Tucked safely in their little rooms together, and during the rare times they’d risked a wide open space, Henry Hawkins never could have guessed a fraction of the speed Sway was capable of.
As they headed quickly towards the elevators two men in long, cliché X-File jackets entered the dimly-lit hall. Both parties paused for a moment of surprise before Sway silently vanished from Hawkins’ side. He didn’t even feel the air stir.
She crossed the hallway before the eco-friendly, auto-dimmed lights had a chance to sense her presence. He heard one of the men breathe out hard like something heavy had been unexpectedly thrown at his chest, but that was it. In the low light both men appeared to drop a split-second before she actually reached them.
Hawkins took a couple of hesitant steps towards them and the hall lights, having no trouble sensing him, brought themselves up to full brightness. The men lay crumpled around Sway’s feet. She bent and did something quick to each man’s jacket and pants pockets, and he could hear the sound of metal and plastic snapping weakly a few times from different places on their bodies as he drew near.
He stopped short—one of them was staring at him with unseeing, unblinking eyes.
Hawkins hadn’t seen a dead body since he was little, and that had been at a funeral for a distant “relative” he hadn’t known then and couldn’t remember now.
There was no blood, no protruding bones or heads twisted around the wrong way, but he couldn’t make himself take another step towards Sway and the bodies. He saw that she had turned to look at him, but the dead man’s gaze wouldn’t release him.
“Henry?” she asked nervously, noticing the space between them. Through his stupor Hawkins thought she sounded scared, although obviously not of the still heaps at her feet. Considering the way she’d just handled what he assumed to be two armed, government-trained men, he doubted she’d be afraid of anything. Finally he broke his stare to look at her.
He realized then, noticing the way her eyebrows had subtly knit themselves together as she watched him stand so far away, that Sway was scared. Scared that she’d slipped, and he’d seen something she didn’t want him to. Hawkins recognized it in as little time as it’d taken her to dispatch these men.
“We better hurry,” he said, running towards her, “I bet there’s more.”
He grabbed her hand as he passed, pulling her towards the emergency stairwell at the end of the hall. “Let’s take the stairs.” He didn’t like the idea of being trapped in a little metal box with people after them, even for only three floors.
He felt her small hand, always remarkably cool, squeeze his as they burst through the door and down the stairs. Hawkins didn’t have to look back to know she was smiling at him. He was wearing the same grin on his face.
At the bottom of the stairs they slowed and quieted, peeking through the slender rectangular window of wire-meshed glass set into the stairwell door. The view was a frustratingly claustrophobic line-of-sight into the beige wall opposite them. Hawkins tried to listen over the sound of his wildly-beating heart.
“It seems clear,” Sway whispered, so close beside his head that her lips touched the tiny hairs on his ear and made him flinch.
“Hopefully,” he whispered. The stairwell door was set into an alcove a few feet deep, and no amount of angling gave him a useful view.
He gave up with a frustrated sigh and eased his weight against the horizontal bar latch as slowly and quietly as he could. At the last second some internal spring released and the door banged open loudly, echoing through the six levels of cement stairway above them. Hawkins winced, trying not to look back at Sway.
Ridiculously, she was clutching his arm like a frightened woman in some black and white horror movie, although her face held the expectant, child-like expression of someone eager to see what will happen next. Watching her small smile, it hadn’t occurred to him until that moment that Sway could be miles from here already if she’d just left him behind.
Before he could talk himself out of it he turned suddenly and kissed her hard, pulling her body tightly against him with one arm while the other kept the door cracked. A closed-mouth kiss was all he dared, but in his head an orchestra had swelled anyway.
“What was that for?” she asked, hands on his chest and a look of pleasant surprise on her face.
“Remind me to tell you later,” he said, turning towards the door again. He was trying to play it cool but he was grinning like an idiot.
“One moment,” she said, walking back towards the center of the stairwell. Hawkins let the heavy door rest against the jam without closing.
“I have an idea. Could you stand back a couple of steps? Luckily your shoes are rubber-soled and there’s no standing water, so this should be safe. Just don’t touch or stand near anything metallic.”
“Okay…” Hawkins stepped back and looked around, warily eying the metal stairs, handrails, and door. He nervously positioned himself as equidistant from each as he could.
Sway stood very still and closed her eyes. Arms at her sides, she lowered her head and began to hum. Or rather, a humming sound had begun to emanate from her body. It rose in pitch and volume until Hawkins started to involuntarily flinch away from her like she was the randomly arching light from a welder.
He raised his hands to cover his ears and a tiny bolt of electricity jumped from a water pipe three feet away to connect with his elbow. His surprised yelp was swallowed up in the turbulent sea of noise. He noticed all the hair on his arms was standing straight up and his scalp prickled with static.
Sway’s face was lined with concentration and her entire body vibrated with enormous force. The humming reached a deafening plateau before splitting into two resonances searching for each other in shrinking concentric paths that gathered speed the closer they became. The sound reminded him of the quickening tempo of a bouncing rubber ball left to the diminishing returns of gravity.
They finally found one another and joined into a roar of white-noise that dropped Hawkins to the floor with his hands clamped over his ears. An invisible high-pitched explosion rang out inside his head, and if his eyes hadn’t been shut tight he would have seen the lights in the hall and all six stories of stairwell shudder out in unison.
He didn’t notice it was over until he felt a soft thud through the concrete floor. He cautiously looked towards where Sway had been standing. Sh’d fallen into a three-point landing and was just beginning to stand again. Hawkins experimentally removed his hands from his ringing ears.
“Are you okay?” He stood and walked to her side but was hesitant to touch her.
She looked up at him and smiled. “Yep!” She raised one hand in the air and he took it, helping her stand. A static shock passed between them as they touched.
“What was that?” he asked, noticing her hand was much warmer than before, although it rapidly cooled as he held it.
“Remind me to tell you later,” she said with a mischievous little grin. “Let’s get out of here.” She arched her back like she’d just woken up from a nap and needed a good stretch.
He slowly opened the door again, peering right while Sway looked left. Both directions seemed clear, the office building apparently empty so late after business hours. The parking lot was dark and wet in the rain past the double glass doors just twenty steps away, and the train wasn’t much farther than that.
“If we could just—“
Hawkins heard a small noise from the direction of the glass doors the same instant plaster shrapnel exploded into the side of his face.
“Gah!” he yelled, falling sideways from the wall, blinded by pain and debris.
“HenryyyyeeeeEEEEEEEEEE—” Sway stood somewhere above him, her voice rising from the perfectly smooth mimicry of human vocal chords into a drawn-out digital scream that scared him worse than the gunshot.
“I’m alright, I’m alright!” he shouted, trying to reassure her, even though he was sure that he had to be bleeding somewhere. He couldn’t see through the painful grit in both eyes. He cursed and wiped at his face frantically, slumped against the metal stairwell door.
Suddenly he felt Sway’s presence beside him. She rested her hand on the top of his head, then gently moved it down to cover his eyes, crouching to meet him face-to-face.
“Sweetheart,” she said softly. The tone of her voice stopped his flailing immediately. He couldn’t see it, but she was looking tenderly into the space behind her shielding hand. In the silence he heard the sound of heavy doors being thrown open.
“Don’t look, okay? Don’t open your eyes.”
“Okay,” he said after a pause. He’d never heard her sound that way before.
Then she was gone.
Then the screaming started.
Sway stood and looked down at the tender bundle at her feet. She checked his vitals for the fifteenth time and saw that aside from the plaster dust in his eyes he was fine. Elevated heart rate, mildly dehydrated as usual, but otherwise undamaged.
She’d experienced an emotional overflow for a few seconds when she’d assumed Henry had been struck by the .9mm round. She reflected curiously on how his potential damage was so much more distressing than her own.
He simply seemed so fragile, especially now, blinded and effectively defenseless as these men came to do them harm. Human bodies were so intricate; the tiniest disruption could set them terminally off balance. And they had no redundancies.
“Although,” she reminded herself, turning to watch their assailant run down the hall towards her, “humans are also notoriously stubborn survivors that can endure against all probability.”
She smiled then, almost sweetly, as the man that had discharged his weapon at her delicate Henry Hawkins drew nearer, looking forward to finding out first hand just how stubborn they could be.