I Am No Prey by Amal Clare May 25, 2021

3-Caught

Sometime after that, I finished my homework, which took thirty minutes flat. Nothing in life was challenging anymore. Life was positively boring, so I figured I might as well as fix the car. 

So that was how I ended up under my fifteen year old car, choking on the smell of metal and old batteries, peacefully fixing it, until I heard the unmistakable sound of heels snapping on the concrete. I'd recognize that noise anywhere, and the owner of said heels knew it. But when she stopped by the car, I didn't budge. 

"Good evening, Cerise. I'd prefer if you got out from underneath that thing so we can talk face to face." 

My stepmom was nothing if not formal and curt. With a sigh, I pulled myself out from under the car and stood up. Even in heels, she was shorter than me. Or rather, I was the one who was tall. At the age of eighteen and I was already six feet one. At least I wasn't lanky with spindly limbs. 

Her smile turned into a grimace when she saw what I was wearing- stained overalls and a black shirt. When Dad came home ten years ago and told me he proposed to Miss Elizabeth Smith, I was at first ecstatic for him, thinking it would be a good change, and one he needed. That changed as soon as I saw her. She was absolutely nothing like maman, or at least what I had heard of her. She was too stiff and formal. A disciplinarian at best. A military sergeant at worst. I always wondered just what he saw in her. 

"It's not a thing," I told her by way of greeting. "It is a car. A very useful mode of transportation." 

"I know what a car is, Cerise." 

"Sylvia." 

"What?" 

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, we must've had this conversation a hundred times. Her, always calling me Cerise, and me telling her to call me using my middle name, since it didn't sound like a nickname. 

"Sylvia, call me Sylvia." 

"But you only use that name with strangers or at your appointments." 

How she knew the latter I really didn't want to find out. "Exactly." 

To my surprise, she didn't turn red with anger, instead her eyes veered to my hand. 

"Pretty ring, darling." 

I refrained from snapping at her for calling me that. And she definitely knew who it belonged to. 

"Why are you here?" I cut to the point. 

She glared at me and then sighed. "I heard what happened with you and Brandon." 

"There is no me and Brandon." 

She frowned. "I thought you liked him. If anything you seem completely normal after breaking up with someone you were with for a year." 

I shrugged, because, honestly, what was I supposed to say? Even if he had been going behind my back with that person, I wouldn't be surprised if he did out of my stepmother's orders, another low tactic to get that country in her pockets. She might've threatened him or something else but he still did it. 

"Honey, if you want to talk about-"

"If I wanted to talk about it, you would be one of the last people I'd go to."

She glared. "I honestly don't know what your problem with me is." 

At that I laughed. "Really? In all the ten years that you've known me and you still haven't figured it out. Maybe it has to do with what you did that day."

Her eyes widened. "What day?" 

I leaned down until we were eye level. "Oh, I think you know perfectly well about what I'm talking about." 

She humphed. "Well then, I'm sure you're busy and I will refrain from wasting your precious time."

When the sound of her heels snapping on the concrete disappeared, I went back to fixing the car, shaking my head and wondering about her strange behavior. Only was I done and heading back to the apartment did I realize that the ring was missing. And there was no way I dropped it. 

******

The entire day at school, I was a bomb just waiting to explode. I was going to go immediately to her house and take back my ring, but as soon as I had opened my apartment door, I barely managed to get to my bedroom before I collapsed, exhausted. 

So that was why when the bell rang for lunch break, I all but sprinted to the lunch cafeteria, but that did no good to calm down my anger, since it was only twelve thirty. Why the hell did she steal that ring despite knowing how much it meant to me? 

I slumped in my seat in the cafeteria, pulling out a book and not bothering to get lunch. I doubted that what the cafeteria served was edible anyway and I was too furious to bother eating it. 

"You really shouldn't skip lunch." 

I looked up to see Julian taking his place on the table, his tray piled with food. If one day he told me that he had three stomachs, I would without a doubt believe him. Except no matter how much he ate, he always, always remained skinny. 

I didn't bother responding. Instead, I bared my teeth in a leave me alone expression. 

"Don't act like an animal or a Drakhenae, Cerise." 

Amanda and Amarantha walked over. Although they were twins, they were complete opposites. In stature, skin tone, hair color, eye color and personality. 

"Have you ever met a Drakhenae?" I asked, eyebrows raised.

The race of people with reptilian-like wings and a smattering of scales on their cheekbones and spines sometimes seemed to be the stuff of myths. Especially since she'd never actually seen one before, in person. But they were real. Very much so. And they were the enemy. The tension between the humans and the Drakhenae was a fuse waiting to blow. 

"I have," Julian piped up. "I went to Italy last summer, remember? Of course I met one." 

If he did go to Italy then it was impossible that he didn't meet one. It was a Drakhenae country after all. 

"No, Julian. You told us that you went to America," Amarantha said, slowly. 

"I did?" 

Wordlessly everyone nodded. 

"Oh, my bad." 

It was a shock that he managed to get in the country. With all the immigration laws and security risks between the two races, it was almost impossible, and few bothered anyway. 

"So, is it true? Are they more animal than human?" 

He shrugged. "They seemed pretty normal to me, most were actually really nice. But when we got closer to the capitol, the people were more...aggressive and were human haters. I mean if you think about our history, you can't really blame them." 

"Geez. It took you one visit to that country and you're already sympathizing with them. They still hate us for something our ancestors did more than two hundred and fifty years ago! The past is the past." 

"Maybe it also has to do with the fact that every single politician is itching to go to war with them," I added. 

Although their hate did make sense, Amarantha did have a point, even if what happened almost three centuries ago was messed up. When the ozone layer started to fade away, countries rushed to make domes with materials that could block out the radiation, and act as an ozone layer. They worked. Even though anything that emitted greenhouse gases was banned and a quota was set on almost everything-electricity, food, and water- people survived. Or rather, the people in the domes survived. 

Those living in countries that couldn't afford to build the domes or didn't know how to, were left to die. And they did. By the billions. Very few survived. Those who did, adapted, and while those holed up in the domes found more efficient fuels that didn't kill the planet and ruin the atmosphere, those outside the domes enhanced in medicine and biology. 'Enhanced' was a mild way of putting it. They came up with serums and drugs that could regrow lost limbs, and do other freaky things. 

I'd be lying if I didn't find that amazing and was curious. Anyway, after they started adapting to the radiation and other effects, they started raiding the domed countries, stealing supplies and food. Honestly? Who could blame them for that? Eventually, those raids turned into a full scale war. It was a bloodbath. Even though the Drakhenae were stronger, faster and had wings, there was no side with an upper hand in the war, since the humans had advanced their arsenal and military. 

In the end, the war only stopped when humans offered that they band together to build a synthetic ozone layer, with the same material as the domes. Around the planet. The whole thing. I still wondered how they managed to do it. Even though it took a decade to build. But for the last fifty years or so, it worked perfectly and still does. Good to know the sky hasn't fallen on us yet. 

"Earth to Cerise," Amanda called, waving her arm. "Where did you go?" 

"Just thinking about a history lesson." 

Amarantha and Julian groaned, just as Amanda said, "Care to explain why you're so off today?"

"My aunt came yesterday with a few things of my mom, her wedding ring was one of them. Anyway I put it on, and when my stepmom came later, she stole it." 

"And you know she stole it because...?" 

"It was missing after she left, and she was acting all weird." 

"You could've just dropped it." 

I leveled her with a look. "I. Did. Not. Drop. It." 

She leaned back in her chair. "So what are you going to do?" 

I was pretty sure she already knew the answer. "Steal it back." 

*****

Three hours later, I looked at the giant house in front of me. She should have still been at work. Doing whatever a president did at three thirty in the afternoon. I always wondered why she didn't just live in the house that came with the job. Even though my stepmom and I weren't close, I still had the key to her house. It was surreal to plan a heist without actually having to crawl in from a window or jump down a roof. At least there were cameras to mess up with. 

Inside, the house was empty, the hired maids left an hour ago and she wasn't coming till six. Her house never seemed haunted, but big, empty houses have always freaked me out. I took the steps two at a time, all the way to the last floor. The entire floor was my stepmom's. The entire thing. I shivered. She must feel so lonely. Then again, she could be bringing someone home with her every night. I veered my mind clear from those thoughts. What she did was none of my business. Except when she stole my belongings, then it was very much my business. 

I didn't find the ring on her desk, in her armoire, on the bedside table, or anywhere else in her bedroom and office. As a last resort, I checked the bathroom, even in the trash can. And, I found it. In the trash can. The. Trash. Can. 

For a moment, I just stood there, staring at it, not believing what I was seeing. Then I grimaced and fished it out before washing it in the sink, making sure I didn't drop it. If I managed to find it only for it to drop down the drain then I would kill something, slowly. 

With it clean, I slipped it back on my finger and went down the stairs. As I opened the front door though, I heard the unmistakable sound of a car parking in the driveway. Holding my breath, I quickly went to the window, peered outside and bit back a groan. What in the world was she doing here three hours early? Turning around, I bolted to the kitchen and frantically searched for a hiding space. Behind me, I heard keys jingling as she unlocked the door. Not thinking twice, I dived under the table, fitting the chair back into place as soon as the door opened. I tensed as I heard the sound of her heels clicking on the granite. God, I hated that sound. Hopefully she'd go straight to her rooms and I would bolt. No such luck, she came to the kitchen. 

I held my breath as she opened cabinets and walked around the kitchen, my heart beating faster and faster with each click of her heels. Which didn't make sense, because honestly, what was she going to do if she caught me? Put me in a time out? Ha. But if there was even a chance that she could link me to the mysterious thief that stole various things from the most high-tech places with the tightest security only to return them the next day, I was done for. 

"You can come out now, Cerise. I imagine it's very uncomfortable." 

My entire body tensed, and I continued staring at the floor. She was probably bluffing. Please tell me she was bluffing and just guessing that I was here. 

She sighed and pulled out the chair in front of me. "Now this is getting annoying." 

I sighed and crawled out, glaring at her the entire time, wondering how she caught me. 

"Great, now I don't have to wait for you to leave the kitchen before I can go." 

I walked around the table and headed towards the front door. 

"Where do you think you're going, thief?" 

I stopped and slowly turned around. When I was facing her, it took everything in me not to march up to her and punch her right in the nose. Her blond hair was slicked back into a tight ponytail, her red lips stretched in a smirk, and her black eyes shone the way they always did when she was convinced that she won something. 

"I'm not a thief if I was getting back something that belongs to me. And I didn't even break in." 

She leaned back against the table, crossing her arms over her table and her pencil skirt rucking up. 

"Really? Then where were you two nights ago?" 

Two nights ago I was returning a file to a government facility. A file that belonged to her secretary. 

"In my apartment testing out a new gadget." 

The second part wasn't a lie. She tsked and pulled out her phone before passing it to me. I caught it and looked down. It was a tracking app, monitoring whoever my stepmom was tracking. And then I realized that person was me. She was tracking me. Probably my phone. I needed to get another one as soon as I could afford it. 

I looked up, staring at her, my mouth agape. I'm pretty sure she just broke a law, and violated my privacy. More importantly, violated my privacy. And looked extremely happy about it. 

She pulled out a bottle-sparkling water I think- and poured two cups. I ignored her when she gestured for me to take one. 

"I imagine you're wondering whether or not I'm going to have you pay for your crimes." 

I closed my mouth and glared at her. "I'm pretty sure you just broke a law, and you're the president." 

She waved her hand as if that wasn't important. "I'll keep it simple, you do something for me, and I pardon you, and promise to never bother you or come to you uninvited." 

My brows rose, as I stared at her. It was the second part I had doubts about, but I leaned against the walls and waited for her to continue on. 

"You're going to go to Italy tomorrow and steal something for me from Commander Johnson." 

I just stared at her, again, waiting for her to say that she was joking. She wanted me to go to a Drakhenae country and steal something from their equivalent to a president. Wow. I knew she didn't like me, but I never thought that she wanted me dead. To my chagrin, she didn't laugh or tell me that she was fibbing. 

" And what am I going to steal?" 

"Any information they have on Operation Phoenix," she answered calmly as if she didn't say one of the most cliche things in the world. Operation Phoenix? Seriously?

I snorted and she glared. 

"Fifteen years ago, the most renowned scientist in the country, maybe the world, figured out a way to make humans like the Drakhenae, but stronger, faster and with abilities you can't even begin to fathom. But he said he wasn't successful, and recently we found out that was a lie. We don't know who he experimented on, nor where they are. Whoever knew anything about it, went to Italy and told those reptiles whatever he knew." 

Someone stronger than the Drakhenae? The whole reason we didn't have a war right now with them was because they were like killing machines. But what shocked me even more than that was because fifteen years ago, until he died, papa was the most renowned scientist, centuries ahead of his time. 

"So what? You want me to steal whatever information they have on whoever got experimented on fifteen years ago so you can recreate that and make an army of unstoppable beings." 

She blinked. "Of course." 

I stared at her harder. She really was serious. Papa figured out how to make someone stronger than the Drakhenae, but I knew why he kept that information secret, because if it got out, then war would be inevitable. Why did he keep something like that from me? And who did he experiment on? 

If my stepmom got what she wanted, she would definitely go to war against the Drakhenae, or reptiles as she liked to call them, and they'd be slaughtered. But if I refused, she'd probably get someone else to do it. And if the Drakhenae managed to recreate whatever papa did fifteen years ago, then we'd be slaughtered. 

"Fine. I'll do it." 

She smiled. "Perfect." 

I would find whatever they had on 'Operation Phoenix' and then I'd destroy it.