“There’s my baby girl.” With a broad smile as I approached, my father opened his arms before yanking me up into them once I got close enough. He lifted me clear off the ground and hugged me tight. “Now, who said you were allowed to grow so much while we were gone?” he demanded. “I thought I made it clear that you’re supposed to stay exactly the same while I can’t see you.”
God, some part of me really wished that it was easier to only be disgusted by what my father was really like. It would have made this whole situation less agonizing, if I could stick to just seeing him as the leader of a criminal organization, who hurt and killed people.
But that was the whole problem. He wasn’t just that. He was my father too. And beyond that, the Ministry had done some good things. It was all so complicated, the whole thing. He was my father and I loved him, just like I loved my brother and my mom. But they were all criminals. They all did bad things, along with some good. They were… it was… complicated. So complicated. Seeing him right now, being embraced by him, just made all those conflicted feelings come rushing back into me even more than ever. Especially after that whole thing with them helping Luciano escape. That was wrong. It was horrible. I had to do something about it. I had to get that piece of shit put in prison where he belonged. And I couldn’t excuse the part that my family had played in helping him escape. And yet… and yet… my father was here. I hadn’t seen him in what felt like forever, even if it hadn’t actually been that long. Despite all the terrible feelings deep in my stomach, I found myself returning the embrace tightly. Which only made me feel even more conflicted about the whole thing.
Finally, I found my voice while making my head shake. “I didn’t grow at all! It’s only been a couple weeks, you know.” Belatedly, I added in a mutter under my breath, “Besides, you could have left for five years and I wouldn’t have grown at all.”
“Couple weeks?” Dad gasped as though completely confused by that. “I tell you, it felt like that five years.” With a smile, he set me down and ran his hand through my uneven hair. “Ever decide if you want that to be long or short?” he teased, tugging a bit at the longer side.
“More fun to be both,” I retorted, poking him in the stomach. “I didn’t know you were going to be here. Let me guess, you drove Jefferson over the edge and he quit to go work for Uber.”
With a snort at that absurd thought, my father shook his head and turned to open the front passenger side of Royal Thunder. “Actually, I thought we could get some practice in. You’ve got your training license, right?” As he said that, Dad stepped down in the passenger side of the car, leaving… leaving the… the…driver… side…
As that realization slowly filled my head, I gaped, eyes widening. “Wha–you, you mean it?”
Chuckling with amusement as my reaction, Dad gestured. “Come on then, get in before I change my mind. Let’s see what you can do.” Abruptly, he grimaced before quickly amending, “And by that, I mean let’s see how many rules of the road you can follow while being extremely careful. Speed limits are fine things, but let’s pretend it’s like five miles per hour lower. Or ten. Ten is good too. Hey, parking lots are fun, how about we do circles around one of those?”
“Too late!” I chirped, dashing around the front of the car to jump in the driver’s side. Once there, I found that my father had already arranged the seat to be higher and more forward, specifically ready for me to use. The pedals had also been extended a bit forward so I could reach them more easily. Finding all that, I turned a bit to stare at my dad.
He, in turn, winked. “Well? You’ve been going on about wanting to drive for so long. Let’s see what you can do. I need to figure out if I can put you to work once you get that real license.”
Despite myself, despite everything, I leaned over and gave him a side-hug. Then I started the car, checked everything over, and pulled away from the curb after making sure the road was clear. I didn’t peel out or anything, tempting as it was with the power of the machine I was controlling. I kept myself under control and brought it up to just under the speed limit as we cruised out to the regular street to join up with traffic.
Dad watched me the whole time, his head shaking with disbelief. “I can’t believe you’ll be seventeen in under a year.” His voice was a thoughtful murmur. “You were only nine a couple years ago, weren’t you? Where’d the time go?”
Snorting, I carefully took a right turn at the light. “Yeah, and a couple years ago, you were only thirty.”
Making a strangled noise in the back of his throat, Dad retorted, “Just how old do you think I am, kid?”
Pretending to think about that for a few seconds while drumming my fingers along the steering wheel, I offered, “I dunno, fifty-seven?”
“Fifty-se–” That strangled sound was back as my father choked, giving me a look. “Okay, you know what, maybe you can wait another ten years before driving.”
A laugh escaped me. Which just made the whole situation worse. God, it was so easy to fall into this routine, so incredibly easy to forget the truth, even for just a few minutes. Yet in the back of my head, I couldn’t completely stop thinking about what Murphy and Roald were doing right now, and how their lack of justice was in large part the fault of my family.
Clearly noticing the way my expression changed, Dad reached out to touch the side of my face while we were waiting at the red light. His voice was concerned. “Hey, what’s wrong? Did something happen? Whatever it is, you know you can talk about it.”
Oh God, if only that was true. For just a split-second, I seriously imagined what would happen if I actually told him everything. How crazy would it be if I just unloaded the whole thing and told my father everything I knew and everything I thought about what they really did? What if I actually told him about how their bullshit allowed the murderer of my friend’s brother to escape? How would he react? Would he be ashamed? Would he offer to fix it? Would he apologize? Or would he just find a way to excuse it? Would he simply erase my memory again? How would he really react? I was so tempted, in that brief moment, to actually go through with it and see what happened. Maybe it was partially because of just how upset I was about the Murphy situation in general. Or maybe it was because of the actual fight I’d had with Simon the night before. Or because they’d been gone for awhile and this was my first time being close to my dad in a couple weeks. Either way, whatever the reason, the words were right on the tip of my tongue.
And yet, I suppressed the urge and simply shook my head while looking at him. “I just missed you,” I found myself easily lying straight to his face, even as my stomach turned itself into knots. “Did you guys finish your business, or are you leaving again?” There, it was easy to make it look and sound as though the reaction he had seen was about being upset that they had been gone. Manipulative, yes. But I had to give him some legitimate explanation for the look he had seen, so he didn’t wonder about it too much. Because the last thing I needed was my father to spend too much time wondering about what I was doing and why I might be upset about something.
Thankfully, it seemed to work. Dad gave a low sigh and reached over to brush my hair fondly. “We’re back for awhile now, I promise. Pretty sure your mom will kill me if we have any more business interruptions anytime soon.”
Again, I was tempted to say several things to that. Thankfully, the light turning green distracted me, and I was able to shove those impulses down along with pushing my foot against the accelerator. As the car pulled away, I found my voice. “Maybe she’d just maim you a little bit.”
Dad, in turn, chuckled once more. “Oh sure, maiming sounds better.” Shaking his head, he focused on giving me driving advice for the next thirty minutes or so, telling me where to turn and asking how I felt about freeway driving, parallel parking, downtown traffic, and more. Through it all, I pushed aside my troubled thoughts about the whole situation and tried to focus on just being there in the moment. But the whole time, a voice in the back of my head wouldn’t stop talking about how I was betraying my friends by not confronting my father about what happened, even though I knew it wouldn’t actually help anything if I did. It would, almost certainly, make everything worse. So, I shoved the impulse down and lost myself in the driving lesson.
Eventually, we stopped to pick up Izzy, who had stayed after to work on some project. As I brought the car to a halt in front of the school, she approached alongside a boy who looked familiar. He was blond and scrawny, with messy hair and glasses. Where had I–oh!
Yeah, the realization of where I had seen the boy before came to me even as Izzy spoke up. “Uh, is it okay if we give Errol a ride home? His sister… didn’t want to wait.”
Right, his sister. Arleigh Fosters. Somehow, the fact that she refused to wait around to give her little brother a ride home didn’t exactly surprise me. And I was pretty sure Izzy was giving a sanitized, polite version of her likely reaction to being asked.
Dad gestured. “Sure thing, as long as you don’t mind getting a lift from the speed demon over here. Why don’t you guys both hop in the back? How’s it going, Errol? How’s your dad?”
Oh right, Errol’s (and by extension, Arleigh’s) dad was another rich businessman. Specifically, he owned a pretty big stake in that Taurus Touched-Tech shipping company. Not as much as my parents did, but still quite a bit. Enough that my parents did have the occasional meeting with him. Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty sure we had even had Arleigh over to the house once or twice years back. It would have been while I was still in first or second grade, so I barely remembered it, but I was pretty sure she had been there.
Gee maybe we were best friends too and then my parents erased that.
While I was thinking about that, Errol gave some light remark about how his dad was fine, then he and Izzy started to talk some more about their project. I tuned them out after a minute and focused on driving. Despite everything I already knew about my family, I bizarrely didn’t want to disappoint my father with my skills. My father killed people and ran a Mafia-like organization to control all crime in the city, and I was worried about him thinking I was a bad driver. How absurd was that?
Whatever it was, I drove carefully (but not too carefully) back out to the main street before asking Errol to remind me of where he lived. He, in turn, tried to demur by telling me that I could drop him off at a nearby library and he would take the bus.
“Nonsense,” Dad objected. “It’ll be just fine, Errol. We’ll drop you off right at your house. Believe me, nobody’s going to try anything.”
Well, that was confusing. Looking over at my father and then to the back seat while we were at a stop sign, I echoed, “Try anything?”
Errol, in turn, sighed and told me where to take him. Only then did I realize why he’d had that reaction. Apparently, he lived smack in the middle of Sherwood territory. Yeah, no wonder he was a bit nervous about bringing strangers into an area controlled by a bunch of psychotic anti-technology Fell-Touched. Hell, I was certainly curious as to how a family like his could continue to live there, given everything. Their entire business revolved around transporting, repairing, and selling super advanced technology. So how could they afford to live in a place that was literally run by a gang that wanted to destroy technology? Did the gang not really know who they were or what they did? Or… or…
“Yo, Earth to Evans Junior.” Dad’s hand touched my shoulder, making me snap out of what had apparently been an extended moment of staring off at nothing. “Did you forget you’re the one piloting this craft?”
Flushing a bit, I checked both ways before pulling away from the stop sign. “Right, sorry. One taxi ride home coming right up. We’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“Fifteen minutes,” Dad corrected me with a raised eyebrow. “We’ll take the scenic route, no need to get on the freeway with our guest.”
There it was again, the total cognitive disconnect. My father was both one of the biggest superheroes in the entire state, and one of the biggest criminals. And yet, he was worried about me having a fender bender or something while one of his business colleagues’ kids was in the car. Trying to comprehend him in both ways (or rather, all three) was making my brain twist itself into knots. Hell, I wasn’t even sure that thought made any sense at all. It was just words, thoughts about how strange this whole situation was. My dad was a hero, a villain, and my father. He ran a Star-Touched team, helped Fell-Touched do bad things for money, and he was worried about his daughter getting the son of one of his business partners hurt. It was so hard to make all that fit together into one person all at the same time.
The point was, being around my dad like this was confusing. It made my brain and my stomach hurt. But I pushed all that down and focused on driving. I liked driving. I could lose myself in that for the time being.
So, that was exactly what I did. For the next fifteen minutes, I focused on driving to the gated community that had once been known as Pinewood Hollow. Now, the graffitied sign at the front had had the Pine part crossed out and had ‘Sher’ put in front of it. Meanwhile, ‘Enter, all ye who are’ was written in front of the Hollow part.
“Dad, can objects turn into Touched?” I asked, staring that way.
“I don’t think so, kid, why?” Dad replied, sounding curious.
I pointed to the sign. “Because whoever made that was obviously some kind of giant anime sword, to have all that edge.”
Even as I said that, a bird that was sitting on a rock next to the sign gave a sharp caw before flying away, making me jump a bit before silently cursing myself for it. Right, angry birds, spy-plants, wonderful. It was just so welcoming. I definitely couldn’t see any reason why going in here, let alone living here, was a bad idea.
Dad’s hand found my shoulder once more, squeezing it. He chuckled at what I’d said, even as he reassured me. “It’ll be okay, trust me. We’re not doing anything wrong, just dropping off someone who lives here. You can’t let people like that control everything you do. Don’t be stupid about it, but don’t surrender to them entirely either. They’re not stupid, they’re not going to pick a fight with every car that drives through their territory.”
Some part of me wondered if this was some sort of test somehow. But I shook that off and gave a distracted nod while pulling the car into official Sherwood territory.
Nothing happened, of course. It wasn’t like simply entering their area was instantly going to make the whole gang descend on us. Though some part of me wondered what my father would do if there was some sort of confrontation. After all, most of the bad guys had no idea who he really was. Either of his identities, come to think of it. How would he react if some of their people got a little ambitious and tried something? The thought made me just curious enough to almost want it to happen. Part of me was morbidly interested in how he would handle something like that without giving away any of his secrets to the three of us.
But, of course, it was like he’d said. Nothing happened. No one approached us at all as we drove through the subdivision to the large house that Errol had directed me to. The whole place just looked like any other quiet, fairly upscale neighborhood.
Except, of course, for all the flora. Seriously, there were exotic plants all over the place. The grass was deep green and cut perfectly on each yard, there were bright, colorful flowers and bushes everywhere (some of them clearly tropical or just rare), the trees were larger and fuller than any other place in the city. It was like driving out of Detroit and into a well-maintained rain forest or something. Say what you would about these guys’ methods, but they kept some pretty homes.
No. They forced everyone else in this place to keep pretty homes. The correction immediately came to mind, while a knot formed in my stomach once more. Everywhere I looked, all these pretty bushes, tall trees, the vines along some of the houses, even those perfectly manicured lawns, were all reminders that the people who lived here were essentially being occupied by a hostile force that made them do all that.
Okay, granted, there were worse tortures than being forced to have pretty plants in your yard. But still. The plants also served to help spy on these people. They were all basically cameras and microphones.
That little tidbit stayed in my head while my father walked Errol into the house, with Izzy following after to be polite. Apparently Dad wanted to visit with Errol’s dad for a few minutes, to talk about something that was going on at Taurus.
Unless, of course, what he really wanted to talk to the man about was Ministry stuff. That would explain how the family could afford to stay here, surrounded by that gang, right? If they actually were connected to the Ministry, the Sherwood people would be told to leave them alone. And it would explain why my father wasn’t worried about being confronted in this place. Not because they knew who he was, but because they knew Errol and his family were off-limits. That made sense. Plus, of course my family would have Ministry-connected people in the high positions at Taurus. It all fit.
Also, it was possible that part of me just thought that Arleigh having supervillain connections, even if it wasn’t her fault and she didn’t know about it, made sense. Meanwhile, another part of me chastised myself and said that wasn’t fair to the girl. Even if I didn’t really like her.
Speaking of whom, while lost in those thoughts, I heard Arleigh’s voice call out my name. Quickly, I looked that way to see her approaching from the front door of the house. There was someone else with her, a somewhat lanky guy with light, somewhat curly brown hair that was cut fairly short. He wore jeans and a long, green shirt that was unbuttoned over a black tee with a local band’s name on it.
“Hey there, Cass!” Arleigh cheerfully greeted. Again, like we were best friends. “Cool ride. You get your license after all? Dad pull a few strings?” She added that last bit conspiratorially.
Coughing, I shook my head. “Just having a practice ride with him, that’s all. Hey Arleigh. And umm…” I looked to the boy.
“Oh, this is my new college prep tutor.” Arleigh gestured back and forth between us. “Cassidy Evans, this is Ryder Towling. Ryder, this is Cassidy Evans.”
Offering me a slightly self-conscious smile, the boy extended a hand as he and Arleigh stood by the driver’s side of the car (it was parked in the driveway). “Cassidy Evans, huh?”
I felt a strange sense of familiarity in that moment, but shook it off and turned to shake his hand. “Yeah, I know, disappointing in the flesh, huh?”
“Oh don’t be silly!” That was Arleigh, laughing a bit too much. “The last thing you could be is disappointing. Actually, you should come to this party we’re having Friday night. It’s gonna be at Sonya Deckermire’s lakehouse, and I swear to god, they’re gonna have jet skis.”
“Oh, well, jet skis make that really tempting,” I managed to reply. “I’ll see what’s going on.” Quickly changing the subject, I looked back to Ryder. “College prep tutor?”
“It’s really not a big deal,” he claimed. “I’m just making sure she’s ready to apply for different schools next year, that she’s got her extracurriculars all worked out, her applications look nice and tidy, that sort of thing.”
“You should let him help you at some point,” Arleigh noted. “You know, after he gets me all squared away.” That was accompanied by an almost convincing laugh. “You don’t get to steal him until I’m done.”
“Oh, uh, sure.” Ryder dug in his pockets, coming out with a card, which he handed me. It had his name and a phone number on it, along with a note about what he charged for various tutoring services.
Tucking it away, I thanked him. Again, there seemed to be something familiar there. But before I could focus on it, my father returned with Izzy. He took a moment to talk to Arleigh and her new tutor, before getting in. As Izzy tucked herself alone into the backseat, Dad gestured. “Home, Jeeves. And you better make it snappy. If your mother doesn’t get to see you in the next few minutes, she might just kill all of us.”
All thoughts of Arleigh and her tutor left my head as I pulled the car out of the driveway and began to head for the house. Right, time to see my mother.
And hey, the good news was that my stomach was getting a lot of exercise today with all those jumping jacks it was doing.