Story: When the Smoke Clears (all chapters)
Back to chapter list
[Author's notes: It's quite short, but there is going to be much, MUCH more than this in a while. I would like opinions and CONSTRUCTIVE critique, if possible! :D Hope you like.]
Lightning struck, bathing the road with a flash of bright light as rain blanketed the small black vehicle making its way down the road. The cabin was quiet, deathly still, but for the patter of drops against windows. Two of the four souls castled within the doors glanced every now and then back to one another, breaths shallow but even. Adrenaline broiled within them, driving their fingers to drum over their legs and the dusty arm-rests. There’s a look to criminals who know exactly what they’re going to do - it doesn’t take long to find, and this is it.
The engine kicked into the next gear; the giddy thrill of acceleration built up in their stomachs and then immediately dissipated. Her tongue flicked at the corner of her mouth habitually, eyes watching the road carefully. It was empty, cold and wet. Traffic at this time of night was uncommon. A dark, husky whisper from the back broke the palpable silence.
“Is this business, or do you just need some pocket change?” It asked. The voice that asked belonged to a masked face, eyes hard and cold. The shadow in the passenger seat twisted ever-so-slightly; she was listening. The masked woman spoke again, this time in a tone more frustrated. “Why don’t we just go home? Crack open a piggy bank?”
The voice from the front seat cut through the woman’s steely nerves.
“No. We discussed this already. We don’t wait. We don’t go home. We don’t fade into the background. You want to make an impact, Drugu? We stockpile. We plan. We act.” It was a tempered voice, masked by a light Slavic accent. It was low, husky, and confident, with a vague air of arrogant superiority. The figure’s head tipped to the side, the light of the streetlamps catching on its masked jaw-line.
“Act!?” The exasperated voice, hushed to a whisper, broke the finality that the figure’s words had implied. “No good can come from this repetitive der’mo!”
“Good?” The voice now seemed amused. “No. We make them afraid; make this populace scared of every shadow that crosses their way. We own them…” The masked figure raised its hand and clenched its fingers into a tight fist. Their voices were similar, but it was clear which held more weight in the conversation. Now distinguishable as female under the flickering passing street lights, the figure in the front passenger seat raised her hand behind the headrest, as if expecting something to be placed in it. “Give me your gun.”
The passenger in the rear hesitated. “What?”
The hand gestured back again - “Your firearm. Your gun. You think fresh immigrants to the United States are allowed their own?”
“You didn’t get one through your channels yet?” The voice asked dubiously.
“I’ve been busy nesting,” She replied (somewhat sarcastically), “I want it, Alessia. You’ll get it back, don’t worry.”
A long pause preceded a low sigh of acceptance, and the cool weight of her firearm reluctantly transferred to the waiting hand, “Good girl,” She muttered, turning the weapon over in her hands. Silence once more enveloped the cabin as she checked the clip, safety, and ran her thumb over the serial number.
“This is yours?” She asked, sounding more than a little tickled as she turned the small weapon over again in her hands. The woman in the rear of the car gave a soft huff in reply, but nothing more. She turned it over a few more times and stifled a smile; she had a hard time believing the woman sitting behind her was the owner of a mouth more worrisome than her gun. “Why don’t you just shout and spit at someone?” She suggested flatly, causing the men beside either of them to chuckle haughtily. The woman in the back seat glared at the back of her headrest, but remained silent.
A few moments later, the woman in front suppressed another smile and spoke, “Oh, now Alessia; don’t be going like that, it’s only a joke,” She paused, before carefully stuffing the weapon into the inner pocket of her dark jacket. It wasn’t actually true - the firearm had a decent wallop to it, but she did enjoy taking Alessia down a few pegs when it was necessary, and it so often was.
The cabin fell back into silence, and they continued down the road. Trees and small houses flanked their either side now as they entered a more densely populated neighbourhood. The atmosphere within the cabin grew tense; everybody but the driver sat up just a little more straight, and the car’s brakes whined as they pulled into the parking lot of a 24/7 Gas Station. A chill swept over them all as they straightened their ski masks and checked their weapons. Hairs on the back of her neck rising, she turned to the couple in the back seat, gave a quick nod, and exited from the vehicle.
The tallest woman, face all but hidden behind a ski mask but for her cool grey eyes, was of impressive stature, levelling in at a respectable six-foot-two. She possessed a trim waist and small chest, build athletic and sturdy. She glanced over at her shoulder at Alessia; she was similar to herself in all but hair colour - not that the differences could be discerned in the masks. The woman stalked past her, thin bag hanging from a clenched fist. The man who’d been sitting next to the blonde spitfire was heavily built and intimidating, possessive of a face all lines and angles. He wasn’t the most attractive man, but he got the job done, she supposed.
They stepped up toward the automatic doors, light from indoors spilling onto the concrete as they opened for the trio. Heading the group, the muscle-bound thug glanced down the aisles, as did everyone else, and satisfied that there were no witnesses, they turned to the counter.
“How can I...-“The cashier began, turning from facing the drinks for sale behind the counter, stalling upon seeing the darkly-clad, masked trio staring at him. The tallest, a woman in the centre of the group, drew and levelled the firearm to his head. The man, a balding, rotund man of thirty-something, froze out of fear. Alessia spoke, throwing the thin sack she held in her hand onto the counter.
“Put the money in the bag,” She said firmly, prompting the clerk to work. For a moment, he glanced from person to person, and gave a surprisingly calm nod. At least he seemed to know to remain calm. The clerk snapped into action as soon as he heard the tell-tale click of the safety turning off, punching his code into the register to get it to open. Forehead becoming misty, he shakily took the bag and began to load the bills quickly, bundles of green currency stuffed away. “Faster!” Alessia snapped, the man yelping and reaching further into the draw than previously.
The leader narrowed her eyes and interrupted the movement, shaking her head briskly “Leave the marked notes.”She commanded. He paused, she turned her aim upward to the ceiling, and fired, dust and plaster raining down from above. The muscle rubbed his ears sorely, and the clerk gave a shaky sigh, reluctantly withdrawing his hand from the draw and slamming it shut.
Holding both hands where they could be seen, he moved to the counter, the masked criminal snatching it from his outstretched hand, trembling as the woman holding the gun stared at him intently, re-levelling her aim to his forehead. Alessia stole out of the store first, the muscle following. The leader sighed, shaking her head as her gaze crossed from the clerk’s to the register. He stared back at her with fear, probably frantically wondering if he was about to die or not.
The woman turned the safety off. She didn’t like doing this.
Her shoulders momentarily dropped as she turned for the doors, “Sorry…” She mumbled, cool grey eyes narrowing as she ran out into the night air, rain assaulting her tall frame until she once more found herself in the passenger seat of their getaway ride.
Tires screamed, the engine revved, and they pulled out onto the road at breakneck speed, the leader pocketing her borrowed weapon.
She really didn’t like doing this.
[End notes: Again, hope you liked it, please say something if you did!]
Title: New beginnings
[Author's notes: Introduction of the first main character! As always I hope everyone that reads likes it. But if not, that's okay :)]
The morning began. For most, it started a half-hour earlier, with the crack of orange-yellow sunlight above the tree-tops in the East, and the sky turning blue. Clouds lingered and passed, ever-shifting and ever-changing, and the golden wheat fields down below swaying to the breeze. Somewhere over those fields, the signs of civilization began to make themselves known. First with fences, short and white, and the red tractors and threshers dotted amongst the wheat. Next went the barns, big and red, closed for the day, and past those, the squat houses of the farmers that tended to the fields, worn grey and brown through time. Past those, the fields turned from gold to green, animals sprinkled across their breadth. Dirt roads gave way to asphalt, and the ground gave birth to trees. Among these trees, houses pockmarked the landscape - some small, some large, all numbered and white.
The houses grew tighter and neighbourhoods formed rows of them perched along the hillsides and sweeping down into the basin of Mount Narlassus. The mountain itself stretched to the sky and scraped the clouds, mighty and tall. Within the basin, communities had formed, full of families, strangers and friends.
Tucked into one of those neighbourhoods, there stood a small house of no particular distinction from the others, and in one of its top floor bedrooms, an alarm clock kicked into action.
~ On an evening such as this
It\'s hard to tell if I exist
Pack the car and leave this town
You\'ll notice that I\'m not around
I could hide out under there
I just made you say underwear
I could leave but I\'ll just stay
All my stuff\'s here anyway ~
The sheets ruffled and an annoyed deep breath drew in from beneath them. It really was much too early for her to be expected to rise. She kicked the sheets away with a pout, slowly rising to pull up against the headboard. Her hands rose and rubbed the sleep from her eyes, and she glanced about at the blurry space she called her room, before leaning to the left and plucking her glasses from the edge of her bedside dresser to put them on. The room instantly came into focus, and she glanced to the alarm clock spouting what she recognized to be the Barenaked Ladies’ cheerfully optimistic tunes. A small grimace crept onto her delicate features, and the girl crept to the edge of the bed, swinging off to feel the carpet between her toes. The room was icily cold, despite the deceptively sunny morning view from her window.
The girl took another deep breath and sighed, running a hand through her crimson-red hair, which had (at one point, at least) been styled shoulder-length and thick, so that her fringe swept across her forehead, while the rest hung attentively in its proper place. Now, she had a righteous case of bed-hair, and it pointed towards the ceiling erratically. Attempting to neaten it as she crossed the room to her desk, she fell into her chair, slapping one of the keys on her laptop to get it to wake up.
She tapped in her password, hearing the speakers chime in approval.
‘Good Morning, Lisa.’ The screen read, and she frowned, grumbling “Not really,” As her desktop loaded itself. Her morning routine consisted of rolling out of bed and checking the internet; most of the time it was useless, but she smiled when her e-mail client informed her she’d gotten a few. Bringing it up, she fumbled through the usual spam-bot messages (and several different African princes wanting to put money into her bank account), and replied to several that she’d received from her friends back in Ireland who’d bothered to keep in touch since she moved. Why exactly they’d moved to a large town in the United States was ill-defined; her mother insisted they both needed a change of pace after the father figure in their family decided he’d rather spend time in jail than with them. Lisa supposed it was a mid-life crisis; somewhat drastic, she judged, but at least it wasn’t a Porsche.
E-mail checked and calendar breezed over, Lisa extracted herself from the confines of her chair and traipsed across the room to open up her wardrobe. One of the things she couldn’t complain about in the US was that there wasn’t a uniform for school, just a general dress code: Casual. She utterly hated having to don an ugly plaid skirt, white button-up shirt and blazer back home. Thumbing through the brightly-coloured shirts in her wardrobe, she settled on her usual white undershirt, black vest and blue jeans, and set off for the shower with a spring in her step.
The water hit her warm and comforting, caressing her subtle and not-so-subtle curves gently. She enjoyed her showers hot, especially in frigid Mt. Narlassus weather. She shampooed her hair, rinsed it out, and applied conditioner before going on to soap down the rest of herself. Her mind fogged and her body took over out of routine, and in not too long, she found herself turning off the water to towel off. Stepping before the sink and mirror as she did this, she swept the hair out of her eyes to take a brief look at herself.
Lisa was and wasn’t shy about her body - she looked… Average, she supposed; skinny, a little shorter than the average girl of seventeen, coming in at 5’ 4”. Her body was smooth and without blemish, and she adhered well to dental and bodily hygiene. She was in good health, other than a slight iron deficiency, and she ate as well as she could. She glanced at her chest, neither smiling nor frowning, and tipped her head to the side. Everyone she’d ever known had always said that their chest needed to be bigger, but Lisa actually didn’t mind hers. Any bigger and they wouldn’t suit her body.
But that was enough staring in the mirror - even with her glasses off, there was only so much looking at oneself that a girl can take before she started finding things wrong - like the fact that she really could do with being a wee bit more defined in the stomach.
Grimacing, the teenager dried herself off and wiped off her glasses, before slipping them on and returning to her bedroom to dress, coming back to do her hair. It didn’t take too long to dry with the hairdryer, and styling didn’t take too much longer. A few quick twists of lip gloss, a spritz of perfume she considered nice, smelling much like sandalwood and vanilla, and she was done.
The Gallagher household was small, but it was nice. The floors were wooden and the furniture was much the same, floral prints spattered across the curtains and couch. Two bedrooms, two beds, lounge room, kitchen, and a bookcase on every wall that had room for one. Two bedrooms meant it was cheap to put a deposit on, ideal for a working woman with no other source of income. Lisa’s mother was a fanatic reader in her rare spare time, and often joked that if her daughter didn’t spend so much time on the internet, she’d have made some sort of a dent in the immense library, but as it stood, all she’d taken had been the odd sci-fi novel.
Lisa quickly took the stairs down to the lower floor, keys jingling in her pocket. The smell of burnt toast had filled the lower floors, a scent that caused her to smile; her mother wasn’t the most wonderful of cooks, and she wasn’t the tidiest person she knew, but she always seemed to try her best. The red-head glanced towards the front window, spotting the empty space in the driveway that her mother’s champagne Toyota usually occupied, and headed for the kitchen. The dishwasher was churning and knocking with an hour and thirty-seven minutes left, and the bench still had crumbs on it. Seemed her mother had been late again this morning. Sweeping the leftover crumbs into one hand, the teen disposed of them and poured a bowl of cereal, retiring to the couch with it in her lap.
The TV came to life soon enough. The only channels she could get with any regularity were the local ones; they covered high school football matches and local weather, as well as a few random news segments every now and then. She hungrily laid into her cereal as the programme turned on to a local field report. Photos flicked across the screen of several different local gas stations. Her eyes moved to the subject matter on the bottom of the screen and she raised an eyebrow.
-- Robberies hit local gas stations - Local Community shocked --
It was interesting - Crime wasn’t something someone experienced a lot in mountain towns like this. She watched quietly as the story flicked back and forth between dramatizations and pre-recorded interviews with nearby residents with interest; Robberies didn’t affect her so much, but it was scary to know something like that could happen, even out here. The red-head adjusted her glasses upon finishing her breakfast and took her dishes back to the kitchen, pausing as her phone chirped in her pocket. She pulled it from her pocket and unlocked it, smiling as she saw she’d received a message from Tyler.
Tyler Williams - Simply put, she was her best friend - her only friend.
There was a cadence to Tyler’s manner that always managed to surprise her; for an only child growing up in a mountain town like Narlassus, it was surprising that she didn’t have many other friends to spend her time with. Lisa was grateful; never was it a bad thing to get a late-night call from that girl. They were really close - but she’d never been able to work up the courage to ask her over. Not once. Eight months and the closest she’d gotten to Tyler’s house was the front gate. Flicking her fringe away, she opened the message and began reading.
Can’t make it to your house to pick you up this morning :( See you at lunch though!
She could be a bit of a flake sometimes. Not that it was her fault; it was probably the she-devil mother she’d never met behind it all. She sent back a good-natured ‘okay’, stuffed the device back into her pocket, and whisked back up toward her room, picking her orange-to-grey patterned messenger bag up from the side of her desk to sit on her bed. With Tyler not coming to pick her up, and her mother gone already, it meant that she’d need to allow a little extra time to get to school.
She packed her laptop, her pencil case, several thin binders and a few essentials, before slinging the bag over her shoulder and descending to the first floor. Lisa adjusted herself briefly, then set the alarm and locked up on her way out onto the footpath.
She looked past the rolling rows of houses spread out across the sloping hill, toward the sun that hung in anticipation of its journey across the sky. Her eyes then moved to the green back yards and crystal-clear swimming pools littered across the neighbourhood. “Really is idyllic, isn’t it…?” She mumbled to herself, stuffing her hands into her vest pockets as she skittered down the porch-steps and across the silent road. They lived on the edge of society in this town - one of the reasons for the low asking price on their house, Lisa suspected. Forty minute walk to the school, fifty to the town centre, depending on walking speed.
Philosophy class really wasn’t meant to be first thing in the morning - everybody was tired and not up to arguing out the point put forward by the opposition - so often they simply retired to a period of reading material, which in some ways wasn’t much better. Once a student reads the same passage over eight times and is still having trouble understanding what the point of it was, there’s a limit to how long someone can pay attention for.
Her eyes wandered, as they were so prone to doing, from the page, to the back of the seat of the student in front of her, and up to the white board. The notes from a previous specialist math class were still on it, a subject she enjoyed for its applications in slightly more realistic situations than one would find in General or Math Methods. She began the pen-flicking game, spinning it around her slender fingers habitually.
Narlassus High was… Average, she supposed. Unlike how she had imagined the school to be, there were not many easily-discernable cliques hanging around. There were the jocks, of course, they’d even been present back home, but other than that, everyone she ran into seemed at least a little… Strange. No one was perfectly average - except perhaps the boy that sat in front of her in this class.
She eyed him curiously for a moment. Short hair, thick through the middle but not overweight, skin a neutral, fleshy Caucasian. She’d seen him from the front once - he’d asked for a pencil. He wasn’t… Bad-looking, she guessed, but not her cup of tea. Any other perfectly average girl would be happy to have him - he seemed nice enough. This, she concluded, was the kind of boy that grew up to be a perfectly normal, proud parent of 2.5 children. She glanced to the teen that sat beside her; he seemed to be immersed in something he was reading on his phone. She checked her other flank, just for the hell of it, and then suddenly realised that she was quite literally surrounded by boys.
‘That’s what you get for not looking where you sit, Lisa,’ She thought to herself, as her right-hand-man gave her a raise of the eyebrow and a nod. She gave an uncertain wave, raising her own eyebrow. He responded with a smile and then looked back to his work. Social customs between herself and the opposite sex were often awkward and left her feeling either confused or remarkably indifferent.
He was good-looking, she guessed - black hair, longish, trim of waist and athletic of build. His name was Skyler, if she remembered correctly, and several times this ritual had been repeated during Monday Philosophy. What purpose it served, exactly was beyond her, as they’d never actually talked beyond exchanging philosophical opinion. He was very much a utilitarian and had at times offered to read over her work before she submitted it.
Lost in thought, she stared at him, until he did something quite unexpected: Spoke.
Amongst the murmur of the class tossing about ideas and discussing last night’s football game, he was surprisingly clear. “What part of Ireland are you from?” He asked, and she blinked in response.
“What part of Ireland are you from?”
“Ehm…” She thought for a moment - no one had bothered to ask her before, “… Derry,”
“That up north?”
“Um, right up north,” She responded, maintaining that lovely conversational magic she’d never been gifted with.
He smiled again, “Heard it’s real green there.”
“It is, really… But, I mean, it’s not like you’re really tied down with grey city ‘ere…” In some ways Narlassus was similar to home. It was rather green here too.
He eased back in his seat and then forward again. “ So, you enjoying our quiet mountain life?” He asked.
“I am, it’s alright; Low crime rate an’ all. People are generally pretty nice.”
It really was quite remarkable that he’d carried on their conversation without once pausing to decipher her thick accent.
“Generally?” He didn’t sound offended, rather curious in fact.
She smiled and shrugged, “Y’get the occasional off-centre bastard who thinks it’s both clever and accurate to shout ‘Top o’ the mornin’ to ya!’, in some ridiculously over-the-top accent. “
He chuckled. By the lord, she’d managed to say something funny?
“No! Really!” She insisted, turning on her seat to get to talking a little more comfortably, “I’m gonna deck the next joker who insists on saying that. Sixteen years living in that country, and not once did I ever hear someone actually say that.”
“I like the accent,” He responded, giving her one of those odd looks over that suggested he was thinking on continuing that train of thought.
What exactly does a person say to that? Thank you? She settled for a nervous smile instead. He decided that was his cue to continue. He shifted about a little and seemed to do a self-check, taking a calming breath.
“Lisa, why don’t we talk more often?” He didn’t wait for her to answer before continuing, “You’re always so quiet. I don’t… I don’t really see why.” He waited a moment, in case she felt the need to interject, but she was far too busy trying to decipher his fidgety behaviour. Was he going to ask to be friends? Because she wouldn’t mind that. The more friends the merrier, right?
“To be honest, I kinda keep chickening out of asking you out every Monday…” He said, and her eyes widened.
How did this happen? Did I give off some sort of vibe that I was interested?
“Oh.” She repeated out loud this time, looking quite cleverly dumbfounded.
“So… How ‘bout it?” He asked, leaning on an elbow.
She stalled. What exactly does one say to get situations like this to be laughed off and forgotten? Looking down to her lap, she felt the blood rush to her cheeks as she became unnaturally interested in a speck of dirt on her desk.
“Um… Lisa?” Skyler brought her attentions from her desk to him again, and she bit her lip. Why don’t you just want to be friends? She questioned, raising her hand to scratch nervously at the back of her neck.
What did she say? ‘Sorry, but I’m not interested in guys, but do you wanna be friends instead?’
The proverbial elephant in this room was her sexuality, and she didn’t have any illusions about being just partial to girls. They were her outright preference.
What good would it be to lead him on? Maybe that could be their next philosophical topic.
“Um…” She began, and he seemed to be on edge; like he could already read her mind, but wanted to believe against it. “I’m… Really flattered, but…” Seeing his shoulders and confidence simultaneously deflate was painful. “I’m…”
Good lord, she didn’t even know what to call it. Gay or lesbian felt like such awkward words to use in this context, despite their accuracy. “… I’m n-not interested in… Um… Guys,” She said very quietly, stumbling through her sentence.
His pale cerulean eyes stared at her for a few moments, and he experienced the same sort of awkward lull in conversation that she so consistently maintained. She bit her lip and smiled weakly. It was often like this when she came out to people. They didn’t know if she meant to say what she did, like maybe they were waiting for her to continue onward with ‘… Guys like you,’ or, ‘… At the moment.’
But Skyler was smarter than that - thankfully. “So,” he began, tilting his head to the side, as if to make the pieces fall into place better. “… You’re…”
“Gay.” She answered for him, quietly as she could.
“As a rainbow.”
“Sorry,” She apologized, adjusting her glasses. He actually looked less deflated than before. A little more reassured, were that possible, that it wasn’t his fault. He eased back into his seat and looked at her for a moment longer.
Is he taking notes on how to spot us for future reference?
“… You’re sure?”
“… Pretty sure,” She reassured the boy, and he gave her a disappointed-yet-peaceful smile.
“Can’t blame me for trying,” He said, finally, and shrugged off her rejection, turning the page of the text book he’d been flicking through. The compliment brought a thin shade of scarlet to her cheeks, and she concealed a small smile. She was not immune to flattery, even from the opposite sex.
He looked back to his work. So did she.
“If you ever change your mind…”
She giggled, “You’ll be my first call.”
“Brilliant!” He mused in good nature, taking out his pen to scribble a few notes into his exercise book.
Lisa ran a hand through her hair and breathed a gentle sigh of relief; that could have gone much worse than it did. Moving her attentions from the boy next to her to the book in front of her, she resumed her reading, barely making it to the end of the chapter before the bell rang for period’s end.
[End notes: If you feel the urge, I'd be interested in C&C, I'm always looking to get better.]
[Author's notes: New chapter! Thanks to those who have reviewed already! I hope you like.]
Several Days Ago…
The clouds hung stubbornly above Mt. Narlassus, blanketing the town in a dreary, hopeless grey. The grasses shifted reluctantly against the chill of the wind, and people huddled close as they could to themselves and against one another for warmth. The colour seemed to drain from the hedges and grasses, and the paint of the houses lost all luminosity, one melting into the next for streets on end. Leaves skittered across the footpaths and flew into back yards, sprinkling the crystalline surface of various pools with their deadened silhouette.
If one were to exit their home and go for a leisurely run, they would find the biting chill of the wind, and the deserted streets of their neighbourhoods inhospitable and foreign. Couples made their way to and from various places; a few of the brave ones even dared to come out and sit upon the wooden park benches, holding gloved hands. Lights flicked on in windows, despite the time, and shutters closed. Cold was not welcomed.
Neither was she.
A figure clad in a long coat stood braced against the cold in the driveway of the looming residence. It was tall and narrow, a two-storey, two bedroom house, built in faux-modern fashion. It extended back into the block of land, making it deceptively deep. The entire street had been built in a similar fashion; boxy and minimalistic with suggested shapes, walls broken up by well-placed light coverings and window frames. The figure grimaced and began to walk toward the front door; it looked like an expensive neighbourhood. She’d never been to a street where the house numbers were spelled out with letters in calligraphic fonts.
She was a tall woman, built strong and angular with excellent posture and straight shoulders. She wore a black tank top that ended just short of her silver belt buckle, and long straight-cut trousers. Her coat stretched to the backs of her knees and split at the small of her back, made of a sturdy and nondescript charcoal grey material. Her cool grey eyes commanded attention and her brow seemed to be creased into a permanent frown, giving the impression that there was always something she wasn’t happy about.
Her gait was steady and sure, every step a carefully calculated movement on the way to the door. She passed a short and shiny Volkswagen and climbed the steps to the porch, a large green duffle bag slung over her shoulder. When she reached the door, she instinctively leant forward for the knob and paused; it really wasn’t her place to just enter. Instead, she reached for the doorbell and pressed. A soft, melodic chime came from within the house, muffled by the door. Footsteps. A muffled sigh came from behind the door before it swung inward.
“Sonia.” The greeting was even less hospitable than the weather.
The black-clad woman’s lips tightened into a small line, and she allowed the barest of nods. “Mother.”
“- Ex-mother,” The older woman in the doorway corrected sharply. Her eyes told of nerves and fear veiled behind anger, and she defensively guarded the entryway like a bird would its nest from intruders. They stared at each other for another few moments, the tension thick and fierce. Eventually, she slackened her shoulders and gave a heaving sigh. “Come in, I set things up.” She invited begrudgingly, turning into the hall. Sonia followed, closing the door behind her. Her boots left no dirt on the floor as they moved into what appeared to be a living room.
Under the warm overhead lights, Sonia’s olive-brown complexion flourished, her eyes surveying the living room. Creature comforts were littered about; a couch and two reclining chairs pointed to a flat-screen television, short candles were scattered over various surfaces, and off to the left, she was able to make out a small, spotless kitchen. A myriad of scents, none of them overpowering or unpleasant, were available to smell. From the musk of the meal cooking in the kitchen, to the natural and earthy perfume of the wood-panelled floors, she might have felt instantly at home if it weren’t for her host’s foul mood. Even then, it was still kind of similar to home - things were never all that relaxed there.
Noelle was a southern-states woman just past forty, sans the drawling accent, with wavy shoulder-length brown hair. She stood at shoulder-height to Sonia, and kept herself in good health. She looked to her tall guest and huffed, leaning on one arm against the table. Furrowing her brow in a curious manner, she asked, “So what did you do?” Sonia stared passively back.
“What did I do?” She repeated, Slavic accent heavy in her English.
“Yes,” Noelle confirmed, “What did you do? I don’t often get calls from your father anymore. In fact, I was just hoping that he’d finally managed to forget I even existed when he - out of the blue - insists that I allow you to come and stay with me.” She continued, her body language strong. She could put someone’s eye out with her flailing arms. “So what did you do? Shoot somebody?”
She hesitated. “No.”
Noelle sighed. “Well damn it, Sonia; I don’t like being treated like a halfway house! How ‘bout we skip my guessing game and you just tell me why your father thought it was so urgent you come to America?”
The taller woman bit her lip out of annoyance and looked away. “I hit him.”
Noelle regarded her with cautious suspicion, not entirely sure a word of what she heard was actually truth. That was the way it had worked with Kazimir - everything was need-to-know. He had always had a rough hand, in his marriage and in his family; a sort of bleeding effect from his business. She could certainly see her once-step-daughter snapping back at him; Sonia was strong-willed and opinionated, like him. She nodded once, and then parted from the table, waving the girl over as she headed further into the house.
Sonia followed through the lounge to find two sets of stairs, and Noelle pointed her to the set that led downward, to the basement.
“Heat’s dead and the bed’s a fold-down,” She warned stiffly.
“Fine…” Sonia mumbled indifferently as she descended.
The steps got dustier and creakier the lower she got. She had the feeling the basement wasn’t often used or maintained. It was musty and smelled of newspaper. A single 60 watt bulb hung in the centre of the large room, a pull-switch slung down beside it. The bed had already been pulled from the wall and been equipped with new sheets and a single pillow. The cold was not a concern; she was used to it after twenty years within the icy claws of Russian winter. Papers were scattered across a desk over to the far left, a treadmill stood off to the far right, and she could see a door that led off to a seldom-used bathroom.
Crossing to the centre of the room, Sonia dumped her duffle bag onto the bed. It rattled with age and rickety construction, causing her to frown more than usual. Hopefully it didn’t plan on upending her during the middle of the night and folding back into the wall, like she’d seen in so many American movies. She smiled at the thought. Perhaps it would be best if it did.
Over the course of the next twenty minutes, Sonia emptied out a chest of drawers found buried beneath a rubber sheet, and dragged it over to the spot next to her bed-head, filling it with her packed clothes and miscellany, including a folded shirt housing Alessia’s gun, and a pair of socks containing its clip. She never really liked guns; they were always better left out of sight.
What she’d said about her father wasn’t a lie; she did hit him - broke one of his ribs, actually.
They were both predominantly Russian, though her skin was a darker olive brown that came from her mother’s Brazilian blood. She died in childbirth. Noelle replaced her when she was three, pregnant, then left her father when she turned ten. Noelle took her daughter with her. She wasn’t ever briefed on the details, but she’d always suspected the reason for Noelle’s absence from then on was her discovering what kind of man her father really was.
It was then that she began to try and grow closer to her father; she took to martial arts and self-defence classes with a zeal that surprised him, and he finally took her under his wing. Her talent and eagerness to please made it easy for him to shape her. For a time, Sonia followed his every command, and was blissfully unaware of her corruption; he was her father, after all; a pillar of strength in her world of crumbling buildings. Naïveté was unavoidable.
To her father, no law was sacred (a hazard of his business). No depth within his organization that he could bring her to was questionable. And for the longest time, Sonia never wanted to disappoint him; no matter how much what he made her do turned her stomach. Organized crime was a slippery slope; it started with collecting money, delivering friendly warnings - things like that. Chasing money turned to threats if some didn’t come up, and after that, to delivering beatings. It quickly escalated.
It felt queer, so unimaginably surreal, to reflect upon her life and where it had gotten her, and the kind of person she had been. Seating herself on the bed, Sonia clasped her hands together over her lap and sighed heavily.
The journey from that dark place in her life to where she was now had become a sickening blur. She guessed Kazimir had seen her as a liability, but rather than dispose of her like he would have any other unwilling pawn, he delegated to have her work in the place she could cause the least amount of damage: America.
Kazimir’s reach extended only so far outside Russian borders, of the notable groups he had assembled within the U.S., the party of three in Mount Narlassus was… Pitiful. It was questionable as to why he’d even bothered to establish a group there. Sonia saw it as a giant middle finger, a message that read ‘Call me when you’re ready to do as you’re told,’ and left it at that. She was anything but willing to let him control her anymore.
Sonia sighed and drew one of her tense hands down over her face. What a life.
The dreary afternoon lights faded quickly behind the cover of clouds as the moon subtly traded places with the sun. The temperature dipped further, and many families sat down to eat their dinner at this hour. On the second floor of the same narrow house, a sliding glass door opened up to an unenclosed section of decking. Potted plants were tucked into the corners of the decking, looking well taken-care of. This section of the house had no ceiling, only a minimalistic overhanging plastic roof designed to shield the deck from hard rain. Beads of moisture gathered along the flat railing that kept the space partially enclosed. There were a couple of deck chairs and a small circular table placed neatly towards the end of the enclosure.
The small enclosure overlooked the neighbourhood, its boxy and simple houses ghostly pale against the moonlight filtering in through the clouds. Cars glimmered in the driveways, most of them small and economical, some large and beastly. Street lamps flickered on, illuminating small patches of the sidewalk on either side of the street, sheltered bulbs hissing against the cold.
Sonia stepped out into the night air from the glass sliding door with curious intent. The upstairs ‘balcony’ was serene, quiet, devoid of tension and masked anger, unlike the other rooms in the house. She was far away from home, in the midst of a complicated situation, and there was still no one to help her. She closed the glass door behind her and examined the dark-stained wooden decking carefully as she moved towards the railing that overlooked the neighbourhood. She couldn’t see any lights, except for the ones in the lamp posts; everyone had closed their curtains for the night.
She glanced to the chair beside her and frowned; it was covered in a fine misting of droplets, likely from the humidity of the recent nights. Not wishing to end up with a damp rear end, she instead extended a leg over the railing of the balcony, then the other, to sit upon it. She was rarely given the chance to appreciate her surroundings back in Volgograd; to be sent somewhere so peaceful and brimming with plant life was a strange experience. Not unwelcome - but strange.
The woman’s frown deepened as she heard the sound of rustling beside her. She let her lips purse and cast her gaze downward, into the driveway. Sonia delved into thought and closed her eyes as the wind rose to a whistle in her ears.
“Idyllic?” A voice said, finishing her thought for her. Sonia’s frown grew more complex. She raised an eyebrow.
“That’s a word for it…” She responded.
“My English never was much good.”
“It sounds good to me.”
“My English is as good as yours is, Sonia.” The voice flatly responded. It was male, deep and thick with the same accent that she held. He lied - his English was always much better than hers.
“I guess.” She tilted her head to her left, saw his legs hanging in an identical fashion to her own, open-kneed and casual. He wore jeans and high tops, both the same colour: black. His left leg was torn at the knee and exposed his pale skin to the moonlight. It seemed to glow when she focused on it.
“Pretty place,” He remarked, his gloved hands coming down upon his thighs. He rubbed at them, as if he were cold. “Bit nippy, though.”
“Really is,” His rubbing slowed to a stop. “Hell of a nice place to drop you.”
She nodded. “Could’ve been worse.”
“Could’ve been in jail,” His voice lifted to bemusement, “really, I’m surprised you’re not; break one of Kazimir Voronov’s ribs and he breaks your life. Would’ve been like that for anyone else. What’s he do to you? Ships you off to--,”
“Hell,” She interrupted. Her brow lifted at the resultant laugh from beside her.
“Hell? Hell?” Its owner asked, “This, my melancholy friend, is paradise. Crystal-clear natural running water, dead silence by night, warbling birds by day, hedges, flowers, white-picket fences…” Her silence led him to continue. “If someone had offered me a ticket to a brand new life in the U.S. of A, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.”
She gave it some thought and knocked her heel against the wall rhythmically. “I’m not you.”
“What, you actually miss Volgograd? The grey buildings, the alleys, the suits, low plant life…”
“It wasn’t so grey once you got out further.” She protested.
“But you weren’t allowed out that far.”
She grew silent once more at that. Her black shoulder length hair, pulled back tightly into a ponytail fluttered and tossed at the collar of her coat in a stronger breeze, then grew peaceful once more. The messy black bangs that clawed at her brow were swept aside by her hand in a useless attempt to tidy. He was right; she’d never been left alone long enough to even have time to get out to the countryside. She’d been on one of the boats on the Volgogradskoye (h2;l6;l3;k5;l6;k5;lk2;k6;l9;l2;l6;k) reservoir, once, when Noelle had still been living with them.
“Why didn’t you just go? Just go and see the fringes of the city sometime?” He asked.
“Molchi!” She exclaimed, slapping the railing in frustration. The person beside her didn’t jump, but shut up, as per her demand. She sighed and looked down at the car in the driveway. “Because… I was scared he’d find out.” Sonia admitted, not without a note of shame.
“A valid reason…” his tone had turned sympathetic. “Sonia, he’s a bad person.”
She twisted herself over the railing again, turning her back to the street. Her legs came to rest on one of the damp decking chairs, and the person beside her did the same. She compared her heavy boots to his high tops. His were pristine, hers were well-travelled. She crossed her ankles and looked to her lap. “I know.”
“What you’re doing, though… Is it really going to work?”
A sigh came from him. “It could all fall apart. You might not know this new group as well as you think you do.”
“I know they’re nervous; itching to do something.” She turned her head to look at the man for the first time since they had begun conversing. A hood from his jacket swallowed most of his head, but his fair skin and petite features were framed by a mess of black hair. He looked troubled by her words. “I’ll be fine.”
He frowned and stared her back. “Providing all goes well, right?”
“How can you be sure it will?”
“Chert, Sonia…” He trailed off, looking away. She didn’t try to pursue it or reassure him anymore. In fact, she had no reason to. Shaking her head, she looked from him to the decking again, then up to the glass sliding door that led back into the house. A particularly chilling breeze swept across her neck and she drew her shoulders closer together to combat the cold.
“I forget sometimes…” She began, sighing softly in her pause.
“What?” He asked.
She examined her reflection in the glass sliding door; she saw herself sitting upon the railing, but without a person sitting next to her. “… That you’re not really here.”
“Oh. That.” He sounded disappointed.
“Yeah,” She took a moment to clear her mind, and then looked to the spot beside her. In the time it took her to blink, the man disappeared, leaving an empty spot beside her on the rail. She reached for it and ran her hand along the cool metal framing; it was chilling to the touch.
[End notes: I hope you liked it. As always, I'd LOVE to hear from you guys as to what you think of this story so far!]
Back to chapter list