Girl With Broken Wings, Book Three
A traffic jam on the 76 through Denver only sours my mood. Eleven hours of straight driving brings me bouncing down the rutted road in Farewell, Colorado. This is waaaaaay back country, where you go not to be found.
Tall pines hold their vigil on each side of the road, capped with snow, and the only indication of human settlements are rusted mailboxes at the end of small dirt runoffs every few miles. I slow in front of Dr. Lee’s cabin. Three months ago we brought a nearly lifeless Gabe to Dr. Lee’s doorstep. My brothers don’t just count on Dr. Lee as an ally; he’s practically the father they never had despite his perpetually grouchy demeanor. He pulled off a miracle that night and in the days afterward as Gabe slowly recovered.
I long to pull into the driveway, knock on the door, and ask about how Dr. Lee’s arthritis is doing. His housekeeper, Francesca, and I could lounge in the kitchen and chat softly for a while. I’d thanked her for the millionth time for all the care she lavished on Gabe when he was in a coma, and she’d lower her large doe eyes and murmur something sweetly humble like, “It wasn’t anything. Dr. Lee saved him.”
But it was something. She could have refused to help when she saw all the weapons strapped to Gabe’s body. She could have demanded we bring him to a hospital. She could have called the cops.
I tap the gas pedal, and the jeep bounces forward on the road. I don’t really want to know whether Dr. Lee’s arthritis is acting up. I want to slow down time and hold off the giant heap o’ pain that awaits at the end of this road. Doesn’t that just make me the number one sister in the world?
Two miles down from Dr. Lee’s cabin, the unpaved road doesn’t really end as much as it just gives up, petering out at my destination. When I was first changed, this sallow green house with its sagging bannister and rusted gutters was a prison. Somewhere over the last six months it has turned into a sort of home. Though at this moment, it feels more like a punishment.
Because of Gabe.
Apprehension fills my stomach with a horde of black beetles as I pull into the driveway. I gather my duffle bag and the empty rat cage from the back of the jeep and note with pride that there are no blood stains mar the upholstery. You lay out tarp enough, and you’re bound to get pretty good at it eventually.
As soon as I enter the house, I know Gabe’s not here. Weak as it is, I’m highly attuned to the unique signature of his aura. For a long, terrible moment, my mind reels with all the ways he could have come to harm while Tarren and I were out in the world ignoring him – another seizure, a fall down the stairs, the angels could have finally tracked us down and found Gabe weak and defenseless as a —
The sudden, concussive reports of gunshots shatter the wheel of my thoughts.
“You think you can take me?” Gabe says in a cool voice as he holds his Beretta PX4 semi-automatic aloft. He aims his weapon into the woods behind the house. His target appears to be an empty can of Progressive clam chowder perched precariously on a branch 20 yards away. Snow drifts lazily from the sky, landing on the brim of Gabe’s lucky hat, turned backwards as usual.
I step through the back door and automatically assess his aura. The thin cloak of color around him wavers. I search for the rich blues – Blue as Blue, True as True – that once made his aura so beautiful and alluring. All I find are diluted shades of discomfort.
I wonder again if a part of him didn’t come back from the coma. Won’t ever come back.
“That the best insult you got?” Gabe says to the clam chowder can. He takes a pull from the blunt in his left hand. “Insult this.”
Six shots puncture the air, each recoil slamming reds into his pale aura. The last bullet nicks the can. It spins and topples off the branch.
“Fuck me,” Gabe mutters and takes another long drag.
Before he got injured, Gabe could have hit that can 30 yards back shooting with his left hand. My brother turns and notices me leaning against the kitchen door.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey.” I force myself to look at him. The skin is tight and pale around his face, dipping into slight concave depressions under each cheekbone. His brown elf eyes seem huge. He swims in an old hoodie with a flaking image of Cartman on the front below the words, Respect my Authority! Beneath the layers of fabric, Gabe’s body is nothing but bones, ligaments, and parchment skin. He looks like a teenager on the losing end of a cancer diagnosis, and I almost have to remind myself that he is three years older than me.
I resist the urge to take his temperature, demand to know if he’s been drinking his protein shakes every three hours like Dr. Lee ordered, or put him on the scale to see if he finally broke 100 pounds.
“You’re doing it again,” Gabe says as he flips the safety on his gun
“Looking at me like that.”
“No I’m not. Like what?” I settle my gaze on the tall pines in front of us, still so starkly green even in the middle of winter. The sun shines down, turning the surface of the snow into glinting gold.
“I don’t know, like you want to put me in a bubble and feed me chicken soup all day long.”
“How have you been eating?” I can’t help myself.
Gabe grimaces and walks past me into the house. I notice how he shivers, even with the hoodie. He’s always cold now, no matter how high we crank the heater.
“So, how were the strip clubs?” he asks, easing himself down on the couch. Faint hues of pink stride through his aura. His ribs are still giving him trouble, even after three months of healing.
“Dirty. Depressing.” Kind of like the living room. Gabe’s epic pile of DVDs spill across the carpet like they’re mid-prison break. His game controllers twist and coil around each other, and empty beer bottles and half-eaten sandwiches litter the coffee table. Seems like the plates and silverware went on strike while I was gone, along with the vacuum, duster, and Febreze.
“Damn.” Gabe leans back on the couch. “God hates me. You have any idea how long I’ve been waiting for a mission that involves strip clubs?”
I stand next to the couch, but not exactly close to it.
“It was gross,” I tell him. “Most of them were total sinkholes.”
“Now you’re just rubbing it in.”
I look behind him in the corner of the room where the small Christmas tree I put up last month is brown and littering the floor with needles. A lot of good my forced holiday cheer did. Both brothers refused to demonstrate even an ounce of holiday spirit, and Tarren and I were on the road during Christmas. I still have both their presents hidden under my bed. It seems too late to give them out now.
Gabe takes a final pull on his blunt, leans forward, and snuffs it out on the coffee table between an empty bottle of beer and a glass half-filled with the turgid remains of a protein shake. I open my mouth to say something, but don’t.
There’s a long, awkward quiet that I hate, because Gabe and I were never awkward before.
“So I see Tarren’s found another excuse not to be here,” he finally says.
This at least gives me something to focus on. I tell Gabe about the mysterious call. My hands flap for emphasis as I explain about the strange girl on the phone and how Tarren took his stuff and left.
Gabe is unimpressed.
“But she said his name,” I insist. “It was something big, I could tell. Wherever he was going, it was dangerous.”
“If it was dangerous, he would have taken more weapons,” Gabe points out.
I ignore him. “So, we need to find him. Well, I need to find him. I was thinking that you could probably track his cellphone?”
Gabe’s face and aura tell me that he is nowhere near the level of agitation that I am so valiantly trying to impress upon him.
“What?” I demand.
Gabe shrugs again. “Tarren leaves. That’s what he does. Get used to it.”
Wisps of orange light up in his aura. I should have never told him about Tarren’s turn and run routine just after we got Gabe into Dr. Lee’s care.
“He’s just…” I begin uselessly.
“What?” Gabe’s voice is suddenly sharp. “He’s what, Maya? Just Tarren? Yeah, I know.”
Pained reds seep into his fledging aura as he pulls himself up from the couch. I watch him take careful, bracing steps to the stairs and then pause, gathering his strength.
That pause is a sledgehammer crashing into my sternum. Gabe used to bound up stairs, skipping steps.
His voice is soft and weary when he speaks. “When Mom’s cancer got real bad, when she couldn’t get out of bed, I was the one who took care of her. Did you know that?”
I try not to cringe. “Yeah, you told me.”
“Tarren and Tammy said the mission was more important, but they just didn’t want to watch her die. They left. Just fucking left.” Gabe’s hands are tight fists, his knuckles nothing but bone wrapped in skin. “When it was getting close, I called them. Begged them to come home. But they didn’t make it in time. I was the only one with her when she died.”
“I know,” I say softly.
Gabe walks up the stairs, and I force myself to watch. The weak tendrils of his energy hold so close to his withered frame, and he refuses to use the bannister for support. When he gets to the top, I assume our delightful conversation is over. I drop down onto the couch, close my eyes, and exhale.
“He’d run into a burning building for any one of us.” Gabe’s voice floats down from the upstairs hallway. “Hell, he’d do it for a complete stranger, but that doesn’t make him brave.”
He slams his bedroom door.
A Gabe Fox Novella
Girl with Broken Wings, 3.5
“You think you can take me?” I squint at the soup cans that hang from the branches in the woods behind our house. Each wears a little hat of snow. Today I picture them as seedy western outlaws wearing grime crusted cowboy hats and grinning at me with mouths full of rotting teeth.
I grip my Beretta, which I found buried in the couch cushions in the living room. The outlaw leader guffaws, underestimating me. A lethal mistake as many other soup cans have discovered.
“You ain’t got the guts!” he sneers. “I thinks yer yellah.” His posse laughs with him.
“That the best insult you got?” I reply and take a long drag of the blunt in my left hand. I hold in the smoke, hoping it will soak in and help douse the ache in my ribs. Dr. Lee says I fractured two and cracked one, all on the right side. The doctor says there’s nothing to do about them except keep them taped up and let time do its work. After three months I’m thinking time called into the office with a big fuck you and went to live on a commune in Minnesota.
When my lungs begin to burn, I exhale and shoot. Each recoil slams up my arm, throwing the shots wild and echoing in my tender ribs. I empty the clip. The last bullet nicks the can, and it swings drunkenly on its string.
Only a flesh wound. The outlaw shakes his head is disappointment.
“Fuck me,” I mutter. This is the saddest shit I’ve ever witnessed. Give me a pink dress and call me Sally. Time was, I could put a bullet through every can out here. All the parts of me were one. From the deepest fiber of my soul, I knew how to shoot, how to absorb the recoil, how to get that bullet where it needed to go.
The ache in my arms and shoulders is like a heartbeat. More ammo. I need more ammo, more practice, and I should probably dredge up some earplugs. I turn around and see Maya leaning against the back door.
Of fucking course she came home just in time to see my little display of complete ineptitude. And she’s looking at me with that face again, her big blue-gray eyes all sad and feely.
“Hey,” I mutter as I exhale another lungful.
“Hey,” she says back.
I don’t know why, but it always surprises me how small she is. As she stands up proper, she can’t be taller than 5’3 or weigh a drop over 120. But that Munchkinitis doesn’t mean she’s not an ass kicker of epic proportions. Girl could probably put her fist through a car door and then pick it up and throw it at you.
Just a few of the bennies of getting infected and turned into a hybrid angel.
Fate gave Maya a pretty shit deal on that front. Up until six months ago she was a normal human college student, posting weird Facebook updates that were part philosophy, part sarcasm, going to class, and not partying nearly enough. She had a boyfriend. She had a life. And because I was too slow, she lost it all, even her humanity. I think if I did a good deed every single hour of every single day for the rest of my pathetic life, I still wouldn’t be able to make up for that epic fail. For letting down the only sister I have now.
Maya’s abilities are damn cool, but they didn’t exactly come free of charge. I can’t help but glance at her gloved hands. The hunger is something she has to constantly control, and the energy sucking thing…I hate thinking about that. Thank the Lord that she’s not a full angel. Otherwise I’m not sure if we would be able to help her keep the hunger under control.
I realize that no one’s said anything for a full minute. The cold digs through all the layers of my clothes and injects ice into my bones. And Maya won’t get that look off her face.
“You’re doing it again,” I tell her and hit the safety on my gun automatically, even though the mag is empty.
“Looking at me like that.”
“No I’m not,” she huffs. “Like what?”
I almost laugh. She looks so much like Tarren when she frowns, the way her eyes crinkle and her mouth gets tight.
I shrug. “I don’t know, like you want to put me in a bubble and feed me chicken soup all day long.”
That frown sets a little deeper, and she reaches up to tuck some strands of reddish brown hair behind her ear. It’s getting long, the ends touching her shoulders.
“How have you been eating?” she asks.
Yep, here we go with the nanny routine. I walk past her into the house to get out of the cold. I need to play nice, I know that. Maya cares. That’s a good thing.
“So, how were the strip clubs?” I ask as I drop carefully onto the couch. My ribs don’t take too kindly to the movement, but I manage not to wince like a sissy.
“Dirty, depressing,” Maya says. I don’t know if she’s talking about the strip clubs or the house, as her eyes take a tour of the room and her nose wrinkles up in displeasure.
Right, I haven’t exactly been Mr. Clean these past few weeks they’ve been gone. Actually, I think I’ve been Mr. Clean’s evil duplicate from an alternate universe. Just need the goatee.
“Damn,” I tell her, “God hates me. You have any idea how long I’ve been waiting for a mission that involves strip clubs?” I think longingly of all the jiggling female flesh that I missed.
“It was gross,” Maya replies. “Most of them were total sinkholes.”
Ah, my favorite kind. The shittier the club, the more amenable the women. You’d be amazed at how attentive an over-the-hill stripper can be when you treat her nice. She’ll teach you things the Kama Sutra wouldn’t dare publish.
“Now you’re just rubbing it in,” I groan.
Maya is quiet. I follow her gaze to the small, brown pine tree that she dragged out of the forest last month. She’d even strung up some lines of popcorn to try and turn it into a Christmas tree.
It was a nice thought, but we haven’t done the Christmas thing ever since Mom got sick. Tarren is against celebrating of any kind, and me, I don’t know. Mom died in December. So did Tammy. After that all the fake cheer of Christmas carols always seemed mocking. Plus, it’s not like we had anyone but each other to share the holiday with, and Tarren has so little Christmas cheer that Ebenezer Scrooge would consider him a buzzkill.
The tree is sad as piss. All its needles are brown from the water I never gave it. Some cling on, but most have found their way onto the carpet. I need to throw it out. I’ve had this thought probably a hundred times. I can’t stand looking at it, but here it still is. Alone. Abandoned. Shriveling.
Which reminds me… I stamp out my blunt on the coffee table mostly because I just to be an ass. “So, I see that Tarren’s found another excuse not to be here,” I mention casually.
Maya turns to me the moment I open my mouth. The speed and grace of her movements sometime remind me of a cat. It’s in these tiny ways, almost too fast for the eye to see, that I realize again and again that she’s different. Something beyond human.
“He left. He…just left,” she says and then launches into a bizarre story of a phone call, a mysterious voice on the other end asking for Tarren by name, and Tarren’s response, which was pretty much to take our medical kit and walk off into the sunset on a mysterious solo adventure.
I lean back on the couch, careful with my ribs. Wow, Tarren lied about something and then left. Color me shocked beyond all reason. And I haven’t even received a cheerful postcard from him yet. What is the world coming to?
Maya gnaws on her lip, and I bring myself back to reality. She’s right. It’s weird. Definitely weird. Tarren doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t have friends except for that piss ant Lo, and Dr. Lee, of course. Could he have found a girlfriend? God, I hope so. A man just shouldn’t go dry for that long. It’s not right or healthy. If I had his movie star looks you can bet your ass I’d put them to way better use than Tarren ever does.
I know the girlfriend idea is wishful thinking. The scars. Tarren won’t even acknowledge them, as if he could just think them out of existence. I swear he’d insist on wearing long-sleeves and pants into hell rather than let anyone see the scars. Trying to talk to him about them is about as pleasant and productive as walking repeatedly into a brick wall.
And he took the medical kit. Not exactly a bouquet of roses.
Maya looks at me in expectation, like this is some kind of Nancy Drew mystery that we can solve together with a magnifying glass and some gumption. I turn off my worry spout. Tarren can take care of himself, and if the situation were dangerous he would have loaded up with weapons and ammo. I tell her as much.
Maya starts going on about tracking him down and stuff, but I put the kibosh on that.
“Tarren leaves. That’s what he does. Get used to it,” I tell her.
Maya used to be president of the Tarren-is-an-unfeeling-husk club, but lately it seems like she’s given up her membership. With all the time she’s spending on the road with him, I wonder if she isn’t getting a little Stockholm Syndrome.
”He’s just…” she answers meekly.
“What?” I didn’t realize how pissed I was getting until this word snaps out of me. I guess we’re doing this. “He’s what, Maya? Just Tarren? Yeah, I know.” Not like I haven’t been living with the guy my entire life. Shit, now I’m thinking about Mom and her cancer again.
I don’t want to be in this conversation anymore. I don’t want Maya feeling sorry for Tarren. He and Tammy left back then too, when Mom was sick. The mission. Always the fucking mission, but that was just a pathetic excuse. They were afraid of Mom, of all that pain and sickness. Like I wasn’t? Like watching Mom die wasn’t as lovely as having my soul peeled away with a rusted spoon? I tell this to Maya as I go up the stairs. And yeah, those stairs suck ass, but I don’t stop, and I sure as hell don’t lean on the bannister, not while Maya’s watching.
I tell Maya about how I took care of Mom, how I called Tarren and Tammy when I knew she was dying. How they didn’t make it back in time. I don’t tell her Maya how Mom got so small, like she was just evaporating right in front of my eyes. How all that strength, all that power that had infused her entire being just faded away. It was a good lesson. Anyone can be weak. Anyone can break no matter how strong they pretend to be on the outside.
I get to the top of the stairs, and honestly, I’m pretty much out of strength. I need to go lights out for a few hours, stop thinking about the brother who can’t stand to look at me.
“He’d run into a burning building for any one of us,” I say, knowing that Maya can hear me with her super ears. “Hell, he’d do it for a complete stranger, but that doesn’t make him brave.”
Pretty damn good. Didn’t even practice it. I slam my bedroom door for emphasis, and it’s all I can do to get to the bed before the exhaustion knocks me out like a cartoon mallet.