Even the fur coat zipped all the way up to my neck couldn't keep the cold from seeping into my bones. Maybe it was because that icy feeling was on the inside, not the out, so no amount of insulation could help.
I wrapped my arms tighter around myself as if to give my numb heart a hug and continued to stumble across the snow covered path, the tiny particles of ice crackling with every step. In my back pocket was the note. The note that changed everything. The note that hurt to even think about.
My mind ran over the words I had rehearsed in my head. No. No matter what, no. The thought was on repeat as I forced my feet forward. Strength was an ever fluctuating thing, but at that moment I could feel my own waning.
The old, wilting barn up ahead met the description of the meeting place perfectly. I quickened my stride until I came to the rotted door and, breathing on my fingers to put feeling back into them, pulled open what was left of it. If it hadn't been frozen under a thin layer of ice I wondered if it would have crumbled away under my grip.
The inside of the barn was dark except for the thin streams of light peaking through the missing wooden beams above. The smell of decaying hay and stale manure wafted through my nose like a physical assault, and I adjusted my jacket to breathe through its fabric as a filter. All that considered, I was utterly alone.
I flipped an old bucket over with my foot and sat down. My fingers reached into my back pocket and my eyes took to scanning the small piece of crinkled, weathered paper. I didn't need to read it anymore, though. Every sentence was committed to memory. In a way it was ironic. I couldn't recall the date the United States became a country or even tell someone my own phone number but this jumble of words I had found in my locker? Every single syllable haunted my thoughts and was seared into the back of my eyelids.
"Glad you made the right choice, Mae." The gravely voice made the hair on my neck rise and I jerked towards the sound.
"I didn't come to help you. You can't make me." I hated that my voice shook.
"Oh really?" Another, higher pitched voice echoed to my left.
"There's n-nothing you have I want," I said biting my lip and flicking my ponytail. That was the blessing of long hair. It gave me an outlet for my nerves. Still, I wondered if I would have to turn my make-shift seat into a container to collect my vomit.
"Is that so?" A third voice, this time from my right. They were closing in.
"Yes?" I answered but it came out a question.
"We have ways to persuade you," the first voice hissed, "as we speak we have snipers trained on your family. You control if or when those triggers are pulled."
The barn spun and I dropped my head into my hands to catch a breath. My family's lives were held by a thread...and I controlled if it got pulled. Lead settled into my heart and my brain throbbed from the strain of it all. Which mattered more? Blood...or a promise?
I swallowed the bile rising in my throat and forced my lips to form words. "Please spare them. They've done nothing wrong."
"Does that mean you've agreed to assist us?"
Again I fiddled with my hair, my eyes scanning the barn desperate to locate just where the shadowed figures stood. "I-I can't."
"Then we'll tell our assassins to proceed."
Panic shot through me like electricity. "No! Don't." My mind went to war. My best friend or my family? Was it even a choice? Then again, they never said they'd kill her. Bullets could kill. I sent a silent plea for forgiveness and then muttered, "Fine, I'll help you." A fat tear rolled down my cheek.
"I'm glad you see reason. Now, where can we find your powerful little friend?" A map of my town was thrown at my feet. "Where does she live?"
My whole body quivered as I placed my shaking finger at the corner between West and Oak Street. Another tear slid down my face and dripped onto the paper.
I could hear the glee in the voice as he sneered, "Good, good. It's always nice when we don't have to kill. Lets us rest easier at night, wouldn't you agree?"
My fist clenched until my knuckles turned white as my family's faces filled my mind. My brother with his bright brown eyes, mom with her gentle smile...each memory stabbed like a knife. "You're monsters. The whole lot of you!"
I didn't say aloud the words that ended that sentence, but thought them over and over in my mind until they became a blaring anthem consuming my mind. I would leave this place and my first stop would be to warn my best friend, the one I had just betrayed. Iris had trusted me with the biggest secret of her life. I refused to fail her.
Renewed strength sparked inside me and gradually built into a determined flame...until an icy voice once again filled the barn. By the words, I wondered if he had read my mind. I wouldn't have put it past them.
"Is that what you think? That you'll actually be leaving this place? Well, then we are terribly sorry to disappoint."
Those final words echoed through the space, and all of the silhouettes stepped forward.