Content warning: violence, child abuse
Teachers could be wrong; it had happened before.
Shelby knew better. She had to.
She was an older sister, after all, and somebody had to know better.
So when her teacher told the class that a “rain shadow” occurs when something, like a mountain, obstructs the air flow and makes the other side dry all of the time, like a desert, Shelby did not make a fuss and tell the adult that she had been mistaken. Adults didn't like it when they were corrected, especially not by a child, and especially not by “a precocious little shit like Shelby Reynolds.”
Shelby had exceptional hearing, a habit of dawdling outside the teacher's lounge and hadn't enjoyed fourth grade very much.
The fifth grade teacher, Miss Finkle (all the other kids called her “Miss Tinkle” when they thought she wasn't listening—Billy Harton had said, “It's like Miss Pee! Get it?” and Shelby had failed to see the humor in it, and told him so), used the smart board to display an animation showing how the heavily laden clouds would crash against the coastal face of the Rockies like waves against a cliff and there dump their burden down the granite peaks that had been starving the expanse to their east for an amount of time very uncomfortable for the mind to ponder.
Shelby watched the animation and listened attentively to her instructor's presentation and had read the pertinent information in her science text probably like a hundred times and she still knew better. She'd been using that term, “rain shadow” that is, for years, and it didn't have anything to do with deserts.
“Just one,” he thought. “I could make it through the day with just one. Take the edge off...” but he knew he lied. In his own mind, with nobody around to hear, he lied his ass off and tried to convince himself that, given the opportunity, he really could just smoke one. The funny part was that, even knowing he was lying to himself before the thought had even begun to form, he already had himself half-convinced. He drummed his fingers on the wheel, edgy for many reasons, but mostly for the lack of nicotine.
“Jake.” He knew that tone.
“You are supposed to be quitting,” Elaine said in her ever-so-enthusiastic tone.
“I know,” he groaned, turning two simple syllables into a growling drawl that somehow packed all of his unenviable frustration into it.
“Perhaps you should chew some gum.”
“Perhaps you should eat shit.”
“Your hostility is not well-placed. Perhaps you should be angry with yourself for taking up the habit in the first place.” Elaine tended to sound so chipper as to be just a little scary. Elaine was possessed of one of the most incredible minds it had been Jake's dubious honor to encounter and so was definitely smart enough to be very dangerous. The combination came off like a cheerleader with a chainsaw.
“Why do you always refer to me as if I were a female figure of alternating equality and authority?”
He thought about it; really, fully considered taking the time to attempt explanation of not just sarcasm, but his own brand of the same, yet again.
“Fugetaboutit,” Jake said, temporarily adopting a Southie accent he'd earned but never grew into.
“Was that English?”
“Just drop it, Elaine.”
“Probably for the best. If I am interpreting the data from your peripheral vision correctly, our target has arrived."
They were always watching. He knew They were there.
They were always there; had always been there.
Maybe They always would be.
He liked the feeling of blood spraying across his forearms, like hot silk being draped over them.
He liked the sound of a knife through flesh—a quiet, almost non-sound, that he had come to associate with happiness and a feeling of completion.
He had to be careful though. If he passed out at this point, he would bleed to death and the Great Work might never be finished. Who else on this insignificant planet would dare take up this burden? Who else even could?
Soon he would be done with his Great Work, the task for which he had been bred and born, bled and torn.
Soon, very soon, They would be free.
Shelby hated the bus. It bounced. And it smelled. And it was full of children, and they bounced and smelled, too.
Despite logic dictating that a forty-minute walk from the school through some very questionable neighborhoods was totally out of the question, she still wished that she could just walk home. If it weren't for Bobby, she probably could. She was the older sister, after all. Despite how popular and well-liked and just sooo funny her baby brother might be, he was still the baby brother. And an older sister has to look out for a baby brother.
That's just how things are.
Still, she could neither help nor deny the jealousy she felt. Even the boy that put gum in people's hair would not sit next to Shelby on the bus while the area around her little brother would have been standing-room-only had not the rules of the bus come into play.
Shelby was glad for the rules. It kept at least six or seven people away from her brother and, Shelby was quite certain, if six or seven more kids were standing there just hanging on her baby brother's every word, Shelby would have tossed her cookies all over the place.
He had spoiled everything, Shelby often thought, despite not being able to clearly remember a time without Bobby around. She was also forced to admit that having Bobby around did have certain advantages, no matter how much she hated his rotten guts and told him so every day. Then they would say their prayers and she would hug and kiss him and tell him that she loved him very much and they would lay in the darkness for hours listening intently to the raging and tears drifting up from the kitchen below or straining their ears even harder in the deadly silences that often followed.
There was a lot of yelling that night. A lot. And loud sounds, breaking sounds; doors and drawers were slammed open, slammed shut. Whatever their mother had said to him, he didn't like it. “Bitch,” he screamed so loud and so suddenly in the otherwise quiet house that it sounded like he could have been in the room with them.
There was more slamming, more breaking, and then the front door slammed shut hard enough to rattle the windows on that side of the house. Afterward, the only sound in the house was their mother's quiet sobs from the kitchen floor.
“We should,” began Bobby but Shelby clamped her hand across his mouth so fast with her eyes so wide that he cried out, the sound only a muffled whimper against her palm. The terrified gleam in his big sister's eyes put more fear into Bobby's heart than all the violence in the world he had ever witnessed could even begin to cause. It made his skin want to crawl away and made his bowels feel loose and he started crying.
“Shh,” Shelby said and drew Bobby against her and held him close and rocked him. “Shh, it's okay,” she whispered, “just stay in here with me and everything will be fine.”
Once, on a similar night, while Bobby lay snoring gently in the crib he would quickly outgrow, Shelby went downstairs to see if her mother was okay.
There had been blood and—just like whenever you spread any liquid around—it looked like an awful lot of it.
Shelby's mother had been sitting at the kitchen table, first snorting some kind of fine, white powder up her nose and then she pulled out the teeth Shelby's father had loosened for her, using a washcloth to get a better grip. When the woman had seen her daughter's wide eyes gleaming in the flickering light of the fallen lamp, she had responded badly.
Shelby never could quite recall what happened next. She remembered pain and fear and a sense of loss and she woke in a hospital bed. The moment her eyes flickered open, her mother's face had filled Shelby's vision. Mrs. Reynolds had looked over her shoulder before whispering, “You fell. Say anything else and I'll kill you.”
Shelby told the doctors that she fell. She always told the doctors that she fell. They would ask Where? and How? and When? but Shelby always said she could only remember falling.
“Must've been some fall,” the nurse had muttered way back then and had glared at Shelby's mother.
A month later Shelby was back home and on the mend and now, six years later, she still limped and sometimes her back would hurt when the weather changed. At least something changed, Shelby would think over and over again for the years between that long ago Then and Now.
And so Shelby had always kept Bobby with her and would keep him quiet by telling him stories and teaching him about science and math (and he never listened to a thing she taught him) and holding him close whenever they heard movement elsewhere in the house. She told him about rain shadows and even more mysterious things.
Eventually their mother would sleep and, when she finally retired, so did they.
Shelby, like always, made sure her baby brother got to sleep as soon as possible. They did have school tomorrow, after all.
It was 1:00 AM.
Despite knowing that he did not actually have to speak to Elaine, it made him feel better to do so, so Jake whispered, “Which way?”
His position, and that of the quarry, were fed to him through his optical nerve and showed two flaring dots on a green, wire-frame map. He was blue, the bad guy was red. He had always wondered about that. It always seemed like the good guy was either wearing blue or green and the bad guy was in red or black. Except Mario, of course. That was one good guy that scoffed at the conventional wisdom of video game fashion.
“This is not a game, Jake.”
“Sure feels like it sometimes.”
“You should not let your mind wander in a combat situation. There is no reset button on life, Jake.”
“I am running down a hallway, Elaine, that our target passed through half a minute ago. Not a lot of fighting going on right now.”
“Twenty-two seconds and, were you paying as much attention to the telemetry I am providing as you were to your video game dilemma, you would have noticed that the quarry has taken up a stationary position ten yards ahead.”
“Shit,” Jake breathed and ducked into one of the many doorways opening off of the central corridor beneath Mercy General. “You got eyes on our boy?”
“I have been attempting to access hospital security cameras following the loss of data from the motion trackers.”
“He stopped moving.”
“As in dead?”
“Or maybe... Elaine, could he be-”
“Cloaked,” inquired the mouth behind the barrel that pressed against the base of Jake's skull. “Hm, could be... Now you lay down that weapon and stand up, nice and easy, pal. We need to talk.”