HOME, WRETCHED HOME
The front door looked exactly the same. Camellia remembered the scrapes in the wood, the weathered brass of the knob, and the peeling number stickers. Dull, drab curtains covered the window beside it. Weeds poked through cracks in the concrete stoop. Rust gnawed on the mailbox edges and corners.
Three and a half years earlier, the day after her high school graduation, she’d slipped out in the middle of the night and never returned. Two hundred and twenty-six dollars, her entire savings, had taken her hundreds of miles from this hellhole in Salt Lake City. She’d started with nothing and built herself a life.
Then she, along with a bunch of other people, had developed a superpower. Now she had a different life, one she’d never imagined possible.
None of that changed anything about her past. She could literally fade into the background, but she couldn’t deny what had happened in this house.
Friends had urged her to stay away from home. Picking at old wounds made them bleed.
The door opened. Camellia resisted the impulse to let her power shift the coloring of her flesh to camouflage her body.
Gregor Androvitch filled the doorway with his muscular frame. The gray streaks in his tidy beard and hair had widened. His gaze traveled down her body. He crossed his arms and loomed over her. “It’s been a while.”
Except she’d learned he wasn’t her biological father. Her mother had participated in a program trading the use of her womb for job training, money, and health care. They’d adopted her as an embryo without knowing about her half-alien heritage, and had never told her.
Unable to look him in the eye, she stuffed her hands into her jeans pockets and scuffed a boot on the concrete. The man made her feel twelve again.
“How long are you visiting?” He stepped aside, giving her enough room to slink through.
“A few days?” She hadn’t made a concrete plan. The drive from her new home in Colorado had taken all day, though, so she didn’t want to spend so little time that it felt like a waste of a trip.
Some people might’ve spent that drive thinking about how to approach this situation or where to sleep, or any number of other sensible things. Camellia had spent that time avoiding every subject except how to get from Point A to Point B.
She stepped into the house. For once, Gregor didn’t touch her as she slipped past him.
The inside hadn’t changed much. Bare, beige walls surrounded beige couches and chairs on beige carpet. Worn plastic and wood laminate abounded. They still had no books or pictures.
Classical music, the only indulgence Papa had ever approved of, drifted through the stale air. Camellia recognized Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. She remembered sliding the vinyl record out of its sleeve to keep Papa happy. The pops and scratches told her he still used the old phonograph he’d picked up at a garage sale in the nineties.
She didn’t hear voices, which worried her. Between her mother and her five aunties, someone had always chattered in the house.
“At work. Like everyone else.” Gregor leaned against the closed door with his arms crossed over his chest, blocking escape. The corner of his mouth twitched.
That look in his eyes dredged memories Camellia wanted to leave forgotten. Like she had before she escaped, she wanted to disappear. This time, her body responded. Her flesh turned beige, matching her surroundings.
Gregor’s eyes widened. He took a step closer and reached a hand toward her.
“Don’t–” Camellia choked on her rebuke, unable to deliver it. Facing enemy supers, she hadn’t suffered from half this much terror. She shrank from him and ran into the kitchen. Her power hid her in the corner, blending with the brown cabinets and harvest gold stove.
Why had she come? How had she been so stupid as to think she could talk to him or reason with him?
He followed her. “Cami, where are you?’ Gregor stopped next to the rickety plastic table in the center of the room and checked everywhere. He scanned the cabinets, the appliances, the door to the backyard, and the second doorway into the pantry. His eyes slid over Camellia with no sign of recognition.
“Cami, why would you run from me?” He turned and opened the pantry door.
While he checked inside the small room, she crept toward the doorway. Nails had held the back door shut for as long as she could remember, and she didn’t dare gamble on the idea of that having changed.
The floor creaked. Gregor whirled and slammed the door. Camellia froze.
“You’re one of them,” Gregor said. He patted the refrigerator door, four feet from Camellia’s head. “I saw those mutants on TV. Superpowers are real, and you have one. Why didn’t I see you on TV with the others?”
She hadn’t come forward like others had because she wanted to live a quieter life than them. Leaving their hidden compound for this trip had been a mistake. Why had she made it? She didn’t know.
“Come on, Cami. Be a good girl. Help your mama. Be my sweet malishka again.”
No one had spoken that word to her since she’d escaped. The sound of it made her shudder.
“Ha!” Gregor slapped her across the face.
The blow rocked her and smacked her head against the stove. She shook her head to clear it.
Gregor filled her vision. “I saw you move.” He chuckled and grabbed her thick, sandy blonde braid. “Not so powerful after all. No wonder you were too scared to go public.” Yanking on the braid, he pulled her to her feet.
She squealed and knew what came next.
“Settle down, Cami. You act like I’m going to hurt you.” He dragged her out of the room and up the stairs.
Scrambling to keep up with his ground-devouring strides, she couldn’t see anything but memories.
Her foot slipped and she hit a stair with her forearm and shin. No, that had happened a long time ago.
He swung her at the wall, knocking her senseless. No, that had happened a long time ago.
She felt the back of his hand across her cheek, sending a sharp, shooting pain through her skull. No, that had happened a long time ago.
If she didn’t do what he wanted, he’d throw her out and she’d have nothing.
Wait. She didn’t live here anymore. The car she’d borrowed from a friend sat outside. It didn’t belong to Gregor. Camellia had her own money. If she walked out the door right now, she’d still have everything she had an hour ago.
He reached the top of the stairs.
She’d learned self-defense. Why didn’t she use it? Why did Gregor scare her this much? He’d overpowered a little girl whose mother lived under his thumb.
Young Camellia hadn’t had any options.
Adult Camellia had combat training, a superpower, friends, and a home.
She lunged toward him and drove her fist at his kidney. Her flesh shifted in shape, not color. The skin over her knuckles firmed and flanged, forming knife-sharp edges. When her fist made contact, it sliced through his shirt and skin, ripping him open.
Gregor howled with pain. He shrank from her and scrabbled down the hallway. His blood stained the beige carpet. The wound looked like hamburger.
For once, he feared her, not the other way around.
Camellia raised her bloody hand and stared at it in wonder. The blades faded and her skin returned to normal.
For months, she’d thought her ability mimicked a chameleon and nothing more. At no time since it became active had she wanted to murder someone. Until today.
Ignoring Gregor, she turned her hand and tried to make it change into other shapes. The skin flattened, pointed, twisted, and rippled. She relaxed, not sure what to think of this new development.
Her fingers shivered. The flesh smoothed. Suckers emerged on the undersides, like tiny octopus arms. They waved and coiled, boneless. The shift ran up her arm to her shoulder, giving her one octopus arm with five small tentacle arms attached.
She’d evolved into a shapeshifting octopus? Or a bipus? A quadropus?
The front door opened. Camellia noticed Gregor had stopped whimpering and wheezing. Solidity and normalcy shivered down her arm.
“Gregor? Are you home?” Zoya peeked up the stairs and saw Camellia. She hadn’t changed either. She still wore her blonde hair in a single braid down her back, like Camellia did, and opened her coat to reveal her suit. Mama worked as a secretary.
Zoya blinked once in surprise, then rushed up the stairs. “Meelah, are you hurt? When did you get home?” She shucked her coat, letting it fall on the stairs. “What happened? You’re bleeding.”
Camellia stared at her. She’d come all this way to see her mother. The woman sat beside her and fussed over her hand, and Camellia couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
“There’s no boo-boo.” Zoya turned Camellia’s hand over twice, inspecting the skin, and frowning. “Where did all this blood come from?”
“Mama.” Camellia didn’t know what to do. She blinked like an idiot.
“You’re in shock, maybe.” Zoya stood and tugged on Camellia’s arm. She checked the floor, then turned her head and looked down the hall. “Gregor?” Tugging on Camellia’s hand again, she asked, “What did you do?”
“It was an accident.” The words tumbled out of Camellia’s mouth automatically, as if the assertion could wipe away the hurts Papa had caused.
The black eye, the broken arm, the bruise on her knee, the lost tooth, everything was always an accident.
Zoya nudged her into the bathroom and left her there. Camellia turned on the water in the sink and let it flow over her hands. The red diluted to pink.
“He’s dying,” Zoya said, her voice flat and empty. “So much blood.” She sagged against the doorframe and didn’t rush to call for help. “You killed him.”
“I didn’t mean to.” Camellia knew she lied. She wanted him dead so hard her body had mutated to make it happen.
“You bring a knife to the house and you expect anyone to believe you didn’t mean to kill him?”
“I don’t have any knives.” Camellia scrubbed her hands with enough force to make her flesh turn smooth again. Nothing else changed. The skin resisted harm by becoming more pliable.
“I don’t believe you!” Zoya groped the pockets of Camellia’s jeans. “What did you do with it?”
“I don’t have a knife!” Camellia shoved her mother aside. She snatched a towel and wiped off her hands. She shook from head to toe. If she hadn’t come, Gregor would still live.
And nothing would have changed.
“Why do you even care? You’re free now. He can’t hurt you anymore.”
“Hurt me?” Zoya caught Camellia’s wrist. She seemed startled and confused, her eyes watering with tears ready to fall any moment. “Why do you think he hurt me?”
Camellia wrenched her hand free. The motion popped a cork inside her. “If he didn’t, you’re the only one.”
Zoya touched her daughter’s shoulder. “What do you mean?”
Mama had somehow never noticed. All the worst had happened while Mama worked at her regular, 9-to-5 day job. Gregor had done a good job of shielding Mama from everything. How he’d kept her aunties from talking about it, Camellia had no idea.
Maybe none of them had hated it like Camellia. Maybe they all considered it normal.
“Why did you stay with him when you had to know he slept with everyone else in the house?”
Zoya frowned and looked down the hall, at Gregor. “Where else would I go?”
Camellia gaped at her. “You have a good job! You could go anywhere and get another one like it. What do you need a man like that for?”
“Papers. He always said he’d expose us if we left or called the police. All of us.”
Sighing, Zoya shuffled into the first bedroom. “Gregor has real papers. You were born here, so you’re a citizen. The rest of us aren’t.”
Not sure what to think, Camellia followed her. Gregor slept in this room. A king-sized bed dominated the space. Whoever he’d chosen for the night stayed in the bed with him. Except Camellia. He’d come to hers.
She stopped in the doorway.
“But you’ve always lived here.”
“Don’t be dumb.” Zoya opened the closet and knelt in front of it to search through clothes and shoeboxes. “We all moved here after you were born. You were too young to remember. Gregor brought us to America three years before that, to Dallas, Texas.”
To America. Camellia stared at her mother, a woman she knew less about than she thought. “From where?”
Zoya stopped and sighed again. She clutched a box to her chest. “Russia.”
Her mother had come from Russia with fake papers. “Was Gregor your…pimp?”
“No. Our handler.” Zoya stood and shooed Camellia out of the room. “I have to pack. Quickly. When they find Gregor’s body, they’ll figure out who he is, then people will come looking for me. When they find me, they’ll find you.”
“People? What people?” Camellia followed her mother to the second bedroom. “Why do you have a handler?”
Gregor had crawled to the door. He lay on his side, unconscious and blocking the path. Blood oozed from the wound Camellia had made. Zoya hopped over him. Camellia hesitated before following suit.
Zoya shared the room with Aunt Irina. They had two twin beds, two dressers, and two bookshelves. The other two bedrooms, Camellia knew, were the same.
“We came to participate in a program the Americans were running.” Zoya set the shoebox on her bed, then yanked open her drawers. She dumped clothes over the box. “They told us we should expect to get pregnant. We would live in Dallas, blend in, and raise American babies until we got new orders.”
Camellia stared at her mother. “You’re Russian sleeper agents?”
“Don’t be melodramatic.” Zoya paused long enough to let Camellia see her rolling her eyes. “We didn’t have any orders to overthrow the government or steal secrets. Have babies through this one program. That’s all. Gregor got papers good enough to fool the police. We got fake, flimsy things. One search by even a local police department, and they’d discover us. The program people didn’t care about papers, though. We were healthy, young, and had no diseases or drug use. That’s all they wanted.
“I got pregnant. The others didn’t. The government took care of me. Then the Americans stopped funding the program. Russia had its own problems, and none of us wanted to go back. We worked hard, and we made ends meet. Gregor…is an asshole, but at least we knew what to expect from him. We all went to Salt Lake City. He thought we’d fit in because of the polygamy jokes. Imagine his surprise when he found out how they feel about vodka.”
The pile of clothing when Zoya stopped seemed small. Compared to Camellia’s belongings, Zoya had nothing. At Zoya’s urging, Camellia helped her bundle the blankets together for a makeshift bag.
“Why not go to the police and tell them he kidnapped you and brought you here? Ask for asylum or something?”
They carried the bag over Gregor and down the stairs.
“The police?” Zoya snorted. “Did the police help you the one time you tried to report Gregor?”
Camellia remembered sitting in her middle school counselor’s office. Between the counselor and the on-site police officer, they’d told her that her father loved her very much and she had an overactive imagination. They’d called home and told Gregor what she’d said.
She’d never told anyone again. Mama should never have heard about it. That she had and had said nothing confused Camellia enough she had no idea how to react.
Zoya opened the front door. “Is that your car?”
Her mother wanted to come with her. They had room at the supers compound. “Yes. Come with me? I live far from here, and your papers don’t matter there.” They could talk on the drive. Things would make more sense tomorrow.
Smiling, Zoya nodded. “Help me start the house on fire?”
Camellia turned to look at the house. Pain steeped the walls and carpets. If burning it down would help Mama find freedom, then she had no reason to deny it. “Yes, Mama.”
They stuffed Zoya’s belongings into the back seat and returned to the house. Zoya fetched a cigarette and lighter while Camellia smashed open a locked cabinet to find a vodka bottle.
Papa always had vodka.
Standing over Gregor, Camellia doused his injury in alcohol. “What about the aunties?”
“I’ll leave their real papers in the backyard, where they’ll know to look.”
“They’ll have nothing.”
“They’ll have solid alibis.”
Camellia frowned. The man at her feet had caused so much pain. If she left him, he’d die. If she called for an ambulance, he’d probably still die. She’d already killed him.
Zoya lit a cigarette. She dropped the rest of the pack and the lighter next to Gregor. “Stop thinking so much, Meelah. Turn around and walk away if you can’t do it.”
Handing the half-empty bottle to her mother, Camellia shook her head. “Mama, this is wrong.”
Dumping the rest of the bottle over Gregor’s head and the carpet around him, Zoya shook her head. “No, Meelah. This is self-defense.” She dropped the bottle and the cigarette.
They walked away.