Detrick County, New York’s unusual temperatures made it hotter than normal for the beginning of June. A gray, hooded figure stood in the shadows of a canopy of trees. He watched with intensity as a towheaded boy sat in the shade underneath a Bloodgood Japanese maple. The crimson leaves created an umbrella, casting a shadow on him. It seemed like only yesterday he himself hid in shadows at the hospital during the birth of the lad, Asher, on October 13, 2169. The hooded figure found it hard to believe it’d been exactly sixteen years, seven months, twenty-three days, five hours, and sixteen minutes ago.
Over sixty years ago, he’d sat underneath same Japanese maple tree at the same age as Asher. The day he found out the identity of his father.
A wetness splattered upon Asher’s pale cheek. His lanky fingers wiped a sticky reddish substance off his face. He brought his chewed fingertip to his nose and sniffed a sour smell consisting of chocolate, strawberry…and molasses? He looked up in the tree to see if maybe a bird had dropped him an unwanted gift. He felt another spray, followed by the sound of a young boy’s giggles.
Asher looked over his shoulder. Timothy’s rusty copper hair was plagued with cowlicks. Perched under a pair of wings made of freckles, a devious smile revealed his two upper central incisors with a gap in between. His bluish-gray eyes beckoned toward Asher as if saying, “Come and get me, I dare you,” as the ten-year-old squeezed the trigger of his squirt gun. A stream of cinnabar-colored liquid showered Asher’s face.
“Right between the eyes,” said Timothy. He laughed mischievously.
“What the hell,” said Asher. He turned off his hBook, and the holographic image hanging over his watch disappeared. He scrambled to his feet to wipe the substance from his eyes. “What is this?”
“Drinkable blood. It has chocolate milk, strawberry syrup and molasses in it. It looks blood when I shoot you,” said Timothy.
“Molasses?” Asher scraped his tongue on his teeth after he tasted the odd mixture.
“Yeah, I couldn’t find the corn syrup.” Timothy gave another squeeze of the trigger. This time, a blotch of dark red formed in the center of Asher’s white T-shirt. “Bam! You’re dead.”
“I’ll show you who’s dead, you little booger.” Asher jolted toward Timothy, a playful grin on his lips.
Timothy’s eyes grew wide along with his smile. “You know you can’t catch me.” Timothy’s hybrid legs took charge––he ran as if he had the power of The Flash, his favorite superhero.
Asher sprinted across the green lawn, which was speckled with dandelions and buttercups. He snickered under his breath as Timothy tumbled and rolled. Winded, Asher pounced on Timothy like a frog hopping onto a lily pad.
“I know you fell on purpose,” Asher said through his twisted smile. He straddled Timothy as his fingers plunged into Timothy’s ribs, moving frantically as if typing on an antique keyboard, forty words per minute. Timothy squirmed. “That tells me you want the tickle treatment!”
“Stop,” said Timothy with a laugh, his face turning red.
Asher knew from experience “stop” meant “keep going.” If Timothy really wanted Asher to stop, he would’ve pushed him off with his hybrid arms as easily as flicking a booger off his finger.
“Say it and I’ll stop.” Asher continued to tickle him.
“No, I won’t.”
“Say it!” An ear-to-ear grin, showing Asher’s awkward smile, plastered on his face.
“Okay, okay, stop first,” Timothy pleaded, swatting Asher playfully with his hybrid arms.
“Not until you say it!”
As if defeated, Timothy forced the words out between giggles. “Asher is the bestest brother ever!”
“I want to be like you when I grow up.”
This caught Asher off guard. These weren’t the normal words Timothy would mutter to end the tickle treatment. He was supposed to promise his dessert to him tonight. Asher rolled off, and Timothy sat up, out of breath.
“You want to be like me?” asked Asher.
“Yeah, I want to be a big brother too and treat my baby brother like we were blood, like you do with me.”
“There are other kids here you can become a brother to, you know.”
“They’re more like friends than siblings. You’re the only one who treats me like a brother.”
“Mr. Whitaker likes you,” said Asher. Mr. Whitaker had been at Willow Wood for six months, 2 days, and 11 hours. Mr. Whitaker would have nothing to do with Asher, but he always seemed to smile and brighten up when Timothy was near him.
Timothy’s shoulders dropped along with his expression. “He’s only two.”
“That doesn’t mean he doesn’t need a big brother. You would be a perfect big brother for him.”
“If I become Mr. Whitaker’s big brother, does it mean you won’t be my big brother?” asked Timothy.
“I will always be your big brother,” Asher reassured him.
“And you think I would be a good big brother to him?”
“I can’t think of anyone else who would be better,” Asher said. “The best part is you can give Mr. Whitaker the tickle treatment.” Asher pounced onto Timothy. This time Timothy used his hybrid arms and legs to push Asher onto his back. Timothy straddled him, giggling while his fingers explored Asher’s armpits. Both boys were laughing.
Asher had never realized how much he meant to Timothy.
“Timothy Remington Smizik! Asher Levi Smizik!” A powerful female voice echoed off the grounds of Willow Wood.
Timothy’s fingers stopped in mid-tickle, his eyes widened, his lips pressed together. “Mom called us by our full name. That’s bad. Real bad,” he said. Timothy referred to Vicki Smizik as Mom.
“Timothy Remington Smizik, you go clean the mess you created in the kitchen. There is molasses everywhere.”
“I’m outta here.” Timothy jumped up and ran toward his tree fort as The Flash.
Asher let out a deep sigh. Every time his mother called him by his full name, that meant a grounding, he instantly knew why. Dr. Emily must have told her she caught him breaking Willow Wood’s number one rule: talking to an outsider on his computer. Dr. Emily had caught him after his mother left to do errands earlier in the day.
“There you are,” said Vicki Smizik. Her strawberry-blond hair bounced as she crossed the yard.
The Victorian hotel rose up behind her. The forest-green paint had chipped off in places, causing the hotel to look like it had a bad case of chicken pox. The white shutters and trim were now eggshell, almost a beige from the harsh weather they had borne throughout the years. Moss and algae grew on the shutters on the shadowy side of the house, a shield protecting them from the invasion of rain, snow, sleet and other ammunition Mother Nature could throw at them. The weather-abused roof had missing shingles and many needed to be replaced. A few windows had cracks in them, looking like a trail a rabbit would leave behind in the snow. The back porch had patches of missing lattice underneath, letting children and critters alike sneak under the porch, or, for others, sneak out. Repairing and preserving the hotel and grounds had become difficult due to lack of income. Willow Wood had a strict policy of no outsiders allowed on the property, everything had to be taken care of by the thirty-plus hybrid children or the two adults who lived there.
Asher tried to avoid eye contact. The black of Vicki’s pupils were surrounded by a ring of craggy, silvery flame swallowed by beryl blue. If he dared to look closer, he would see the sadness of heartbreak, the pain of sorrow, and the fire of a spirit that would never burn out.
“I know,” Asher mumbled. He wanted to run away like Timothy did instead of facing conflict, however, if he did, his grounding would be ten times worse.
Vicki sat next to her son. Her “I don’t care who sees me today” clothes showcased her pear-shaped body. “Would you care to tell me why?”
The hot sun blanketed Asher’s face. A breeze whisked through, causing the dandelions and buttercups to dance. He shrugged.
“The one rule we have here at Willow Wood that must be obeyed is no talking to outsiders.”
“I know.” Asher still refused to look at his mom.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” she ordered. Asher reluctantly turned his head to see his mother’s face firm with anger and disappointment, yet under complete control.
“Why did you do it?”
“Asher, if the hybrid police or, worse yet, the hybrid hunters find out about Willow Wood––”
Asher finished his mother’s sentence. “I know. They would cleanse the garrison chips from all of the kids.” Asher knew how serious cleansing was; only five percent of hybrids survived the procedure.
“If hybrid hunters caught you and the others…well, I don’t even want to think about it.” She let out a bodily shake of fear.
“I’m sorry, Mom.” Asher looked down to the ground, defeated.
“Who were you talking to?”
“A girl. She’s a hybrid too.”
“Hybrid or not, you cannot chat with outsiders. It’s too dangerous. It could be a trap, a way to lure hybrids into the sights of the hybrid hunters.”
Asher remained silent.
“Dr. Emily analyzed the computer, and she doesn’t think you got pinged. To be on the safe side though, she disconnected the computer and fried it.”
Asher looked up. “I had books I haven’t read yet on the computer.”
“They’re gone now.”
“Am I going to get a new computer?”
“We don’t have enough money to get the roof fixed, let alone to get you a new computer. For the time being, no.”
Asher’s shoulders fell limp like a plant without enough sun. “Can I use your computer?”
“You’re grounded from using any computers.”
“Grounded? How long?” His head shot sharply toward her.
“Will a week be long enough to teach you the importance of not chatting with an outsider, or do you need it to be longer?”
Knowing better than to argue with his mother, Asher said, “A week will do.”
She lifted her son’s chin. “I love you, Asher.”
She shook her head as if in disbelief. “The older you get, the more and more you look like your father.”
Asher sent her a peculiar look. His mother hardly ever mentioned anything about his father. The last time she did was two years, three months, and twenty-seven minutes ago. Asher went to save Timothy, who’d climbed onto the roof of Willow Wood. Timothy ended up saving Asher instead. “If your father was here,” were the words she snapped.
“Why don’t you ever talk about my father? I mean, is he like Darth Vader or something?” He referred to the villain in a recent remake of the twentieth-century film Star Wars.
This time Vicki turned her head to look down to the ground.
Asher recognized the cue that she didn’t want to talk about it. He longed to know more. It was hard enough already trying to figure out who he was. The enhanced brain power implants made it worse. Many times, especially as he grew older, his mind wouldn’t turn off from analyzing the facts he already had. He wanted to know more about the man who gave him XY chromosomes. He didn’t know anything about him, including his name, except they exhibited similar traits. His father’s DNA played a role in his appearance, mannerisms, quirks and personality. He wanted to know how much of a role.
He didn’t know if he would ever learn anything more. He couldn’t talk to anyone outside the compound…ever. Now he was grounded for a week. Asher’s cheeks flushed.
“Being a hybrid sucks!” Asher bolted up and stormed toward the Japanese maple tree. He wanted time alone. His mother followed.
“Liam,” she said.
Asher stopped in mid-stride and turned around. “What?” he asked, confused.
“Liam is your father’s name. Liam Mrkonic.”
Asher kept silent, processing this new information.
“I’m sorry for keeping your father such a secret from you. I’m trying to protect the two of you.”
“From the hybrid police and hybrid hunters?” asked Asher.
“There is that, but your father works for Earth Force Alliance (EFA). I’m sure you can understand why that might be a problem.”
Asher let his mother’s words settle in as he shot her an incredulous stare. His body quivered as a sudden coldness hit his core. Maybe his father was Darth Vader after all. At least if he were in prison he would be paying for his crimes. EFA? They’d played a big part in the hybrid civil war twenty years ago. Since they were a government agency, they had to fight for the government’s views, and in this case, hybrids were to be banned. Asher remembered reading in a history book if the hybrids had taken control of EFA assets, they would’ve won the war. Now he learned his father worked for an agency who only protected the rights of normals, something he was not. His thoughts were interrupted as his mother spoke again.
“You do remind me of him,” Vicki continued after Asher’s silence. “Your height, for one thing. A lot of your expressions remind me of him. And of course, you have the Mrkonic ears.”
Asher touched his ear, which stuck out like a radar antenna. “What is he like?”
“He was an athlete in high school.”
“I don’t have that part of him, do I?” Asher smiled, Vicki laughed.
“I’m afraid you inherited your mother’s athleticism, or lack thereof.”
“What else?” Asher wanted to learn more. He wanted to know more about himself, his genes, his DNA.
“Well, he loves all sports teams in Pittsburgh. He played the drums with a passion.”
“Pittsburgh? Is that where he lives?”
“Cranbury Township, a small town outside of Pittsburgh.”
“Would he like me?” The question came out of nowhere.
“If he would meet you today, I’m sure he would like you.”
“Could we take a trip to Cranbury? I would like to meet him,” said Asher.
Vicki let out another sigh. “It’s too dangerous for you to be out there.”
Asher exhaled in a huff. Her answer had never changed over the years. “Mom, I’m sixteen now. I’ll be seventeen in October. I can handle it out there. Pandora says hybrids hide among normals all the time.”
“Is Pandora the girl you’ve been chatting with online?”
“She is right. Hybrids do manage to live in the shadows among normals and not get caught, however the risk is far greater. You’re safer here.”
The old man, still observing from the shadows, let out a silent sigh. He could watch no more. In two minutes and forty-three seconds, Neon, a girl with hybrid eyes, would be climbing out from her quiet place underneath the back porch of Willow Wood, and joining them. He couldn’t take the risk of being spotted by her.
He took one last look at the boy and his mother. “I love you,” he whispered. He knew he would never see her again.