I had a life before my sister was born but, despite being thirteen when the event occurred, I don’t remember much of said life. Leads me to believe it was pretty unremarkable. Went to school, had friends, ate stuff, read books. My parents seemed content in their lives, a little distant, but I was an introverted kid, and I don’t recall being bothered.
Linette changed everything.
From the moment she was born, she saw things that weren’t there. Not that anyone knew that when she was an infant or young toddler, not until she could speak, which happened relatively early. Driven, no doubt, by the delusions and hallucinations that plagued her, things she couldn’t possibly have known about, have thought of on her own. Devils and demons, shades and vengeful spirits. Voices from the darkness.
As an infant, she was labeled “colicky.” The pediatrician assured my parents she would grow out of it, that lots of babies had a hard time telling day from night, and were awake at all odd hours. They cried for no reason.
I seemed to be the only one who could soothe her so nocturnal pacing sessions fell to me, cradling the tiny being in my arms, whispering to her, rocking her, stroking her fuzzy baby hair until her eyes closed. My parents moved her crib in to my room for ease of access and started leaving her night and early morning care to me. I resented the hell out of them, but never resented Linette. Even as a thirteen year old boy, I could tell she was fragile, she needed a protector, a champion. Even as a thirteen year old boy, I didn’t mind being her champion because she was my sister. Because every so often she would offer a tiny smile, or grab hold of my finger and refuse to let go. She would nestle her face into my shoulder and snuggle into my shirt, and how could anyone, even a thirteen year old boy, not fall prey to such absolute adoration?
Life went on. The majority opinion, once Linette could speak, could explain what she was seeing and hearing, was an active imagination, a little ahead of its time due to a brother obsessed with comic books and super heroes. Where there were heroes there were villains and monsters and a young child, having no frame of reference for fantasy versus reality blah, blah, blah.
I made sure I didn’t leave my comics around. It didn’t seem to help much. When Linette turned two, my parents moved her into her own room, but she ended up in a nest of blankets beside my bed most nights.
I won a scholarship to a prestigious prep school as a high school freshman. My parents gave half a fuck because they didn’t have to put in anything other than uniform and supply costs. The weekend before I started, they went on a trip to the Laurel Highlands to stay at a spa and left me with my sister (aka: most weekends). She was calm while they were gone. So calm. Almost a different kid. And while I didn’t ever think my parents were to blame for her condition as such, it was pretty clear they weren’t helping either.
I was late my first day because they didn’t manage to get their asses back until the city bus that would have gotten me across town on time was long gone. My dad condescended to drop me off on the way to work without so much as a “have a good day.” I sprinted up the granite steps and down the hall to the room I remembered from orientation, making last bell by a hair.
There were two seats left at the back of the room, blue chairs attached to tan desks via metal arms, a little small for my long legs but manageable. I slung my bag under one and pulled out a notebook and pen.
One of the assistant principals appeared in the doorway, beckoning to the teacher and allowing a tall, blonde guy to slide in behind her without anything more than a raised eyebrow and a shaken finger.
He sat at the desk beside me and jerked his chin in a general upward direction by way of greeting. “ ‘Sup?”
I shrugged and he nodded.
“You must be the new kid. Ivar, right?”
“Rhys, yeah. How did you know?”
“I’ve been stuck in this hellhole since kindergarten. New faces stand out. I’m Chase Raimundo.” He waited.
Unsure of exactly what he was waiting for I nodded. “Nice to meet you?”
His eyebrow climbed up toward his hairline. “That’s it?”
“Um, do you mind if I sit here?”
He grinned. “I’m the one you’ll hear them all whispering about. Rich, legacy kid who isn’t popular, doesn’t play football or date cheerleaders. The weirdo. Because why wouldn’t a rich kid be popular, play football, and date cheerleaders?”
The teacher returned to the front of the classroom and I was left wondering if the question was rhetorical, or if there was an actual answer. And if there was an answer, was I supposed to guess, or was it going to be provided for me?
When he sought me out at lunch, I flat out asked him.
“Not my bag,” he explained.
“Oh. Why the immediate defense then? I mean, why would you think I’d be all judgy. And shit,” I added after a brief hesitation so as to build my man cred.
“Because most people are assholes.” He studied a fork full of lettuce, stuck his tongue out at it, and grabbed a fry from the paper cone beside the salad.
I blinked. “Okaaaay. You just met me. How do you know I’m not one of the most?”
“Gut feeling. Also, your shoes are from last year.”
My face heated up. “Yeah, so?”
“Woah, there Sparky, it’s an observation, not a criticism. Most people here, they wouldn’t be caught dead in last year’s shoes. Your uniform is new, your backpack is new, etcetera, etcetera. You may be a scholarship kid, but it’s an academic one, not financial aid —“
“How do you —“
“I hacked the system during computer lab. The security in this place is pathetic. You’re not rich, but you’re not poor either. You could have bought new shoes but you didn’t. Logically, that means you don’t care what people think of your shoes.”
“And that makes me not an asshole?”
“If you say so.”
“I do say so. And I’m an arrogant shithead, so I don’t usually do things unless I’m sure I’m right.”
He blinked at me. “No more questions?”
“Dunno. Everyone else seems to think I’m public domain.”
I shrugged. “I’m mostly raising my kid sister. I just want to make it through the day, dude,” I explained.
That pretty much sealed our friendship.
Chase spent a lot more time at my house than I did at his, though when we were at his place, he’d lead the sprint up to his room, which had a flat screen, a gaming system, and the newest computer. If he’d had a fridge and a stove, he could have lived in there and never come out. There were a few times he’d disappear for a week or two, and and I figured he’d finally decided to make the jump to hermit, but he always reappeared, and he was just like he was before, maybe a little bit quieter for the following week or so. And by quieter, I mean he only talked a single mile a minute instead of three or four. Neither set of parents was around a lot, Chase’s because they ran a huge, multi-national corporation and a massive philanthropic organization, mine because they had developed from indifferent to negligent. When his parents were around, they seemed nice enough, and they went to as many of Chase and Artemis’ (Chase’s younger sister) events as they could. They called every day, spent hours on video chat, and generally seemed to give a shit.
When my parents were around, they didn’t have much to say and they certainly didn’t care, or ask, how I, or any of my friends were doing. They took Linette to therapy sessions and doctor’s appointments but, beyond that, I was left to fend for both of us. Once I could drive, it was pretty much all up to me, with them disappearing for weeks at a time and me left wondering if they were coming back.
Artemis, Artie, was a couple years behind us and she was smarter than I was, already taking half of her classes at the high school by the time she was twelve. And just as I didn’t mind taking care of Linette, Chase didn’t seem to mind having his little sister around. The three of us ended up being a pretty tight little group.
October of senior year, it may even have been Halloween, I unlocked the door on a silent house. Linette had school until noon, when the sitter picked her up, either staying with her or taking her to appointments until I got home. Janey’s daughter had a band concert that night, and she had asked to leave an hour early; my mother had agreed to put in a minimal appearance.
That would normally have meant television at full and a hand lifted in greeting on its way to a coffee mug or a glass of wine.
“Mom?” I called. “Linny? Where are you guys?”
“Linny?” I called again, heading for the kitchen to dump my books and get set up for homework, to see if Janey had had time to make dinner before she left, or if it was up to me.
My sister’s foot was so small sticking out from behind the center island. Tiny and, when I reached for it, very cold.
She lay sprawled on the floor, her wispy brown hair a tangled cloud.
Her wrists were cut, a pool of blood beneath each of her hands, spreading across the wooden floor, soaking into her pink Hello Kitty t-shirt and flower-patterned pants.
The knife lay beside her hand.
The cuts were perfectly straight, inside of the elbow to wrist along the vein.
I grabbed tea towels from the oven handle, tied them tight, and dialed nine-one-one, not understanding how so small a child would ever think to hurt herself that way, let alone do so with surgical precision.
We lived a few blocks from the fire station, and the ambulance arrived within two minutes, the medics bursting through the open door. “Hello?” one of them called.
“In the kitchen!” I called back, hearing my voice shake, swallowing hard against the acrid tang rising up the back of my throat.
“Jesus Christ,” the big, bearded one said, skidding to a stop, mouth gaping, before he knelt beside Linette and pulled gauze out of his bag, reinforcing my makeshift dressings while his partner reached for the inside of my sister’s upper arm, taking her pulse. She pulled out a blood pressure cuff and wrapped it around Linette’s arm. She glanced at me and then at her partner, shook her head. He nodded and produced and IV kit, seated the needle, and hooked up a bag of fluid.
“What happened?” he asked.
“I…” I dragged the back of my hand across my eyes as they lifted my sister on to a stretcher. “I don’t know. I got home from school and found her this way.”
“You did the towels?” he asked.
“Yeah, it was all I could find.”
“Good job, kid,” he said. “You saved her life.”
I trotted to keep up with them as they wheeled her out to the ambulance.
“Listen, um…” the EMT paused. “Look, I know this doesn’t seem important right now, but she looks sort of young to be alone..”
“She’s only five. My…” I choked on the familiar, loving “mom.” “Our mother was supposed to be here, I don’t… I don’t know where she is.”
“Okay, kid, it’s okay. Come on, you can call them from the road.”
I did. Ten times, twenty. No answer. Neither of their phones even rang before going to voice mail.
“Jesus,” said the doctor as they wheeled her into the trauma bay. “Kid did this to herself?”
“Looks like,” the medic said. “Brother,” her pointed to me, “found her when he got home from school. Thought quick, wrapped her arms up. Parents are MIA.”
The doc nodded. “Type and cross match, have them prep the OR. I’m not opening the dressings until we have blood and surgical instruments at hand. Son,” he said to me, laying a hand on my shoulder for a brief moment before pulling the rails on the gurney back up and heading toward an elevator, “you did good, but this is as far as you go. We’ll let you know when we’re out.”
“Yeah,” I said to his back. “Yeah, okay.”
“Hey,” one of the nurses said, a young woman with a perfect ponytail and a sweet smile, “I’ll take you down to the OR waiting room, okay?”
“You might want to keep trying your parents,” she said, depositing me in a hard seat with a cup of bad coffee.
“Yeah,” I said. “Sure.”
I called Chase instead.
“Yo, Ivar. What’s the haps?”
“Linette,” I stuttered, sniffled, then broke down, tears pouring down my face. “I got home from school and she… Chase, she slit her wrists.”
“Where are you?”
“I’ll be there in twenty tops.”
I sat and shook, adrenaline giving way to panic, giving way to grief and exhaustion. I tried to drink some of the coffee, but it was bitter and oily. I threw it away and shook some more.
Chase sprinted in, Artie literally on his heels. “Sorry,” he said, sitting beside me. “Traffic.”
Artie sat on the other side and took my hand. Neither of them said anything else.
But they stayed.
A couple hours later, Artie made a run up the street to Espresso a Mano and came back with something hot, palatable, light and sweet, and falafel from Pastitio. I protested the food, she threatened to hurt me in a variety of ways, and I managed to choke half of it down. It was good, warm and filling and familiar, though my throat continually attempted to force it back up and out.
Almost six hours after they’d taken her away from me, a diminutive woman in immaculate scrubs emerged from between the double swinging doors and asked for, “Rhys Ivar?”
I jumped up so fast I caught my own shoelace and would have face planted had Chase not caught my arm and yanked me upright. The doctor, seeing the commotion, headed in our direction. “You haven’t been able to reach your parents?” she asked.
“No. Linette —“
“She did well in surgery, Rhys. Very well. She got several units of blood, and the damage to her blood vessels and her tissues required a lot of repair, but she didn’t sever any tendons. There will be scars, and they may limit her range of motion a bit, at least for a while, but Linette should have use of both hands with no major impairments after a course of rehabilitation.”
“She’s going to be okay?” I asked, sagging back against the suddenly-most-comfortable-chair-in-all-the-land.
“I can’t make any promises,” the doc said, running her hands through her close cropped hair. “But I believe, so, yes. Can you tell me…” She pursed her lips, rubbed her hand over her lips. “She’s very young to have tried —-“
“She sees things,” I explained. “Hears voices. They’ve always said she had a good imagination but —“
“The dexterity to —“ She paused, took a deep breath. “I’m sorry to be so blunt but the dexterity required to make that type of incision so precisely —“
“I can’t explain it,” I said. “I wish I could, but I can’t. Maybe… maybe the voices told her how to do it, I don’t know.”
“Has she been watching violent television —“
I shook my head. “I’m careful about what she watches, what she sees.”
“You are?” The doctor’s smooth brow furrowed, her eyes narrowing. “How old are you, Rhys?”
“And you have primary charge of your sister?”
I shrugged. “I make sure she gets to her appointments, gets to school. I cook for her. Make sure the house is clean. Read to her, play with her.”
“But your parents are around?”
“Sometimes. My mom…” My fists clenched of their own accord, my knuckles creaking. “The nanny was scheduled to leave early. Our mother was supposed to be with her, at least until I got home from school. When I came in, I found Linette and there was no one else home. Their phones are going right to voice mail.”
The doctor blinked. “Then you’re next of kin?”
“Yeah. It’s all documented. I made sure,” I said. “I’m also listed as her legal guardian in the event that anything happens to my parents.”
It was actually Chase who had made certain of it, utilizing a favor from one of his parent’s multitude of lawyers.
“Can we see her?” Artie asked quietly, linking her fingers with mine. Chase moved closer, put a hand on my shoulder.
“Yeah. Yes, of course,” the doctor said, beckoning with one finger. “For what it’s worth,” she told me as she swiped her badge to unlock the doors, “you saved your sister’s life.”
“It shouldn’t have been at risk in the first place,” I spat, closing my eyes for a moment, trusting Chase and Artie to lead me, taking a deep breath.
“No,” the doctor said. “It shouldn’t.”
My parents never did pick up their phones. Never returned any of the voice mails. Never showed up. By the time Artie was discharged from the medical unit two weeks later, diagnosed with early onset schizophrenia, and transferred to the kid’s psych unit, the numbers were no longer in service.
I didn’t worry when, three weeks after my return to school, Chase was absent from homeroom and from calc. He cut on a regular basis, though he somehow managed to talk his way out of being disciplined in any way more serious than an occasional detention.
My heart rate jumped a little when Artie didn’t meet me for lunch, however. I snuck out of fifth period to call them, using the cell phone that was illegal for most students during class periods but which the principal was allowing me to carry in case there was a call about Linette.
Neither Chase nor Artie answered their phones and the house phone went to voice mail as well.
After school, I drove to the Raimundo mansion, one of the massive, old houses on Fifth Avenue, secure behind a wrought iron fence and adorned with a giant, red, light up bow for Christmas. Chase had given me a card for the gate ages before and I used it, pulling up to park behind his motorcycle.
I rang the bell three times before Sean, the Raimundo’s — I guess the best team is major domo — answered it. He was pale, his usually immaculate hair disheveled, stubble dotting his always clean shaven cheeks and chin. His tie was askew and he wasn’t wearing his ever present morning jacket.
“Master Ivar,” he said, his basso profundo cracking. “I’m afraid Master Chase and Miss Artemis aren’t available at the moment.”
“Is everything okay?”
“No, Master Ivar, I’m afraid it isn’t. We’ve had some rather tragic news and —“
“Rhys?” Artie appeared behind the salt and pepper haired man, angry red tracks chasing one another down her cheeks, her nose running, wrapped a hoodie several sizes too large.
“Hey, Artie. You guys weren’t in school so —“
She burst in to tears, sank to the floor, face buried in her hands. Sean knelt beside her, his arms around her. “Please, Miss Artemis, you’ll make yourself ill.”
I sat on her other side and linked my fingers through hers, the way she’d done for me that night at the hospital. “Artie, what — is it Chase? Is Chase alright?”
She nodded, hair falling in to her eyes. I brushed it back, tucked it behind her ears. Sean handed her a handkerchief and we helped her to her feet. I put an arm around her waist and followed Sean in to the kitchen, where he busied himself putting the kettle on the boil. His shoulders shook as he began rooting through the cabinets, pulling down various tins. Finally, he gave up and leaned on his elbows, sobbing openly.
“Mom and Dad,” Artie whispered. “Their plane… They’re dead, Rhys. Our parents are dead.”
“Oh, Artie.” I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing at all, holding her close, rocking with the rhythm of her tortured gasps.
“Chase is in his room,” she said. “He won’t come out. He has the stereo on so loud. Maybe he’ll listen to you, Rhys. I need to see him, I need him close. I know it’s selfish…”
“Hey,” I said, taking the handkerchief from her, blotting at the hot salt water on her face. “I get it, Artie. I’ll see what I can do, okay.” I stood up.
“No!” she said. “No, let me come, I… Please don’t leave me, Rhys.”
“Okay, hey, shhhhh.” I soothed, knowing that nothing could ease her pain in that moment. “Hey, I won’t leave you, Artie.” I glanced at Sean, who was once again upright, spine almost painfully straight, face impassive.
“Linette, how’s Linette?” she asked as we made our way up the spiral staircase.
“Good. That’s good.”
I tried Chase’s door without announcing myself. Locked. “Chase!” I called. “Open up.”
Not a sound from within. Not a note of music, not a snarky remark, not the sound of tears or breath. Artie clutched my sleeve, her nails digging in to my forearm. “Open up, or I break it down!” I shouted.
The standard response would have been a chuckle and, “Give it a shot, spaghetti legs.”
I was greeted with only more silence.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
I launched myself at the door.
It opened just as I was about to make contact and I crashed in, giving myself a nice case of facial rug burn.
By the time I scrambled to my feet, Chase was sitting on the end of his bed again, hunched and still, staring out the window.
I sat next to him.
Artie sat on my other side.
The sun moved toward the horizon. The room dimmed and then, the red, bloody miasma of the setting sun swallowed us.
That’s probably where the hero complexes started, even if I didn’t know it for a while.
Chase and I both deferred CMU a year, me to earn some money to supplement another round of scholarships and Chase to… I don’t know what he did that year, not really. I saw him all the time, as often as I could between medic shifts and spending time with Linette, going to the Manor, the facility in which she was living for whichever meals I could, and sleeping a couple hours a night, even following the crazy diet one of her therapists put her on that was supposed to eliminate some sort of byproduct of something and did absolutely nothing for either of us except make both of us miserable and leave me longing for work days when I could eat bread or noodles with impunity.
Chase, Artie, and I went out a couple times a week for a movie or a meal. He’d show up at the fire station with coffee and hang out until I went on a call; sometimes he was still there when I got back, sometimes he wasn’t. The guys liked to give me shit about Chase having a crush. I rolled my eyes and laughed because I was the newb and it was funny.
Artie called me one night when I was getting off a brutal twenty-four hour shift, voice high and tight, panicked in a way I hadn’t heard since they day their parents died. “Are you busy?”
“Heading home. You okay?”
“Chase?” I stuck my keys in the ignition of my beater and resisted the urge to do a jig when it started on the first try. “What happened?”
“He won’t tell me. But he’s locked in his room again. Only this time, he’s throwing shit and yelling.”
I drove to their place instead of to mine, used the door combo. Sean, ever sensitive to the sound of the casters turning, appeared, the lines on his face so much deeper than they’d been a year prior, a vague stoop to his shoulders, a tiny bit of a shuffle to his walk. “Master Rhys. Miss Artie called you?”
“Thank you for coming. May I take your coat?”
I handed it to him because I knew it made him feel like he was doing something. He nodded.
Glass shattered distantly. Sean flinched.
I took the stairs two at a time and arrived at Chase’s door to the Artie shrieking at the empty doorway, “Chase, you’re scaring me!”
And then I got scared because despite his bluster, I’d never heard Chase raise his voice in rage. With the “yo mama” jokes, in jest, sure, even in annoyance, but never in rage.
“Chase,” I said, drawing up short beside her. “You’re bleeding.”
“I cut my fucking hand, Sherlock.”
“Let me take a look at it.”
“I can stitch it for you —“
“Fuck. Off. Rhys.”
I stood there for a minute, trying for the life of me to figure out if that was really what he wanted before he turned to face me fully, left eye glowing red with busted capillaries, fists clenched, knuckles white.
“Artie,” I said, holding my hand out to her, “let’s go visit Linny.”
“I can’t —“
Chase nodded to me ever so slightly.
“We’ll talk when the rage Yeti chills out. Give him some space, chica.”
“Don’t you dare,” Artie said, stalking to Chase and jabbing her index finger into his chest hard enough the knuckle cracked, “do anything stupid. Do you hear me, Chase?”
“Hear and obey,” he growled. “Little goddess.”
“Fine,” she snapped, throat clicking as she swallowed her worry. “And if you break any of my shit, I’ll break your face.”
“He’s never going to talk about it, is he?” I asked Artie as we pulled up to the hospital.
“He will, but not until he can joke about it.”
“Do you know anything?”
“They — the board — took the company. I don’t know how. Chase and I are the majority stockholders. Some sort of loophole, but —“
“I didn’t know he cared that much.”
“Nor I. Until he saw the board agenda this morning. They want to shift R&D from medicine and crops back to weapons.”
“Oh. Oh, hell.”
“Yeah, hell about covers the first page of their proposal. We can’t block it because of some stupid, archaic clause in the LLC documents from a million years ago that no one knows about except he who revels in driving my brother to distraction.”
“He’s not going to do something stupid is he? Like shoot anyone or burn a house down?”
“Well, we are talking about Chase,” Artie said with a tiny smile. “So it would probably be something more creative and more destructive than arson or murder.” She knocked her forehead lightly against the car window. “I think the kicker was when they told him to take the trust fund and shut his fucking mouth.”
“Ah. Well, it kicked something.”
I parked and left the engine running. “You want to go somewhere else?”
“No. I want to see Linette.” She opened the door. “Are you coming, or what?”
Linette was lucid that evening. We played a “how raunchy can you be” card game and Artie laughed so hard she almost puked. We had institutional coffee and freezer burned ice cream. Linette got her night meds and drifted off, Artie reading The Three Musketeers aloud, even after my sister had clearly been snowed by her medication.
I tucked her in and we left. “I don’t want to go home yet,” Artie said.
“Okay.” I headed toward the North Hills and took winding roads up to Mount Washington. We parked and walked out to the overlook. The wind picked up and I handed Artie my Pirates beanie. She took it without protest, leaned her elbows on the metal railing and stared out at the bright yellow bridges; PNC, dark in the middle of the winter; Heinz Field, bright for the game of the week, a panorama of black and gold. I stood beside her, eyes tracing the graceful curves of the convention center roof, the needle of the Highmark Building, the black against dark of the Steel Tower.
“I forget sometimes,” Artie said. “How beautiful this city is. I forget it’s all worth it.”
I looked down at her. “Artie —“
“I’m not suicidal, Rhys. It’s… all the rage and anger and…” She sighed, the sound taken by the wind and cast out over the Mon. “And then, I come up here, and I remember. I remember all the life and all the beauty and sure, things suck, but not all of them, not always.”
She turned to face me, pupils huge in the dim, cloudy, winter night.
She grabbed the collar of my coat and pulled my face down.
Artemis Raimundo kissed me.
It was a nice kiss. Not epic, not earth shaking. Nice, though.
“What was that for?” I asked, when she let me up for air.
“Curiosity and poor judgment.”
“Is that a compliment or an insult?”
“You’re a wonderful guy, Rhys. Sweet and caring and smart. Trustworthy and strong. I should be in love with you. Every woman in the ‘Burgh should be in love with you. Clearly,” she said, planting her fists on her hips, “there’s something wrong with me.”
“If makes you feel any better, it was only okay for me too.” I grinned at her.
“Nothing ventured,” she agreed. “Hot chocolate?”
Chase called as we were finishing small cups of thick, Italian drinking chocolate at Mon Aimee.
I took Artie home.
We drank a lot of coffee and didn’t say much of anything for the rest of the night.
Things went back to normal after that, or normal for us, me working and spending time with Linette, Artie working on her photography and burying herself in books, her senior year, and sarcasm, Chase doing… Chase things.
He and I started college the following fall. He registered for shit at random, and I took whatever I could in my information tech program and artificial intelligence minor that worked around my medic schedule because the school’s insurance didn’t cover Linette, or her very expensive facility.
It worked, for the most part.
Linette was even allowed a pass for Christmas, either Artie or Chase staying with her while I was at work. There was a lot of Lulu’s and Oakmont that week.
It was a good week.
“You look like hell,” Artie told me as I staggered in from the Christmas Eve shift. “You need to work less.”
“I like eating. And Linny is already too skinny.”
“I can’t, Artie.”
“You can, but you won’t.”
“I’m not a charity case.”
“No, you’re our friend and both Chase and I, independently of one another, have more money than we could spend in three lifetimes.”
“You guys do good shit with that money.”
“Yeah, we do, and we have plenty left over.”
“Save it for when I’m really in trouble.”
She threw up her hands and rolled her eyes. “You’re flushed.”
“My car died again, the bus was hot. Little old ladies with heart conditions freeze up easily.”
“I can stay.”
“We’ll be fine. Thanks, Artie. You do plenty.”
“You finish those papers yet?”
“Yes. No. Mostly.”
“Make up the exams?”
“Yes, that I have done.”
“You are entitled to a vacation you know.”
“Linette had a lot of bad days this semester. I had a lot of work to make up. I’m lucky I have understanding profs.”
“If you say so.” She pursed her lips at me. “At least let me make you some tea and force some drugs on you.”
“Fine, woman. Do your worst.”
By the time I finished the tea, I was drifting off. Artie made sure I was in bed, checked on Linette, assured me my sister was sleeping peacefully, and turned out my light.
The mumbling woke me, though I couldn’t place it as a voice through the haze of pressure behind my sinuses and a heavy, foggy head.
Because what’s Christmas Day without a miserable cold.
The muttering became shouting and Linette’s voice cleaved through the mist and cotton, bringing me fully awake.
By the time I made it out to the hallway, she was shrieking and tearing at her face with her fingernails.
Damn it, this is why they’re supposed to keep them short.
I grabbed her wrists and she went for my neck; I’d done plenty of take downs at work but I balked at the idea of leveraging my frail sister to the ground, wailing, blood dripping down her face.
“Linny,” I said, dropping my voice, hoping it would soothe her as it had when she was a baby. “It’s me, honey, it’s Rhys. What’s wrong? What are you hearing, what are you seeing?”
“They hate us,” she snarled, saliva dripping from the right corner of her mouth. “They’re going to kill us and gnaw the flesh from our bones.”
“There’s no one here but us, Linny, I promise.” I pivoted, trying not to pull to pull too hard on her arm, ended up with my back to the stairs. She moaned and struggled. I held her against me and she went boneless, sobs tearing from her chest and throat.
“I’m sorry, Rhys. I’m so sorry. They started talking again and they’re so loud, so loud and they won’t stop! It’s never quiet, never,” she wailed, rocking back and forth. I sat her on the steps and she wrapped her arms around herself.
“I know, honey, I know. I’m going to go get one of your PRN’s okay? You need to sleep. It’s always worse when you’re tired. I need to clean your face up too.”
“You scratched yourself again.”
She probed her cheeks with her fingertips and glanced down at them, going pale when she saw the blood. “I don’t know how you can look at other people’s blood all day,” she gagged. “I can’t even stand the site of my own.”
“Good,” I told her. “Let’s keep it that way.”
She sniffled and giggled a little.
“I’ll be right back,” I promised.
She nodded and rested her forehead on drawn up knees.
I ran to the kitchen, fumbled the key to the med cabinet from my pocket. It was on me, always on me, or with Chase or Artie, because my eight year old sister couldn’t ignore the cruel voices that tortured her every moment of every day. I found the right bottle, had a harder than usual time with the resistant lid thanks to the rhythmic pounding behind my eyes and a coughing spasm that bent me double.
Pill in one hand, water in a plastic cup in the other, I hurried back up to the landing.
Linette was gone.
“Linny?” I called. “I have the —“
She leapt out of the bathroom, a shard of mirror clutched in a bloody hand. She swung at me, and I leaned back, dropping the cup. It bounced, splashing water against the wall, and rolled down the stairs.
“I won’t let you hurt my brother!” she screamed, aiming at my shoulder. I ducked, hit the wall. The crap in my sinuses sloshed around and I lost my balance, grabbing the railing to stay upright.
“Linny, it’s me. It’s Rhys. Let me give you your meds and —”
Her eyes were wide, wild. Crazy eyes, we called them when we picked up a bath salts user or a rampaging psychotic patient. A lack of anything coherent, any consciousness. Dead and descending all at once. “I won’t let you hurt Rhys!”
She swung blindly again, caught my hip, slicing through my flannel pants and into my skin. I yelped, rolled, pulling myself to my feet again, prepared to lock her arm if I had to; she chose that moment to thrust upward, and I stumbled back in an attempt to avoid being stabbed again.
There was only the air behind me, and then the sharp edges of the stairs.
My head smacked the kitchen tile at the bottom and the room spun madly. Linette’s face, lips twisted, canines bared, nostrils flared, panting, passed briefly over mine. She stepped across me and launched into the shadows of the living room.
I rolled on to my side, tried to sit. The shadows crawled across my vision, and I was awake just long enough to hear a key jiggle in the lock and the door creak open, to hear Chase burst out with a, “Jesus fucking Christ,” before they drowned me completely.
“You need to go in, Rhys,” one of my sometimes partners told me, batting my hands away from the cervical collar. “Don’t touch.”
“I’m fine. I think I’d know if my neck was broken. Look, see. Wiggly toes.” I wiggled my toes.
“Uh huh. Broken vertebrae is still a possibility, and your lungs are full of fluid. Which is going to be greatly exacerbated by the fact you have a couple of broken ribs. And vice versa.”
“You don’t know they’re broken.”
She indicated the rapidly darkening bruises on my torso. “You want to put money on not?”
“No,” I sighed. “But I don’t need the backboard. Or the collar.”
“Tough shit, kid,” one of the grizzled vets said. “Protocol is protocol for a reason.”
“I can’t ride with my sister if I’m strapped down.”
Another team, one guy I knew and a woman I’d only met a couple of times, were easing restraints on to Linette’s limp wrists.
“Do you have to?”
“We had to give her a lot of Ativan to break the cycle of snapping or biting. She could hurt someone if she wakes up and gets jumpy,” the woman said. “Including herself. You know that, Rhys.”
“Don’t have to like it when it’s my kid sister,” I grumbled. My head was pounding in two spots. Hooray for bi-location!
“You need a CT,” my partner said, running her fingers lightly over the swelling mass on my right temple. “You may have cracked the orbit. Look up.”
I followed her pen light. “See? No caught muscle. I need to go with Linette. I’ll go over to the ER as soon as —“ I coughed, sharp, stabbing pain drilling into my side, my hip, my head. “I make sure she’s okay.”
“Rhys,” Artie said, leaning over me, putting a careful hand on either side of my face.
“Are you going to kiss me again? Because this really isn’t the ideal situation —“
“You kissed him?” Chase asked, incredulous from beside Linette.
“Yes, I kissed him,” Artie said. She turned back to me. “Rhys, breaking point.”
It was a deal I had with Chase and Artie because it was a truth universally known that Rhys Ivar was total shit at knowing his limits and prone to teetering over the very fine line without realizing it until he’d fallen off the other side and landed in the pit of spikes.
I coughed again, and it hurt even more.
“Okay,” I said. “I get it.”
“I’ll go with Linny,” Artie said. “I will stay with her, Rhys, I promise. And I’ll keep you updated.”
Chase drove behind the ambulance and met me in the ER. The CT was negative for any head trauma or brain damage, though it was positive for a sinus infection, and I did, in fact, have a couple of fractured ribs and pneumonia. The laceration on my hip was relatively clean, but needed fifteen stitches. The doc, who I knew from many a previous occasion, wrote for augmentin and gifted me with another paper allowing for an obscene amount of Vicodin.
“I’m going over to WIPC,” I said, detouring past the entrance to the garage.
“The hell you say,” Chase said, snagging the collar of my hoodie. “Artie’s got it.”
“Artie’s got it and you’re already dead on your feet. No way you stay conscious once you pop a couple of those pretty white pills.”
“I need to see her, Chase.”
“And you will. After twelve hours on your back, snoring and drooling like a baby.”
“Get into the car by yourself, and I’ll think about it.”
Chase’s car was of the low slung sports variety, and any way I bent, I ended up with tears of agony blurring my vision, or unable to breathe, or on my knees with my cheek on the seat.
“Uncle?” Chase asked.
“Uncle,” I agreed, and let him help me.
We drove back to Casa Raimundo with WYEP playing low.
“Your’e staying with us.”
“I am desperate for my own bed, Chase.”
“I know. But you’ll get used to the really expensive, adjustable one in the guest room. The one with a flat screen in easy viewing position. You’ll enjoy it immensely for at least the next week.”
“Rich brat’s honor, I will take you over to see her tomorrow.” He held the car door steady so I could use the top of the window to lever myself out and then ducked under my arm to support my weight.
“I have to work Thursday night.”
“Chase, my insurance is decent but it isn’t that good. There’s going to be bill, and it’s going to be huge. I can’t skip shifts.”
“You gonna lift the larger than life folks? Wrestle the nut jobs? Get bounced around when your partner has to hit the brakes?”
“I can take it.”
“Can,” he said. “No one doubts your brass ones, brother, but we’d all rather you didn’t do yourself serious damage in the process of flauntin’ ‘em.”
He led the way in to the house, waving a vague hand at the den while he headed to the kitchen, joining me a few minutes later with two beers.
“Narcotics,” I said, shaking the blissfully full bottle.
“It’s one beer.”
“If I puke, you’re holding back my hair. Also, I’ll probably cry because ribs. Just putting that out there for you to take a look at.”
“I have been forewarned.” He flicked the TV on, paused briefly on the Yule log, and continued on to a Justice League marathon. “Superpower?” he asked.
“At the moment? Adamantium skeleton and healing factor. You?” I took a long swig of beer, contemplating the fact that every single muscle in my body ached.
“Lack of conscience.”
“Is that a superpower?”
“Fair point. Should I ask why?”
“I don’t feel like talking about it.”
I grunted and took another sip of beer.
I woke up at some point an indeterminate amount of time later, realizing only then that I’d passed out. Chase was still watching cartoons, the play of bright colors casting strange shadows across his face.
I shifted and my side screamed.
“Vicodin,” Chase said, turning to face me, features still sunken in darkness, unreadable for a moment before sympathy became obvious in the narrowing of his eyes and his cooked smile. “Sleep.”
“Artie called about half an hour ago. Linette is still pretty blitzed. Doc doesn’t think she’ll remember anything so we’re going to have to come up with a story and stick to it.”
“Good,” I said. “That’s good.”
“Come on.” Chase eased me to my feet, ducked my arm again. He escorted me to the guest room closest to his and Artie’s rooms. “Sit,” he ordered, making sure my ass had contact with the mattress before he let me go. “I’ll grab you something to wear.”
“Wow, it agrees without argument. It must be fucked up.”
I snorted, which made me cough, which sent lightning zinging up and down my torso. I would have curled into a ball and sobbed, but I couldn’t make it horizontal on my own and crying would have used all sorts of body parts I couldn’t even conceive of aggravating further.
“You guys should come live with us,” Chase said, returning with a pair of plaid pajama pants and a white t-shirt. He was taller and broader than me but I didn’t really care. “And, BTW, you can keep those since I ain’t lending you shorts and yours are all carved up and blood crusty.”
“Aw, come on. You have plenty of silk.”
“And they have all been upon my junk, you perv.” He squinted at me. “I’m going to have to help you, aren’t I?”
“Ground rules: I’m not touching your crotchal area, and we never speak of this again.”
Chase eased the brown stained shirt up over my head. When my eyes cleared the hole, I followed his gape to the stitches over my hip bone and the bruises spreading at an alarming rate under my arm and across my chest.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “It will look way worse in the morning. I’ll probably have a black eye too, just FYI.”
“Fuck me, Rhys, you said it wasn’t that bad.”
“It looks worse than it is.”
“That’s never true.”
“Yeah, not really,” I agreed.
He tugged at the cuffs of my old pants until I could kick them off. I managed the boxers on my own and he kept his eyes ostentatiously diverted when I pulled his pants up over the stitches. He eased my arms into the t-shirt sleeves and pulled it down over my battered body.
He did need to help me lay down.
“Text me if you need anything,” he said. “An. Y. THING.”
“You don’t have a silver bell?”
“It’s gold and it’s mine,” he grinned. “I’m glad it’s cracking jokes again.” He twitched the blankets up over me.
“Aw, Nancy Nurse!”
“I’m serious, Rhys. About you and Linny living here.”
“I know, Chase, and I appreciate it. But we tried that, remember? She didn’t sleep for three days. Ghosts.”
“Then let me help you pay for the Manor. I know someone on the board, I can make sure fees are minimal —“
“I don’t know if I can cover than Manor anymore, Chase. It’s going to depend on how quickly I can get back to work and —“
“I know. That’s why I’m offering. You can’t do this anymore, Rhys. You’re sleeping through classes, you’re sick all the time. You look fucking zombified. How am I supposed to score with endless legs in Calc if you’re hunched all pathetic like next to me?” He shook his head. “I know you won’t do this for you because you’re a fucking moron, but do it for your sister. They know her at the Manor, and they’ll take good care of her. The best. It’s going to be expensive. I have money. I would much rather make sure your sister is well cared for then buy another plane. I already have two. We’re family, man, and family does for one another. I didn’t have much chance to learn shit from my parents, but they made sure I learned that.”
“I don’t know what to say, Chase.”
“I know. I’m taking advantage of your inherent mental weakness and the additional barrier breaking of the all-mighty poppy derivative.”
“Okay. Yes. Thank you, Chase. If you change your mind.”
“I won’t,” Chase said. “Ever.”
Then he noogied me.
When I went to see Linette the next day, she sent the nurse back three times to tell me she wanted to be left alone before I said, “Fine, I’ll wait,” picked a chair, pulled out a book, and carried out my threat.
She let me sit for six hours, eight cups of coffee, a soggy cafeteria sandwich, and three bathroom breaks.
“I’d have thought,” she said, speech slow and considered, eyes closed down as though she were trying to get a good view of her lips moving, “no one could possibly look worse than me. I guess I was wrong.”
“Your face is all bruised and you’re walking funny.”
Moment of truth.
“Chase and I were on our way to see you on the motorcycle. This girl, she was probably drunk, jumped out into the street ahead of us, not even remotely near a light or crosswalk. Chase tried to stop, he did stop, but he laid the bike down.” I shrugged and swallowed a wave of bile. My ribs and hip hurt and I hated lying, especially to Linette.
“So if Chase,” she stumbled over his name, pounded her restrained fists against the mattress, and made an odd sound between a sob and a hyena bellow, “walked in here right now, he’d be all banged up too.”
Chase chose that minute to actually walk in, a bouquet of daffodils in his hand, nary a scratch anywhere on his person. He filled on of the pink, plastic cups from the aggressively bismuth salicylate colored pitchers and set the flowers inside.
“Chase, how’s your bike?” Linette asked, the words slurring even more than they had been a few moments ago.
He lifted his eyebrows and looked first at Linette, then at me. “My bike is fine, hon. Why?”
I scratched my scalp to buy myself a minute. “Because we crashed it on the way here last night, Chase. Trying to stop for that drunk girl.”
“We did? Because I’m pretty sure that you were doped up on cold medicine and only thought that’s what happened, then slipped on some ice outside and hit the sidewalk really hard.”
Artie reentered the room, shaking her head. She had a yogurt in one hand and a diet soda in the other. “Yogurt’s for you,” she said to Linette, pulling a wrapped, plastic spoon out of her butt pocket. Chemicals are for me, and you guys didn’t get your story straight before you came up here, did you?” She planted her hands on her hips and shook her head. “How hard is it? Seriously.”
“Thank you,” Linette said, her voice tiny, nearly hidden by the helicopter landing at the nearby trauma center. “For trying to protect me.”
“They said you wouldn’t remember,” Chase sighed.
“They don’t always know as much as they think they do. Rhys —“
“It’s not your fault, Linette. We should have made it a shorter pass or —“
“You fought for that pass, and then I pushed you down the stairs. I could have killed you, Rhys.”
“You didn’t push me. I fell.”
“Because I was swinging at you with broken glass.”
“Better than some family Christmases we had as kids, right?”
She didn’t laugh. None of her facial muscles really moved at all. “I want to be alone now, please.”
“I have a sitter, Rhys. They’ll make sure I don’t do anything stupid.”
“I’d rather it be me.”
“I can’t look at you right now. When I do, the voices… they keep whispering all the bad things that could have happened to you because of me. I can’t handle that. Please, go away.”
“Okay,” I said. “But you need me, you have them call me.”
She nodded, face already turned to the wall.
“You should go with him, you both.”
“Honey, we’re not going to —“
“He needs you.”
“You need us,” Artie said. “Linny, you’re just a kid.”
“I’m a crazy kid, and I almost killed my brother. Maybe tomorrow will be better. I’ll let you know.”
Years passed, shit happened. Then came the phone call of fate and/or doom.
I could write a book about what happened next…
Hero Handlers: Origins continues 4-21-15 with Shadow Archer
Hero Handlers is available for pre-order on Amazon.