Chapter Two

"The scariest thing just happened to me," Will announced as he shoved open the door to his brother's apartment. "I swear to God."

The older version of Will was sitting on the shabby couch in the living room with the TV blaring some documentary or another. He held up a folded piece of paper between his middle and index fingers as Will walked in, not glancing up from the screen to look his little brother in the face.

"I thought you weren't coming home this time, William."

Will snatched the suicide note from between his brother's fingers and stormed around him to the recliner. He collapsed in it and started ripping the paper into tiny strips, grumbling under his breath as he did so, putting all his effort into making the tearing as loud as possible and pressing his eyebrows together in the middle.

"Nice to see my plans to end my life are taken so seriously around here," he growled.

"Let's not make it the boy who cried wolf, alright? Go do your homework."

"You don't even care, do you, Liam?" Will accused roughly.

Liam's head rose at that and he pushed back the black hair that would have been gelled into a mohawk as he sized up his little brother.

"If you really think that, Will, you're fucking cracked. I don't work two jobs to support us because I don't care. Now go do your homework. It's not okay to be failing classes."

"I'm not failing physics," Will sneered, shoving himself up from the chair and glaring at his brother.

"Don't give me that face," said the version of him that was ten years older. "Just do as I say."

They had had physical confrontations before and Will could tell by the defiant jut of his brother's jaw that tonight could be like that if he made the wrong decision. When he thought about wrestling against the bigger, stronger, more mature form of his twenty-six-year-old brother, his muscles gave a feeble little shake. They were still sore from running in fear.

"You don't even care about the really fucking creepy thing that happened to me tonight," Will spat, storming to his room and taking care to make his footsteps extra heavy. He realized his brother had not even noticed the scratches or torn shirt.

"I'll care once you finish that English reading, William!" Liam called after him. "And I want you in bed by eleven!"

Liam shook his head as he heard Will's door slam from down the hall.

Parenting a teenager when he was barely grown himself was the ultimate task. It was times like this that Liam missed his ultra-Christian, ultra-repressive, ultra-dead parents.

He sighed and went back to watching the documentary, trying not to think about how their deaths were entirely his fault.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Isobel gazed down at the scrap of newspaper in her hand.

"Hiring full-time specialized technician. No experience required. No manual labor. Paid on-site training. Fifteen dollars per hour. Call for appointment," it read.

Isobel swept her black hair back and looked up at the address on the building: 216 LaGampe Avenue. This was the place. It didn't look shabby, as she had expected. Instead, the powerful brick building looked out of place surrounded by its meticulous landscaping. There had been no job description. Even when she called, the receptionist would not tell her more information about the type of work she'd be doing if she was hired. It disconcerted her a little, but she needed the money.

Her hands came to her abdomen, cradling the baby growing there. According to all the knowledge of science, this was never supposed to have happened. The first time she was pregnant, at sixteen, she had had an abortion. At twenty-four, when she was in a serious relationship and trying to get pregnant, the doctors told her it was impossible. The abortion had sterilized her. So it was bittersweet, now, the cells rapidly dividing and defining themselves into a tiny human being within her. Maybe it wasn't the best timing, but it was perhaps the only child she would ever have, and she was not about to leave it behind. Thinking of her child, Isobel opened the car door and stood, self-consciously flattening the dress clothes she had just bought, smoothing the creases with her hands. Perhaps with the money that came from this job, she could get a small apartment of her own, away from the noxious influence of her father.

The receptionist received Isobel and asked her to have a seat. The chairs in the exquisitely-furnished front lounge were extremely soft. Isobel found herself sinking down in one as she sat and found herself hoping that getting up wouldn't be horribly awkward. She knew the importance of first impressions, and she certainly didn't want the interviewer thinking she was clumsy. A lot depended on this job, and Isobel's stomach twisted as she thought about all the reasons she might not get it. She didn't even have a college degree.

"Don't let the insecurity in. You're going to get this job," she told herself.

She took a deep breath and let her brown eyes fall closed. As soon as they opened again, a middle-aged woman in a white lab coat stepped through a door behind the reception desk.

"Isobel Mercier?" The woman approached and held out her hand in greeting, a pleasant smile on her face. "My name is Rita Thompson. If you'll follow me to my office, we'll get started."

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Marcus was seated away from the woman and her daughter on the plane, though he was still intensely curious about them and wished that they were in sight. The flight otherwise was fairly uneventful. Marcus would have fallen asleep, but he was nervous about getting creases in his suit, so he stayed awake and read his issue of Business Weekly to pass the time. When he was finished with that, he took out his laptop and rechecked the presentation he was making once the plane safely landed in Chicago. But his mind was still on the woman and the way his eyes were suddenly forced from her, as if there were nothing to look at in the space she was occupying. He felt troubled as the plane descended.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Malia gripped her daughter's hand and led her slowly off the plane. It took all her energy to hold her existence outside the notice of the mere humans that surrounded her, to render herself, in all intents and purposes, completely invisible. The fatigue settling deep in her bones and the despair in her heart made her want to lie down to sleep for a million years and never wake up. Not only that, it made her so distraught that she knew she was letting the field around her waver, which would reveal her to the humans even more sharply if it caught them off guard.

"This is truly the end, isn't it?" she said solemnly to the crown on the little blonde curls, now messy from the nap the girl had taken during the flight.

The toddler looked this way and that, surveying the scene, making sure no one could see or hear her before looking up at her mother and saying, "Keep faith. And keep your wits about you. We're not out of danger yet."

The woman's thin mouth was pulled tight in a frown that gashed her face. She put her hand on her abdomen and she could feel the cold lifelessness of her womb under her fingers, where just hours before there had been life.

And now all was lost.

"How are we to return and tell them?" she asked. "I was sent here so that this wouldn't happen. I was to be praised forever as the new mother of our race. And now I'll be scorned forever."

The girl, clearly upset and mirroring her mother's expression, shook her head. Her golden curls bounced even for a second after she stopped moving and her blue eyes held an intense, blazing look.

"They will feel for you, just like every mother that has lost a son. It's not your fault. The onset of the disease must be earlier than they thought. We must return. We cannot stay here. We don't belong with these slow-witted creatures."

"You just don't like playing the infant," her mother accused.

"You know the minds of our people mature at least ten times the speed of these creatures. I already have the mental capacity of one of their thirty year olds. They do not regard me with respect. They see an unknowing little child and I do not appreciate it."

The mother looked down at her daughter and pet her hair softly.

"My Kylah would be a dream for one of this world's psychologists. You have an IQ of 1000, by human standards. Don't worry, my love. Your intelligence will level off. Try not to let the ignorance of these creatures upset you too much."

Malia took in a sharp breath and paused, gripping the back of a seat to steady herself as tendrils of pain shot up her spine. The ache rested so deep in her, within every atom of her body. If Kylah wasn't with her, she would have given up and succumbed to the weariness. However, that wasn't the case. Her daughter was there and she had to protect her.

"You should rest," the girl said, reaching up to stroke her mother's hand, her eyes showing her concern.

"We have no time for that, Kylah."

Malia sighed, her body shaking. The man next to her looked up, right at her. He could see her, and he looked concerned.

"Are you alright?" he asked, reaching up to steady his shoulder.

Malia gasped in disgust at the possibility of being touched and put all her energy into making herself and Kylah exist outside human consciousness as they hurriedly deplaned.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

"Your alarm's gone off three times," Liam's voice echoed from the door as a shaft of light hit Will in the face. "Get up."

Will groaned and threw his pillow toward the sound of his brother's voice, but he missed terribly and then found himself pillowless and uncomfortable. With a groan, he pulled himself out of bed. A gasp of pain issued from his lungs and he turned to face the mirror. Even in the dark, he could see the angry red gash the bush had given him, extending from his right hip, up his side, and curving around to his right shoulderblade. He could see that it was still weeping, and it smarted horribly when he touched it.

"Hey Liam!" he called, hating to ask for help, but figuring he needed to. The wound had to be bandaged.

"Jesus," his brother said, wincing at the cut as he saw it in the dark. He flipped on his brother's light and made a noise somewhat like disgust. "How in the hell…"

"Well if you would have listened to me last night…" Will grumbled.

"I will now," Liam said firmly. "Go shower, and then we can bandage that cut while you tell me. Okay? Get it clean. There's all sorts of dirt in it."

Will got into the shower, the hot water stinging the cut horribly. It started bleeding again and the red swirled down his body, tingeing the water a pale peachy red. He had noticed the blood last night, but he didn't know the cut was as deep or as wide as it was.

His head was pounding and his side was pulsing with pain. He grabbed his towel from the rack and wrapped it around his waist, not wanting to dry the wound for fear of getting a million tiny pieces of string stuck in it. Liam came in with the first aid kit they kept in the hall closet and opened it, removing gauze, tape, ointment, and antiseptic wash. His brow furrowed in concentration as he examined the wound on his brother's side. Carefully, he wet a piece of gauze with the antiseptic wash and dabbed at the very top of the cut. Will hissed in pain, tears coming to his eyes.

"I hate to say this," Liam said, a frown marring his attractive face, "but I think this needs to be stitched up. How in the hell did this happen, Will?"

Wincing and gasping in pain, Will told his brother the events of that night. He told of how he went up to the church tower and failed to jump off (though he didn't add the part about him crying), how he was walking along the dirt road leading to the church, how the van came up behind him, then about hiding in the bushes and the men chasing after him with the dog.

"A branch couldn't have done this, Will," Liam said after listening intently. He applied the last piece of gauze to his brother's hip.

"It had to have been," Will said, frowning as he looked at his throbbing, bandaged side.

"I don't want you going back there, understand? That's trespassing, and that's illegal."

"But…"

"No," Liam said firmly. "Now go get dressed and get in the car. I think we better go get this looked at."

"You can't afford to take a day off. You need to work. I'll go by myself."

Liam knew he was right. With a sigh, he handed him a blank check, silently hoping it wouldn't be too expensive. His bank account contained only around six hundred dollars. Four hundred of that was for rent. They barely scraped by as it was. With no insurance, a hospital visit might shove Liam off the very fine line on which he was walking.

"I'll take the bus to work," he said, ruffling his brother's hair a little, a concerned look on his face. "You take the car. I better go now if I'm going to catch the 8:00 bus. If you have a problem, you call me at work, okay? And don't let them do anything unless it's absolutely necessary."

---------------------------------------------------------------------

"Before we start, I'd like to ask a few questions," Isobel said as she sat in the chair Rita Thompson had gestured to. Rita smiled politely as she took the chair behind her desk, folding her hands on its polished wooden surface.

"I'm not at leisure to disclose very many details about the work that goes on here before you're officially hired and sign a confidentiality form. This is a government station and must thereby abide by the regulations of the Investigation Confidentiality Act of 2012."

The tone in which Rita Thompson said this made an uncomfortable bubble of suspicion rise up in Isobel's consciousness. She pushed it back, though, conscious of how much she needed the money and how being better off would be better for the baby. That being said, Isobel looked up at Rita, and the interview began.

The questions were strange, to say the least. There were no job-related questions, it seemed. Only things like "Have you ever owned a dog?" and "Would you be comfortable cutting your hair short?" Nothing seemed to take a logical pattern, and in fact Isobel wasn't even sure the woman was allowed to ask those kinds of questions in an interview, but she had always been good at thinking on her feet and she managed to answer the questions easily and with as much enthusiasm as possible.

The woman gave her another smile at the end of the interview, adjusted her glasses on her face, and reached out for a handshake over the desk.

"Thank you for your time, Ms. Mercier. I'll definitely be giving you a call."

Isobel was proud of herself as she left the building, but she could hardly deny the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of her stomach. Something was wrong here. Well, maybe not wrong, but at least strange. She figured she had nothing to do but wait, though, and she tried to put it out of her mind.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Marcus stepped back in shock as the woman and the golden-haired toddler appeared suddenly beside him. It was as if he had blinked twice, missing them the first time and then seeing them the second. The mother was looking very ill indeed, and everyone noticed. The man Marcus had been sitting next to spoke to her. She recoiled, disgusted, as he tried to touch her. Marcus blinked again and that was the end of it. She was gone.

The woman had some strange power over him; over everyone. It made a shiver run down his spine. It was simply unnatural.

The long-buried scientific part of him suddenly came roaring to life. He wanted to know her secrets. The term "witch" pressed into his head, but he shoved it aside. Witches did not exist. This woman was human. Everyone was.

And yet, she gave off such a mysterious air. Something about her was odd. She struck him as this once strong, happy, proud woman who had fallen into a pit of misery.

Marcus glanced at his watch. He had more than four hours until his business meeting. So, with a half-formed plan, he followed the woman off the plane. She reappeared every four or five steps, but only for a brief second. Blink, and he would miss it. This was too curious for even a proper businessman like himself to let go. He needed to get to the bottom of it.