By R. John Quisenberry
The doctors had been nice and friendly at first. They had tried to shelter Silvia from the ugly truth, that her parents and little sister had died in the crash. A psychiatrist had even been brought in to determine if she was mentally and emotionally ready to go to the funeral. In the end, those in charge of her care judged it to be too much for her.
Then, her aunt visited. They had never been close. The stiff little Chinese woman glared at Silvia as she stated in a flat voice, “Since your uncle died, I have barely had the resources to take care of your cousins and grandparents. I simply can’t take you in. The state will have to support you.” The smile that followed did not reach her eyes as she said, “They will know just what to do with a girl of your kind.” The little woman had never pretended to like that her husband’s sister had married someone who was not Chinese.
Silvia had run away from the group home when one of the boys, Lars, had made the mistake of putting his hands on her. She had told him to back off. He had made the mistake of using his superior bulk to try to push her into a room. “I run this place. The girls here learn to keep me happy. I’m about to teach you what happens to little girls who don’t make me happy.” He ended up being thrown into the room and crashing into a table and chair. The chair and his left collarbone broke as they impacted each other. His right forearm broke when he hit the floor. She ran and locked herself in her room when she heard him scream.
It took only a few minutes to shove a few things into her mostly still-packed bag and run down the stairs and out the front door.
Three weeks later, sitting up suddenly, Silvia had blinked away the sleep from her eyes. There had been a noise. She could tell that someone was downstairs. She had selected this building because it looked abandoned but stable. The kids she was watching out for were still too scared to stay with Silvia. They had their own hiding places in the abandoned buildings of the city.
Hearing a thump from downstairs, Silvia took a moment to think, “fight or flight?” She was down the fire escape in the back just as she heard the soft rasp of a foot coming down on the sand she had spread over the stairs.
Turning to run down the alley, Silvia came face to face with an ugly pale man in dark clothing. She tried to dodge around him and her world was filled with jittering pain and a sizzling sound followed by darkness and the smell of an electrical discharge.
She had woken with a headache that seemed to go to her toes. Shaky as a newborn foal, Silvia explored her new prison. A ten-foot square room with faded cloth wallpaper. Age and the combination of condensation and oils from hands and cooking fumes had left a patina of antiquity over the texture of the cloth.
Silvia looked out through the window at the rain. The drops were slowly eating away at the grime on the outside of the glass. ‘How bad a person must I be to deserve being stuck here?’ she thought to herself. Her dark hair formed a curtain around a face just losing its baby fat and preparing to become that of a striking woman. Huddled as she was in the small room, knees to chest with bare feet on the floor, her baggy clothes just failed to cover the reality of a well-muscled physique. She knew that her captors did not care that she had only stolen to feed herself and the orphans she had found squatting in the buildings near where she had made her home since the accident. They had not bothered to even look for the scrawny kids. Deep down, she knew it had to be about the accident.
Every once in a while, she heard the other prisoners. Screams would cut through the muggy air. Some begging for something to stop, some pleading for mommy, some offering to do anything if only it would end. The worst were the ones that were nothing but a wail of despair and pain. What scared her most was that most of the voices sounded young and female.
The greatest shock came on her fifth day of confinement; the heavy-browed thug had just delivered a stale bologna sandwich and a bottle of water. The screaming started as she swallowed her third bite. Silvia froze as she recognized the voice. Martin, one of the runaways she had fed was screaming “Silvy! Make them stop! Please!”
Her vision clouded with red as her whole being was galvanized with rage. The thug opened the door with a growl as she screamed her rage and battered the door with her fists. “Shut up you little bitch! Keep the racket up and I’ll make sure we give you a good taste of what the little wimp is getting. I like you, tough girls, better than little boys anyway!” He stepped into the room tightening his belt as he said this. Her uppercut caught him off guard. The shoulder throw she followed it with as the slow gears of his mind locked up on the idea this girl had hurt him. His outrage began to roll into anger as he tumbled to the floor. Her follow-up axe kick to his gut brought a groan from both the thug and the overburdened wood floor. As she reached the door, all she could think of was the small, delicate boy whose screams had so enraged her. Charging down the hall, Silvia failed to notice the door she passed on her left until the arm came around her neck. She threw the man instinctively and ran, she accidentally stepped on the man’s face as she passed.
Martin’s voice had gone silent, making her panic even more. Turning a corner, she saw something incredible, her father’s face. No, it wasn’t her father. Pale scar tissue crossed his face diagonally down from his left eye, crossing the bridge of his nose and terminating at his right jaw line. He died, she was sure of it. But the face was his, jaw clenched as he swung a dark, metal machete. He was just cleaving the head of a man who held a small, limp body. The mess was horrible. Blood fountained as the head spun away into the corner. Her father’s face turned to her and smiled. Silvia would have fainted from this shocking sight, but she held on to her senses for fear that she would fail Martin. Running, and somehow separating martin from the body of the dead thug, she did not pay attention to the man with her father’s face until he put his hand on her shoulder. Martin’s blood-soaked form was warm and breathing normally as she looked into the familiar stranger’s eyes. He smiled at her, “If you would like to leave, we should get moving. I’m a little outnumbered here.” Standing back up, he peered around the corner. Pulling out a large, black gun from some place in his baggy leather jacket, he looked around the corner again and began firing at someone down the hall. He calmly lobbed a dark object at his opponent and ducked back just before a blinding light and deafening explosion blasted smoke around the corner. “If you want to save him, pick him up and follow me!”
Martin seemed to weigh almost nothing as Silvia cradled his inert body and stood. “Close your eyes and follow the sound of my voice. Ignore everything else!” She closed her eyes as the strange man placed a hand on her head. She could feel something pour from his hand and cover both her and the unresponsive boy. A sound like a combination of nails on a chalkboard and cloth being torn came from right in front of her. “Now! Follow my voice!” he said from the direction of the odd noise. Stepping forward, she almost stumbled when the floor seemed to be at a slightly different height and angle than where she had been standing. Still holding her eyes closed she kept going until her foot came down on the grass and slipped forward enough that she reflexively opened her eyes as she recovered her balance. The dim morning light revealed that she was now standing at the side of a country road near a large black SUV. Looking behind her, she saw the man holding his hands out and seemingly caressing a distortion in the air as it began to fade. All around her feet, fine silvery dust covered the ground. The dust was quickly fading into the ground almost like melting snow.
Her study of the vanishing powder was interrupted by the man. “You can call me Uncle Joshua. Put him in the back and we’ll get going.”
Turning toward the back of the SUV, she found that he had opened the back door and there was an air mattress in the back bed. “What is the hold-up? Those maniacs are bound to be after us. We need to be out of here before they figure out where we went!”
Uncle Joshua did not talk as he drove into the mountains. Silvia could not help but gasp in awe at the beautiful bands of color she saw painted over the mountainsides by the changing leaves of the trees. The droning of the engine and the relief of escaping her abductors conspired to relax her tension and Silvia was soon asleep in the comfortable front passenger seat. Her dreams were filled with screams, fire, and blood. Suddenly, her father’s voice cut through the mayhem, “I’m coming for you kiddo! Your sister and I will get you out!
“Daddy!” she screamed as Silvia jolted awake.
“No. I told you to call me Uncle.” Said a masculine voice outside of the SUV and a bit behind her. “By the way, I have a much better place for you to rest if you would like to continue your nap.” Looking around, Silvia realized that the SUV was parked in some form of garage. No natural light penetrated the space as the low hum of fluorescent light filled the area that was permeated by the slightly greenish light.
“Where is Martin?” she demanded after seeing that Martin was no longer in the back of the vehicle.
“If that’s the boy you brought with you, he’s resting in one of the spare rooms. He should be fine once he sleeps for a while. They seem to have been injecting him with something. There were needle tracks on his arms.”
“What are you going to do with us?” she responded.
“The boy will have to be sent back to where he came from. You, on the other hand, will begin training.”
“What do you mean ‘training’?”
“Training to defend yourself. You have some scary and determined people after you. They hunted you down and imprisoned you and a bunch of other kids for their own reasons. If I don’t train you to defend yourself, there may be no way to rescue you next time.”
Silvia’s face darkened with anger. “You can’t send Martin back! He was homeless. They will just grab him again and do even worse stuff to him!”
“He is not my responsibility. You are. Once he is gone, we can focus on training you to protect yourself.” he stated coldly.
“I don’t even know you crazy old man! Maybe we should both leave. Thanks for the rescue though.”
“I told you. I am your uncle. I did not raid that safe house and risk my life just to send you off to get caught again!”
“My Dad never told us about any brothers. How do I know you are not just some nut who wants something from me? If you want me to stay, then Martin stays!” this last was delivered with a glare that would have cowed a lesser man.
“Fine. The boy stays as long as he is not a burden.” What will I do with this willful child? He asked himself. ” And for the record what sort of nut would risk his life tracking and rescuing you from a building full of armed, violent, degenerates, unless it was for family?”
Ignoring the last statement, she spat back, “Deal!”
“In that case, I will be waking you at six in the morning to begin your new training schedule. Martin will join us if he wishes to stay. He will train to be your bodyguard. Come with me and we will have dinner.”
Dinner was a tense affair. Martin was rubbing his eyes and staring around in shock as they stepped into the brightly lit dining room. Its walls were of a pleasant off-white and the table was a solid black walnut surface finished to a beautiful flawless gloss. A modest chandelier provided soft, but abundant light.
Silvia sat opposite Martin and carefully examined him as discreetly as she could. He was wearing a button-down oxford shirt and black dress pants. She had to stifle a giggle when she glanced under the table and saw that he had penny loafers and white socks on. He looked so different from the ragged runaway she had known on the street. “Uh, thanks for helping me,” he mumbled into his chest as he failed to meet her eyes.
“You can thank uncle Joshua. He did the hard part.”
“Thank you, Sir!” Martin blurted just as uncle Joshua sat at the head of the table.
“No problem young man. I was already there to get Silvia out and she would not leave without you. I am glad you changed out of those bloody clothes before you came out to eat though.”
At this, Silvia remembered the scene of the headless corpse fountaining blood over her little friend. He had looked even smaller than his five-foot height when crumpled in the grips of that horrific figure. Now he looked every bit like the cute little brother he was in her heart.
A loud “ding” was heard and uncle Joshua hurried out of the room. He returned in a bit with a casserole dish in his potholder-covered hands. Silvia and Martin both could barely restrain themselves from attacking the mouthwatering contents of the dish as uncle Joshua set it on a protective tile in the middle of the table.
Uncle Joshua brought out three plates. Two of them he filled as full as possible from the steaming dish. Each heaping plate was placed in front of one of the hungry children. “Tomorrow you both begin training. So you had best eat up. Martin, you know where your room is. Silvia, I will show you to your room as soon as you finish eating.”
Once the meal was finished, uncle Joshua lead Silvia to a medium-sized room furnished in warm colors and soft fabrics in shades of blue. “I will wake you in the morning. The bathroom is down the hall to the left, at the end.”
“Why don’t I have a window?”
“Because we are deep underground. The only light here is artificial. There will be small lights lit all night around the baseboards. The hall will have dim lighting, but it should be enough. When I wake you, I want you to get a shower and get dressed. There are sweats and underwear in the drawers.” As he said this he reached for the wall switch and turned out the lights. Old fashioned incandescent bulbs lit up at the center of the baseboard of each wall. “Martin is just down the hall a couple of doors to the right. I’ll check on him on my way to my room.”
Looking into the room he had given the boy, Joshua could not help wondering if he had been foolish. This boy could be so much safer if he were sent away. Maybe if he had argued more strongly, he could have convinced Silvia to send him to safety. As these ideas passed through his mind, the lump under the covers of the bed stirred.
“Sir, can I talk to you a moment?”
“Sure Martin, but I am getting tired of being called ‘sir’. Call me Joshua or Uncle. What’s on your mind?”
“S-Uncle,” the boy corrected himself.” I know you took extra risks to save me. I also know that Silvia made you take me in. I don’t want to be a burden. I will leave if you want me to.”
“You know I can’t let you do that. She would go right after you and put us all in more danger. Just do your best to deserve the help she is giving you.”
“I promise to earn the chance both of you gave me. Can you teach me to protect her?”
“I can teach you some things, but do you have any talents?”
A small grin lit up the boy’s face. “If you have a computer, I can do a few things for you. I have some skills you might find useful.”
“I have a computer, but what can you do with one of those to help us?”
“Tomorrow, I will show you a few things. I used to do a bit of hacking before my family disappeared.”
“Then you need to rest up so you can show me your best tomorrow.” Uncle Joshua turned the lights out. “Good night Martin.”
The next morning, Silvia and Martin were awakened by Uncle with a shout, and a set of sweats was tossed at each of them as they started awake. “The gym is one floor down. just use the stairs at the other end of the hall. Meet me there as fast as you can!”
A few minutes later, they came down the stairs and found that the next floor down after passing three landings. The stairs continued down into darkness. The door at that landing led to a hall. one side had doors marked ‘Girls Lockers’ and ‘Boys Lockers’. The other side had three sets of double doors spaced twenty feet apart. Each had a sign that read ‘Gym South Entrance’. Stepping through the first set of gym doors, the two teens saw Uncle seated at the bench press with his feet hooked under a bar at the base doing roman chair exercises. From his count, he had already done over ninety and would soon hit one hundred. He looked over as he finished counting the hundredth and smiled.
“Ready to get warmed up? ” he inquired.
Uncle’s idea of a warm-up was grueling. Silvia even appreciated the break they took to have some protein bars. Her martial arts training had conditioned her to physical activity since she started at the age of five. Martin was much worse for the wear though. He had never been very into physical activity.
Sprawled out on the soft rubber mat that covered the floor near the weight machines, Martin panted between bites of his bar. It had a texture almost as pleasant as sawdust, but his hunger made it seem as life-giving as the air he breathed.
“Here, you need this as much as the food,” said Uncle as he handed each of them a bottle of liquid. ” It’s my own special blend of nutrients.” If anything, it was worse than the protein bars.
Martin made a face, but swallowed stoically and kept drinking. his body was screaming for liquids in spite of the cool air flowing through regularly spaced vents. “When do I get to see your computer Uncle?” he panted.
“Now is good. It’s not that new, but it’s a great little machine. I haven’t even had any virus issues!”
The two quietly walked out to the stairwell and Uncle flipped a switch at one side of the landing. Lights came on, illuminating the stairs below and showing another landing not much further down where the stairwell terminated. The office Uncle lead him into after unlocking the door was well ventilated. Its cool, dry air was free of dust as Martin gazed in horror at the neat beige box on the desk. It and the monochrome monitor ensconced on top of it were as pristine as they were huge and out of date.
“I have good news and bad news Uncle.” the boy said with a wince. “The good news is that I doubt this computer will ever get a virus.”
“That’s great! What is the bad news?”
“It’s also not able to do much more than function as a paperweight.”
Pausing to let his harsh, but true statement sink in, Martin watched Uncle absorb the information. “If you like, we can work on updating things.”
“How much will that cost?”
“I have some resources that I can use to help if I can get to them. I need a prepaid cell phone with a bit of data on the plan. I also need a single board computer and a couple of pieces of equipment. It should all cost less than $300. I can even pay you back for that.”
“Wow! That is quite a bit cheaper than I expected. Make a list of places that have what you need. Pick big stores. We will go after training tomorrow.
“You will need to give me a little background on the ‘resources’ you plan to use while we shop… In the meantime, you Sylvia, and I need to do some basic weapons training. Meet me back in the dining area and I will bring some things with me to help you learn.”
“What will we study?”
“I am going to start with some basics in knives and firearms. If you are going to protect Sylvia, you need to learn fast.”
With that, Martin went back to the gym and walked with Sylvia to the dining room to meet with Uncle.
After a brief lunch, the exhausted teens were shown to a large library two floors up from the living areas. Each was given a reading list of strategy books to study. “Pay special attention to Sun Tzu and Machiavelli,” said Uncle as he left the room.