It’s well past nightfall when I finally slip into our apartment, clutching my backpack between clammy hands. Water drips from my clothes and soaks into the carpet – I got caught in the rain. The room is dim, lit by a single lamp. After a moment, when I’m convinced that I’m really safe, I let out a sigh of relief and fall onto the sofa.
My head throbs. I rub the bridge of my nose and close my eyes, trying to force my body to relax.
The distinct squeak of a door opening makes my eyes snap open. Darren stands in the doorway to his room, still dressed in his Redeemer uniform. His face looks tired and his hair disheveled. He leans against the doorframe, hands in his pockets, staring at me with his unwavering gaze.
I push myself up to a sitting position. “Hey, Darren.”
“I know, it’s late.”
He strides across the room. He stops in front of me and stares, letting his eyes search every inch of my face. I squirm and let out a tiny cough, racking my brain for an excuse.
But I can’t lie to Darren. Wincing, I tell the truth – very bluntly.
“I just lost a thousand dollars.”
Darren isn’t one to show shock freely. But now, his jaw drops slightly, and he looks at me in dumfounded surprise.
“What?” he asks.
I take in a deep breath and slowly tell him the story, making sure to keep a calm voice throughout it all. My brother just stands there, listening. The twitch of his eye is the only sign that my words are sinking in. I skim over certain parts, like why we needed the tech in the first place, just saying that we needed it to look into something. When I’m done, he sits down and runs a hand through his hair. His holds my gaze for a long moment.
“If you’re going to yell at me, can you please get it over with?” I say.
An excruciating time passes before he finally speaks.
“That was a really stupid thing to do.”
“That money was part of our savings. From over two years.”
“I know,” I repeat.
“We kept that money as a safeguard. In case dad…” He shakes his head. “To survive without him, like we knew we’d have to. To get through his loss. Our loss.”
My eyes flicker to the drawer where Darren put the picture frame from the mantle. I can clearly imagine Pamela’s cutting smile.
“All that time spent saving up,” Darren continues. “And you just wasted it?”
“It really isn’t that bad.” I know that it’s an excuse, but I say it all the same. “In the grand scheme of things-!“
“In the grand scheme of things, it was a thousand dollars that we had saved, lost to Era. An illegal organization!”
I hold onto the sofa for support. My vision blurs with tears of blame and hurt. The pounding in my head has worsened into a pulsing that clouds my thoughts.
My voice builds as my control weakens. “I worked for it, too!”
“That money was-“
I stand up in one swift motion. “I know what it was for, alright?” My voice has lowered to a husky whisper. “I earned it too. You’re not the only one who saved up, just waiting for the day when-” A sob catches in my throat, cutting off my words. I drag in a shaky breath. “For the day when I’d come home, and he would be…”
I can’t seem to form the words. They hold too much pain, too many memories.
The anger has left Darren’s eyes, replaced by pity and sadness. But layered deep within them is pain. Pain because he lived all of that, too. Because once again, we’ve managed to bring up the one subject we rather forget.
My emotion has boiled over, evaporating into thin steam that comes out in a hoarse, weak voice. “I came home every day, terrified of what I might find.” I look away from him. “I was so scared that one day, while I was gone, he might have…”
My voice trails off. I can’t find the strength to go on, but I know I have to. I have to.
“And then one day,” I continue. “One day…he actually...”
I can’t say it. I can’t put it into words.
It’s over. He understands what I mean.
I heave a huge breath and lower myself back onto the sofa, collecting my wits. I’m shaken, I tell myself. That’s all; I’m just shaken and tired from what happened today.
The room falls into silence, both of us staring at our hands, or at the wall, or the floor. Anywhere but at each other.
Finally, Darren’s eyes meet mine, and I find solace. Comfort.
I go to him and he puts an arm around me.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
He gives my shoulder a gentle squeeze. “It’s okay," he says, then draws away to stand up. “We can earn the money back. Don’t worry about it.”
He flicks on another light, rubbing the back of his neck. “Are you okay?” he asks after a moment. “They didn’t hurt you, did they? Era?”
“…No. Not really.”
My brother’s face hardens. “I’ll report them tomorrow. Those people are criminals. Flawed.”
“No, don’t.” I’m not one to shirk away from revenge, but I rather forget Era. Let them fester in their crime. It doesn’t matter to me. “I rather just forget about it. It’ll be easier that way.”
Darren seems to disagree, but he nods. “Alright. Do you need anything?”
I hide a small smile. He’s returned to his normal self, fussing over my needs. “Some aspirin would be nice.”
“I’ll get it.” He leaves, going into the bathroom to root through the drawers, muttering to himself. I take his place on the sofa and close my eyes, finally letting the wave of fatigue wash over me.
I fall asleep before he comes back, the gentle patter of raindrops hitting the windowpane.
I wake up the next morning with a dull ache in my head. The apartment is quiet, devoid of all sound except for the soft raindrops still beating against the window. Darren must have left for work already.
The muscles in my back ache from sleeping on the sofa all night. My clothes are still damp from last night’s rainstorm, and my hair is a tangled mess.
I need a shower; I head to the bathroom.
As I stand under the steady stream of warm water, I stare at my bare wrist, trying to accustom my eyes to the sight of the marking. It still looks strange to me, like it doesn’t belong on my body. Thick black lines criss-cross on my skin, bold, almost brash, so noticeable, that it seems like a branding instead of a sign of my dedication.
It was the marking that made our plan fail. It’s something I can’t hide. The thought reminds me that there really is no going back now. I’m a Redeemer – I can’t change that, even if I actually wanted to.
When I finish my shower, I send Elle a quick message telling her about what happened to us last night.
So, you don’t have the tech? she answers.
Or my thousand dollars, either.
You don’t have the tech.
Um…no, I don’t.
There’s silence on her end, and I can almost see her sitting at her desk, rubbing her temples in frustration.
What are we going to do now? she asks.
I don’t know how to respond to this. There’s nothing we can do. We have no way of entering the unchecked region, and no way of finding out what lies inside it.
I stare blankly at my Clikbook. Looking at the display brings back a memory from yesterday. The woman said that the brick-breaker worked like a Clikbook. What if we could build our own brick-breaker?
I tell this to Elle, who bombards me with endless questions about the way the tech works.
She said it uses hyper speed coding, I think.
Of course! It probably uses hyper speed sensory codes to scan the network for weak spots, then incorporates its own codes into the system. Why didn’t I think of this before? Nat, you’ve got to come over, right away. I’ll let Xander know, too.
Okay, I’m on my way.