Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Our program continues today with an extended excerpt from Riders by Veronica Rossi, the first in a series about the four horsemen of the apocalypse – but they’re trying to save the world, not end it. The sequel, Seeker, will be available on May 16th.
For eighteen-year-old Gideon Blake, nothing but death can keep him from achieving his goal of becoming a U.S. Army Ranger. As it turns out, it does.
Recovering from the accident that most definitely killed him, Gideon finds himself with strange new powers and a bizarre cuff he can’t remove. His death has brought to life his real destiny. He has become War, one of the legendary four horsemen of the apocalypse.
Over the coming weeks, he and the other horsemen–Conquest, Famine, and Death–are brought together by a beautiful but frustratingly secretive girl to help save humanity from an ancient evil on the emergence.
Now–bound, bloodied, and drugged–Gideon is interrogated by the authorities about his role in a battle that has become an international incident. If he stands any chance of saving his friends and the girl he’s fallen for–not to mention all of humankind–he needs to convince the skeptical government officials the world is in imminent danger.
But will anyone believe him?
When I open my eyes, all I see is darkness.
Can’t move … can’t speak … can’t think through this jaw-grinding headache. I hold still, waiting for some clarity on where I am or how long I’ve been out, but nothing comes. What I know for sure: I’m tied to a chair, gagged, and my head is covered with a hood that reeks of sweat and vomit.
Not what I expected from a rescue.
My neck creaks like a rusty hinge as I straighten, and the darkness comes loose and starts to spin. It spins and spins and my stomach throws in the towel, and it’s spinning, too. Hot spit floods into my mouth. I know what’s coming next, so I pull deep breaths, in and out, until the urge passes and I’m okay again. Just sitting here sweating bullets in this chair and this hood.
I can’t believe this. They drugged me. Gave me some kind of sedative because I am way too calm right now. Probably painkillers, too. I can’t feel my shoulder and that cut was deep. My deltoid looked like raw steak. Even I should still feel a gash that bad.
Nice. Well done, US government. The whole world is going to hell, pretty much. I’m one of the few people who can help—and this is what they do?
I put my focus into listening. Every so often I hear feet shuffling or a throat clearing. I pay attention to the sounds, trying to figure out how many men are guarding me. Two is my guess.
A radiator clicks on behind me and keeps clicking, like someone’s tapping a wrench against metal. Heat builds on my back like sunshine. Strange in all this darkness. After a few minutes it shuts off and the quiet stretches out. My back is just starting to cool when a door whines open. Footsteps come toward me and stop. Then a chair scrapes across the floor.
It’s game time. Answer time.
“Take off his hood,” says a female voice.
There’s a tug, then a rush of cool air against my face, and my eyes slam shut against the brightness. I’m not expecting it when the gag goes next, tearing out a few layers of my tongue with it.
“Take your time,” says the woman.
Like I have a choice. For a few seconds, all I can do is try to get some moisture back in my mouth. I pull against my arm restraints, riding out the urge to rub my stinging eyes. It takes forever for the figure in front of me to come into focus.
A woman—in her forties, I think—sits behind a small wooden desk. She has olive skin and dark hair, eyes as black and shiny as wine bottles. Her navy-blue suit looks expensive and she has a PhD kind of vibe, like she knows everything about something. And wrote a book about it. A civilian. I’d bet anything.
“Hello, Gideon. I’m Natalie Cordero,” she says. “I’m going to be asking you some questions.”
She folds her hands in front of her and pauses, letting me know she’s in control, that she talks to guys like me every day, but I know for a fact that’s impossible. No one else in the world is like me. No one.
A whiff of her perfume reaches me—a floral-citrus-musk-meatlover’s combo that’s strong, a scent bullhorn, but better than the stench from the hood.
Two men stand behind her. The guy wearing a Texas Rangers baseball cap is massive, the size of the door he’s guarding. The other guy’s more compact, has a dark complexion and wrestler ear. He rests a hand on the Beretta on his belt holster and gives me a look like, Just give me an excuse to use this.
Both have full beards, wind-chapped faces, and are dressed in jeans, hiking boots, and Patagonia jackets, but they’re special ops. Delta or SEALs. You don’t get that kind of stance, relaxed but totally alert, without earning it.
I recognize them. They were part of the unit that busted me out of Norway today. Or yesterday … or whenever that happened.
Natalie Cordero assesses my shirt and cargos, the dried blood, the burnt patches, the crusted mud, the top layer of fine ash. I’ve looked better, I’ll admit. Then I follow her eyes to my shoulder. Through a tear in my shirt I see that my captors—who are supposed to be my allies—put a compression bandage on my cut. That was cool of them.
“Water?” Cordero asks.
It takes a couple of tries but I manage to scrape out some words. “Yes. Yes, please.”
The bigger guard, in the Rangers cap, brings over a plastic bottle with a flexible straw. His face is ruddy and square, brickish. Graying beard, blue eyes. He’s the guy who knocked me out in Jotunheimen. But I didn’t really give him an option. I lost it when Daryn stayed behind. I didn’t expect her to do that. Never saw it coming and totally lost it. That can’t happen again. I can’t lose control of this situation, so I focus on getting my bearings as I suck down water, replenishing my dehydrated body.
I’m in a small room with pine walls and floorboards. Even the trim is pine, so. Either I was eaten by a tree or I’m in a cabin. There’s a window to my left with checkered blue curtains. No light or sounds bleed through, so either it’s nighttime or the window’s been blacked out. I’m going to go with both. The only illumination in the room comes from an iron lamp in the corner with no shade, just a bare bulb that’s either a trillion watts or my eyes are extra sensitive from the drugs.
A cool draft seeps through the two-inch gap beneath the door. It’s not easy smelling anything beyond Cordero’s perfume but I catch stale carpet smell and woodsmoke. As prison cells go, it’s pretty cozy.
“I should’ve asked before,” Cordero says when my water break is over, “would you prefer that I call you Gideon or Mr. Blake?”
I was right. She’s not military or she’d have called me “Private Blake.”
I swallow again, my throat feeling better. “Ma’am, I’d prefer you untied me and told me where I am.” I instantly want to punch myself for the ma’am thing. She’s detaining me. Screw manners.
She doesn’t answer, so I try another question. “Are we still in Norway?” Nothing again. I look to the guys at the door. “Are we back in the States?”
“I can’t give you that information at this time, Gideon,” Cordero says, deciding for herself what to call me. I’m eighteen, probably half her age, so I can see why she didn’t go with “Mr. Blake.”
“Why can’t I know where I am? Why all this?” I nod to myself. “I’m not going to run. I called you guys, remember? For help? How about cutting me free?”
“When I’m done questioning you, you’ll be released.”
“Released.” It’s so messed up, I have to laugh. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“No?” She leans forward, her gaze narrowing. “You inflicted millions of dollars of damage on Jotunheimen National Park. You don’t think that’s wrong? American taxpayers are paying for that damage. The American public paid to bail you and your friends out of that mess. You’re lucky the media hasn’t caught on yet. You almost caused an international incident. You do realize that? Until I know exactly what you were doing in Norway and why you chose to destroy acres of pristine parkland, you aren’t leaving this room. I mean that, Gideon. You might as well get comfortable.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. “You think this is about damaged land? About money?”
“If I thought that was all this was, you wouldn’t be here.”
“You really want to know what this is about? I’ll tell you. Pure evil is out there. We’re in trouble—and I don’t mean American taxpayers. I mean humanity. I mean everyone. And you’re looking at one of the only people who can do anything about it. So what do you say you untie me?”
“Not happening, Gideon,” she says, disregarding everything I just said. “And before you become belligerent again, let me tell you. Losing your temper won’t help anything.”
I’m wasting my time with her. I need to get out of here. Find the guys. Get the key back. “Where’s Colonel Nellis?” I trust my commanding officer. I want to talk to him, not a stranger.
“This incident has gone above the jurisdiction of the US Army,” she says.
“Who are you with? The Defense Department? CIA?”
“Let me spell this out for you. I ask questions, you answer them. That’s how this works.”
There actually wasn’t any spelling in that, but whatever. I’m done with this. Time to bring the wrath.
I reach for my anger, for my sword, for Riot.
I get nothing. I’m powerless. The drugs have neutralized everything. I’m completely zeroed.
It makes no sense, none, so I start yelling. She’s making a huge mistake. I’m one of the good guys. She has no idea who she’s talking to. Everything I say sounds scripted and insane but it’s true. It’s the truth.
Cordero checks her watch. “Seems it’s about that time again.” She looks over her shoulder at the guy with the Beretta. “Get him under control.”
Beretta slides a small black pouch from a cargo pocket. He pulls on latex gloves and takes out a hypodermic needle as I keep yelling and thrashing against the bindings, getting absolutely nowhere.
The bigger guy, Texas, comes around my chair and puts me in a rear chokehold. “Relax,” he says. “Relax.”
Which is the last thing I’m going to do, but then stars flicker against the pine walls and the room dims, then I dim. I’m not yelling anymore, I’m passing out.
Beretta sticks the needle into my forearm and depresses the plunger. A slow burn spreads through me. My face goes numb. My muscles relax. I relax.
I don’t want to relax, but I relax.
Texas releases me and I suck in air. Gulp it down. Oxygen is the best damn thing ever created.
Beretta shines a penlight into my eyes.
Doesn’t feel good.
I’m vaguely aware that I reacted too slowly. Reactions shouldn’t happen in steps. Unless it’s only one step. A single, self-contained step.
Yeah … that seems right.
“The kid’s cooked,” Beretta says as he peels off the gloves. He and Texas step back, posting up by the door again.
Keeping my head up becomes my new goal. It’s not easy. Reminds me of balancing a basketball on my finger. While trying to process information through it. Except my head isn’t actually a basketball, it just feels like one.
Yep. The kid’s cooked.
Cordero unfolds her hands. She drums her fingers on the table, watching me. “Ready to talk now?”
“You have no idea how big this is … what’s happening. You have no idea who I am.”
It takes me a second to realize that the words hanging in the room are mine.
Cordero’s fingers stop drumming. “Why don’t you tell me?”
I come so close to blurting it out, blurting everything out, I almost feel like I did it. Something’s not right. A prison break is happening in my mind. All my thoughts want out. My story wants out. Images of the past few weeks crash around in my head demanding freedom. Holding them back’s a full-body effort. I’m tied to a chair but my heart’s doing a triathlon. My face goes hot and the back of my throat starts to burn.
Cordero waits. “Okay, Gideon. We’ll try again in half an hour.” She pauses at the door. “I can do this all day. Can you?”
After she leaves, I let my head fall forward where it wants to be.
Breathe, Blake. Breathe.
I could’ve handled that better. But was I supposed to tell a stranger what’s going on? Who I am? What I am?
No way. Cordero would’ve panicked. She’d have lost her mind. But the words are still on my tongue. They’re right there.
I’m War, I want to say.
I am War.
It takes me less than a minute to realize that I have to answer Cordero’s questions. The drugs have wiped out my entire arsenal of abilities. I’m stuck in this chair until I give her what she wants. There’s no other way. I have to talk.
The taller guard, Texas, leaves to get her but she waits the full half hour before coming back, like a parent making a point. Don’t test me, Gideon Blake. I mean what I say and I say what I mean.
She brings a black file with her that makes a slap when she drops it on the desk. My military record. It’s pretty thick considering I only shipped off to basic a couple of months ago after high school, but I’ve already had a notable run in the Army.
Cordero tucks herself under the desk. “I’m glad you came around.” She flips open the file, then waits like she wants me to say thank you.
“You should’ve covered the electrical outlets,” I say instead.
Her dark eyebrows go up. “Excuse me?”
“If you didn’t want me to know I’m back in the States. Just a tip for the next time you unlawfully detain someone.”
“Noted. Any other suggestions on how I can do my job better?”
“Yes. As soon as we’re done, Nat, the second we’re done, you untie me and get Colonel Nellis.”
Cordero’s mouth lifts at the corners. Not a smile, exactly. More like a close cousin to a smile. “Stop calling me ‘Nat’ and we have a deal.”
I nod, but I’m actually not sure it’s going to work. Everything I just said sort of slipped out. My thoughts are still up in arms, tired of being stuck in my head. I have to keep consciously beating them back and hoping they stay there.
A muffled voice in the hallway draws my attention to the door. Sebastian, Marcus, and Jode left Norway with me. Only Daryn didn’t. The guys must be here. Probably in adjacent rooms being interro-questioned by their own Corderos. I bet Marcus hasn’t said a word, but I can just imagine the verbal diarrhea Bastian and Jode are slinging. Neither of those guys needs drugs to spill.
Thinking about them reminds me of Daryn again. This time I really sink into the memory and she’s twisting her long hair over one shoulder and smiling at me.
What are you looking at, Gideon?
You. I’m looking at you.
How am I looking?
Perfect, I should’ve said. But I didn’t.
“Gideon? Are you with me?”
Whoa. Not at all. How long did I just zone out? Priority one: Get these drugs out of my system. They’re slowing me down too much. I won’t stand a chance against the Kindred doped up like this. I need to get this debriefing done, find the guys, and get back in the fight.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m with you.”
“Good. Let’s start with the accident at Fort Benning.” Cordero reads from the folder. “The last record we have of your whereabouts is dated six weeks ago. You suffered extensive injuries during a training incident. The report states that you fractured your femur, radius and ulna … cracked ribs … severe concussion. It says here you were unresponsive for over two minutes. You had just been declared dead when you resuscitated.” She looks up from the file. “Tell me what happened during that exercise. You were parachuting?”
I nod. “But it didn’t go right and … I bounced.”
Behind her Texas and Beretta exchange a look. Dumb boot, I bet they’re thinking. Incompetent little turd.
“Bounced?” Cordero asks.
“Hit the dirt at a very high velocity.”
“Yes. I have that here, but I’d like to hear the full account in your own words.”
Right. My own words. But now I can’t seem to start. Going through this from the beginning will use up precious time. How can I sit here, talking, when the Kindred are out there hurting innocent people? On the other hand, if I tell Cordero the situation without any lead-up, she’ll either panic and make hasty decisions, or think I’m crazy and refuse to believe me—neither of which I want, so. The fastest way out of this room really is to tell the whole story, and that jump was definitely square one. The beginning. Or the end, depending on your perspective. Death usually is the end.
“Walk me through it, Gideon. Moment to moment,” Cordero says, like she’s sensed I’m finally ready.
“Okay. The accident.”
You have my military record, Cordero, so you know the lead-up: how I’d literally boarded a plane for Fort Benning, Georgia the day after I got my diploma in May. It’d been a long senior year, not a lot of fun for me, and I couldn’t wait to put high school behind and start doing something I actually cared about.
I spent the summer going through Basic Training, then Advanced Infantry Training, then Airborne School, finally ending up where I really wanted to be—the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program. RASP is the gateway for becoming a Ranger, a soldier in the 75th Ranger Regiment. My dad had been part of this elite combat unit once and I was determined to become part of it too, even if it killed me—which is actually what happened, but I’ll get to that.
RASP, in a nutshell, is eight weeks of pure punishment meant to weed out anyone who’s not supposed to be there. The program puts you through constant physical and mental tests on almost no food and even less sleep. Intense. But my Ranger buddy and I were both in it for the long haul. Cory was from Houston, a couple of years older than me, and relentless. He’d face a twelve-mile run in full combat kit with a grin and his personal motto: Nobody ever drowned in their own sweat.
Four weeks in, our class had been reduced by around half, to fifty guys. We were pulled away from the steady stream of road marches and weapons drills for a parachute jump. Most of us had just gotten our jump wings in Airborne School, and they wanted to keep our training fresh in our minds.
We loaded into the Air Force C-130 just after ten a.m. Cory and I took our seats side by side, how we’d pretty much been for the past month. As the plane’s propellers fired up, the anticipation of the coming thrill erased the aches that had been piling up in my body. By the time we were in the air, I found myself grinning. Like every other five-jump-chump.
My first jump a few weeks earlier had required a leap of faith, just to get out the door. But then the canopy had opened four seconds later, right on time like it was supposed to, then I’d relaxed and it had been amazing. It was real quiet and peaceful on the way down, and you couldn’t beat the view.
This jump would be my sixth. Since it was only intended to refresh our training, we were jumping Hollywood-style, which meant we weren’t wearing our weapons, rucks, or combat load. Without all the gear, I was more comfortable, and I knew it would also give me more time on the descent. Jumping from a thousand feet, the whole thing never lasted much longer than a minute—combat jumpers needed to get on the ground fast—but without all the battle rattle weighing me down, I might get a few more seconds in the air than normal.
I sat back. Compared to the stuff I’d been doing, this was going to be a treat.
Listening to the drone of the engines, my eyes moved over the guys sitting in jump seats against the outside skin of the aircraft and in rows down the middle. It’d been a long time since I’d felt like I was in the right place, doing the right thing.
Then Cory dug an elbow into my side. “Good, Blake?”
The question sounded casual but I knew it wasn’t. The week before, we’d been pulling an all night march on Cole Range—acres of Georgia woods reserved for our training—and we got talking about the worst things we’d ever been through. I was so sleep-deprived, hungry and sore, I let slip that nothing had ever felt tough since my dad had died August 2nd of the previous year. Which happened to be a year ago, that very day. I was sitting on that plane on the anniversary of his death—and Cory had remembered.
But I had it under control.
“Good, Ryland,” I replied. Then I flipped him off as a thank you for asking.
In the center aisle, the jumpmaster started going through the jump sequence. Get ready, stand up, hook up, check static line, check equipment, sound off. I went through each check, along with the fifty guys around me. Airborne School put thousands of soldiers through this process every month and every part of it ran like a well-oiled machine.
As we approached the drop zone, the jumpmaster opened the door and cold air rushed into the plane. Sweat rolled down my back as the adrenaline buzzed through me. The feeling of toeing right up to the edge of my limits was familiar. I’d leaned pretty hard on it over the past year because it made me forget exactly what Cory had just reminded me of.
The jumpmaster gave the “Go,” command and the guys at front of the line started exiting, one after another, handing their static lines to the safety by the door and launching into the sky.
We moved quickly. In seconds it was Cory’s turn. He jumped through the door and disappeared, and then I was up. I took my last steps on the plane and threw myself out. As the air current grabbed me, I locked my feet and knees together and hit a good exit position. The plane’s engine noise receded rapidly behind me. As this was a static-line jump, my chute would auto-deploy. My job was just to make sure that happened properly.
Setting my hands on my reserve chute, I counted off like I’d been trained to do. “One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand.”
Where was the tug?
I looked up, searching for an open canopy like I’d seen in my last jumps.
It wasn’t open.
What I saw above me was a twist of pale silk. The canopy had rolled into a tight line. I instantly recognized it as a parachute malfunction—a streamer, also called a cigarette roll because of the way the parachute looked.
It offered no lift capability at all so I was still in a dead free-fall. I shot past Cory then saw him above me, suspended by his canopy and looking the way I was supposed to be looking, too. In the rush of the wind, I thought I heard him yell my name.
Then time went into slow motion and my training kicked in.
I ripped at the handle on the reserve chute and watched in disbelief as the reserve went straight up into the main, still streaming above me, then as the two wrapped and twisted together.
At this point, I knew I had a real mess on my hands but I stayed right with my training. It’d been drilled into me that the proper reaction to a reserve that failed to inflate was to reel it back in hand-over-hand and throw it back out, away from the main. As many times as it took. For the rest of my life. So I did that. I pulled and reeled in my reserve like I was in a tug-of-war for the ages.
I hadn’t missed a beat in my reactions, everything felt like instinct, but some part of me was stunned that I was suffering a double-malfunction, every jumper’s worst nightmare. They were incredibly rare—but not rare enough for me right then. The drop zone was coming up fast. Really fast. I finally bunched my reserve into a ball in front of me. With a heave, I threw the reserve down and away as hard as I could and wham! My harness yanked against me, digging into my groin.
My reserve had finally opened. The main flapped next to it, still in a twist but no longer causing problems.
This should’ve been great news but as I looked down at the earth, coming at me like a planet-sized bullet, I knew it was too late. My velocity wouldn’t allow for a safe landing. Or even a survivable one.
I had moment’s thought about my father and the coincidence that was happening, the two of us falling to our deaths on the same day, then I reminded myself of the correct parachute landing fall position.
Feet and knees together. Tuck chin and elbows. Land on balls of feet, then roll to calf, thigh, arc body—
I hit so fast it felt like I landed everywhere at once—feet, ass, head.
The last thing I remember was hearing the crunching of bones in my arm and my legs. And that was it.
I was done.
“What happened after you fell?” Cordero asks.
There’s a new intensity in her eyes. Same with the guys guarding the door. They’ve been indifferent so far. Almost bored. Not anymore.
“After I fell?” I say, buying myself a second to shake off that fall and get my heart to settle back down. Did I just say everything I think I said? Did I tell her about my dad?
Stay on topic, Blake. Answer the question. Only what she asks. But even that’s not so simple. What do I say here—the truth?
I fell, then my bones snapped, and then everything went quiet and I was floating in the stars, surrounded by them, breathing them, feeling them, dead, I knew I was dead, but I still heard guys yelling, felt Cory doing chest compressions, keeping my heart going, then something cinched tight to my left wrist and the life surged back into me?
No way. I’m not telling her that. She’s not ready yet. But these drugs in me are wicked.
I think it.
Words come out.
And my recollection feels too sharp. Too real. Just now it felt like I slipped into the past. As I was talking, my mind dove much deeper. I could see every detail. Feel every sensation. I literally just relived my death.
“Yes?” I was droning again. Basketball brain is bad news. The fact that the Kindred are out there and I’m stuck in this chair is even worse news. The radiator’s going again. I didn’t even hear it go on.
“What happened after the fall?”
“I woke up in the hospital. Walter Reed Medical Center. I’d been in ICU for a few days when I came around. My mom flew out to be with me but I only have a vague memory of that. Of anything from those days, actually, because I was either unconscious or drugged. Kinda like right now. By the way, Nat, Natalie … Cordero. I have a supersensitive stomach. Puking’s a personal specialty. I hope you’re quick.”
“Your files from Walter Reed are interesting,” she says, without missing a beat. “You were released within a week of being admitted.” She looks up, her eyes going a little wide. “That’s awfully fast.”
“Where did you go afterward?”
“I was transferred home. I’d stabilized much sooner than the doctors expected. They couldn’t seem to get a good grasp on what needed to be fixed. The status of my injuries … they described it as ‘dynamic.’ The docs did what they could, set the major bones—the femur and tibia—then decided to give the swelling a chance to subside before bringing me back for further assessment.”
“Your injury status was dynamic?”
“Thank you, I know what it means. Where’s home?”
“Half Moon Bay, California.”
“And what happened there?”
“Things got weird.”
Cordero sits back in her chair. She threads her fingers together. “Tell me about the weird,” she says.
So I do.
I was only there for about a day, but a lot happened in that time. It was when I first started noticing that things with me weren’t right.
From the second I woke up, I was so disoriented that I didn’t recognize my own room. I remember thinking the desk and the surfboard hanging over the window looked familiar before I realized they were actually mine. And my body felt strange. Not how I expected for being so busted up. I had air casts on my left leg and arm—I’d fallen on that side—but I didn’t feel any pain. My muscles only felt swollen, like they’d been stuffed with cotton balls. I chalked that up to all the pain meds I’d been taking.
Another strange thing about that morning was being alone. For days I’d been under the constant care of doctors and nurses at Walter Reed, then during my transfer home. Before that I’d been surrounded by guys all the time, in a nonstop flow of activity. You could call RASP a very dynamic environment. But that day in my room all I heard was the far-off hum of Highway 1. I was hyperaware of not having anywhere to be for the first time in months, so I just stayed there for a while, staring at the stripes of sunshine on my window blinds, absorbing my new situation.
Mom hadn’t moved anything in my room since I’d left home. My desk was still crowded with baseball trophies. My camping gear and backpacks were still piled in the corner. My graduation cap and gown were still thrown over the back of my chair. Everything looked too flimsy and bright. Like toys compared to the gear I’d been using in the Army.
After a minute or two, I rallied the courage to take a look at myself. My injuries could have definitely been worse but they were no cakewalk, either. Beneath the air casts and my clothes, I knew I was black-and-blue. Stitched up like a quilt. A real mess. Once the swelling went down, it was possible I’d need surgeries in my arm, wrist, and leg, followed by months of rehab before I could even think about getting back to Fort Benning. I’d been told at Walter Reed that could all take up to a year, but I’d refused to consider what that really meant in front of my mom and the doctors. Now I did, and it just about killed me.
I don’t expect you to understand this but enlisting in the Army, it was … um. It was a really good thing for me. I’d been in hell since my dad died. But RASP had turned things around for me. It was something positive when I’d needed it, and lying on my bed that morning, I couldn’t accept the setback I’d just been dealt. That I was going to miss a year while I healed. I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t go back to how I’d been before.
As that sank in, anger moved through me like nothing I’d ever felt before. A feeling way bigger than frustration or disappointment. It was rage. Rage that felt like heat inside me, a fever to the millionth degree. So much it seemed measurable, like if you had the right lens, the right equipment, you’d see thermal waves in the air around me.
I was on strict orders not to move unless absolutely necessary. Parts of my femur had shattered and had only just been set. Right then, I couldn’t have cared less. With that anger sizzling inside me, I couldn’t lay there any longer.
I shifted to the edge of the bed, slid my legs off the mattress, and sat up. A head rush hit me hard, my pulse a shrill cry in my ears, and the room carouseled around me, but I knew there’d be more. I braced myself for the pain I knew was coming.
It never did. Aside from dizziness and anger that felt like burning cordite inside me, I felt okay. My left arm and leg felt puffy and a little numb, but that was all.
My mom had left a note on my bedside table beneath a glass of water and my bottles of pain meds—a pharmacy’s worth. She was on a quick run to the grocery store. I was supposed to take my next doses as soon as I woke up because I was already two hours late. She’d also left my crutches leaning against the wall. I passed on the drugs, grabbed a crutch for my healthy arm, and stood.
I kept going.
To walk with only one side of my body, I had to drag my crutch in a half circle ahead of me, then step, then drag, then step, sort of like a human compass. I figured that out as I left my room and made my way into our short hallway, past the pictures of me and my twin sister, Anna, playing naked on the beach as babies, then me with braces and zits in Little League uniforms, then me with braces and zits before junior prom. I attribute most of my mental toughness to growing up walking that hallway day after day.
I gave myself a goal to get to the front door because setting goals is how I do things and I needed to keep moving. I needed to feel like I could still get around on my own. If I could just get past the front door, it’d be a sign that I was back in control, and already recovering.
As I hobbled into our small living room, I noticed some moving boxes stacked under the window and stopped. Anna’s painting of the ocean had been taken down from its spot above the couch and leaned against the wall. Our bookshelf was empty except for two framed photos. One of my dad kneeling by a swordfish on his best friend’s fishing boat, the other of me as a scrawny-ass kid riding a two-foot wave like I was the king of everything.
The signs were all there. We were selling the house.
I hadn’t expected that, though I should’ve. My mom managed a seafood restaurant by the harbor. She made an okay living but she was paying for Anna’s college. I tried to help. I gave her as much as I could from my Army paychecks, but it wasn’t much. Without my dad’s income, I knew we couldn’t stay in our house—the house my dad had built—and give my sister a college education. Still. I hadn’t realized we were that close to selling. I hated that my mom had to handle this—the sale, a move, her life—alone. But I didn’t know how to help. How could I take pressure off? Especially now that I was busted up?
Hobbling past the moving boxes, I made it to the front door and stepped outside. The concrete walkway felt cool under my right foot; my left was safely encased in the air cast.
Half Moon Bay, where I grew up, is a small town southwest of San Francisco right on the Pacific Ocean. It’s a fishing town and a surfing town and the smell there is a combination of lobster traps and highway exhaust and tourist restaurants. You know the smell of fish and chips? That’s home for me. A hundred percent, it’s home. It’s the best smell in the world. I’d missed it, but now I couldn’t stop thinking about the move. Soon this wouldn’t be home. Where would my mom go? And everywhere I looked I saw memories of my dad. The street, where we used to throw the baseball. The driveway, where he used to wash his truck. His workshop, in the garage.
I’d already lost him. Was I going lose these memories of him, too?
My next-door neighbor, Mrs. Collins, was out tending the roses along her picket fence. Mrs. C had just retired after being a nurse for forty years. Her husband had flown F-4s for the Air Force in Vietnam. Mrs. C had never had kids, so she’d sort of adopted Anna and me as unofficial grandkids. She loved to bake and had this great sense of humor. The day I enlisted, she brought over an olallieberry pie with a note that said, Dear Gideon, The Army is a fine path too, I suppose.
As much as I liked her, I was in no mood to talk. But I shuffled over to her anyway, because I knew my mom would never hear the end of it if I didn’t say hello.
“Hey, Mrs. C,” I said, trying to settle myself down. The personal anger atmosphere I’d developed was still with me, this searing heat that seeped from my skin. “How you doing today?”
“Gideon?” Her eyes met mine. They seemed foggy, like she wasn’t really focusing on me. And she’d frozen in place, letting the long red rose she’d just clipped fall to the grass.
“Mrs. Collins? You all right?”
She blinked. “Of course I am. I didn’t expect to see you.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.”
“That’s not what I said you did. What is it you want?” she demanded, her cheeks jiggling.
I didn’t really register her question right away. It seemed too harsh, and her gaze had gone from foggy to granite. “I was just walking to the beach.”
Actually I’d been hoping she’d heard about my accident and would offer to bake me a get-well pie, but not anymore. She was starting to freak me out.
“Liar.” She pointed the clippers at me. “You’re not going to the beach, young man. All you’re doing is standing there wasting my time!”
“Uh, what?” I didn’t understand. This was the little old lady who asked me to catch and release house spiders. Who smiled when she was sitting on her porch—alone. I mean … wasting her time? She lived for visits from me and Anna.
“Get on your way!” she yelled. She pulled off a gardening glove and tossed it at me. I dodged, but not very well with the cast and the crutches, and it smacked me on the back. “Scat!”
That sounded like a good idea to me. I dragged myself down the street, confused and shaken up. I made a mental note to talk to my mom. Mrs. C was getting up there in age. Maybe it was time someone checked her out.
I hobbled past the Marshburns’ and the Harringtons’ down to the end of our court. I knew better than to head into the sand with my injuries, so I stopped at the trailhead. Beyond the dunes and beneath the fog, the ocean was there, big and dependable. You could always count on the ocean to be the ocean.
As I stood there, I realized I still felt no pain in my leg or my arm. My doctors had been way off on their estimates for my recovery. A year, they’d told me. No way. Six months was my new target for getting back to Benning. Why not? Physically, I was feeling way better than I expected. Mentally, I had a full tank of frustration and anger to fuel me. And my pre-Army life offered nothing I wanted. My buddies and my sister were away at college. And with the house selling, I wouldn’t even have that anymore. I had to get out of there.
Down the beach, I spotted the Harringtons’ dog loping across the shallow waves. Jackson was more Grizzly Bear than Labrador. He’d been my running partner before I left home. I called him, and smiled as he came bounding over.
Ten feet shy of me, he dug his paws into the sand and stood tall, ears on high alert like he didn’t recognize me.
“Easy, boy. It’s me.” I’d known him since he was only a couple of weeks old.
His lips curled and he bared his teeth, letting out a low, rumbling growl.
“Jackson, it’s me.”
He charged before I got the words out, his hackles lifting, his mouth snapping.
I swung my crutch forward. “Jackson, back!”
But he kept snarling and lunging at me no matter what I yelled, pushing me back toward sand where I knew I’d lose my footing. I thought ahead. If I fell, I’d use my arm with the cast to shield me from his bites.
I’d just stepped off the asphalt when Jackson stopped. His ears pricked up. Then he took off, responding to the voice I could now hear calling him up the street.
I watched him disappear around the side of the Harringtons’ house, my heart banging against my chest.
What was that?
I’d had enough fresh air for the day. I hustled home, relieved that Mrs. C had gone inside, too. Shooting through my front door, I came face-to-face with my mom.
“Whoa! Mom! I was—”
I was what? Freaked out by a little old lady and a dog? Really? But the sight of my mom put that all out of my mind, and it was good. Just real good to see her without being in the haze of painkillers.
I hadn’t had an actual conversation with her in weeks, since before I started RASP, and there were a dozen questions I wanted to ask her. If she was doing okay with the house thing. If she was lonely without Anna and me around. If she’d considered dating again—just a yes or no answer would do on that one—but I knew she’d move on eventually. She was tough, my mom. And she was young. She’d had Anna and me when she was only twenty and she took care of herself and all that. A lot of times people thought she was Anna’s older sister, since they looked so much alike. Dark-haired and pale. Fair—that’s how Anna always put it.
A second or two passed before I realized we were still standing there. Mom hadn’t said a word and neither had I. For all that I’d wanted to ask her, I couldn’t execute an emotional pivot. I still had this pissed-off furnace cranking inside me. When I finally spoke, what came out of my mouth was, “Were you ever planning to tell me about the house?”
She started in surprise. “We are not talking about the house right now, Gideon. We are talking about you. Were you trying to scare the life out of me? I leave for half an hour and you disappear? You’re not even supposed to be out of bed!”
A grocery bag tipped over on the kitchen counter, and an apple rolled into the sink. “I’m fine, Mom. I just needed some air.”
But it was like she didn’t even hear me. “I called Anna,” she continued. “I was about to call Cory. Don’t you think I’ve been through enough this week? I don’t think you realize what this has been like for me. Do you know how close you came to dying?”
“I’m okay, Mom. I had to get out of the house for a second. Calm down, okay?”
She didn’t. She kept yelling at me, saying she couldn’t believe my lack of judgment. Didn’t I understand how serious my injuries were? Was I purposely trying to hurt her by hurting myself? She’d seldom laid into me that way before, with so much relish. When she finally slowed down, I told her I was going to go back to bed.
“That is a very good idea,” she said, but her tone was more like get out of my face.
I hightailed it back to my room. Nothing felt normal and I needed to think.
I dropped onto my bed and stared at the ceiling, going through every step I’d taken from the minute I’d left the house. I’d gotten to Jackson’s rabies episode when it hit me. After I saw Jackson, I’d run home. Awkwardly with the casts and the crutch. But not the limp of a guy with broken bones. That wasn’t all. I’d stood on both feet while Mom had yelled at me. Then I’d walked right into my room and lain down. No hobbling. No drag step. No pain.
I looked down at my leg and wiggled my toes. Then I flexed my muscles inside the cast and did the math. So … I was two hours overdue on pain meds, I just ran up a hill with a pulverized arm and leg, and I felt fine?
“Gideon?” My mom knocked on the door. “I’m sorry I yelled, honey. I don’t know what came over me. I guess the stress got to me. And I didn’t expect to see you moving around so soon and it scared me. I don’t want you to get hurt again, but it wasn’t right to take it out on you.”
Now, that sounded like my mom. Hearing the softness in her voice relaxed me a little. “It’s okay.”
“Can I get you anything?”
She wanted an excuse to come into my room but I had too much going on in my head for that. “No thanks. I’m going to rest now.”
“All right. I’m right here if you need me.”
As soon as her footsteps faded away, I sat up and stared at my leg cast, having a little argument with myself over whether I wanted to look or not.
I had an okay stomach for seeing blood. Food and drugs, not so much. But blood and injuries I could handle pretty well. Only this was my leg. Did I really want to see it bloated and bruised? Crisscrossed with staples?
Yes, I decided. Yes, I did.
I undid the Velcro straps and pulled apart the plastic frames of the air cast.
My leg looked like my leg, with the addition of a few pale scars that were so faint I almost couldn’t see them. I had no bruises. No swelling.
Was I dreaming? Seeing things?
Panic built inside me as I unstrapped the cast on my arm next, pulling that off.
Surprise again. My arm had healed, just like my leg. Insane. Completely insane, but there was something else. Something on me.
A thick metal band circled my wrist. Two inches wide, and the metal itself was nothing I recognized. It looked like mercury, but it gave off a red glow. The light that bounced off it was deep red. Crimson.
My first thought was medical bracelet. It had to be one of those magnetic healing bands. But I couldn’t find a clasp or a buckle. The metal ran around my wrist without a single scratch, button, or hook. And it was tight. Glued-on tight. I had no idea how it’d been put on me.
More importantly, I didn’t see how it would ever come off.
“You can stop there, Gideon.”
I clear my throat, caught off guard by Cordero’s interruption. It takes me a couple of more seconds to come back completely. Leaving the past is a slow process. Thick. Sticky. Like bellying out of a swamp.
How were these drugs even legal? Have I asked that?
This is a giant waste of time.
“If what you’re saying is true, you healed from the accident in five days?” Cordero asks.
“What I’m saying is true. So, yes. Five days.”
“And no one thought this was unusual? Your mother didn’t comment? The doctors?”
“I haven’t been seen by a doctor since I left Walter Reed, and my mom…” I shrug. “She was definitely suspicious that day, but I haven’t talked to her since, so I don’t really know what she thought.”
Cordero’s eyes drop to my wrist, which is covered by my long-sleeved shirt and strapped to the chair with plastic flex ties. “Do you still have the cuff?”
I nod. “Like I said, it doesn’t come off.”
She lifts two fingers in the air, motioning to the guys behind her.
Texas steps forward and kneels at my side. “Don’t do anythin’ stupid,” he says in a thick drawl. By the door, Beretta draws the Beretta and takes aim at my forehead.
Texas tries to pull my sleeve up, but the plastic tie is covering it too tightly. He looks to Cordero, who nods her permission. He takes a badass bowie knife from a hip sheath, cuts the tie, and pushes my sleeve up. His blue eyes meet mine for a second—a silent repeat of the warning he just gave me—and then he takes my wrist and turns it.
“It’s here. No seams.” He turns his shoulders so Cordero can see.
Her chair creaks as she leans forward. She studies the cuff the same way I did that day in my bedroom, kind of in awe and confusion. That look pretty much sums up the past month of my life.
“It’s clearly an alloy of some sort, but it refracts light like a gemstone.… Like a ruby.”
I wish I’d described it that way. That sounded better than bouncing crimson light.
“The texture?” she asks.
Texas faces me again. He keeps his bowie knife in his right hand. With his left, he runs two fingers over the cuff. “Smooth. More like glass than metal. Body temp.” Genuine curiosity flares in his shrewd gaze. “Is it heavy?”
“No. I don’t feel any weight at all. Same with the sword and armor.”
It’s like a silent grenade goes off. Nobody moves. Everyone looks from my eyes to the cuff on my wrist, ping-ponging back and forth a few times.
I probably let that one slip earlier than I should have. Thanks, truth serum. But I’ve never been the best storyteller. That’s Sebastian’s territory. I bet Bastian’s Cordero has already sent out for popcorn and Milk Duds.
I’m the one who breaks the silence. “Should I keep going?”
Cordero leans back in her chair and absently scratches her knuckles. She looks a little less blank than she has up until now. Like maybe I’m entertaining her.
“Tie him back down,” she says to Texas. “And yes, Gideon. You should.”
The next morning, I woke to the sound of my mom talking on the phone.
Actually it was more like yelling, which was what woke me.
I’d slept on my stomach without wearing my casts, and hadn’t taken any painkillers since yesterday. I should’ve been howling in pain, but I wasn’t.
I’d heard my mom raise her voice before. She was half Irish and didn’t take crap from anyone. But the way she was yelling had an edge that was extra sharp. And then there was the way she’d sounded off on me the day before. What had always been pretty rare was suddenly happening a lot.
She hung up and I heard footsteps marching toward my room. The door swung open and she stood there, her mouth pressed in a grim line that reminded me of the summer I broke our front window three times in three weeks perfecting my baseball swing.
“Something came up at work,” she said. “I have to go in for the next few days, but I talked to your sister. She’s coming up to watch you.”
This was an arrangement they’d already made. While I was recovering, my mom was going to look after me on weekdays and work Friday through Monday. Anna, who was a freshman at Cal Poly and only had classes midweek, would take weekends.
It was a Tuesday, though. Mom’s call had thrown a curveball into the schedule.
“Anna has school,” I said.
“Well, she’s going to have to just catch up. You’re more important.”
“Don’t argue with me, Gideon. She’ll be here by dinnertime. I’ll have Mrs. C come over and keep an eye on you until—”
“No—that’s okay. I’ll be fine until Anna gets here.”
Mom dropped a kiss on my forehead, reminded me to take my meds, and left.
As soon as I heard the front door shut, I threw on running shoes, shoved some clothes into my Army rucksack, and grabbed my keys. I locked up the house and jumped into my Jeep—a beat-up ’85 CJ my dad and I were going to fix up but never got around to for obvious reasons.
I did all of that—dressing, packing, and locking up—with working limbs. Perfectly healthy limbs. As I took the steering wheel, the shiny piece of red metal on my left wrist caught my eye. Things were happening that made no sense, and the feeling was too close to how I’d felt after my dad died. My gut was telling me to move, because moving—running, hiking, driving, any kind of movement—always helped to chill me out. It gave me perspective, and I needed that badly. I backed out of the driveway, took the freeway south, and then just … drove.
When I pulled up to my sister’s college apartment complex three hours later, nothing made any more sense. I didn’t have a new perspective.
And I had not chilled out.
My sister’s college dorm was on the second floor of a new housing unit on the edge of the Cal Poly campus, with green hills and trails all around, a heated swimming pool, and a sand volleyball court in the center quad. A luxury resort, pretty much.
No one answered when I buzzed her on the intercom system and I’d left my phone at home like an idiot so I went around back, thinking I’d climb her balcony. With any luck, the glass slider would be unlocked.
A girl with blue-streaked hair was painting her toenails on the patio of the apartment beneath my sister’s. She set the red polish on a stack of textbooks by her feet and looked up at me.
This time I was ready. Mrs. C, Jackson, and my mom’s reactions had one thing in common—me. I’d been riled with that burning anger around them, so maybe I was affecting them? It was insane, but it was also the only guess I had.
I raised my hands, showing her I meant no harm. “Hey, how’s it going?” Inside, I was begging her to stay calm, grasping for inner peace with everything I had, visualizing tranquility, finding my happy place, all that, and bingo.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m Anna Blake’s brother. Gideon.”
“Her twin, the Army guy?”
“Her twin, the Army guy.”
She checked me out, which was the only genuinely good thing that had happened to me in a solid week, and introduced herself as Joy.
“You don’t look very much like her.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, she’s prettier than I am. I try not to get jealous.”
Joy’s smile went wider. “You’re like Luke and Leia, kind of.”
“We get that sometimes. Mind if I use your railing? Anna’s not there yet.”
“Go ahead. Use whatever you need.”
“Thanks.” I tossed my ruck up to the second-floor balcony. Then I jumped, grabbing the bars above me, and swung myself up. Not bad for a guy with a broken arm and leg.
“Gideon?” Joy peered up from below. “We’re having some people over later. You should come by.”
I thanked her again. A party sounded like just what I needed to get my mind off things.
The sliding door to my sister’s place was unlocked and slid right open, which was both good and bad. Anna really should’ve known better. I slipped inside and froze when I heard the snuffling sounds of someone crying.
Dropping my duffel, I rushed to Anna’s room and found her rolled in a ball on her bed, her eyes pressed shut like she was trying to keep in the tears, her phone gripped in her hand.
“Anna?” Sitting on the bed, I put my hand on her shoulder. “What’s going on?”
She shot away with a yelp. “Gideon?” Her eyes moved over me, like she couldn’t believe I was real, then she threw her arms around my neck. “I’ve been so worried. Mom said you’d broken your arm and your leg. She said you almost died.”
“I know,” I said, hugging her back. “I’m fine, Banana. I’m all right.” I was all right—everywhere except in the head.
She drew back and studied me. Like I’ve said, Cordero, we don’t look much alike. Not just our coloring. Anna’s pretty skinny. Not very athletic. She’d kill me if she heard me tell you that. And I’m … Well. You’re looking at me. I look like my dad. Like my dad did. His height and build.
The only thing Anna and I have in common is our dad’s eyes. Light blue. Same shape too, with the downward tilt at the sides. People call them soulful eyes or smiling eyes. Or Paul Newman eyes—old people always say that. But to me they’re the eyes of someone who listens with everything they’ve got when you’re talking, which is exactly my sister and it was my dad, too. So seeing Anna now, it felt good but it also made me miss my dad even more than when I’d been at home, which sucked. I’d shared a womb with my sister and almost every day of my life since. I didn’t love how hard it was just to look at her.
Anna shook her head, her expression pleading for answers I didn’t have. “Was the accident not as bad as they thought?”
“The initial reports might’ve made it sound worse. And I’m still kind of sore,” I said, though I wasn’t.
“Worse by a lot. I didn’t think you’d get hurt training.”
“Me either. But you can’t pick when accidents happen, right?”
That word, accident, felt like knocking into a bruise that wouldn’t heal. It was the same for Anna, too. Grief passed over her face. I had to look away. On her desk I saw a framed picture from Christmas a year and a half ago. All of us wearing Santa hats and grinning like loons. We were still four Blakes then. A four-pack.
“What are you doing here, Gideon? Why aren’t you at home?”
What she meant was why aren’t you bedridden, but I took the questions at face value. “I thought you could look after me here. That way you don’t have to miss any classes.” Then I nodded at her phone, ready to leave the subject of my non-injuries behind. “You want to tell me what’s going on?”
She shrugged, smoothing her hands on her pajama pants. I’d given them to her the same Christmas from the photo. Red flannel with Eiffel Towers stamped all over them because her dream was to study in Paris. My sister was an artist. Growing up, Anna made beautiful collectible drawings and paintings and pottery. I broke shit. Bikes, bats, surfboards. Hearts. Just kidding on that last one.
“Oh. Just stuff with Wyatt,” she said.
“Wyatt?” I knew the guy. He was a spoiled idiot from a private high school near our hometown. He and Anna started dating senior year when they met in a mock-Senate club. I was pissed when I found out he was coming to the same college. High school should’ve been the end of Wyatt Sinclair. “I thought you broke up with that loser.”
“I did break up with him,” Anna said. “It was mutual. I mean, we decided to end it together. He said he wanted a time-out so I gave it to him.”
“Like he’s a freakin’ toddler? That kind of time-out?”
Anna ignored that. “He thought we were getting too serious. He said he wanted to ‘experience college.’” She made air quotes. “I thought we were really done. I know he’s been with other girls since. But we were technically on a break, so it shouldn’t matter, right?”
What technically mattered was that Wyatt was an ass, but Anna clearly didn’t see it that way. I looked around at the pile of clothes thrown over her chair and the coffee mug on her desk. I couldn’t believe I was talking relationships with her when I’d fallen out of a plane a week ago. And had no injuries to show for it.
Anna lifted her phone. “He just called and said he was wrong about leaving me. He said he made a terrible error in judgment and that he wants me back.”
“And you told him to screw himself, right?”
“I love him, G.”
“Anna. My ears.”
She laughed. “Okay, maybe not. But I do like him. He’s smart and he treated me well when we were together. He’s coming over to talk. I feel like I should at least hear him out.”
“He’s really coming over? That’s great! My fist is dying to talk to his face.”
“No, Gideon.” Anna’s smile disappeared. “Stay out of this. It’s my business.”
As I stared into her eyes, I wondered if this was my fault. When our dad died I was always gone, off on my own. Camping. Driving. Just hiding out alone. I couldn’t be around anyone. I didn’t trust myself to be. But my sister had needed someone in those days like I’d needed no one, and Wyatt Sinclair had been there for her. He’d stepped in and been her someone, and if there was one thing I understood, it was that grief was an opponent you didn’t play fair with. You did whatever it took to not let it beat you. You fought dirty against grief, period. So I understood. Anna didn’t love Wyatt. She loved that he’d been there for her during the worst time in her life.
“What is that?” Anna pulled my sleeve up before I could stop her. “Is that a cuff?”
“Yeah, so?” I tugged it back down. “Can’t I wear jewels?”
“It’s called jewelry, for one. And you can’t hate it your whole life and suddenly start liking it.”
“I don’t hate jewelry.” I just didn’t like having anything on me that didn’t have a reason to be there.
“Hogwash. You don’t even wear belts.”
True. Belts and bracelets shared a lot of DNA, in my view. I’d avoided them up until recently. In the Army, belts were a must.
Anna suddenly looked like she’d won the state lottery. “You met someone! You did, didn’t you?”
I’d never had a girlfriend, officially, and for some reason that made my mom and Anna lose their minds. In general we Blake twins were pretty screwed up when it came to relationships. Anna stayed in a bad one. I avoided them completely.
“Easy there, Banana. It’s called an XT3 Band. It stands for Experimental Therapy Band, third generation. Highly classified so that’s all I can tell you.”
I said all this, but I still had no idea what the cuff really was. Maybe I was right?
“Seriously, what’s her name?”
“You know how I feel about this. If I wanted a commitment, I’d get a dog.”
“Wow.” She reached for a black pillow decorated with a big sparkly skull and hugged it. “So romantic.”
I made a face, because who the hell wanted to be a romantic? Then I couldn’t look past the skull pillow. “Tell me something, sis. Why do we have to make skulls cute? Some things shouldn’t be messed with. Guns, for example. Toilets … toilet paper … guns … They should just stay functional. Sparkle-free.”
She rolled her eyes. “Please. If I had a bedazzled toilet, I’d love it and so would you. Don’t even try to deny it. You’d love a fancy can.”
I did deny it, which led to a healthy debate. Spirited, trivial discussions were the bread-and-butter of our relationship and it felt good to just be with my sister—until someone knocked on the door. Anna stopped in midsentence and vaulted off the bed. Douchebag had just arrived.
“Hey, Pooh Bear,” I heard him drawl in the living room. All pet names were inherently ridiculous but that one took first place. “How are you?”
“Honestly, I’ve been better,” Anna replied.
“I know,” Wyatt murmured. “Me too. But I’m better now that I’m with you. I’ve missed you, Pooh.”
I grabbed the sparkly skull pillow and dug my fingers into it. Ignore, Blake. Ignore. “I don’t know if I can do this again, Wy. How am I supposed to believe you really want to be with me? Or that you’ll stay with me this time?”
You’re not, Anna. Move on.
“We’ll just take it one day at a time. You know I never stopped caring about you.” He lowered his voice. “Anna, the others girls were nothing to me. They didn’t mean anything. Not like you do.”
No.… Did he really just say that?
I flew off the bed.
“Stop right there,” Anna said, the instant I crossed the door.
I did what she said and leaned against the doorjamb. Seeing Anna upset had sidelined my own drama for a little bit, but now that sharp, tangible buzz of anger was back, seething from my skin. I couldn’t even fight it. This was about my sister. My self-control was under siege.
Wyatt gaped at me, taking a half step back. “Your brother is here, Anna? I thought he was hurt.”
“Sorry to disappoint, jackass.” Well, that came out. But I didn’t care. Wyatt might have been good to Anna in the past but he was taking advantage of that.
“I told you to stay out of this, Gideon,” Anna said.
“Yes! Stay out of this please.” Wyatt pushed a hand through his preppy hair. As a general rule, I didn’t like guys who styled their hair like they just woke up. Messiness should never be a goal. It should be a consequence. “God, Anna. I don’t think this is going to work. How are we supposed to talk with him around?”
“I didn’t know he was coming down here, Wyatt. I’m sorry.”
Was she actually apologizing to him?
You’re not sorry, Anna. You are pissed off.
Anna shook her head like she was shuffling her thoughts. “Wait a minute. You’ve been messing around with other girls for the past month and you’re mad that my brother is here?”
Now, that was more like it.
Wyatt frowned, clearly surprised by the pushback. “I thought we were trying to fix things, Pooh Bear. He’s going to interfere with that.”
“I’m not interfering. I’m just standing here.” I smiled.
“See? He’s already doing it. Anna, I thought you wanted to be with me. Maybe I was wrong.”
What a load of guilt-tripping crap. Don’t stand for it, Anna.
“This was a mistake, Wyatt.” She opened the apartment door. “I think you should go.”
Wyatt stepped toward her, turning his back to me. “I came here because I want you back in my life,” he said in a hushed voice. “But we’re never going to figure this out if you’re going to be irrational.”
Irrational? That sounded good to me. Let it rip, sis.
Anna slapped him across the cheek. Wyatt’s head whipped to the side. For a few seconds, no one breathed. We all just stood there, hearing that fleshy echo, until Anna said, “Leave, Wyatt. Now.”
He shot me an accusatory glare, like he suspected I was behind Anna’s actions. I was less suspicious. In fact I was pretty sure I’d influenced Anna’s behavior. Somehow, I’d focused my anger on her and propelled her through the entire thing. But how was that even possible?
After Wyatt left, Anna fell back against the door. “What did I just do?”
“You took care of business. You don’t need that moron in your life, sis. You did the right thing.”
“I hit him.” She looked at her hand like it wasn’t part of her. “I slapped him.”
“You were nicer than I would’ve been.”
Anna shook her head, her eyes welling up. “That doesn’t help, Gideon.” Then she darted past me into her room and slammed the door.
I reached for the handle just as the lock clicked. “Open the door. Come on, Anna. It’s his loss, sis.” I could hear her crying inside—one of the worst sounds in the world for me—and I felt anger rising inside me. “Anna … let me in,” I tried again, but it was clear that wasn’t going to happen for a long while.
Excellent. I’d succeeded in making her more upset. Now what?
Behind me, I heard the quiet scuff of keys as someone entered the apartment. That had to be Anna’s roommate, Taylor. The last thing I wanted was another bizarre social interaction, so.
I hustled to the balcony, climbed down, and took off.
Like I said, moving helps to clear my head. Running’s always been something I’ve been pretty good at. It made RASP easier for me than a lot of the other guys. By easier I mean less excruciating. Sometimes around the five-mile mark, I hit the runner’s high. For me the feeling is actually mellow—real quiet and steady—but as I picked up a trail heading away from the dorms into the hills around campus, I doubted I’d find that steadiness. I had too much to figure out. The fast healing. The mystery metal on my wrist. My newfound ability to, what? Make people angry?
I already had that. I didn’t need to get any better at it.
Nothing made sense and I had nothing, no theories. I didn’t hit any mental dead ends because I didn’t even have roads. I ended up thinking about the months just before my dad died because that was a trick my brain liked to do, pulling shiny memories from behind my ear and presenting them to me like a bad magician.
This one was a baseball memory, right after my last game junior year. My Jeep had broken down and everyone else had already gone home, so Dad and I were stranded at the field. We called Anna, who was bringing jumper cables in my dad’s work truck, then went back to the baseball diamond to wait.
We sat in the home team dugout together, watching the sun sink behind the scoreboard. The infield was freshly groomed, the chalk lines dragged clean, the bases put away. I thought about how something had clicked for me that season. I’d upped my game on every level and already been approached by a couple recruiters—small colleges that wanted me but I knew I’d do better. I had the grades I needed and enough talent. Effort was the last piece, and that was where I really kicked ass. Come spring, I’d have a scholarship offer from a big school.
It’d been a dream for a long time. That night it felt attainable. Everything seemed possible to me in that moment. Everything did. And as we waited for Anna to show up, I told my dad what I wanted. What I was going to do.
When I finished, I remember he looked at me for a long moment. I felt like he was seeing a man sitting there with him, not just his son. Then he’d smiled and said, “I could go for another four years in the stands.”
He believed I could do it. My fate seemed sealed. In a way, it almost felt achieved already. My dream was going to happen. Except he died six weeks later and I never set foot on a baseball diamond again.
You can probably guess that thinking about my dad didn’t improve my mood. He wasn’t around and never would be again, but he was one person I’d always been able to talk to about anything. I could’ve used that right then. Without that option, I ran until my shirt was soaked with sweat and I’d put five miles behind me.
I stopped as I reached the top of a hill. The setting sun turned the sky red, and campus spread out below me. Up until then I’d barely noticed the cuff on my wrist. Wearing it felt as comfortable as wearing nothing and it shouldn’t have been that way, considering I didn’t like things on me, and how hefty and snug it was. But now, as I cooled down and focused on it, I felt the slightest buzzing sensation, a beehive kind of drone humming up my arm.
That was enough of the crazy for me. I had a feeling this piece of metal was responsible for everything. Time for it to go. I grabbed the first big rock I saw, braced my arm on the dirt, and slammed the rock down.
A scream detonated in my ears—high-pitched, terrible. Like someone getting murdered. At the same time, the air rushed out of my lungs and my vision went red, bright fire red, and I face-planted into the dirt. The last thing I remember was the sound of my blood pounding in my ears.
It sounded like the thunder of hoofbeats.
I think I was out for a few minutes. When I came around, the sun had just set and the sky was doing a slow bleed from red to purple. As I headed back to Anna’s, I had a nice long talk with myself about staying composed.
Anna’s roommate, Taylor, answered the door. In the living-room area, a few people were sprawled across the two small couches, and a pyramid of empty beer cans sat on the coffee table.
I’d already made sure my personal rage atmosphere was mild, low chance of anger. Now I followed up by sending a kind of mental message into the room before anything bad could happen.
We’re cool. Everybody be cool. Just be calm.
They ignored me, which was perfect, except for Taylor, who started right in with how much she’d heard about me and how much she loved Anna and how much fun they’d been having. I countered with how much I needed a shower and took myself to the bathroom. By the time I got out, my head felt clearer and I had a plan. I’d attack the situation like I’d been trained to do in the Army. Gather intelligence. Create a strategy. Execute on it. I’d figure out what was happening to me, then go about reversing it.
Anna was at her desk when I stepped into her room. She spun in the swivel chair, sliding her cell phone into the pocket of her jacket. “Good look, little brother,” she said, tipping her chin to the pink towel around my waist. I’d been born two minutes after her and she loved to remind me that I came into this world in second place. “The girls in the apartment downstairs are having a party. Joy said she told you about it. You’re coming, right?”
“Yeah, sure. Is Wyatt going to be there?”
“I don’t think so.” She frowned, eyeing me more closely. “Gideon, you don’t look hurt at all. You look bigger.”
“Yeah?” I looked at myself. All I could really see was my stomach, so I patted it. “It’s all the PT I’ve been doing.” I’d always been athletic. Army life had just honed me up more.
“Did you do something wrong?”
It took me a second to realize what she meant. She thought the accident was a cover? “Anna, no. I didn’t.”
She didn’t say anything for a couple of seconds. We could always tell when the other was holding something back, which was one of the reasons I’d been gone so much over the past year. I hadn’t wanted to take any chances of dragging her down with me. Now was no different.
I rubbed a hand over my wet hair, which was already dry because it was a millimeter long. “Stop looking at me like that. It’s creepy.”
“You’re creepy.” She stood. “See you downstairs.”
“Wait. I need to call Mom.”
“I already told her you’re here. She went atomic.” She tossed me her phone and smiled. “Have fun.”
When she left, I pulled on jeans and sat at the desk. My first order of business was to get information. I fished some medical discharge papers out of my ruck and found the number for the Army physician overseeing my case. Because of the severity of my injuries, I had Dr. Katz’s mobile number. He answered right away.
“Private Blake, how are you feeling?” he asked.
“Good, sir. I’m good.… Maybe too good.”
“No such thing as ‘too good’ where health is concerned. Glad to hear it.” I heard him tapping on a keyboard in the background. “Looks like we’re seeing you in a week for some follow up exams. What can I do for you, son?”
“Major, did you or any of the other doctors put a medical bracelet on me?”
“You have no known allergies or preexisting medical conditions. There’s no need for an ID bracelet.”
“Not an ID bracelet. A healing bracelet. On my left wrist?”
“I don’t have a record of that, Private. I don’t want to discourage you, Gideon, but a magnetic bracelet won’t go far considering the severity of your injuries. Is there anything else? How’s your pain tolerance?”
“Good, sir. Thank you. Nothing else.”
I hung up and flipped open Anna’s laptop. The apartment had fallen quiet except for a deep, pulsing bass thrumming from Joy’s party.
I typed one ridiculous search parameter after another.
Unexplainable rapid healing
Manipulating rage in others
Mystery metal bracelets
Just about everything turned up the same result: superhero websites.
That was enough intelligence gathering for me.
I shut the laptop, sat back, and laughed my ass off.
Copyright © 2016 by Veronica Rossi
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