Song: “I Love Me” by Demi Lovato
I woke up with a pounding headache, but was surprised to be laying on something soft. I sat up and realized it was my bed. How did I end up back in my room? I ran through my memories and remembered fighting my mother in my office. I remembered finding out that I had been the Man in the Hood–or at least half the time. I remembered seeing myself giving Four her gun.
A pang of guilt gripped my chest and I swung off the bed to run to her room. But when I turned to the door, I saw an older man sitting at my desk with his legs crossed. He was wearing a blazing white shirt over blazing white pants and had a blazing white beard that contrasted his chocolate skin. He smiled, showing off gleaming white teeth and the four-year-old in me leapt for joy.
“Dad?!” I ran over to him and he stood as I threw myself into him, hugging him so tightly I nearly suffocated myself in his chest. He wrapped his arms around me and rubbed my back as I burst into tears. I don’t know how long I cried into him, but eventually I pulled away, wiped my eyes, and dropped to the floor as he sat back down.
“I don’t understand,” I sniffled. “I thought…I thought you were…”
“There’s a lot of things you thought about me that were wrong,” he said with a smile.
That didn’t explain anything. But I was glad to see him. But then that pang in my chest returned and I lowered my head.
“Dad, I really messed up,” I said. “I did some really horrible things. I…” I covered my mouth as the memories flashed through my mind. Me standing over Eight. Me standing over Seven. Me standing over Five. And me standing over Four.
My father rubbed my back softly and sat silently as he listened.
“I hurt so many people,” I went on, head still bowed. “So many…of my friends. I hurt them really badly. All because I wasn’t strong enough to resist. I got drugged, Dad. But…turns out Mom’s still around and she’s a psychopath. And I helped her. I helped her, Dad. I couldn’t stop myself because I’m just as bad as she is. And now Four’s trapped somewhere with a bunch of rejections in her skull and I’ll never see her again. I messed everything up. The whole agency is ruined because of me.”
He let me ramble and spiral, going on and on about how I’d single-handedly destroyed the world as we knew it. Then, finally, he lifted my chin with his fingers and had me look at him.
“What if I told you that everything was going to be okay?” he told me.
I shook my head. “How could it be okay? I messed everything up!”
“But what if I told you that messing everything up was all a part of the plan?”
I squinted at him. “What do you mean?”
“Do you trust me?” he said with a smile.
“Yes,” I replied without thinking.
“Are you sure?”
I paused this time. What was going on? How could this possibly be part of a plan? How could me messing up be a good thing? I had ruined everything. But if there was anyone who could turn something terrible into something beautiful it was my father. So I slowly nodded and said, “Yes.”
“Let me show you something,” He stood then walked over to the mirror on my dresser.
I followed him and saw our reflections looking back at us.
You shouldn’t have gotten distracted.
I lowered my head as I remembered my mother pinning me to the floor while I was watching the video of Four.
My father nudged my arm and I looked back up and suddenly the mirror was rippling and a video of my room was playing. I was sleeping and my father and my mother were standing on either side of my bed. I watched as I woke up and my father handed me the Man in the Hood’s outfit. I took it without a word then undressed and put it on.
I blinked several times and shook my head. This didn’t make any sense. My father had been there too? My head was throbbing and this time it wasn’t from the rejection bullet in me. The confusion was swelling to the point of threatening to burst my skull open.
“How is this possible?” I finally asked him, afraid to turn to him. “You helped her? Why? Why…why would you do this to me?”
“This is part of the plan,” he replied.
“The plan?!” I spun to him. “What plan? You drugged me! You made me do things…I hurt people I love because of you!”
“Shhhhh,” he said softly as he put his finger on my lips. “You said you trust me, remember?”
I wanted to scream at him, but my body was torn between anger and confusion and betrayal and curiosity. What in the world was going on?
“Sit down,” he said. “I’ll explain.”
“I don’t wanna sit down,” I said flatly.
“Sit,” he said again, softly.
I gave in and sat at the edge of the bed and he sat next to me.
“You knew me as your father,” he began. “But I’m formally known as the Gunsmith. I’m responsible for manufacturing and distributing guns and feelings to everyone. I’m the reason why you and everyone else in the agency has the guns they have.”
I narrowed my eyes at him, trying to stay calm while trying to keep up. “So you’re like a Nick Fury for feelings?”
“You could say that,” he said with a grin. But then he frowned before saying the next part. “There’s a threat that’s coming. It’s bigger than anything any of you have ever seen before. There was no time to properly prepare you for it. This was the only way to train you.”
I listened, but couldn’t believe my ears. My father had orchestrated the demise of all of my friends. And he’d used me to do it. He’d manipulated me. He’d toyed with me. How could I trust him after this? But before I could go down that rabbit hole, he waved his hand at the mirror and it rippled again. This time, I saw Eight sitting in a bright nursery room hugging my father with tears in her eyes. Then she stood and dropped the bulletproof vest to the floor that she always wore. The mirror rippled again and I saw Seven sitting up on an operating table and looking at his body in wonder. Then he smiled at my father standing next to him. The mirror kept rippling and showed me every single agent in a different place with my father and all of them were happier than I’d ever seen them. When it got to Four, I saw them waltzing through a ballroom then playing on the beach and I couldn’t stop myself from laughing at seeing her so happy.
“I had to break them,” I heard him say next to me. “To make them better.”
I watched Four sitting on the beach with my father and wiped a tear from my eye. The mirror rippled and was replaced with my reflection again. My father stood and grabbed something off the dresser before sitting back down next to me.
“I forced you to face your deepest fear so that when you face this threat it will have no power over you,” he said.
I sighed. This was so much to take in. I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh, jump up and down or slam my head into a wall.
“What is this threat?” I finally asked.
“I can’t tell you now. But because of the ‘mistakes’ you made, all the agents are better prepared to fight it.”
I winced at that. It was painful trying to imagine my mistakes resulting in something good. Not to mention all the questions fumbling around in my head.
“So Mom…” I started. “Is she actually…?”
My father raised an eyebrow and waited for me to finish, but I couldn’t bring myself to so he did for me. “Bad? No. She did what had to be done and knew that she could use your hatred for her to our advantage.”
I shut my eyes as the phrase ‘used your hatred for her’ echoed in my head. Finding out that how you felt about someone was not only incorrect, but one-sided this entire time was excruciatingly humbling.
“We don’t like that we had to leave you,” my father said, rubbing my back. “And not a day goes by that I don’t wish things could’ve been different. But I promise you that one day we’ll explain why we did the things we did.”
I nodded, but I was going to need a lot of time to process all this. My mother–the person I’d learned to hate my entire life–was actually some sort of undercover hero. And my father was apparently some sort of supernatural assassin trainer. Things weren’t as black and white as I’d thought they were.
“I notice you haven’t been using this much,” he said. When I looked, I saw that he was holding the black box he’d given me and I felt that pang of guilt pinch me again. I opened my mouth to say something, but nothing came out. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t deserve it.
But he opened the box anyway and pulled out the black magazine and ran his fingers across the gold letters engraved on the surface: GRACE.
I lowered my head and stared into my lap.
“You’re harder on yourself than you need to be,” he told me.
I didn’t say anything. Instead I kept wiping my eyes to keep my tears from falling. Then, for reasons I don’t understand, I pulled out my pocket mirror to pretend like I was taking something out of my eyes.
You still don’t deserve it, my reflection said back to me.
“I can make her stop if you want,” my father said.
I swallowed nervously, confused that he could hear her and embarrassed that he’d pointed it out. But I answered, nonetheless. “How?”
He held his hand out and I gave him the pocket mirror. Without a second of hesitation, he pressed his fingers against the glass so hard that it cracked. Then he handed it back to me.
My reflection was now nothing but distorted pizza slices of glass staring back at me.
Moo sood grety markooo.
Her voice was muffled behind the cracks and I couldn’t decipher anything she was saying if I tried.
“But I can’t see anything now,” I said. “It’s broken.”
“The only way to shut her up is to accept your brokenness,” my father said. “You’re not perfect. And you don’t have to be.”
I slowly nodded as more tears came, but I let them fall this time.
“Look at me,” my father said and I looked at him. “I’m not disappointed in you. I’m proud of you.”
The words landed in my soul like water on a desert floor and I had to bite my lip to keep myself from ugly crying.
He pulled my Glock out of the holster on my hip and replaced its magazine with the GRACE magazine. “This has always been my gift to you. And I always wanted you to be able to give it to others. But you can’t give other people grace until you give it to yourself first.” He handed the Glock back to me and I stared down at it for a few seconds, blinking through my tears.
I finally took it and a smile escaped as I held it in my lap.
“I am proud of you,” my father said again and it sounded like something else was coming. “But there is something I’ve been confused about.”
“What’s that?” I choked out.
“How is it that you never figured out who Four is?”
I furrowed my brow. “What do you mean?”
“Did you think that it was a coincidence that you went to the same college? That you were roommates? That you were both Blasian?”
“What are you saying?”
He took a deep breath. “When your mother and I had to leave, we decided to keep watch on each of you from a distance. Having the two of you together would put you at greater risk of the threat that’s coming. I made sure that you were put in the best orphanage and you did very well for yourself. But your mother knew that college would be difficult for Four. So we arranged for the two of you to cross paths again because we knew that Four needed someone to look after her.”
I listened in tense silence, piecing the information together as he went on.
Then he patted my knee as he said, “You’re doing a great job. You’re a good sister.”
My eyes blinked uncontrollably at the revelation. This whole time…we’d been…? How had I not known?
“C’mon,” my father chuckled. “You’ll have time to be all emotional about it later. Hurry up and get this over with.” Then he lifted my arm so I was pointing the gun at my head. “You don’t have to be perfect–because you’re a lot better than you know.”
I smiled, took a deep breath, then pulled the trigger.
Original artwork by Alyssa Pfingst