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There’s a rustling noise off to my left, and I look up from my garden. It’s probably just another reformed criminal from the nearby community who’s cut himself and come looking for my help. A man around my age – early twenties – pushes through the trees that line the path to the house I share with my dad. He comes into view and stops, hunched over, panting and clutching his right arm. Long, shaggy black hair covers his face, but I can still see the vine tattoo. It’s red. Why is it red? Is he an escapee?
He looks up at me, and I can’t help but gasp at all of those vines, all of those leaves. Not only is his tattoo still red, but he’s a mass murderer. The vine begins just above his collarbone and curls up to end at his eyebrow. The branches cover half his neck and most of his right cheek. Countless leaves dot the vines.
I look into his panicked green eyes. There’s blood running down his arm. He’s badly hurt, and I can help him. What should I do?
“Please, help me,” he begs in a soft voice.
If it weren’t for the murderers who had served their time, Dad wouldn’t be alive.
Maybe I can help him, then call the Enforcers while he’s resting.
“Yes,” I say.
Relief washes over his face. I wrap his uninjured arm over my shoulders and guide him into my house. I can’t stop glancing at his tattoo. So many lost lives. Why would someone kill so many? I want to ask him, but that would be rude and invasive. He glances my way out of the corner of his eye.
“I never killed anyone, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he says. “I was set up. Me and a few others.”
What do I say to that? Why would he have been set up if he hadn’t done anything wrong?
He seems to notice my lack of words.
“My name is Rhydian, by the way.”
That’s an easy statement. I can reply to that one.
“Mine’s Shelby,” I say.
He doesn’t say anything in response, which is a relief. I’m not sure I could handle another bomb like “I’m marked a mass murderer, but I never killed anyone.”
I help Rhydian to a chair, then go off in search of my first aid kit. When I return, his eyes are closed. If he’s asleep, that’s okay. It’ll make it a lot easier to bandage him then call the Enforcers.
I settle down next to him on the couch and gently begin rolling up his sleeve. He winces and opens his eyes.
“I think the bullet is still in my arm,” he mumbles. “I couldn’t find an exit wound.”
I stop, stunned. A gun? He’s claiming to have been shot with a gun? That doesn’t make any sense, but when I look closely, I can see a sliver of steel embedded in the wound.
“Why would the Enforcers use guns? Nobody uses those things anymore.”
“Because electronets don’t work on me,” he replies cryptically.
I pause in my cleaning. “Why not?”
“The electricity in the nets that’s supposed to stun people only makes me stronger.”
I stop cleaning his wound. What the crap? This day just keeps getting stranger and stranger. How could electricity make someone stronger? This is all just too impossible and too insane.
He’s crazy. That must be it. He’s a murdering lunatic, and I’ve let him into my house.
Okay. Stick to the plan. Patch him up, give him a sedative, then phone the Enforcers while he’s out. Simple as that. Just need to act calm.
“You don’t believe me, do you?”
“No, I do,” I lie as calmly as I can manage.
He looks relieved and leans his head against the back of the couch. I finish cleaning the wound and hand him some gauze to press against his arm.
When I come back with the syringe in hand, Rhydian stiffens. “What is that?”
“It’s just something to numb your arm while I sew you up,” I reply.
He relaxes a bit but still seems wary. Did he have some kind of traumatic episode with a Healer as a child? There are so many things about him that don’t add up.
He pulls the gauze away from his arm, and I shove his shirt sleeve up.
“Here, let me do this,” he says.
I pull my hand back as Rhydian begins unbuttoning his shirt. He gently wiggles his arm out of the sleeve, and my eyes widen. Scars line his chest. One stretches from his sternum to the space between his collarbones, indicative of open heart surgery. Another begins halfway up his bicep and ends just below his shoulder. A third rests on one of his lower ribs.
“What on earth?” I breathe.
Rhydian clenches his jaw. “Biopsies and tests in the prison labs.”
What? Maybe they’re self-inflicted because he’s a lunatic. But they were obviously made using surgical precision. The only other time I’ve seen cuts like that is in class.
I do the only thing I can think of: I push the needle into his arm. It only takes a second for the sedative to take effect. Rhydian’s eyes slip shut, and his head lolls to the side. I sigh and begin carefully sewing the wound. After it’s bandaged, I go to find my phone.
This whole situation is bugging me. He sounds like he’s stark raving mad, but there are things that point to his story being true. I don’t know what to think.
My conversation with the Enforcers is short. They should be here soon. I walk back to the couch and sit. Rhydian has two other scars around his wrists. Those are a lot rougher and make me think of really bad rope burns.
I shake my head. I need to stop thinking about all this insanity.
Rhydian stirs, and I jump. How can he already be waking up? The sedative should have kept him out for a while. He opens his eyes and lifts his head, obviously groggy.
“Wha-what happened?” he mumbles.
There’s a knock on the door, and I jump to my feet. The Enforcers are here. They tip their hats at me as they enter. Rhydian sees them and struggles to his feet, eyes wide.
I suddenly feel like I’ve done something horribly wrong.
Rhydian reaches out toward the electronet on an Enforcer’s belt. My heart stops as electricity arcs through the air toward Rhydian’s fingers. One of the Enforcers raises something like a gun and shoots him in the shoulder. The electricity dissipates into the air as Rhydian collapses, unconscious.
“Sorry for the disturbance, ma’am,” one Enforcer says. “We’ll get out of your hair.”
As they carry Rhydian out, there’s only one thought in my mind.
He was telling the truth.