A door clicked shut, and Marlena’s eyes sprang open. Her muscles went rigid inside her skin. She was careful to keep her body still as she scanned what was visible from her angle on the hard, stale mattress. The room was small, with white walls and generic framed art that featured diluted seascapes. The rough coverlet threatened to chafe even though she hadn’t yet moved underneath it.
It took only a second for her to take it all in, and remember she wasn’t in her room at the orphanage. Even in sleep, her brain couldn’t seem to relax enough to forget.
She was in a hotel room, downtown. And not in the nice section either. He’d said it would be better to stay here, where no one questioned paying cash for a place to sleep. And no one remembered your face.
The muted spray of the shower shut off. Marlena chastised herself for only now noticing that it had been on. One night away from the orphanage, and she was already losing her edge? She strained her ears and listened to the sounds of fabric being pulled against limbs.
A second later, the door opened, and Luke - he kept insisting she call him that, instead of Lukas - walked into the room. She turned to look at him, pulling herself up and throwing back the stale blanket to reveal the same clothes she’d worn the night before; her work clothes. The leather was warm and stiff from being worn so long. Marlena barely noticed. She'd grown used to the feel of it against her; like a second skin.
Luke was dressed in fresh jeans and a blue button down, with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Marlena ran her eyes over the length of him. His hair dripped with water and he ran a hand through it, to shake it dry. Beads of water flew off, into the air. He reached down and pulled the extra blanket from the floor, where he’d slept, and tossed it aside. He took another step into the room and found her watching him. If it had been possible for her to do so, Marlena would have blushed right then. She couldn't remember she'd stared at a man simply for the view. Now wasn't the time to start either.
“Good morning,” he said; his voice cheerful and without a trace of the awkwardness she felt.
She flexed her stiff muscles and nodded once. “Good morning.”
“I thought I’d wait ‘til you were awake to step out. I’m going to run down and get some coffee, maybe a pastry. You want one?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Sure. You can get cleaned up while I’m gone.”
She nodded again, feeling anxious and claustrophobic under his gaze. In the light of day, doubts were creeping in; as well as the gravity of her new living arrangement. Luke seemed unaffected and upbeat which, she was starting to understand, was typical for him. It unnerved her. She’d lived in a climate of stress and tension for so long that anything this friendly and open seemed too easy, and not to be trusted.
Luke’s gaze flicked down, taking in her shiny black pants and tank top. “I don’t have any extra clothes for you.” He gestured to himself saying, “I had these in my truck but…” He trailed off, sounding sincerely sorry that he didn’t have something to offer her
“It’s fine. A shower would be great, though,” she said.
“Alright. Be back in a few, then.” He grabbed his keys off the ledge by the air conditioner and let the door click shut behind him.
She hadn’t missed that he’d put them there last night. She assumed he was testing her, wanting to see if she’d run. But where would she go? He was the only one she knew in the entire world who wouldn’t kill her on sight.
She waited until the muffled roar of his truck faded from the lot and then got up and went into the bathroom. She stripped off her leather, peeling it away from her skin, and adjusted the spray as hot as it would go. When she stepped into the stream, she stood there, bracing herself with her palm against the cold tile, and closed her eyes. She allowed herself all of ten seconds to enjoy the blistering heat of the water against her naked skin, and then reality crashed back in.
In a single night, she’d traded everything she’d ever known, including Korian’s life, for a hunch and a stranger with friendly eyes. How had it come to this? Living in a hotel room, with nothing but the clothes on her back? Where did she go from here? Would Azura be looking for her? Would she know that Korian was dead yet? Yes. She would know. Marlena didn’t know how, but Azura would most certainly know.
She made sure to be out of the shower and dressed again before Luke came back with the food. She was standing in front of the mirror, a blow dryer pointed at her short, dark locks when the door clicked and opened. She tensed reflexively. In the mirror’s reflection she saw Luke enter, balancing a cardboard tray of coffees and a paper bag in one hand. In the other, he held a larger plastic bag. He slid through the opening, backlit by glaring sunlight, and pushed the door closed with his heel. His eyes met hers, and he smiled.
“Got you something,” he said, setting the food on the small table by the bed. He came toward her, the plastic bag swinging in his hand.
She shut the blow dryer off and turned to face him.
“I don’t know if they’ll fit right, but it’s all I could find on short notice.” He held the bag out.
She reached in and pulled out clothing; a white zip-up sweatshirt and a pair of drawstring pants, in gray. Not exactly on par with the leather and microfiber, but it would do, especially for a disguise. No way would anyone from the orphanage recognize her in this.
It dawned on her that Luke had bought these for her. She couldn't remember the last time someone had bought something for her. Even on birthdays, Azura was the only one, and her gifts were always necessities of Marlena's profession; the leather clothing, steel-toed boots, things that would make killing easier. Tears stung at her eyes, but she blinked them back, hardening her jaw at her unexpected emotion. “Thank you. That was very kind.” Her ability to bury her emotions was thing only thing that saved her voice from cracking.
Luke waved a hand, dismissing her gratitude. “No worries. There was a gift shop next to the corner store where I got breakfast. We can get something better later.” He went back to the table and began sorting breakfast sandwiches and packets of sugar.
She slipped into the bathroom and changed her clothes. She used the hotel soap and rinsed out her soiled set as best she could, hanging them on the shower rod to dry. The cotton felt bulky and thick against her skin. The sweatshirt was a little small, and rode up, revealing an inch of skin. At least the pants fit okay, once she’d pulled the string as taut as it would go. She double knotted it and stepped out.
Luke was eating a breakfast sandwich. A crumpled wrapper sat in front of him and the entire room already smelled like grease. Marlena thought it smelled like Heaven. She couldn't remember the last time she’d eaten. She’d been too worked up about her mission: killing Luke.
She took the empty chair and mixed sugar into her coffee. It had cooled enough for her to gulp it. The caffeine stirred in her blood, and she dug in to the closest grease-stained wrapper. Three bites in, she noticed Luke watching her.
“I take it you like sausage biscuits?” One brow was lifted as well as one corner of his mouth.
She swallowed the massive bite she’d been inhaling. “They’re okay,” she said.
He laughed. She sat back, a little startled by it. Was he laughing at her? If it were anyone else she would've said yes, but his laugh was easy, like he did it often, and deep, like it went all the way through him. And despite the fact that she was the target of his joke, his eyes remained so open and readable; she couldn't seem to feel offended by it. Marlena wondered what it would feel like to laugh like that.
“Here, you can have the last one, then,” he said, shoving another greasy wrapper across the table, still smiling.
“Thanks,” she said, testing out the hint of a smile in the corner of her mouth. It felt odd and she let it disappear. She chewed and swallowed more slowly this time, wondering if he’d notice it and laugh again. He didn’t. She wasn’t sure if she was relieved or disappointed.
“So, now what?” she asked, when they were done eating.
Luke sat back in his chair and took a slow sip of coffee before answering. “Well, that depends a lot on you, I guess. How are you feeling after last night?”
“I’m …” How was she feeling? “Confused.” He nodded, like he’d been expecting that answer. “I’m not going back, if that’s what you’re asking. But I need to know more before I can go any further.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “I can tell you my story which, coincidentally, intersects with yours, or at least the beginning of yours. After that, well… I’m not the one to ask.”
“I was seventeen when I met Azura. I was working for a circus and we’d stopped in the city for a five night show.”
“You worked for the circus?” Marlena asked, surprise coloring her voice.
Luke grinned. “Sure did.”
“Fortune teller, of course. Good times, too. At least for awhile. Anyway Azura came into my tent, looking all silver and regal, and threw a fifty on the table without a word. I figured I knew what she wanted so I closed my eyes and looked ahead, and that was it. No conversation needed. I saw it all play out in the vision. She was there to see me. She already knew about my ‘gift’ as she called it, and wanted to invite me to live with her at the orphanage. I would’ve turned her down, too, but the thought that there were others like me out there… I had to meet them. So, I packed up my stuff and went home with her that night.”
"Just like that." Marlena sat back in her chair.
He nodded. "My upbringing wasn't ... ideal. My parents caught on to my ability early on and shunned me for it. I had no friends, no one. So Azura's offer to be included, to be a part of something, I couldn't say no."
“What happened? When did you know she was using you?”
“For a long time, I didn’t. Azura kept me out of the business end of things. She gave me a job, teaching the younger kids about dealing with their abilities, and she worked with me, taught me to control and focus the premonitions.
Then, a few months into it, she came to me. She said there was a couple interested in Devon, one of the boys in my class. She said they wanted to adopt him and could I do her a favor and check on them, see if they were going to be good parents for him. I told her no problem, of course I'd want to make sure he was going to be okay. So, I used my gift to search for the couple. They weren’t hard to find, but the images were not what I’d expected.”
“What did you see?”
“The couple, along with four others, storming the orphanage and taking Devon and another kid. There would’ve been casualties. On both sides.” The light had gone out of his eyes, and his lips were pulled thin.
“But I thought your premonitions only showed five minutes out?”
“Accurately, yes. I can see further, but it’s not always accurate. Anything further out is only about fifty percent, so I try not to rely on it.”
“Do you think your vision of the attack was accurate?”
“No way to know and I couldn’t be sure either way, but if it was true, I couldn’t let it happen. So I told Azura. She assured me that I shouldn’t worry and she’d take care of it. I had no idea what that even meant at the time. But the next day, I picked up the paper and read that the couple had been killed in a drive by shooting. Police suspected gangs, but I knew.”
“Did you confront her?”
“Of course. She insisted she had no involvement. I almost left after that but I thought about the kids. I couldn’t leave them. A few weeks passed, and I put it out of my mind, but then she asked for another favor. Look in on a man. He’d been poking around, claiming to be from the health department. I agreed, still wanting to do what I could to protect my kids.” He stopped, hesitant all of a sudden.
“What did you see?”
“You.” He didn’t meet her eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“The man Azura had me look for was your father, and he was a special. His gift was compulsion, and he used it to keep you and your mother hidden. But your mother was somehow discovered and… she was killed. I don’t know how. I think your father was scoping out the orphanage because he knew he might be next.”
“What happened?” Marlena gripped the armrest with whitened knuckles. She couldn't remember anything of her parents, or her life before the orphanage. Any information, even something horrible, was better than nothing.
“I told Azura, and she seemed upset. It was one of the few times I’d ever seen her show any emotion. She asked if I would come with her, to check on you guys. Said that if you were specials, you deserved our help and protection. So I brought her to your house. I didn’t have the vision until it was too late. She… killed your father before I could stop her. Then she brought you back with us. In the car, you were crying. You wouldn’t stop. And she did something. I don’t know what, exactly. But whatever it was made you stop crying, and you didn’t even seem to know what had happened, or that your dad was even gone. You just sat there, like a puppet.
When we got back to the orphanage, Azura whisked you away. I tried to see what she would do, but my visions were hazy and blocked, just like they always were when it came to Azura. When I tried looking at just you, I saw you growing up in the orphanage, completely devoted to Azura. You were safe. So, I told myself that was all that mattered, and I packed a bag and left.”
Marlena sat quietly, absorbing the story. In a way, she wasn’t surprised. She’d suspected for a long time now that Azura had done something to manipulate her memory of that day. But, Azura had killed her father. At least, that’s what Luke said. The temptation to disregard his story was pricking at her. But if she did, she’d have to reject every choice she’d made in the last twenty four hours. And she couldn’t do that. The truth in Korian’s eyes had been unmistakable. Azura was using her. But for what? Why?
“Marlena, say something,” said Luke. His voice was almost a whisper. He had his hands clasped between his knees, and he was staring down at them. He seemed... nervous.
She met his eyes, unsure of what he wanted from her. She didn’t feel like she had anything to give. “How did she kill him?”
He winced, like this was the one question he’d been hoping to avoid. “She compelled him to shoot himself.”
Marlena shook her head. “No, Azura doesn’t have the gift of compulsion.”
“Yes, she does. I hadn’t seen it either, when I’d been at the orphanage, but she definitely used it that day. And I think she used it on you.”
“But how? How did she get a new power?”
“I don’t know for sure. But I suspect her gift is absorption. She can absorb the powers of those around her. I think it’s why she collects so many specials and keeps them close.”
Marlena thought about that. There really was no way to know for sure, unless Azura herself confirmed it. Which wasn’t likely. Luke was watching her again, his eyes soft with sympathy. “It’s why she wanted you so badly.”
“Why me? I mean, she could’ve just absorbed my gift and sent me on my way.”
He shook his head. “You have more than just the dreams. Your physical strength and stamina are something she can’t absorb. If I’m right she can only take in psychological gifts. Physical is off limits.”
“So she needed me to carry out the dream’s actions.”
They both fell silent. So, Azura had been using her as her own personal assassin? “I didn’t have a dream last night. It was the first night in months that I didn’t dream of a way to kill someone.”
Luke nodded. “Because you left.”
“What do you mean?”
“When I left the orphanage, my visions came back almost instantly. I was able to see Azura in them, for the first time. It was like she had put a block on herself when I was there. But as soon as I was away, it was removed."
"You think she was manipulating my dreams?"
"It's possible. Who knows what kind of powers she has, through her absorption."
Marlena felt a cool trickle of unease on her spine. "Including mine." She looked across the table at Luke. "My dreams. If this is all true, and she was picking who I saw myself killing in my dreams, then she could easily dream up killing me."
"Hmm." Luke sat back in his chair, considering. "I don't know. Your gift only works if you are the one acting it out, right?"
"So, for Azura to use it to kill you, she'd have to do it herself. In my experience, Azura doesn't like to do her own dirty work. That's why she had you." A corner of his mouth turned up, in a wry smile.
"And Korian," Marlena murmured. Luke didn't respond.
Marlena resisted the urge to fidget with the drawstring of her pants. Nervous energy was bottling inside her and she needed to do something, anything, to let it out. She itched for action. “I still feel like I have more questions than answers.”
“So what now?”
His expression lightened, leaving his eyes a lighter, cheerful shade of green. Had he been wondering if she’d bolt? “For starters, we get you some clothes and whatever else a female needs for a life on the run.”
“Alright.” She wanted to ask him what came after that, but she couldn’t do it. Part of her was too busy digesting the story he’d told; another part of her wasn't sure she wanted to hear his answer. A future spent running for your life sounded awfully bleak. Would he always run with her? Or would he set her up with some clothes and a hotel room and then split?
They tossed the empty wrappers in the trash and left the motel room. Outside, the sun shone over the black asphalt lot, giving off a layer of blurry steaming humidity that seemed to gather at her ankles. Even in the stifling heat, Marlena felt chilled. She knew that whatever came next, it would only get harder.