spanning the highway as far as the eye could see. The constant whir of the engine for the past 650 miles became gruff chugs as the bus prepared for the stop ahead. Harper Kane sat up and stretched in the worn faux leather seat in an attempt to ease her cramped muscles.
She’d fallen asleep almost immediately after leaving the San Francisco terminal, but had an abrupt awakening when the bus suffered a thunderous tire blowout and lurched to the side of the road just before the Oregon border. Since then, she had just dozed, with that prickly feeling of being not quite asleep or awake.
Harper admired the infinite shades of color in the surrounding autumn foliage. She loved living in northern California, but Oregon would always have a fond place in her heart. Especially because her elder brother, Bobby, still lived here.
She hadn’t seen him in six months, a long time for them to be apart. But with the Olympic trials nearing, her training had been rigorous. She needed all the time in the water she could get.
But she needed this time away from the pool even more. Her focus had been waning a little lately. Besides, her racing times were better than they’d ever been.
The bus finally slumped to a halt, assaulting her senses with exhaust. She took a few sips from her twenty-four-ounce water bottle to wash the filmy taste from her mouth, and then tucked it in the worn backpack resting on the adjacent seat.
“Hood River.” The driver’s monotone voice sounded tinny over the microphone.
They were actually stopping way outside the town limits. Given that she was the only passenger on the bus, the driver had grudgingly agreed to stop close to Bobby’s remote home in the woods. Which meant the side of the road rather than the station in Hood River itself.
As she descended the broad steps of the bus, she searched for her brother’s baby blue clunker of a pickup truck. The heap was barely legal, but Bobby loved it. Two hours ago she’d left him a message that she was being dropped off close by, but neither the truck nor her brother were visible through the light misty rain.
Grumbling at his absence, she began slogging through the mushy gravel on the shoulder of the road. The bus was inconvenient, but her Jeep wouldn’t make the long trip up. The old vehicle barely made it to the pool where she trained. And lately it hadn’t even done that. She’d had to hoof the five miles from her apartment for the last month, pleasing her coach to no end.
About a half mile down the road was an obscure turnoff for the bumpy dirt road that led to Bobby’s house. The hazy sprinkle soon shifted to a steady downpour.
Harper pulled her jacket collar taut around her neck to keep from getting absolutely soaked, but she knew it was futile. Rain seeped through her jeans and flooded her sneakers. Being wet was a way of life for her, but a warm, comfortable pool was a far cry from the chilly Oregon rains. She just hoped that the clothes in her backpack were staying somewhat dry.
The smell of wet vegetation and cool air caused her to sniff a little and expel a moist cloud of breath. It was colder than normal for late October. Maybe Bobby was busy building a nice welcoming fire for her in the woodstove. Hopeful, she squished forward through the puddles and pine needles.
About a hundred yards from Bobby’s road, she heard the familiar rumbling of his truck’s archaic motor. Seconds later the blue cab poked its nose out from the trees, gravel spewing everywhere from the sudden braking.
Bobby glanced at her through the open driver-side window. Rain pounded his face, which held a look of obvious delight; the look quickly changed to one of alarm.
The truck door flew open and Bobby started to slide out, giving her a terse wave. She raised her hand in response.
A crack of gunfire sounded. Harper stopped cold.
Another shot rang out. Then another. Confusion paralyzed her in the whipping rain, and a pained roar came from her throat.
Her brother slumped and fell backward into the truck cab. A vise of horror seized her body, and the truth hit her like a gale wind: Bobby had been shot.
Time froze. Harper saw her body move toward the truck as though watching a movie somehow outside herself. Her brother needed her.
She made it to the truck door and impatiently shrugged off her backpack, barely hearing the splash of it hitting the sopping ground over the pounding of her heartbeat.
Blood pumped out of the three holes in Bobby’s chest. Harper ripped his shirt away from his body and tried to press it against the wounds. The white material stained red but was unable to hold the blood at bay. There was just too much pouring out. Too fast.
“Harper.” Bobby’s voice was a strained whisper.
“Bobby! What the heck is going on? What—”
“No time,” Bobby interrupted. “Remember the Barracks?” He wheezed and coughed.
“What?” Harper grabbed his shaking hand. It was freezing. She frantically searched through trees, but could see nothing through the rain. “Just hold on. I’m getting my phone. I’ll get help.” She gave his hand a squeeze and turned to reach for her drenched pack on the ground. Bobby’s iron grip on her forearm stopped her motion and forced her to face him.
“No time,” he repeated softly. She could barely hear him. “G-get to the Barracks. I left something.” He coughed again, fainter this time. “For you. Left something for you.”
“I don’t understand.” Harper couldn’t believe what was happening. “Bobby, don’t leave me.” Her brother was going to die. And there was nothing she could do about it. “I need you.”
“Please, Harper,” Bobby pleaded, his breath coming in small gasps. “Do this. For me.”
“Anything for you, Bobby,” she vowed, and held his chilled hands. “Anything.” She still didn’t understand what he was talking about, but she’d do whatever he asked. She owed him that. He’d always been there for her. She would do the same for him. Tears streaked down her face, mingling with the rain, then dropped onto the blood-spattered pile of clothing draped over his chest.
“Thanks, Harpie.” He smiled weakly. And closed his eyes. “Didn’t know w-what else to do.”
“Bobby, what’s going on?” she asked again.
“I’m s-sorry. You’ll know…what to do” was all he said in response, the words slurred and hushed. “Love
you, sis.” He said it so quietly that she wasn’t even sure he’d spoken.
“Love you, big bro,” she choked out. She leaned over him and reached behind his shoulders, pulling his weak body to hers in a tight hug, desperately trying to give him comfort. Hoping for some miracle to save his life.
After a slight shudder and a doting smile, he closed his eyes for the last time, and his body went still in her arms.
Harper crushed Bobby’s lifeless body against her. Shock poured through her every fiber, chilling and bitter. The driving rain continued in heavy sheets and pounded against her while she just held him with disbelieving ferocity.
Her mind raced with questions she feared would never be answered and words she knew would never be spoken. Why? Why had her brother been shot? What had he done to deserve having his life taken away in such a grisly and abrupt way? Who would have done this? And what in the world did he leave for her that had cost him his life?
Time meant nothing. How long had she sat there, clutching the cold shell of her brother? Wasn’t it just minutes ago that she was annoyed with him for not picking her up and for making her walk in the drizzle?
And now? Now, he’d never pick her up again. Never hear her tease him about being late. Never…anything.
Red splotches drenched her clothing. Bobby’s blood. Harper couldn’t help releasing a guttural cry, a primal sound among the tall trees and rain. Painful and bleak.
An ominous flock of black crows suddenly scattered across the desolate sky. Their raucous calls of outrage
mingled with the rolling thunder. She watched them disappear into the sinister black clouds.
The trees seemed to shroud and suffocate her. Shock turned to despair. She was truly alone.
A crack pierced the air, quickly followed by a fracturing split and a
punching through her thick veil of anguish. Ducking next to the cab, she saw a bullet had shattered the pickup’s windshield and embedded itself into the seat only inches away from where she’d been. The cheap upholstery had a little round tear where stuffing spewed out.
She zeroed in on the area where she’d heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire. Thunder roared and lightning spidered across the sky, illuminating the dark rain-glazed trees. Squinting, she saw a sliver of metallic sheen.
Danger flooded her mind. She knew any sane person should be hightailing it out of there, but the impulse to run was beaten down by a ravaging anger that grabbed ahold of her gut, twisting and snaking a white-hot rage through her blood, savagely replacing the utter coldness in her core. Someone had shot her brother. Deliberately. She narrowed her eyes toward the trees where she’d seen the out-of-place glint.
Harper warily rose to gently rest Bobby’s body on the bench seat. She had started to back away when something dropped from his rigid hand and thudded to the squishy floor mat, just under the brake pedal.
A key. Attached to an otherwise bare key ring. In a daze, she picked it up to get a better look. No inscription. No markings whatsoever.
Another gunshot was followed by a slow hiss. The vehicle leaned to the left as the front tire lost its air. And then another shot, blowing the other tire, which tilted the truck forward as it rested on the flats.
Harper shoved the key into the front pocket of her jeans. She slid out of the cab, but slipped in the loose mud. Relentless torrents of rain pummeled her raw body and soul as she lay on the ground, confusion warring with anger at what was happening.
She flinched when a metallic bang hit the bed of the truck. A grenade bounced to a clanking halt against the tire. Another one followed, landing near the first.
Harper came out of her daze and started to run—away from the guns, away from the impending blast.
The explosion tossed her body through the driving rain and dropped her in the brush like a cannonball. Her bones rattled on impact. Pain. There was so much pain. Harper drifted on the fringe of consciousness while she fought the blackness trying to take hold of her. She dared to breathe in the damp air and opened her eyes to the greens of rich moss and dripping ferns. Facedown in the brush, she tasted moist earth on her lips and blood in her mouth. She ran her tongue along her lower lip, confirming the source of the copper tang.
Sickening smoke began to fill her nostrils, drowning out the lush smell of the woods. Awareness flooded her mind. Fire. The truck. Bobby.
Harper pushed herself up, ignoring the sharp agony prickling through every nerve. She stood, trying to steady herself against the stinging rain and destruction.
Her brother’s beloved truck was nothing more than a fiery metallic skeleton. Burning chunks of debris littered the surrounding area. The hammering rain kept the flames from igniting the foliage. A small harbor of light in the sea of gloom.
Sheer anguish seized her, grasping her heart and squeezing relentlessly with a crushing fist.
Harper fell to her knees, hands on her head.
Her brother was truly gone.
She hopelessly watched the rain splash into brown puddles and drain down to the muddy soil in little rivers. The heavy droplets became fierce and loud. She suddenly realized it wasn’t the rain, but bullets splattering the mud.
They’d seen her, and they weren’t going to let her get away alive.