Urban Fantasy Suspense R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
A lcoholic   parents   treated   Margarite   as   an   unwelcome   stranger,   then left    her    at    fourteen    with    her    thirty    year    old    autistic    brother.    At sixteen,    things    really    sour,    thanks    to    her    brother.    A    medical researcher,   Reggie   engineers   the   ultimate   plague.   Fanatics   seek   to control   him.   The   government   pursues   them   as   terrorists.   Margarite witnesses   ruthlessness,   compassion,   and   competence   she   couldn't imagine   from   her   brother,   but   the   world   needs   a   miracle.   The   best she and Reggie can do is wing it.
Chapter 1 ~ M argarite    peered    at    the    time    on    her    clock    radio    and    slugged    the    mattress.    The discussion   downstairs   hadn't   stopped   all   night.   The   inconsiderate   jerks   never   made   any effort to dampen either their voices or the periodic slam of the hallway bathroom door. And   now   that   they   were   apparently   leaving   at   five-fifteen   in   the   stinkin'   morning they sounded like a herd of prancing bison. She   threw   off   her   sheet,   grabbed   her   robe,   and   headed   for   the   stairs.   She   managed the   tie   around   her   waist   by   the   time   she   reached   the   middle   landing.   The   four   men below    quickly    fell    to    a    whisper,    but    their    collective    baritone    resonated    from    the entryway. Margarite   stomped   to   a   halt   and   wrenched   the   angriest   expression   she   could   muster onto   her   face.   One   of   the   men   with   her   brother   gave   her   a   glance   over   his   shoulder   but ducked   as   he   turned   away.   She   got   the   impression   the   men   skulked,   pulling   the   front door out of Reggie's hand and rushing outside. "Reg!" He   snapped   the   door   closed   and   looked   up.   For   an   autistic   unable   to   demonstrate emotion, guilt edged his face. "Using Dad's lab doesn't mean you can turn this house into an all-night frat house." "My lab now. Dad's dead." "Is he now? When did that happen? So you have the right to keep me up all night?" He   triple   blinked.   Sarcasm   soared   over   the   man's   head.   Freaking   genius,   but   he couldn't   understand   anger   if   you   painted   it   on   his   chest   and   tagged   the   colors   with numbers. "We got involved," he said. "Forgot you were upstairs." "Forgot!" Mar had to swallow away the pain her shriek caused. He isn't a moron. He can't empathize.   She took two slow breaths. "You're taking deep breaths," he said. "You're angry." "What gave it away?" Crud! No point in throwing sarcasm in his face. "I explained that I noticed you took deep breaths." Mar walked down the final five steps to give her time to compose herself. Not fair I have to be reasonable. I'm sixteen .  I'm not supposed to be reasonable.   Reggie   tilted   his   head   back   as   she   took   her   last   step   toward   him.   She   grabbed   his shirt   at   both   shoulders   and   he   flinched.   That   alone   made   her   want   to   slap   him—made her   want   to   scream   bloody   mayhem.   She   hated   he   couldn't   stand   to   be   touched.   All   she wanted in the world was someone to hold her . "I   love   you,   Reg."   I   hate   you   too.   "But   you   can't   invite   strangers   in   the   house   for   all- nighters." She tugged at him. He closed his eyes and hunched his shoulders in a flinch. "Please, don't." "Promise   me   you   won't   do   this   again."   She   looked   directly   into   his   eyes.   He   had   to look   up   sharply   to   meet   her   glare.   She   got   all   of   their   parent's   physical   genes   while   he got all the intellect. The jerk. "It    was    important,"    Reggie    said,    opening    his    eyes    in    a    grimace.    "They    aren't strangers." "They're strangers to me. Mom wouldn't have put up with it and I won't either." "Mom's—" "Don't say it." She didn't mean to shout. He   flinched   and   pulled   away,   pressed   his   shoulder   against   the   door   and   stared   at   the wall.   It   wasn't   because   he   was   afraid   of   her.   Confrontation   was   the   only   thing   he   dealt with   worse   than   emotion.   The   pain   level   rose   in   her   chest   and   her   throat   burned.   Her body   vibrated   with   the   old   anger.   Her   hands   shook.   She   needed   to   kick   the   stuffing   out of crash dummy. "Doesn't matter anymore," he said. "At least it won't in a couple weeks." His   pronouncements   were   always   inappropriate.   She   continued   to   glare   at   him,   her anger   rising,   knowing   in   ten   minutes   he   wouldn't   remember   the   intensity   of   her   rant. The next time would be like the first, and he'd do it all over again. "I don't want to hear your excuses," she said. "I want to go to my room." She   wanted   to   reach   out   and   stroke   his   fuzzy   cheek.   No   she   didn't.   She   wanted   him to   take   her   in   his   arms.   Wanted   him   to   understand   how   he   made   her   feel.   An   apology would be nice. She wanted to lash out. The welling anxiety made her flesh crawl. "I'm going to go for a run." She pivoted and rushed upstairs. Taking   in   a   run   with   little   sleep   was   the   last   thing   her   body   wanted,   but   it   would   give her a way to temporarily expel the demons—if she ran hard enough. She   owned   all   the   emotions   that   existed   in   what   remained   of   their   family,   and   the responsibility   dragged   on   her.   Caring   for   Reggie   the   last   two   years   made   her   feel   older than   she   deserved.   She   hated   that   she   acted   like   such   a   witch.   Couldn't   stop,   step   out   of the role for a single moment. Why   had   she   become   such   a   hateful   person?   It   made   her   despise   her   mom   and   dad even    more.    They    had    never    cared    about    anyone    but    themselves.    They    sat    on    some flaming-hot rock in Hell laughing their arses off at her. In   her   room,   she   pressed   the   back   of   her   hand   against   the   glass   of   her   window, though   she   read   the   exterior   reading   of   her   thermometer   on   her   nightstand.   Fifty-nine. Not cold, but if there was a breeze coming off the bay it would feel more like thirty-nine. She   slipped   out   of   her   robe   and   pajamas,   pulled   on   a   sport   bra,   a   tank,   and   a   long- sleeved   tee   over   that.   She   dug   in   her   bottom   drawer   for   a   pair   of   shin-length   tights. She'd rather sweat than shiver. Brassy   snorted.   The   old   Rottweiler's   head   hid   under   the   bed.   A   hind   leg   jerked.   She must have been having a good dream because her stub of a tail twitched. "No need to see me off," Mar said. The   dog   could   sleep   through   a   category   five.   But   she   was   the   sweetest,   hundred- pound   lap   dog   in   the   world.   She   barked   once   five   years   ago,   and   it   scared   her.   She decided after that she didn't need to do that anymore. "Be back in a bit, sweetie." Mar   pulled   her   hair   together   with   a   twin-bead-tie,   grabbed   her   phone,   a   pair   of socks,   her   Nikes,   and   headed   downstairs.   A   muffled   sound   to   her   left   made   her   glance over the banister. Reggie was in his  lab. Didn't go to his room after all. She   shook   her   head.   He   needed   sleep.   But   she   couldn't   micromanage   the   man.   He was   thirty-two,   held   a   job,   and   managed   his   own   responsibilities,   for   the   most   part.   As   it was, she kept tighter control of him than their mom ever did. Why   did   that   woman   have   one   child,   much   less   a   second?   Mar   knew   the   answer,   but it   didn't   soothe   her   anger.   Reggie's   autism   should   have   ensured   he'd   be   an   only   child.   A decade   and   a   half   later,   along   came   the   big   oops,   Margarite   Lynne,   more   responsibility than   either   parent   wanted,   and   a   serious   distraction   to   their   careers.   Though   neither   of them   ever   changed   a   diaper.   Full   time   nannies   always   covered   that   responsibility.   Her sinuses   burned   in   that   way   that   threatened   tears,   which   torqued   her   anger   up   another notch. Pathetic witch, feeling sorry for yourself again . She   closed   and   locked   the   door   and   stowed   her   house   key   above   the   door   ledge.   She shivered   from   the   chill   of   the   deck   on   her   bare   feet.   Turning   for   the   steps,   a   flash   of   light caught   her   eye.   Actually,   it   looked   as   though   a   light   turned   off,   in   a   car   in   the   street,   a house up on the left. Curb-side   parking   wasn't   allowed   on   their   narrow   street.   Two   cars   could   barely   pass as   it   was   without   mirrors   kissing.   She   studied   the   dark   sedan   as   she   sat   to   put   on   her socks   and   shoes.   It   wasn't   her   brother's   visitors.   She   had   heard   them   park   in   the   drive along the side of the house when they arrived. "People   do   whatever   the   heck   they   want,"   she   muttered,   wiping   the   bottom   of   her feet.   "Better   be   out   of   there   before   Mr.   Atherton   wakes   up.   He'll   call   the   Gestapo   on you." Mar   got   her   Nike's   on   and   stepped   back   on   the   porch   to   stretch.   She   worked   on   her left   Achilles   when   the   front   screen   next   door   opened.   The   shadows   hid   whoever   exited,   if anyone    did.    Five-thirty    in    the    morning.    Who    got    up    that    early    except    irrationally emoting sixteen-year-old girls? She finished stretching and headed for the street. "I didn't know you ran in the morning." The   air   rushing   out   her   lungs   generated   a   squawk.   Mar   spun   around   and   faced   the shadow that spoke. "Geez!   You   trying   to   give   a   girl   a   heart   attack?"   The   muffled   bark   of   a   neighbor's   dog made her catch her voice. "Sorry," he said. "Thought you saw me stretching." "Shh,"   she   hissed,   looking   at   the   Martinez'   second   story   windows   for   signs   of   a shotgun   sticking   out.   Their   Boston   Terrier   stopped   barking   and   Mar   let   out   her   breath. "I didn't know you ran." Watching   Kory   approach,   a   warm   sensation   ran   between   her   shoulder   blades.   He wore   a   long-sleeve,   gray   sweatshirt,   pants   to   match,   but   they   were   cut   off   at   the   knees. He   didn't   have   to   dress   cool.   It   exuded   from   every   pore.   He   was   a   senior   at   Plant,   drove a   ragtop,   dark-blue   Mustang   GT.   He   might   as   well   sing   in   a   rock   band.   Short-cropped black hair, dark-blue eyes. Granite shoulders with gluts as tight as a knot. "I   ran   with   my   mom   every   morning   since   I   was   ten,"   he   said.   "Kept   the   routine   after. Good cross training." He was a double-sporter too, wrestling and basketball. "After what?" He   paused,   before   following   her   into   the   street.   "Sorry.   Forget   everyone   doesn't know." They stepped off in a slow, warm-up jog toward the bay together. "Know what?" Mar asked. "My mom was killed in a car accident about six months before we moved here." Mar   jolted   to   a   stop,   anger   ripping   down   into   her   fists.   She   took   a   deep   breath,   and told herself, he's not making a sick joke. Kory   stopped   two   steps   ahead   of   her   and   turned   around.   "It's   no   big   deal.   I'm   over   it, if it's something you ever get over. You know. Been almost a year." "Wasn't   that,"   Mar   mumbled.   "Guess   you   don't   know   either."   In   the   gloom,   she   saw him   tilt   his   head   back   in   a   wazzup-motion.   She   pushed   back   into   a   jog   and   he   fell alongside. "I lost my dad and mom the same way, two years ago." "Oh, man." Mar looked left and right, worried about stirring up more dogs. He   said,   "I   assumed   the   dude   I   see   you   driving   around   in   that   antique   Volvo   was your dad." "My brother." She extended her stride and he kept pace. "We    talking    about    the    same    guy?    Old    dude.    Forehead    to    the    back    of    his    head. Grumpy. Won't answer you if ya shout out a hello?" "That's Reg—Reggie. He has socialization issues." He   snorted.   Sounded   a   little   bit   like   something   Brassy   would   do.   "I'm   Kory,   by   the way. We haven't spoken since the holidays when we were moving in." Like every girl at Plant doesn't know your name. "I remember. I'm—" "Margaret, right?" "Marga rite .   But   everyone   calls   me   Mar."   Well   they   would,   if   anyone   cared   enough   to call me by name. He stumbled. "Gotta raise your feet on these old brick pavers," she said. "No kidding. Stuff's horrible." "I'm    glad    they    restored    it    instead    of    paving    it    over    like    they    did    in    some neighborhoods. I think it's pretty, nostalgic." They ran without speaking for a half-block. "Mmm.    So—two    years,    huh?    Sorry.    My    mom    was    hit    by    a    drunk,    July    fourth weekend." The   old,   hot   guilt   shot   through   her   chest   and   her   eyes   rimmed   with   tears.   She blinked them away quickly. "Damn drunks." "Yeah." "At least my parents only killed themselves," she said through a tight throat. Nothing   but   their   footfalls   interrupted   the   early   morning   quiet   as   they   neared   the boulevard.   With   her   admission   of   alcoholic   parents,   if   he   caught   her   reference,   Mar figured   any   chance   of   being   Kory's   friend   was   in   the   toilet.   They   crossed   Bayshore   and picked up their run in the grass. Kory finally said, "So they were, uh—" Yep. He picked it up. "Blitzed, as usual." Both stinking surgeons. You'd think they'd know better.   Or give a damn.   She   extended   her   stride,   lifting   her   knees   high   so   she   didn't   kill   herself   on   the   dark, uneven   lawn.   She   considered   sprinting   ahead   to   give   him   an   excuse   to   get   away   from her. He   caught   up   a   moment   later   but   didn't   speak   for   a   full   minute.   "So   we're   both victims of alcohol. Not like it was your fault. You sound as though you still have some—" They   ran   without   speaking   long   enough   Mar's   discomfort   ratcheted   up.   At   least   Kory wasn't one of those jocks who were all full of themselves and couldn't stop talking. "Issues?" she finally suggested. "Yeah." "My   dad   was   a   jackass.   Never   said   a   kind   word   to   me   his   whole   life.   My   mom   was   as disconnected as my brother." "Disconnected?" he asked. Mar   felt   the   tension   flow   out   of   her   body,   despite   the   topic,   and   extended   her   stride again.   The   cool   air   was   perfect   for   running.   The   tide   was   out.   The   ocean   mugginess   and the   smell   from   the   mud   flats   made   her   feel   at   home,   comfortable,   where   she   belonged. Bayshore   was   empty   of   a   single   set   of   headlights   and   nothing   moved   on   the   water.   The lights   from   Davis   Islands   reflected   off   the   bay   like   a   mirror.   She   and   Kory   could   have been the last two on Earth. It felt—sensual. "What   do   you   mean,   disconnected   like   your   brother?"   He   sucked   in   a   breath.   "How far you going? Don't know if I can keep this pace for long." Mar   hated   to   slow   down,   but   'fessed   up   to   herself,   she   liked   her   neighbor's   company. When   he   got   to   know   her,   he   wouldn't   share   that   sentiment.   Though   the   stride   felt   really good, she pulled back, and Kory let out a whew. "My brother has Asperger syndrome," she said. "That's   a   form   of   autism,   right?   That   why   I   always   see   you   in   the   driver's   seat?   He doesn't drive?" "My   idiot   father   pushed   him   to   drive.   But   since   Dad   killed   himself,   Reg   hasn't   gotten behind the wheel. What a relief that is." "Why?" "Accident waiting to happen," Mar said. "Can't focus?" "The   opposite.   Focus   of   a   steel   trap,   but   only   on   one   mental   thread   at   a   time.   I   don't know how he ever survived behind the wheel—or kept from killing someone else." "Mmm." "It   was   going   to   be   Dad   or   Reg.   Dad   pulled   the   trigger   first."   Would   Kory   catch   the full meaning of her expression? They   approached   Howard   Avenue,   which   she   usually   turned   up   in   the   mornings   for her shorter, three-mile loop. "How far you running?" "Oh, I usually turn around somewhere along here," he said. "I don't like to backtrack. Run up Howard with me?" "Sure. I'm up for a challenge." She grinned, doubting his true sentiments matched the tone of his voice. "So,   does   Reg   work   or   anything?"   Kory   asked,   as   they   crossed   Bayshore   and   ran   up the center of Howard. "He's a researcher at the medical school," Mar said, hoping she sounded casual. "Re—searcher?" "He has a doctorate in microbiology." "Oh. Wow. So, he's, uh, what they call—" "High functioning." "Yeah." "You wouldn't call him high functioning if you had to live with him." He shot a grin at her. "Saw a program on cable about As—Asp— "Asperger." "It just the two of you?" "Yeah," she said. "Can   see   how   it   could   be   challenging.   You   have   grandparents,   aunts,   whatever,   to help?" "Parents thoughtfully left Reg all to me." Mar   hated   how   her   voice   shot   up,   partially   broke.   She   swallowed,   wishing   she   could say   it   over.   Maybe   keep   the   emotion   out   of   her   voice   in   the   redo.   Reg   had   no   emotions, and she was nothing but. A   car   approached   and   they   moved   to   the   right   curb.   Mar   squinted   against   the   glare of   the   headlights.   The   car   slowed   and   her   throat   constricted,   until   a   glint   made   the narrow   bar   across   the   hood   stand   out—a   police   car.   The   officer's   window   was   down   and he called a good morning to them. She and Kory called back. "Sorry I'm slowing you down this morning," he said. "You're holding your own. Besides, I'll run again this afternoon, sixth period." "You run track?" Mar   had   hoped   he   knew.   But   why   should   he?   Boys   cared   about   themselves,   their own   sports,   and   little   about   anything   else.   But   since   she   was   a   junior   on   the   varsity basketball   team,   with   a   school   record   on   the   track—   But   couldn't   expect   much   from   a guy. They were lucky if they managed self -awareness. "I   have   an   appointment   to   Annapolis,"   he   continued,   ignoring   she   hadn't   answered his last question. He was definitely self-aware. "Read about it in the paper," she said. "Yeah?   Dad   almost   noticed.   I'm   following   in   his   footsteps,   but   he   doesn't   seem   to care that much." "Sounds like you have your own issues." He chuckled. "That obvious, huh?" "So he didn't frame the article and hang it in the living room?" "Since Mom died all he does is work. Out of town most the time." Mar motioned to the right. "Let's take Swann home." "K." "So, we're both raising ourselves," she said. He   grunted.   "Never   thought   of   it   that   way.   Maybe   Dad   feels   I'm   already   grown   and his job is done." "At   least   your   dad   recognized   he   had   a   responsibility   to   raise   you."   Mar's   throat tightened, again. Kory   looked   over   at   her   and   didn't   turn   away   for   too   long,   as   though   he   expected   her to   explain.   Or   he   was   counting   her   pores   in   the   dark.   To   avoid   his   scrutiny,   Mar   turned to   the   right   and   watched   a   man   and   woman   running   wind   sprints   in   the   ballpark's outfield. He said, "Sounds like you need a punching bag, not a run." Mar barked a laugh. "What?" he asked. "Wished for that very thing this morning." "Yeah?" he said. "Why's that?" "Had   a   fight   with   my   brother.   He's   so   frustrating.   Sometimes   I   could   club   him   to death. I tell myself it isn't his fault, but that doesn't help a whole lot." "I have a bag in our garage," he said. "You can pound it any time you want." "You have a workout bag in your garage?" That's something I should have noticed. He must not use it much. "His name's Bob. I study karate. It's great cross-training." "You named your punching bag?" His   smile   glinted   from   the   street   light   they   approached.   He   cleared   his   throat.   "Being neighbors, and all, maybe, we can ride to school together." Mar's    stomach    tightened.    She    visualized    herself    sitting    beside    Kory    in    his    sexy Mustang.   "Sometimes,   maybe.   I   usually   have   to   drive   Reg   downtown   though,   so   he   can catch the express bus to USF." "Think he'd mind crawling in the back of my Mustang?" he asked. "Ha." "No?" "Reg doesn't do well with any kind of change, or interruption in his routine." "Oh. Well, then, maybe I could get by in your Volvo." Mar grinned. "You'd slum, huh?" "Something a man has to do now and then for a good cause." "What's the good cause?" "Thought that would be obvious." "I've often been called thick witted." "Sounds   like   you   spend   time   around   people   who   don't   deserve   your   company,"   he said. "Very true." "Let me give you my number—" She   pulled   her   phone   out   of   the   waist   of   her   tights   and   pressed   it   into   his   chest.   "Dial your    phone.    I'm    not    good    with    numbers."    No    way    she    was    going    to    admit    to    her dyslexia. Though maybe she just did. "You carry your phone when you run?" he asked. "A female, in the dark? What do you think?" "Oh. Guess that makes sense." Chapter Two ~ M ar jolted into a sprint the moment she heard Reggie's guttural, "Noooo!" "What?" Kory shouted at her back. She   didn't   answer   him.   She   focused   on   the   two   manhandling   her   brother   on   their porch.   She   flew   the   forty   yards   to   their   house.   The   Martinez'   porch   light   flipped   on.   Dogs from a half-dozen houses answered Reggie's bellows. "Leave   him   alone,"   Mar   shouted,   trying   not   to   think   about   how   weird   it   was   two   men fought with her stupid brother. She   reached   the   fray   and   yanked   on   the   nearest   man's   arm.   He   shoved   her   away without    turning    around.    She    gripped    the    man's    collar    and    pulled.    The    man's    arm whipped   out   and   caught   her   across   the   side   of   her   throat.   She   felt   weightless   as   she   flew backward.   She   hit   the   grass,   rolled   over   the   rocks   that   lined   the   hedge,   into   the   crepe myrtle. She shook her head to clear the five copies of the three men on the walk. Her   brother's,   "No!"   echoed   in   her   ears.   She   struggled   to   breathe,   choked,   back arched   as   she   fought   the   sensation   to   wretch.   She   heard   new   shouts,   recognized   Kory's voice.   She   rolled   onto   her   side,   heard   the   sound   of   something   heavy,   metal,   striking concrete. Arms   flew.   Her   brother   ran   for   the   house.   One   of   Reggie's   attackers   hit   the   ground. The   other   reached   out.   He   held   something   black   in   his   hand.   Kory   kicked,   and   whatever it   was   flew   to   the   right.   The   man   lurched   directly   for   Kory,   who   got   the   man   with   several punches   before   the   man   ran   him   over,   knocking   him   to   the   ground.   Kory   grunted   hard, rose as the second man stumbled away. Mar   managed   to   sit   up.   Kory   didn't   follow   the   two.   They   got   in   the   sedan   she   noticed earlier.   The   engine   revved   and   the   car   raced   up   the   street.   She   opened   her   mouth   to speak,   but   had   to   clear   her   throat.   It   felt   as   though   a   fifty-pound   weight   wedged   against her esophagus. "You okay?" Kory ran to her. Mar   heard   a   croak   and   recognized   it   for   a   sob.   She   closed   her   eyes   and   swallowed, sucked in a deep breath. "What the heck was that all about?" Kory asked. Mar   looked   from   his   face   to   the   front   door.   Reggie   was   nowhere   in   sight.   She   looked back   at   Kory,   who   held   out   his   hand   to   help   her   up.   She   motioned   him   to   give   her   a second.   Another   sob   racked   her   before   she   managed   a   pair   of   deep   breaths.   She   crawled out of the bushes but sat in the grass. She finally managed a, "D—did they have guns ?" He   glanced   toward   the   hedge   against   the   front   of   the   house,   bent   over   and   examined the   front   walk.   There   was   just   enough   light   from   the   front   porch   to   make   out   what   he looked at. It wasn't a welcome bouquet. "A nine millimeter, I think," Kory said. Mr.   Martinez   from   across   the   street   approached   carrying   a   baseball   bat.   "You   kids okay?" "Yes, sir," Kory answered. "I   called   the   police,"   Mr.   Martinez   said.   "Should   be   here   in   a   minute."   He   crooked the   bat   under   his   arm   so   he   could   tighten   his   bath   robe   over   his   middle-aged   gut.   He knelt next to Mar. "You okay?" Mar    felt    as    though    she    was    struck    in    the    chest    again,    when    Kory,    behind    Mr. Martinez,   picked   up   the   gun   and   hid   it   in   a   flower   box   that   hadn't   held   anything   but weeds   for   two   years.   An   off-the-wall   thought   struck   her—she   should   pay   the   man   that kept   their   lawn   to   plant   some   flowers,   primp   the   place   up   a   bit.   It   had   once   been   a   home to   compare   to.   Mr.   Martinez   often   caught   her   in   the   yard   and   suggested   improvements, which   she   blew   off.   Did   the   man   worry   about   their   weeds   hurting   the   value   of   his property? Or was it his way to generate a conversation? "You're bleeding," Mr. Martinez blurted. "You need an ambulance?" Mar   reached   up   where   her   neighbor's   focus   was   fixed   and   drew   back   blood-covered fingers. "Just a scratch from the bushes," she mumbled. Mr.   Martinez   set   his   bat   on   the   lawn,   reached   under   her   arms   and   pulled   her   up   and toward   the   porch.   She   wanted   to   sit   where   she   was   and   think,   but   didn't   fight   him.   Mr. Martinez   took   his   responsibilities   as   a   Crime   Watch   leader   seriously,   and   always   took charge.   She   allowed   him   to   haul   her   up   the   porch   steps,   and   sat   in   the   Adirondack   chair he propelled her to. "Was this a home invasion?" the man asked. "Yeah, yeah," Kory said. "Weird, huh? Always happens to someone else." Mar studied Kory's face. What was going on? "You've   got   blood   trickling   from   your   scalp,"   Mr.   Martinez   said.   "You   live   next   door, right?" he said to Kory. "Can you go get a towel or something?" Kory   sprinted   away.   Mar   jerked   from   the   bam ,   bam    that   echoed   from   next   door   as Kory   hurried   into   his   house.   He   returned   a   few   moments   later   as   a   police   car   pulled   up to   the   curb.   A   glow   flirted   with   the   eastern   sky   but   a   floodlight   from   the   police   car doused   them   in   a   glare.   Mar   closed   her   eyes   to   it   as   Mr.   Martinez   pressed   Kory's   towel against her head. Mar fought a sob collecting again in her chest. The   calm   voice   of   two   officers   echoed   between   the   howls   of   the   nearby   neighbors' dogs.   Mar   smiled.   Her   Brassy   would   never   join   them.   She   probably   still   slept   soundly,   or sat in the entryway hall, patiently waiting for her. "Do you need an ambulance?" a cop asked a second time. "No.   No.   Just   a   scratch,"   she   thought   she   tried   to   answer,   but   she   couldn't   hear herself over Mr. Martinez' excited rants. Ah,   if   they   could   all   just   go   away.   The   fuss   embarrassed   her.   Now   she   found   herself surrounded   by   four   cops.   A   fifth   stood   in   the   lawn   speaking   to   Kory.   There   was   always   a cop   in   the   gym   during   games,   and   she   hated   to   look   at   them.   The   uniform   reminded   her of that night— They   had   roused   her   from   bed,   explained   her   parents   were   dead.   Reggie   only   nodded and   returned   to   his   room.   She   had   to   stand   there   alone   and   argue   with   the   cops   that they   didn't   have   to   call   anyone   from   Child   Services.   She   was   fine   at   home   with   her twenty-nine-year-old brother. The   cops   had   looked   at   each   other.   One   walked   back   and   knocked   on   Reggie's   door. He   came   out   fully   dressed   then,   listened   to   the   police,   and   answered   their   questions with simple yeses or noes. "Give her a moment!" Mrs. Martinez' voice cut through the background noise. When had she shown up? "She   needs   some   space.   She's   in   shock.   Go   away.   All   of   you,   for   a   minute."   The woman shooed them off the porch as though she herded bees. "Go. Go!" Mrs.   Martinez   sat   in   the   chair   next   to   her   and   scooped   up   her   hand.   A   new   wave   of sobs   gripped   Mar   and   Mrs.   Martinez   knelt   in   front   of   her,   pulled   her   forward,   wrapping her   in   her   arms.   The   tears   rained,   heat   flared   in   her   face,   and   Mar   struggled   to   breathe, but not from the clubbing in the throat, or the shock of strange men attacking Reg. "That's good," Mrs. Martinez said softly. "Let it out." She patted Mar's back. Mrs.   Martinez   was   the   only   neighbor   who   showed   up   at   her   parent's   service.   There were   two   from   the   medical   school,   one   from   the   hospital,   no   one   from   out   of   town,   the extended   family.   All   she   and   Reggie   ever   got   from   any   of   them    was   a   bouquet   of   flowers with the free, one-and-a-half by three-inch card. Her   parents   had   done   a   bang-up   job   distancing   everyone   on   both   sides   of   the   family. Their   vegetarian,   save   the   owls,   the   wolves,   and   whatever   attitude   made   sane   people want to throw up. They couldn't eat beef, but they could swill vodka every night. When   this   bout   of   sobs   quieted,   Mrs.   Martinez   said,   "Why   don't   you   go   in   and   take   a warm shower. We'll take care of this." "Thank you," Mar said. "Appreciate that." "You'll   probably   bleed   again   when   water   hits   that   scalp.   Put   pressure   on   it   for   a minute and you'll be fine, okay?" "Thanks—for everything." Had she ever thanked the woman for showing up that day, two years ago? An   arm   stayed   around   her   as   they   moved   to   the   front   door,   which   was   locked.   Mar retrieved   her   key   from   the   ledge.   Mrs.   Martinez   looked   away   to   hide   her,   "Oh   my   lord," expression, but she wasn't subtle enough. The   safety   latch   was   on.   She   yelled   for   Reggie,   while   Mrs.   Martinez   stood   with   her patiently. Mar pulled out her phone and called Reggie's private line. "Let me in. You have the latch on," she told him. There was silence. "Reggie!" "Don't be mad at me, okay?" "I never get mad at you," she said. "Liar." She   grinned.   Somehow,   that   eased   the   emotions   that   threatened   to   drown   her   a moment earlier. Mrs.   Martinez   took   her   phone   and   explained   who   she   was.   "You   have   to   come   out and   speak   to   the   police,   Reggie.   Now."   The   command   echoed   across   the   porch.   She ended the call and handed the phone back. Mrs.   Martinez   knew   you   couldn't   give   Aspies   a   choice.   Smart   lady.   Reggie's   obedient steps   echoed   off   the   hardwood   floor   inside.   Mrs.   Martinez   closed   the   door.   The   latch clacked.   He   opened   the   door,   his   eyes   doing   their   agitated   dance.   He   had   changed clothes,   now   wore   scrubs.   His   slacks   and   polo   would   be   in   the   dirty   clothes,   since   the two men had been all over him. Amazing he hadn't showered yet. "You okay, Reggie?" Mrs. Martinez asked. "I don't like all these people in the front lawn," he said. "Well,"   Mrs.   Martinez   drawled,   "the   quicker   you   speak   to   them   the   sooner   they   go away." The   woman's   hand   in   Mar's   back   propelled   her   inside,   but   anxiety   washed   over   her. What would Reggie tell the police? It wouldn't match what Kory was selling. "Explain you were fighting off home invaders," she told him softly. Reggie   froze   for   a   moment,   his   eyes   locked   onto   the   door   jam.   "Home   invaders,"   he mumbled. "Yeah,"   Mar   said.   "Explain   you   heard   them   trying   to   get   in   and   you   opened   the   door expecting me, and you fought them out of the house." Mar avoided Mrs. Martinez' questioning glare. "Okay," Reggie said. Mar    walked    past    him,    careful    not    to    touch    him.    He    was    stressed    out    enough. "Thanks for your help, Mrs. Martinez." "You call me if there's anything you need, sweetie. Okay?" "Yes, ma'am. Thank you." The   sun   would   be   up   soon.   The   gloom   around   the   crowd   in   the   yard   had   faded.   She caught   Kory's   glance.   He   raised   his   thumb   and   pinky   next   to   his   head   before   returning his attention to the cop in front of him. Mar   closed   the   door   behind   her   and   hurried   upstairs.   Brassy   slept,   her   nose   pushed under   a   paw,   facing   the   door.   So   she'd   at   least   moved   in   the   last   forty-five   minutes.   Mar knelt   by   the   dog   and   pressed   her   forehead   against   the   side   of   the   Rottweiler's   head. Brassy   stretched   and   licked   Mar's   ear.   That   would   be   the   only   affection   she'd   get   in   that house. "Love you, girl. You love me? Yeah I know." The   dog   belched   a   breath   of   foul   air   in   a   Rottie-sized   yawn.   Mar   rose   and   stripped   on her way to her shower. She   only   got   a   couple   blots   of   blood   on   her   towel   when   she   got   out,   so   she   gave   a weak,   "Yea,"   and   a   lazy   fist   in   the   air.   There   was   no   way   she   was   dousing   her   head   with   a blow   drier   though.   She   combed   through   her   hair   with   four   fingers   as   she   walked   to   her bureau.   She   squirmed   inside   a   bra,   before   going   to   the   window   and   peeking   out   the shutters. The sky was a silvery-blue, but more importantly, the front yard was empty. "Yea." She   donned   her   regular   black   tee,   tidy-whities,   black   jeans,   socks   and   running   shoes, and   with   a   glance   at   her   clock,   filled   her   gym   bag   with   the   day's   essentials,   topped   off her book bag and headed downstairs. "Let's go outside, girl." Brassy struggled to rise, and plodded behind her. Would   someone   in   a   normal   family   be   asking   her   if   she   was   up   for   school?   That wouldn't   have   happened   three   years   ago.   She   hoped   for   the   sake   of   everyone   else   in   the world there was nothing normal about her home, then or now. Should   she   be   worried   about   Reggie?   Maybe   she   should   be   freaking   out.   After   all, didn't someone try to drag his butt off somewhere? What was that about? She   let   Brassy   outside,   walked   back   to   her   brother's   room,   and   knocked.   A   long moment   later   she   rapped   hard   three   times.   He   was   being   stubborn.   Brassy   scratched   at the back door, so she hurried to let her in. In   the   kitchen   she   poured   a   cup   of   kibble   into   Brassy's   bowl,   gave   her   the   obligatory biscuit,   retrieved   a   cinnamon   and   raisin   bagel   and   cream   cheese   from   the   fridge   for herself.   She   set   the   bagel   to   nuke   for   twenty   seconds   while   she   snagged   an   eight-ounce bottle    of    orange    juice    from    the    pantry,    and    opened    the    Philadelphia.    By    then    the microwave   rang.   Bagel   sliced,   she   drowned   both   sides   with   cheese,   took   a   big   bite,   and headed for Reggie's room. "You want a ride this morning?" she called through the door. "I'm going to stay home," he answered. "May I come in?" He   didn't   answer.   She   waited   a   five-count,   tried   the   knob,   and   pushed   the   door   open slowly. "I'm coming in." He   sat   stiffly   in   his   desk   chair,   which   he   had   next   to   the   window.   He   glared   out   into the   oak   limbs,   which   were   painted   orange   by   the   new   sun.   She   scanned   the   room,   which could   have   been   the   setting   for   some   lady's   magazine,   books   aligned   and   upright,   devoid of   knickknacks,   everything   in   its   place,   minimalistic   and   austere,   but   attractive,   with   a hint   of   femininity.   For   the   first   time   in   years,   Mar   wondered   if   her   brother   would   be   gay, if he had any interest in any other human on the planet. "Are you okay?" she asked. "Perfectly," he said. "You're staying home, huh?" "Yes." She   crafted   her   next   words   carefully   to   ensure   he   didn't   feel   he   had   any   option. "When I get home from school, you're going to explain this." "You don't want an explanation," he said. He   was   sticking   with   his   routine,   inappropriate   responses.   "Oh,   yes   I   do.   I   live   here. It affected me. You will tell me what's going on." "You won't yell at me?" he asked. "I never yell at you." "Liar." She grinned. "I raise my voice when I get emotional. My kind does that." "Don't yell." "Can't promise." He   crossed   his   arms.   That   meant   he   wasn't   going   to   say   anything   more—for   the   time being.   Mar   closed   the   door   softly   behind   her   and   returned   to   the   kitchen.   Brassy   sat, eyeing the counter. "Beggar." The   dog   turned   her   brown,   doe-eyes   at   her,   as   though   she   might   die   if   she   didn't   get a   taste   of   that   last   bagel   half   in   the   next   ten   seconds.   Mar   tore   a   smidgen   off   and   held   it out   to   her.   The   dog   gave   it   a   careful   sniff,   though   she'd   been   willing   it   to   jump   off   the counter of its own volition for the last ten minutes, and accepted the bite. She   chewed   it   thoroughly,   plodded   into   the   breakfast   nook,   circled,   and   lay   down   in front   of   the   French   doors   where   she   had   a   good   view   of   the   backyard   and   its   squirrels. She lived to watch the squirrels. Probably had them all named. Mar   took   a   gulp   of   juice   as   she   studied   the   beautiful   black   and   brass   contours   of   her love-puppy.   Her   throat   tightened   as   she   took   in   the   gray   that   colored   her   muzzle.   How many more years, even months, did she have the honor of the old dog's presence? "Did the ado wake you, girl?" She took a big bite out of her bagel. The   dog   turned   to   take   her   in.   Her   maw   cracked   in   a   smile,   pink   tongue   barely poking out. "Ran   with   that   hunk   who   lives   next   door   this   morning.   He   may   have   saved   Reggie's life. Imagine that." Brassy stared with her Moon Pie eyes. "If bad people come for Reggie today, you hide in the bedroom, okay?" Mar's   cell   rang   and   she   pulled   it   from   her   bag   as   she   chewed   on   a   new   wad   of   bagel. "Hey." "This is Kory, from next door." "Not the Kory down the block?" "There's another Kory on our block?" he countered. "Popular name a couple decades ago, maybe." She heard the tic  of his smile over the phone. "You okay?" "Never better." "You staying home today?" he asked. "Why would I stay home?" "I don't know, because you got clobbered, or to take care of Reggie. Is he all right?" "Reg is never all right." "You know what I mean." "He won't speak to me." "You taking him to work?" "No. He says he's staying home," she said. "That wise? To stay home alone." Mar   hurried   down   a   bite   and   took   a   drink   of   juice.   "He's   never   burned   the   house down before. Don't think he'll start today." "What about those dip wads?" he asked. "What about them? Me staying home going to make a difference?" He   cleared   his   throat,   in   that   manner   that   suggested   he   was   going   to   speak   the obvious.   "Don't   you   expect   they'll   be   back?   If   for   no   other   reason,   to   get   back   these   two nine millimeters I'm looking at. This was no college prank." "You   trying   to   make   me   feel   better?"   Mar's   chest   tightened,   her   knees   wobbled,   and she hurried to find a stool to sit down on. Why   didn't   he   give   them   to   the   cops?   That   would   have   escalated   the   interest   in   our home invaders. "I'm   going   to   go   about   my   business.   I   can   only   protect   Reggie   so   much.   He's   thirty- two. Runs his own life. Has a job. What do you want me to do?" He   was   quiet   a   ten-count.   Mar   was   ready   with   another   snide   remark   when   he   finally answered, stopping her. "Well, then you want to ride to school with me?" "I'll be ready in five minutes." "I haven't even taken a shower," he said. "I'll see you in thirty?" "You like to race the bell, don't you?" she said. "What are you talking about? It's only—not even seven." She   grinned   and   disconnected.   She   pulled   up   his   call,   saved   his   number   to   her directory,   and   took   another   big   bite   of   bagel.   The   situation   with   her   brother   took   her appetite,    but    she    forced    herself    to    finish    her    breakfast    and    juice.    By    then    she    had convinced   herself   whatever   the   morning's   turmoil   centered   upon,   somehow   it   tied   to their father and his radical ways. But   what   could   live   on   another   two   years?   He   was   a   medical   school   professor.   What could—   She   shook   her   head.   If   she   didn't   put   it   behind   her   it   would   own   her   mind   all day. She walked to the back door and hooked the reel of poop bags on a belt loop. Brassy managed to rise on the slick hardwood by herself and stood wagging her butt as fast as her stub. Mar unnecessarily clipped the leash on her collar and opened the door for their walk around the block. With luck, the old girl would sufficiently clear her track well enough she didn't lose a pellet or two as she found new cool spots to lay throughout the day. © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
SCI FI Fantasy Dystopian
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
6 Ways to Die Chapter 1 ~ M argarite   peered   at   the   time   on   her   clock radio     and     slugged     the     mattress.     The discussion    downstairs    hadn't    stopped    all night.   The   inconsiderate   jerks   never   made any   effort   to   dampen   either   their   voices   or the   periodic   slam   of   the   hallway   bathroom door. And    now    that    they    were    apparently leaving     at     five-fifteen     in     the     stinkin' morning     they     sounded     like     a     herd     of prancing bison. She    threw    off    her    sheet,    grabbed    her robe,     and     headed     for     the     stairs.     She managed   the   tie   around   her   waist   by   the time   she   reached   the   middle   landing.   The four   men   below   quickly   fell   to   a   whisper, but     their     collective     baritone     resonated from the entryway. Margarite      stomped      to      a      halt      and wrenched     the     angriest     expression     she could   muster   onto   her   face.   One   of   the   men with   her   brother   gave   her   a   glance   over   his shoulder    but    ducked    as    he    turned    away. She   got   the   impression   the   men   skulked, pulling   the   front   door   out   of   Reggie's   hand and rushing outside. "Reg!" He   snapped   the   door   closed   and   looked up.   For   an   autistic   unable   to   demonstrate emotion, guilt edged his face. "Using   Dad's   lab   doesn't   mean   you   can turn     this     house     into     an     all-night     frat house." "My lab now. Dad's dead." "Is   he   now?   When   did   that   happen?   So you    have    the    right    to    keep    me    up    all night?" He   triple   blinked.   Sarcasm   soared   over the    man's    head.    Freaking    genius,    but    he couldn't   understand   anger   if   you   painted   it on    his    chest    and    tagged    the    colors    with numbers. "We   got   involved,"   he   said.   "Forgot   you were upstairs." "Forgot!"   Mar   had   to   swallow   away   the pain her shriek caused. He isn't a moron. He can't empathize.   She took two slow breaths. "You're    taking    deep    breaths,"    he    said. "You're angry." "What   gave   it   away?"   Crud!   No   point   in throwing sarcasm in his face. "I    explained    that    I    noticed    you    took deep breaths." Mar   walked   down   the   final   five   steps   to give her time to compose herself. Not    fair    I    have    to    be    reasonable.    I'm sixteen .  I'm not supposed to be reasonable.   Reggie   tilted   his   head   back   as   she   took her   last   step   toward   him.   She   grabbed   his shirt    at    both    shoulders    and    he    flinched. That      alone      made      her      want      to      slap him—made    her    want    to    scream    bloody mayhem.   She   hated   he   couldn't   stand   to   be touched.   All   she   wanted   in   the   world   was someone to hold her . "I   love   you,   Reg."   I   hate   you   too.   "But you   can't   invite   strangers   in   the   house   for all-nighters." She tugged at him. He    closed    his    eyes    and    hunched    his shoulders in a flinch. "Please, don't." "Promise   me   you   won't   do   this   again." She   looked   directly   into   his   eyes.   He   had   to look   up   sharply   to   meet   her   glare.   She   got all   of   their   parent's   physical   genes   while   he got all the intellect. The jerk. "It   was   important,"   Reggie   said,   opening his     eyes     in     a     grimace.     "They     aren't strangers." "They're   strangers   to   me.   Mom   wouldn't have put up with it and I won't either." "Mom's—" "Don't say it." She didn't mean to shout. He    flinched    and    pulled    away,    pressed his   shoulder   against   the   door   and   stared   at the   wall.   It   wasn't   because   he   was   afraid   of her.   Confrontation   was   the   only   thing   he dealt   with   worse   than   emotion.   The   pain level    rose    in    her    chest    and    her    throat burned.    Her    body    vibrated    with    the    old anger.    Her    hands    shook.    She    needed    to kick the stuffing out of crash dummy. "Doesn't   matter   anymore,"   he   said.   "At least it won't in a couple weeks." His       pronouncements       were       always inappropriate.    She    continued    to    glare    at him,    her    anger    rising,    knowing    in    ten minutes      he      wouldn't      remember      the intensity   of   her   rant.   The   next   time   would be    like    the    first,    and    he'd    do    it    all    over again. "I   don't   want   to   hear   your   excuses,"   she said. "I want to go to my room." She   wanted   to   reach   out   and   stroke   his fuzzy   cheek.   No   she   didn't.   She   wanted   him to    take    her    in    his    arms.    Wanted    him    to understand    how    he    made    her    feel.    An apology   would   be   nice.   She   wanted   to   lash out.    The    welling    anxiety    made    her    flesh crawl. "I'm   going   to   go   for   a   run."   She   pivoted and rushed upstairs. Taking   in   a   run   with   little   sleep   was   the last   thing   her   body   wanted,   but   it   would give    her    a    way    to    temporarily    expel    the demons—if she ran hard enough. She   owned   all   the   emotions   that   existed in   what   remained   of   their   family,   and   the responsibility    dragged    on    her.    Caring    for Reggie    the    last    two    years    made    her    feel older   than   she   deserved.   She   hated   that   she acted   like   such   a   witch.   Couldn't   stop,   step out of the role for a single moment. Why    had    she    become    such    a    hateful person?   It   made   her   despise   her   mom   and dad    even    more.    They    had    never    cared about   anyone   but   themselves.   They   sat   on some    flaming-hot    rock    in    Hell    laughing their arses off at her. In   her   room,   she   pressed   the   back   of   her hand    against    the    glass    of    her    window, though   she   read   the   exterior   reading   of   her thermometer   on   her   nightstand.   Fifty-nine. Not   cold,   but   if   there   was   a   breeze   coming off   the   bay   it   would   feel   more   like   thirty- nine. She     slipped     out     of     her     robe     and pajamas,   pulled   on   a   sport   bra,   a   tank,   and a   long-sleeved   tee   over   that.   She   dug   in   her bottom    drawer    for    a    pair    of    shin-length tights. She'd rather sweat than shiver. Brassy     snorted.     The     old     Rottweiler's head   hid   under   the   bed.   A   hind   leg   jerked. She   must   have   been   having   a   good   dream because her stub of a tail twitched. "No need to see me off," Mar said. The   dog   could   sleep   through   a   category five.    But    she    was    the    sweetest,    hundred- pound    lap    dog    in    the    world.    She    barked once   five   years   ago,   and   it   scared   her.   She decided    after    that    she    didn't    need    to    do that anymore. "Be back in a bit, sweetie." Mar    pulled    her    hair    together    with    a twin-bead-tie,   grabbed   her   phone,   a   pair   of socks,   her   Nikes,   and   headed   downstairs.   A muffled   sound   to   her   left   made   her   glance over    the    banister.    Reggie    was    in    his     lab. Didn't go to his room after all. She   shook   her   head.   He   needed   sleep. But   she   couldn't   micromanage   the   man.   He was    thirty-two,    held    a    job,    and    managed his   own   responsibilities,   for   the   most   part. As   it   was,   she   kept   tighter   control   of   him than their mom ever did. Why    did    that    woman    have    one    child, much   less   a   second?   Mar   knew   the   answer, but    it    didn't    soothe    her    anger.    Reggie's autism    should    have    ensured    he'd    be    an only   child.   A   decade   and   a   half   later,   along came   the   big   oops,   Margarite   Lynne,   more responsibility    than    either    parent    wanted, and   a   serious   distraction   to   their   careers. Though    neither    of    them    ever    changed    a diaper.    Full    time    nannies    always    covered that   responsibility.   Her   sinuses   burned   in that     way     that     threatened     tears,     which torqued her anger up another notch. Pathetic      witch,      feeling      sorry      for yourself again . She    closed    and    locked    the    door    and stowed   her   house   key   above   the   door   ledge. She   shivered   from   the   chill   of   the   deck   on her   bare   feet.   Turning   for   the   steps,   a   flash of   light   caught   her   eye.   Actually,   it   looked as   though   a   light   turned   off,   in   a   car   in   the street, a house up on the left. Curb-side    parking    wasn't    allowed    on their   narrow   street.   Two   cars   could   barely pass   as   it   was   without   mirrors   kissing.   She studied   the   dark   sedan   as   she   sat   to   put   on her   socks   and   shoes.   It   wasn't   her   brother's visitors.   She   had   heard   them   park   in   the drive   along   the   side   of   the   house   when   they arrived. "People     do     whatever     the     heck     they want,"   she   muttered,   wiping   the   bottom   of her   feet.   "Better   be   out   of   there   before   Mr. Atherton   wakes   up.   He'll   call   the   Gestapo on you." Mar   got   her   Nike's   on   and   stepped   back on   the   porch   to   stretch.   She   worked   on   her left    Achilles    when    the    front    screen    next door    opened.    The    shadows    hid    whoever exited,    if    anyone    did.    Five-thirty    in    the morning.    Who    got    up    that    early    except irrationally   emoting   sixteen-year-old   girls? She   finished   stretching   and   headed   for   the street. "I didn't know you ran in the morning." The   air   rushing   out   her   lungs   generated a   squawk.   Mar   spun   around   and   faced   the shadow that spoke. "Geez!   You   trying   to   give   a   girl   a   heart attack?"   The   muffled   bark   of   a   neighbor's dog made her catch her voice. "Sorry,"   he   said.   "Thought   you   saw   me stretching." "Shh,"      she      hissed,      looking      at      the Martinez'   second   story   windows   for   signs of    a    shotgun    sticking    out.    Their    Boston Terrier    stopped    barking    and    Mar    let    out her breath. "I didn't know you ran." Watching      Kory      approach,      a      warm sensation   ran   between   her   shoulder   blades. He    wore    a    long-sleeve,    gray    sweatshirt, pants   to   match,   but   they   were   cut   off   at   the knees.    He    didn't    have    to    dress    cool.    It exuded   from   every   pore.   He   was   a   senior   at Plant,   drove   a   ragtop,   dark-blue   Mustang GT.   He   might   as   well   sing   in   a   rock   band. Short-cropped   black   hair,   dark-blue   eyes. Granite   shoulders   with   gluts   as   tight   as   a knot. "I    ran    with    my    mom    every    morning since   I   was   ten,"   he   said.   "Kept   the   routine after. Good cross training." He   was   a   double-sporter   too,   wrestling and basketball. "After what?" He   paused,   before   following   her   into   the street.     "Sorry.     Forget     everyone     doesn't know." They   stepped   off   in   a   slow,   warm-up   jog toward the bay together. "Know what?" Mar asked. "My   mom   was   killed   in   a   car   accident about six months before we moved here." Mar   jolted   to   a   stop,   anger   ripping   down into   her   fists.   She   took   a   deep   breath,   and told herself, he's not making a sick joke. Kory    stopped    two    steps    ahead    of    her and   turned   around.   "It's   no   big   deal.   I'm over   it,   if   it's   something   you   ever   get   over. You know. Been almost a year." "Wasn't    that,"    Mar    mumbled.    "Guess you   don't   know   either."   In   the   gloom,   she saw    him    tilt    his    head    back    in    a    wazzup- motion.   She   pushed   back   into   a   jog   and   he fell   alongside.   "I   lost   my   dad   and   mom   the same way, two years ago." "Oh, man." Mar   looked   left   and   right,   worried   about stirring up more dogs. He   said,   "I   assumed   the   dude   I   see   you driving   around   in   that   antique   Volvo   was your dad." "My   brother."   She   extended   her   stride and he kept pace. "We    talking    about    the    same    guy?    Old dude.    Forehead    to    the    back    of    his    head. Grumpy.   Won't   answer   you   if   ya   shout   out a hello?" "That's          Reg—Reggie.          He          has socialization issues." He    snorted.    Sounded    a    little    bit    like something   Brassy   would   do.   "I'm   Kory,   by the    way.    We    haven't    spoken    since    the holidays when we were moving in." Like   every   girl   at   Plant   doesn't   know your name. "I remember. I'm—" "Margaret, right?" "Marga rite .   But   everyone   calls   me   Mar." Well   they   would,   if   anyone   cared   enough to call me by name. He stumbled. "Gotta   raise   your   feet   on   these   old   brick pavers," she said. "No kidding. Stuff's horrible." "I'm    glad    they    restored    it    instead    of paving     it     over     like     they     did     in     some neighborhoods.       I       think       it's       pretty, nostalgic." They    ran    without    speaking    for    a    half- block. "Mmm.   So—two   years,   huh?   Sorry.   My mom    was    hit    by    a    drunk,    July    fourth weekend." The   old,   hot   guilt   shot   through   her   chest and     her     eyes     rimmed     with     tears.     She blinked      them      away      quickly.      "Damn drunks." "Yeah." "At      least      my      parents      only      killed themselves,"     she     said     through     a     tight throat. Nothing    but    their    footfalls    interrupted the   early   morning   quiet   as   they   neared   the boulevard.   With   her   admission   of   alcoholic parents,    if    he    caught    her    reference,    Mar figured   any   chance   of   being   Kory's   friend was    in    the    toilet.    They    crossed    Bayshore and picked up their run in the grass. Kory finally said, "So they were, uh—" Yep. He picked it up. "Blitzed, as usual." Both     stinking     surgeons.     You'd     think they'd know better.   Or give a damn.   She     extended     her     stride,     lifting     her knees   high   so   she   didn't   kill   herself   on   the dark,      uneven      lawn.      She      considered sprinting   ahead   to   give   him   an   excuse   to get away from her. He   caught   up   a   moment   later   but   didn't speak    for    a    full    minute.    "So    we're    both victims    of    alcohol.    Not    like    it    was    your fault.   You   sound   as   though   you   still   have some—" They   ran   without   speaking   long   enough Mar's    discomfort    ratcheted    up.    At    least Kory   wasn't   one   of   those   jocks   who   were   all full     of     themselves     and     couldn't     stop talking. "Issues?" she finally suggested. "Yeah." "My    dad    was    a    jackass.    Never    said    a kind   word   to   me   his   whole   life.   My   mom was as disconnected as my brother." "Disconnected?" he asked. Mar    felt    the    tension    flow    out    of    her body,   despite   the   topic,   and   extended   her stride   again.   The   cool   air   was   perfect   for running.    The    tide    was    out.    The    ocean mugginess    and    the    smell    from    the    mud flats   made   her   feel   at   home,   comfortable, where   she   belonged.   Bayshore   was   empty of   a   single   set   of   headlights   and   nothing moved   on   the   water.   The   lights   from   Davis Islands   reflected   off   the   bay   like   a   mirror. She   and   Kory   could   have   been   the   last   two on Earth. It felt—sensual. "What   do   you   mean,   disconnected   like your    brother?"    He    sucked    in    a    breath. "How   far   you   going?   Don't   know   if   I   can keep this pace for long." Mar   hated   to   slow   down,   but   'fessed   up to      herself,      she      liked      her      neighbor's company.    When    he    got    to    know    her,    he wouldn't   share   that   sentiment.   Though   the stride   felt   really   good,   she   pulled   back,   and Kory let out a whew. "My    brother    has    Asperger    syndrome," she said. "That's    a    form    of    autism,    right?    That why   I   always   see   you   in   the   driver's   seat? He doesn't drive?" "My    idiot    father    pushed    him    to    drive. But    since    Dad    killed    himself,    Reg    hasn't gotten   behind   the   wheel.   What   a   relief   that is." "Why?" "Accident waiting to happen," Mar said. "Can't focus?" "The   opposite.   Focus   of   a   steel   trap,   but only   on   one   mental   thread   at   a   time.   I   don't know    how    he    ever    survived    behind    the wheel—or kept from killing someone else." "Mmm." "It    was    going    to    be    Dad    or    Reg.    Dad pulled   the   trigger   first."   Would   Kory   catch the full meaning of her expression? They      approached      Howard      Avenue, which     she     usually     turned     up     in     the mornings for her shorter, three-mile loop. "How far you running?" "Oh,   I   usually   turn   around   somewhere along here," he said. "I     don't     like     to     backtrack.     Run     up Howard with me?" "Sure. I'm up for a challenge." She       grinned,       doubting       his       true sentiments matched the tone of his voice. "So,   does   Reg   work   or   anything?"   Kory asked,   as   they   crossed   Bayshore   and   ran   up the center of Howard. "He's     a     researcher     at     the     medical school,"    Mar    said,    hoping    she    sounded casual. "Re—searcher?" "He has a doctorate in microbiology." "Oh.     Wow.     So,     he's,     uh,     what     they call—" "High functioning." "Yeah." "You   wouldn't   call   him   high   functioning if you had to live with him." He   shot   a   grin   at   her.   "Saw   a   program on cable about As—Asp— "Asperger." "It just the two of you?" "Yeah," she said. "Can    see    how    it    could    be    challenging. You   have   grandparents,   aunts,   whatever,   to help?" "Parents thoughtfully left Reg all to me." Mar     hated     how     her     voice     shot     up, partially   broke.   She   swallowed,   wishing   she could   say   it   over.   Maybe   keep   the   emotion out   of   her   voice   in   the   redo.   Reg   had   no emotions, and she was nothing but. A   car   approached   and   they   moved   to   the right   curb.   Mar   squinted   against   the   glare of   the   headlights.   The   car   slowed   and   her throat   constricted,   until   a   glint   made   the narrow   bar   across   the   hood   stand   out—a police   car.   The   officer's   window   was   down and   he   called   a   good   morning   to   them.   She and Kory called back. "Sorry     I'm     slowing     you     down     this morning," he said. "You're   holding   your   own.   Besides,   I'll run again this afternoon, sixth period." "You run track?" Mar     had     hoped     he     knew.     But     why should   he?   Boys   cared   about   themselves, their   own   sports,   and   little   about   anything else.    But    since    she    was    a    junior    on    the varsity     basketball     team,     with     a     school record   on   the   track—   But   couldn't   expect much   from   a   guy.   They   were   lucky   if   they managed self -awareness. "I   have   an   appointment   to   Annapolis," he       continued,       ignoring       she       hadn't answered his last question. He was definitely self-aware. "Read about it in the paper," she said. "Yeah?       Dad       almost       noticed.       I'm following   in   his   footsteps,   but   he   doesn't seem to care that much." "Sounds like you have your own issues." He chuckled. "That obvious, huh?" "So   he   didn't   frame   the   article   and   hang it in the living room?" "Since    Mom    died    all    he    does    is    work. Out of town most the time." Mar   motioned   to   the   right.   "Let's   take Swann home." "K." "So,   we're   both   raising   ourselves,"   she said. He    grunted.    "Never    thought    of    it    that way.   Maybe   Dad   feels   I'm   already   grown and his job is done." "At   least   your   dad   recognized   he   had   a responsibility    to    raise    you."    Mar's    throat tightened, again. Kory   looked   over   at   her   and   didn't   turn away   for   too   long,   as   though   he   expected her    to    explain.    Or    he    was    counting    her pores    in    the    dark.    To    avoid    his    scrutiny, Mar   turned   to   the   right   and   watched   a   man and    woman    running    wind    sprints    in    the ballpark's outfield. He     said,     "Sounds     like     you     need     a punching bag, not a run." Mar barked a laugh. "What?" he asked. "Wished      for      that      very      thing      this morning." "Yeah?" he said. "Why's that?" "Had   a   fight   with   my   brother.   He's   so frustrating.   Sometimes   I   could   club   him   to death.   I   tell   myself   it   isn't   his   fault,   but   that doesn't help a whole lot." "I   have   a   bag   in   our   garage,"   he   said. "You can pound it any time you want." "You     have     a     workout     bag     in     your garage?" That's   something   I   should   have   noticed. He must not use it much. "His    name's    Bob.    I    study    karate.    It's great cross-training." "You named your punching bag?" His   smile   glinted   from   the   street   light they    approached.    He    cleared    his    throat. "Being   neighbors,   and   all,   maybe,   we   can ride to school together." Mar's   stomach   tightened.   She   visualized herself    sitting    beside    Kory    in    his    sexy Mustang.    "Sometimes,    maybe.    I    usually have   to   drive   Reg   downtown   though,   so   he can catch the express bus to USF." "Think   he'd   mind   crawling   in   the   back of my Mustang?" he asked. "Ha." "No?" "Reg   doesn't   do   well   with   any   kind   of change, or interruption in his routine." "Oh.   Well,   then,   maybe   I   could   get   by   in your Volvo." Mar grinned. "You'd slum, huh?" "Something   a   man   has   to   do   now   and then for a good cause." "What's the good cause?" "Thought that would be obvious." "I've often been called thick witted." "Sounds    like    you    spend    time    around people   who   don't   deserve   your   company," he said. "Very true." "Let me give you my number—" She   pulled   her   phone   out   of   the   waist   of her    tights    and    pressed    it    into    his    chest. "Dial     your     phone.     I'm     not     good     with numbers."   No   way   she   was   going   to   admit to her dyslexia. Though maybe she just did. "You   carry   your   phone   when   you   run?" he asked. "A    female,    in    the    dark?    What    do    you think?" "Oh. Guess that makes sense." © R. Mac Wheeler 2017