Once upon a time, there was a young man from a poor family who destroyed his life over a single silly decision. He worked in a little store, a 7-11, and he tried to be a hero to save three hundred and eighty-six dollars in the cash register. Maybe he'd spent too much time talking with his tougher classmates back in high school, when his family had still held out hope that he'd go on to do something important with his life. Maybe he just had a little too much machismo for his own good, though it had served him quite well when it came to dealing with girls. Maybe he just didn't believe that people actually got shot in robberies.
It didn't really matter. Thirty seconds later, he was lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood, screaming and crying and not really feeling anything. He did not manage to grab the robber, like he'd intended to. He did not manage to slam the cash register shut, like he'd intended to. He did not become a hero. He did not die, either, but that was mostly down to luck. As the robber fled the store, an old woman across the street realized that something was wrong, and she dug out her cell phone and called the police. They brought an ambulance with them, maybe a fire truck, too. He never knew for sure. In this part of town, though, an ambulance was usually a safe bet.
They took the young man to the hospital, and he never knew exactly what happened, only that the snippets he remembered, the jargon and the whispers, they included terms like "spinal damage" and "partial paralysis" and "if he's lucky". Often, in those times, he closed his eyes and prayed to be drugged. When he was medicated into a blurry haze, it was easier to forget what had gone wrong. It was easier to pretend he didn't know what was coming.
All good things, of course, came to an end. Before long, he was cogent again, and he found out that he had been fired, that he was not covered by worker's compensation, since he had acted against company policy. He'd known. It was impossible not to know. They'd been told in training, again and again, never to interfere with a robbery. Messing with someone with a gun was likely to result in harm. Paying extensive hospitalization bills was more expensive for the company than eating the loss of a portion of the day's revenue, a portion that was even covered by insurance. He'd know all this even as he acted. He'd just thought, somehow, that the rules didn't apply to him. He'd thought that maybe he'd be a hero.
Now, he was stuck in a bed in a hospital, and his family was stuck with the bills. It wasn't cheap, either. He'd needed surgery. That had saved his life. He'd needed drugs. Those had kept him from going crazy from the pain. He'd needed a long, long period in a bed on an IV drip. That had helped him recover, as much as he was ever going to.
The gunshot, after all, had hit him somewhere pretty serious.
The damage could have been worse. He could have lost the use of all of his limbs permanently. He could have had a major blood vessel severed. As it was, he was only paralyzed from the waist down, was only undergoing expensive physical therapy to regain proper use of his arms and hands. He had a lot to be thankful for, everyone said. He didn't really believe them.
His whole family came to visit, as often as they could. They spent a lot of time talking to him, asking him if he was alright, telling him how thankful they were that he'd survived. His mother and his father tried very hard to hide how furious they were with him. They tried very hard to keep from their voices all hint of the degree to which he was a failure and a disappointment. They never once said that he'd messed up. They never once blamed him for nearly flunking out of the private schools they'd spent so much money sending him to. They never once blamed him for ending up working a minimum wage job at a convenience store, where he wasn't even managing enough money to move out of the house. They never once blamed him for spending too much time goofing off and joking around and chasing girls. They never once blamed him for being an idiot, for getting shot. They never once blamed him for the fact that they had to move, had to leave the house they had rented ever since he was a kid, had to stay in a little apartment, with only three bedrooms for the seven of them. They never once blamed him for the fact that all his younger siblings had to start working, not just to make up for the loss of income his crippling had provided, but also to start to make a dent in his medical bills. They never once blamed him for his siblings getting picked on and teased at school over the incident. They never once blamed him for their inability to declare bankruptcy, due to the difficulties that would pose in getting credit to cover his continuing expenses.
They never blamed him out loud, but he knew what went on in their heads. He saw the way Aunt Elizabeth whispered to them sometimes. He knew what she was saying. He knew that she was telling them that she'd been right, that they'd wasted their time and money on him, that if only they'd listened, maybe one of their children could have actually amounted to something.
The visits never lasted that long. In all likelihood, they couldn't stand being near him. It was probably traumatic on several levels. His little brothers were a bit too young to really focus on things properly. It wasn't good for them to see him like this, not when they'd idolized him for so long, not when they couldn't quite comprehend that he would never get all better. His parents could only control their anger for a certain span of time. Staying beyond that was cruel to everyone. His aunt thought he was worthless. He couldn't blame her.
Only his sister stayed.
Every day after school, after work or soccer practice, if they were occurring, she made her way to the hospital and she sat at the foot of his bed, reading or doing homework. Sometimes, he was asleep, and woke up to see her there, scribbling something on a piece of paper or turning the page of one of the science fiction stories she was always buried in. All his other visitors were always full of questions, but his sister just sat there, reading, never speaking before he broke the silence. Once he opened his mouth and asked a question or made a comment, she would pause for a second, then finish the line she was reading, carefully place her bookmark into her novel, set it beside her on the bed, and turn to look at him.
At first, he thought she was mocking him with her presence, exulting in the fact that he was stuck in bed while she was mobile. He had not always been a good brother. For years, she was the easiest target, the safest to tease. She was always good for a laugh, be it from jumping out from behind the door to scare her or from hiding her books or from singing songs about her and her cooties. He'd grown out of that years ago, but he'd also pretty much stopped interacting with her in any serious capacity. She was a quiet girl. She kept to herself, and only really seemed to enjoy interacting with Aunt Elizabeth. He'd left them to each other. It was easier that way.
This was why he was surprised when he eventually figured out that she was visiting because she cared. She never said as much. She never explained herself at all, never really displayed much interest in opening up to him. When he inquired about her day, she deflected his questions with terse, minimal responses, then turned the questions back around on him. She seemed to prefer to listen, or, when he had nothing to say, to simply sit and read and be there. He found he didn't mind. After a while, he could even admit to himself that he liked her presence.
When they let him go back home, when he moved into the new apartment and saw just how small and cramped it was, with three bedrooms (one for him and his parents, one for his brothers, one for his sister and Aunt Elizabeth) and a combined kitchen and dining room and two restrooms and one central room with a couch and a television and nothing else, when he realized how infrequently his family was home, because they were all out trying to keep their lives from falling further apart, he nearly gave up hope. He spent most of the days alone, lying in bed or learning how to navigate the apartment in his new wheelchair. Sometimes, he would go on excursions, but never far. His family had only one car, now. It was an old sedan, without enough room to carry all of them at once. It was not well equipped to carry him and his chair.
Still, every day, after school or work, his family would come home, and he'd realize how much he cared about all of them. He tried, again and again, to apologize to them, to tell them how badly he had screwed up, to beg for forgiveness. They all told him he had nothing to worry about, that it hadn't been his fault. They all lied to make him feel better—except, of course, his sister. She shrugged and flipped the pages of her novels.
She was the only one he truly felt had forgiven him.
Sometimes, in the mornings, he would find her sprawled asleep on the couch, with the lights and the television still on, sometimes in her pajamas, sometimes still in her clothes from the day before. He wondered how long she'd been like this. He often worried about her, but she never opened up to anyone except his aunt, and he never figured out what the two women shared. Still, his sister would come home every day, and if he was alone in his room and it wasn't too late, she would often come and sit at the foot of his bed and read or do her homework, and listen if he wanted to talk.
One day, she didn't come home. It didn't take long to figure out what had happened. They were notified in due order. It didn't take long for them all to come to their own conclusions. On the day of the first broadcast, nobody was watching the television. Life went on. His parents and his brothers were off at work. Aunt Elizabeth had been staying with him, but as the hour had approached she had mumbled something under her breath, then told him she was going off to get drunk. He had been alone in the house, with the silent television and a pile of clothes and science fiction novels he hadn't quite figured out whether he could bear to donate, when the phone rang.
He knew instantly what had happened. It had been inevitable. The show ate the weak and quiet alive. He'd hoped it wouldn't happen so soon, but maybe it was better this way. Maybe it was better than things being drawn out. He placed the novel he had been glancing over back on the stack, registering for the first time the gas mask, the script on the cover (The Sheep Look Up), the battered and worn spine. He wheeled over to the phone, and he picked it up, and he braced himself.
Nothing could have prepared him. When he hung up, ten minutes later, when the screaming from the person he'd never heard of had faded from his ears, when he pulled the cord from the wall and went to the door and engaged the deadbolt, he was operating entirely without thought.
The whole time he was wondering if he'd ever really known her at all.
Waking, she had no idea why she was covered in blood.
((Karen Ruiz continued from And Yet So Far))
Karen was still lying on the ground. Something was on top of her. She blinked, but the world was doubled. Was she dead? No, too much pain for that. She was trapped under something. Why was she on the ground? Blinking, doubling, light. Her head was spinning. She felt horribly ill. The stump of a neck was dripping blood on her chest. She screamed. The echoes hurt her ears.
This wasn't right. Something had happened. It was Jhamel. The last thing she could remember was him pointing his gun at her. They'd had their conversation. A voice had come from her collar, had told her she had her ten, that she would live. It had told Jhamel... something. Then, Karen woke up. The world was bright. She was trapped under a body, Jhamel's body? There was blood everywhere.
She managed to roll Jhamel off of her, to turn over onto her belly, to push herself to her hands and knees and crawl a few feet before throwing up. The burn of stomach acid and partially-digested beef jerky just made her heave more. Everything reeked, of death and blood and vomit. Had Jhamel tried to kill her? Had she killed him? No, nothing she had was that powerful, and she'd been underneath him. Her right hand stung. Looking at it, she saw it twice, each right hand sporting a nasty gash. Blood. She was bleeding again, not just from her hand. Her shoulders were damp. Hadn't she bandaged them? What had happened? Breathing was difficult. Everything felt like a bruise. She had to think. People could be coming to kill her.
Concussion. That was it. She'd been concussed, somehow. She knew about brain trauma, at least a little. She'd been on the soccer team. Once, a long time ago, one of her teammates had gotten hit full in the face by the ball, had fallen and had cracked her head on the field. Karen had been closest when the incident occurred, third to reach the girl's side. What she had described was a lot like how Karen felt. This wasn't permanent, was it? She didn't want to live the rest of her life brain damaged. She didn't want to lose everything now, when she was so close. It wasn't fair. She'd done everything right.
Her gun. Her gun was gone. The Glock, that was still in her backpack, which she was still wearing, but the other gun had vanished. Karen tried to stand, but couldn't do it. She tipped over, landed on her side. The world was too bright. Everything hurt too much.
She wondered if she was dying.
That was a sobering thought, that she could get so far and still fall short. She tried to think, tried to figure some way to have avoided this, to have ended everything differently, but there was nothing. No, she could have fired as soon as she saw Jhamel, could have gunned him down despite it being pointless. Had she actually been bloodthirsty, had she actually been killing for the joy of killing, she wouldn't be hurting.
Karen's vision went dim for a second, and she thought it was all over. She didn't pray for forgiveness, didn't wish she'd kept her humanity. She just thought about how, if she could do it all over again, she would still have killed, would still have fought, would have done worse things if she had to, just for one tiny chance at surviving. She knew she'd have done anything, just to return to a world that was more than violence.
The nausea passed. The world was still doubled, but the images were closer together. Karen realized that she had a cane strapped to her pack, so she pulled it free. It had been Kathy's cane. Slowly, shakily, using it as a support, Karen managed to push herself to her feet. She wobbled, but she stayed upright. There was a ringing in her ears. She was seized by a sudden fury, a desire to destroy something, an urge to scream and swear at the world, and it terrified her. She took deep breaths, and it passed.
Something was wrong with her.
It wasn't easy to hobble a hundred feet from Jhamel's body, but she managed it, making her way to the other side of the little slope they'd been on. Once she could no longer see or smell what had happened, she slumped to the ground and pulled her pack off. Her vision was clearing a little, but she was still unsteady. She wasn't sure she'd be able to get up again. She was crying. How long had she been crying?
From her backpack, she withdrew the gun, the mobster gun. She'd never fired it at anyone. She would now, if she had cause to, but with her vision betraying her she knew she'd never hit anything. It might keep people away, though. That was all she wanted. She needed to be alone, to be away from everyone. She was scared. Anyone who found her could kill her. They would kill her. Maybe they'd even be right. Maybe Karen just didn't understand morality. Maybe she deserved every bit of pain she was feeling. Maybe she deserved more.
Somehow, the walkie talkie was in her hands. It was dark now. Had she blacked out? She was pressing the button. There was something important she had to say.
"Vincent," she said. Her words were slurred. She didn't sound like herself. "Don't die before the announcement."
Gloating? No, not gloating. A warning, perhaps, or an almost-friendly piece of advice. She didn't hate Vincent. She didn't hate anyone. She was all out of emotions. She felt sick. She just wanted to go.
And that was what was supposed to happen, wasn't it? She'd done it. She'd done everything they'd told her to, had succeeded in every way, and now they just had to live up to their part of the bargain.
The walkie talkie was gone, fallen from Karen's hand. She watched it bounce and slide down the hill, out of sight. No way to tell if there had been a response.
If she died, then it would have been a warning. That made more sense.
She closed her eyes, just for a moment. So close. She was so close. She could still move. She wasn't dying. She was hurting, but as long as they came through, as long as they kept their promise, she wouldn't die. That was all that mattered right now. Whatever had passed before, whatever the reason for her injuries and bruises, she could puzzle it out later. It would be recorded. It was immaterial.
She just had to hold together, just for a little while longer.
Then she could get away from the pain.
Jared Clayton was barely audible above the sound of the helicopter's rotors, but the element of steel his voice held was unmistakable. White-knuckled grip squeezing on his uplink almost hard enough to crack the casing, other hand bunched in a tight fist... this was the most rattled anybody had seen him in years. More than ever, the scars across his face stood out lividly.
The pilot was genuinely afraid as he reported back that this was as fast as they could go.
Jared let out a snarl and said nothing.
He should've hit the button sooner, blown that idiot Jhamel to hell before he even had the chance to beat Karen up. The power had been in his hands and he'd delayed stupidly - what happened to that killer instinct!? The executives would have complained about it, and no doubt there would have been some angry bookmakers on his back... but looking at the situation now, that seemed like a worthwhile trade-off.
His concern ran beyond the superficial. It even went past the simple fact that Karen was part of his team. Jared had been doing his best since the beginning to make sure that his people made it out alive, in spite of the many headaches they'd given him. Because it had been his job, because he knew what they were going through. He wanted them to survive, and with Karen, it wasn't just about bragging rights or the prestige or the pay-offs, it was about the fact she'd earned her way off there. She'd taken the scenario of the island, and in the same way that Jared had, she'd taken the choice to survive.
And in her own unique way, she'd won.
And now it was looking as if that might have been snatched away from her. Jared couldn't let that happen. Not after everything the girl had been through.
He could see the island below him now. Briefly, he spared a thought for what those below him must be thinking as the helicopter passed overhead. That was blown away in the wind though. His attention was focused on the phone, on the blood-soaked, battered and beaten girl that the feed was broadcasting to him.
"Come on. Come on..."
The chopper touched down. Jared's feet touched the ground just a heartbeat after those of the armed bodyguards accompanying him. With only a flak jacket to distinguish him from anybody else on the street, the jean and t-shirt combination of Jared was a marked contrast to the fully-outfitted soldiers that flanked him as he hurried towards the girl who he had only seen from the other side of screens up until that moment.
His phone dropped from nerveless fingers as he knelt alongside her, checking for signs of life. Breathing a sigh of relief as he saw that she was still breathing. Bruised and bloody, but alive. She'd need medical attention, but so far as Jared's inexpert eye could see, she'd be okay.
"It's alright, Karen. It's over. We're getting you out of here."
The soldiers carefully scooped Karen up off the ground, taking care to support her body as much as possible, bearing her towards the idling helicopter.