Southend

The two children were accustomed to running around on their own.  To tell the truth, it wasn’t really all that of an uncommon thing in the neighborhood that they lived in (if you could call it a “neighborhood”). Most kids in the rundown part of their dying small Rhode Island town were used to not having adults around, and they preferred it that way.  Most of their parents worked in the city and didn’t have the money to spend on gas and a babysitter, or they didn’t have the money to afford the gas in the first place. In the case of the two kids in question, their mother didn’t give a crap to begin with. If it wasn’t the week the child support came in, she was generally busy with the “clients” she serviced as a member of the so called “oldest profession” and funding her addictions.

It was middle of August, school was in session, but it was hot out to the point that since the schools had no air conditioning and neither the patience nor sanity to deal with what most of the administration deemed to be “little monsters” in the heat, so they had been dismissed early.  The boy had promptly run off from his daily dungeon, more prominently known as Drake Middle School, home of the Dragons.   It wasn’t that he hated school, he liked learning after all, but rather he had two specific purposes for running off like he did. Firstly, he was fourteen and a runt; he barely cleared four and a half feet tall compared to the five feet or taller of his peers, even the girls. This had landed him the “high” honorary position as the prince of all bully bait. He knew better then to try to fight back; it’d just lead to problems in the long term, and it was a waste of time, time he didn’t have due to reason number two for taking off as fast as possible. So he had learned how to run, even in the dry heat of the summer. Truth be told, he was good at it, with a personal record on the mile of five minutes, he figured he’d go out for track once he hit high school.  He figured that in the two years it would take him to get there, his sister would be six.  The boy remembered being six, his life had been happier then, before….before.  He shook his head, he didn’t want to think about it right then. He had to focus on taking care of his sister, since no one else was going to.  He wasn’t bitter about it like some kids would be; he just had accepted it, like he accepted everything else.  It wasn’t that he let himself be the world’s doormat; it was that he knew, like in the comic books he regularly sneaked off with from when the kids they belonged to and the teachers weren’t looking that he just needed to be patient. His time would come. It had to.

He made it to the elementary school in good time, not his personal best, but he had taken the time to enjoy the feel of the powerful dry gusts of air pushing against him at the same time the sun made idle threats to burn his uncovered face and hands.   Despite the heat he was wearing a long sleeve fleece shirt, and dark heavy jeans. Both were almost nearly too small, but they fit better than most of the things he had, and if he didn’t wear longer clothes the teachers would be able to see the bruises that were the occasional gifts of his mother’s clients that made it to the house. It was him or his sister, and he wasn’t about to let them touch his sister. Besides that, he was old enough to know that if anyone saw them, they’d try to take a closer look, and if they did that; odds were they’d be split up. Above anything and all else, the boy knew he couldn’t let that happen, no matter how bad it got with their mother.

Unlike Drake, Phoenix Elementary was more like a cave system then a dungeon. Each classroom had doors connecting it to the huge inside commons room that also found its use as the cafeteria, and then another door to the outside. Procedure was that the kids went into the common area before school commenced, they were supposed to sit in lines on the ground of the commons and wait for their teachers, unless of course they needed to eat breakfast.  The  boy knew from experience that his sister was less likely to get in trouble if she did school breakfast every morning, and since they qualified for low income reduced cost meals;  he had gotten them signed up for them. It had only been a week that his sister had been in school so far, but she seemed to understand his need for her to be good there, she’d not let him down.
After school, the students were let out each of the classroom doors, and the boy had told his sister to wait for him there.   He exhaled when he saw his sister searching for him and let a rare smile creep over his normally stern distinctly Germanic face. He pulled off his beat up baseball cap, and simultaneously waved it at her and ran a hand through his sweat drenched red hair. There was no mistaking that they were related. The red hair was an oddity, it was almost too red; but the boy knew it was something from their dad. He didn’t know much about genetics, but someone, a teacher or a doctor had told him once it was odd for them to have inherited the darker caramel skin pigmentation from their mother and still have the dark red hair and light, silvery grey eyes.  It had something about dominant genes. The boy actually didn’t care about it really, but sometimes he liked to think about it. He thought he might like to study about genetics someday, but he didn’t make any promises to himself.

“Wiley!” The cry of glee interrupted his train of thought again and he looked up to see her charging towards him in a manner that reminded him of a kitten.  Her own long curly red hair was still pulled up in the haphazard ponytail he had helped her with that morning and it bounced wildly as she ran towards him.  She was dressed only a little better then he was, only because there were no girl clothes at home, the light pink sweater was too big for her, and so was the white skirt they had found. But things had to last for them, and the boy had figured that by the time that winter hit, they’d fit better. They couldn’t worry about hot weather clothes when they barely had enough money to afford the second hand cold weather ones.  At least the shoes and socks were newish.  The boy had found them sitting by a department store dumpster, apparently someone had left them at the store, and the employee’s ended up dumping them.

“Wiley, Wiley Wiley!” The boy blinked again, and suddenly she had gone from being several meters away to leaping at him in a hug.  On impact she dropped her mostly empty battered pink backpack and “Wiley” lost his balance, the both of them finding themselves on the rough asphalt in front of the school’s flagpole.

“Ugh… Ashley… what did I tell you about jumping on people?”  He tugged on his sister’s pony tail gently and started to get up.

“Aww. Sorry Wiles… I was just excited!” He looked down at her sternly for a moment, but he couldn’t be mad at her, not really. She was four, but he had lied about her age to get her into kindergarten the previous year when she was just barely three.  It had worked somehow or another, the administration at the middle school knew that Wilhelm was small for his age, so they didn’t question a slight change in year of birth. Will hadn’t really seen a choice whether they had believed him or not. The neighbor lady that had been watching Ash while he was at school had died of heat stroke the summer before last. But if he hadn’t gotten her in with a slight lie on the age, it would have been something else.

Will’s nickname was Wiley for a reason.  He was sneaky and clever, always had been; and for Ashley’s sake he was glad for it. He wouldn’t have gotten away with half the stuff he did if he wasn’t. Stealing money from their mom’s room, money that was supposed to be for taking care of the two of them anyway, was only part of it.  He practically had to control the entirety of their lives and what people knew and didn’t know about them. He did it for Ashley. Their father had left them, hadn’t even fought for them when it came up in the divorce proceedings. It still hurt. He didn’t like thinking about it. He wouldn’t think about it, because thinking about it made him angry, and if he got angry, he’d say something he knew he didn’t really want to say, especially in front of Ashley. He wiped the thought from his head and bent down to pick up the contents of Ash’s spilled backpack, sighing heavily when he noticed that her crayons broke when he had fallen on it. Another thing to take care of, he supposed. It was hard being responsible like this, but it was the only way he knew how to be.

“So what’cha so excited about Ash?” He asked as he handed her bag back and they began walking away from the school.

“I got an A!” She cheerily reported to him.

“Oh? And what did you get an A in?” He asked, glad to change the topic.

“A math thingy we did.” She started rummaging through her bag as they crossed the street and then pulled it out. It was sort of a color by numbers thing, where you found out the numbers by doing the addition problems in each area. He slightly remembered that sort of doing that sort of thing, he wasn’t good at it.

“That’s great Ash!” He meant it, but he was still distracted. He wasn’t quite sure what was with him today. He just felt sort of grumpy, like he knew something he didn’t like was going to happen, or come up.

Ashley continued to chatter as they wound their way around to the more empty parts of the city. They needed to go somewhere to cool down, luckily, they’d found a place a while ago, an abandoned lot behind a few rundown apartment buildings. Apparently they were going to build either a parking garage or another apartment building there, but they’d not done either, just managed to clear the grass that had once grown there and replace it with mud, and busted water pipe that would spray a nice spread of water when cranked open by a large valve that looked a bit more like a steering wheel then a faucet. Actually, the discovery that it was water bearing was an accident. Ash had taken to the way the valve lined up perfectly with the filled in pothole that apparently used to be part of someone’s well, and had pretending to be a pirate queen if Will remembered correctly. It had been a bit like hitting a gold mine. Between the shade offered by the buildings and water, it was common for the kids to head to the place after school almost every day. It was far enough away from the school that most of the other kids didn’t know about it, so they weren’t bothered.

They stashed their bags under a huge pine tree that had branches to the ground thanks to the fact that it had never been trimmed. It was a good place to hide to for that matter, but there was no wind that got under the branches of the tree, so instead of being cool, the long branches filled with needles actually made it hotter then it needed to be. Ash had this grand idea to make it into their hidden fort and live there, but Will tried not to encourage that thought process. So it’d become custom for him to bring along a few apples in his bag, and distract her with them after they deposited their bags. It worked, for now, but Will had the feeling that Ash was counting on the apple now, pretty soon he’d have to find another way to distract her from the construction of the Rhode Island “Neuschwanstein” Tree Castle. He wasn’t quite sure where she had gotten the idea that the Bavarian castle should be theirs anyway. He had needed to look it up to even understand what she was talking about. Something she had seen on TV maybe, though when she had seen any television around the time she started talking about it, he had no idea.

It turned out that he hadn’t needed to worry about the tree castle that day. Ash apparently was feeling the heat as much as he was, and had went right for the valve, somehow cranking it on to a higher than usual, but not undesirable pressure.  The water gurgled for a moment and then came exploding out of the broken pipe. Will had to laugh as Ashley let out a squeal and ran through the stream, thoroughly getting herself soaked. He was about to make a run through himself when he noticed the thing on the ground.  He actually wasn’t quite sure what it was, it looked like some sort of flat scale like rock, but it was a silvery blue color. He turned it over in his hand and almost didn’t notice Ashley trying to pull the water valve closed. He pocketed the claw thing and then the air seemed to get heavy, Ashley had said something, but he hadn’t quite caught it.

“Huh? What was that?”

“I said, Why come Daddy isn’t around?”

“Uhm…” Shit. Will had been afraid she was going to ask that today. It was the thing he was trying to avoid thinking about, because while he knew that it wasn’t Ash’s fault, in the back of his head, he sort of blamed her.

“Wiley?” She’d come closer.

“Ash… I don’t…” He didn’t want to say, but one look at her face told him she picked up on something.

“It’s because of me isn’t it.” Will blinked, where the hell had she gotten that idea?

“Nnoo… of course not Ash…” She frowned.

“Don’t lie Wiley… that’s what you think isn’t it?” His brain raced. Since when was Ash that observant?

“I wasn’t… I wasn’t supposed to be born was I?” He started to get mad thinking about it. He was mad that she had brought it up, mad that he had made her think about what he’d been trying not to think about all day.

“Yeah. It’s your fault Ashley. All your fault. Everything was good before you.” He yelled. He hadn’t really meant to, and hadn’t meant to yell like that, but it was enough to send Ash running away in a storm of tears. The truth was that their parents had been separated for three and a half years before they had one last fling a month or so after his ninth birthday. It had seemed to him at the time that the divorce had finally gone through when Ash was born. Heck, that’d been the way that his mom had managed to get sole custody, if there hadn’t been child support money involved then it may have not even been an issue. But the system seemed broken to Will, and he knew it was a fault of the system, not his sister.  It had been even ok for a while when his dad had visiting rights. Then mom had gotten those taken away too, and the man stopped fighting. He didn’t even write.  He sighed and sat down with his head between his legs letting out a long exhale. It didn’t take him long to decide he was really just made at their Dad, not at Ash. It wasn’t Ashley’s fault she was born, it had been their parents, and it was their dad’s fault for not fighting, and their mom’s fault for being useless.

After ten minutes Will felt like he gathered his temper enough to go see if he could find Ash.  He felt bad, for yelling at her, she’d surprised him though. He’d never believe that they would have had to have that conversation this soon. He would have preferred to never have it. He wasn’t sure if she’d understand half of what he had to say, but the important thing was trying. Yeah. If Ash was smart enough to figure out that much, then at least he could tell her the truth. It’d hurt, but not anymore then what he’d already said. He pulled himself off the ground and then turned off the water, just in time for him to hear the footsteps behind him.

“Hey, Nardhead!” Great. Just what Will needed, more trouble.

“What do you want Jack?” Jack Hastings, resident bully, one of the many that Will had learned to run from.  He couldn’t run now though, Ash was still hiding, and he needed to find her.

“I want you to laugh at my joke Nardhead… you know… Mainard… Nardhead?  Get it?” Wilhelm wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that. He’d heard it a million times before.

“Er… yeah, I get it Jack.”

“Good. So you won’t mind if I pound you after your name sake then eh?” There was nothing to do but wait for it now.  It didn’t matter what he did, he wasn’t going to let Will get away. He just… need to not struggle, the beating would be worse then. Jack got closer and Will closed his eyes.

“Leave him alone!” Will had never heard Ashley sound so… commanding, with that little voice of hers.  Jack ignored her, much to his own chagrin.

“You should have listened to me!” Then she was on him, she had taken a running jump from wherever it had been she was hiding and managed to knock him down, and then sat on him.

“Ashley Mainard! What did I tell you about jumping on people?” She shrugged at him and gave him a look that he couldn’t bring up heart to yell at. She was sitting on the back of one of his long time antagonists.  He was having a hard time not laughing, let alone chastising her.

“The man in the coat in the tree said it was ok, just this once.” That derailed Will’s train of thought. Man in the coat… in their tree? Wait… what? What was Ash talking about? A growl came from where Ash was sitting and then he remembered about Jack.

“Psha. Letting your little sister fight for you Mainard? Pathetic.” That was enough, Will had though he was done being mad about things, but Jack laying there with his little sister on top of him, still trying to insult him was the last straw.

“You know what the really pathetic thing is Jack? That my little four year old sister actually was able to knock you down, and that she’s still sitting on you. Think about that before you and your friends try me again. I might not run.” He had let his voice cool down while he said it, almost whispering the last words. He looked to his sister. “Come on Ash, let’s get home before mom tries to cook dinner.”  He took her hand, and she slowly rose from the back of the downed bully. After they retrieved their bags, it was as if nothing had happened, Ash was babbling on about what ever it was she was babbling about, something about unicorns he thought. Eventually, Jack Hastings pulled himself off the ground and walked the other way.

It seemed quiet then, and from a fourth floor apartment in one of the condemned buildings, a man covering himself in a long tan trench coat and fedora looks down on the vacant lot. He runs his fingers though his thinning too red hair under his hat, and then a rare smile passes over his distinctly Germanic face and silver grey eyes.

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