The sixth and final post in this series! I hope that you enjoyed reading my work over the past few weeks. I had a lot of fun writing all of it.
This last piece is the first chapter from my first real attempt at writing a full novel. The story stole my heart seven years ago, and I’m still in love with it. I’ve posted about this story many times before, so if you want more Emily feel free to troll my archives to your heart’s content. 😛
Note: The pictures are not my own. I used them as writing prompts/inspiration for the many times I got writers’ block while writing this novel. Since I got them several years ago, I no longer remember the sources.
I tensed, every muscle coiled tight like a spring. The focused energy of the twenty girls lined up beside me pumped me full of adrenaline as I stood poised at the start line, waiting for the crack of the gun to start the race. It was the perfect day for it; cool and sunny, the robin’s-egg sky sprinkled with cotton candy clouds, a light wind rustling the leaves and bending the long grass like ocean waves.
The gun sounded and my body sprang into action. I picked a pace and fell into the familiar rhythm, arms and legs pumping as I left the grassy field and pounded into the woods. The dusty track wound its way through the trees and past a river, looping up around a hill before swinging back down to the field to finish.
There were four girls ahead of me when at last the finish line came into sight. I picked up my pace, feet fast and light on the grass. My muscles burned with exhaustion, but this final sprint was what I was made for. I passed two of the girls ahead of me, my pony tail whipping the back of my neck. The girl in second heard me coming up behind and glanced back at me over her shoulder – a fatal mistake. She tripped over the uneven ground and stumbled. I passed her in the second it took her to regain balance.
I locked my eyes on the finish line and put everything I had into the final sprint. The girl in first was fast – very fast – but I only had to be a small bit faster. The gap between us closed. We were neck-and-neck, ten metres from the finish. With one final leap, I hurled myself over the line, half a second before her. A cheer rose from the crowd of parents and coaches watching the race, and I whipped around, stupidly searching for my mom. But she wasn’t there. She never was.
Ever since my dad had passed away six years ago, my mom had worked a long string of part-time jobs to support us. She was probably still at the coffee shop, and wouldn’t get home until six or seven pm. I ignored the glares of the girls I’d beat as I walked across the grass to my bag and water bottle.
I tried not to think of what mom’s reaction would be if she found out I’d won another race. She had encouraged me to take up running as a constructive outlet, and I had quickly fallen in love with it. Within two years, I was placing in long distance races. I was fast. Almost too fast. I started getting attention from competing track coaches and even some universities, and my mom started to worry.
Don’t get me wrong, my mom is the best mom in the world, and she was thrilled the first time I won a race. But then I started winning nearly every race I ran, and she started pressuring me to drop it. But I couldn’t.
I loved the thrill of a race, the fierce competition, the feeling of pushing my body to its limits and then a little farther. When I ran, I felt alive. From the moment I crossed the start line to the moment I crossed the finish, I let myself live in a different universe. One where my father was alive, and mom didn’t have to work all the time, and I didn’t live under constant threat from them. Winning was simply the icing on my cake of forgetfulness.
I slung my backpack over my back and took a swig from my water bottle. My stomach growled with hunger as I walked away from the racecourse before the winners were announced. I waited until I turned onto the main drag to pull a protein bar from my bag. I didn’t notice the poster I’d stopped beside until I had sunk my teeth into the gooey goodness of the bar.
ARMED AND DANGEROUS was printed in bold black letters above a grainy picture of a wild-eyed teenaged girl. She was holding a fireball like a shot-put, arms frozen mid-swing, mouth wide in a scream, blonde ponytail whipping in her face. ‘Last seen on McDermot Ave on 05/24 at 0100 hours. Known Afflicted in league with the SuperHuman Society. IF SEEN, DO NOT ENGAGE. PHONE 911 IMMEDIATELY.’
Suddenly, I wasn’t hungry anymore. The girl looked to be about my age, and even as I walked away, chewing my protein bar robotically, I couldn’t get her picture out of my head. The way her face was contorted as she screamed – or was it a battle cry? The fire alive in her eyes. My route home was plastered with similar posters. Some were photos of known Afflicted, but most were public safety announcements detailing signs and symptoms, reminding us why the Afflicted were dangerous, and adverts for so-called prenatal screening tests.
The latter made my insides boil with anger. There was no such thing as an accurate prenatal test. Nobody knew what caused some children to develop freak powers, and symptoms only showed up between the ages of five and ten. But parents were desperate to ensure they wouldn’t end up with an Afflicted for a child. One of my best friends had shown positive in a test, but, as her mom had always liked to boast, had been ‘perfectly normal in every way.’ Former friend, I reminded myself. I hadn’t seen or heard from her since moving away six years ago, and we’d moved around so much since then, I hadn’t really made any new friends.
Clouds rolled in overhead and the wind picked up as I left suburbia and headed into the maze of cookie-cutter apartment buildings I called home. Litter and dead leaves scuttled around my feet as I crossed the street, my hand fishing in my pocket for my key as I walked. I closed my fist on my keychain and took a calming breath as I pulled open the doors to the building’s lobby.
The elevators were out of order, so I had to take the stairs – seven flights – to the top floor. I let myself into our apartment and collapsed immediately on the couch without pausing to take off my shoes. I was so tired from the race and the long walk home that I felt I could lie on the couch and sleep until morning. Ten minutes later however, I was so hungry I got up again and headed for the kitchen to make supper.
I found a post-it note on the fridge from my mom saying that she’d picked up a closing shift at the coffee shop and wouldn’t be home until late. I pulled open the fridge door and browsed the half-empty shelves for something edible. Last night’s chicken potato casserole and a bag of pre-made salad fit the bill. A minute later I pulled the casserole from the microwave and sat down to eat, my homework spread out on the table beside me.
It took me most of the evening to finish my homework, and while I was thoroughly exhausted by the time I went to bed, I couldn’t get to sleep right away. Mom hadn’t come home yet. I knew she’d be back late, but couldn’t help worrying. What if I waited and waited and she never came home, just like Dad? At around midnight I heard the front door unlock and the comforting sound of mom dropping her purse by the front door, and then the jingle of hangers as she hung her jacket in the hall closet. I let the tension leech out of my body as I rolled over and fell asleep.
It felt like only a few minutes later when my alarm rang at seven am. I pressed snooze and was on the way back to dreamland when a delicious, sugary smell tickled my nose and enticed me into the kitchen. Mom, wrapped in her worn blue bathrobe, was just pulling a pan of steaming hot cinnamon buns from the oven.
“Good morning, Emily,” she said, putting down the tray so she could give me a hug.
“What’s the occasion?” I asked as she wrapped her thin arms around me. Mom rarely had time to bake, and cinnamon buns were a special treat.
“The sun is shining and God is good,” she answered with a smile. I laughed, but inside I felt a twinge of worry. Mom looked more tired than usual; she had dark circles around her eyes, and her wispy brown hair was escaping from her hastily tied ponytail. I kept telling her I was more than willing to get a part time job so she wouldn’t have to work so much, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
“Isn’t it raining outside?”
“Set the table, Mr. Holmes,” Mom replied, eyes twinkling with her joke. I put out cups and forks as mom dished the cinnamon buns onto two plates. She said grace and passed me one.
I sighed with pleasure as I sank my teeth into the fluffy hot pastry. “Delicious, Mom,” I said. She smiled and took a bite from her own bun.
“How was the race yesterday?” she asked after a minute. My stomach twisted, and I picked at my bun, unable to look at her.
“Good.” I glanced up, and mom raised an eyebrow. “Really good.”
“Did you win?” she asked, her voice stern.
“Yes,” I mumbled. Mom sighed. “I’m sorry,” I added quickly.
“I just don’t want you to get hurt,” she said. “How many times do I have to warn you? Anything unnatural and they’ll-”
“What? They’ll what? Haul me away to some secret lab like the other Afflicted freaks?”
Mom leapt up from the table. Her nostrils flared white as I braced myself for a lecture. But all she said was “You’re going to be late for school. Hurry up, I’ll drive you.”
I shoved the last bite of warm cinnamon goo into my mouth and rushed off to get dressed, already burning with remorse for my outburst. I shouldn’t have shouted at my mom, shouldn’t have called the Afflicted ‘freaks’, shouldn’t have won that race. It just wasn’t fair. I wrenched open my dresser so hard the drawer fell out and landed painfully on my foot. Resisting the urge to swear loudly, I threw on my school uniform, brushed my teeth, grabbed my backpack, and was walking out the front door in record speed.
Soon we were pulling out of the apartment’s parking lot. Mom flicked on the windshield wipers, and I leaned back in my seat, listening to the staccato sound of rain drumming on the roof and the swoosh of the tires as we drove through the warehouse district to school.
“I’m sorry for shouting.” I said as we pulled into a long line of cars at a red light.
“I forgive you, Em,” Mom said, smiling at me. “I know it’s hard, but things will get better eventually.”
“I’m always messing up,” I blurted. “I try, I really do, but I can’t keep my head down and pretend I’m invisible all the time. I’m tired, and afraid, and tired of being afraid. What if…” I trailed off, unable to voice my deepest fear. What if I was one of them? One of the Afflicted. What if the government came and dragged me away for experimentation? What if the SuperHuman Society found out about us? I knew that every Afflicted had shown symptoms between the ages of five and ten, and since I was nearly five years above the age limit I could not possibly be one, but still. My father had been one. Did that increase my chances, too?
Mom put her hand on my knee and I looked at her. My beautiful, hard-working, wonderful mother, who had given up everything to protect me when Dad had died and we’d found ourselves alone and hunted by both the government and the SuperHuman Society. She was wearing the small, sad smile she always wore when she thought of Dad.
“We’ll just have to trust that God will take care of us,” she said.
“How can you say that, after-”
“Emily,” she cut me off sharply. I’d hit a sore spot.
“Sorry,” I said, sinking lower into my seat. Why couldn’t I ever keep my mouth shut?
“He loves you. You know that, right?” Mom said, correctly guessing I was beating myself up over my second outburst that day. When I didn’t respond, she sighed and turned to face me. “There is absolutely nothing you can or can not do to make Jesus love you any more or less than He already does. Nothing you can do to make me love you less, either.” She squeezed my knee, and I smiled back at her, my smile turning into terror as my vision zeroed in on the black truck barreling towards us.
“MOM!” I screamed, a second too late.
The world was a mess of blood and glass and metal, Mom in the middle of it. She wasn’t moving, wasn’t breathing, and I screamed for her again, even as my breakfast turned to lead in my stomach.
“No, no, no, God please no.” I sobbed as I reached for her, thinking to pull her from the wreckage. It was no use. She was hopelessly trapped. I grabbed her hand, felt her wrist. No pulse.
A siren’s wailing wrenched me back to my senses. I need to get out of here, I thought. But where to go? Not back to the apartment, not to the police. The answer hit me like a second collision. Mom had told me once of a last resort. The last resort.
“I love you.” I whispered. Then I leapt from the car and sprinted away, ducking up a side street just as three black government trucks rounded the corner and circled the wreaked car. A close call, but I wasn’t the fastest long-distance runner in the province for nothing.
The world blurred at the edges, like I was looking at it through an unfocused lens. I stuck to the side streets as I ran back into the warehouse district. Somehow, on shaking legs and sobbing for breath, I arrived at the back door of a three-story brick building. I rang the doorbell twice, then pounded on the door three times and rang again, the sound echoing around inside. It felt like I stood there for hours, though really it was only a minute before someone answered. My shocked brain hardly processed the gun aimed at my face. Before they could ask any questions, I passed out cold on the doorstep.