WHEN I’M GONE • by Kelly Castillo

“Laurel! How many times have I told you!” I swipe the locket off the table and bang open the bathroom door, yelling to be heard over the running shower. “You never take it off. Never!”

“Just while I’m—”

“Even in the shower! It’s waterproof for exactly that reason!”

“Okay! I get it. Now get out!”

I pace all two hundred square feet of our little motel-turned-shelter room in the time it takes her to finish her shower. I’m not mad about that — bouncing from shelter to shelter, we’re lucky to get a room with a sink. But she needs to understand. Gifted children are going missing by the dozens each day; this locket is the difference between life and death.

I thrust it at her as soon as the door opens. “Put it on, and don’t take it off again.” She slaps it out of my hand and yanks the chain down over her head. Her limp hair makes her look about seven years old in pants two sizes too big.

“It was ten minutes, Ro. The chances of—”

“We don’t take chances. We can’t afford them.” My tone is unnecessarily harsh. Because, as prepared as I pretend to be, I’m terrified. I kneel and roll her pant legs so she can’t see it in my eyes. “You know this. That locket is—”

“How you’ll find me again if they take me.” Hearing her say the words puts a hitch in my throat. Her voice is appropriately subdued as she plops on the bed. I motion for her to turn so I can braid her hair. “But why can’t we just keep moving? I could cloak my gift, you could keep us off the grid—”

“Hey.” I give her hair a tug as I braid. “‘Member what Dad used to say?”

“We grow towards the sun so that we might reach the stars.”

“Exactly.” I finish off her braid. “Hiding isn’t going to change anything, and it’s a miserable life, especially for a ten-year-old with a gift like yours.” I plop down on the bed next to her, thoroughly exhausted. “We’re not meant to shrivel in the shadows.”

She’s quiet for a long time. Bringing up Dad always puts her in an unsteady mood, but it’s the only way I know to get through to her. We get ready for bed, and the pipes make whooshing noises as the rest of the building’s temporary residents follow our lead. I tuck us in. She fits perfectly under my chin, in the crook of my arm.

After a while, the darkness shifts. Flickers of weak, sallow light gather in the far corner as her slight frame starts to warm and hum with power. In seconds, an orb of low, amber light floats in the corner, like an invisible candle.

“I thought you weren’t afraid of the dark anymore.”

“Just tonight.” Even close to sleep, her light doesn’t waver, which at her age is impressive. It throws sooty shadows on the walls until she drops off, then it blinks out altogether.

***

Three weeks later, we sleep in a sweaty bunkhouse on an Outerlands farm, where we can use our gifts without being detected. I have an ability to heal land and coax life from the soil. Laurel has a way with animals, can communicate with them and cure their ailments. We accept half-pay in exchange for food and board. I can’t remember the last time we had a home-cooked meal, and the farmer’s wife seems alarmed at Laurel’s slenderness. But we don’t expose our gifts. We don’t need any unnecessary trouble.

It’s so quiet I notice when the crickets stop chirping. A hush falls, and I turn my head to check on Laurel’s sleeping form. I’m just drifting off when I hear the gentle crunch of footsteps on gravel. It freezes my blood in my veins.

Two sets of footfalls, possibly three. My heartbeat is so loud in my ears I wonder if the creepers can hear it.

“Laurel,” I hiss. She barely stirs. “Laurel. Wake up.” I slide soundlessly out of my cot and crawl to hers. They’re picking the lock as I shake her awake. Just as she sits up, the door opens.

“Sshh…” I reach up to check the locket. She grabs my hand, her nails biting into my palm. All the fear and anguish I’ve hidden from her these past few years rises in my throat, choking me. Heavy footsteps make their way towards the bedroom.

“Rowan…” she whimpers into the dark.

“Don’t be afraid, baby. I’m here.” Two flashlight beams sweep the wall behind us before landing on our faces. Laurel screams and clings to me as our attackers pull us apart. I hold on tight.

“Rowan!” Her rough screech tears my heart. Strong hands rip her away from me.

“I love you, Laurel! I’ll find you! I’ll get you back! I’ll get you back!”

But something is wrong. They pull Laurel in one direction, but they drag me away in another.

“Wait… No. No, no, no!” I’m lifted off my feet and hauled out into the ranch yard. “Why are you — she’s only ten! She can’t survive without me!” I fight back, clawing and punching whatever I can get my hands on. Laurel’s screeching grows more and more distant. Disbelief and panic make me dumb.

I did everything I could. Saved years of wages to buy and hide a tracking device behind the photo of mom and dad in that locket. Taught her how to shield herself, deep down in her very core, so that they could not break her. Helped her hone certain survival skills. Even procured access to the grid so I could track her down. I would’ve found her, and whoever was making gifted children vanish. I did everything I could to protect her.

But they took me too.


Kelly Castillo writes out of Southern California.


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