My skin continued to glow while Ryan and I trained and fought. He was a wonderful teacher, despite his tendency to make me want to break his jaw. When my skin was glowing though, I most certainly surpassed him in nearly everything he had taught me. My explosions were more precise and destructive. My flames flowed and danced in a contained chaos and not like a faulty firearm in the wrong hands. The advanced powers occurred best under controlled circumstances by using lethal doses of epinephrine—which we had quickly run out of. Even with natural adrenaline pumping, I couldn’t just shake off the faint glow of my Element for another few hours after initial training, so we worked ourselves into a state of exhaustion—something we did in order to find sleep. Shawn and Mark had already trekked back to the house to devour the much needed food that our inhumanely fast metabolisms required. It wasn’t until the sun began to dip below the trees, casting bright orange glows against the clouds, that my Element stopped illuminating the pores of my skin.
Emma appeared from the treetops and floated down next to us just as the moon began to make its slow ascension into the sky. Her once long, stick-straight hair had been cut to rest on her shoulders and was styled in soft, playful curls. It was windswept from flying, but stunning nonetheless.
“You look lovely.” I smiled as she landed with hardly a sound.
“You like it?” She scrunched her hair nervously in one hand. “Oh! I saw that pub that Shawn and Mark keep harping about. It’s packed; let’s go!” Her voice was gentle, but filled with hints of excited curiosity.
My words tumbled over one another. “Emma, I don’t know—”
“Don’t care. Let’s go!” she cut me off. “We both need to change first.” She looked at Ryan and wrinkled her nose. “Especially you.”
Ryan laughed and pulled Emma into a tight hug. She blasted a strong current of air at him to push him off and locked her arm with mine. She grasped Ryan’s hand and began to pull us forward, towards the house.
“I can smell Shawn’s cooking from here.” Emma spoke with a smile as bright as the falling sun.
Despite years of being locked away for nearly her entire life in the Lab, Emma always found a reason to smile. It was never strained, false, or forced; it was genuine. It was an appreciation for freedom and a sign of strength and resilience. She was happy just to taste fresh air.
Hidden deep within the woods and thought by many to have been abandoned for several decades, the Lab stood on the outskirts of our small town. The Lab was shrouded in myth and lore told by conspiracy theorists. Self-published articles about the creatures that were created there could be found online. Little did most townsfolk know that right under our noses, the building housed a government experiment that used humans as their lab rats—not unearthly creatures. That’s what we were.
Subjects of Experiment X.
Except for Ryan, Jack, and Matthew. They were all part of the first round of subjects—Experiment A. They were the only survivors of the systematic tortures they were forced to endure.
Well, Matthew was killed by Shawn, his younger brother, at the Lab after Matthew tried to kill me. None of us knew if Jack was alive. Ryan was the only one from the original experiments we were certain was still standing. I shook my head to clear my mind.
Jack was alive. He had to be.
We ate quickly. Emma’s contagious enthusiasm to go out and have fun was beginning to fill the air and take to our lungs. Ryan expressed his nervousness. He had never tasted alcohol, nor had he ever been in a dark room with unknown entities that weren’t trying to kill him.
“I had never flown before we escaped, but did I let that stop me? No!” Emma leered at him.
He just laughed anxiously, excused himself from the table, and headed upstairs to change into something that wasn’t singed and smelling of burnt cotton. Mark and Shawn, having already changed, cleared the table while Emma and I ran upstairs to also put on something more publicly suitable.
I went with black skinny jeans, boots, and a loose fitting tee. Emma picked out a sundress that hugged and flowed around all the right places.
“Did you go into the pub at all?” I questioned as I put on some eyeliner.
“No, I just flew over it and saw the crowd.” She grinned. “I’m just curious to see what’s going on. There were too many voices to listen to—especially with all the wind. I was impossible to pick out a coherent conversation.”
We took the black sedan—one of Jack’s many cars in his garage at the end of the long driveway—to the pub. As foretold, it was packed. It was as if everyone in town had made their way over for cheap drinks and an inexplicable need for someone’s sloppy seconds. Nearly every seat and stool was filled in the noisy establishment. Some people had their heads down while they talked amongst each other in ear-piercing whispers. Those that surrounded the bar were loud as they lifted their drinks in excitement. They clinked their glasses together in celebration a few dozen times.
We pushed our way to the front and caught the bartender, Chris’, attention.
“Hey, Karen! Where have you been hiding?” He smiled at me and then nodded a greeting of notice towards my friends.
“Around.” I waved my hand through the air absently. “Can I get five whiskey sours?”
“Sure thing, dear!” He ducked under the table for a second to grab the necessary ingredients. “You guys here to celebrate too?”
“Celebrate what?” Emma chimed in, standing with her shoulder against mine.
“Hey, he’s around here somewhere. Ask Dante; this is all for him.” Chris looked at me. “He’s changed, Karen. More than any of us could ever hope.”
I rolled my eyes. “Too little too late.”
He just smiled and gave us our ice cold drinks.
“Who’s Dante?” Emma asked as we searched for an empty table.
She took a sip from her glass and her nose scrunched in distaste. With a smile, Shawn took her drink and swallowed it in a few large gulps. Ryan shook his head at the smell and immediately handed his drink to his younger brother, Mark. Shawn ducked away into the crowd for a long minute and emerged again with a blue drink and handed it to Emma. He gave her an encouraging nod and she took a cautious sip. Her eyes lit up and a smile stretched across her face.
“It tastes like berries!” She took another amazed sip. “So Dante, who is he?”
“Her idiot boyfriend.” Shawn scowled, his blue eyes brightening with frustration.
Emma looked shocked. “I thought Shawn was your idiot boyfriend.”
“Dante is my ex,” I corrected with a groan. “You couldn’t pay me enough to even shake hands with that poor excuse for a man now.”
Dante had beaten me down into emotional submission one too many times. I still couldn’t figure out why I had stayed by his side for two long years.
“Is he that guy?” Ryan pointed to a man standing on a table while people clapped and cheered wildly.
His dark black hair had been cut short, no longer sweeping across his steel blue eyes. He held his arms out as those around him sent him praise. He had gained quite a bit of muscle since I last saw him. His eyes locked onto mine and he jumped off of the table with hardly a sound.
“Hey, Karen,” he slurred.
Of course he was leagues beyond drunk.
I swallowed a large swig of my drink as Rebekah took to Dante’s side. Her long brown hair lay over one shoulder in elegant waves. Her large, chestnut eyes were glazed over from one too many drinks and her rosy cheeks looked more flushed than usual. She held Dante’s arm like a lost child desperate for balance and attention.
Shawn jumped to my defense. “What do you want?”
“Him? Really, Karen?” Dante looked Shawn up and down with disgust.
I gripped Shawn’s hand to prevent him from striking although I knew it was really for me; I was the one who needed something to hold onto so I wouldn’t knock Dante out.
“Dante’s a hero now!” Rebekah blurted and kissed his cheek.
I raised an eyebrow. “What are you talking about?”
Dante was as much a hero as a moldy sandwich was delicious.
“She’s right.” Dante nodded and sneered at Shawn and Mark. “So, who’s your cute friend?” He held his hand out to Emma.
She stared at his offer for a moment, but refused to take it. She could feel the vibes between us and she stuck to my side. “Emma. Why are you a hero?”
He puffed his chest out with pride. “I took on a special challenge to help our country and become one of the few volunteers to sign up for Experiment R. They gave me this injection, and now I’m basically immortal.”
“A hero!” Rebekah shouted and the bar cheered.
“I go to this facility to do some final training and then I’m being sent off to do secret missions.”
Emma’s face went pale and Mark and Shawn’s jaws unhinged.
Ryan let out a hollow laugh. He took his drink back from Mark and swallowed it in one gulp. “Your funeral.”
“Whatever man.” Dante shook Ryan off. “I can just kick more people’s asses now. You know, people who deserve it. Like that Jack idiot.”
Ryan jumped up from his stool and Dante was on the ground before any of us had a chance to process what was happening. He kept a knee on Dante’s chest and held a pistol to the bridge of his nose.
“I’m willing to bet that if I place a bullet through your skull you’ll die just like the rest of us,” Ryan growled, pressing the gun further into Dante’s head.
Dante’s eyes flashed red. I could almost hear the grin creep across his lips. Ryan shook with laughter. He leaned in closer to Dante and spoke softly.
“Fire, eh?” I was sure the on-looking crowd couldn’t hear his hushed whispers. “I’ve been at this a lot longer than you. Do not test me.”
“Is anyone going to stop Ryan?” Emma asked.
“Nope,” Mark and Shawn sang in unison.
I walked up to the two men on the ground and whispered in Ryan’s ear, “No murder and no exposure.”
Ryan nodded once and put his pistol away. He stood up, bringing Dante with him. Dante beamed up at him.
“You took the serum too?” He patted Ryan on the shoulder as if they were old friends; as if Ryan hadn’t had a gun pressed against Dante’s forehead just seconds ago. “Hang out with me. Get some free drinks and forget about those losers.” Dante winked at me. “You too, Karen. Serum or not, you can always stay with me.”
“I think I’ll pass,” I said.
“No.” Ryan shook his head. “These losers are my friends. My comrades.”
Dante shrugged and stumbled back to the crowd that treated him as if he was God’s gift to the earth. With open arms, they welcomed him back with ignorant bliss and praise.
“Ignore them. They don’t know an American hero when they see one,” I heard someone say.
Ryan looked as if he had been slapped across the face, his fists clenched and his eyes wide. Emma’s eyebrows were raised in a perpetual confusion, her head slightly tilted to one side as she watched the crowd with curiosity. Mark’s fist was grasped tightly around his empty glass, his stare straight and frozen. Shawn’s face was pale, drained of all color as he looked up at the ceiling. He was doing his best to control the intensity that pumped through each of us like a drug.
“What the hell? They injected new Subjects.” Ryan’s eyes were a vivid red.
“Look down,” Mark quickly warned under his breath.
Exposure meant capture.
“I wiped their system clean!” Shawn shouted, making us jump. His words floated away into the chatter of the crowd.
“Who would sign up for that?” Emma whispered, her voice shaking.
“Idiots like Dante.” I gulped down the rest of my drink.