Free Stuff

A tie-in story to my novel Faster. Want to know what happened to Jackson’s parents and their young son during a simple trip to an amusement park?  Here you go!

This story’s free on my site for a limited time, so enjoy!

Hunted

by Annie Reed

The theme park had turned into a fucking nightmare.

Graciella didn’t use that word often, not even in her private thoughts, but she could think of no other word that fit.

All because her three-year-old son, Jackson, had dropped the ice cream from his cone on the hot sidewalk.

The day had been going so well until then.

Going to the theme park had been her husband’s idea. He just wanted the three of them to have a good time.

“Like normal families,” he’d said. “C’mon, Gracie. Let’s show the boy some fun for once. Out in the real world.”

He’d said he was tired of hiding, tired of looking over his shoulder.

“No one’s coming for us,” he’d said for the umpteenth time. “They’ve forgotten about us. About all of us, don’t you get it? We’ve blended in so well that we’ve erased ourselves from their memories and their minds.”

Jefferson was a good man—she’d never known better—but he had a rose-colored view of the world they lived in. He wanted to give their son all the things normal kids had. Weekends at a theme park. Saturday afternoon matinee movies down at the discount theater. Birthday parties complete with cake and ice cream and a house full of other three-year-olds and their parents.

They couldn’t do that. Jefferson knew that—he had to know that—but she was always that one who had to say no. Which always made her the bad guy. She was tired of being the bad guy, so lord help her—this time, when Jefferson had brought up going to a theme park, she’d said yes.

He’d tried to make her feel better about giving in.

“He’s not like us.” Jefferson had stroked the side of her face, and she’d closed her eyes like she always did, just enjoying the way his touch made her skin tingle. “He hasn’t done anything when I haven’t been around, has he?”

She’d had to admit that no, Jackson hadn’t done any of the things his parents could do. Sure, he was strong just like his parents, but he couldn’t influence other’s minds or heal minor injuries. As far as she could tell, he couldn’t read their thoughts like they could read the thoughts of those around them.

And the best thing of all—or worst, depending on how paranoid she was at the moment—he couldn’t fade into thin air.

Not disintegrate, but fade into a nearly clear state that regular people couldn’t detect.

She was the only one who could do that, not Jefferson, but she didn’t do it often. The world looked odd when she faded, like a washed-out version of itself, only with odd pastel colors here and there. Almost like she could see things hidden to everyone who lived in the fully fleshed-out world. Besides, after years of living among regular people, she’d learned that the best way to hide was in plain sight.

As long as you could blend in.

“He’s not old enough,” Jefferson had said. “He won’t be for another six years, at least.”

That fact didn’t make her worry any less. What if their baby boy was unusually gifted? Even for them? Most children weren’t, but they’d heard horror stories about the rare child whose abilities kicked in early. And each new generation added an ability their parents didn’t have, like Graciella’s ability to fade and Jefferson’s unnatural strength.

And as it turned out, she had good reason to worry.

At first they had fun at the park. Like any normal family surrounded by a whole bunch of other normal families. Just a regular old mother and father in their late twenties with their toddler son. Light brown skin and dark hair. Dark eyes with thick lashes that made them all look just a little bit exotic. But they’d chosen to live in a large city where more than half the residents weren’t blonde haired, blue eyed, and lily white.

They blended in.

Jefferson’s boss thought they were Hispanic. Their neighbors thought they might have immigrated from India. The old racist who lived on the first floor of their building called them “wetbacks” when he thought they couldn’t hear.

None of those labels applied to their little family, but no one knew that.

Normal people would panic if they knew the truth.

Graciella hoped her son would turn out to be normal. She’d heard that sometimes that happened, too. A throwback to generations earlier, before their ancestors had undergone the first change.

Being normal might be the best for him. It would certainly make for an easier life.

A life where he could enjoy himself like he was clearly doing today.

Jackson was a happy boy for the most part. He took joy in the world around him, but today? She didn’t think she’d ever heard him laugh so much, and it filled her own heart with joy.

Her son cooed and jabbered at the actors in their mascot costumes. She’d been worried they might frighten him—walking stuffed animals four times his size—but he was fearless. He pointed and laughed at the animatronic figures on the rides and sang along with the music piped in through speakers scattered throughout the park.

Normally she would have found the music annoyingly repetitive. Like the music on children’s television programs, the music in the park was aimed at children, and children liked familiar things. But because Jackson loved the music, she’d started to enjoy it, too. She’d even caught herself humming along with some of the tunes.

He ate half a hot dog that he shared with his father. After that, he ate most of a small bag of overpriced popcorn that she had to admit tasted better than the popcorn she made at home.

And all the while, her son took everything in like he was a tourist in an exotic overseas bazaar.

In a way, she supposed he was. She’d been protective of him since the day he’d been born. Jefferson would have said over-protective, but she’d never felt such tenderness and fierce, all-encompassing love as she did for her baby boy.

Eventually she would have to let Jackson go to school. Keeping him out of school would make him stand out—would make them all stand out—and that would be worse than letting him out on his own in the dangerous world that normal people lived in. Part of the reason she’d agreed to take him to the theme park was to get him used to being among other people. Practice for when she’d have to send him off to kindergarten.

But that was two years from now.

She didn’t have to let go. Not just yet.

She’d been hesitant at first about taking him on the rides. The children’s rides in the park were tame by adult standards. But for a little boy who’d never even ridden the coin-operated galloping horse at the grocery store, riding in a spinning teacup over a shallow pond might have been scary.

But not for Jackson. He loved the rides, and Graciella loved them right along with him.

She loved them so much that she forgot to watch the people around her. To notice if anyone was noticing them.

That had been her first mistake.

Her second had been to let go of his hand.

She’d been walking hand in hand with Jackson as the three of them made their way through the crowd swarming around an old-fashioned soda shop. One of the many, many places to get food in the park, this one came complete with candy-cane striped bar stools at a white Formica counter edged in shiny chrome.

The seats had all been taken, of course, but while she and Jackson waited, Jefferson stood in line to get them each a waffle cone filled with ice cream.

Graciella had given him a warning glance when he’d handed over one of the big cones to Jackson.

“Chocolate chip, and only one scoop,” Jefferson told her. “He can handle it.”

Chocolate chip was Jackson’s favorite flavor. Graciella knew that he could handle one scoop of ice cream in a cone, but the waffle cone was so big and his hands were still so small. He’d have to use both hands to hold it.

“You got it okay, baby?” she asked him.

He nodded enthusiastically. “Got it,” he said around a lick of ice cream.

He wouldn’t have a hand free to hold hers, but she told herself it would be okay. She could always sense him, a warm little presence that lived in a corner of her mind and filled her heart like a ray of sunshine on a bright summer afternoon.

It would be fine.

“I saw some empty seats,” Jefferson said, pointing at a gift shop close to the ice cream parlor. “On the back side. Not much to see back there, I guess, so no one wants to sit there.”

The park had a serious number of gift shops, all themed to go with whatever ride was in the vicinity. All the better for parents to be parted with their money. At least so far Jackson hadn’t asked for any of the overpriced toys in the shops they’d walked past.

“Don’t know about you,” Jefferson said, “but my feet could use a break.”

Her own feet could use some time off. She’d worn the most comfortable shoes she owned, but after a few hours walking at Jackson’s pace on concrete, she could use a break, too.

Which might be why she walked a little faster than she should have toward the gift shop.

Why she didn’t immediately realize that Jackson wasn’t following them.

Why she didn’t notice the surge in the crowd around them as another ride released a tide of happy families intent on buying their own ice cream cones.

Jackson was still that bright ray of sunshine in her mind, a ray of sunshine with the words ice cream stenciled in happy red letters, so of course she still believed he was right there with them. She missed his small hand in hers, but Jefferson had bought each of them their own rapidly melting ice cream cones. While she could hold hers with only one hand, she still needed both hands to keep track of the napkins she needed to keep the worst of the drips off her own clothes.

With that small presence reassuring her, she just continued strolling along next to her husband like she didn’t have a care in the world.

Jefferson was laughing at some small joke—a sure sign that even he’d forgotten that they were different from the people around them—when the sunshine turned to dark thunderheads that raged inside her mind.

And Jackson screamed.

***

They’d been lucky with Jackson when he’d been a baby. Most new parents thought their child was perfect, but Jackson had been perfect.

Or if not perfect, as close to it as a baby could get.

Graciella and Jefferson had been prepared to deal with a grumpy baby. A baby who didn’t want to be put down for naps, or who startled at the drop of a hat, or who wailed whenever the mood struck. They’d read all the parenting books. They memorized the stages of a baby’s development. They learned all the remedies for combating the croup and fussy eating and the terrors of teething.

And they hadn’t needed any of it.

Jackson had eaten well. He never got the croup or an ear infection or even a serious case of the sniffles. When the first round of teething set in, right on schedule, he responded well to the teething ring she chilled in the freezer to help numb his poor, sore gums.

As he grew into the terrible twos, Graciella thought that maybe he’d finally exhibit some of the horrible behavior the parenting books had warned her about. While he occasionally threw out a hearty “No!” when she asked him to do something, for the most part he was a happy, agreeable two-year-old boy.

Her own little private ray of sunshine that glowed in a special place inside her mind.

She’d never heard him scream before—not once—not until today.

This was the kind of scream that pierced souls.

And more importantly, this was the kind of scream that could hurt the normal people around them.

She whirled around to see what was wrong with her baby boy, but Jackson wasn’t there. She couldn’t see him anywhere in the crowd.

“He’s gone!” She turned on Jefferson. “Have they taken our baby?”

Jefferson’s eyes had gone soft focus like they always did when he was concentrating on something only he could see. That was Jefferson’s own gift, one that Graciella didn’t share. She could influence people. He could see inside their souls, and she knew he was doing that with Jackson.

It only took a split second before Jefferson’s eyes focused, but instead of the calm assurance they always held, Graciella saw a mirror of her own panic.

“I can’t read him!” Jefferson said. “I don’t know where…”

Another scream. She heard this one with her ears, and this time she could tell where the sound was coming from.

She grabbed Jefferson’s hand and shoved her way through the crowd.

So many normals between her and her son. They needed to move.

Her ability kicked in without conscious effort. The crowd parted as if on cue, giving them a clear path.

And there, sitting on the sidewalk halfway between the ice cream parlor and the store where they’d been heading, was her precious son.

Tears running down his chubby cheeks. His ice cream cone lay on the sidewalk in front of him, forgotten and melting. His fingers were coated with melted chocolate chips.

And directly in front of Jackson, a woman had blood gushing from her nose.

A normal.

Jefferson squeezed Graciella’s hand.

“Go take care of her,” he said. “I’ve got our boy.”

Graciella wanted nothing more in that moment than to pick up her son, hold him tight, and never let him go. But she couldn’t. If she didn’t take care of the woman, they could all be in serious trouble.

She paused only long enough to see Jefferson scoop up Jackson in his arms before she turned her attention to the woman. Blood was still running from her nose, and she’d collapsed on the sidewalk.

“Here.” Graciella reached out to touch the woman’s face. “Let me help you?”

She added a little mental shove to the question. Normals didn’t like to be touched. Graciella wanted this woman to believe the touch was her own idea, and the easiest way to do that was to get the normal to grant permission.

“Goodness.” The woman was middle-aged with the beginnings of crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes and pronounced laugh lines around her mouth. “Yes. Thank you.”

The woman had a kind face. Graciella wished Jefferson was there to read her, to discover if her kindness was only skin deep. All Graciella had to go on were her gut instincts, and her gut was in turmoil and concentrating only on her son.

But the woman had given Graciella permission, so she touched the woman’s face with gentle fingers, avoiding the blood.

“I’m not sure what happened.” The woman dabbed at her nose with one hand. “I never get nosebleeds.”

“You’ll be fine.” Graciella layered her words with the mental effort necessary to flow her healing ability through her fingertips.

“You think so?”

“I’m sure of it.”

The woman’s eyes became soft focused, and her hand dropped into her lap.

Graciella concentrated on the blood on the woman’s face. “You must have gotten overheated,” she said. “It’s very warm out here today with so many people in the park.”

“Warm,” the woman said.

“You might want to get a drink of water.” Graciella kept her voice warm and soothing. The blood on the woman’s face began to disappear. “You don’t want to get dehydrated.”

“Water.”

A moment later Graciella pulled her hand away. She fought the slight dizziness she always got whenever she helped normals heal. She had to fight harder to get through it this time, but she usually didn’t have to turn their blood transparent on top of everything else.

“There,” Graciella said. “That’s better.”

She looked at her work with a critical eye. She could still see the faint outlines of the blood on the woman’s face, but she’d done her best. It would have to be good enough.

She stood up and extended a hand to the woman. “Let me help you up.”

After a moment’s pause, the woman took Graciella’s hand and gave her a tentative smile.

“Thank you,” the woman said. “You’ve been so kind to me.” She nodded toward where Jefferson was holding Jackson, who, of course, was all smiles now. “Your son?”

Graciella nodded.

“He’s got quite a set of lungs on him.” The woman smiled. “But they all do at that age, don’t they? What is he, two?”

“Three.”

Graciella was starting to feel uncomfortable. She didn’t want to engage this woman in a long conversation. That would make Graciella memorable. She couldn’t afford to be memorable.

“I’d better find out what all the fuss was about.” She gave the woman a smile and a slight mental shove. “And don’t forget—drink plenty of water.”

The woman’s eyes didn’t go soft focus this time, but she still repeated the word “water” as Graciella turned away. With any luck, all the woman would remember of their encounter was how thirsty she’d been, and how dizzy she’d felt because she’d gotten dehydrated in the hot afternoon sun.

But Graciella didn’t believe in luck.

And this time around, she had a good reason not to.

***

Program people didn’t have any special abilities, but Deckard Quinn didn’t need any.

Program people had gadgets.

Gadgets that were ahead of their time. Literally.

That word—“literally”—was one of Quinn’s favorites mainly because it annoyed the hell out of his partner. Judith had graduated from Brown University before she’d joined the Program, a fact which she liked to point out to every man she met, especially those men—like Quinn—who hadn’t gone to an Ivy League school.

She would have been right at home in the heyday of feminism. Gloria Steinem would have been her best buddy. Judith probably would have burned her bra, and after that tattooed Joan Baez song lyrics on her tits.

Although that might actually have been something to see. Judith had magnificent tits. Not that he’d ever seen them up close and personal, but a guy could dream.

Right now the owner of the tits he dreamed about—dreams he would take with him to the grave—was crouched down on the sidewalk next to the dried-out remains of an ice cream cone. Chocolate chip judging by the dark brown blotches on the hot concrete. She held one of the Program’s gadgets over the ice cream.

“What’s that thing say?” he asked.

“One hundred ten,” she said.

This particular gadget measured something called “psionic output,” which was just a fancy name for the kind of special abilities used by the people they were trying to locate. Most days Quinn and his partner were lucky if they could get a reading in the fifties. A reading of eighty or higher was almost unheard of, but something over a hundred?

“Strong-ass reading,” he said.

She gave him a long-suffering look that clearly said way to state the obvious.

He ignored the look. “Got a directional indication yet?”

Most of the time the directional indicator on the gadget was useless because the reading was too low. This time, though… This time the thing might actually come in handy.

“A weak one,” she said. “Too many people in the way.”

Figures. Get a high reading, and it’s in the middle of a crowded theme park teeming with overexcited kids and their worn-out parents.

Quinn pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger. Aggressively cheerful music was blaring practically overhead from one of a gazillion speakers located throughout the park. The shrill, tinny quality of the music combined with the unrelenting heat of the day was giving him a doozy of a headache.

Judith stood up, and even over the racket going on around them, Quinn heard her knees pop.

Getting old there, sweet Judy blue eyes. Welcome to the club.

Quinn would hit forty-two next month, an old timer as far as foot soldiers in the Program went. Judith was a good fifteen years his junior, all spit and polish and rule bound. She even wore her casual tourist clothes like a goddamn uniform, neatly pressed and not a sweat stain in evidence even on the hottest day of the year.

He looked like the tourist he was supposed to be. Big and sloppy in the rumpled grandpa shorts that showed off his pale legs, his oversized Hawaiian shirt, plain white knee socks, and sandals.

The loose shirt hid the fact that he was solid muscle where it counted, something he had to work hard at these days, and even with all the work, he still had the beginnings of a paunch around his middle. His fanny pack completed his disguise, although instead of just a wallet and keys, the pack contained his own set of Program gadgets. Judith stored her tools in her touristy straw purse.

She pointed her gadget toward a relatively alcove behind a store selling all sorts of souvenir crap branded to match the attractions featured in this section of the park. The gadget was designed to look like an inexpensive camera, complete with cardboard casing, so no one gave them a second glance when they were using it.

“Signal’s coming from over there,” she said, nodding her head toward the alcove like she thought he couldn’t see where she had the thing pointed. “The reading’s not strong enough, so they’re probably not there now, but that’s where they went.”

Quinn had no idea how most of the Program’s gadgets worked. He didn’t even know where they came from, other than “not here.” He didn’t need to know. He also didn’t need to know how the engine in his car worked or the mechanics of how guns fired bullets. They were all just tools that helped him do his job.

If this particular tool told him the family they were looking for left the spilled ice cream behind and headed for a quiet place to regroup, he believed it.

Just like he’d believed another one of the gadgets when it had predicted they’d find some of the people the Program had them hunting at the theme park today.

Although “people” wasn’t exactly the word he would have used to describe their targets.

Abominations. That was a good word.

Creatures. Another good one.

But the best of all: enemies.

The Program was a little hazy about where exactly these enemies had come from. Pop culture—especially the comics Quinn had read as a kid—tended to divide the origins of enemies like the ones he and his partner hunted for the Program into the “science experiment gone wrong” category or the “just born that way” category.

But that was fiction. This was the real world. And in the real world he didn’t care one good god damn if their mommies and daddies agreed to let some scientist mess around with their DNA or if their DNA just pulled some practical joke on them.

It didn’t matter. The enemies were dangerous. They had abilities that could change the face of the world. They could take away free will. Enslave the human race, and make the enslaved think they liked it. Or start a war if they “influenced” the wrong people to press the wrong buttons.

They could kill with a thought. Quinn had seen it happen.

He’d sworn an oath to protect his country and the people in it—human people—against all enemies. He’d upheld that oath for more than twenty years, from when he was a raw recruit through the day he’d accepted a position with the Program.

He hadn’t known what he was getting himself into when he’d joined the Program. The job was very hush hush, and he’d signed paperwork that essentially said the government could execute him if he ever spilled any of the Program’s secrets. He’d had to sign before he knew what those secrets were, but even knowing, he’d never once thought about not doing the job.

His job now was to hunt down the enemy and take them back to the Program. Alive, if possible. And if not? No skin off his nose.

So far he’d been pretty good at his job, even when the enemy tried to use their “abilities” on him. He had gadgets that prevented that, too.

And with a reading this high?

This takedown was going to be a piece of cake.

***

They only needed a few minutes to quiet Jackson down after his meltdown.

Graciella hadn’t expected her son to bounce back so quickly.

“I couldn’t find you,” he said to her, stating that simple, heart-wrenching truth with the kind of matter-of-factness only small children could manage.

That was the true source of her son’s panic attack. It had nothing to do with his lost ice cream. It might have started out that way, but panic had set in when he thought they’d abandoned him in a place he didn’t know, surrounded only by strangers.

Now that he had his parents back and his daddy was holding him, Jackson was a happy boy once again.

But Graciella? She was going to have mommy guilt about for the whole thing for a long time to come.

How could she have lost track of her son?

She’d relied too much on her inner sense of him, that was how. She knew better. Jefferson was supposed to be the family’s protector. That was the role this society they lived in placed on fathers. But she was the strong one. She was really their protector. Her ability to sense the inner thoughts of the people around them was far greater than Jefferson’s.

She knew things about people that he couldn’t sense. Or at least that’s what he always told her.

She suspected sometimes that he could do the same thing if he wanted to. He just didn’t want to. It took a lot of work and a lot of energy to constantly be aware of all the people that surrounded them. As long as she was around, Jefferson was more than content to let her use her abilities to protect the family.

To protect their son.

And that was so difficult in a place like the theme park. Too many people all broadcasting too much information at one time. Graciella had to walk a fine line between shutting people out, which could mean she might miss something important, and not letting herself be overwhelmed by letting too many thoughts inside.

Right now Jefferson’s sole attention was on Jackson, who was in the middle of attempting—with all the seriousness a three-year-old boy could muster—to negotiate for a second ice cream cone.

“The sidewalk ate the first one,” he said.

“The sidewalk, huh?” Jefferson couldn’t keep from smiling. “It must have had a big appetite. That was a big ice cream cone.”

“I have a big appetite, too.” Jackson spread his hands out wide to show just how big before he played his hole card. “I promise not to drop this one.”

Graciella didn’t need to use her abilities to know that Jefferson would cave in and buy Jackson more ice cream.

“A smaller one this time,” she said. “Make it easier for him to handle.”

Jackson thought for a moment about arguing for the same size waffle cone as before. Graciella didn’t have to sense his thoughts to know. She could see it in his eyes. But he abandoned the argument without voicing it. Her son was a smart boy. He knew when to push his parents, and when to accept a compromise.

This time all three of them got in line at the ice cream shop. Jefferson held Jackson up so that he could see inside the freezer cases where all the flavors of ice cream were displayed. While they discussed the merits of chocolate chip over rocky road, Graciella opened up her mind to the people around them.

Most of the thoughts she heard were nothing out of the ordinary.

A woman walking by with two toddlers in tow (birthday boys, two-year-old twins each holding a brand new stuffed toy) was worried about the amount of money this day was costing her and whether her ex would get his child support payment in on time so she could afford to buy groceries.

A younger couple, the woman visibly pregnant, were daydreaming about the baby-to-be and wondering about whether they’d be good (better than their own) parents.

One of the park’s mascots, sweating inside his furry costume, kept reminding himself that he really did like children even if he wished they wouldn’t scream so much when they met him (or cry; he hated how the costume sometimes scared the really little ones). Those thoughts were overlaid with the fervent wish that someone—anyone—besides him would notice that the inside of his costume stank to high heaven and approve his request to get the damn thing cleaned.

Graciella allowed herself a small smile at that. She could still remember her shock at how bad Jackson’s messy diapers really smelled, and how she’d had to suppress her gag reflex the first few times she’d changed him.

None of the people around her were thinking about the woman with the nosebleed.

Or about her son.

It looked like Jefferson might be right. People as a general rule only paid attention to the things they wanted to think about, and most people only wanted to think about themselves and the people important to them. Everyone else was just noise—extras on a movie set who filled in the background. Or like the music coming from the speakers throughout the park. Recognizable to children, but meant merely to create a pleasant mood for the adults.

Graciella was about to let herself relax when a chill tightened the muscles in her back and her vision dimmed for a split second.

She recognized the sensations for what they were: the reflex actions of someone who’s been hunted all her life when she encounters someone stalking her.

The fight-or-flight survival instinct built into every living creature had kicked into high gear, and it was coming down strongly on the side of flight.

But why?

Nothing had changed. If it had, she would have noticed it.

She scanned the crowd again, looking for anomalies with her eyes as well as with her abilities.

Even then, she almost missed them.

The ice cream shop was at the tail end of a wide street bordered by similar shops selling all sorts of food—the hotdogs and popcorn they’d eaten earlier, cotton candy, funnel cakes, corndogs and hot pretzels, donuts—all sorts of junk food Graciella would never feed her family at home. The street was teeming with people, but as the crowd thinned momentarily she spotted two people who were trying to blend in, but to Graciella they stood out like sore thumbs.

A man and woman stood on the other side of the street not far from the bench where she and Jefferson had sat with Jackson while they quieted him down. They looked like tourists. He wore a baggy Hawaiian shirt and shorts, and she wore stylish linen pants and a lightweight shell blouse. She held something in her hands that looked like one of those cheap box cameras you could buy in a drug store, but they were both studying it like it was the most important thing in the world.

That wasn’t what had given them away.

Graciella couldn’t read them.

They were like null points in a nighttime sky full of stars. Places where life didn’t exist. They could have been machines for all the mental energy they projected, but they were people.

Machine people didn’t exist, but some people (Program people, her mind insisted, although she was sure she’d never heard the term before) had machines that could block her people’s abilities.

Or that’s what she’d been told. She’d never encountered a hunter before. Neither had Jefferson.

And here were two of them.

It couldn’t be a coincidence.

She told herself not to stare. Not to give herself and her family away, but they needed to leave.

She made herself smile like nothing was wrong, and then she put her hand on the small of Jefferson’s back.

He looked down at her, his answering smile frozen on his face. “Gracie?”

“I’m getting tired.” She stroked his back with her thumb, a subtle signal to stay calm. “Why don’t you finish with the ice cream and then we should probably get going.”

“Go?” Jackson turned a stricken face on her. “I don’t want to go.”

She gave him just the slightest touch of her mind to reassure him. “We’ll come back again, sweetheart. I promise.”

“But…”

Jefferson bounced their son in his arms. “Be a good boy for your mom.”

He shifted Jackson to hold the boy with one arm so he could grab his wallet to pay for the ice cream. Jefferson smiled at the kid working the ice cream counter, but Graciella could see the worry in his eyes.

She wanted to rush the kid while he made change. So many kids relied on a cash register to count out money, and this kid was no exception. She wanted to tell him to keep the change so that they could leave, but that would make them stand out. The park was too expensive for people—especially people with young children—to waste money like that.

So she waited while her heart pounded and her mouth went dry.

Just another moment. One more moment and they could leave.

The man in the Hawaiian shirt glanced away from the “camera” and looked straight at her.

She froze.

All these years of preparing for the worst. Being on the lookout for someone in a crowd who was looking for them. Not letting herself get too close to her neighbors, even the ones she liked, for fear she’d have to pack up her family in the middle of the night and disappear. She didn’t want anyone to give more than a passing thought to her family if that happened.

And now when an actual threat appeared, she choked.

She should have turned to Jefferson and made a silly joke, something that would make both her husband and her son laugh, reassure the man in the Hawaiian shirt that they were just like all the other families in the park, but she couldn’t.

They were going to get caught, and it was all her fault.

Hers and Jefferson’s.

They’d made the ultimate mistake. The one that people like them could never make.

They’d thought they could be normal.

Her ability to cloud minds wouldn’t work on the man hunting them. She couldn’t read him, and if she couldn’t read him, she couldn’t influence him.

Their son would be taken away from them. Locked up and studied like a freak, if he was even allowed to grow up at all. No one knew what happened to the people who were like them who’d disappeared. All she knew was that they never came back.

No. She couldn’t let that happen, no matter what.

She just had to get herself to move.

“Mommy?”

She glanced at her son. The movement was instinctive and happened before she could wipe the worry from her face.

“Why are you scared, Mommy?” Jackson asked.

He held his new ice cream cone in both hands like he’d promised. He must have been in mid-lick because he had chocolate ice cream dripping from his open mouth.

Jackson had settled on rocky road, then. Which was odd because her husband was the chocoholic, not her son.

“Mommy?”

She made herself smile at her son. She hoped the smile didn’t look as horrible as it felt.

“I’m not scared,” she said. “I’m just tired, like I said.” She dialed the smile up a notch. “Are you ready to go now that you have your ice cream?”

Jackson’s eyes clouded over a little like he wasn’t looking at her anymore but at something inside his own mind.

“The man with the shirt with the big red flowers,” Jackson said. “He’s a bad man.”

She shook her head no, but Jackson wasn’t paying attention to her.

Her son—her precious boy—was looking directly at the man in the Hawaiian shirt.

“Bad man,” he said with all the righteous anger a three-year-old could muster.

And then he screamed.

***

The damn gadget had stopped working.

The thing had led Quinn and Judith to a wrought-iron bench located in a little alcove behind the souvenir shop. A trash bin sat on the upwind side of the bench. There wasn’t much of a breeze, just enough to create a disgusting pocket of stench in the alcove.

No wonder this spot was nearly deserted. Only people who were desperate for a minute or two off their feet would bring a little kid to a spot like this.

Or people who didn’t want to be seen with a kid who could make someone’s nose bleed just by screaming.

Judith’s gadget got a good reading from the bench, but when she tried the directional locator to see where the family had gone next, the machine gave a pathetic little chirp and the display winked out.

“Fucking stench killed it,” he said.

“It’s the heat,” Judith said. “It’s a known flaw with this model. Something to do with—”

He cut her off with an impatient wave of his hand. “So, reboot it or something.”

She gave him one of her no shit, Sherlock stares and hit the restart button.

They didn’t both need to hang around the bench breathing in that stench while her gadget did its thing. He had two good eyes and a gadget of his own. He might as well use them.

He strolled back toward the food shops. Wide pedestrian street. Lots of people. Lots of families. Food shops were always busy in a place like this, and the ice cream parlor at the end had a swarm of people waiting in line.

He’d counted three ice cream shops scattered throughout the park, and they all sold chocolate chip ice cream. This one was the closest to the spot where the kid had dumped his ice cream. If the parents spoiled their kid rotten like most parents seemed to do these days, they might come back. Even if they didn’t, his own gadget might pick up a trace reading that could lead them somewhere other than that damn bench.

He took the gadget out of his fanny pack and booted it up.

Judith joined him a minute later. Her gadget was back in her purse.

“Won’t reboot,” she said. “I’ve never seen one die like that before.”

He waggled his own gadget at her. “Mine’s working fine.”

She gave him a sour look. She probably thought he’d made some sexist double-entendre, and maybe he had. He didn’t exactly keep track of how many zingers he threw at her on a daily basis.

They were both looking at the display on the back of his gadget when he felt something prick at the base of his skull. Not an insect bite, but more like an insect trying to burrow its way beneath his skin.

He knew what that meant. Way back when he’d undergone the specialized training he needed to be a field operative for the Program, he’d had his brain scanned by one of the “people” the Program had already captured.

This sensation felt just like that, but on a smaller scale.

That meant the targets he was after were somewhere close and using their abilities to try to scan him.

They wouldn’t be able to touch Quinn or his partner. Both of them had implants that provided protection from mental manipulation. The Program had some stupid official name for the implants—the government loved its alphabet soup titles—but Quinn called the thing his full-body rubber. A condom to protect his mind. It kept the targets from using Quinn’s own thoughts against him.

“You feel that?” he asked his partner.

She acted like she didn’t hear him. Probably thought he was being inappropriate again.

“Getting a slight reading here,” she said instead. “Residual, but maybe I can—”

Another pinprick tried to break through to his mind, a little stronger this time. Quinn resisted the urge to rub the back of his neck.

The targets were here, all right.

When he looked up, he found himself looking right at one of them.

She looked like any other normal woman. Hispanic, late twenties, with dark brown hair, a trim build, and the most obvious deer-in-the-headlights look Quinn had ever seen on any of their hated faces.

She knew who he was.

So why wasn’t she running?

She was just standing there with an Hispanic-looking man who was holding a little kid. A boy, maybe three years old.

That must be the kid who’d dumped his ice cream. He was holding another cone, and the man—his dad, most likely—was handing over money to the teenage kid working the counter.

“Judith,” Quinn said, his voice just sharp enough to cut through her bullshit. “I’ve got a bead on—”

The woman he was watching had turned to talk to her family, and damn if that little kid didn’t look right at Quinn.

He might be a little kid, but he wasn’t a scared little kid. No deer-in-the-headlights expression on him.

No. The kid was mad.

That was fine. He could be mad all he wanted. Quinn had protection. He had his gadgets. And he had the targets marked. All he needed to do was grab a different gadget out of his fanny pack and he’d be able to immobilize them.

All in a day’s work.

And the best part was he could get out of this damn park and out of his disguise, and he’d never have to hear that fucking, tinny, relentlessly cheerful music again.

Quinn reached for the zipper on his fanny pack. Next to him he could see Judith shove her hand in her straw purse, probably going for her own weapon.

Then the kid screamed, and Quinn’s mind exploded.

***

Graciella had never heard her son make a sound like that.

Jackson opened his mouth and a banshee’s shriek came out. Only this was a shriek dialed up to twenty on a scale of one to ten.

She was standing right next to him. It should have blown her eardrums out.

It should have blown out the eardrums of everyone within a two-block radius, and quite possibly shattered the glass in the ice cream parlor’s display case.

But it didn’t. The only person hurt was the man in the Hawaiian shirt who’d been staring at her.

Blood was pouring from his nostrils. Twin tracks of red tears ran from his eyes. More blood trailed down the sides of his face from his ears.

Graciella’s eardrums were fine. The hunter’s eardrums were shattered.

As Graciella watched, the man fell to his knees. The front of his Hawaiian shirt looked like someone had cut his throat from ear to ear.

He was losing too much blood. Jackson hadn’t just shattered the man’s eardrums, he’d ruptured something inside the man’s head. The man—the hunter—would be dead in a matter of minutes.

Graciella didn’t think about what she was doing. She gave Jefferson a quick squeeze around his waist and told him to get their son out of the park before he did any more damage, then she waded into the panicked crowd.

If she didn’t get to the man soon, it would be too late to do anything to help him.

Provided she could get to him at all.

It had taken the crowd only a split second after they saw the bleeding man to decide to get the hell away from whatever was going on. Panicked parents carried wailing, frightened children, but some children had been left behind. Graciella’s heart went out to them. She tried to touch their minds with just enough energy to let them know everything would be okay. She couldn’t do more than that, not and rescue the man in a way that also kept her son safe.

No one got out of Graciella’s way. She had to fight for every step she took against the flow of people. Grown men pushed her out of the way. Someone’s arm smacked her mouth, and she lost track of how many elbows and shoulders rammed into her.

She was battered and bruised by the time she reached the other side of the street.

The bleeding man had slumped down on his ass, his legs bent at an odd angle. His bleeding eyes were vacant, his face expressionless. He wasn’t flat on the ground yet, but he was heading there.

The woman next to him held an odd-looking camera in one hand and something that looked not quite like a gun in the other. She had both pointed at Graciella.

“Don’t come any closer,” the woman said. “I have authorization to kill if necessary, and right now it looks pretty fucking necessary.”

Graciella stopped in her tracks. “I can help him,” she said, trying to use her most soothing voice. Hard to do when she had to almost shout to be heard over the noise of the crowd.

“Like your kid helped him?” The woman shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

“I can heal him.”

Graciella tried to soothe the woman the same way she’d soothed the abandoned children in the crowd, but it was like trying to claw her way through a steel door with only her fingernails. The woman’s mind was still a void to her.

So was the man’s.

If she couldn’t read him, would she be able to heal him?

Had she risked herself for nothing?

No. She wouldn’t let it be for nothing.

The crowd noise lessened as the crush of panicked people thinned out. The kids who couldn’t find their parents were wailing and sobbing, and from somewhere down the street came the sound of breaking glass. But she could hear the piped-in music again, along with the delighted shouts and screams coming from one of the more adventurous rides farther back in the park.

Graciella spared a glance around herself, looking to see if any park security officers were descending on their little scene, or if anyone was running toward them with a first aid kit, but the street that had been crammed full of people just a moment ago was nearly deserted.

Her husband and son were nowhere to be seen.

Good.

If this woman shot her, then Graciella would be the only one to die. Her family would still be safe.

“I can heal him,” she said again. “Please let me.”

She almost added, “My son didn’t know what he was doing,” but thought better of it. She could never tell a woman like this—someone whose job it was to hunt people like Graciella and her family—that her son had abilities he didn’t know how to control.

Graciella didn’t even want to think her son had those kinds of abilities. He was too young. No one that young should be able to do what he did. Kids that age had no concept of the kind of damage they could do.

She could see the woman thinking over Graciella’s offer. She stared at the man’s (her partner’s?) face like it horrified her. It probably did.

“This isn’t supposed to happen, you know,” the woman muttered. “It’s not supposed to fucking happen.”

The woman wasn’t really talking to Graciella. Even though she couldn’t read the man, she knew he was fading. His skin had gone ashen, his lips blue.

“He’s running out of time,” she said. “Please.”

The hand holding the gun trembled, then the woman dropped her arm to her side. “Do it, but if you fucking twitch wrong, I’m going to blow you away. You got that?”

Graciella did. She took a slow step forward, then another one.

The man fell over on his side. The woman turned away from Graciella—a natural reaction—which gave Graciella the perfect opportunity to do what she did best.

She faded from sight.

One of the devices the woman held—the one not shaped like a gun—gave a squeal, a red light flashing. The woman nearly dropped it as she snapped her head back in Graciella’s direction.

“Son of a bitch!” The woman held up the blinking device to look at it. “She was right fucking here, and now she’s—”

“Right in front of you,” Graciella said.

Before the woman could react to a voice coming at her from thin air, Graciella swung a hard right hook and connected with the woman’s jaw.

The strength of the blow knocked the woman off her feet.

She landed on the concrete next to her partner. Out cold. The devices she’d held in her hands went flying.

For a second Graciella thought about shoving them in her pockets—Jefferson might be able to figure out how the devices worked and what they did—but what if the devices had a homing chip inside?

She stomped on them instead, smashing each one with the heel of her shoe.

Only after that was done did she crouch down next to the man.

He was still alive, but just barely.

He’d been hunting her son. Would have killed her son if he could have. Graciella could have let him die and no one would have blamed her, but she wasn’t made like that. She’d run from people like him her whole life, but that didn’t mean she had to live her life like he did—killing just because he could. She wanted to think she was better than that.

The world she saw when she went invisible showed her things she couldn’t see the rest of the time. When she looked at the bleeding man, she saw something pulsing with a weak purple light just beneath the skin at the open neck of his Hawaiian shirt. Tendrils of purple light played over his body like those funny globe lights she’d seen at the mall, where electricity followed your finger if you touched your finger to the glass and moved it around.

Graciella tried to reach the man’s mind again, and that glowing purple light flowed around his head, protecting his brain.

He had something in his body to protect him from people like Graciella and her family. His partner probably had one too, but that hadn’t protected her from Graciella’s punch.

Graciella had to destroy that thing if she had any hope of keeping this man from dying.

She drew back her fist and punched him at the spot where the light emanated.

She felt his collar bone break. A red aura surrounded the spot of the break. But the purple light winked out.

When Graciella tried to reach the man’s mind this time, she felt him. Cold and alone and frightened inside the diminishing prison of his mind.

She tried to soothe him, and then she went to work healing as much of the damage her son had done as she could.

She wasn’t quite finished when she heard the sound of running feet pounding down the street heading in their direction. She was still invisible, but she’d used a great deal of energy trying to heal the man. She wouldn’t be able to remain invisible for much longer.

Still, she stayed with the man as long as she could. He wasn’t healed all the way, but he was no longer dying. It was the best she could do for him.

Before she left, she leaned in close to his repaired eardrum and whispered one word. She repeated that word for the woman she’d knocked out with one punch.

She watched park personnel work on the downed hunters for a moment longer. She’d hidden herself in the little alcove where she and Jefferson had taken their son after he’d first exhibited his abilities. This time it had been so much worse.

But it wasn’t as bad as it could get. There was a reason their people didn’t come into their abilities until they were old enough to know how to use them. Jackson could do so much more damage without even knowing it.

And not only damage to normal people, but he could destroy his own family.

They’d been on the radar now with people like these two hunters. They’d have to move again. Jefferson would have to find new work. They’d have to try to blend in all over again, always keeping one eye open for the people who wanted to kill them just because they were different.

Graciella knew that she and Jefferson had screwed up badly. They’d allowed themselves to think they were normal, that their son was normal, but none of them were.

The theme park’s music was supposed to make people feel happy, but she only felt incredibly sad. She was going to have to go home and do something she’d sworn she would never do.

She was going to have to deliberately hurt her son.

***

She waited until after they’d put Jackson to bed.

Until after she and Jefferson had had “a serious talk” about their future.

She’d thought Jefferson would fight her on this. That his rose-colored view of the world would get in the way. That he’d tell her everyone would forget about what happened, and they could go on with their lives just like they always had.

But he’d sat at the kitchen table, grim faced and as sad as she’d ever seen him, when she laid out the plan she’d come up with on the way home.

“I can’t do this to our boy,” he’d said. He’d laid his hands on the table, and they’d been clenched so tight the knuckles were white. “I’m sorry, Gracie, but I can’t. I know I’m supposed to be the protector, and you already do so much. But I. Just. Can’t.”

She’d laid a hand over his. “It’s all right.” She rubbed the back of knuckles with her thumb. The knuckles on her own right hand were red and swollen. “I’ll take care of it.”

She waited until she knew Jackson was sleeping. He was clutching a stuffed toy—Jefferson must have bought him one on the way out of the park—and his face had the innocent look little kids get when they’re deeply asleep.

She knelt down next to his bed. She wanted to take him in her arms and tell him how sorry she was about what needed to be done, but she didn’t want to wake him. This would work so much better if he stayed asleep so he wouldn’t fight her, especially since she didn’t know how strong he really was.

And that was the thing that really frightened her. Jackson could do something neither one of his parents could do—he could damage people with his voice. And not only that—he could direct it. Just like a laser beam on one of those science fiction shows on television he liked to watch. But worst of all—he could kill without even meaning to.

She couldn’t let him do that.

She reached out with her mind and touched that part within herself that was a piece of her sleeping son. She followed the connection between the two of them until she was deep in her son’s mind. She soothed him. Sang him a lullaby like she used to when he was a baby and she’d rock him to sleep in her arms.

He shifted in his sleep, a smile lifting up the corners of his mouth.

“That’s my good boy,” she murmured.

In her mind she kept humming the lullaby while she searched for through his memories. The thoughts of ice cream and riding the merry-go-round and how salty-sweet the popcorn tasted were uppermost in his mind, but she finally found what she was looking for.

His memories of hurting the woman by accident, and hurting the man on purpose.

She delved deeper into the memories, found the instinct that let him use that ability, and visualized a pair of scissors. Sharp and small and precise, like the pair her grandmother used when she embroidered the fancy party dress she’d made for Graciella.

With one smooth snip, Graciella severed her son’s connection to that ability.

She found more connections to other abilities. Those connections were more tenuous but still there, and she snipped those, too.

His smile disappeared, and he made a small, unhappy sound in his sleep.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” she said, “but it’s better this way. You can be a normal boy just like your daddy was when he was little, and then you can be like us when you’re older.”

They’d teach him when he was old enough just like their parents had taught them, and their parents before them, all the way back to the beginning of their people. If he needed help reconnecting to the abilities she’d severed, she’d help him with that, too.

That’s what parents did. They protected their children, even if it meant protecting them from themselves.

That included protecting her son from knowing that he’d had an ability he’d lost. She wanted him to be happy. She wanted him to be safe. She wanted him to be loved and never feel inadequate in any way.

She hummed a few more bars of the lullaby she’d learned from her own mother, then leaned in close to her son’s sleeping face. She soothed his thoughts with her mind, and then she whispered the same word she’d whispered that afternoon to the two hunters she’d left hurt, but not dead or dying.

“Forget.”

~~~~

“Hunted” is a prequel to the novel FASTER.  You can pick up a copy of FASTER by clicking This Link. 

copyright © 2017 Annie Reed