Aaron raced back to Declant’s office, knowing he’d be waiting for answers. A sliver of light shone beneath the door and as he stood outside, poised to knock, Aaron rehearsed exactly what he’d say. He had finished the boy off. He was gone. No chance of ruining Declant’s rise to power. Feed his ego–that would work. But before he could knock, the door swung open.
A pair of large hazel eyes stared up at him. They held no warmth in their greeting and kept their gaze so intensely he felt like she were X-raying his mind. Hazel. Fifteen going on thirty. She so closely resembled her father, Aaron almost felt compelled to answer to her instead of Declant. Yet despite her glare, her face emanated a genteelness her father’s never did. Her pale skin was dusted with brown-sugar colored freckles; her blonde hair framed her face like a lion’s mane; and a subtle peachy hue tinged her cheeks. She wore torn-up jeans and a navy sequence sweatshirt, the direct antithesis to Declant’s stuffy suites.
“Declant, forgive me for being late,” said Aaron, slipping inside before Hazel could slam the door in his face. But Declant, his blond hair peeking out from the top of the chair, remained facing the darkened window.
“The boy,” he continued. “He’s finished. He won’t be a threat anymore.”
“You’ve killed him?”
Aaron hesitated. Declant swung his chair around and surveyed him with that same X-ray glare Hazel had shot him earlier.
Quickly, Aaron found his voice. “Yes.”
He pulled out the tablet from his jacket pocket and brought it to Declant, who snatched it from his hands and for several long seconds, studied both the boy’s picture and Aaron’s face. Stare him down. Show no fear. Con him, Aaron repeated to himself as Declant’s eyes narrowed into thin slits. He’d conned people for fifteen years and still his boss rained doubt upon his ability to emulate absolute trust in his eyes.Aaron swished his tongue around his mouth, searching for moisture, anything to dampen his throat.Seconds later, however, Declant released his gaze; he slumped back into his chair, dropped the tablet onto his desk, and sighed.
Aaron whirled around, mark out.
Shards of glass and gravel lay scattered across the floor, a small pool of water cradling the mess. Hazel stood in a corner, fists balled like she was ready to punch someone.
Declant continued as if nothing happened. “Was there anyone who saw you?”
But Aaron, distracted by Hazel’s outburst, didn’t hear him. He sank into one of the leather chairs and for the briefest moment, lost all consciousness with his surroundings. His eyes blurred over and muscles he didn’t know he had started to burn–the adrenaline surging through his veins that night was vanishing rapidly.
“What? Yes–sorry,” he said, sitting up and squaring his shoulders. Declant was pressing his fingertips stiffly together; every tip seemed to dig into Aaron’s temples. “Yes, his grandmother saw, but I took care of her. I believe when my mark hit her, she–died.”
A small scoff sounded from the corner.
“You have something to say, Hazel?” asked Declant in an icy tone.
Don’t, thought Aaron, wincing. But knew her better than that.
“I just think it’s great that Aaron killed someone’s grandma,” spat Hazel. “Really necessary in keeping with the plan.”
As if an invisible hand were pulling her down, her knees suddenly buckled and she hit the black slate hard, unable to move. Declant’s Strategy Mark flashed in Aaron’s peripheral view.
“So help me, you will not disturb this meeting,” he said, each word slithering off his tongue as he spoke and sending a chill down Aaron’s neck. “Once the doctor is finished with your mother, you’ll stay with her. For now, I want nothing but silence.”
Hazel stopped squirming and stared fiercely back at her father. Her mouth was scrunched shut and her body shook slightly with each breath she took, but she didn’t cry. Then her eyes fell on Aaron. Her large, searching eyes that always seemed to rattle his repressed moral compass. He looked away. Dang it, Hazel. Sympathy was the last thing he could extend right now.
While rain began to trickle against the glass, Declant and Aaron poured over political papers for the upcoming Fairest election. Unlike before, Declant would rule hard this term over the Marked community. And with little mercy.
Then, understanding crashed down on Aaron: Declant had been building a false level of security among the people all along. They elected him. Trusted him. And now, without any threat before him, Declant would unleash his ultimate plans on them. Ones he had been plotting for years.
His biggest–building his own army.
“They’ll have marks I’ve created,” he said, quietly, motioning Aaron over to where he kept his liquor, away from Hazel dozing in the corner. “They’ll do what I wish at my beckon call. Have powers no one else will know how to control but me. Brilliant, yes?” asked Declant with a cunning grin.
Aaron pinched the inside of his cheek with his teeth until he was certain he could answer correctly.
“Yes, sir,” he said, with an obedient nod.
Idiot, sir. Reckless, sir.
And as he listened to Declant unveil his plans, a sliver of fear shot through him. Manipulation of people’s marks was considered extremely taboo. Even by Otto Nakahara, the community’s most cunning Fairest. No, Declant was taking his power to new levels. And Aaron had signed his life away without even knowing it.
The sun crept up through the thick gloom and finally, Declant quit for the morning. Relieved, Aaron dragged his feet to the door,his entire body gripped with pain. As he made to leave, Hazel’s small frame in the corner caught his eye. She had tucked herself up into a ball; the ground’s chill, no doubt, had seeped its way into her trembling body. He lingered by the door, expecting Declant to leave with her, yet without a second glance, Declant breezed by them and left.
It wasn’t Aaron’s business how Declant treated his family. He cut himself off from his own, so who was he to judge? But it didn’t seem right, to leave her. Before he slipped away, he removed his jacket and draped it over her body. Then hurried back to his apartment to sleep.
* * *
As soon as Aaron shut his eyes, a heavy cloth dropped onto his face. He bolted upright, yanked the cloth off of him, and forced his eyes to adjust to the dark.
“Who’s there?” he asked, heart slamming against his chest.
Suddenly, a light appeared at the foot of his bed. And the face of someone familiar materialized out of the darkness.
“Thanks for the jacket,” she said with an edge of sarcasm.
Aaron sank back onto his bed, groaning. What was she doing here? He threw his hands over his face and rubbed, trying to will the situation away. Trying to will the throbbing in his head, the stiffness in his muscles, gone. He’d experienced this once before–escaping his parent’s house at fifteen; running hours through the winter rain left his body crippled for weeks. At least then, though, he wasn’t having to deal with an emotional teenager.
“And I’m not emotional,” she continued, reading Aaron’s thoughts. Her face, illuminated by the light shinning from her palm, wore an irritated grimace. “I’m rational. And you know it.”
He kneaded his forehead with his fingers. “Your Joy Mark is too invasive. You’re too invasive. How’d you get in here anyway?”
“Same way you probably got into that boy’s home.”
“See, this is the emotional I didn’t want to deal with,” he said, shutting his eyes.
Even behind closed eyelids, however, he could feel her glare at him. “Feeling bad about someone whose life ended isn’t being emotional,” said Hazel, just as icily as Declant had spoken to her back in his office. “You’re a jerk for not feeling anything at all. Not even remorse. Figures.”
He sat upright. “What’s that mean?” he asked, wincing at the electrifying pain now shooting down his back.
“You work for Declant.”
His chest burned. She could see things he never wanted people to see. But he didn’t have time to argue. It was imperative he recovered before tonight: dinner with the political heads of the Fairest government. Especially if he needed to field any suspicious questions. Not to mention, dispose of his blood sample before Declant discovered it.Tightness spread through his chest at the thought of it all.
Then down his back. And into every limb of his body until he was no longer controlling his movements. His fingertips curled into fists; his back hunched sharply; and as if arthritis struck his body, he soon lay curled in a ball on his bed, overwhelmed by pain. From his crippled position, he could see Hazel, palm out.
“Not tense enough,” he said, jaw clenched. Paranoia suddenly struck his body like an illness. White wraiths rose from his sheets, surrounding him. Their mouths stretched in grotesque smiles; their fingers, merely raw bones, reached for his neck; a dull moan sounded as they crept over him, hungry for flesh. Behind their sunken eyes were faces he recognized–Declant. His mother. The boy. Stark blue eyes flashed through his mind and something stirred in Aaron. He yelled, but they skulked closer, their hot breath prickling his skin. “I give!” he yelled again, “Make it stop!”
And it was gone in a flash. All of it. The pain. The grip of anxiety. The mind games. Gone. Dazed, he puttered to the kitchen, filled two glasses with water, and handed one to Hazel, who looked annoyingly pleased with herself.
For a while only the sounds of clinking glasses filled the room. He hated to admit it, but she was good. Controlling her mark like that at fifteen was nothing short of impressive.
“Can’t you put a fire on or something?” asked Hazel, breaking the silence and Aaron’s train of thought. “It’s freezing in here.”
The warmth from the fire now blazing in the grate swept down Aaron’s body like medicine and the stiffness in his joints finally began to loosen. From the kitchen, they overlooked his entire studio. Minimalistic. Stark. But the soft glow from the fire created an unusually inviting ambiance. He almost didn’t recognize it.
“Why did you have to kill him?” she asked, her chin resting on the tops of her knees, pulled tight against her chest. A golden fleck on her sweatshirt shimmered near her face. The light from the fire danced across her eyes as she stared fiercely at the flames. “Because of his mark?”
Aaron remained silent.
She turned to survey his face. But she’d receive no signs of answers. He could mask his emotions as easily as Declant could fire someone.
“You’re not going to tell me, are you,” she said, understanding slowly falling on her face. “Fine. Don’t tell me. But I have a feeling I know why.”
“Look, if you’re going to baby me, treat me like a five-year-old, I might as well go home. But I know you better than that, Aaron.”
He stared hard at his water glass.
She was five, the first time they met. And fiery. The moment he stepped into Declant’s office, she raced over to him, grabbed his ankle, and looked up at him with those large hazel eyes; a loud giggle escaped from her mouth. He stared at her like she were a loose animal. Then Declant yelled. And a noise Aaron had rarely heard exploded from this tiny person now sitting on his shoe. Water poured from her eyes, down her face, onto his suit. His new suit he had bought fresh that morning to impress Declant. Heat raced through his body as this opportunity was slowly being ruined by a child.
But suddenly, her eyes locked onto his. And something shot through his heart, something he hadn’t felt in years. Only once when he saw his mother crying from his bedroom door. The day he told her he hated her.
Fifteen now. Hazel’s eyes still held a power over him. He never admitted it. Never told her about that moment in her father’s office. She would use it as ammunition.
Somehow, she had known all along.
“You’re not going to like what I’m about to tell you,” said Aaron, choosing his words carefully. “But honestly, I don’t care. I did it because your father asked, and that’s who I live to serve.” He would tell her what Declant had wanted to hear. The boy was dead. He wouldn’t let Hazel’s determined, downcast face affect him. She wanted answers, he’d give them to her. Lies included.
For the next ten minutes, Aaron described the scenes. The bus; the cafe; and finally, the boy’s house. He was careful to stop there. Careful to describe how the boy died. However, Hazel kept eying him curiously, like she was once again reading the thoughts he was leaving out.
“And that was it,” he said, shuffling to open the door. “It’s time for you to leave.” But Hazel didn’t move. A smile flickered across her face. Her eyes bore into his, and he quickly looked away, his heart now stinging in his chest. Fifteen. She’s only fifteen, he repeated. Don’t let her–
“You didn’t kill him.”
“You didn’t, and it’s killing you that you did something against my father’s wishes.”
What felt like a bucket of ice water seemed to crash down onto his back. He slammed the door shut.
Hazel perked up. “You didn’t! I knew it! I knew you weren’t like him, Aaron. I knew there was some good in you.”
Suddenly, the face of the boy rushed into his mind. He didn’t know what to think or feel. He didn’t want to think or feel. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He hurried to the kitchen, poured a dark liquid from a bottle into a glass, and shot it back. The liquor’s sharp sting smacked him between the eyes. He drank one more. And for several seconds, vague, empty thoughts clouded his mind.
Until he turned around, and Hazel’s face jarred him back to reality.
The weight of the secret suddenly threatened to overwhelm him. Telling would no doubt alleviate some of the burden. A burden he knew she’d proudly carry. He saw again the golden fleck on her sweatshirt and realized now what it was: a pin in the shape of a galloping horse. Follower of Declant or not, Aaron knew exactly what it symbolized–one’s decision to define himself apart from his mark. An underground message. Rebellion. She truly was the antithesis of Declant.
Hazel caught him glancing at her pin, but she held her stare, emotionless.
“If I tell you, you have to swear to me, you’ll never tell a soul,” he said, slowly formulating a plan.
“Then follow me.”