A young woman stumbled through the night, a mere silhouette against the ghostly snow and bright moon. Wintery fingers manhandled her clothing and swirled around her in curls, but she continued. Her hands were slick with sleet and sweat. So was her face, which was blurred by the hood that dipped over her eyes. The wind gnawed at her features, pummeling them. She forced her mouth ajar, her clenched teeth separated, and she coughed wildly. A rivulet of warm bile trickled down her tongue and speckled the ground, disorienting the beauty of the immaculate white blanket. She recovered and staggered to an abandoned two-story building. The windows emitted sick gray light into the violet evening air.
She eyed her tiny, hard knuckles with crestfallen resignation and knocked on the door. The wood was rough and cold.
“Yeah?” came the low, curt voice of a man.
“I-I need to talk to you.”
“Most people do. Come in—the door automatically locks in twenty minutes. New system. Cost me a fortune.”
“Interesting idea,” the girl said. Indeed, it was unlocked. The room, although rather brisk, was a great improvement to the frozen wasteland outside. A tired man was in the corner of the ground floor, behind a large table, sitting in a chair crafted of black leather. The cracks that adorned the walls showed the building’s age as creases would on an elderly woman. “But are you sure it’s a good one?”
“Who cares if it’s not? No one comes here ’cept the people who need help—you need some, I suppose?”
The man didn’t look like he was capable of helping himself, much less other people. Although he couldn’t have been older than thirty, he had dense blue smudges under his eyes, the reward of many sleepless nights, and a peaked face. His heavy boots were propped on the desk.
“Yes.” Her voice was a suspicious whisper.
“Chilly out there, huh?”
“It’s on the colder side,” the girl replied. She shook her head vigorously to loosen the viscid snowflakes from her coat.
“Well, that doesn’t explain the oversized jacket. How can I help you if I can’t see you?” He gestured to the hood that strategically hid the upper half of her face. A spasm convulsed her mouth into a bitter smile and she pushed the blob of fabric from her brow. Even though the light in the square room was poor, it wasn’t difficult to see the girl’s swollen right eye and dark bruise.
The man’s eyebrows twitched but he remained silent. She slid into the chair in front of the desk, skidding it to the corner to avoid his grubby footwear.
“How did… that happen?” he finally asked, motioning to her injuries.
She raised and dropped a malnourished shoulder with pathetic exaggeration.
“ ’T’s a long story. You mind?”
“Besides psychiatrists, I’m one of the few people with an occupation where I’m supposed to listen. But lucky for you, I’m also supposed to help.”
“Aren’t psychiatrists supposed to help?”
He dismissed this with a contemptuous sneer and wave of the hand. “Yes, but they don’t. And I mean real, real help.”
“Oh, yes. I agree. Do I have to give you money or something?”
“No. This time, and only this time, my business is free. One-hundred percent.”
“Yes. There's no cash involved whatsoever.”
“What’s the catch?”
“Oh, if there is one, you’ll find out soon enough. It all depends on you.”
The young woman hesitated. “Is this true? I got your name from a coworker, but they never said you had conditions. I agreed because they told me I didn’t have to set up an appointment.”
“My terms vary between people. But it’s always good to hear that my former clients are pleased.” He leaned back into the amiable chair and smiled as it squeaked. “So, start. What’s with the shiner?”
Her pale hands flailed onto the huge wooden table and her angular fingers wriggled. “My brother was wild—I knew it when I was growing up and I still do. He did crazy things and was seldom home. And when he was, he often had a few—injuries. He had friends. Wild friends. And enemies, of course. Wild enemies. His drawers were full of junk: broken bottles, smoky clothes and tobacco; evidence of his wild times. Yes. I guess it started with him. He was older than me by four years and used this to his advantage. One day when I was very young, maybe thirteen or thereabouts, I was upstairs when he came in with more noise than usual. Our parents would be home soon, so I was by myself until he arrived. I went to him. He tried to escape to his room, so I couldn’t see him. But I saw him anyway. He had a cut running down the side of his face.
“I asked him if he was all right, and he shouted at me. He said, I still remember it, he said, ‘Why should I be?’ before he hurried off to go to his room. But I caught his sleeve. He yelled, but I didn’t let go. I never saw him so angry. When he jerked his arm, an object hidden between it and his sleeve clattered onto the floor. Even before I looked down, I knew it was a knife. It had stuck right to the floor, blade first. The light was shining on it and I could see it was dotted with something red and some dirt. He knew what it was too. There was no doubt it belonged to him.” The girl stopped then and snacked on her thumbnail. She tugged on her thin, red-cotton scarf and looked down.
The man tapped his fingers on the table and said patiently, “Continue.”
“Then he pushed me away—hard. With both hands. He may have been skinny, but he was strong and there was enough force in his push to knock me across the hallway. We had a small table at the end of it, me and my parents’ bedroom were across each other’s with his at the other end. So, on top of the little, miserable piece of furniture was a big vase of these flowers that we hadn’t watered in years. I smashed into the table and it came down too. The vase crashed and gave me a shower of painful glass and crisp roses.
“Before that year, my brother had been nice, and I’d liked him a lot. I remembered once when we were at the playground—I must’ve been maybe six or seven—and I got my tooth knocked out. I wanted it in the worst way, that tooth. I guess ’cause it was the first one I ever lost. And he helped me look for it. It took us hours and I guess I still wanted to remember him as the nice big brother who’d done that, even though it seemed like he was no doubt gone. When I looked up and dusted the slices of glass off me, I hoped he would be there— oh, how I hoped he’d be there! —but he wasn’t. He was gone and so was the knife. I went over to his door, but it was locked. I was shocked, and, not to mention terribly disappointed. There I was, covered in glass, and he hadn’t even the grace to stay there and check my condition. I cleaned up the mess as best as I could and when my parents got home I didn’t mention it to them.” She toyed with the buttons on her jacket.
“I should have told them. They never even noticed the table was gone. The next day, my brother stayed in his room. Then another day. It was summer vacation, so he got away with it. He said he was sick. That was the day I knew something was going to happen and I began my investigation.”
“Oh, nothing serious. I just looked through his room for something.”
She smiled. “I’m not sure, just anything interesting, or anything that could explain his strange behavior. I found the bottles and stuff I told you about earlier. There was no doubt he was doing things. But after a month or so I stayed off of it, since nothing too bad had happened yet.
“Then almost two years later, it happened. It was at a high school dance.” Her pale tongue traced the uneven ridge of her teeth.
“No. Just a little fall party. I saw my brother go out with some people, and I got a glimpse of a dark bottle and sparkle of a knife. The bottle didn’t concern me, but the knife certainly did. But then I figured maybe he was planning on using it to open the bottle. So I didn’t let it bother me. Besides, I was having too much fun to go out after him. The rest of the night we heard yelling outside, but it was so quiet under the music it was easily ignored. Then near the end of the party there was this really loud one that caused everyone to stop. A few of the teachers went outside and they found the body of this girl.
“No one knew who it was or where she was from. Someone said that it was the younger sister of some kid who went to the high school and that he’d come with her, but no one knew for sure. The kid wasn’t found, and he died a week later anyway. There was a rumor those two kids had a brother in college, but he was just as mysterious as the girl’s other so-called brother, as no one ever saw him either.
“The party ended early, and my brother never showed up. I thought maybe he went home, because his car was gone. I got a ride from one of the teachers. When I got to our house, he wasn’t there. My parents said he’d show up. He didn’t come later that night. Then night turned to day and he still hadn’t returned. We waited a day then two then three until a whole week rolled by. We made posters. We even put his name in the paper. But he never came back. Later, we were told that he was seen at the border of the state and it was obvious what had happened: He had something to do with the murder of that girl and he would rather leave then fess up. And to this day I still haven’t seen him.”
“That’s it? That doesn’t explain that eye,” the man said, fiddling with a silver ashtray. He had renounced the initial informal position and his shoes were now pressing against the floor.
The girl lowered her eyes to examine her hands, which were clasping her knees. “I’m not done. A few years later, I was alone in my kitchen when I heard gunshots in the distance. I figured it was no big deal. But when they seemed to be getting closer, only then did I begin to worry. That’s when I heard this shattering roar from the room nearby. Now, my kitchen walls were absolutely covered in windows. So, when the window near me shivered than cracked into a billion pieces, I managed to go under the dining table before the window fell apart and splashed onto the floor like little glass marbles. Then I saw tiny silver things hit the wall straight across the window, along with some smoke.”
“The window that broke?”
“Yeah. It went like fireworks, sort of. Or like if you were skating and the ice beneath you started to break. Like bang, bang, bang, bang over and over. I heard more of that smashing sounds and the tabletop got a good shower of the stuff. And there was still the bang, bang, bang. It went like that for a while. When it finished, all the pane from the windows was on the floor in sharp shards. Even though I was under the table, a good amount still made it on me in the form of a slick powder. Except the cuts on my arms, I was all right.
“But that was only the beginning. Since that day six years ago, I’ve been dodging bullets, poison, and mercenaries with knives. I’ve been lucky. Within this time period I’ve only been in the hospital twice. The first time was a couple years ago, and then recently when I got hit by a car. That’s why I have this black eye. I was released yesterday. I suppose I can leave the state, like my brother, but I don’t have enough money. Yet.”
The man nodded and yawned. “What do you think your brother did?”
In one harsh movement, the young woman’s face shut. From her round, starving eyes to the thin line of her mouth. “I think he had something to do with that girl’s death, which is why he left, as I mentioned a few minutes ago. And I’m afraid I’m also close to my demise.”
“I’m sick. I’m so sick and so tired of living like this. Something’s going to end. Something’s going to happen—I know it.”
A long sigh escaped the young man’s nose as his eyebrows lowered. “I believe you are correct, as this is when that catch we were talking about earlier comes in.”
The young woman straightened her curving spine and her unhealthy fingers clung to the table’s corners. “What are you talking about?” Fear curled her words.
“That girl you spoke of had a name, you know. Her name was Kendra Timmons. And she did have two brothers. And she was killed by your brother and his friends. The death of my brother, however, is still a mystery. Despite that sibling of yours long record of crime, I don’t believe he or his allies did it. I’m still trying to find his murderer. But I decided long ago to take care of my sister’s first, as I already know hers. Always have. Even before you came and told me.”
The girl stood up. Her despair was hurried and visible. Her chair was on wheels and it span across the room until it tipped over. The jaded man supported his head on a closed fist. His right hand slipped from sight and opened a drawer on the side of the desk, slowly.
“Nearly ten years ago, my friends and I had run into your brother and a few of his—associates. It had ended in a fight we won. I still remember the place.” The man looked up at the ceiling and smiled. “Blackwell Avenue. I had been taking my younger sister to get some candy at the corner store when they had come. I had noticed him observing her carefully. I didn’t think it was serious then, but now I know. Some people might not care if they had lost in a simple scrap, but your brother was different.” His grin had transformed into a sorry arc. “He was—competitive. No, that’s not the word.” He swirled his left hand around thoughtfully. “Ah—he was determined. Yes. Determined and all its synonyms. And he had an inability to forgive that came hand-in-hand with his patience, and his fury at defeat—all defeat. He had promised he’d get revenge on me and at the time I had scoffed at him, but I later learned that he wasn’t simply threatening, but telling the truth.”
The girl was creeping over to the door. The young man didn’t seem to mind.
“And so,” he said, “on the night of that dance a short eight years ago, he and his friends had a good time and then waited for my sister to come outside. And she did. All it took was a seven-inch knife, a few minutes, and that was it. Of course he’d go after my sister—she was innocent and, without me near her, helpless. That’s what your brother likes in a victim. And like all people of his kind, he loved easy fights.” The girl was moving faster now, and so was the man as he found what he was searching for.
“There was no doubt it was your brother, although almost everyone else thought differently. But he was never known for being brave and once a coward, always a coward; he fled the state. And, like you, I haven’t seen him since. I had been hoping that you’d know.”
“I promise I don’t,” the girl’s hand was on the doorknob now. A simple twist and she’d be gone. She decided she had the time for a few more words.
“I believe you.” And with that, Mr. Timmons rose from his comfortable leather chair. In his hand was a small item crafted of heavy, dark metal. His middle finger prodded the trigger. “I had always wanted to figure this out with your brother, but I knew it was a bit too late for that. So, I decided to do the next best thing. Now I’m finally going to repay him in the same way he did me. Except everyone knows bullets are quicker. I’ve been trying for years, but this time I’ll do it right. This gun has been loaded for nearly three years. When that shotgun missed the first time, I did every way I could think of. However, I must admit, you’ve done a good job evading me. Until now, of course.”
He focused on his horrified target and rearranged his grip on the weapon.
“Please don’t do it!” the girl pleaded. “I didn’t do anything. I told you already; I’m innocent!”
“You don’t understand how it feels to lose something so priceless in a fight you not only didn’t start, but won.” The pain and anger flowed strong, despite its decade-old existence. The girl shrieked and turned the knob. It was locked. It squirmed and bobbed in its place but remained fastened. She felt the coolness of it grapple at her skin and she didn’t have to look out the window to know that outside, the snow was still falling. She resorted to tugging, but it still did not loosen. Soon, the ten-year vow for vengeance would be completed and transformed from an empty threat to an article in the newspaper. The girl’s brother had assumed he had the power to end his oath after he accomplished it, but, like a curse, it spread. In the past decade, it had simply gotten stronger.
“Don’t you remember?” Timmons inquired. “It locks after twenty minutes.”
It was quick and easy, as the man had said. There were a few bullets, an abundance of smoke, a scream, and a splatter of blood, then nothing more. Except one small sentence.
“Now for Max’s killer.”