Authors: Angela B. Macala-Guajardo
“Plug up the drain and please go pack some change clothes and travel items for Rox.”
Grandma wiped her eyes. “Where are you going?”
“Away from here. New York City. The sooner we leave, the sooner you’re safe from Daio. He’ll follow us and leave you in peace.”
“Take a plane. It’s the fastest way to get there. Roxie can show you the way to the airport.”
“Can’t you come with us?” Roxie asked in a hoarse voice. The water filled the tub enough to cover her feet, which were the only parts of her body that had stopped hurting.
“It wouldn’t be wise,” Aerigo said. “We have to leave as soon as you can walk.”
“But bones take weeks to heal! And who knows how long until my knees will work again.”
“You’re a proper Aigis now. You heal a lot faster than a human can.”
News of her healing powers didn’t bring any comfort. Grandma left the bathroom.
Aerigo kneeled beside the tub and tested the water. “Feeling any better yet?”
“Just where the water’s touching.” Sobs still snuck out of Roxie. Overall she did feel a little better, however she felt like one massive bruise holding together a bunch of fractured bones. Aerigo cupped some water and poured it over Roxie’s knee, then gently rubbed it a couple times, making her clench her teeth. Aerigo poured another handful of water on her knee and rubbed again, but that time the pain lessened. He repeated the process until she informed him the pain had gone, then started working on the other knee. Once the tub was full, he shut off the water and rubbed down Roxie’s entire body, minus (to her relief) where her shorts and sports bra covered her. The pampering felt good enough to let her shut her eyes and rest.
“We can’t afford to have you fall asleep just yet,” Aerigo said with a hand resting on Roxie’s shoulder. His eyes were now glowing a pale blue. “I apologize for having to push you like this.” He unplugged the drain and stood. “Change your clothes and say your goodbyes.” He left the bathroom and shut the door.
Soon after Aerigo closed the door, Roxie heard a knock. She sat up slowly, fearing any sort of movement would cause excruciating pain. Her joints and muscles felt no worse than someone who’d returned from a rigorous day at the gym after a weeklong vacation. Uncomfortable, but bearable. Now that she was feeling better, she couldn’t help but marvel at her quickly she’d healed. Maybe not being human would have its perks after all. “Come in.”
The bathroom door opened and Grandma poked her head in, her hazel eyes puffy and watery.
Roxie’s eyes and nose stung at the sight but she swallowed the lump in her throat. “I’m sorry.”
Grandma pushed the door wide, plopped a folded towel and pile of Roxie’s clothes on the toilet lid, dropped to her knees beside the tub and wrapped her frail arms tight around her, sobbing.
In her seventeen years’ existence, Roxie couldn’t recall Grandma ever crying so hard. Sure she got teary-eyed watching a movie or two, but never anything this uncontrolled. Should she hug her back? Snap at her to stop crying? Cry with her? Just get up and walk away? Roxie gingerly returned the hug, not wanting to cause more inadvertent damage. She rubbed the dear old woman’s back, her grandmother’s thin muscles tightened with every sob. Grandma hugged her even harder, her sobs becoming interwoven with unintelligible words. After several repetitions of the same vocal patterns, Roxie realized what her grandmother was saying. She let go and Grandma sat up as well. “Why are you apologizing?”
“I’m sorry,” she said in a thick voice. “I wanted to be—be brave and strong for you on this—today. For so long.” She took a deep, wavering breath and repeatedly rubbed her eyes. “But when Aerigo carried you in... you were all black and blue. I thought you were dead.”
“I’m still alive, Grandma,” Roxie said.
Although I don’t know how.
She tried to imagine how she’d react if she’d seen Grandma in her place, and knowing that was only the beginning. Scared, worried, and at a loss for how to help. Just the same. “Maybe you
come with us. Wouldn’t it be safer? And you wouldn’t have to worry about me as much.”
Grandma managed a smile as tears kept coming. She placed a hand on Roxie’s cheek. “I would love to come with you but I need to stay here.”
“You have a hard task set before you. I’d only be a distraction. It’s more important you focus on what lies before you.”
“But I’ll be distracted worrying about you.”
Grandma let out a tear-choked laugh. “Human or Aigis, my family’s blood is definitely a part of you. Excessive worrying is a family trait.” She wiped her face again. “Get dressed, dear. If you need any help, just call for me. I’ll be in the kitchen packing the two of you some travel food. Bring out your toothbrush and hairbrush when you’re done.” She rose and touched Roxie’s pile of clothes before closing the bathroom door behind her.
Roxie pushed to her feet with aid from the side of the tub, her every movement marked with the pain of muscle strain. It would’ve been easier to ask for help to get dressed, however she wanted to prove that she was still able to take care of herself. She shimmied out of her soaked shorts and undergarments, toweled off, and donned her fresh outfit consisting of a girl’s tee, a white lace strap tank top to go underneath, and beige capris. Brushing her teeth took two arms since she couldn’t raise her elbows past her stomach. Brushing her hair required the same effort, so she decided to let her hair air-dry and to put it back in a ponytail later.
Roxie left the bathroom with both brushes in hand and found Aerigo at the kitchen table, buckling his boots. In the living room, Grandma placed a plastic grocery bag next to a backpack. She looked at Roxie’s hand.
“I’ll take those,” she said, extending her own hand.
Roxie crossed to the couch and handed over the brushes.
“Say your goodbyes,” Aerigo said. He looked pensive as his gaze fell on the backpack. Then he shouldered his own pack and placed two white objects on top of a piece of paper on the table. The objects looked like quarter-sized pedometers with three fingertip-shaped indents and a small dial on each. Aerigo pushed in his chair, gave Grandma a meaningful look, and headed out onto the porch.
“Are you ready to go, dear?” Grandma said.
“I guess.” She could walk, so she didn’t have any reason not to be.
“You have some oranges and muffins in the bag. I gave you one of my credit cards as well but please don’t go crazy with it.”
“Aerigo wouldn’t let me call a cab to take you to the bus station. He said you didn’t have the time to wait for one.”
“Bus station? I thought you said plane.”
“He didn’t want to take the plane. He said air travel gives you too few escape options. Are you well enough for the walk?”
“Yeah,” Roxie said, but she wondered if she could manage several miles, feeling sore enough to be carried. She slipped into her running sneakers, although her eyes longed for her slippers lying next to them. Tucker hopped off the couch and sat by the slippers, watching Roxie. He started purring and lazily flicked the tip of his tail back and forth. “I’ll miss you too, you weirdo of a cat.” Roxie scratched Tucker behind the ears and he closed his eyes, enjoying the attention. It looked liked the lines of his mouth were curled up in a smile.
Grandma handed over the backpack and grocery bag of food.
“Thanks,” Roxie said, straightening up. “What did Aerigo leave on the table?”
“I don’t know, but don’t worry about it. Just take care of yourself and listen to Aerigo. Everything you need is in your backpack.”
“It was an honor and a pleasure to raise you. I’ll miss you dearly.”
“I’ll miss you, too.” They hugged, though gingerly in Roxie’s case. The memory of causing her grandmother pain would never let her forget her enhanced strength.
“I love you very much.”
“I love you, too.” Roxie wanted to cry but for some reason felt too empty to produce any tears. “Bye.” She let go and waved as she headed out the back door. Grandma waved back and took Tucker in her arms.
Aerigo waited at the bottom of the porch steps. Once Roxie reached him, he started walking and she fell in step beside him.
Aerigo said, “I’m sorry.”
His tired, drawn features showed sorrow. “It’s not your fault. If I hadn’t run off—”
“It’s not that. I meant having to take you away from your family.”
“Do you have your own family you had to leave behind?”
Aerigo’s eyes glowed blue. “Not anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
He swallowed and stared ahead. “She’s gone.”
“Who? What happened?”
They passed under the trees and were touched by a lazy breeze that carried the scent of rain. Roxie turned around and walked backwards, and sure enough, swollen cumulous clouds were gathering beyond the rooftops.
“What is it?” Aerigo asked.
“Rain,” she said, turning around.
, she mused sarcastically.
Crummy weather for a crummy day.
“So what happened to your lady friend?”
“It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Your eyes are glowing,” she said. It was strange to be able to say that to someone else. “Clearly it still does.”
“Well, it shouldn’t,” Aerigo said sharply, then kinder, “It shouldn’t.”
Roxie took the not-so-subtle hint and lapsed into silence. They traversed the forest and took a right, headed for Buffalo’s outskirts. Walking loosened Roxie’s limbs, although she felt like she was losing energy, instead of gaining any back. The city engulfed them with cars, people, and daylight everywhere, though incoming clouds intermittently blocked the sun as they plodded deeper into the city.
“Do you feel well enough to move faster?”
“You mean, like, a brisk walk?”
“I mean a a run. All the way to the station.”
“I was never much of a distance runner.” Roxie hated running.
“Daio’s still following us. I don’t know where he is, but he has no intention of losing track of us. The sooner we get on the bus, the sooner we’ll be able to keep a safe distance between him and us.”
“How long do you think he’ll follow us for?” They reached the end of a crowded sidewalk and waited for the crosswalk sign to turn green.
“Most likely until I do something about it, or he does. But I’d rather just shake him off our trail. Other people will be sent to pick up where he leaves off, so there’s no point in killing him.”
“But you said you wish you had,” Roxie said over honking horns and the hum of traffic.
“For other reasons. Don’t worry about it.”
A couple of cars swept under the red lights as the crosswalk sign turned green. The two started onto the road and took only a couple steps before Aerigo snapped his attention to their left and took a sharp intake of breath. “Run!” He seized her wrist.
Roxie clung to a strap of her pack as they sped down the sidewalk. They bumped more people out of the way than maneuvered around them. “What is it?” They angled into the street, rushing between parallel-parked cars and moving traffic, and the idle cars made a flicky whooshing noise as she sped by with only inches to spare on either side. Not only that, they were keeping up with the flow of traffic—no, surpassing all the cars to their immediate left! How fast were they running?
“He’s very close! Don’t slow down; just tell me which way to turn.”
“Stay on this road. It’s up ahead. You can’t miss it.”
Aerigo let go and hoisted his pack over his head, then unzipped it and dug around inside. Ahead of them a Camry partially pulled out, blocked by bumper-to-bumper traffic. Aerigo veered back onto the sidewalk as he produced his dagger, and threw his pack back over a shoulder. Roxie followed and lost sight of him in the sea of pedestrians, but she didn’t panic. At the very least they’d meet back up outside the parking lot. She slowed her pace and stuck to the sidewalk, not wanting to chance the street or test her reflexes. Her ability to outrun a car was unreal, but her amazement was dampened by her desire to not give Daio another chance to pancake her.
“Hey there,” said a voice to her left.
Roxie stole a glance at a man running alongside her. Bile burned her throat. It was Daio, back down to normal size, but way too close for comfort. She searched for the back of Aerigo’s clean-shaven scalp and didn’t see it anywhere. Another stranger fooled her, but that man was bald as a cue ball and nowhere near as fit. She kept searching.
“What’s the hurry?” Daio asked, this time from Roxie’s right.
“Why won’t you just leave me alone?” She shot him a glare.
He wasn’t there.
Roxie lost her scowl and began to feel vulnerable, along with a sore need to return to Aerigo’s side.
“Oh please!” The voice came from her left again, and he was there this time, effortlessly matching her pace and dodging people. “You know why.”
“Stay away from me!” She swung at his face. He shied away, chuckling, and put some space between them. Roxie had a feeling he’d backed off out of sport. “What do you want with me?”
“I’m not sure yet,” he said. “My master isn’t sure what to make of you either. I could kill you right now and save us a lot of trouble, but my curiosity has gotten the best of me.”
“Why would you need to kill me? I haven’t done anything.”
“It’s what you
do,” he said.
“Yeah, save lives! What’s wrong with that?”
“A conflict of interests, kid. One that won’t be resolved with civil talk. But don’t worry just yet. I want to stick around for a little while and see if I can learn something from Aerigo.”
“I thought you two don’t like each other.”
Daio laughed and looked ahead. Roxie wasn’t sure, but it looked like his smile had turned into a frown.
She then realized something: she needed to stop heading for the bus station and shake this guy so he couldn’t follow them all the way to New York. Roxie reached a crosswalk and stopped, even though the sign shone green.
“Why are we stopping?” Daio asked, unconcerned.
Roxie mouthed a choice curse and backed away. He’d been standing
next to her with his face mere inches from hers. Stopping was turning out to be a stupid idea. At least running would’ve helped her catch up with Aerigo and let him take care of things. All her joints still ached with stiffness.
“You think you can outrun me?” he said and lunged so they were face-to-face again.
He’d covered the gap faster than Roxie’s eyes could follow and she backed away again. She was fast, now, but was Daio still faster? “I can try,” she said, trying to sound brave. With all the people and cars to pose as obstacles, all she had to do was time ducking out of sight just right, and then stay out of sight until she was certain she’d lost him. Of course everything that could pose as an obstacle to Daio could hinder her as well, but that was a moot point.
Running to the bus station was out of the question. So was her grandmother’s house. She didn’t want Daio using Grandma as collateral. That narrowed it to bolting either left, into the intersection, or right along the sidewalk. Before she could decide, something clamped onto her wrist. Daio squeezed, sending her wrist afire.