"Alright, with both arms stable, try aiming for your target.” He said around a cigarette in his mouth. On a tree stump in the distance, he’d placed an empty, crushed water bottle into an upright position. Stepping around her, he shifted her elbows slightly to the left and adjusted her footing. “This gun shoots on a curve, so you’ll have to compensate. There, try it now.”
Suddenly feeling a little anxious for the first time since they started, she hesitated when he stepped away from her.
“Why am I nervous?” She asked.
“Because you respect it.” He replied. “But this is only a .22 so the jump’s not bad.”
After a minute of calculation, she finally squeezed the trigger, eyes pointedly open, and felt the bullet dislodge with a small jolt.
In the distance, the edge of the tree trunk exploded, sending shards of wood through the air. The bottle remained untouched, but the general vicinity of the bullet was mostly accurate.
“Decent.” He said, positioning her extended arms slightly upward. “Try again.”
Firing another round, her brow furrowed and she lowered her arms when the bullet struck the base of the stump, leaving the bottle untouched once more.
“I always hit low.”
“You’ve actually done pretty well.” He said, taking the gun from her. “Did your dad teach you some of this?”
“I’m from Delphine.” She said. “We don’t have dads.”
“Aren’t you the daughter of the Cross's?” He asked, clearly surprised by that revelation.
"Adopted daughter.” She clarified.
“Is that not legitimate?”
“No it is -- in a way.” She offered honestly. “I don't know. I never called them mom and dad."
"Just seemed a little late for all that.”
“I see.” He said, nodding.
“Most people try to reassure me.”
“Not my circus, not my monkeys.” He said with a casual shrug. “I can see why you’re a good shot, though. You’ve got Delphine in your blood.”
“Like a pathogen,” She said, earning a snort of laughter from him.
“Let’s head back.” He said. “I need to make sure they haven’t all killed each other.”
Five minutes later, they arrived back at the camp and found the guys sitting by a fire they’d already started. Their wet clothes were hung from branches and were splayed out on rocks, and Sissy pointedly averted her eyes from the few of them who sat in wet boxers which left little to the imagination.
Hollis, predictably, had changed into a spare shirt he’d brought and had not been seen once without something covering his torso.
“How’d we do?” Geller asked with a handful of granola to his mouth and a parcel of food balanced on his knees.
“She’s not bad.” Atlas said. “A few more lessons and she’ll be as good as you.”
“Which is not saying much.” Kenzey commented.
“We can’t all be prized marksman.” Geller replied.
“But what can you be?” Keelin asked with a glint of mischief in his eye.
“Kind.” Geller replied with a cheeky grin. “A good friend.”
“If we run into some savage on the boardwalk, we’re sending your ‘friendship’ out as our first line of defense.” Kenzey said.
“It worked on you.” Geller retorted.
“Are you really a sniper?” Hollis asked as he turned to Kenzey.
“The best I’ve ever seen.” Atlas interrupted as he pulled his shirt over his head revealing his bare torso. To his side, Sissy looked down and attempted not to notice the rippling muscles. “ — and I’ve seen a lot of them.”
Kenzey said nothing in response.
An hour passed while Atlas bathed in the pool with the remainder of the group sitting around the fire.
Halfway through their casual conversations, Sissy pulled The Book of Natural Marvels from her bag and began to pick up where she’d left off.
“What have you learned about our volcano friends recently?” Geller asked as she looked up from the book.
"Fun fact: They’re mammals, but the females evidently lay eggs.” She said, slapping a mosquito on her wrist.
“Like one of those duck beavers.” Geller commented, turning to Kenzey. “What are those things called, Trot? — those beavers with beaks.”
“A platypus?” Kenzey asked, clearly unimpressed. “They’re called monotremes.”
“Yeah, that shit.” Geller said, turning back to his food. "I bet the women look like that.”
“Sexy.” Keelin commented dryly.
“They also have a black film over their corneas which allows them to open their eyes in thermal waters.” She continued, giggling at their commentary. “It’s like the third eyelids that reptiles have, but theirs are non-retractable.”
“What is this book’s source for all of this?” Kenzey asked. “Did the author just pull all of this out of his ass?”
“It’s a kids’ book. He's not going to cite peer-reviewed dissertations for a bunch of four-year-olds.” Keelin remarked.
“Ballistic Factors and Deviations: A Children’s Guide to Long-Range Marksmanship by Kenzey Trotter.” Geller said, prompting a round of laughter from the group.
“Stop acting like you wouldn't directly benefit from that. Goddamnit —“ Kenzey replied in irritation as he slapped another mosquito on his neck and observed the spattered blood over his fingers. Pulling the insect repellent from his things, he sprayed its mist wildly over his arms and legs. “This island and every miscreation in it can go to hell.”
“There’s a good chance we're already there.” Atlas interjected.
To the side, Atlas appeared with tossled wet hair and a new set of spare clothes. He was using his dirty t-shirt to squeeze water out of handfuls of wet hair, and his feet looked startlingly pale without the bulky boots.
Sitting down, he fell into casual conversation with Sissy, Geller, and Kenzey as Hollis and Keelin sat together in silence.
“Your hair’s gotten long.” Keelin commented after a moment, not making eye-contact with the Enriyan.
Hollis, who currently sat with his own wet hair hanging loosely around his shoulders, only glanced briefly at the boy across from him.
“So has yours.” He replied as he bent down to scratch a few mosquito bites marring his legs.
Most of their ankles and calves had been scratched red and raw from bites by the island’s brutal mosquito population. This area was particularly bad with its water source as a fertile breeding ground.
“You don’t look like you.” Keelin said stoically.
Surprised, Hollis suddenly glanced up at the Meridian. Keelin must have been blissfully unaware, Hollis thought, of how radically different he himself looked.
“Saylor looks like you.” Hollis replied, looking back down and replacing his previous surprise with an icy indifference. “She knows about you. You should call Serge and set up a time to meet her.”
“He’s got a family.”
“So do you.” He replied. “A sister.”
“Half-sister.” Keelin clarified.
“That’s a hell of a lot more than I ever was.” Hollis said, already feeling himself tumbling in the rolling waves of his anger.
“Blood doesn’t make a family.” Keelin snapped. “You already know that and I’m not going to indulge you.”
"I was ‘with’ you guys — I was never ‘of’ you. She's made of you.” Hollis replied dismissively. “Some things can’t be manufactured.”
“When did you get so insecure?” Keelin asked, anger clearly boiling just beneath the surface.
“When you gave me a reason to be.” He snapped, voice rising.
“Hey, you two knock it off.” Atlas commanded sternly from the side. Falling into a deadly standoff with each other, both boys turned away as the remaining members of the group watched them in silence. “Either separate or take some laps. I’m not getting killed for this petty bullshit tonight."
Standing, Keelin stepped away and proceeded to unfold his sleeping bag with a particularly aggressive snap of his arms.
Hollis, walking in the opposite direction, wordlessly crawled into his own sleeping bag and turned away from the group.
Exhaling in disappointment, Sissy closed the book.
“We’ll take first shift tonight.” Kenzey said to Atlas as he stood up. “They need naps.”
“I’m taking my clothes off. Don’t turn around.” Sissy called as she methodically unbuttoned her top, pausing every few seconds to make sure no one was looking.
She was still wearing her Cross Tours uniform from several days before and the accumulated grime and sweat had left it in abysmally poor condition.
Slowly stepping out of her pants, she stood at the edge of the pool while Kenzey wordlessly sat back against a large boulder with his back turned toward her.
“Chill out.” He said, cocking his head to the side.
“You're looking!” She called as she suddenly squatted into the crystalline waters to disappear behind the rocks.
The pool had cooled from its temperatures earlier, but the water was still comfortably soft and lukewarm on her skin.
“If you knew how disinterested I was, you'd never accuse me of that.”
“I’m not afraid of your ‘interest.” She replied as she wobbled precariously on the rocks in the pool. “I’m afraid of your judgment.”
Unclasping her bra, she tossed it carefully to the side and covered as much of her body as she could with her arms.
Glancing around nervously, she saw that the remainder of the group was settling into their sleeping bags in the distance and were subsequently too far away to see her in all of her stripped-down glory.
Kenzey, on the other hand, was only separated from her by a single boulder and his own disgust.
“You’ve lived a soft life.” He replied.
“What about your life, then?” She asked as she finally submerged her whole body into the blessedly-warm water. Leaning back, she dipped her scalp into the water and slowly massaged the grease and dirt out of her hair. “Since you’re so much better than I am, tell me what a hard life looks like so I can be more grateful for my own."
“I’m good.” He sighed as he closed his eyes and leaned his head back.
“You should tell me something.” She insisted as she ran a single chip of bar soap over her arms. “Since we’re going to be ‘buddies’ and all. Call it a 'trust-building exercise.' Or don't. I don't care. Just say something so we don't have to sit here with the sounds of my bathwater."
“I was born in Delphine. My parents are dead. I fought for the City and discharged two years ago.” He said boredly.
“Okay.” She said after a pause. “Anything else happen in between all that? Life’s rarely that straightforward.”
"We don't have to do this."
"Any siblings?" She asked, ignoring his comment.
"How old are you?"
"God, please stop."
"Ever gotten in trouble?"
“I've been to jail.” He replied tiredly, likely realizing that she wasn't going to drop the issue.
“Alright, cool — seems appropriate, considering...” She murmured to herself, trailing off. “Why’d you go to jail?”
“Got angry, started some shit, got banned for life.”
“Was it Bailer’s Landing? That bar over there on the corner of Reed and Main?
“No, it was The Wild Bilander.” He said, turning his head to her. “How do you know about—“
“Don’t look!” She yelled as he rolled his eyes and turned back around.
“How do you know about Bailer’s Landing?”
“My mom worked there as a waitress when they still did indoor dining.” She said before dipping under the water. Coming back up, she wiped the water from her eyes and continued. “Mr. Britto used to give me a cocktail cherry every day after school. Is he still there?”
“No, he retired two years ago.” Kenzey said in confusion. “How do you know all this?”
“I lived there for most of my childhood.”
"In Delphine?” He asked, clearly surprised. “I thought you were the daughter of Dolette and Lanier Cross?”
“I am — 'legally.” She clarified as she rubbed the bar soap through her hair until it became frothy with suds. “But I was born in Delphine. I went into custody of the state as a kid then bounced around several foster families until I ended up in the Children’s Home."
“Where’s your mom, now?” He asked, sounding as intrigued as someone like Kenzey Trotter could sound.
“Passed away.” She said as she rinsed the suds from her hair. “She OD’d on heroin in the bathroom of a Sully’s Seafood and Wings. It was her third job in two months."
“Never knew my dad.” She said. “But who does?”
After a moment of silent pondering, Kenzey finally spoke up:
“My mom died when she gave birth to me — a hemorrhage, I think, but I'm not sure. After that, my grandparents raised me until I was about eleven. When they died, my dad took me in for the welfare until I was old enough to go into the military."
“He was a piece of shit?”
“Yes.” He replied over the sound of a lighter scraping followed by an orange glow in the cupped palm of his hand. "Lived that way and died that way."
Suddenly feeling both an empathy and a commonality with the man in front of her, she spoke again after a short minute:
“Before things got bad with my mom, she used to take me to that movie store out there on Cambria Boulevard on Friday nights. We’d stop on our way back and get candy and sodas from the gas station. When we got home, we’d build a fort in our apartment and watch movies all night. Sometimes we had no A/C, but I didn't care 'cause it was so fun." She said, reminiscing. “I choose to remember her that way — that whole time period, actually.”
Nodding, Kenzey leaned his head back against the boulder and looked at the sky. She could just now see the thin trail of smoke rising from his mouth.
“When I was a kid, my grandparents would take me fishing out at Harmon Park. They’d pack sandwiches and strawberries for lunch and we’d have a fish fry that night with whatever we caught.”
“That sounds really nice. I’ve never had any grandparents.” She commented genuinely. “I was named after that lake in Harmon.”
“Your real name’s Sisira?"
“Yes, Dolette kept it as a tribute to my mom. It was the only place she said she’d ever felt at peace.” She replied fondly, if a little sadly. “I’d like to go back there someday.”
“Yeah?" Sissy asked as she waded back to the edge of the pool with slow and measured steps.
“Sorry about the gun.” He said.
Taken aback, she turned toward him and observed the back of his head.
“It’s fine. I’ve had worse things in my face.” She said, surprised when she heard a sudden snort of laughter from him. Reaching down to clear some objects from her path, she continued: “It's not like I was being a real peach eithe--"
Before she could finish her sentence, however, she suddenly hissed in pain and faltered briefly in her steps.
“What’d you do?” He asked, annoyed, as he cocked his head to the side.
Pulling her hand from the water, wet blood pooled rapidly in the palm of her hand and dripped between her fingers where it twirled into crimson ribbons in the water. In the crease of her palm was a shallow but painful laceration.
Reaching down for the offending object under the debris, her breath caught in her chest when she retrieved what appeared to be a glossy-black spearhead -- its unique properties unmistakably that of obsidian volcanic glass.
Speechless, she watched a single drop of her own blood drip down its razored edge and into the water below.