Chase’s Story

Artwork by Lisseth T. of New York

Extra Scene #1

This first scene takes place in ARTICLE 5 just after Ember falls asleep in the truck Chase has stolen (pg. 131). They’ve recently crossed the border into the Red Zone, and while Ember is still struggling with whether or not she can trust Chase, Chase is struggling with his own issues: indoctrination by the MM, the secrets he carries about her mother, and the need to maintain a wall between them because of those secrets. Also, due to what he’s been through, he’s hypervigilent, and has a difficult time trusting her, despite how much he wants to. At this point it’s still easier for him to shut down all feelings in order to keep them alive. Or so he thinks…

Disclaimer: Obviously these scenes are not professionally edited.

WARNING: The following scenes contain spoilers and swear words. Two of my favorite things. :)

His eyes adjusted quickly to the failing light. Ready. That was how he had to be – how they’d trained him to be. It was how he knew they’d be. But she wasn’t ready. He remembered the way she stared out the windshield earlier: blank, unfocused. Unaware that the highway was just under three miles due south. That the woods provided a thick enough barrier to their six and nine, but left their front right side exposed. He knew their best cover was twenty yards southeast behind an outcropping of limestone, that he only had one full magazine in his 9mm and no extra, and that her height meant a shorter stride and a slower run if they had to punch through this landscape. But she knew none of this. And that compromised his mission.

Yet, she was the mission.

She’d fallen asleep, staring out into what she’d dismissed as darkness. He wasn’t sure she was asleep at first. She was so still, her cheek on her knee, her arms wrapped around her shins, that he wondered if this was a trap. Her baiting him to sleep so what, she could push him out? Take the car? He shifted in his seat, crossing his arms more tightly across his chest. He wouldn’t put it past her.

Then her hand had suddenly fallen, and her knees had slouched to the side. No change in her respiration. She really was asleep. Damn.

Her hair was uneven; a long piece he’d missed when he’d hacked it off earlier trailed to her shoulder, curling on that ratty old gray sweater where the rest of it was shorn to the chin. The way she leaned he could see her neck.

He looked away, scanning what area was visible. The cab smelled like peanut butter from those sandwiches she’d made earlier. Who made peanut butter sandwiches anymore? He hadn’t had one since…

Chase! You have to tell me what’s going on!

Her voice filled his mind. The way she’d said his name did something to him. He ran a hand over his face, forcing his jaw to unclench. Chase. It made him remember the way his mother said his name. The way his C.O. Crawford, and even Tucker had said it. The way he’d heard it from the other kids as a child. The way she’d whispered it all those months ago when they’d been in her bedroom. His name from her lips combined it all, brought it all together, all those boxes meant to stay separate. All those pieces of him that didn’t need to know about each other.

She’d been so scared when she’d said it. Like she’d been during the overhaul. Scared of him.

He swore under his breath, turning his body away, so he couldn’t see her in his peripheral vision. She couldn’t do that, mix everything up like that. This was a mission, just like any other mission. Secure and deliver the passage. If everything else got kicked in, he’d screw this up, and he couldn’t screw anything else up. This, he had to do right. This was the only thing that mattered. And then, then everything could bleed together, then it could tear him apart. It could kill him, he realized in a detached way. It could kill him, and maybe that would be for the best.

He took a deep breath. Why the damn peanut butter? And worse, the cab smelled like her. Like her hair when he’d held it in his hands outside. Like the air, and fresh clothes, and her skin. He’d spent too much time in the barracks, too much time around men. Not that he hadn’t seen a woman. But the Sisters that cleaned the base smelled like antiseptic, and the girls the FBR hired for socials reeked of perfume and liquor.

The more he breathed, the more he couldn’t stand it. It gave him a heady, disconnected feeling, like when he thought about the frightened way she’d said his name. He was not many people all in one. He was the leftovers, the body that survived while the rest of him had died. He had to remember that.

He placed his hand on the door handle, glancing back at her once, and then eased it open. It squealed but she didn’t move. He found he didn’t want to wake her. He took the firearm and tucked it into the front of his waistband and slowly settled the door on the lock, feeling the bite of the cold air, and the crunch of the iced dew on the grass beneath his boots.

Like a wolf he stalked the perimeter, head low, eyes peeled. He separated the night sounds into compartments, the way his training had taught him. Sounds from his stride, sounds from the wildlife and the wind, and all else.

Nothing.

With his hearing so deliberately acute, he thought again of how he’d found her at the reformatory. That scream that had come from the building before he’d gotten inside. It had raked through his blood like acid, that scream. He’d know her voice anywhere, and that sound was like nothing he’d ever heard her make, like if he heard it again it would snap him in half. Like a fool, he’d almost ruined everything, torn apart that pathetic guard, torn the damn door off its hinges. If the soldier outside hadn’t complied when he’d said they needed to leave immediately for the trial, Chase would have killed him.

He wasn’t an idiot. He knew what happened between soldiers and girls. They’d been practically shoved down his throat since he’d made rank, but he hadn’t been able to stomach it. The desperate way they looked at you, hoping that just an idle conversation would earn that paycheck at the end of the night.

Had he been too late at the reformatory? Had one of them touched her? Who had put those cuts on her hands, he wondered, a wave of fury rising so suddenly within him he lost his focus and jolted at the crackling of twigs beneath his step.

Goddamn it. She was supposed to have been safe at that school. Safer than home anyway.

He closed his eyes, willing home to disappear, like everything else he’d destroyed.

He walked the perimeter twice more, but something had taken hold of him, something foreign and unwelcome, nestling deep in the cavity of his chest, and clawing up his throat, until his breath came faster. Faster.

He needed to get back to the car. Maybe they should leave tonight, chance the roads, drive without the headlights and duck off to the side at the first sign of a highway patrol. Maybe he should just leave her here; she’d probably be better off without him. But the vehicle didn’t even have keys if she even knew how to drive. She’d get herself killed faster than he could. Maybe he should tell her everything. Tell her the truth. Give her the gun and the money and let her make up her own damn mind about what she wanted to do.

Maybe, he thought morosely, she’d just kill him and save him the trouble.

And then he heard her again in his mind. That scream, and his name, spoken out of fear. Enough to make him sick. Alone, she was a magnet for trouble. She always had been. Alone, they wouldn’t just kill her, they would hurt her.

A renewed sense of fury staked through him. Nothing could happen to her, nothing else. The fury blended with purpose, and transformed the mission into something more than a mission, until every fiber of his being was dedicated to only one thing: her safety. She could hate him all she wanted, but he couldn’t tell her what had happened. Not yet. Not until they got to that safe house Jesse had talked about. Then, and only then, would she know.

The feeling took him by storm, and within seconds he found himself back at the truck, standing close enough to put his hands on the hood, staring through the windshield at her face, just visible above the dash, as his breathing settled. How long he stood there he didn’t know. He lost track of the minutes, forgot temporarily that his back was open and exposed on their southeast side.

Slowly, he rounded to the driver’s side, peeling back the door so that it barely squeaked. He slid inside to the bench seat, and settled carefully so that the change wouldn’t disturb her. He closed the door, wincing when it whined and clicked.

It was cool inside the cab from when he’d left the door ajar during his rotation. Small wisps of breath formed in front of her mouth. The moonlight made her skin pale silver, but he wondered if her nose was actually red with cold, like it used to get when they were kids and they played in the snow.

Christ, he thought. Get it together, Jennings.

He took off his flack jacket, again moving slowly so as not to disturb her. Gently, he placed it over her back, and her whole body, still tucked in a ball, disappeared beneath it. She was so small. He sometimes forgot how small she was.

She shifted then, and he held his breath, honestly even considering stealing the jacket back so she wouldn’t sense anything was amiss. But he couldn’t because in that moment, she did something completely unexpected.

Eyes still halfway closed, as if she was asleep and yet not asleep, she eased herself down to the seat, knees still pulled against her chest. Her head came to rest on his thigh. One hand slid beneath his knee, like it might a pillow, the other curled into a fist atop his leg. It wasn’t until his eyes found those raised wounds on her knuckles did he realize he’d been holding his breath.

He should wake her up. She wouldn’t like this if she knew about it; she definitely wouldn’t once she knew what he’d done. It seemed disrespectful to let her lay like this, like he was taking advantage of her. But she made a soft, murmuring sound, and all thoughts of moving her disappeared.

He leaned down to spread his jacket over her curled body and caught a glimpse of her ankle peeking out. He had touched that ankle once, with her permission. He could again, he realized, and she might never know, but he didn’t, because he knew he didn’t deserve to. He covered her protruding leg, with a hard, hollow feeling in his chest, and a deep dizzying breath.

He removed his gun from his waistband and set it on the dash. She didn’t like guns; it seemed wrong to keep one so close while she was vulnerable like this.

He forgot himself then, looking down, seeing the way her hair fanned across his thigh. How many times had he remembered this image, of her head on the pillow in her bedroom before he’d left? Sometimes it never fully went away, clinging so tightly to his senses he thought he was going crazy. Her even breaths warmed his leg, and he felt a sudden twinge in his shoulders. The release of muscles he hadn’t even known had been taut.

He watched her breathe, and felt her breathe, and closed his eyes, exhausted. He didn’t remember the last time he’d been tired. He’d made a habit of sleeping only when necessary, and never wasting time about it. Shutting off, senses never fully relaxed. Never knew when someone might try to jump you; it had happened often enough when he’d been a soldier.

But even before. He hadn’t slept soundly during the War, resting in cars like this one, or on cots in the Red Cross Camps, or even on pallets of damp cardboard somewhere off the main drag. It wasn’t safe to sleep then. And before that, when he’d lived with Jesse, he’d had the nightmares. Always the same one. He was sitting in the back with his sister, his dad driving, his mom in front of him in the passenger seat. Rachel was fixing her hair, and then they were spinning, spinning, before it all ended.

He was spinning now. Lightheaded. Tired. He was forgetting his life in reverse, and then he was eight and she was six, and they were playing outside a haunted house, spinning, spinning.

“Ember,” he breathed. She didn’t stir. Ember, Ember, Ember.

Extra Scene #2

This following sequence of events takes place right after the overhaul in ARTICLE 5, when Chase and his team arrested Ember’s mom (pg. 27). It’s very long, so I’ve broken it into 6 parts. The next five sections will build on this one, and include flashbacks to events that occurred when Chase was a soldier in the FBR. Note: Only as Chase accepts a future without Ember does he think of himself as Jennings – the name the other soldiers call him. In upcoming scenes, during flashbacks, when he still thinks he can make it home to be with Ember, he thinks of himself the way she thought of him – as Chase.

Remember…

Disclaimer 1: Big spoilers for ARTICLE 5 here!

Disclaimer 2: There are, um, bad words in this. Sorry.

Disclaimer 3: These scenes are not professionally edited.

 

“Stop the car.” His own voice barely registered over the crashing in his head.

Jennings glanced across the cab to the soldier driving. Martinez’s face was flushed in patches, his beady black eyes darted between the rear view and side mirrors. He was heavy support for overhauls, not used to piloting a truck this big, carrying the cargo it did. Not used to these streets or this foreign town either. This wasn’t home to him.

“Stop the car,” Jennings repeated, his voice louder, rougher. His heels beat a pattern into the floor he didn’t even try to contain. He was too busy trying not to puke.

Martinez looked over to check if he was serious.

“What the hell would I do that for?” he demanded. Jennings wondered fleetingly what Martinez would say when Bateman, their team leader, reported him to CO. Would he corroborate the details of the botched mission, or would he remain stoic, give a fellow soldier a break?

He doubted the latter.

“I drive,” said Jennings. “I don’t want it going down in the report that I was unfit for duty.”

“You aren’t, asshole,” grumbled Martinez. The whirring of the tires on the road grated on Jennings’ skin like sandpaper. “What was that, back there? You crazy or something?”

Martinez didn’t know the purpose of this mission. The real purpose of it. Their team leader didn’t even know. Just Tucker Morris. Morris and their damn CO, Crawford. This wasn’t about the overhaul, not this stop. This was personal. This was about Jennings’ dedication. His allegiance to the cause, or to her, the last person that meant anything to him.

The final test, Crawford had called it. We’ll see just how cold you are, soldier.

There was no taking back what he’d just done. All the things he’d wanted, the things he’d never gotten to tell her about, they would never happen now. She hated him. And he could never make it right.

“Let me drive,” Jennings said again. “Otherwise they’ll bust me down.”

“Oh they’ll bust you down,” assured Martinez. “You’ll be licking toilets clean for the next year, so get ready. Can you drive?” he mocked. “You’d drive our asses off the bridge.”

Jennings felt his teeth grinding together so hard they might break. He thought of pulling his weapon, thought of shooting Martinez in that meaty temple, of the satisfaction that would give him right now. Leadership wanted him cold, well he was. He was frigid.

“Want some advice, Jennings,” Martinez said, without any hint of a question.

“Not really,” he muttered. I’m sorry, he thought to Ember. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I had to. You’ll be safe now. He prayed it was true.

Martinez scoffed. “Eat some protein. Those fights they set you up for are about to get a helluva lot more entertaining.”

Jennings stared out the windshield at the suspension bridge, narrowing over the muddy brown Ohio River, and thought of the small woman he’d once thought of a second mother, restrained in the back of the truck.

     ***

He’d pulled himself together by the time they hit the Yellow Zone. Lexington was locking down for curfew; the sun was already hovering over the tree line. It grew brighter the closer it got to the horizon, like an accusing spotlight.

He turned away, thinking only of the next task: transporting the prisoner. Everything else had its own box and needed to stay there.

He stepped out onto the asphalt of the base grounds. Martinez had missed the curb by two feet. Better that than run up on the grass, Jennings supposed. He rounded the side of the cabin, wiping his memory clear of the events which had led him to this point, and banged his callused fist twice on the double doors at the rear of the truck. Then he pulled a key from his utility belt and unlocked the bolt from the outside.

Martinez was stretching beside him; all muscle, just waiting to spoil if not used.

An officer approached and both Jennings and Martinez promptly froze at attention. The spindly man didn’t offer a passing glance. He continued down the walk towards the mess hall, flanked by his assistant, a cocky little kiss-ass in a baggy uniform.

Jennings finished unlocking the bolt and pulled down the lever, opening the back compartment of the vehicle. For one shocking moment, panic gripped him. At chow two nights ago, one of the other drivers had said a prisoner had suffocated himself in the holding tank prior to arrival at the base. He remembered that now, as the waning light stretched through the back door.

The small woman sitting on the bench turned to face him, and despite the desperate look in her red, swollen eyes, he felt a small dose of relief. She was still alive.

Focus, he reminded himself. She was a prisoner. If he thought of her as more, they’d know, and she’d be punished for it. Besides, nothing was going to happen. They’d incarcerate her until she could make bail – the neighbor could probably pick up the tab since her daughter…

His head throbbed once, a bright flashing image filling his mind of a girl with long, dark hair, and brown eyes that always asked more than her words. He couldn’t say her name, not even in his mind.

Close that box. The prisoner’s daughter was secure. Currently being transported to a rehab facility. Sometimes walls were safer than freedom.

Close. That. Box.

“When’s Morris getting back?” asked the guard stationed beside her: Conner. He grabbed the prisoner’s restraints and dragged her behind him like a dog on a leash. He was almost Jennings’ height, and the step down was easy for him, but she had to hop, and when she slipped, he jerked her arms back up in a way that made her lips curl back in pain.

“Hey!” she said, breaking her silence. “Your mother should have taught you better.” She turned to Chase. “I know your mother did.”

Jennings dulled his eyes and forced his arms to stay pinned to his sides.

Don’t look at her, he told himself. Don’t look at the prisoner.

“Morris gets back after they transport the girl to the shuttle,” Jennings said. His voice sounded strangely flat. He felt the woman’s posture change, and could tell she was watching him. “She’ll be boarded with the others at the girl’s reformatory,” he added, suddenly aware he should shut his mouth.

“Who cares?” said Martinez. “Bateman says this one goes with the other Article Violators in cell block A.”

“Oh shit,” said Conner. Jennings remembered how composed he’d been during the overhaul. What a poser.

“Yeah, oh shit is right,” chuckled Martinez.

Jennings fought back the urge to ask what they meant, but he’d already said too much.

“Where’s the girl’s reformatory?” the prisoner demanded.

Conner gave her restraints one hard jerk. “Hey? What did I tell you?”

She glared at him, and Jennings willed her to stop. When her eyes turned to him, he had to look away. She nodded, as if there’d been some secret between them. As if she expected him to pull some strings.

As if every last string he had hadn’t already been cut.

Conner snapped her again, just for the fun of it. “Mouth off again and I’ll find a gag. Want to spend the rest of the night choking on your tongue? Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

She lifted her chin defiantly.

“I want to see your manager,” she said. Then added, “Please.”

Martinez laughed at that one. “What is this? A hotel?”

The officer that had been walking to mess hall reappeared beyond the front of the truck, and all three soldiers immediately fell silent.

The prisoner stepped forward. “Sir, are you in charge of…”

She cried out and fell to one knee as Conner snapper her restraints again.

“Stop,” Jennings warned him between his teeth.

“Which one of you is Jennings?” asked the officer.

Jennings stepped forward. “That’s me, sir.” It was a relief not to be recognized. Everyone in Chicago recognized him. He couldn’t go ten feet without one of them praising his right hook or asking if he’d thrown the joint on purpose.

But he also knew that being recognized here meant trouble; Bateman had already radioed in his error. He steeled himself from showing any expression until the emotions beneath the surface followed and went flat line.

“Jennings, you’re confined to quarters until further notice. Martinez?”

“Yes, sir.” Martinez stepped forward.

“Take this Violator to cell block A. You,” he nodded to Conner. “Escort Jennings to the barracks. Post guard at his quarters until his team leader makes a full report to your captain.”

“Yes, sir,” said Conner.

“Wait, hold on just a second,” the woman said as she was dragged away. She’s talking to me, Jennings knew. She’d just realized he was in as much trouble as she was.

“Shut up,” said Martinez.

“Don’t make this harder than it has to be,” said Connor warily to Jennings when they were alone. Martinez may not have been afraid, but Conner wasn’t stupid. Jennings could lay him out in two seconds flat.

But Jennings wasn’t even listening. He was watching Martinez yank the prisoner toward cell block A.

 

Extra Scene #3:

The following events take place right after the conclusion of extra scene #2 (above). Same disclaimers apply. Enjoy!

For three hours he waited in his assigned room at the Lexington base – he’d been granted private quarters wherever they were sent since that day four months ago when his Commanding Officer, Crawford, had called him onto the carpet, dumped thirty opened envelopes onto the desk before him, and praised Tucker Morris, his beet-faced partner, for tracking his insubordination.

Real patriot, that Morris was.

Jennings thought of those letters he’d written in a detached way, wondering who the man was inside of him that could pen those words, then turn around and rip apart a family. Two men was the only explanation, maybe more than two. And one of them was dying off, another victim of natural selection.

He grounded himself in the present. The walls were white, embellished with a posting of the Soldier’s Credo: The Code of Reformative Justice. The metal desk was clean, the chair neatly pushed in. One bunk, with the white sheets folded to regulation should an inspection occur. A wooden bureau in the corner holding his canvas duffel bag with the hidden pouch he’d cut to hold a secret: his last remaining private affects. A book she’d once told him she liked – a book about monsters and the men who created them – and a few remaining letters that now meant nothing.

He’d been at the Lexington base only one night, since Crawford had detailed his team from Chicago to assist in Louisville’s overhaul. They weren’t needed for this mission; the purpose had been to provide Jennings one final test before he was made the youngest captain in the Midwest sector. He hadn’t bothered unpacking.

He pulled back his shoulders, aware of that steady drip of adrenaline, but not sure when it had started. When they’d reached the base? During the overhaul? Or days ago, when they’d received these orders? He needed to fight; to pound his fists into something that yielded and cracked beneath them. That would cure the itch. That would make him feel dead again.

A soldier came to relieve Conner at 1900 hours; he could hear the footsteps outside the door. He focused on the voices, his fists bunched, ready.

“He try anything?” Martinez.

“Nothing. Hasn’t even moved,” said Conner suspiciously. “How was the A block?”

Martinez didn’t answer right away.

“Silent as a tomb,” he said finally.

Conner swore. “Can I get some food or what?”

“Go. But I’d hurry. Crawford’s coming down from Chicago.”

Jennings felt his back rise. His CO couldn’t come here; this was too close. He reminded himself that the girl he was trying to protect was now under lock and key in a reformatory somewhere in the Appalachians.

“For a disciplinary action?” Conner swore again, this time under this breath. “Man, we’re all getting busted down, aren’t we? Dammit Jennings.” He kicked the door.

Jennings smirked.

He wasn’t summoned until 0800 hours the next morning.

***

It was Bateman, his team leader, who came to his room. He was wearing field clothes: a blue flack jacket over bloused navy pants. As always, his boots were impeccably clean, shiny as his brown nose. His hair seemed to grow grayer by the day; an occupational hazard as he was only twenty-seven.

Jennings stepped from his quarters without a word and was taken to the latrine. Two soldiers in front, Martinez and Conner behind. Christ, he was really in for it. They didn’t even let him piss in peace.

As they paraded him down the halls, too narrow for such a convoy, his mind went to self-preservation. They hadn’t taken his 9 – it was still loaded with a full magazine on his right hip. He had a baton on his left. His belt would do in a pinch. And they knew what his fists could do if they cornered him. It occurred to him he hadn’t always thought this way, but he did now.

He wasn’t convinced this wasn’t an off-the-record beat down until they reached a brightly lit room with a perfectly square window. The officer he’d seen yesterday sat behind the L-shaped, aluminum desk sectioned off by neat stacks of file folders, correspondence, and a computer. Another officer, a man that made Jennings bite back a cringe, stood just before it. Crawford had sallow skin that always made him seem a little sickly, a pointed nose and peppered hair. He’d never been hungry; you could tell by the rounded paunch that extended over his belt.

“At ease, soldiers,” said Crawford, but his squinting eyes remained on Jennings.

Jennings hands rested atop his lower back. Right over left. Just like the other four men.

No. The other five. Tucker Morris was already in the room. He was standing back near the door, hulking in the shadows like he wasn’t an inch or two over six feet. There was a gauze bandage on his neck, but three lines had already bled through.

Jennings felt the adrenaline faucet crank open another turn.

His girl had done that.

But she wasn’t his anymore.

He returned his focus to Crawford and the other officer, both of whom were staring at him.

“Jennings and Morris, you’ll stay. The rest of you are dismissed. Wait outside.”

“Yes, sir,” they all said together. The door clicked closed behind them, ratcheting up the tension in the room another notch. Jennings sought out his exits. Three armed soldiers now. The old man behind the desk would be the easiest fight, but he wouldn’t get through that window without activating an alarm.

Crawford approached, lips drawn back to reveal coffee-stained teeth.

“I didn’t want to come down here,” he said, his voice thin with annoyance. “I hate it here. Did some work here two years ago. It’s the allergies. They kill me.”

“Sorry, sir,” said Tucker.

Jennings made no response. He stared out the window. The street. The grass. And behind it, cell blocks A and B.

“Could have had it, you know,” preached Crawford. “I’d already put in your papers for a rank upgrade. You showed such promise after our little talk.”

Jennings felt Tucker fidget behind him. He wondered, as he had a hundred times since his partner had turned him in, if it was hard stealing his letters from the base postmaster. If Tucker had read what he’d written to Ember before he’d turned them over to Crawford. If he’d gotten his kicks seeing how much Jennings missed seeing her, talking to her, touching her.

And of course, he wondered what Tucker was getting out of the deal.

Tucker Morris always had an angle.

“So what’s the story? Why did you break protocol? She wearing a see-through top or something?”

Jennings flinched.

“Not much to say for yourself, son,” said the other officer with a frown. “Officer Crawford asked you a question.”

I’m not your son, thought Jennings. But he knew he needed to say something, because otherwise they’d find another form of discipline. One much worse than a verbal thrashing.

“No, sir,” said Jennings. “Turns out it wasn’t see-through.”

The officers paused as this soaked in, and then laughed.

“Shame,” said Crawford. “I could have cut you a break for your actions otherwise.” He cracked his neck to the side. “You heard of the Expungement Initiative, Jennings?”

The clock on the wall ticked each second. Tick. Tick. Tick.

“No, sir.”

“Expungement is a process by which individual’s records are wiped clean.”

Jennings thought for a moment that Crawford might be referring to him.

“The Article Violators we picked up in Louisville yesterday are in need of such a service, don’t you agree?”

Jennings held his breath, still looking forward. He wasn’t sure how to respond to extract a favorable outcome.

“Yes…sir,” he said after a moment.

“Good man,” said Crawford. “We’ve already started this service with those prisoners in cell block A. Since you’ve proven so instrumental to the cause thus far, I’d like to offer you the chance to redeem yourself by leading this initiative, beginning with the prisoner you picked up yesterday.”

Now Jennings did meet Crawford’s gaze. He felt as though he was missing something crucial here. The FBR did not give get out of jail free cards.

“I’m not sure I understand, sir,” he admitted.

“Ah,” said Crawford, stepping closer now, so close that Jennings could smell the tinge of mint aftershave. “Maybe you’ve heard of the Cleansing Project, then.”

Jennings’ knee tricked involuntarily, and his hands dropped from position. He caught himself before he choked Crawford, and fell back into position.

“The Cleansing Project was a rumor,” said Jennings between his teeth. His heart had begun to slam against his ribs.

“Actually no,” said Crawford. “The Cleansing Project was a pilot. The Northeast regions found it so effective, we’ve decided to adopt it here in the Midwest sector. Knoxville has already started, so really, we’re behind. And you know how I hate to be behind.”

“Yes, sir,” answered Tucker when Jennings didn’t speak.

Crawford exhaled, nostrils flaring. Then he smiled. “You have your firearm, Jennings. Let’s get started, shall we?”

 

Extra Scene #4

Two of these scenes were really difficult to write. This was one of them. Please be aware there is some violence involved. Same disclaimers as above apply.

Everything within him revolted all at once. His body felt suddenly weak. There was still some part of him, even after everything he’d seen here, done here, that felt confused. That thought, this can’t be right.

“I drive,” said Jennings. “I’m a driver.”

“You want to make captain, don’t you son?” asked the other officer.

“Don’t call me that,” he said.

“Whoa now,” said Crawford. “That’s a superior ranking officer you’re speaking to.”

“Jennings,” hissed Morris.

“Fuck off, Tucker,” said Jennings, temper hot, irretraceable. Fueled by fear. He clenched his hands together behind his back.

Crawford chuckled. “I think you’re missing the point here, Jennings. This isn’t a choice. We’ve been through this. Chicago needs a model, an example that the system works. That all this,” he held his hands out, as if encompassing the soldiers, the base, the Statutes themselves, within them, “means something. Is worth something. The men respect you – respect earned by blood and sweat, am I right?”

“Yes, sir,” Morris answered, as if Crawford had been speaking to him.

Jennings shoulders began to shake. He tried to focus out the window, but all he saw were cell blocks A and B.

“I’m in transport,” said Jennings, leveling his voice. “I’ll pass on the promotion. Thank you for the honor, but I’m passing. Send me to another unit if you have to.”

Crawford frowned, feigning disappointment when Jennings knew there was something much deeper at work.

“Ah, well,” he said. “I guess you’ve made your choice. Officer Greene? Did you have that completion paperwork?”

Jennings felt his stomach fall through the floor.

“Wait,” said Jennings. “She’s a single mom. That’s all.”

“Oh, it’s not for her,” said Crawford, reaching for a file folder from the old man behind the desk. “Cell block A is already approved for cleansing. I don’t care if it’s full of two-bit whores or PTA moms, they’ll be completed by morning with or without your leadership. Someone will lead the Expungement Initiative sergeant. You were chosen, but not necessary.”

Crawford slashed his signature across the page.

“What’s that say?” Jennings demanded.

“Sir,” corrected Greene. “You’ll address your commanding officer as sir, soldier.”

“Sir,” Jennings said hurriedly, fighting the urge to rip it out of Crawford’s hands. “The file, sir.”

Crawford flipped through the pages, and Jennings felt suddenly blunt as his vision slid into focus. A handful of photographs. A girl – the girl. She retrieved the mail, dark hair, knotted behind her neck. Head down while she walked to school with the redhead, both of them in that ridiculous uniform. Just inside her bedroom window talking to her mother, wearing the t-shirt he knew she slept in, the tops of her legs exposed.

Something dark snarled to life inside of him.

“What? This?” said Crawford, smiling again. “This is collateral, Jennings.”

“We talked about her,” said Jennings, adding “sir” too late. “You said no more contact. I’ve attempted zero contact.”

“Until yesterday.”

“You sent me there!”

“To do a job, which you would have failed if not for the assistance of your team.”

“What are you doing?” Jennings whispered.

“Perhaps you didn’t hear me when I said you’ve been chosen to lead the Expungment Initiative.”

“It’s murder…sir,” croaked Jennings. He could not take his eyes off those pictures. When had they been taken? All this week? Since the orders had been issued for Jennings to participate in the overhaul? He’d pledged his loyalty four months ago, when Tucker had turned him in. He hadn’t written a letter since then. Not even in secret. He’d followed every order they’d thrown at him. He’d done it so they wouldn’t hurt her.

He’d actually believed it would work, too.

“It’s Expungement, Jennings. You’re going to have to get the semantics right if you’re going to be a captain.”

“Christ.”

“Smiles upon this endeavor, believe me,” said Crawford. Another signature. He closed the file. “Since you seem to be struggling, let me make this plain for you. Get over to cell block A. Take out the Article Violator. Or I promise you, the daughter won’t make it through registration at the rehabilitation center without a bullet in her temple.”

Jennings removed his weapon from the holster and in a flash had it pointed straight at Crawford’s forehead.

He’d fired his gun before – lots of times. At targets. He’d never aimed it at a real person before. He’d certainly never intended to shoot someone like he did now. The power of that knowledge shook through him, but didn’t bend his elbows, didn’t weaken his wrists.

He would fire if it meant saving her. He didn’t have a choice.

He heard the click of a safety behind him. Morris, his partner, pressed the barrel of the gun into the base of his neck.

I could kill him before you kill me, Jennings thought. Rid the world of Commanding Officer James R. Crawford. But the truth cut through the pounding in his brain: it didn’t matter.

They would still kill her. His girl. Right after they killed her mother.

He had the ability to stop one of those deaths.

“Think of…” Crawford checked the file, seeming unperturbed but for the trickle of sweat down his brow. “Think of Ember, soldier. Ember Elaine Miller.”

***

There were moments in the next minutes Jennings would take to his grave. Moments he would relive in his dreams and also in the daytime, when they would come on with such force he would forget that this time had truly passed. When he could still smell the room and taste the blood.

But there were other moments that instantly became black spots in his vision. Memories that didn’t need boxes to pack them away because his brain never recorded their passage. For instance, Jennings never remembered how he reached cell block A. He didn’t recall how he’d lowered his weapon in that office, or if more words were spoken. He didn’t remember a fight, but that didn’t mean one hadn’t happened. Later he would pick sticky pieces of grass off the hems of his pants and wonder absently if he’d walked outside on the path, or if this had been leftover from the day before.

When he regained his bearings he was standing in a white cell, with a cot not unlike that in the barracks but without the dressing. There was a silver toilet in the corner, and the room was cramped, much too cramped.

The prisoner was crying. He would always remember her crying. The tears gushed from her eyes, from the corners and the centers, in a way that didn’t seem humanly possible.

Morris was to his right, Crawford just behind him to the left. Four soldiers just outside, Martinez and Conner and Bateman and some other guy he didn’t know. They were speaking to each other but Jennings couldn’t focus on the sounds of their voices. His soul was too busy ripping apart, discarding the good, which curled up and died on the scuffed linoleum floor.

“Don’t draw this out Jennings. We’ve got a full day,” said Crawford in a bored voice.

Jennings shook his head, feeling another nauseating surge of panic and not caring if the other men saw him go soft.

“I drive.” His voice shook. “Put me back in transport. I’ll drive anyone you want.” It was hot – so hot he was sweating clean through his jacket. But no one else was sweating. No one else could feel it.

“Is that your decision?” asked Crawford. When Jennings paused, he unhooked his firearm. “Martinez, get your keys. We’re taking a trip up to the girl’s reformatory.”

“Yes, sir.”

“No!” Jennings would beg if that’s what it meant. Martinez stopped.

“No,” he repeated. “I’ll do it. I’ll do it, okay? This is done and you forget about the girl.”

“That’s the deal,” confirmed Crawford.

Jennings raised his gun. He couldn’t feel his fingers. Somewhere deep in his brain he wondered how he was going to pull the trigger if he couldn’t even feel his fingers.

The woman was sitting on the bed now. Her arms were wrapped around her slender waist, and her matted hair trembled; her whole body trembled. Fear, Jennings sensed. Even now he recognized fear. Even through the ice and the fog, he felt it coming off of her.

He couldn’t get a clean shot with her sitting like that.

“Get up,” he said. Was that his voice? It didn’t sound right.

To his surprise, she complied, very slowly. He felt like throwing up. He’d never told her to do anything in his life. She was the one that told him. She was the mom. The one who said to wash his hands before dinner and look both ways before crossing the street and that she’d be there, always be there, after his own mother had died.

Then she lifted her eyes, and the tears were gone, and all that was left were their sticky pink tracks on her pale face. Her lip vibrated when she spoke and he saw her daughter suddenly. Her daughter, with the long brown hair and the sharp, questioning eyes.

“I know, honey. It’s okay. It’s okay, just find her,” the woman whispered, reading his mind. “Take care of my baby. Make her safe.”

She looked right into his eyes.

He steadied his shaking arm with his opposite hand. But he could not pull the trigger.

He could not pull the trigger.

A great wave of relief took him, and in it came a shame so terrible he nearly drowned. He could not kill this woman, which meant they would kill two instead.

Unless he killed them first.

His gun lowered one fraction of an inch. He exhaled.

And the shot exploded in his right eardrum.

Lori Whittman. Her name was released from its hold in his mind with the power of a freight train. Lori Whittman, who had let him play in her backyard. Who had taught him to make tomato sandwiches. Who had said when he was twelve years old, “I hope you marry my daughter someday,” and later wrapped him in a hand knit blanket and held him to her shoulder while the cops informed him that his whole family was dead. Lori Whittman Lori Whittman Lori Whittman.

Lori Whittman was propelled into the wall. Her teal shirt bloomed with a purple stain on her chest the size of a pinky, blossoming to a fist, before she stumbled sideways and fell half onto the cot, choking as the blood filled her lungs.

The next moments would forever remain fragments.

He was holding his hands over her chest, pushing down on the slippery wound, her dark blood oozing between his closed fingers. He was screaming medic, call the medic! He was shaking her shoulders, her lifeless eyes rolling back in her head. He was a child and she was a mother and he was terrified. Her mouth fell open, but the words had already been spoken. Find my baby. Make her safe. I know honey. It’s okay.

Words: “I guess someone’s making captain after all. I underestimated you Morris. Not a very clean shot, but it’ll do.”

Silence. The world spun as a fist connected with his jaw. A gun barrel flew by his face.

Silence, until the crack of a pale white forearm burst through the rush in his ears. Tucker screams like a dying animal.

Silence. Martinez lying on the floor, out cold. Crawford falling backwards over him. Come on, kill me next. If you can. The beast within him roared, and then he was the beast, and there was no more man, no more Chase Jennings.

Silence, and white walls invaded his vision, and finally the pain, right at the back of his skull, and all went black.

 

Extra Scene #5

This scene takes place immediately after the last. It includes a memory from Chase’s time at the Chicago FBR base, just after he was drafted.

He passed through the barriers of consciousness as though there were no barriers at all. His nightmares collided with wakefulness, and sometimes he thought I’m crazy, I’ve cracked, and sometimes he wondered what had happened to make him feel so drunk, but mostly not. Mostly he remembered, in pieces, in shards like glass that dug under his skin and left open, gaping wounds.

He could see the physical remnants those memories left. Bloody knuckles, bloody fingers. Blood, that dried and flaked on his hands and his arms and his face. There was nothing to clean himself with in this one room cell. Even if he wanted to, he wasn’t sure he would.

He would wear her blood the rest of his life. It would never wash away.

There was something wrong with his brain. Something had infected it. Boxes, that’s how he’d survived before, by keeping everything separate, by keeping things contained. That’s how the bad didn’t kill you, and how the good didn’t leak over and set the bar too high for comparison. But the infection had done something to his boxes, had jarred his brain like an earthquake, and now everything had spilled over. He was a child gaping at a mess he’d created with no idea how to clean it up.

He stared at the line the light made around the door and wondered if this was Hell: sitting in the dark and knowing just outside was something infinitely worse.

The door made a noise and pushed inward just as he was thinking this. The brightness blinded him temporarily. Controlled by some final will to survive he rose to his feet, acutely aware of the cold sting of the floor, and braced his fists to guard his throat.

“Whoa now, come on!” hitched a man’s voice.

“Sit down, Jennings” said another more seriously. He recognized the accent, but had trouble placing the name. Why was everything so confusing?

He did not sit.

“I’m the medic for this base,” said the new voice. “They called me in to take a look at you.”

Jennings flinched; his eyes adjusted slowly.

“If you need anything, I’ll be outside,” said the guard. He was already closing the door when the medic slapped a hand against it. Now that his silhouette was fading, Jennings made out a short cut of orange hair, a smattering of freckles.

“Towels and water would be a good start,” said the medic, not bothering to hide the disgust in his voice. “I can’t believe you left him like this, for what? Two days? Turn on the lights at least.”

The guard muttered something indistinguishable as the door closed behind him. Overhead, the lights buzzed, then flickered on.

The medic stood in silence for several more seconds before setting his kit on the bare mattress. Jennings recognized his fear. It didn’t surprise him; most people were afraid of him.

“Sit down.” The medic pulled a penlight from his bag. Jennings looked down at his own bare feet and very cautiously took a seat.

“They want you alive,” he was told. “But I wouldn’t press your luck. They’re going to start completing soldiers who screw up too.” The medic raised the light, shined it into Jennings’ eyes. “I can get your boots back if you promise not to hang yourself with the laces…”

But Jennings had gone somewhere else entirely.

***

“Back again,” said a man with dark skin and a foreign accent. “I could set a clock to your visits, private.”

Jennings faltered by the sickbay door, feeling the heat rise up his neck. He didn’t want to be here, hated it here, but something was wrong with the bone this time, something he couldn’t fix with a crack and a pop. He’d only been here five months, but it might as well have been five years. Time had slowed to a very dangerous crawl.

“Do you expect me to come to you?” The man’s thick brows rose. Jennings, eyes down, stalked to the paper-clad table and eased himself onto it.

“The hand again?”

With a cringe, Jennings slowly revealed his bruised fists, which could neither open nor close all the way on account of the swelling. Several of the knuckles had burst open; he’d cleaned the blood away, but the middle finger on his left hand bent awkwardly to the side.

“Grappling,” Jennings lied. He had used some of his fighting skills, just not during drills.

“Ah.” The medic – who always seemed to be on duty when Jennings came in – inspected his hands through squinted eyes. “I can x-ray but we both know that one’s broken. You won’t be flipping anyone off for a while.” He laughed. Jennings didn’t.

“We’ll have to send you out to a MD if this continues,” the medic added. “They’ll fuse your carpal…your hand bones. They’ll have to fuse them together.”

“Can’t do that,” said Jennings bluntly.

“I can get a medical excuse for you.”

“Forget it,” Jennings said, scooting off the table.

“Hold on,” said the medic. He sighed. “It might give you a break from…grappling.”

Jennings glanced up, seeing the pity flicker across the man’s dark eyes. He’d been jumped twice in the last week by three guys from his Statutes and Regulations class. The first round he’d lost, having been caught unaware out on the track. The second go he’d been ready. He’d taken all three, knowing full well the consequences would mean retaliation with double the numbers.

Well screw them. And screw Chicago.

“I don’t need a break,” said Jennings. If he couldn’t use his hands, he was as good as dead here.

The medic nodded. “I’ll splint the finger,” he said. “But you keep fighting, I promise you, you will need surgery.”

Jennings sat back on the table.

“What else?” the medic asked as he worked. Jennings took note how he wrapped it, so he wouldn’t have to come back here again.

What else? Half his body was covered with knots and welts, he couldn’t sleep more than an hour straight without waking up thinking someone was going to haze him, and Tucker Morris, who’d been Velcro his first month here, was MIA every time he needed someone to watch his back.

Some partner.

“Nothing else,” said Jennings. “Just the hand.”

“No more AWOL attempts?”

Jennings looked up.

“What AWOL attempts.” He bit the inside of his cheek when the splint went into place.

The medic smiled, white teeth through brown lips. “How’s that working?”

“What?”

“Living two lives.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Surviving in here, but living out there. How’s that working out for you?”

Jennings shifted, glancing around the room warily. Was this being recorded? He wouldn’t have put it past the FBR to spy on their own soldiers.

“You a damn shrink or something?” he asked.

The medic laughed.

“I’m not living out there,” Jennings said, just to be clear. He didn’t know who this man shared information with. “I signed the papers. I’m in.”

“Well,” he said, not believing Jennings, or not caring enough to counter. “They’ll beat it out of you one way or another. The system always wins.”

They’ll try, Jennings thought. But he worried that if this soldier could see it, how many others could too?

***

“Name?” asked the medic – the freckle-faced soldier with orange hair.

Jennings blinked, shook his head.

“Jennings, Chase,” he croaked. His throat felt suddenly very dry. “R-3, sergeant, transportation.” His stomach pitched. “At least, I was.”

“Nausea? Vomiting?”

Jennings nodded. It smelled enough like he had anyway.

“What’s the date, sergeant?”

Jennings rubbed his eyes, now damp from the wet towel – he didn’t even remember cleaning his hands.

“The date?”

He’d been asked questions like these often enough after his bell had been rung during a big fight. Especially near the end, when his captain had decided to make things interesting.

“February…something.”

“Track the light, don’t move your head, just your eyes.” The penlight was moved back and forth across his vision. “Seeing or hearing anything that other people do not?”

The answers were as automatic as the medic’s asking of the questions.

“No.” Yes.

“Feel like people are talking about you behind your back.”

“No.” Yes.

“Any thoughts of harming yourself or others.”

“No.” The monster within flexed its muscles. Absolutely.

The medic soaked a gauze strip in peroxide and seared it to the back of Jennings’ skull. A scream ripped through his brain, but stayed firmly locked behind his teeth. His vision wavered again before readjusting.

“Since command wants to see you, I’m declaring you competent. We’ll see if they release you.”

Jennings found he didn’t much care if he left him here to rot.

How’s that working for you? Living two lives…

Now he didn’t even have one.

 

Scene #6

Chase is still being held in the holding cell at the Lexington base, where he has been since Ember’s mother’s death. It involves a flashback to another time during his training in the FBR, this one soon after he’d been drafted, before things started getting bad for him (before extra scene #5), when he still referred to himself as Chase. What he learns in this scene guides his mission in Article 5, and will play a major role in book 3 of the trilogy.

The lights stayed on and burned his retinas. Made him nauseous too, though he didn’t puke again. He laid on his side, bare feet overlapping to fight the cold, and closed his eyes.

Chicago.

It was his first run into the city since he’d been drafted. They’d kept the new recruits locked away during basic, but this field exercise was his unit’s first encounter with the real world. He felt excited. Rebellious. He wondered what he’d do – if he was man enough to book it should any one of them turn their backs on him.

He stepped from the hum-v into the gray light and stared at the streets, lined by trash and broken down vehicles. This part of the city – his part of the city – was filthy. Manned by beggars and orphans and runaways. Not even the Sisters of Salvation came this way. Too dangerous.

Not too long ago he’d been there amongst them, jumping from camp to camp, avoiding the aid workers that would throw him into a foster home, just trying to keep enough food in his belly to get to the next day. He’d been on his own since his uncle had turned him out after the evacuation. Buying time until he could get enough fuel to get home.

In those days, Ember Miller had haunted his memories.

Now she’d fixed herself in his dreams.

Chase had been looking forward to getting away from the base for the day, but now wished they were back behind those high chain-linked fences. He felt like a fraud; for the first time in his life he tried to make himself smaller than his six-three frame. No one he associated with before would recognize him. Transients were transient for a reason, he’d lived that life long enough to know if you didn’t keep moving, shit caught up with you. Still, the sudden sense of shame for the colors he wore came on with surprising intensity.

He’d never wanted this life. But if he ever wanted a future with Ember, he was going to have to serve his time. Draft-dodgers didn’t get to make the kinds of plans he’d been making.

The soldiers lined up in the streets like they’d been ordered to back at the base. Tucker Morris stood next to him. His partner buzzed with a kind of nervous energy, like Chase’s but with a different root: Morris was excited to get his hands dirty. Morris was a sucker for the cause.

While they waited, Chase’s mind drifted home. He saw Ember’s head on the pillow – the last picture he had in his mind when he’d snuck out her window at dawn – her watchful eyes closed and her lips just slightly parted. He felt her, as he always did, in the way his mind slowed and re-centered. In the way he remembered who he was.

Everyone was a sucker for something, he mused.

Six weeks in, and another two to go before he got a weekend to kick off. He’d written her as much – covertly, so Big Brother couldn’t accuse them of anything against policy – but she hadn’t referenced his homecoming in her last letter. He frowned, wondering if that was a bad sign.

“This is a code two,” said the sergeant facing the unit. Bateman had been promoted to squad leader just before this mission, and Chase knew their field work today would reflect heavily upon him.

So if he beat it, Bateman would take the fall.

He didn’t care so much about that. But he cared what would happen if they traced him back home. AWOL soldiers were arrested and locked up; that wasn’t how he wanted her to remember him.

“Code two,” repeated Bateman. “No authority to fire unless fired upon.”

Chase bit back the sarcasm. They all knew what a code two was. Even a dog could bark back a code two after all that practiced regurgitation in Statutes in Regulations.

Not that he advocated for playing by the rules. In fact, he found a particular sick satisfaction in playing dense. They may have drafted him, but he wasn’t about to drink to Kool-Aid. He almost smirked, realizing that squad leader Bateman was probably repeating this directive especially for him. The guys here were so damn serious.

“Arrests will be made of anyone suspected of anti-reformation activities outlined in the brief this morning.” Bateman’s voice lifted over the twelve man unit.

Now Chase did scoff. A group of homeless men, who had been eyeing them warily, eased across the street and began a deliberate retreat in the opposite direction.

Attention criminals,” Chase muttered. Might as well send out a public service announcement with the way Bateman was carrying on.

The short, pug-faced soldier to his right – a driver, who simply went by Wheels – chuckled under his breath.

We are here to arrest you,” he added in a robot voice. Chase grinned; he hadn’t talked to Wheels much, but he figured he was all right.

“Shut up,” hissed Morris. The guy could be such a buzz kill. Chase saw him glance over at two kids and cringe. Girls, in clothes they’d outgrown. Tucker didn’t have to talk about where he’d come from for Chase to peg him for a rich boy. Again, he found himself embarrassed at their association.

They split into teams of two. Chase and Tucker patrolled east towards the worst of the War wreckage, and Wheels took off uptown with his fill-in partner, a big Hispanic hammer twice his size, called Martinez.

Chase felt more vulnerable out in the open. His hair was clipped too short; the Chicago wind bit down to his skull. The navy jacket felt too clean and boastful. Never in his life did he think there’d come a time when he’d resent three hots and a cot, but he felt that way now. He felt guilty for ever enjoying it, and transparent, like everyone could see he didn’t deserve it.

The lane grew crowded with people awaiting their turn to crash a few hours in the Red Cross camp. All watched them.

“Ugh, that some sick crap right there,” said Tucker, looking like he was about to vomit as a woman with a rat nest of dreads picked up an empty Horizon’s cracker package off the ground and licked the crumbs from her damp, dirty fingers.

Chase pushed them on so the woman couldn’t hear.

“We should arrest her for being filthy.” Tucker smirked at his own wit.

“She’s just hungry.”

“You mean to tell me you would eat garbage? Even you wouldn’t sink that low, pal.”

Chase didn’t answer. He’d eaten a lot worse when he’d been starving. He’d dumpster dived. He’d picked maggots out of meat and peeled the mold off of bread and fruit. He’d stolen food too – from rich pricks like Tucker Morris, who would leave their rations sitting around like that stuff wasn’t edible gold.

Pal, Chase thought. You and me are from different worlds.

They came across an alley lined with second-hand books: a traveling library. Chase’s spirits lifted, just a little. Stuff like this had really given him a break back in his street rat days. He watched a boy about fourteen with scratches on his arms picking through a pile. Maybe those scratches were from a dog. Maybe from a fight. When he caught scent of the two soldiers a look of panic struck his hardened features. He shoved the tattered paperback back on the shelf and sprinted away.

Tucker swore, grabbed his radio, and lifted it to his mouth, already taking off after the boy.

“Wait!” Chase caught a fistful of fabric in his sleeve. “What the hell…”

Tucker shook him off. “This is Morris, possible GA, pursuit in progress,” he said rapidly into the radio.

“Gang activity,” said Chase. “The kid’s by himself!”

He took after Tucker, skirting by the books, hurdling over a drunk passed out in the alley. His whole body steeled when he saw the black glint of Tucker’s firearm.

“Tucker!” he shouted. The kid ducked into the back entrance of a Laundromat. Steam erupted in his wake.

“You go through! I’ll cut him off at the front!” Tucker continued straight ahead.

Chase gritted his teeth, respirations fast with the exertion. With Tucker gone, he ran into the building and paused, instantly surrounded by rickety washing machines and hanging laundry. A sudden surge of adrenaline seized him. He was a bulls-eye in this uniform, and there were too many places to hide.

Natural light sliced in through the front of the building. He could hear his own breath. Hear someone yelling, hey, hey, what are you doing in here?

The boy was nowhere.

He pulled his nightstick from his belt, simply for his own protection. The kid would be crazy to attack a soldier, but then he thought, if I was cornered, I would.

Out of nowhere he was jumped from behind. He was wrapped in a python’s embrace, arms trapped to his sides. The nightstick clattered uselessly to the cement floor as he struggled.

The perpetrator’s grip rose in the struggle, and one forearm latched around Chase’s neck. He wedged his chin under, gripped the flesh with his fingertips to gain leverage, and threw his hips back. The man was tall – Chase’s height – and strong. Not the boy from the mobile library. They ended up on the floor in a heave of damp clothing and breath, wrestling. He was reaching for Chase’s firearm, and Chase put all his energy into keeping it latched against his thigh. A surprise elbow to the chin had him wheeling, and he knew immediately he’d lost the gun.

The man suddenly released his hold.

Chase scrambled to a crouch, breathing hard. His mouth fell open when he saw his attacker sweep back shoulder-length, raven black hair, revealing a cobra tattoo climbing from his tattered collar up his sun-weathered neck to his jaw.

Jesse?” he whispered. Shock and joy were immediately trumped by reality. “What are you doing here? You’ve got to go, this place is swamped with uniforms!”

“I can see that,” said the man. He lowered the gun and stared at the blue jacket Chase wore through the dark eyes they both shared. “Never pegged my nephew for a sellout.”

Chase glanced around the store, eerily empty now, and rubbed his chin.

“I got drafted. Seriously, we’re scouting for gangs and anyone opposed to the cause, you’ve got to -”

Opposed to the cause, listen to this,” said Jesse with a condescending smirk. “They got to you fast.”

Chase swore and shook his head. He hadn’t seen his uncle since before he’d been drafted, and that was up in South Bend when they’d run out of money and Chase couldn’t get work. He hadn’t resented Jesse for sending him packing – there hadn’t been much of a choice with social services snooping around tent city – but he felt a sudden sense of loss standing with him here now. He couldn’t see Jesse and not think of his mom, and for that, he stood a little taller, because men didn’t miss their mommies in front of other men.

He wanted to ask where he’d been, and why he’d come back here, but he realized it probably didn’t matter.

“We chased a kid in here. I think my partner wants to shoot him.”

“Saw him. He hit the top floor, probably on the roof now,” said Jesse. Chase felt a wave of relief. “How many guys are with you?”

“Enough to figure out you broke your parole,” bit Chase.

Jesse laughed. “The War broke my parole, Nephew, not me.”

“MM’s got access to old police records.”

“You mean you’ve got access.”

Chase scowled. His flack jacket made him much to hot in here. “I don’t have clearance.”

“Piss ant.”

Chase shoved him square in the chest, suddenly furious.

“Kiss my ass Jesse, at least I have a job!” Jesse’s dark eyes narrowed, his mouth closed. Chase felt a shimmer of something, not quite fear, but a realization that he’d crossed a line.

“Jennings! You in there!”

Chase and Jesse both ducked. “Give me the gun,” Chase said.

Jesse did not.

“Come with me,” his uncle said.

Chase considered it: shucking the uniform, hitting the street. Saying to hell with the Statutes and regulations, and the robots that made them memorize violations and consequences and the cause, the damn cause, every damn day. But then he remembered Ember. Remembered that she’d wanted him to come here, accept his fate, so he wouldn’t be in trouble. And how was he supposed to go home to her if they came looking for him? How would he ever see her again if they threw his ass in jail?

If not for her, he could be a lawless screw-up – be Jesse – and nobody would care. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

“Can’t,” he muttered.

Jesse looked surprised, like Chase had said something unfathomable.

“Can’t or won’t?”

A stab of guilt, but Chase didn’t answer.

“Jennings!” shouted Tucker. The clothes on the line above them swung with a sudden burst of steam from the ceiling pipes.

“Go out the back,” instructed Chase. “I’ll make sure they don’t follow.”

Jesse opened his mouth as if to say something, but instead just nodded, and together they backed toward the exit. Chase stepped out first, just as a short, stocky soldier with a buzz cut collided into him.

“Watch out!” Wheels shouted, twisting in midstride, and slammed back into the alley wall.

Everything slowed. Chase’s blood froze, and the breath caught hard in his throat as Wheels lifted his firearm and fired three successive shots behind him, at Jesse.

Chase dove to the side automatically. One additional shot. Then two, this time, from within the Laundromat. From Jesse, firing his weapon. Footsteps from the main street: Tucker and Martinez rounding the corner into the alleyway.

Wheels screamed, blood covering his hands. Hell, where were his hands? Too much blood.

Chase’s stomach pitched. Jesse just shot a soldier. It wouldn’t matter that Wheels had fired first, Jesse had hit him.

Chase picked himself up and jumped inside in pursuit of his uncle. Jesse was already booking toward the front of the building, and Chase thought I’m coming too, I’m running, right now. Then Jesse turned, grabbed Chase hard by the shoulders and said:

“Listen Nephew, there’s a place in South Carolina, a place on the beach. A secret place the MM don’t know about. A safe house, get it?”

Chase could only nod. His heart was in his throat and he felt like the innocent kid he’d been three years ago, the first time they’d broken into some poor bastard’s house.

Jesse’s eyes were wide, the rings around his irises bright white, complete circles.

“You’ve got to get to a check point, and then they take you across the border. One-ninety Rudy Lane, Harrisonburg, Virginia. Remember that. Say it!”

“One-ninety…”

“Say it!”

“Rudy Lane, Harrisonburg, Virginia.” Chase was shaking. Jesse, what have you done what have you done what have you done?

“Yeah, well…” Jesse ducked, and turned away. “Sorry,” he whispered, and then raced out the front door.

Chase followed him, but stopped short at the sight he faced. There in the street, lay the boy. The boy with the book. The boy that could have been Chase just a few months ago. He lay motionless, out cold, or maybe dead.

Chase had seen dead people in Chicago before, but he wasn’t immune to it. People died of starvation or in street fights. They died sometimes by soldier’s beatings, but he’d never seen it, and even though he hadn’t now, his fists felt like an extension of those that had done this damage. Like the uniform that had covered those pummeling arms was his own.

Shots fired!” he heard Martinez yell back behind the building. Chase ran back through the exit and saw Tucker on the ground with Wheels, and Martinez belting into his radio. His nostrils flared with the fresh sent of blood. Wheels’ red hands were trembling before his chest, and Chase’s body felt suddenly thrown into reverse. My uncle did that.

Martinez raised his gun and his own fists were covered with blood, but Chase knew this wasn’t from Wheels, it was from the boy with the book.

“Where’s your firearm?” Martinez shouted.

Chase grasped his empty holster. Martinez cast him a suspicious glance, and Chase felt his jaw lock in place.

Chase and Tucker hoisted Wheels’ arms over their shoulders, and they ran, three abreast, bouncing off the sides of the alleyway. Tucker kept swearing, his voiced pitched with fear, and his eyes red with tears he would not dare shed. Martinez ran behind them, gun drawn towards the curious vagrants that gave them wide berth. Chase felt torn in half.

A lifetime passed before they reached the van where Bateman and his partner were waiting. None of the others had returned. With a great orchestrated effort they hoisted Wheels, silent, and white with shock, into the back of the truck. Martinez and Bateman jumped in after him to staunch the bleeding.

“Private!” barked Bateman, and both Tucker and Chase startled. “Private Jennings, you’ve just been promoted. Drive us the hell out of here.”

Run, Chase heard his brain scream. Run now. This is your last chance.

But all he said was, “Yes, sir.”

 

Extra Scene #7

This is the last extra scene posting before the release of BREAKING POINT (which will be released 2/12/13). Thank you for allowing me to share this with you. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading part of Chase’s journey.

This scene again takes place while Chase is being held in Lexington after Ember’s mother’s death. It contains a flashback to a pivotal time during his days in the FBR, and should tie the other scenes together (hopefully).

It’s always makes me wince a little when I read it. You’ll see why.

 

In the cement icebox they called a cell, Jennings’ fingertips gingerly searched along his scalp for the lump on the back of his skull where he’d taken a hard hit after Lori’s murder. He prodded gently at it, feeling some of the liquid seep out onto his bruised pads.

My body is a map, he thought in a detached way. This was the battle I lost when I let her die. That’s how he understood it now; that he’d let her die, though sometimes it made more sense that he’d actually killed her, because really, when it came down to it, what was the difference? He could have curbed fate months ago if he’d run with his uncle. He could have never gone home at all, never seen Ember again. Never let himself think there was more out there. That Ember could have been his.

Find my baby. Make her safe. I know honey. It’s okay.

Lori’s kindness haunted him.

He felt a long hidden scar around his back, the river on his map. The first night I tried to escape. He’d gotten hung up on the fence when patrol had started shooting.

His fists, an uncrossable mountain range of scars and misaligned bones.

His crooked middle finger – jumped at the track.

A hook scar on his right hand – Chicago boxing ring, fight number four, tooth.

And then the cool, menthol tingling on his neck – wrong turn: the place I tried to forget you. Some scars didn’t show, but they remained, tattooed upon the soul.

Chicago

The music was loud, the bass matched the throbbing in his head. He used to hate these mandated parties – socials, the FBR called them, held the last day of every month so the guys could blow off some steam. If the civvies only knew what their moral watchdogs did for fun… The mess hall’s lights had been flipped off, the music brought in, the girls checked at the door. And booze. Enough to drown a horse.

He leaned back in his wire chair, having positioned himself in the corner so no one could sneak up behind him. Soldiers walked by, some tilting their chin in appreciation of his efforts, others just staring, like he was some kind of animal. He stared back defiantly, challenging them to say one word. Just one. About anything.

He was tired, bone tired. His head was pounding; his thoughts finally dulled by a quick striker called X who actually had the nerve to show up at the ring with his one-letter name painted across his broad back. Jennings had barely beaten X; the bastard had busted open his lip and right eye, and bruised two ribs before the ref had pulled them apart.

Any other day would have found them evenly matched, but this hadn’t been any other day. He’d been broken before they’d ever set foot in the ring.

 “You hungry soldier?” Crawford had taunted from behind the safety of his desk. They were alone in his office, just prior to go time. Out in the courtyard, he had already been able hear the other guys getting rowdy. Another fight was underway – something small, chump change. Jennings was the one they had come to see. His was the fight they put their money on.

“No, sir,” he’d said. This was a lie of course. Crawford’s latest imposed handicap was a twenty-four hour fasting order, meant to “make things interesting.” He’d been making things interesting a lot lately.

He’d known they were trying to break him. The harder they tried, the more he refused to give up.

Until today.

He remembered the way Crawford’s eyes glistened with anger. “Oh really?” he’d said. “Because you’ve got beggar’s eyes, sergeant, like the Federal Bureau of Reformation hasn’t put a roof over your head and a chicken in your pot for the last eight months. You sniveling, entitled, piece of crap.”

“I’m fine, sir.” Weakness was intolerable in the FBR, and Chase hadn’t been about to back down to this fat, privileged bastard who’d been busting his balls since day one.

“So you’re ready to fight? You want to fight, is that it? I could keep lining these up, boy. Hell, I could give up my day job and make a living pimping your right hook if I wanted. I could run you into the ground, until you’re not just walking like a donkey kicked you in the kneecaps, but you can’t walk at all. Would you like that, sergeant?”

When Chase hadn’t responded, his commanding officer had removed a file from the desk drawer.

“On the other hand,” Crawford had said. “On the other hand I could make things a whole lot easier for you. In fact, I could make things a dream, sergeant. I could make you captain. What do you think about that?”

His first thoughts were simply a reaction: no one could cancel an officer’s leave. He could go home. Sit beside her, and feel the shape of her body fill the punctured holes of his.

Jennings almost laughed. He’d never seen it coming. Maybe he should have. He knew this: if he had, he wouldn’t have played the game like he had. He’d have said his ‘yes, sirs’ and ‘no, sirs’ and never once bucked the system.

The deal was simple. He took the promotion to captain, the fights stopped. The other boys were going to see that the system always won. That even the strongest could get knocked down, and that when they did, the FBR would pick them back up.

But of course that wasn’t all.

He could still see Crawford removing those letters from the file, spreading them across the desk, as if the last few hours hadn’t passed at all. He could still feel that “oh shit” feeling that sent his guts crashing to the floor.

He knew the letters were from him. He’d written them to Ember, to home, as those two had become interchangeable in his mind. But they’d never reached home. He knew soldiers’ mail was monitored, but he’d never heard of it being sequestered.

“Your partner has been helping us assure your compliance. Uh uh,” Crawford had said, shaking his head. “You lay a hand on Sergeant Morris and I swear to you there will be repercussions.”

He wasn’t sure how it was possible to feel betrayed by a rat, but he did.

Crawford stepped around the desk. He was a full head shorter than Jennings, but it didn’t matter now. Now he might have been ten feet tall.

“You were to sever all relations prior to dedication, soldier.”

Chase stared straight ahead.

“Especially with the noncompliant,” continued Crawford. “Sort of defeats the purpose of our mission here, wouldn’t you say? You working to clean the country while your little friend is the stain itself?”

Chase’s fingers twitched. No one talked that way about his girl, but something told him to keep his mouth shut.

“I’m not going to ask for an explanation,” continued Crawford. “What I’m going to do is hang onto these. Just in case you forget what you’re doing here. In case, I don’t know, I need to see how Ms. Miller and her mother like losing their house and living…well, like you did Jennings. On the street.” The sick old man chuckled. “She could always come work one of our socials. I’ve heard Martinez likes to break in the new girls.”

He’d nearly put his hands around Crawford’s throat right then.

No more fights. No more Ember. Christ. He’d only been fighting to try to get through so he could survive here. So he could make it back. And now, they were taking her away. His world, which had been carved down to the bones, was finally disappearing. He could feel it slipping away. The Chase Ember had known was gone. All that was left was Jennings.

Tucker was going to pay for this.

“Remember,” Crawford had said. “One wrong step, and I can make some life-changing decisions for your little girlfriend. One. Wrong. Step.”

Crawford’s face faded, pounded out by the music and the drunken laughter. What the pain pills Medic gave him didn’t drown out, a few shots of Horizon’s whisky had managed, and now he was numb. Finally.

X was still in sickbay. He’d heard broken ulna, whatever the hell that meant, and a torn ACL. Cocky little bastard.

It was weird thinking that this had been his last fight. He’d closed out eight and three. He wondered if that was supposed to feel good.

Two soldiers, both swaggering with liquid confidence approached from his left. Martinez had opened the top buttons of his jacket. Tucker wasn’t even wearing a coat, and his undershirt glowed in the dim lighting. The fury cut through his numbness in one strike, and instantly Jennings was on his feet.

One. Wrong. Step.

“Eight and two,” slurred Martinez, attempting to bump his shoulder, but Jennings stepped aside. He never got that drunk. It left you too vulnerable.

“Eight and three,” corrected Tucker, raising his glass. “He lost the one to Jersey in September, and then to…shit. I forget his name…” He had no awareness that Jennings was staring at him; did he even know that Crawford had shown him the letters?

At the reminder, he felt his left hand ache with an old scar. They called the soldier College, and he’d bitten a chunk out of Jennings’ hand last July. Since then, Jennings had gotten stronger and faster, and he didn’t waste energy shying from a hit. Fighting had become the only thing he was good at. And now he didn’t even have that.

“So, help me win a bet,” said Martinez, interrupting his thoughts.

Jennings’ muscles twitched. Odds. People were always trying to get him to throw a match. He continued to watch Tucker, weighing just how important it was not to beat him into the ground.

“The guys in the Patrol, they say you’re a homo. I say you’re a virgin. Which is it?”

Surprised, Jennings’ gaze shot to Martinez. He wondered if he should be offended, but the pounding in his head jilted his annoyance.

“It’s whatever you think,” he answered.

“He wants to know why you sit in the corner instead of at the bar,” explained Tucker, smirking into his drink.

Jennings glanced up to the chow line, converted into a temporary bar lined with bottles and glasses, and girls dressed cheap waiting for a soldier to pick them up. Most of them were already gone, laughing at a stupid joke or dancing. Sitting on some guy’s lap. Or back, hidden in one of the side offices or latrines.

She could always come work one of our socials.

“I’m not paying for that,” said Jennings. He knew, as they all did, that the girls were only here because they received a stipend at the end of the night, a fee for service.

They pay, dumbass. That’s our country’s tax dollars hard at work.” Tucker laughed.

That laugh cut straight through him.

He slammed Tucker into the wall, hands around his throat. The burn where the muscles attached to his ribs seemed delayed, but when the sensation hit, he grimaced. Tucker’s drink flew through the air, then crashed soundlessly into a pile of glass on the floor.

Martinez threw him to the side, having health and bulk to his advantage. Jennings saw only red, and rebounded, throwing himself into his partner’s friend. They spilled across the floor, Jennings immediately bursting back up to find his partner.

Tucker was ready for him and kicked, his boot swiping just below Jennings’ chin. Blood from where he bit his cheek filled his mouth and mixed the residual alcohol into a boiling burn.

“He’s crazy,” Morris slurred, but his eyes were bright with understanding. “You hear that, Jennings? You’re goddamn crazy!”

Jennings wanted nothing more than to pummel his partner’s face until it was unrecognizable, but caution slid through the veil of madness. If Morris snitched on him for letters, he’d definitely snitch on a broken jaw.

Ember and her mom would suffer, and that would be on him.

“Stay the hell away from me,” Jennings spat, shoving Morris back into a table before tearing off toward the bar. He’d meant to get another drink, but he collided into a girl on his way. She was slender; her yellow hair was pulled back to accentuate the long cords of her neck.

“Hey soldier, why don’t you pour me a drink?” She deliberately placed herself in his way, resting her fingertips on his shoulder while she whispered in his ear.

In his rage, he nearly shoved her down, but she was too close, already flush against his chest. She smelled strongly of perfume and something metallic, hair spray maybe, and her dress was cut low, revealing a long line of cleavage that dewed with beads of perspiration in this too hot room.

He thought of Ember then. Of her long hair splayed across his chest. Of the way her knee had felt sliding up his thigh. He remembered her mouth and the way she giggled and looked up at him through her lashes when she thought he wasn’t watching.

He was always watching.

He felt how much he had ached for her these past months, and while he did, her place inside of him grew shadowed, and suddenly all he could remember was how she’d made him come here. Made him leave everything that had ever felt good and right. It wasn’t him that was cold, but her; unreachable, untouchable, too good for trash like him. She was probably laughing right now with her friends about how she’d sent him packing. She was probably hiding the fact he’d ever existed from the guy she’d found to fill his place.

And suddenly he hated her. He hated that she was torturing him, living inside of him as a reminder of everything he couldn’t have.

He grabbed the blonde’s shoulders and kissed her hard on the mouth, watching the way her lids grew heavy and then closed, tasting his own blood and whisky, and now her spearmint breath. She snaked her arms around his neck and when she pulled back he heard the other guys cheering, and he hated them more than ever.

Maybe this girl sensed he was angry, because she grabbed his hand and led him from the mess hall past the other guys, still hollering his name, and into the hallway. There was an empty office at the end, and they entered silently, her locking the door behind them.

His buzz – what had remained of it – was smothered.

The lights were bright in here, and he squinted. His head filled with a pounding static in the absence of the bass. She wasn’t as hot in the bright lights; her skin was caked with makeup, and her eyes were smudged with black liner. She looked hard and fake, and Jennings was reminded why she was here.

“What’s your name?” he asked, feeling suddenly awkward.

She flipped off the lights, and wound her hands again around his neck.

“Oh sweetie, you’re lip’s bleeding.” He went to draw back, but she held on tightly and said, “That’s okay.”

She kissed his neck, her tongue drawing a slow, minty circle below his ear. His hands fell to her waist and pulled her tightly against him and he let himself lean back into the wall and forget the letters home and the fight, forget Crawford and the promotion.

She kept kissing there, in that place that made his body respond against his will, and soon he was breathing hard and pushing her back towards the empty desk. He wondered briefly how many others had been on this desk tonight.

Make me forget, he thought, watching how she slipped off her heels, and lost four inches of height. He could barely see her in the darkness, and he wanted it this way. She grabbed his jacket, unbuttoning it hurriedly, and pulled him over her.

Make me forget her.

It felt wrong. There was no denying it, but what felt right anymore? Nothing.

“What’s your name?” he repeated.

She kissed his neck again, knowing how he liked it. He thought of Ember, and how she had nuzzled her face there, in that spot he had grown to think of as hers. He could still feel her warm breath of his neck, and knew she wouldn’t be so sloppy as this girl, paid to spend time with him. No, she was innocent to all that. She’d experimented with kisses because she’d been kissed so little, and he had been thrilled to watch her learn. He’d thought that he’d like to be her first someday, when she was ready. That he wanted to share that with her, and be there for her, and have that connection that was already so powerful, forever between them. He knew it would have been like that with them. He knew it because he loved her.

Jennings settled back on his heels and kissed the girl on the cheek, hoping it didn’t come across as cruel.

When she realized this wasn’t going further, she sat up and fixed her dress.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “I wasn’t cut out for this.” It was a weak explanation and he knew it, but what else could he say? I love someone who I can’t have, and I don’t want you either.

“You think I am?” she said under her breath.

He took a step back, pushing his hands into his pockets and feeling sorry for her.

“What’s your name?” he asked again.

She looked at him through the darkness. “Why do you care?”

He leaned back against the wall again, glad for the distance between them.

“Because…you have one,” he said, feeling lame.

She quirked her head to the side. “Paxton.”

“Where are you from, Paxton?”

She sat on the desk, her lean, white legs draping over the side. He slid to the ground and looked up at her.

“Wheeling,” she said guardedly. “West Virginia. My daddy used to own a used car lot off highway seventy. Till the War anyway. Then we moved around some.”

He wondered how old she was, still talking about her father like that. He felt a little dirty for touching her at all.

“You ever think of going back?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” she said, looking a little less rattled. “But all that’s there now is a bunch of old pickup trucks. Mom and Daddy and my sisters moved to Michigan.”

He pulled at the hems of his pants, which had been freed from his boots during his altercation with Tucker.

“My family split up too.” He’d spare her the details; those facts had long ago been packed away. But still he felt as though he’d shared something very personal. He found he wanted her to stay, talk about something, anything, he didn’t care.

The bass stopped suddenly, and was followed by an uproar from the soldiers.

“That’s my cue to go,” she said guiltily, sliding off the desk. “We don’t get our rations passes if we leave after the doorman.” Her neck blushed. Her cheeks, caked with makeup, remained unchanged.

“Oh,” he said, standing. She stepped into him again, and he braced, feeling big and clumsy. “Thanks for…you know. Whatever.”

“Right,” she winked. “Thanks for whatever.” She put her hand on the door. “Really,” she added in a small voice, and he knew ‘whatever’ now meant what they hadn’t done.

“You don’t have to do this, you know.” He felt weird telling her this, like he didn’t have the right to, but still felt compelled. Some part of him felt protective of her, this girl he knew so little about.

She was quiet for a moment. “Do you really believe that?”

He looked down over his uniform, his boots, scuffed from the fight in the mess hall.

She smiled sadly. “That’s what I thought.”

He waited to close his eyes until she stepped outside. He could hear her heels click down the hallway now that the music was dead. She’d never asked his name.

The door clicked shut but he stayed in the room, keeping the lights off. Slowly, he sunk into the floor, knees bent and sore, like his head and the empty cavity behind his broken ribs. Then he put his head in his hands, and for the first time since his parents had died, wept.

 ***

In the cold Lexington cell, the infection cleared.

He wasn’t sure how it happened, but it did. Gradually, the boxes righted themselves. They were still open, still dangerous should he look too deep, but he didn’t. He rebounded with the curse of resilience. He should be dead, but he wasn’t. He was bound to survive.

They brought him food – watery tomato soup and prepackaged Horizon’s crackers. Maybe someone spit in it, maybe the soup had been mopped up off the floor. He didn’t care. Ravenous, he drank it straight from the bowl, not caring that they hadn’t even bothered to send a spoon, and when it was gone he licked the bowl, and stuck his tongue in the plastic wrapping to draw out every last crumb.

He smelled bad; he was aware of that now. He smelled like the blood on his clothes, copper and earthy, and like sweat too. He needed to shower and shave.

Questions began to enter his mind: what day was it? What time? How long had he been in this cell? He didn’t ask himself what had happened to Tucker, or what they had done with Lori’s body. Whenever his thoughts veered close to her murder they were repelled away like a bat striking a ball. He simply could not go there yet.

His head still ached, but with less severity, and the passage of time because strenuous. Another meal, another towel. Another meal, a jug of water. He ran his hands through his hair and felt the lump recede. He wanted out.

His spilled memories may have been cleaned up, but they left trace messages.

The medic in Chicago: How’s that working? Living two lives.

His uncle: Check point. Safe house. One-ninety Rudy Lane, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Paxton: My daddy used to own a car lot off highway seventy.

Lori: Find my baby. Make her safe.

And finally, the most painful voice of all. His own.

I promise I’ll come back. No matter what happens.

He’d promised. He’d promised her and her mother. And that was all he had now. Even if it killed him, he was getting the girl he loved the hell away from the FBR.