It came as a single shivering droplet first. Like a warning. The next heavenly tears fell with more force, like the sky was hurdling angry balls of water at the ground.
Bryden winced when a raindrop shattered onto the tip of her nose, and she immediately regretted it.
“What’s wrong, Crybaby Brybry? Afraid of a little water?” came a mocking voice from behind her. Many laughs followed this tease.
She whirled around, the grocery bags banging against her long legs, to see Arlo flanked by his childish gang. “Arlo . . .” she hissed, narrowing her eyes. She felt her eyelashes brush against her skin, and they were wet with raindrops. It was so hard to look at the boy without a pang of fear rattling her heart. Arlo always thought she was so afraid of him because he was ruthless and could kick her butt with a few correctly-placed swings, but he was wrong. She repeatedly felt a shiver down her spine when he was near because he reminded her of someone. Someone Bryden was truly afraid of.
She straightened herself; her spine had been curled like a cat’s. “It doesn’t even rhyme,” she pointed out boredly. Setting her expression to uninterested, she quietly told herself to keep her cool.
“What?” Arlo might’ve had muscles, but he lacked brains.
Bryden rolled her eyes. It was a fluid movement, her dark eyes circling like they were on an invisible string. “The nickname.”
Arlo took a step towards her, the gang copying his every move. Bryden sucked in her breath, recalling the last time her brother had advanced on her. His light features matched Arlo’s, he had the same golden hair, sharp emerald eyes, and defined jaw. They would have been good friends, she thought bitterly. The only real difference between them was that Arlo used his words to bully and her brother Vander used his weapons. Both boys had been after Bryden their entire lives. But Vander’s gone, she reminded herself without sorrow, and Arlo is not.
“It doesn’t need to rhyme,” Arlo snickered, and Bryden was ripped out of her nightmarish memory. “What it needs is you to hate it.”
She stared at him, open mouthed, lips twitching into a smile. He was definitely more of an idiot than Vander. The way Arlo was looking at her now, with some fake confidence he had mustered, made her recall the time Vander had that look painted on his face, the only time he had gotten in trouble for his hideous actions.
“I’ll rip out all your teeth and cut your tongue off before you’ll be able to tell Mom and Dad about what I’ve done,” Vander threatened, his eyes gleaming in the dim room like a snake’s.
Bryden was shaking, her breath uneven, and she was backing up into the tiled wall of the bathroom. She tried to speak, say something courageous and brave to show she wasn’t afraid, but it was no use, because she was afraid. One word rattled her throat, “Why?”
Vander ground his teeth together in what looked like a grin. “I don’t answer your stupid questions. You answer mine. Are you going to tattle to Mom and Dad? Are you going to tell them?” Vander grabbed the kitchen knife he’d used to hurt her and pointed it at her. He lowered his aim so the tip was directed to her heart.
Before Bryden could answer, the white bathroom door flew open.
“Tell us what?—” came their mother’s voice. She gasped when she saw the bloody mess and her son wielding a knife.
“Evander Royden Alamonte! Put that knife down right now!” their father screamed after entering the bathroom behind their mother.
Vander’s jaw dropped just like his hand dropped the dull kitchen knife. It hit the floor with a sharp cling and was instantly bathed in Bryden’s blood.
Bryden let out a sigh of relief and fear, knowing at last Vander was caught, but also realizing how furious her parents would be.
“Mollee, help get Bryden cleaned up and healed,” their father gestured towards his daughter with a flick of his wrist. “And as for you, boy, come with me.” Vander flinched when their father called him ‘boy,’ but followed him out of the bathroom without hesitation.
Mollee watched Vander leave the room with an expression that held mixed anger and anxiety, and then turned to Bryden. “What happened—”
“I asked if you hated it, Alamonte.” Arlo asked, poking the air between them.
Bryden jolted out of her memory, realizing Arlo and his gang were all staring at her. She ran Arlo’s sentences through her mind, trying to remember what he asked. He had called her by her last name, not one of his dumb nicknames. Maybe he was getting nicer . . .
“Answer me, Alamonte.” Arlo arched an angry eyebrow. Bryden landed her unsettling gaze on Arlo. “Why are you like this? Always daydreaming. You never listen!”—here he paused and sighed, rubbing his temples with frustration—“Do you wanna know what my mother said about you once?”
Your mother’s a fat liar, Bryden thought. She shook her head, turning around so she didn’t have to look at his ugly face that made her want to run and hide.
Arlo ignored her, “She said you couldn’t pay attention to save your brother’s life.” He let that sink in before saying, “And I guess you really couldn’t. You let him die like that. I don’t think you regret it either, do you?”
I don’t, echoed in the back of Bryden’s mind. Smoke practically poured out of her ears and her anger blinded her. Arlo had no right to say that to her—what had she ever done to deserve it? Let her brother die. She shook the thought away, whirled around, and bared her teeth at him. Arlo had broken her mind into pieces with just a few words.
Trying to calm herself, she straightened the wrinkles on her shirt. “I love it,” she said, setting the plastic bags full of grocery bags down beside her. Rubbing her hands together, she realized the rain had quieted itself, and was now only a few lost droplets in the sky. Arlo looked confused, which momentarily brightened her mood.
“What do you—you—what?” Bryden tilted her head, aware that Arlo seemed unable to say the word ‘love.’ He seemed dazed for a second, but within the next minute his pupils shrank and focused back on her. He set his jaw, waiting for a reply.
Bryden gulped, and suddenly she was whisked away into another dreamland sort of memory with Vander. Except it wasn’t a dreamland. Maybe a nightmareland, if those even existed.
“Meet me outside on the lawn,” it was Vander’s urgent voice from outside. She hesitated—could he be trusted? “Bryden, hurry!” Vander said in response to her silence.
“Coming, Vander,” her tone was sharp, but somewhere it was uneven, worried about her brother. She stepped outside, heading for the grass where Vander was sitting in an odd position.
“I think I’ve twisted my ankle,” he explained, moving aside to show her. “Now, be a good girl and come help me up.”
Bryden was stopped at the edge of the bricks, right where the grass began. She took a barefooted step into the dying grass, “Alright, I’m—”
She was cut off by a sharp and unignorable pain in the bottom of her foot. She tried to stagger away, breathless. She only found herself stepping on more of them: needles. They wedged far into her foot, and pain forced her eyes shut. She seemed unable to scream for help, and eventually found herself crashing to the ground.
“Bryden?” Vander asked in a worried tone. She wanted to call to him, hoping he’d protect her, help her, heal her . . . Isn’t that what big brothers were supposed to do? Suddenly, a harsh noise like cracking branches of a tree filled her mind. She grabbed her head in pain as a migraine swept through it. The sound was vaguely familiar, and then it hit her. Vander sat in the middle of the grass, surrounded by the needles he’d planted, cackling.
He got up easily, walking like someone who didn’t have a twisted ankle. Bryden wondered why he wasn’t affected by his needles. As if he was reading her mind, he answered, “I’m wearing protective shoes. No needle can harm me.” He stopped in front of her, smiling down evilly with his hands neatly behind his back. “You seem helpless, Bryden.” He thought about this for a moment. “You’re in your true state when you’re helpless.” She had no idea what he meant by this.
If on cue, he twisted around and grabbed a long thing hanging from his belt. Bryden realized what it was a second too late. It was a second after he had crashed the metal pole down onto her forehead.
The world went dark.
“I love the nickname,” Bryden said, trying her best to smile with her cold stare landing on Arlo, “that you gave me.”
Arlo was taken aback, “You what?”
She couldn’t help but smile more. Surprising Arlo was like surprising a child, easy and satisfying at the same time. “I love it. And yes, I am a crybaby. Isn’t everyone? Get over it, Arlo Stankwather. The world isn’t just gonna sit here and wait for you to grow up.”
Arlo curled his lip back, revealing jagged white teeth. “Acknowledging that you’re a crybaby is practically growing down, Bryden All-I-think-about-is-my-dead-brother.” Arlo dug his nails into his fists, making deep marks, “And look, there I go making new nicknames! How fun!” he remarked.
Bryden snarled and made her eyes into even tinier slits. She was glad no one had been with her at the time, or else they’d stuck up for her or sacked Arlo in the face already. This was her battle with Arlo, not anyone else’s, and she intended to win it. Fiddling around with the pocket on her coat, she finally got the zipper open. “I’ve got something for you to see, Arlo,” she said, her hand diving into the coat pocket, “something I think you’ll find amusing.”
Arlo and his gang watched her wordlessly, and at the very last moments of their patience, she pulled something cold and shining silver out of the pocket. Everyone’s eyes were instantly upon it, searching for any detail about what it was.
“It’s a small block of metal,” Arlo said, unable to hide the disappointment in his voice. “You are a lying fool.”
“Not as much as you are,” she muttered under her breath. “And no, it’s not just a block of metal. Here, look.” She shoved the small metal square in front of his face, letting his eyes slide over it. Her knuckles were white from the pressure of holding it tightly in her hand. After all, she didn’t want Arlo to snatch it away from her, because it was her last hope for making him leave her alone.
Finally, Arlo got into the perfect position. She held the block of metal in front of his nose, her thumb secretly trying to locate the small button on the right side. Arlo appeared bored, and she could sense he was about to pull his face away. She knew if she wanted to do it at all, now was the time. Her finger found the button and pressed on it hard, just as Arlo backed away.
The tiny blade of her pocket knife shot up into the air, the dying sunlight glinting off it in all its glory.
Arlo jumped back into the protection of his gang, screeching like a little girl. Sweat dripped down his forehead, and he was violently shaking. “Wha . . . what . . . what was that?” he asked, fear plainly written on his face.
Bryden wanted to throw her head back and laugh, a mixture of giggles and cackles, but she didn’t—she couldn’t. She needed Arlo scared, not annoyed about a minor prank. Her eyes flicked over to the silvery-gray blade, recalling all the times Vander had used it on her. She didn’t allow herself to return to a memory again, but she could see clear images in the back of her mind.
Vander, using the sharp pocket knife to cut off most of her hair. Vander, cutting her wrists with the blade just to see them bleed. Vander, engraving a big hole in his wall so that he could see into her room and throw pins at her while she was sleeping.
“I asked what it—” Arlo snapped, emerging from the back of his gang.
Bryden’s eyelids fluttered, she had forgotten to blink. “It’s a pocket knife, Stankwather. The same pocket knife I’m gonna use to hurt you if you don’t leave me alone.” A vicious smile curled itself onto her lips, “Quite amusing, isn’t it?”
Arlo was speechless, for once. She knew that Arlo’s strength was hurting people with words, so perhaps acting like she was going to kill him would shut him up. It did.
After a moment, his mouth could find words. “You think my death is amusing?”
She grinned, holding the pocket knife up higher. “Slightly more amusing than your family’s fat lies.”
Arlo’s face was red with frustration, but he didn’t say anything. He was silent, just glaring angrily at her from five feet away. She guessed he didn’t want to die on the tip of her pocket knife blade. He took a calming deep breath, smoothing out his white shirt. “I think we’ve worn out our welcome here,” he said to his gang, “wouldn’t you agree?” No one answered him. “Good day, Alamonte.”
With that, Arlo turned on his heel and walked back the way he came. The gang followed him, avoiding Bryden’s gaze. She watched them sulk down to the end of the street before pressing the tiny metal button on the pocket knife that made the blade retract. She put it safely back in her pocket and zipped it shut.
She was glad Arlo gave up, which made him one step further away from being just like Vander. The thing is, Vander never gave up. If one time she had escaped him, he’d hurt her again, harder than before.
Bryden let her eyes take in all the red brick shops around her, finally landing on the orange and pink sky. Noticing it was almost sunset, she knew she had to get home. She carefully picked up the plastic grocery bags and decided to cross the street. As she neared the middle of the street, she looked back at where Arlo had turned the corner, making sure he wasn’t following her home.
Suddenly, she crashed into someone, dropping her grocery bags immediately.
“I’m so—” she turned to look at the person, her breath abruptly cut off. He was tall, wearing a long gray coat, and his golden hair looked tousled by the light breeze. His eyes flashed when he saw her, his thin lips curling into a smile she couldn’t decipher.
Words stuck in her throat like they usually did when she saw him. She took a long breath in and exhaled very slowly. “B-but—you’re dead,” she stammered.
The boy snapped his fingers absentmindedly. Horrible delight was written across his mouth. “Well, that’s one way to greet your dead brother, Bryden Rae Altamonte,” Vander said, stifling Bryden’s scream with his hand. “Now,” he grabbed the front of her t-shirt, “you’re going to die the same death I did, and I’m going to sit there watching you fade away from this world slowly and painfully. Now I’ll finally know what it’s like to be the person who has the power to save you, but doesn’t.” He threw her back, into the middle of the street. She scrambled to get back up, but her wrists and ankles stung from scratching the gray road. So there she lay, vulnerable and helpless.
“Have a good afterlife!” Vander sang as he spotted a car racing down the road. He turned around and stepped off the street, his eyes watching her intently from the sidewalk. He unexpectedly became serious again, “Good bye, little sister.”
Bryden wiggled around to look at the car that was going to squish her. As it approached her with scary speed, she stared into Vander’s eyes, and they were the last things she saw, before the world faded into darkness.