Shadow Archer

Shadow Archer

Ksenija (Kass) Alvarez by RJ Keith

Ksenija (Kass) Alvarez by RJ Keith

A lot of kids threaten to run away and join the circus.

I was lucky enough to be born into one.

Granted, it wasn’t a creepy, horror movie derivative sort of carnival.  More a Cirque de Soleil type affair with a permanent home on the outskirts of Pittsburgh; when I say I was born into a circus, I mean I was born at a very nice hospital and, after a few days, my parents brought me back to our house in Shadyside — they’ve since upgraded to the North Hills and a condo with a view almost as good as the one from Mount Washington — and installed me in a room decorated with an arrow theme and art displaying the likenesses of Green Arrow (Jeff Lemire/Andrea Sorrentino) and Hawkeye (Matt Fraction/David Aja), Artemis, Diana, Rama…  The great bowmen and -women of history and myth.

The world did know my parents as Trick Shot and the Archer, after all.

I usually called them Mom and Dad, but I won’t lie; it was cool when I went over to a friend’s house and saw a poster of Serge and Arbella Alvarez dead center of the wall over or across from said friend’s bed, usually in some sort of mega-action poses.

I don’t ever remember either of them missing a shot.  I’m sure they did, but my early years had a pretty stellar rosy glow that still shimmered and shone, perfect moments all desert stars and shimmering waterfalls.

The show was popular, and was always packed in the spring and fall, especially during the first run of nice weather, and then in the weeks leading up to what was always an insanely fantastical Halloween show.  In the winter, everyone hunkered down to work on the next year’s spectaculars.

Summers, we toured and that… that was pretty fucking amazing.  By the time I was ten, I’d been on every continent populated by humans six or seven times, seen most of Europe and Asia, parts of South America, and could claim to have set foot in every state in the union, as well as most of the Canadian provinces.

And yes, all the crap about secretive, creepy carnies is bullshit, at least in my world, though there were a lot of whispers about us at school, sideways glances, sizing up.  Mostly curiosity, I see now, probably because most kids played soccer or did ballet, while the majority of the circus kids spent our free time tightrope walking and dagger throwing.  Our birthday parties were definitely the best in class, and that earned us some points.  My parents, I’m sure, would have been happy to let me join the softball team or clomp around in tap shoes, though mom may have put her foot down at cheerleading.  As it was, I wasn’t all that interested in dancing that didn’t involve heights and nets and whacking watermelons out of the air with battle axes.

Then again, I had a bow in my hands every day of my life, so perhaps they did lead me a bit, though it was nowhere I didn’t want to go.  There are pictures of me in my bassinet, clutching the sanded to satin wooden bow, strung with a piece of silk, my father made me.  Even as I got older, and teenaged, and bratty, as adolescents are wont to do, I never resented the bow or my life, even when I was yelling at them that I hated everything.

And if some of the other parents thought Mom and Dad’s “alternative life-style” — and the way they sneered, you’d have thought my mother was a goat my father had married in some blood soaked satanic ritual – was a bad influence on their kids, screw them.

And thus, the pack of us ran together and were happy, even with the full brunt of teenage angst brought to bear.  If parents were otherwise occupied, there were always a cast of Aunties and Uncles to choose from, all willing to help with homework or feed or transport or discipline.  To be a shoulder.  Always a cousin with whom to hit the library or a coffee shop, to cover for you if you were feeling daring or stupid or both.

And there was Rifka.

“On the spectrum” didn’t mean much to any of us.  She was part of the tribe and it didn’t matter.

Rifka spent a lot of time in her own head, flinched whenever a stranger touched her.  She was quick to tears, especially if someone called her “circus” freak or any of a myriad other names the children of the unenlightened liked to throw around.  She would flee to the bathroom at the slightest provocation, coming out only for one of us.  She’d stick close to that person, be it me, or another member of the family, for the rest of the day, sometimes even keeping hold of a sleeve or backpack.

Her Praetorian guard would, of course, be subject to all manner of similar barbs as the price of admission.  Often they glanced off, occasionally one managed to wound, but none of them were fatal.

There’s something to be said for knowing one has a place in the world no matter what.

It makes it much more difficult for things to scar.

Words were exchanged.  Punches were thrown, hair pulled, balls kneed.  One or another of us occasionally ended up in the principal’s office.

The older our generation of tribes-folk grew, the less physicality was employed and, eventually, less four letter words.  We learned that willful aloofness was our best weapon; it wound them up, sometimes to the point of frenzy, and let us sail out the door at the end of the day with nary a detention among the lot.

It was harder for Rifka; we shielded her as best we could.

And then…

I remember it so clearly, though over a decade has passed.  The Christmas decorations around the school passing their sell-by dates but not yet old enough people were willing to let go of the holiday spirit.  School ended early for that most archaic and mysterious of practices — the teacher in service day — and, as it was Friday, several members of the clan decided to drive more than six hours to Philly for cheesesteaks and hockey.  Rifka had been sick and was even more withdrawn than usual; not wanting to leave her alone, I’d opted out of the trip.  We walked to the public library and wandered around, had tea at the cafe, and then, as the sun was going down, headed for home.

One of Rifka’s nemeses found us there, with his gang of assholes.  I remember their names, each and every one of them.  They shouted insults, made lewd gestures, threatened to beat us up.  Angry, rather than frightened, I wound my arm around Rifka’s, clenched my jaw, and marched across the bridge, up toward Phipps.

As we passed the rainbow array of padlocks that decorated the fence, they caught up with us.

“Hey,” the ringleader snarled, grabbing the back of Rifka’s collar.  “I’m talking to you, circus freak!”

She batted at his hands.  He twisted and her face went bright red.

I slammed the heel of my hand into the bridge of his nose.

He reeled back, clutching his face, blood dribbling out from between his fingers.  “Fuck off,” I told him and his suddenly not so merry band.

“Bitch!”

“You tried to choke my friend.  She may not know how to fight, but I do.  If getting you off her makes me a bitch, I’ll own it.”  I put my arm around her and turned to go again.

Please, just let us go.

They all jumped us.

I did know how to fight.  My father and I sparred nightly, judo, jiu-jitsu, kung fu, capoeira, kraav maga.

I was good.

I was very good.

There were a lot of them.

For everyone I drove or threw back, there was another.  Surrounding us, they came at me from all directions at once.

Rifka screamed from beyond the blur of bodies, and instinct overrode training; I reached one of my arms out straight toward her.  One of the guys grabbed it, twisted hard, bringing my elbow around the wrong way, levering the bones against gravity until something broke, followed by the rubbery echo of a blind snapping up.

It took a moment for the pain to catch me, and when it did, nausea and dizziness went battle royale in front of my eyes and my body refused to remain upright.

It was only moments later the first boy, his face a Texas-Chainsaw horror, pushed Rifka and, trying to reach me, panicked and terrified, she tottered off balance and fell into the street.

The driver, in her defense, while she was going far too fast down the bridge narrowed stretch of road, did try to stop.

In the end, that may have made it worse.

She hit Rifka doing forty.

My friend slammed back onto the pavement.

The woman got out and ran around the car, pulling out her phone.

The guys took off.

Clutching my arm, I staggered over to Rifka.  The woman said something to me, draped her coat around my shoulders.

I didn’t hear or feel anything not even my mangled ligaments, tendons, and bones.

I’d never seen a dead body before, but there was no doubt in my mind Rifka was dead.  No one survived a caved in skull and crushed chest.

The EMT’s arrived.  Blur of lights and sirens, strange voices and gentle hands.

I did catch, “… shock…” as they checked my vitals.

Shock.  

No shit, Sherlock. 

Mom and Dad told me later I’d fought when the medics tried to take Rifka’s body, screaming and kicking and biting until they were forced to sedate me.  Between that and the pain meds for my mangled arm, I gather I lost it a second time, though the latter episode was more of the crying hysterically until I couldn’t breathe variety.

My mom stroked my hair and my father held my hand and, eventually, they took me and my braced-until-the-swelling-reached-maximum arm not home, but to the circus, where everyone was gathered, already holding vigil for the sweet little girl who had never, not once in her young life, harmed another creature.

It was hot, and the candle smoke burned my eyes, and I couldn’t force my legs to hold me up any longer.  My mother took me to the dressing room she shared with Dad and put me on the couch.  She sang softly, the words narcotic-blurred and strange in my ears.

The two weeks after Rifka’s death were comprised of alternating periods of crying, sleeping, specialist visits, and my first surgery.  There was a therapist at one point, who assured my parents my response was normal and asked me if I wanted to talk about it.  I told her I wanted to put an arrow through her pupil and she asked Mom and Dad to please find a different therapist.

There were nights filled with horrible dreams and screaming, either my mother or my father rushing to my room, holding me tightly, rocking me until I calmed.

Calmed, but very rarely slept again.

Literary escapism was my salvation in the dark hours between nightmare and dawn, when my exhausted guardian had passed out beside me on the bed, or on the floor, I ran into any world I could find where one of my friends hadn’t been killed.

Hadn’t been… albeit unintentionally, murdered.

A year and another surgery later, I pulled a bow for the first time.  It hurt like hell, despite six months of rehab and, though I don’t remember what I was shooting at, I remember missing, partly due to lack of strength and partly due to the blinding light invading my vision.  That shot and the next thousand or so.  I remember my father standing close behind me, one rough, scarred hand steadying my elbow, the other closed carefully around the brace, his forearm and bicep under mine.  My mother helping me stretch the traitorous limb, arms wrapped around my waist through numerous push-ups to take some of the pressure from motion, moving my shoulder and elbow in each direction allowed by physiology, passively at first, then with some help from me, and then as guardian to make sure I didn’t overdo the whole thing.

My final semester of high school came and it went.  Some of my friends drifted off to college, some decided to go full time with the circus.

I made no decisions.

I was, and that was the limit of my capacity.

**********

The following summer, when the time came for the annual European tour, my parents insisted I come.  Florence and Venice for two weeks each, a week in Rome, and then an actual vacation amid the sunflowers of Tuscany.  The promise of an old, sprawling villa that had belonged to someone’s childless uncle and could house as many of us as wanted to stay.

My father came into my room while I was packing, stood leaning in the doorway for a few minutes before saying, “You should bring your bow.  Perform with your mother and me.”

“I’m still not back where I was.  I might miss.  Ruin the mystique.”

“Maybe.  Maybe not.  At least bring it, love.  You can always leave it in the bag.”

I did, more to make him happy than anything else.  He saw right through me, of course.  He also had a costume made, a silver, knee-length coat that cinched at the waist, capped by a deep hood that killed my peripheral vision but helped focus for trick shots.  Black pants.  Black and silver boots.

A mask.

Silicon, lined with soft linen to keep me from drowning in my own sweat.  Moulded perfectly to my features by one of the costumers, it was decorated with trailing whorls and sinuous curves of blues and deep purples, the mouth outlined in black and cross-hatched with grinning skull’s teeth, midnight marigolds at either temple and on the chin, silver fletched arrows pointing from the center of each eye to the corners of my nose, another, radiating a sunburst, tracking straight up from between my eyes to the edge of my hairline.

“So,” my father asked when I walked into the ring in full regalia.  “What did you have in mind?”

“This was your idea,” I reminded him.

My mother snorted.  “She has a point.”  She walked to the far end of the ring and stood, facing my father and me, in front of the massive target they used to line up the really dangerous shots, orange-sized targets in all the usual places: on either side of her wrists, around her head, one parallel to either jugular.  “Go ahead, sweetie.”

“No.  What if —“

“I trust you, Kass.”

“What if —“

“I trust you, Kass.”

I took a deep breath and lined up my shot.  Pulled the compound bow with nothing more than a slight twinge from wrist to armpit, fading quickly to nothing, aimed at the right side jugular target.  Pulled a breath in, let it out.

In.  Out.  In.  Out.

A crimson splash across my vision, a wicked crack in my ears and I dropped the arrow head to the ground and released the pull.  Huddled in to my hood.

If I hurt her…

If I hurt her…

I shook my head.

“Okay,” my dad said, his voice calm and quiet.  “That’s okay.”

When I looked up he held a blueberry between his thumb and forefinger.  He drove a thick dowel into the ground and set the blueberry on top of it, repeated with a grape, then a strawberry, an orange, and a small melon.  “One shot,” he said.  “We’ll call it Phenomenal Fruit Salad.”

Between shows, I holed up in the apartment we were sharing with Cree and his parents.  It was my childhood friend, a few years my senior, gone to art school in Paris before… before, who managed to coax me out from beneath the arched, gilded ceilings.

“Come on,” he said one morning, pulling back the heavy draperies from the floor-to-ceiling leaded glass windows, their ripples and imperfections casting rainbows across the highly polished and waxed within an inch of their lives floors.  “We’re going to the out.”

“Go ahead,” I urged.  “I’m fine.”

Cree snorted.  “Everyone else is being gentle with you, kiddo.  Too gentle if you ask me.”  He grabbed a leather bound book out of my hands.

“Hey!  That’s an antique.”

“Yeah?”  he tossed it over his shoulder.  I gasped; it landed neatly at the center of the bed.  Cree folded his arms.  “Come on now, Kass, you know me better than that.  Glad to see there’s still something that can get you riled though.”

“There’s plenty that gets me riled, Cree.”

“Kass,” he made a brushing motion with his hand and I pulled my legs up under my butt, leaving the ottoman for him.  He put a hand on my knee.  “You are scaring the shit out of everyone.  Out of your parents, out of my parents, out of me.  Our friends.  You’re lost and I get it, I do.  What happened to Rifka,” I flinched at the sound of her name; everyone else was so careful to avoid it, “was horrible.  But there is nothing else you could have done.”  He shifted his hand, traced the long scar on the backside of my forearm.  “This is enough of a mark, don’t you think?”

No.

“Fine,” he said.  “I’ll sit here and stare at you then.”

“Fine.”  I got up, joined my book on the bed, found my page.

I looked up half an hour later and Cree was still sitting on the ottoman, feet flat, arms squared, back straight.  Staring at me.

“Stop,” I told him.

“No.”

Another half hour passed.  “Cree, go away.”

“Nope.”

“Dad!” I yelled.

My father’s just-starting-to-go-salt-and-pepper head appeared around the doorway.

“Cree won’t leave me alone.”

“Not my kid,” he said, “not my problem.”

“Mom!”

Her long, dark braid swung back and forth, the end brushing her waist.  “Yes, love?”

“Cree’s being a pain in the ass.”

“He is, isn’t he?  Lunch in an hour, kids.”

“Oh my… it’s a fucking conspiracy, isn’t it.”

“One foray,” Cree said.  “One foray, and if you hate it, you can spend the rest of your summer in the bedroom of your choice.  One foray, and I won’t bug you again.”

“One?”

“One.”

“And you’ll leave me alone?”

Cree drew an “X” with his finger over his heart.

He took me to a cafe in the Palazzo Vecchio.

“Prosciutto and melon,” he told the waiter in impeccable Italian that my Spanish fluency interpreted with decent accuracy.  “Cuttlefish ink pasta, Pellegrino Blood Orange, and a giant, silver bowl of cold, sweaty fruit.”  He dipped a thick slice of bread in a shallow dish of olive oil and handed it to me.

I held it over my own plate, a few drops of oil pattering onto the pristine ceramic.  “It’s bread, Kass,” Cree said, patting my free hand.  “You put it in your mouth and chew it, both for sustenance and for the sake of enjoyment.”

I set it down and ran my hands through my hair, twisting the thick waves up into a bun and wrapping an elastic around it.

“You’re allowed to enjoy things, Kass.”

“I know.”

“You know, but you don’t.”

“I’ve tried,” I offered a slight shrug.  My wrist started to ache.  “Is it supposed to rain?”

“Try relaxing your fist,” he suggested.  I looked down to see my fingers clenched hard enough to whiten my knuckles and nail beds.  “Look, forget lunch,” he said.  “Let’s just walk.”  He signaled the waiter.

“No, Cree —“

“I sold a painting,” he told me.  “Like for real.  I can afford lunch for two, Kass.”

“You sold a painting?  Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I did.”  His lips twisted in a wry approximation of a smile.  “The first night here.  At dinner.”

“I… I don’t remember.”

“And you wonder why we’re worried.”

He offered his arm and I took it.  We walked up the ally width streets, one or the other of us tripping occasionally over an uneven cobblestone until, after ten or so minutes, we emerged into the shadow of the Duomo.  Cree led me inside, pointing out various pieces of statuary, the gorgeous, rich, lovingly restored paintings on the inside of the red dome.  We went down into the crypt and queued to view Brunelleschi’s death mask and breathed Crusader dust.

“Fancy a climb?” he asked when we reached the ground floor again.

“Why not?”

We made our way up the black iron staircase in companionable silence.  Except for a bit of wheezing on Cree’s part.  He paused once, pulled his inhaler out of his pocket, took two hits.  “We can head back down,” I suggested.

“No,” he said, rate and rhythm evening out.  “We can’t.”  He restarted the climb.

“Okay, but I’m not carrying you down…”  I gasped.  “Wow.”

“Damn skippy.”  He leaned against the brick wall, taking a few deep breaths.  The wind ruffled his chin-length, raven hair.

Florence lay arrayed below us, bright red tile, glints of gold from the churches, the glassy shimmering Arno cutting a swath through the tightly packed buildings.  In the distance, green hills and villas sprawled.  There were other people talking, posing for photographs, making a circuit of the dome, but the wind stole their words and the artificial clicking of their digital cameras, and it was just Cree and me.

Tears began of their own accord, slowly at first, slowly enough to attribute them to the cool air whipping by us but a minute or two later I was crouched in the lee of the brick wall, Cree kneeling beside me, his arm around my shoulders.  He kissed the top of my head.   “I should have been able to save her,” I whispered, thinking the wind would steal my words away too.

“Kass,” Cree moved around so he was facing me, but a hand on either of my cheeks, “Kass, you did everything you could.  You fought hard, girl.  You fought so hard one of those assholes had to snap your arm in half to stop you.  What else could you have done?”

“I should have stayed closer to her, should have —“  I closed my eyes.

A woman’s voice, in Italian.  Cree answering, my mediocre brain salmon catching that she was concerned, that he assured her I was fine, that I was being haunted by a friend’s ghost.  I opened my eyes and saw a stout, elderly woman, her gray hair pulled back into a severe bun, face cross-cut by laugh lines nodding. She patted my shoulder, told Cree to make sure I ate something.  “I will say a prayer for your friend,” she said.  “And for you, little one.  This loss, it is a sickness in your soul, no?”

I found myself nodding, swiping at my eyes and running nose with my sleeve.  She tutted and fished in her black handbag, came out with a package of tissues; she gave it to me.  She watched me for a moment, eyes never leaving mine.

“Your soul is bright,” she said, nodding, to whom I wasn’t sure.  “I know these things.”  She tapped her nose with one finger and then pointed to the sky.  “My mother had it, my grandmother, on back.  And we are never wrong.”  She knelt before me, knees cracking loudly, rested her gnarled fingers on my knees.  “What happened to your friend… the little girl.  Oh, how horrible,” she whispered.  “Oh, my dear.”  She leaned forward and kissed my forehead, and it occurred to me this encounter should be weird as hell but, for some reason I couldn’t even begin to fathom, wasn’t.  “No, no, my dear.  You mustn’t.  Your light is too bright, and you have too much to do.  You,” she whispered in my ear, “will be a hero.  Only heroes have a light so bright.  Your friend,” she continued, “he has it too.”  She winked at me.  “But don’t tell him so.  He might get ideas of grandeur.”  She held out her hand.  “Come,” she said to Cree, “help an old lady up.”  He did as he was told and she patted his cheek.  “Be good to one another,” she said.  “Take care of one another.  And, remember, sometimes, it is right, even if it isn’t forever.  Even if it isn’t for more than one night.”

She walked away from the door.

She should have had to pass us again to find her way back down the stairs, though how she’d climbed them in the first place I couldn’t say.

“See.  Random Nona says it isn’t your fault, and she has nary a vested interest,” Cree said.

I am losing my mind.

It isn’t possible.

Cree saw her too.  He would have — it’s your imagination and you are totally losing it, Kass.

“Hey,” Cree said.  “Kass, you just went all Snow White pale one me.  What’s going on in that head?”

“Cree,” I licked my lips, cleared my throat.  “Cree, did she look like… did she look like Rifka?”

He squinted down at me, backlit by the sun.  I expected him to snort a laugh, tell me I needed some hydration and gelato, and announce it was time to get going.

He didn’t.  He glanced in the direction she had gone, then at the door.

She hadn’t come back around.

“Stay here,” he said.

“Okay.”

He set off the way the old woman had gone, disappearing around a curve, reappearing a few moments later around another.

He pursed his lips, opened his mouth, made a strangled sound, closed his mouth, chewed on his lip.  “We need water,” he declared.  “And a cubic fuckton of gelato.”

We sat on a low, ancient stone wall eating strachiatella creamy dessert out of tulip shaped cups with tiny spoons.

“I don’t believe in that stuff,” I said, a seeming non-sequitur.

“Me either,” Cree stated firmly, snapping his jaw shut on the last sound.

“I —“

He blew out a breath.  “Does it matter?”

“Um… yes?”

“Do you feel… better?  Healed?”

“Healed?  No.  A little less soul-sick, for lack of a better term?  I didn’t notice how blue the sky was before or how warm the stone is.  I didn’t notice that anywhere you go in this town you can hear a fountain.  I didn’t realize how fucking starving I was.”

Cree disposed of our first round of gelato cups and returned with a second and Limonatas for both of us.  “Then maybe it doesn’t matter.  Maybe we just say, damn, were we lucky we ran in to her, whoever she is.  Because, kiddo, you’re actually smiling, and it has been way too long since I saw that.”

“My face hurts a little.”

“And she’s making jokes.”  He sighed and took my hand.  “Welcome back.” He kissed my knuckles.

A small shot of electricity zinged up my arm.  If it had been my right arm, I’d have attributed it to nerve damage.

It was my left arm.

Sometimes, it is right, even if it isn’t forever.  Even if it isn’t for more than one night.

**********

Mom and Dad had left a note, along with Cree’s parents, that they were going to dinner, to call them when we got back so we could meet them if we wanted.

Cree led me toward my room.

“No,” I said.  “I’ve spent too much time in there already.”

“Well?”

“Balcony.”

“What if the ‘rents come back?  What if —”

“Curtains,” I said, leading him toward his room, shoving my foot in the crack he’d left open and pushing the glass into its housing.  I kissed him.

“Woah, woah,” he said, pushing back with his hands on my shoulders.  “Hold up a sec.”

I did.

“It’s not that I don’t want to, Kass, I do but…”  He cleared his throat and colored from the neck up.  “Um, I’m just wondering if… um…”  He toyed with my fingers.  “Have you ever —“

“Done it?” I asked. “Had sex, made loved, fucked?”

“Jesus, Kass!”

“If you can’t say it, you shouldn’t be doing it.”  I put a hand on my hip and flipped my hair over my shoulder.  “Le sigh,” I teased.  “Bored now.”  I started back through the doors.

“Let’s not be hasty!” Cree said, spinning me back in to him.

I leaned my cheek against his chest.  “No, Cree, you’re not my first.  Does that take some of the shine off?”

“I forgot,” he said, raking my bangs out of my eyes, “that when you do talk, some absurd shit comes out of your mouth.”  He kissed me.

The stone of the balcony was warm from the day, his hands cool on my hips.

Later, splashes of the royal purple cast over Florence by the setting sun danced across our feet when we sat in the kitchen by another set of massive windows, separated only by the small, round table, my legs propped across his knees, his hand around mine as we ate the long-delayed prosciutto and melon and drank strong espresso with a splash of cream and sugar.

It rained the next day, the rich, deep sound of insistent water on old glass and ancient cobbles waking me from the first non-drug aided uninterrupted sleep I’d had in a year and a half.

I left my book behind when I joined everyone for breakfast.

My parents said nothing, simply smiled at one another and at me.

Cree offered a wink and poured me a second coffee.

“Dad,” I said, when the dishes were cleared and washed.  “Uffizi?”

“Damn skippy,” he said.

“Mom?”

“I have something I have to work on for the show tonight.  You two go ahead.”  She squeezed both of my hands tightly, touched her forehead to mine.  “Enjoy.”

The rain calmed to a fine mist by the time we left, tucked beneath a mutual umbrella.  “You had a good day yesterday, then?”  he asked as we meandered with the river.

“I had an… enlightening day.”

“I don’t think I want to know.”

“Good, because I’m not going to tell you.”  I jumped, double footed, into a massive puddle.

My father laughed and joined me at the next one, stopping afterwards to examine the fountain pens in a stationary shop window.  “You seem,” he said, eyeing one of a particular shade of bright green, “to have set down whatever burden it was you were carrying.”

“Set it down?” I asked, pointing to a marbled azure one.

He nodded.  “Perfect.  Your mother will love it.  We’ll stop on the way back.  You seem,” he watched me twirl in the rain for a moment, arms outstretched, “lighter.”

“I don’t know that I’ve set it down,” I said as we resumed our walk.  “Redistributed, maybe.  It’s still heavy.  Here,” I touched my bright yellow slicker over my heart.  “And here.”  My damp head.

“Kass, what happened to Rifka was not your fault.  Those boys… cruel, horrible fucking monsters.  And you, my brave girl,” he shuffled closer and rearranged the umbrella.  “You could have died as well.”

I drew up, the thought cutting a dark swath through the new brightness.  “Dad, I didn’t even…. I never thought —  I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for being eaten by grief for your friend?  I wish I’d been able to help more, but —“

“I never considered how it might have affected you and Mom.  How terrifying it must have been to get that phone call —“

“It was.  One of my worst nightmares.  But that’s not why we’re having this conversation.  My point,” he said, pointing to a cafe.  We ducked in, bought more coffee and a bomboloni con creme for each of us.  “Don’t tell your mother,” my father said.  “She was irritated by my last cholesterol test, considering our recent healthy dinner efforts.”

“Secret is safe,” I said around a mouthful of light, sweet custard.

“My point,” Dad said, picking up the thread of the previous conversation, “is that, while the world is filled with wonderful people, there are also a lot of… assholes isn’t even the right word.  Asshole implies some attempt at humanity.”  He sipped his cappuccino, leaving a film of foam behind on his mustache, one with which he decorated his Musketeer goatee when he wiped it away.  He flicked it off.  “Soulless bastards.  They would have hurt you so much more severely than they did if they’d been able to get away with it.”

“They got caught.  They’re in jail.  I testified, remember?”

“I do remember.  It was one of the proudest days of my life.”

“What?  Why?”

“Because you didn’t know for certain they were going to be convicted.  They could have walked.  It happens all the time.  And if they had, they would have come after you, you know that.  We would have made sure nothing happened, at least to the best of our ability, but it was a risk nonetheless.  A risk you took willingly because it was right.  Because you didn’t want them to hurt anyone else.  You were brave when you defended Rivka, and you were brave that day in court, you were brave when you were in pain from the surgery, brave the first time you pulled your bow again.  You are brave, my darling, every day you walk the face of the planet.  Because you know.  Because you found out, far too young, in my opinion, how dark humanity can be.  That people can be cruel just for the sake of cruelty or, even worse, to lend themselves power.”  Dad and I walked up the steps to the museum, depositing our cups in the trash can just outside the doors.  He paid the entry fees and we strolled the hallways, surrounded by gorgeous colors and tragic figures and the scents of oil and wax.

“It weighted you down, but it didn’t break you.”

“Feels like it broke me pretty good.”  I massaged my arm.

Dad smiled, snorted quietly.  “Life sucks, Kass.  You know that better than most kids — people,” he corrected, “your age.”

“My life is pretty good,” I acknowledged.

“Yes,” he agreed.  “But something terrible happened anyway.  You’re a good girl, Kass, and for something like that —“  He looked up at the ceiling and sniffled.  “It isn’t fair.  But my darling, don’t let that take away your generous spirit, your bright light.”

I inhaled sharply, air hitting the back of my throat and setting me coughing.

My father rubbed my back.

“So what do I do about it?” I asked, when I could breathe again.  “How do I fix it?  I’ve been… I haven’t been able to think about anything else for a year.  How do I keep it from happening again?”

His mustache twitched.  “Are you ready for that?  To do something about it?”

“Yeah.  Took a while, but I think I am.  I know you guys were disappointed when I didn’t apply to college.  I’m going, I swear.  Maybe I’ll be a social worker or a psychologist or…”

“I have never once been disappointed in you, Kass.  We were glad to have you close, keep all four of our eyes, and those of the whole troupe on you.  You were struggling.  I know you still are.”

“There may be a faint glow at the end of the corridor now, though.”

“Good.  I’m glad to hear it.  Whether or not you go to college, what you do as a career, Kass, that’s up to you, though I hope it’s something you love.  That isn’t exactly the kind of intervention I was talking about.”  We climbed a set of stairs.  “Have you spoken to Auntie Fatima lately?”

“Said hi last time Mom called her.”

“You know why she left the troupe?”

“She said she needed a break.”

“Hmmm.  Maybe, in part.  But…  you know she’s responsible for that huge comic collection we share, right?”

“Mom may have mentioned something about it with some not so savory adjectives the last time she was after me to organize it.  Why?”

He raised a significant eyebrow.  “Those stories about the Prophet that have been on the news?”

It took me a minute.  “No way.”

He shrugged one shoulder.

“And how is it that you didn’t end up in on that action, Dad?”

He looked at me.

“Oh.”

“You, my darling, are young and unattached.  You’ll have to keep secrets from friends, from lovers.  You could get hurt.  You could be killed.  You can stop whenever you want.”  He stopped, studied Botticelli’s Venus.  “Your spark is flaring,” he said.  “I don’t want to see it go out again.  This terrifies me, Kass.  But, at the same time, I want you to live.  And it’s your choice, but —“

“I’m in,” I said, leaning as close in to Primavera as the security system allowed.

**********

I applied to Pitt a year later and got into the library sciences program.  I interned at the Main Branch of the Carnegie Library from day one and was hired there after graduation.  Helping kids sign up for their first library cared, recommending new worlds to people in search and in need, reviewing and choosing… a new discovery every day in perpetuity.

I lived with Fatima.  She wouldn’t allow me in on anything except support until I was finished with school and firmly installed in my job.

And then, I became a vigilante too.

Hero never sat quite right.  I admit to a certain amount of ego; one must have it to decide who gets a tranq dart to the neck, or a bolo around the ankle; who, once, every so often, if there’s no other way, gets an arrow in the chest.

Super heroes, however, have super powers.  I have good aim I work hard to maintain, and a right arm that aches constantly despite hours of strengthening exercises and, at one point my junior year of college, a third surgery.  Super heroes don’t miss jumps or fall off roofs, don’t need their safety lines to be snagged by friends with whom they once met a ghost on a church rooftop in Florence a million years ago — Cree followed me a year later with a gallery job and a penchant for tightrope walking and acrobatics despite the asthma.  They certainly don’t accidentally catch bad guys by twisting ankles in potholes, barrel rolling, and taking the other dude out by sheer luck and complete lack of grace.

Vigilante suits.

Every time I tie some wife-beating asshole to a lamp post and leave him for the cops, watch the news and see a child abuser sentenced, someone I handed over to the law, I decide being a vigilante is pretty fucking sweet.

Being beaten up half to hell on a given day not so much but, small price.

The martial arts thing was a good cover, mostly because it was true and explained random, sometimes highly visible and ugly injuries.  It was also more of a solitary pursuit, one friends and boyfriends weren’t quite so likely to ask to witness.

Seamus, Fatima’s husband, was also part of the crew, Cree, and Camilla and Zinnona, twins with whom I’d grown up as well; their dads were the show’s knife thrower and sword swallower, also working with shuriken and a variety of other sharp projectiles.

It was crowded in the house.  Close and loud.  There were days I wanted to run back to the circus, or sleep at the library.  Everyone was in everyone else’s business all the time, and Fatima… well, the den mother to the vigilante corps had a very hard time letting go control.

But it was family.

I saw my parents with relative frequency.  My father, it was clear, was itching to get in on the action, but he’d suffered a back injury during a car accident while I was in college and couldn’t move the way he once had, though it hadn’t affected his aim.

“Old, Kass,” he said to me one day when we were under the tent, working a behind the back, flexibility shot.  “I’m getting old.”

“You really are.”

“There I times I wonder if I should have worked so hard to restore your sense of humor.”

Cree and I never had a thing, despite living in rooms beside one another and being up in one another’s lives so thoroughly.

I expected Rhys Ivar about as much as one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Rhys had been coming into Main as long as I’d been working there, probably longer.  For the first year we knew one another, he was quiet, withdrawn.  He always had dark circles under his eyes and unruly stubble.  He was sweet, when he did say anything, and we had pretty much identical taste in books, but for the occasional memoir or biography on my part and programming or tech book on his.  There were a few times he took out his phone and opened his mouth, likely on the edge of asking for my number but, in the end, he always left me hanging.

About six months ago he came in, clean shaven, his skin clear of its cubicle-zombie pallor.  “A lovely morning, is it not, Miss Alvarez?” he asked, taking my hand and kissing the back.

“Indeed, ’tis, Mister Ivar.  To what do I owe such an effusive greeting?”

“The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and I am longer trapped in a hell hole for eight hours minimum per day.”

“Glad to hear it.”

He beamed at me.

He had a nice smile.  A nice laugh.

Of course, he still didn’t ask me out.

I got sick of waiting and I asked him.

After a couple of months, it was as though we’d been together forever.

I fell in love quick and hard, though there was no way I was admitting it out loud, even to the empty air.

**********

I love Rhys Ivar, and maybe if it were just my secret, I’d tell him.

It isn’t just my secret, though.  It’s Fatima’s and Seamus’, Camilla and Zinnona’s.  Cree’s.

I’ve written the speech in my head, revised it well over a million times.  I’ve written it down in fountain pen and typed it in an email.  Put the paper in an envelope or covered the cursor over “send.”

I have no illusions that a lie of omission is any more redeemable than any other lie.  The longer I wait, the angrier, or more betrayed, or more hurt Rhys will be and the more likely it is there will be no more us.

When I catch an elbow to the face, I tell him it was a missed target strike during a sparring match at the dojo.  He doesn’t seem to notice I’ve never specified which one.  When I broke two fingers on my left hand, I told him a colleague overestimated her capacity and dropped a pile of books on my hand.  The burns were from hot coffee, the lacerations from an improperly maintained practice sword.

When I’m called away from a date, the excuse is a sick friend or family member with an emergency who needs me to watch her kids or drive him to the hospital.  When I disappear in the middle of the night, I have to work early or promised Fatima I’d help her with a catering job.

Or or or.

Hard to believe I had a reputation for being a horrible liar until a few months ago.

I love Rhys Ivar.

And someday, I will break his heart.

I could rationalize by saying I can’t give up the mask, but that would be a baldfaced lie.

I could.  But I won’t.  Not for him.  Not for anyone.

Not after what happened to Rifka, not after what I’ve seen since.

I’m not that kind of a girl.

Exceedingly good at self-flagellation?  Oh yeah.

But not at giving parts of myself away.

Shadow Archer is Ksenija Alvarez as much as the librarian or the girl who loves Brave and the Bold, who prefers Captain Marvel to Wonder Woman, who only eats eggplant fried and on pizza.  Who could pound her body weight in chocolate, who hates Lord of the Rings and loves Medieval Arab folktales.

You can always get out, my father said.

Can.  But won’t.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hero Handlers: Origins continues 4-28-15 with Berserker and Valkyrie

Hero Handlers is available for pre-order on Amazon.

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