“Where’s your sister?” Uncle Rex asked.
The weary boy being questioned by daft Uncle Rex lifted his shoulders and let them fall. His eyes remained on the blue sky above, visible through the skylight. He rubbed the sides of his temples, blinking once or twice to adapt to the brightness again. As he lay on the wooden bench, the coldness of the wood juxtaposing with the warming sunlight, he shifted his legs to better soothe their slight throbbing. One leg was lame and rested on Uncle Rex’s folded up leather jacket.
“Donnie,” Uncle Rex continued, obviously distraught. He kneeled, bristling against the grass as he removed his shades. The pair twiddled in Rex’s hands. His reddened eyes pleaded for cooperation. “Please tell me where she went. Otherwise, your mom’s going to kill me.”
Rex was ignored.
“I’ll let you wear my glasses until we get home.”
A hand was slowly extended toward the adult. “She went back to the north corridor, to look at the paintings.” Uncle Rex cussed, or at least Donnie was pretty sure it was a bad word. Donnie stored it away for later to ask Uncle Niko as the pair of lens were placed in his hand.
“Watch your brothers. Don’t go anywhere till me or Uncle Nik come back ’round.”
The sunglasses were placed over Donnie’s blue eyes, the thudding of footsteps gradually echoing into silence. The sound of two objects hammering against each other every few seconds began to interrupt the inaudible tranquility, but Donnie paid it no mind. The sky now appeared discolored, greyish and bland without the blue. Despite the lack of vibrancy, the irritation around Donnie’s eyes eased away. The darkness illuminated his vision. With the discomfort relatively expunged, Donnie pulled himself into a sitting position.
Donnie Trapani currently resided in a small room, pitch-black aside from the area the skylight shone. The radiance brightened a set of stone tiles, geometric if not for the turf and weeds rising between the cracks. Patches of grass covered several of these dull tiles, producing a pure, crystal clear smell; quite refreshing. At the center, the bench stood with its legs hammered to the earth.
He always wanted to visit the school again. There were only the vaguest of recollections Donnie was able to gather of his initial time within the building. Back then, it was completely bare. No furniture or greenery decorated the innards of the establishment. It was also dark, very dark, but now patches of light like the skylight above helped guide a visitor’s way.
He was only three years old at the time. The school was his first memory. Now, Donnie was at the ripe, mature age of ten years past his birth. Now, he was literate and attentive and intelligent. With those skills in mind, Donnie elected himself perfectly fit to search for her sister himself. Uncle Rex, though fun and an ever faithful source of sugars, was too annoying at times for Donnie to bother with. He acts as if Donnie is too ignorant or stupid to guide his siblings sometimes. Misdirecting Rex to the incorrect direction of Sofia’s little excursion should teach him a lesson. If Rex had paid more attention, he would have known that Sofia had to use the bathroom.
“Hey,” Donnie called to his little brothers. They were wielding short tree branches, no longer than their tiny arms. Bishop, junior to Donnie by a year, poked the shortest brother on the forehead, elegantly sheathing his weapon. In return, Gilbert struck with a flimsy thrust, mechanically sidestepped by Bishop. The improvised show of swordplay was paused as the pair turned to look at Donnie. “Don’t go anywhere. I’m going to get Sofia.”
Obediently, the small boys nodded before resuming their epic duel. Bishop was undyingly loyal, and Donnie wholeheartedly appreciated that loyalty. He would keep watch over their little Gilbert. Plus they knew when Donnie was in a bad mood, unlike Uncle Rex or even four year old Sofia at times. Given the choice, Donnie would turn to his brothers over his idiot uncle.
Donnie lifted his right leg first, favoring its support over his left one. A fall, a careless, stupid fall, had nearly killed him two weeks ago. Luckily, Uncle Niko had been supervising. He had made the bleeding stop, and Mother had made sure he was able to walk afterward. It wasn’t long after the accident when Donnie had tossed the walking cane aside, jaded with his over-reliance on it. The leg only felt faintly sore now, hardly an inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. The white wrapping was quite comforting, actually.
As he walked, Donnie placed his hands into the pockets of his jacket. The hood was slacked against his back, It was dyed navy blue, almost as deep as the bottom of the ocean, His back never fell from its straight, vertical posture during his walk. His shorts were a whitening khaki, the true color dwindling as the elements continued to break it away. The bandaging for his leg covered from under his knee to a little over his ankle, dark shoes scarcely making any sound as they pressed on the tiles and dirt.
Several gaps in the roof lit Donnie’s path in the eastern hallway. They were not meticulously structured, not as rectangular as the one in the boys’ dueling ring. These holes were the result of wear and tear, damage from earthquakes or perhaps those artillery things Father talked about once. In any case, the corridor was lightened. The pattern of grasses seeping and threatening to overturn the floor tiles continued.
Shadows surrounding these expansions were still prominent. However, the gloom of the shadows or the shades did not hinder Donnie’s navigation. Sofia had eaten some of Uncle Rex’s dried fruit along with some of the rabbit he caught. Her tainted breath, spoiled but familiar, could still be sniffed in the empty air. Uncle Rex was obviously too distracted to catch the scent when he left to search for her. Donnie didn’t have to open his eyes to know what direction Sofia had wandered off to. He already detected the odor and followed it closely, even if he did hit his head against a wall in the dark every now and then.
Within minutes of traversing the halls, drawing circles more times than he’d like, Donnie reached a set of double doors, partially exposed to the light. The leftward doorway was wide open, the rightward door trapped between large crates and debris hidden in the dark. The room past the entrance was also shrouded and indiscernible. Bad breath seeped from it, however, so the boy ducked under a fallen beam to enter.
Donnie winced, leaning on one of the crates to endure the quick flash of pain. He brushed a hand down his leg. He let the skin tingle and vibrate underneath the dressing. It was very, very reminiscent of that one time a dog sunk her teeth into his bones that one time. Donnie almost went mad and blind, but one blink, two blinks later, he was able to move again. All he needed was a moment to recompose himself.
Taking sniffs in rapid succession, Donnie turned to enter further into the room. The unseen fortifications supported his venture inside as he followed the fragrance as best he could.
Someone had other plans, apparently.
A stranger’s hands, a stranger’s smells, a stranger’s voice, grabbed Donnie. His leg was suddenly on fire again. Donnie’s body tumbled, much like those times when he tripped over his feet and fell down a hill, twigs and pebbles piercing skin all the way. Only this time, there was no sprinting across the wet grass in a hopeless attempt to escape Mother’s wrath, nor a test of bravado with an Uncle or a sibling. Presently, the stranger dragged Donnie further into the darkness. Struggling only offered the stranger opportunity to search through Donnie’s clothes, removing all the knick knacks and toys he had taken from a classroom. Uncle Rex’s glasses were filched away. A roughly coated cloth, a bag, a sack, replaced them. The sack failed to hinder Donnie’s vision any more than the dark, but his breath was held in, refusing to make any more whines or cries.
Eventually, the descent abruptly stopped. Donnie’s body was thrown to the ground. His shoulders shuddered against the stone tiles. His legs were wet, burrowing marginally into moist sod. More strangers were nearby, their voices muffled through the fabric around Donnie’s head. Another stranger; different hands, smoother, swifter; made the boy sit upward, taking off the bag. A ringing noise filled his ears. Donnie’s eyes were temporarily blinded, overwhelmed with the shift in lighting. However, the stranger did not care and forced open his left eye. A concentrated beam of yellow light was directed into it. The world was consumed into the accompassing brightness.
When Donnie realized he was still conscious, he opened his eyes. The numbness was depleting to give way to the bodily aches. Adjusting to the light, Donnie’s gaze recognized the room as the one where his brothers were play-fighting. He could see them now, huddled on the bench. Gilbert was curled up almost in a ball, hiding and shivering under Bishop’s jacket. Bishop himself held his brother tightly close, a purple-blue mark on a cheek accompanying his crooked frown. He and Donnie shared one glance, both struggling to maintain eye contact.
All Bishop could give was a plea for help. Donnie was denied the chance to respond. One of the strangers appeared, taking a knee, and obstructed his view of the younger brothers. He was a shadow, nothing else, except for the voice.
“Can you speak?” it asked. The voice could have been of male or female, young or old, gruffed or high-pitched. None of that mattered.
“Why?” Donnie demanded, glimpsing on the other shadows in the light. There were three, maybe, about three more shuffling around him and the fourth. They spoke in incomprehensible whispers, almost tauntingly.
“Don’t try to move,” the stranger said. Donnie watched a pillar of black grow bigger. An end of the pillar hit his chin. No, it was a hand connected to an arm that grasped. Those were fingers gently caressing his face. “Sef!”
One of the shadows stepped in Donnie’s peripheral view. He saw legs but no torso or head. “Yes sire?”
“You hurt the boy,” the kneeling shadow said disapprovingly.
The legs shifted uncomfortably. “Apologies, sire. The room was dark, but I had to take the opportunity.”
“He is injured, unclean. Our Maestro will be greatly displeased.”
“Yes, he will,” the second shadow agreed before taking a step forward. “Allow me to heal the boy.”
The fingers removed themselves from Donnie’s face. Saliva dripped for a few moments. “No,” the first said. Both shadows now stood, motionless.
A loud roar echoed soon after. It was the same shocking, paralyzing roar that instilled fear into Donnie’s very soul. This fear was something he was taught early, when he was younger and curious. He remembered it very clearly, especially when Uncle Nik was watching over him. Uncle Nik introduced the fear unintentionally, firing away whenever and wherever he wanted. He did not realize Donnie was frightened by it until the child Donnie once was remained static and unmoving and blind to everything except the fear.
Donnie could see now. The shadows were only people in black cloaks. Domino masks, the ones of Uncle Niko’s romantic heroics and villains, protected their eyes. Their hairs were a brownish-blackish tint, short and curt. Each enveloped their grand figures within their cloaks as one paced and another stood beside the bench. In front of Donnie, the Sire held a revolver. Smoke rose out of the barrel. The First Stranger lay supine, on his back. His mask was painted red, sharing that paint with the tiles and dirt.
The Sire emptied his revolver of its ammunition. Donnie watched in fascination as he inserted two cylindrical items into his weapon. As the Sire flipped and turned the handgun around in his hands, he returned his attention to Donnie.
“Boy,” he spoke gravelly, “know that you will not be harmed further. You will be taken care of. Our Maestro protects you, and so shall we.”
Donnie ignored his leg. The pain had vanished, but the one around his eyes returned. Wordlessly, he motioned to Uncle Rex’s sunglasses in the grass beside the First Stranger. As the Sire retrieved it, Donnie gave a quick wink to Bishop. He put a single finger to his mouth, the younger brother nodding. The Strangers showed no indication of acknowledgement to the interaction, Donnie putting on the sunglasses. Just barely, his eyes relaxed. It helped a little.
“Why?” Donnie asked again. He was calm, calm as can be. Defiance, Mother taught him through words and example, will not win all battles.
“Our Maestro will explain everything, once you have met. He will watch over your wellbeing from now on, as he has taken care of us.” The Sire spread his arms to the other Strangers, and then to the brothers on the bench. “Know that if you do not cooperate with us, these two will suffer.”
No, Donnie thought, they won’t get hurt. I’ll protect them, and me. Just like those war stories Father and Uncle Niko liked to tell. I don’t need some Maestro to do all that.
“Your mother,” the Sire went on, retracting his limbs under his cloak, “your father, and uncles, they have committed crimes to our Maestro. Their crimes are many, and they do not deserve to raise a prospective child such as yourself.”
“I’m not a child!” Donnie wanted to say, but he bit his tongue. The Sire tilted his head at the shudders. Fortunately, he did not question it. Instead, Donnie asked, “Where’s Sofia?” Uncle Rex could be lost in the hallways for all he cared.
“Sofia?” The Sire sounded surprised. “Your grandmother? Is she not dead?”
Donnie’s chest clenched. He made a mistake.
“A sister of yours, perhaps?” A chuckle escaped the Sire, betraying his reserved demeanor. “Your father always respected your grandmother, and he always wanted a daughter, much like our Maestro.” He invaded Donnie’s hair, ruffling the short curls. “Is this Sofia your sister?”
What right did this Stranger have to act so familiar with Donnie?
Donnie was glowering and pouting when the Sire’s torso twisted backwards. He fell to one knee, his body discombobulating back and forth. No noise was made save for a grunt, though it was not echoed by him. The Sire kept his peace, even as his attacker stabbed his leg even more. It wasn’t long before one of the other Strangers pulled the assailant back by her hair.
Sofia screeched, dropping Uncle Rex’s favorite switchblade to break free from the Stranger. However, he suspended her up in the air, so the child could only thrash violently into empty face. She bit the Stranger’s wrist but could not penetrate his sleeve. As the Sire examined his stab wounds, Gilbert opened his eyes. He moved to observe Sofia’s struggles. The Stranger beside him and a stoic Bishop held them firmly planted on the bench.
“This must be her,” the Sire declared. Forsaking the droplets of blood, he stood to study the little girl closer. She bit the limb that touched her face, practically growling at the Sire. She even spat at him and her captor, though neither of the adults were discouraged from their jobs.
Always the rebel, Donnie mused as he stretched his fingers outward and back. She could have been more useful if she had not been caught.
“Your resemblance to Eleanor is uncanny,” the Sire said. Sofia said nothing. “Like daughter like mother. Yes, you and your brother will please our Maestro most graciously.” He turned to the boy. “Tell me, does Sir Nikolai have any children or –”
All eyes turned to Donnie. He dug his feet into the dirt, back nearly straight but slightly hunched forward. He wasn’t that tired, not yet. His arms were held in front of him, hands clasped at the end. A weapon momentarily forgotten was aimed at the Sire, cocked and ready to fire.
Donnie was not afraid. Bishop was not. Sofia was not. Gilbert was fighting it, despite his tears. Donnie was not.
“Put it down,” the Sire commanded, back to his neutral, coldly elegant voice. No person moved further, the sound of tense breathing all there was to stimulate hearing.
“L-Let Sofia go,” Donnie stuttered. Poopy, he stuttered. “Let her an-and my brothers go-go.” Darn it, he did it again. Uncle Niko and Father would be so disappointed.
“There are two of my brothers and I,” the Sire noted quietly. “There are four of you, only one armed.” He broke the switchblade under his foot, the grip beneath his toes as the sharp metal bounced across the tiles. “You no longer have the element of surprise.”
“I can kill you,” Donnie said, more resolute. “And I’m fast. I’ve practiced. I can kill you and your friends.”
“A noble and audacious skill,” the Sire noted, “but recall there are only two bullets in my revolver. If I am one of the two you are capable of killing, there will still be one perfectly alive to handle Sofia are your brothers.”
“I’m fast,” Donnie insisted. No, he was not desperate. Not yet. “I can get all of you!” Maybe. His hands quivered for an unseen instant, but Donnie saw it. He was losing it. He couldn’t lose it!
“Fire my weapon, you may kill two of us, but then two of your brothers, Bishop and Gilbert I believe, die. Kill my brother who watches over them, Sofia will die. Our Maestro will hardly miss a little girl he knows nothing of. Kill both their overseers, I will send your precious siblings to the next life myself.”
No, Donnie thought, you can’t. I’ll kill you first.
“Sir Nikolai has killed dozens of men when he was barely of age. You have never seen true battle. What hopes do you have?”
He showed me things. His secrets. I’ll be better than he was, than any of the adults were.
“Kill me and me alone, my brothers will also execute them.”
I’ll get all of you. I’ll save everyone.
“Or possibly miss your targets. You are still a child. Children make mistakes. If you fail to draw blood, we will not exact retribution for any hostility you and your siblings have exhibited.”
Uncle Rex was not here. Mother and Father and were absent. Only the “children” and the Strangers were here. It was suicide, as Uncle Niko would say. There was only one way to end this.
“Put the gun down, Donatello. No matter what you do, you only have two options: allow your siblings to live or see them in the next life.”
Donnie pulled the trigger.
Gilbert curled up again, burying his face into his brother’s side. Bishop stared, his jaw hanging. Sofia delivered a similar pose. The Strangers were quick to discern the lack of blood or injury to themselves. They directed their gaze to young Donnie.
The boy had the revolver cocked again. His hand was held to the right of his skull. The gun pressed itself into Donnie’s dark, sweaty hair above his ear. The sunglasses had fallen during the recoil, breaking in half on the tiles. His eyes were pained again, but his resolve persevered, steadfast.
The Sire took one step back, as did his brothers. “In the name of all that is great and sane, I beg of you to stop this vain quest and lower the gun.”
“I’ll kill me!” Donnie shouted harshly, unnatural with his prepubescent tongue. “Your Mas-tro will be mad and then he’ll kill all you!”
“Child, put the gun down.” The Sire was losing his cool.
Donnie smiled. He was winning!
“Let Sofia down.”
Automatically, the Stranger holding Sofia relinquished his grip. She caught herself from a bad fall, her feet hitting the tiles and dirt. Before Donnie could tell her to go to Bishop, she kicked back the Sire’s legs and hugged Donnie’s stomach. She shed tears into his jacket. Her brother placed a hand on her back, pulling her to his side, away from the gun.
“I’ll kill me,” Donnie repeated, his voice at a lower volume. He didn’t need to shout anymore, nor did he feel like smiling any longer. If he showed his desperation, he’d lose momentum, but his sister was with him now. He couldn’t smile, not with her here. “You have to go or I’ll kill me and your Mas-tro will kill you.” Donnie miserably pressed the gun further against his head for emphasis. “Just like you killed your friend already.”
“Stop,” the Sire pleaded, as did the whispers. “Please,” they begged.
Donnie touched the trigger, tapping it tauntingly. The irritation around his eyes began to be remedied by a fluid, a fluid that blinded his eyes away from the light. His vision blurred to shadows once more, but he could see enough.
A loud, obnoxious boom followed.
Shouts followed. More booms. Groans, running, thunder, and more. Donnie clutched on Sofia’s shoulders harder. She tightened her hold as well. Beside them, he heard a plop. From where Bishop and Gilbert were supposed to be, there was a bang-bang, and screaming.
All the while, Donnie reserved his hand on the trigger.
Sofia’s face was still obscured in Donnie’s gut. She couldn’t dare look up. But Donnie blinked again and again so that he could see more clearly.
Mother slowly set down her tanto. She laid the blade beside the Sire. Waving a hand behind her, two voices stopped conversing. A quick glimpse told Donnie one of them was Uncle Rex, but the boy became transfixed on his mother. She took a step forward, arms outstretched at her sides. Her leather armor was soaked in darkness, but her benign countenance dispelled any more misgivings.
Donnie gave no argument or resistance when Mother separated the revolver and his hand. Forgoing his pride, he pulled Sofia with him to hug Mother. They drenched themselves. Sofia started babbling about something Donnie couldn’t understand. He could hear their brothers join in, clustering into the embrace.
Eventually, it was only him and Mother in their embrace. Donnie was secretly thankful for that. Mother always knew how to make the light go away. She knew him better than anyone.
That’s why when they were alone together, nearly a week afterward, she knew that he would answer with absolute honesty when she asked, “Who taught you how to use a gun?”
Mother began to teach Donnie’s the correct way to hold a revolver, among other things.
It was years before Donnie got to see Uncle Niko again.