Janice stands up, her face red, scraping her chair on the linoleum kitchen floor as she does so.
She bumps her young son with her chair, and he scarpers off down the corridor to the front of the house, clearly not wanting to be present during any heated discussions between adults in the house. I get the impression there’s been trouble before, and he knows the signs.
“I’ve heard enough!” she says fiercely. “I don’t believe any of this. I want you all out of my house – now!”
Nigel is stunned, caught by surprise. I can’t say I am at all. While Nigel is great at manipulation and mental mind games, he’s not so great at empathy.
“Look,” I say, trying desperately to rescue the situation, and having the very strong feeling I’m about to make things much, much worse. “Nigel might be wrong. He’s been wrong before, plenty of times. It could be…something else.”
I place my hand on Janice’s, feeling her shaking beneath the warmth of her skin. I’m desperately trying to make a human connection with her.
I wish she was some sort of fungus, which is a weird thing to think I know, but I’m good with fungus. Not so good with people.
Then, briefly, I wish Ani were here. She’s great with people. Just seems to have a way with them, and with getting them to behave the way she needs them to behave. For the tiniest moment an odd, terrifying suspicion about my sister flickers through my mind. Then it is gone, disappeared to nothing again, as I focus again on right here, right now. “It could be all a mistake, Janice. Don’t take what Nigel says too seriously.”
Janice pauses, her face flushed and angry. “I’m not a killer. I don’t kill innocent animals. That’s not something I would ever do. I like animals!”
“I’m not saying you’re a killer. I’m not saying you did anything. Nobody is. Please…just give us – give me – a chance to explain. I know you never would have done anything awful.”
Which is not quite true, but what else am I supposed to say?
“Janice,” I say gently. “Can I show you something?”
She looks questioningly at me, not prepared to give me a chance. I try again.
“Look, Janice,” I say. “Please give me a go. Please trust me. I need to show you something. Trust me, just for a couple of minutes. Then, if you decide to boot us, we won’t cause any trouble. And you’ll never see us again, I promise.”
John shakes his head, warning me to stop, but I’m not going to distress this poor woman any further. If she is what we think she is, then she needs to know. We can’t be cruel about it. I wouldn’t want to be cruel about it. I need to show her. This – us – this thing we’re here for – isn’t something we can talk through. She needs to be shown to believe.
Janice looks at me thoughtfully, weighing up whether to give me a chance or not then, after noting the obvious earnestness in my face, slowly nods in agreement. “Ok. What?”
I sigh in relief. It’s only step one of what we need to do, but at least it’s a step. “Please come over to the kitchen window. I want you to see something I can do. Something you need to see to believe.”
I push my chair away, stand up next to her, and together the two of us go over to the back door of the kitchen, the upper half of which is a glass panel with a view out to the paddocks behind the house.
Through the window, we can see what I’ve already sensed from before I even entered the house – there’s a spindly hedge of overgrown pittosporum, two or three meters high, only arms reach from the back door.
The hedge was clearly planted a long time ago as a wind break for anyone taking a smoke outside the back door, or leaving the house this way to go hang out the washing at the nearby clothesline.
It’s also a perfect opportunity for me, exactly what I need for a demostration.
“That hedge by the clothesline,” I say, indicating the scraggly plants to Janice. She frowns, nodding. Curious.
“Watch it!” I say.
I concentrate, focusing my mind on the loose, thin branches of the hedge plants. Their waxy leaves immediately begin to shake and rustle, despite there being absolutely no wind at all. It’s an eerie sight – a wind in the trees when there’s no wind at all.
Janice gasps in amazement, while carefully, thoughtfully, I bend two of the uppermost branches, tall and overgrown, light and springy. They loop around each other slowly, gently in a dance, following my directions, as if some unseen hand had hold of them and is weaving them like yarn. Which is almost exactly what is happening. The branches form a knot together – over and under, then under and over – which I pull tight, little by little, like the noose on a hangman’s rope, until it is completely closed.
“How? What?” Janice exclaims. Then: “Did you do that?” after a long silence. She won’t face me, but is still standing looking out at the hedge of trees and my work. I can almost sense her racing heartbeat through the still, warm air.
“I have control over trees,” I say simply. “I have Power over them. They hear my Call. They do what I want them to do.” I turn to face her, and wait as she slowly turns to look at me, cowering a little, her expression one of fear mixed with awe. “We think you may have a similar Power. We think you may be able to Call animals.”
“Not exactly,” says Nigel, from over at the table. He’s still sitting there, but listening to everything. Of course. “I actually think you may have control over magnetic forces, which is something completely different. Your control isn’t over animals, but over the navigation systems they use to find their way about.”
“Like homing pigeons?” she asks quietly, confused.
“Yes,” he replies. “That’s one example of an animal that uses magnetic forces in navigation. But we found you because your Power is affecting the flight patterns of birds…and of local aircraft.” He laughs quietly. “You weren’t difficult to track down, to be honest.”
“You’re not from the Triple Nine, are you?” says Janice, her eyes narrowing.
“Not exactly, no,” says Nigel apologetically. “I’m afraid we may have lied to you. Just a little.”
“And those other men? You don’t know them? Not at all?”
“No, we don’t,” says Nigel. “But we know who they are. They’re agents, from the Authorities. They’ve almost certainly been aware of you for a while now, and if they confirm what you are and what you can do, your future will not be…ah…pleasant.”
He coughs. “Let’s just say that you’ll be a lab rat, and they’ll be studying every single aspect of you – what you are, where your Power came from, what you can do – for the rest of your life.” He chews his lower lip. “Your son too. And your unborn child. You’re all three of you in terrible danger.”
“You must trust us,” I say again, the urgency rising in my voice. “We want to keep you safe.”
“So who the hell are they?” demands Janice. “And if they’re the bad guys, are you the good guys? Are you here to help me? Why are you here?”
“We’re hoping you’ll join us,” I say. “We want to find out what you can do, what your Powers are, and how they can be used for good. To help people.” I put my hand on her forearm. “Also, if they confirm that you exist, they’ll have even more suspicion that we exist.”
“What do you mean?” she asks.
“At the moment, they suspect we exist, but they do not know,” says Nigel. “Once they capture you, they know. Then they’ll start looking for more like you. They’ll start searching for us. And they’ll find us.”
“But what exactly are you?” she asks, puzzled. “What am I?”
“You’re the next generation of hero. You’re Stealth. You have Power. You can choose to wield it for good or evil, but we hope you’ll join us and wield it for good. The world needs you.”
She begins to laugh. “You’re super heroes?”
“No. We’re Stealth,” I repeat. “We’re trying to do our work without being noticed. It’s much safer that way.”
Janice looks thoughtful. “Do I get a choice in this?” she says finally, after a long deliberation.
“Yes,” I confirm. “There’s always a choice. We’d never make you do anything you didn’t want to do. They would. But we never will. If you want to be free, you only have one choice.”
“I like to think I always have more than one choice,” says Janice, stubbornly, fearfully.
“You have to believe that we’re on your side, Janice,” I say. “We want to help. Your choices will always come first. If you join us, and decide to help, you’d always get to decide what you want to do. We’re not drones for some huge organisation, or agents acting for someone else. We belong to ourselves.”
Jacob comes hurtling back into the kitchen interrupting me. “Mum! Mum!” he says urgently, his small voice high pitched and edgy.
“Not now, Jake,” says Janice wearily. She turns to me. “I’m not sure I’m ready to make a choice. I have a lot on my plate at the moment. The baby is due in two months. I have a young son to care for. I’m nowhere near ready for anything, even if it turns out to be true and I can do…amazing things. I need time to think, to plan. To decide.” She shakes her head. “I’ll be too busy when the baby comes to be any sort of a superhero.”
“Mum!” repeats Jacob, reaching up to her and pulling at her t-shirt hem. “Those men that were here before.”
“What about them?” says John sharply, rising to his feet like lightning.
“They’re back. Here. Outside. Right now.”
“They weren’t supposed to come back until tomorrow,” says Janice, perplexed. John is already gone, up the corridor, in the front living room, peering past the curtains. He’s back in the kitchen again in seconds. “They’re surrounding the house,” he says. “They know we’re here. We’ve got to get out of here now.”
“How could they know we’re here?” I say. “We only just arrived. We’ve been here less than an hour.”
John’s eyes narrow for a split second, considering, then he raises an index finger to his lips, and makes a “Shhhh!” motion.
I understand. The house has been bugged. We’re being listened to. Or watched. The agents have been here all along, in digital form, hearing everything we say.
Our dirt bikes are lying in the front yard. I’m cursing myself, thinking we should have been more cautious. We should have put them around the side of the house so that they couldn’t be seen should anyone else arrive here.
I should have been smarter. Too late for that now.
There’s a sharp knock – three times – on the front door. Janice walks slowly and almost casually down the corridor, stalling for time, her son Jacob close behind her.
John touches my shoulder to grab my attention. He motions for me to head quietly to the back door together with Nigel, who is gathering up the paperwork Janice showed us, and stuffing it inside his jacket pocket as he moves. We might just stand a chance of escape if we’re quick. We might escape.
Or that’s what I think, until I see two men creeping past the side window of the kitchen that overlooks the driveway, darting between the trees, heading furtively towards the back door, cutting off our escape route. Two men in suits, both armed with pistols.
We’ve lost our chance. We can’t get out.
Nigel, John and I back away from the door, and I hear the front door open, then voices in the main corridor of the house behind us. More men are inside. Janice has let them in. She didn’t have a choice, I guess. We’re trapped between the pairs of men, one at the front of the house and one at the back. I hear the pair in the corridor talking with Janice, and am aware of a panicked note in her voice. There’s something about “imposters” and “danger” and “vitally important”. I hear Janice’s voice rise in fear, arguing, delaying, and Jacob begins to cry.
“We’ve got to get out of here! We cannot be identified!” John’s voice is a hoarse whisper by my side.
He’s right. One photo of us – of who we are, of our faces – one snap into the face recognition database and it’s all over for us. Our entire safety depends on not being known, not being placed, not being Googled or tagged or noticed in any way.
The authorities don’t know us. If that changes, we’re history. Rats in cages, forever and ever.
And just like rat in a cage, I realise I have no choice. We’re cornered. There’s no way out. I must do what I must do. As the men round the rear corner of the house, I reach out with my mind through the back door to the pittosporum, to the hedge, Calling the thin, whip-like branches to my bidding.
The old, wooden door blasts apart in an explosion of wood shards, glass splinters and brass fittings.
The branches of the hedge uncurl swiftly, following my directions. They begin untwisting from the tangled mass of greenery. Within a split second, they whip through the air, faster than the eye can see, winding snaky tendrils around the waists and necks of the two men standing on the back doorstep, before the men even register what is happening to them.
A quick twist and yank, and the men are thrown backwards into the waiting hedge. I indicate that it is safe for my companions, and I note coldly the final stages of my efforts: the earth is opening up a huge, mouth-like well that didn’t exist moments earlier, devouring the men whole, swallowing them into the ground, erasing their existence.
A few scattered leaves, some dust settling, and there is nothing to be seen, nor any sound. It is silent, apart from the fall of the leaves, and the creak of the hedge.
There were no cries, no pain, no struggle. It is over, so quickly and inhumanely and completely. No human can stand against the Power of the earth when it is Called.
I feel sick, alien, immortal, strong. The Power is coursing through me like a drug, making me dizzy.
“Come on!” says John, snapping me out of it, and trying not to feel shocked at what I’ve done. It’s the first time I’ve used my Power to kill. “Let’s get back to the bikes, if we can. We need to leave.”
“What about Janice?” asks Nigel. “We need her. We can’t leave without her. She’s the whole reason for us being here.”
“Can you deal with the other two, Rose?” asks John.
“I – I think so,” I stutter, still dazed, still doped. Then: “Yes, I can. I have to.”
I hear heavy steps behind me in the kitchen, and spin around to see Janice is facing two strangers, her hands raised in a defensive pose as she backs into the kitchen, while her small son cowers behind her. Both the men are holding weapons, and they’re pointed at Janice and Nigel.
I feel my blood beginning to seethe inside me, bubbling up with power. Unthinkingly, my mind reaches out again. Two massive eucalyptus roots explode up through the kitchen floor in a hail of dirt and rock and floorboards, ripping the kitchen apart, enormous tendrils of power and life.
One curls around the first of the men and he exhales with a light, almost inaudible sigh as the breath is forced out of him, then in one swift movement the tip of the root squeezes and shatters his ribs like toothpicks, and he is hurled against the wall, his chest crushed, a lifeless doll.
The second man barely has time to register what is happening before he too is embraced by the root of the eucalypt, and crushed to death. My work is quick, merciless.
There is no escape. There can be no escape.
It is over in a matter of seconds, the dust still clouding in the air long after the body of the second man hits what is left of the floor, hi carcass slumped against the kitchen wall, next to the refrigerator, blood smearing down the wallpaper.
The room is destroyed, and our enemies are dead. We are safe, for the moment.
I have done this. I have killed them all, all four of them.
And I’m in shock. It takes a few minutes for me to come down from the “high” of connecting with the earth. I need to re-establish my own, mortal boundaries within my own body, and separate from the earth and my Power. I need to force it back into that part of my mind again, and control it. It needs to go home.
When I come back into myself, I find that I’m shaking and cold, my whole body trembling from what has happened.
No – from what I have made happen.
From what I have done. Killing four men.
I collapse on the floor, as it all hits me, and everything becomes mercifully dark for a while.
“Rose…ROSE!” John is shaking me, then cradling me, his arms around me. I’m disoriented by what has happened. I don’t know how much time has passed, but I get the feeling that several minutes have gone by, and I’ve been totally out of it all the while.
The bodies of the two men have gone…somewhere. Someone has moved them. The kitchen is almost completely destroyed, the floor smashed to pieces, raw earth showing through a deep, dark hole in the floor that spans almost the entire space of the room. The kitchen table is gone. Floorboards have been thrown upwards and outwards, and there are bloodstains dripping down one of the walls…
I try not to look.
“We’ve got to go. It won’t be long until…until the agents are missed,” John says gently.
I hold him tighter. I’m coming back now. I don’t want him to let go of me, not ever. “It’s not safe here,” he says.
“I’m so, so sorry,” I choke.
“We know,” says Janice quietly. She’s sitting on a chair salvaged from the wreckage I’ve made in her home. Jacob is on her lap, clinging tightly to her.
There’s a carry bag down at her feet, half-stuffed with a mix of adult and children’s clothing. A teddy bear sits in the top, ready to be stuffed inside before the bag is zipped shut. They’re packed to leave with us.
I’m suddenly aware of how tiny Jacob is, and how we’ve come crashing into these peoples’ lives, destroying everything in a few short hours.
“I didn’t mean to do this,” I say, fighting more tears. I sniffle, and try to gather myself and be strong again. I want to be strong. I’m not succeeding. “I really didn’t.”
“I understand,” says Janice. “When you collapsed, Nigel explained what would have happened if you hadn’t acted. You had no choice, Rose.”
She pushes the teddy bear down, zips the carry bag up.”We found the bugs – the agents had wired the whole house. Every room. I can’t believe I was so foolish. I thought they were here to help my son.”
She begins to choke up. “They were going to take me away. Jacob too. And from the moment you arrived here, you too. From the moment you walked in the door this afternoon, there were only two ways this could end. One was like this, with the agents gone. The other was…”
“Was with all of us dead…” finishes John somberly. He tilts my chin and looks into my eyes. I find it hard to look back. My throat is raw and tight. “You saved us all, Rose. You had to do what you did. Nobody blames you. But we have to leave now, before the agents are missed. Before anyone else comes for us. It won’t be long.”
He lets go of me. I’m unsteady, and he pulls another chair upright, sitting me down, and holding my shoulders. “Stay here and take it easy,” he says. “Have a glass of water, if you think you can. I’m going to go check on the dirt bikes with Nigel. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Together, the men step gingerly through the remnants of the back door, most of which has been destroyed, only a few shattered pieces of painted wood still clinging to the door frame.
Janice regards me carefully. “Are you okay?” she asks cautiously. I watch her search for a glass in one of the kitchen cabinets, then fill it half full of tap water, and pass it to me. I thank her and begin to sip slowly. Immediately I feel my head clear and my blood pressure starts returning to normal.
“I’ll be fine,” I reply, in between sips. “I will. I need time, that’s all.”
Janice is silent, as I drink, then, awkwardly: “Your Powers. Have you always had them?”
I shook my head. “It’s kind of fuzzy,” I say. “But I think so. Ever since I was little, that’s for sure. I remember playing with branches as a little girl but…I’d rather not talk about it right now, if that’s okay.”
Janice holds her son closer to her on her lap, and he buries his face in her chest, so that only a tuft of his dark hair can be seen betwen her arms. She hugs him, and continues, staring at me in a calculating kind of way. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”
I shrug, not knowing what to think. We wait.