Captured Chapter 3

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Chapter 3

 

I gave up any thought of running away as I followed my parents into the rec room for our apartment complex that evening. At least a hundred people yelled “Surprise!” somewhat in unison. After my new super-ears quit ringing, my jaw dropped. It seemed like everyone we knew was here.

There were relatives from both Mom’s and Dad’s side of the family, including my favorite aunt all the way from Iowa. Nearly all of the kids from our home-school group were there with their families. Even Derrick, Vance’s brother who’d supposedly been away to college, but was actually attending vocational training in the Paraxous was there. So were lots of coworkers from both Bill’s and Tina’s jobs. 

This must have taken months to plan. They’d obviously decided to throw me a big sweet sixteen party long before our cover had been blown. Now this had become their goodbye party as well. They were giving up their home, their families, careers, and friends to protect me.

Tears blurred my vision. I put my hand over my mouth and swallowed back a sob. Everyone stared at me, waiting for me to say something, but I was too choked up. I wanted to turn and flee, but Mom and Dad stood on each side of me with an arm around my shoulder.

Finally I stammered lamely, “I don’t know what to say. Everything’s so nice. Oh my god. I can’t believe you all went to so much trouble.”

A gigantic “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TWYLA” banner was spread across the back wall. Helium balloons, all midnight blue or hunter green, which happened to be my favorite colors, covered the ceiling. White Christmas lights twinkled everywhere like fireflies. I’d been fascinated with them when we visited Tina’s relatives in Iowa.

My favorite Adele song began to play. Through the crowd, I could just make out the big-screen TV rotating through pictures that told the story of my life with the Splendors. The day we moved into this apartment complex; the group photo from each year’s home-school club; hiking and other trips; and so on. There were a number of pictures of me with my friends, including one from when our band had played at the open-mic night at the local under twenty club. It was the first and only time we ever performed in public.

Now I understood why Bill and Tina had forbidden me from pursuing a singing career: I'd almost split my voice into a cantor that night, something only Katians and Kobbies could do. Since most Earthlings didn't even know Katians existed and had no idea what cantoring was, hypnotizing an entire audience by singing with duel voices was bound to attract attention.

Sam hustled from the kitchen carrying a tray of hors d’oeuvres. “Come on, Twyla, try some of the food. We have all your favorites.”

The caterers Mom had hired were friends of hers that she knew from Pixar. They followed Sam in a procession around the room showing off the sumptuous menu: sautéed mushrooms, crab cakes, ribs smothered in barbecue sauce, and corn on the cob drenched in butter. And chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate. Some of the crew went around offering hors d’oeuvres and drinks while others carried their trays over to the buffet line. 

Sam presented his tray for me. Now I knew why he’d missed band practice. Since I had no siblings—-at least none that they knew about—-he was filling in as junior host. Like Nina, though he looked completely Human, he was actually an alien using an avatar body to interact with the world. He happened to be a Flagoan, also known as Elm-men because they look like tree people. Also like Nina and Vance, I had never seen his real body. It seemed so unfair that I didn't even know what my friends really looked like.

Sam had shared enough about Flagoan culture for me to guess that he was treating this as a Commemoration Ceremony. It was a long-standing and highly valued custom of his people, which celebrated the anniversary of a life-altering relationship.

I managed to get my emotions under control and even enjoyed myself until it came time to open the gifts. It just felt so awkward having everyone watching me while I unwrapped presents and tried to find the right way to say thank you. It was especially uncomfortable when I got to Vance's gift. Since I’d accidently read his mind and already knew what it was, I’d have to fake being surprised. Trouble was, I was a horrible actress.

I opened the shoebox to find a palm-sized black box with a switch. Curious, I flipped the switch. A stunning holographic image leaped to life. Large birds flew silhouetted against a twilight sky. A waterfall shimmered in the lavender and gold rays. A rainbow framed the top of the image every bit as magical and ethereal as the real thing.

I gaped in shock. A collective gasp rippled through the crowd. Those who were in the know believed the thing had to be contraband, Paraxous tech. Those who didn’t know the truth about us were just amazed and dazzled by the hologram.

Vance ducked his head into his hunched shoulders. “Do you like it?” he asked nervously.

“Like it? Vance, it’s fantastic.” I couldn’t say anything more in front of everyone, but I knew he was in big trouble.

He straightened and puffed his chest in pride. “I built the holographic projector myself,” he bragged. “Using directions I found on the internet,” he added, to the amazement of some and the relief of others. Then he cocked his head and gave me an almost challenging look. “Were you expecting something else? Maybe a Babylon 5 DVD collection?”

He knew. He knew our minds had touched. And he didn’t hate me for it. He also knew we were leaving. This was his goodbye present. I wished everyone would just go away and leave us this moment. I couldn’t say half of what I wanted to with them around. “What could possibly be better than this?  Vance, you’re the best friend anyone could ever have. I’ll treasure it forever.”

“Hey, helllooooo...” Nina protested, “Don’t forget your BFF over here. Open my present next.”

That was it. I just couldn't take any more. I looked to my parents for help, but Mom had her hand over her mouth and was crying for me. Not only did she understand how difficult this was for me, it broke her heart to know there was nothing she could do about it. She put an arm around me for support as I brusquely wiped the corners of my eyes before opening Nina’s gift.

It was a trendy pair of jeans and a cute top. "Clothes. What a surprise," I said with playful sarcasm. Nina thought my lack of the "shopping gene" was shameful. So every birthday and Christmas, she made sure I got at least one cool outfit.  

Tina handed me their gift last. “We wanted you to know how much we both love you. And how glad we are to have you.” My mom's voice was so raw. Had she guessed that I was considering running away?

Would it be a betrayal if I left them for their own good? Or would it be selfish on my part to let them put themselves in danger for my sake?

The little box sat in my shaking hand. “Open it,” Bill prompted. Under the wrapping was a jewelry gift box. I opened it and a lung full of air caught in my throat. Inside, sat a pendant in the shape of three linked hearts outlined in diamonds. It glittered like nothing I’d ever seen before.   

Dad pulled the necklace from the box and read the inscription out-loud. “To our daughter, with all our love. Always remember, you are our sunshine.” His emphasis on the word daughter said it all. I was theirs and they would never let me go. It didn’t matter they weren’t my birthparents. They were my real mom and dad.

Then, to my horror, the entire crowd started singing, “You are My Sunshine.” I was embarrassed and touched at the same time. It was the song they’d sung to me every night during my first year with them to banish my nightmares and help me sleep. It meant so much more than the traditional “Happy Birthday” song would have.

When they finished, my dad knelt in front of me and reached around to fasten the necklace in place. I held up the pendant to read the words to myself. I looked back and forth between them. “Thanks...” I started but choked, “Mom, Dad, I love you.”

Amid all the “ooohes” and “awes,” I launched myself from my chair and hugged my dad with all my fifteen-year-old might. Mom came over and joined our embrace. For a moment, I felt like a baby bird safely tucked into a nest so high up no predator could ever reach us.  

# # #

After the party, I crawled into bed too exhausted to worry about anything. We’d be leaving tomorrow supposedly due to a family emergency Mom had arranged with her sister. As far as anyone knew, we’d leave directly from there on our trip to Australia. Vance’s dad had even made it so fake Facebook posts would automatically be added on Mom's account, leaving a false trail. In reality, we’d be going to our prearranged extraction site and wait for word from the Dashia Hunter.

The sound of multiple cell phones and the home phone ringing woke me in the middle of the night. It was followed by my parents speaking in low, hushed whispers as they shuffled and thumped about in haste.

My mom burst in to my room. “It’s going to be okay. But we need to hide you right now.” She took me by the shoulders and hustled me into their bedroom.

My dad had already unlocked the door to our hidden safe room. He opened it and motioned me inside. “Twyla, it’s very important that you listen to me carefully. I’m going to give you a sedative and more of that empathic blocker. That way your mother won’t be able to detect you. Hopefully, after they leave, we’ll be able to make our escape as planned. If not--“

“No. No. Let’s just leave now.”

He looked so sad in that moment. “It’s too late. They’re already here.”

He jabbed my arm with one shot right after another. Instantly, all my muscles went limp. At first I couldn’t even breathe. But soon my breathing returned in a slow rhythm that I had no conscious control over.

My dad held me and looked into my panicked eyes. “I know you’re scared, Sunshine. But you’re going to be okay. If they take us away, use the hatch to get to Vance’s.” He pressed a thumb drive into my hand and folded my fingers around it. “This has the location of our backup extraction point and contact information for the Dashia Hunter.”

Someone banged on the door loud enough to wake the whole building. “Police! Open up!”

Mom and Dad each gave my paralyzed body a last hug before leaving me lying on the floor and closing the door. My eyes were locked open. In one corner I could make out the monitor that displayed the front door and living room.

Soldiers in body armor rammed the door open before my parents could reach it. They stormed in and surrounded my embracing parents. Two men wearing police uniforms told Bill and Tina to put their hands up. The other four wore New Federation uniforms. That seemed rather reckless since the general public on Earth weren’t even supposed to know about the Paraxous Cluster and the factions that fought to control it.

Cassiopeia DeConnett entered behind them. I’d forgotten just how evil she could look. That evilness warped her flawlessly beautiful, genetically engineered features to the point she resembled an over-the-top, demented movie villain. Though we had the same auburn hair and green eyes, I didn’t think we looked anything alike.

“Where is she?” Cassie demanded.

“Where’s who? Who are you? What do you want?” Dad asked.

Cassie sighed. She gave one of the soldiers a nod. He opened fire. An energy pulse ripped a hole through my mom’s torso. Dad cried out in disbelief. He tried to cling on to her even as life left her body.

 Holy Makers, this can’t be happening. Not because of me, I pleaded with deities I’d stopped believing in when my brother had died.

A New Fed soldier ripped Mom from Dad’s arms and dropped her to the floor with a sickening thud. Her brown eyes stared up as if pleading for life.

Dad knelt over her. He pressed his hands against the wound trying to stem the flow of blood that gushed from her abdomen. But blood bubbled out between his fingers and pooled on the floor around her.

Cassie signaled for a couple of the soldiers to search the apartment. Then she focused her attention on my dad. “Let’s try this again. Where is she?”

“Where’s who? I don’t know what you’re talking about?” he choked. He glanced up from Mom’s limp form to meet Cassie’s stare. His face was beet red from a combination of grief and rage. His tears fell to the floor mixing with Mom's blood.

I’m here! my mind screamed. It wasn’t that I wanted to return to Cassie’s abuse, but maybe, just maybe, she’d let Dad live.

 “You do know who I am, don’t you?”

 “I have no idea who the hell you are, or why you just killed my wife.” His lie wouldn’t have convinced her even if she wasn’t empathic.

 Cassie smiled hungrily. “Allow me to introduce myself.”

I knew she was about to bore her way into his mind to get what she wanted. Without any empathic powers of his own, Cassie could turn Dad's mind to mush. Once again I tried to send her a mental message, but either she couldn’t receive it or I could no longer transmit empathically.  

“I am Twyla’s mother, and I know she is here somewhere.”

Dad looked down at Mom's body, the body of his high school sweetheart and the love of his life. Then bathed in her blood, he stood to face Cassie. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Though he managed to sound brave and strong, he couldn't stop the tears that streamed down his face.

Cassie stepped forward. Her eyes narrowed with the concentration it took to breach someone’s mind. Dad reacted to the invasion by lunging at her. My pacifist, peace-loving, daddy grabbed her by the throat. One of the New Fed soldiers fired. Dad collapsed to the floor. He didn’t die immediately like mom had. Instead, he dragged himself an inch at a time back to his wife. Cassie hovered over him, fixated on his dying thoughts. He reached out and took Mom’s hand before going limp.

Cassie’s peach complexion turned blazing red. She rounded on the soldier who’d fired. “You idiot. He died too fast for me to read. If we don’t find my daughter, you’re paying the price. Is that clear?”

The soldier bowed submissively. “Forgive me, Madam DeConnett. It appeared he was going to harm you.”

“Shut up before you make even more of an idiot of yourself. They were pacifists. He wanted to die to keep me from finding out where they have Twyla hidden.”

My stomach heaved. Bile came to my throat. I couldn’t force myself to swallow it back. I couldn’t make my head turn to the side to spit it out. I was going to choke to death and I didn’t care.

The sedative finally had the intended effect. Instead of just being paralyzed, I became drowsy. I couldn’t tell if I was suffocating or falling asleep. I was just grateful for the blackness when it finally took me.    

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