In Their Shadow

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Chapter 5: The Break

Honestly, I’m not sure what to say. I’m not even sure if I should believe you… I hope you’ll understand when I say that this is the most ridiculous, far-fetched thing someone has ever told me!

I mean, I can’t actually verify this until billing gets a hold of me, but if I take you at face value, whoever you really are… then I kinda owe you a big thank you, don’t I?

Holly pauses, trembling finger hovering over the keyboard on her phone’s screen. Teeth gently, rhythmically gnaw on the soft insides of her cheek - nibbles so small that they don’t even hurt.

Why am I doing this?
“I… I haven’t even confirmed that any of this is true,” she mutters to herself.

The clock reads about a quarter after 6. It’d been a restless night in spite of the drugs, and unlike what she’d hoped, the morning didn’t help it make more sense.

So why is she so eager to reach out to this guy, even though there’s a good chance that a big fat series of bills will still be there, ready to force her pitiful financial hand? It’s happened in her family before - the primos know the drill, though everybody’s broke. Holly knows that she can ask for help, but part of her understands that it won’t be well-received, having left the state and all. She’s broken the unspoken contract.

And still, she’s on fire as she sits in the hospital bed, licking her lips like a stray dog with a piece of meat that’s being dangled just out of reach. Holly can’t help it. Even the faintest thought of free money gets the blood flowing.Did I win some kind of lottery?

And then:

...What’s the catch?

There’s always a catch.

She sucks in a long breath and deletes the email, setting the dying phone down. Maybe there’s nothing she can do but wait and see if this prize money really exists or not. It wouldn’t be the first time she’s been let down.

“How’d you sleep?”

Cecilia’s voice is actually a nice respite from the harried silence of the room. Holly’s been awake for two hours by this point, staring at the ceiling and thinking. At some point she’d made the decision not to tell them what was going on.

If, of course, it turned out that something was going on to begin with.“Uh, fine. You find my place alright?”

“It was pretty easy. And not far, too.”

“Nothing is around here. Ain’t exactly a big town.”

“I helped you unpack a little,” her mother says, sitting down.

“Oh god…”

“Relax. I just organized your kitchen.”

Holly sighs.

There’s a long, pregnant silence. Her parents glance at each other, and she notices now that they’re both wearing red. It’s unintentional, but still, the sight bothers her for some reason.

“We were…” Ernest begins, and Holly’s surprised to hear him speak without the machismo in his voice. “We were wondering if you might be in the mood to tell us what happened.” His eyes are small and hard, like chips of obsidian, and even now they’re difficult to read, but she can tell that this is his way of reaching out. One of the few ways he knows how.

“The phone calls were confusing,” her mother quietly adds, and, brushing away a tear forming at the corner of her eye: “They said you might’ve been abducted.”Holly’s brows press together and she isn’t aware of it under her forehead starts to hurt. Aside from the delirious chatter with that operator as they waited for the airlift, she hasn’t said a single word about what had happened last weekend. If it’d been deliberate, then Holly might’ve said that she’d tried to put it out of her mind, but… that’s not quite true. Deep down she knows that the accident still has something to teach her, and that it will for quite some time.

So she’ll tell them, but they’re not going to get the whole story. The Holly that Galen saw never happened.

Holly didn’t realize how much paperwork was involved in checking out of a hospital; the last time she was at one for something serious - that dislocated shoulder - was when she was just out of high school and and still, it was nothing like this.

“Normally, all this is taken care of before admitting you,” the man behind the desk says, giving a shrug as he hands her another release form to initial.Either way, it feels great to be sitting upright. In a chair. With her feet on the floor.

“Is there any chance I can get a copy of my bill before I leave?”

“M’fraid not,” he says, tick-tacking away at the keyboard of his computer. “You’ll have to wait for the billing department to get you an itemized invoice in the mail.”

“And how long will that take?”

“‘Bout a week.”

A goddamn week!

Holly stares at the papers on his desk and rakes her fingers along her brow and down the side of her face. It’s going to take that long to find out? That long before she can finally breathe easy and figure out if she needs to start strategizing about which uncles and cousins to ask for money? Figure out which ones have already lent someone money this year or aren’t busy with their own debt?

That long before she can reply to him?

Cecilia’s hand is on her daughter’s shoulder, giving it a little squeeze. “We’ll figure it out,” she whispers.

Walking out of the building with crutches is a lot less great. Her arms protest against the hard pressure of the “pads” straining the tissue in her pits, and she knows that more than a few hours of this at a time is going to be pure hell. But as she gets into the back seat of her father’s car, Holly knows that it’ll a small price to pay for autonomy.

They arrive at Holly’s apartment - a short, plain building in an extremely unremarkable part of town, with a strip of crab grass out front and a number missing from the address so that ordering pizza always turns into something of an ordeal. (By day it’s easier to spot: there’s a shadow in the sun-bleached paint marking where the 8 used to be.)

“I still think that you couldda found better in Salt Lake,” Ernest grunts.

Cecilia is making the most use of Holly’s little kitchen that it will ever see, and the smell of the roasting cochinitas alone is almost enough to coax her back to Utah.

Holly’s father is sitting on the couch, watching a soccer game, and she’s sitting as far away as possible from him with her cast propped up onto a makeshift coffee table made from upturned moving boxes. She’s not watching the game.

She’s on her phone, but she’s not really looking at that either. Her fingers are moving, sliding up and down the spider-web cracks in the glass that makes text near the top almost impossible to read. The endless feed of square images float past her like projector slides out of focus. There’s a new pair of shoes, new handlebars on somebody’s bike, dogs, mexican food. But it doesn’t really matter to her right now. Doesn’t really register.

I almost died, she thinks dumbly. And it turns out that I might even regret it.

Holly wants to throw the phone across the room. Messages are pinging her, but having to type out how she feels through a crack in a glowing glass screen suddenly feels ridiculous. She wants to talk with her friends, but not like this.

The sticky sweet of the cochinitas is real. The sharp, crisp smell of freshly chopped cilantro, cool in the same way as a michelada on a hot summer’s day is cool, fills her shitty apartment with the odor of childhood and family. It feels wrong that the walls are white - they should be blue or gold or mint green.

Is that real? Nostalgia?Or is that a warm, Latin life that only exists in the murals at restaurants with names like Mijares and Lupita’s?

Should I go home?

The operator’s - Galen’s - words swirl along in the cocktail in her head, too. The announcer on the TV shouts a long, bellowing ‘goal’, and distantly she can hear the crowd roar to life.

I almost died.

I almost died because Billings
wasn’t far enough away.

But that creeping-crawling claustrophobia is almost impossible to deny. Even now she can feel it, coiled at the base of her spine. Waiting.

“We’ll go get your car tomorrow,” Cecilia says, taking a bite of the dripping sandwich. The plates are covered in orange, and Holly’s teeth tingle with the buzz of a spicy head-rush from the habaneros. “And I’ll make a trip to the store to stock you up on some food and stuff like toilet paper.”

“Don’t forget the sock thing,” Holly reminds her mother from where she’s still seated on the couch. Her parents are at the dining table. “I’d like to take a shower this week.”

“I’ll write it down.”

“I hope you don’t intend on driving,” Ernest says through a mouth full of food, roughly wiping the sauce from his jowls with a paper towel stained bright orange. “If you get into an accident, you’ll be to blame as soon as they see you reaching for the crutches.”

“Uncle Hernando did it.”

“My brother is a grown man who knows how to handle a car.”

“Are you saying that I’m a bad driver?”

“I’m saying that women are sometimes more likely to react emotionally to difficult situations on the road, or…”

“Ay, Ernesto,” Cecilia loudly complains. “She’s a fine driver!”“So you approve of her getting behind the wheel with a cast?”

“No, but…”

Holly mops up the rest of the juice with a piece of bread. “What, you want me to stay locked up in here for six weeks, then?”

“I’m telling you that it’s a stupid idea.”

“Don’t have much choice, do I?”

Her father is silent, and a moment passes.

“You always have a choice, mija,” Cecilia says quietly.

Her blood pressure climbs. “Stop calling me that, please.”
“I don’t understand what the big deal is, Holly.” Her mother is exasperated.

“I’m not a little girl that needs babying!

Her father doesn’t miss a beat. “Maybe if you’d stop acting like it…”

Holly hunches over and rubs at her temples. “I can’t believe that this conversation is happening in my house. Under my roof.” In fact, she starts laughing - that’s all there’s left to do.

“You want to know what I think?” Ernest twists around in his chair. “I think only children put themselves in the kind of danger that you did this weekend. Only children are dumb enough to do what you did.”

I almost died, and my father is blaming me for it.
She grinds her teeth and continues to stare daggers at her own knees.

“You know,” he continues. This has been a long time coming, she can tell. “You’ve been rebelling against us since… since that thing. We prayed to God that it was just a phase, that you’d grow out of it. No. You dig your heels in. And for what? What do you have to show for it?”

Holly’s heard this tirade a few times before. She still doesn’t know how to nip it in the bud.

“You have an ugly apartment in Montana,” he barks. “A broken ankle, no career, no husband, no children.”

“I’m not having kids,” she grinds out.

“Not without a man, anyways.”

Her hands begin to shake.

“I swear to fucking god,” she says, whipping her head around to meet his steely gaze. “I am this close to kicking you out.”

She can hear her mother scowl. “Watch your language.”Ernest gets up from his seat and walks nearer to where she sits on the couch, incapacitated. So this is how you roll now, dad? You corner the fucking wounded? Kick your daughter while she’s down?

“This is my house,” she slowly asserts.

The flash of his hand registers too late, but the sudden jerk of her face, the sting on her cheek… it’s unmistakable. Her hand goes up to touch the reddened flesh like a reflex. It’s not the first time this has happened either, but the shock never lessens.

Blood rushes to her face.

His voice is barely above a whisper. “And we are your parents. I didn’t raise you to be a cochina.”There are few words in Spanish that can make her feel like such utter shit as that one. It gets the point across so succinctly.“If I didn’t know better, dad,” she finds herself murmuring. The words are coming of their own accord now, and she has no wherewithal left to stop them. “I’d think that you’d have preferred that I did come home in a pine box.”

The man’s brown face screws up like ropes pulled suddenly taut, and his black, wild eyes narrow at her. He looks like he wants to raise his hand again.

But Holly is too old and too fierce and he knows it. Corporal retaliation never worked with this one, anyways. It just made her stronger in all the wrong ways. A reaction that, maybe, he’d wished he had growing up with his dad.

“Go on, hit me. Yell. It’ll fix everything.”

And just like that, the ropes snap.He goes back to the table where Cecilia is sitting, stiff like plaster - or a Prince Rupert’s drop being held by the bulb - all breath and tendon and darting eyes. She doesn’t take a side, and never has, but this just means that Ernest is all the more the patriarch.

“The sacrifices your mother and I have made for you,” he mutters. “What we did to raise you, to put a roof over your ungrateful head.” He’s clutching the edge of the counter the way a sick seamen grasps at the bannister of a ship’s upper deck, staring at the backsplash, maybe. Or what’s more likely, through it. “Your sister gave us grandchildren. But you… you give us this.”

The word, surprisingly enough, leaves little to the imagination. Holly knows exactly what he’s referring to. She stays silent, coiled, fists balled tight in her lap.

“You don’t want to come home? Fine. Because as of now, you have no home to come back to.”Cecilia gasps - the way women do in old movies. Holly whips her head around.

Get up, we’re leaving,” he says in Spanish.

“Ernest,” his wife breathes, eyes wide. That hair of hers seemed fierce earlier; now it’s just frizzy and unkempt. “W-we can’t leave yet!”

“She doesn’t want us here, and I don’t want to be here,” he spits out. “There is no reason to stay.”“H-her car, dear…”

He stops his angry restless movements, and Holly’s eyes snap over to him immediately. She watches as he storms back over to her.

“Your wallet and keys,” he orders.She narrows her eyes at him.

Give me your wallet and keys so we can get your car.

“They open at eight.”

“I didn’t say I was going tonight. Now give me your wallet or you can go get it tomorrow.”

I can’t believe this. The son of a bitch…

She stares daggers at him, but has no choice. “On my dresser.”

He disappears into the other room and instead of returning, she can hear him begin to angrily throw things into his duffel bag. Cecilia, who’s been avoiding eye contact with Holly during this entire exchange, finally meets her daughter’s acid gaze as she rises to go fearfully join her husband.

“Thanks a lot, mom,” she murmurs through clenched teeth.

Cecilia answers with tightly pursed lips as she leaves the room.

Holly feels cold all over. She tries to ignore the hushed voices coming from the bedroom, but it’s almost impossible. It’s not an argument, she knows that much about her parents - if the head of the family wants to disown his daughter, then the dutiful wife will find a way to come around.

Fucking disgusting.

Heather used to find the arrangement off-putting too, back when they were in high school together. But then she got a job working the phones at an air conditioning company after graduation, and met Scott. He put her in her place, started taking her to mass, and that was that. All bets were off.

Holly lost her sister when they got married. And for ten years she’s had to endure the Latin family hell alone.

If Scott never happened, she realizes with a scowl, I might still be in Salt Lake.

But that’s sewage under the bridge. No sense crying about what could have been. Ernest has Scott, the son Cecilia never gave him, and Heather, the daughter that he’s long since stopped praying Holly would be like.

At this point, she’s just surplus to requirements.

She soundlessly falls over onto her side, bunching her shoulders up and grasping at a pillow with fingers that feel like they belong to the dead. Holly stares listlessly at the field of green on the TV, and the little men in white and yellow chasing a ball. They almost look like motes of dust swirling around in the air.

The goodbyes could barely be called such. They were going to some kind of motel for the night; they’d be getting her car for her first thing in the morning, and Cecilia would drive it back to the apartment so they could be on their way.

When Holly’s mother returns her keys and wallet, there’s no apology. She’s standing next to the couch, where Holly spent the night, with her hand on the young Mendoza’s shoulder.

“He’ll change his mind,” she murmurs. “He still loves you.”

“Funny. When people love somebody, they usually act like it. I can’t even accuse dad of lying because he’s never even said it.”

Mija, he -”

She aggressively shrugs away her mother’s hand. “Why are you still here?” Holly’s eyes shoot over to her mom from where they were at the TV. “Leave. Please.”

There’s a long, uncomfortable moment of eye contact as tears dribble from Cecilia’s eyes. After a few seconds, she nods. Her head hangs low as she closes the front door behind her, almost without a sound.

The meager rations that Cecilia had bought while she was in the hospital are just about gone by dinner the next day - they’d never gotten a chance to make that run to the store to stock up - and Holly is in no shape to leave the apartment.

She’s been nursing a steady buzz since the midday before, and hasn’t showered since the day she got home, which barely counted as a sponge bath as it is.

But still, errands desperately needed to be run. A phone call to work desperately needed to be made. And in spite of everything else, like salt on a wound, medical bills would probably need to be paid with money she didn’t have. The mysterious email from four days ago barely registers now. Life just feels too shitty, too useless, and the hope that she’d had before is just about gone. Clearly, it’s just someone’s idea of a sick joke.

Fucking drone jockeys.

She’s glad she never sent anything in reply, because the idea of dignifying the prank with a response of any sort now isn’t worth the bandwidth it’s delivered on.

Who the hell gets off on fucking with people like this?

Holly knew the program needed people - young white boys, specifically - who thought of life as one big video game, and this just confirms it.

Who the hell does this guy think he fuckin’ is…

The young woman is whipping herself up into a rage, and so grabs her phone and begins doing a little search string-fu.

drone suit 6 yellowstone
The results number in the hundreds of thousands - most of them press releases about rescue missions, several year-old news articles about the suit’s transfer to the SAR unit, and a few interviews with people who work with him about their day-to-day operations. There are pictures, too. A lot of them: press photo-ops, candid shots of it in the field or at headquarters, and even a good many at stock photo sites. Not good enough.

who is drone suit 6 yellowstone

This begins to yield a few more interesting results. Now only in the tens of thousands, sites about the drone suits themselves are beginning to crop up. Fan and hobbyist sites, aficionados of military technology trying to broadcast theories about what parts Boeing or Raytheon or IBM likely manufactured, or which countries contributed the most technology. She discovers a not insignificant number of entire forums dedicated to discussing the drone suit program and their operators, and entire websites dedicated to information pertaining to their most obvious and remarkable pieces of technology: the anti-gravity thrusters, the hover-thrusters, hover tech, etc. (there doesn’t appear to be a consistent terminology for it). Why do they have them? How long has this technology been around? Why equip the suits with them and do nothing else with it? Does the government not see how much longer our roads would last if cars had anti-grav instead of tires? When will this breakthrough be shared with the world?

Her anger is fading, being instead replaced by pedestrian curiosity - but curiosity doesn’t feel as good as rage right now, so she keeps looking. She wants to hold onto that ember of hate even though she knows she ought to let it go.

who is drone suit 6 yellowstone operator prank

Holly peruses a site dedicated to the operators of all three waves of suits, getting lost in reading about the authors’ theories of when each suit might have changed operators over the course of their deployment, and which ones have seemingly had the same person behind it the whole time. She’d forgotten about the waves - four suits were revealed to the public eye each year from 2000 to 2002. Number 006 was deployed in 2001, and spent two years patrolling the Pentagon along with the other three from the same wave: numbers 007, 008, and 010.

Curiosity begins getting the better of her again when she reads about how, in 2003, suit #006 is suddenly and inexplicably transferred to a rural sheriff's department in Idaho, even though the country was still at the height of its paranoia about terrorism. The more she reads, the more she begins to agree with the website’s author’s conclusion that nothing about the drone suit program makes any sense, which is exactly what one should come to expect from the US. (For a few minutes she gets stuck reading about the controversy surrounding the F-35 and begins to agree with the author’s latter statement as well.)

Each suit has its own page on this site; complete with timeline, speculations about abilities and onboard technology, links to videos and personal accounts recalling interactions with them. They even each have their own personality profile.

Holly scrunches up her face as she reads Galen’s:

“This operator is purported to be amiable, kind, and above all else, professional.”
She reads the descriptions of some of the others, and discover that they get descriptions like gruff, quiet, talkative, competitive, or excitable. If he'd pulled shit like this before, surely it'd be here?

That’s when she realizes, however, that none of the profiles list names - just their numbers. Is this some kind of courtesy, or…?

She scowls, bunching up her mouth like a drawstring bag, and it dawns on her.

Am I the only person to know his name?

She sorted through her memories of that harrowing morning - it seems so far away, now - and tries to remember how she caught his name at all. She’d just asked for it, didn’t she?

Interesting.As Holly sets down the phone, she realizes that she’s not so angry anymore, and that she’s made it past the point of trying to nurse it. The buzz is fading, too, leaving her with the gross dregs of the hangover, and with all this there’s a gray emptiness as she returns to the couch from the vivid, captivating world of internet conjecture. The life of Holly Mendoza is far from captivating right now.

Hunger settles in - a mundane and indifferent force of nature that she has no choice but to contend with. She also remembers that there’s only one roll of toilet paper left, and that’s another.
With the flippant resignation of someone who almost died and then was summarily disowned for it, of someone who hasn’t had a proper bath in almost a week, and of someone who had two beers with breakfast that morning, she picks up the phone again and dials up the cheapest pizza joint she knows of and prepares to order four extra-large cheese pies to live off of for the next few weeks - and all with a self-denigrating smirk on her face.

I hope I have enough room in the freezer.

Truthfully, reading about the drone suits had managed to resurrect a small bit of that earlier hope she’d felt at the hospital. The same hope that filled her up when her mom stuck her hand in that bag of filthy clothes. But holding onto it is hard: she spends the next few days dancing between militant apathy and over-eager, Pavlovian restlessness.

At one point she stops to laugh about the sheer absurdity in being excited to get a bill, but still - checking the mail is the only reason she’s left the apartment yet.

Holly gets up at 6 o'clock that evening to begin her nightly journey to the mailboxes. It's just far enough to be frustrating when it's raining, but in crutches, getting there almost feels like a Herculean task. After a few minutes of swinging herself forward with the help of two glorified poles, she reaches the bank of cubbies. She fumbles for the little key on her ring, and then jiggering the metal door open. Unlike all the other times she’s been over here since her parents left, there’s actually more than junk mail this time.

Several pieces, in fact.“Oh man,” she mutters, quickly slipping the envelopes between her teeth as she races back to her apartment, suddenly trembling all over.

She all but collapses into a chair at the dining table, eyes quickly raking over the upper right-hand corners of the letters. One says Billings Police Department, Vehicle Impound Yard, and the other is from the hospital’s billing department.

Shit, shit, shit…

Her hands are clammy and shaking when she goes to rip it open. This is it. This is it…

But she pauses, staring at the torn paper and the letter that’s peeking out now from inside, crisp and white. She feels like that kid looking for the golden ticket in that bar of chocolate. (What was his name?)

But this is it.

He’s either telling the truth, that the thing is paid, and she’s in the clear.

Or, he’s not, and she’s fucked.

With a deep breath, she pulls out the papers, skipping over the letter, and going straight for the invoice, with its columns and itemized lists and fine print.

Near the bottom, on its own little row, are a series of three zeroes with a period between them.

And like that, something in her breaks - the same thing that her father tried to crack when he'd struck her face, maybe - and there's a gushing sensation. Black gold of one sort or another rushes out to meet the light of day. The levees in her face threaten to spill with a deep weight behind them; for the first time since waking up, Holly lets herself grasp the enormity of the would-be burden that has now, miraculously, been lifted from her weary, scuffed-up shoulders.

With a single sob, she slumps forward onto the rest of the mail to cry for a little while.
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