seeking the ruin of souls: chapter 2

chapter two: styx

Styx

Then. 

Styx considers knocking over the marble sculpture in The Grandfather’s entryway. The snow white wings and cold empty eyes are supposed to be reminiscent of an angel, she muses. But the teeth—bared in what may have been a smile, if the sculptor was blind or missing lips—appeared demonic and hellish.

Styx contemplates knocking the sculpture over for a full three minutes while The Grandfather keeps her waiting. Not because she’s particularly destructive—she isn’t. She just wonders what kind of sound it will make. 

She can count on one hand the number of times she has stood in The Grandfather’s foyer—or stood in his presence at all, really.

Five.

The first on her fifth birthday, the day before kindergarten. He visited Mom and Pops’ “home,” and Styx was forced to wear a dress meant for church (according to Blue) which was weird because Mom and Pops told her Santa and Jesus were friends and she stopped believing in Santa the year before. But Styx stood in the living room in her shiny shoes and scratchy dress while The Grandfather looked down his nose at her and even at five she knew that he was someone she should be afraid of.

 She couldn’t tear her eyes away from his. Staring into them was like staring into fire and she couldn’t tear her eyes away. He returned her unblinking stare for some time before stating, memorably,

“I am sad to remark her resemblance to The Dead Mother.”

Styx didn’t know Mom wasn’t hers, until that moment. 

The second time she saw him was through a window. Styx and her best friend Blue were on a field trip with the rest of the sixth grade. Styx stared into the tiger cage remembering eyes that looked similar to the tigers and then he was there, standing on the other side of the exhibit, directly across from her as if summoned. He didn’t speak a word, he simply stared. He gave her a brief nod through the prism’s of glass before turning and walking away.

The third time was when she started high school. Mom and Pops tried to create false excitement—well, Mom did, Pops just frowned and grunted—both monotonously reciting to her that this was “a great opportunity” and that she should “thank The Grandfather for his generosity.” As she sat across from him in the limo staring into those glittering eyes once more she could only think of one question to ask: 

“How many people have you killed.” He seemed surprised by her question and she wondered if he considered kicking her out.

“What makes you believe that I have killed people? Did Mom or Pops tell you this?”

“They didn’t have to. You just look like you’ve killed someone.” He chuckled, and she felt as if she were doused in ice and flame simultaneously.

“Dear Styx. Never do yourself what you can pay another man to do for you. After a while. . .the man will do it for you for free.” Styx doubted this. She contemplates pointing out to him that no one would accept killing enough to do it for free, but she nodded anyway, satisfied by his relative honesty.

The fourth time was six months ago. The Grandfather invited Styx to his home for dinner—just him and Styx. The awkward tension was made more awkward with Styx’s question:

“Where is my father.” The Grandfather stared at Styx coldly before responding.

“Deceased, I suppose.”

“And my mother?”

“Deceased, assuredly.”

“How do you know?”

“I could not say.”

“Did you kill my father? And my mother?”

“Hardly.” Brief pause. Styx assesses him cooly before continuing.

“Are we related?”

“Fundamentally. I suppose.”

“Is that why you have me over? Because we’re related? Or because you love me.”

“Styx. As your only living relative, let me give you a piece of advice. Love is irrelevant. And useless. If you must love, love animals. Plants. Never people. Animals die, you bury them. Plants wilt, you throw them away. But people. People die and you die with them. I have you over because we share, at our core, that which is essential. I am interested in you. A passing interest, I must confess. But it is an interest. I hope that is enough.”

Styx stalled briefly. 

“If I cared, it might be. But I don’t.” The Grandfather laughed then, laughed so hard that tears streamed down his cheeks.

“Indeed? I do believe we are relatives, dear Styx.”

This is the fifth. The Grandfather invited her—sent her a real invitation—to a black tie dinner. She isn’t sure why but she stands in the foyer listening to muted music beyond the french doors with a large man in black staring suspiciously at her. She can’t bring herself to care about him—Mom’s doing, not The Grandfather’s. Styx feels the tug at her heart, the strange homesickness she feels when she’s in a place for too long. The feeling of missing Mom and Pops, the want to be missed.

She turns away from the sculpture at the exact moment that the man beckons her to the doors. Styx takes a huge breath into her lungs, pauses for a second, and walks inside, head held high. 

She is not, however, entering the party. Behind the french doors she is ushered into The Grandfather’s office. Large, plush, with muted red carpet and rugs and large paintings hung from the walls, the office is rivaled in intimidating intensity only by The Grandfather, who sits comfortably behind the large oak desk, his feet propped lazily on the top.

“Dear Styx. Welcome. Have a seat. Cigar?” He beckons to a guard, as large and as forgettable as all the others, who offers Styx the case. She holds up her hand in protest casually, her eyes never leaving The Grandfather.

“No, thank you. I appreciate your inviting me over. Can I go home now?” The Grandfather offers her another laugh, the smile not quite meeting his eyes. 

Styx wonders if this smile belongs to her father as well. Belonged to her father.

“In a bit, Styx. I will not keep you long, I promise. I have a business opportunity that I would like to offer you.” Styx raises a suspicious eyebrow. Mom and Pops have only ever been honest. She knows what type of business The Grandfather conducts. Her interest is more than passing, but the prospect of working for or with The Grandfather turns her stomach.

“I’m not interested,” Styx lies bluntly, rising from her seat.

“Sit down, Styx,” The Grandfather commands. Styx flinches, but regains her seat, perching apprehensively on the edge.

“Please,” The Grandfather corrects himself. Styx sighs but relents, relaxing back into the cushions. 

“Now, I want to explain my—” His phone rings before he continues. He answers, responding in three words: Yes. No. Now. “I apologize dear Styx. I will be a few moments, please make yourself at home.” He excuses himself hurriedly before leaving the room, closing the door sharply behind him.

Styx waits silently, absently gazing around the office, her eyes skipping over the photo twice before she realizes the familiarity. 

This must be her father. The nose. The eyes. They are hers. He stands next to The Grandfather, the space between them indicating the chasm of their relationship. Styx estimates he must be about 18 or 19 in the photograph. She wonders if he knew her mother then. She wonders if he loved her. If she loved him. She places the photo down awkwardly, feeling ashamed for caring.

Mom would be ashamed if she knew.

As she turns from the shelf an envelope catches her eye. She isn’t sure why. She will never be certain. Perhaps it is the awkward placement, jutting out crisply from volumes of judicial lore. The color is striking against the darkened leather that characterizes the rest of the room. The envelope is thick in her hands and she glances at the door, listening intently. She hears music from the room beyond, but no tell-tale footsteps indicating The Grandfather’s return. Sitting down at his desk she pours the contents from inside.

Two things are immediately apparent.

Styx needs to run. And she needs to run now. 

Pops’ voice is in her head. Down. It doesn’t matter how you get there, just get there. Remember balance and awareness. Jump.

Styx tucks the envelope beneath her dress before standing on the window sill, prying it open. A large burst of wind pours through, and the distance to the street at the bottom appears surprisingly short. Still she does not hear the turning of the knob, nor does she hear The Grandfather’s shouts from the door. She simply climbs up to the window, looks down at the street below, and she leaps without demurring. 

 

 

“Townie”

Now.

Well shit. If I ever run across that sonofabitch I’ll yank out his intestines. Me and the kid should be out there flying by night, staying under the radar. We only have days to catch the Ferry. I can see the bike out of the grime from the window. Dead. Not “needs a break” dead, but “we’d be better off riding a mule” dead. I paid $1,000 dollars for scrap metal dead.

I’m going to repay the favor to that sonofabitch dead.

“So,” I begin talking to her in large part to keep my mind off of our hopeless predicament. “What kind of name is Styx?” She doesn’t answer for so long that I begin to wonder if she heard me. As I contemplate asking her again just to have something to do she turns to me, a small smile in her eyes.

“The kind I was born with. What kind of name is Townie?”

“The kind of name that I was given. You weren’t born with Styx.” 

“I guess I may as well have been. It’s the only thing my mom gave me. She died right after I was born.”

“I’m sorry,” I offer, feeling artificial, my platitude empty. It’s empty because I don’t feel sorry. The kid is smart, though, and she frowns at me.

“Don’t be. You didn’t know her. Neither did I.” We sit in silence for a few moments and I watch her carefully. She keeps peering into the bag, which I know isn’t filled with dolls, but she ain’t my kid so I’m not responsible for what she carries. She’s still doing the leg jerking thing, but now I don’t think it’s because she’s afraid. She don’t express fear in her eyes the way The Girl might. In fact, she seems impatient. Like she’s ready to move and she don’t care too much where she goes. I definitely think she’s a runner. Which is good, because we’re going to have a hell of a time getting out of here.

The bar is about 100 miles west of where I first picked her up. We’re both covered in dust and dirt but we’re the cleanest things in this place. We’re huddled in a corner at the back of the bar, her face obscured by shadow. From here I can see everyone who comes and goes without them seeing me until they get close. I don’t think he’ll find us here because he can’t be sure which way she ran, but then again, The Grandfather seems to have eyes everywhere. I think the kid knows this. That’s why she keeps looking around, like she’s waiting for something. Someone. 

Okay. What would a parent do?

Well, Mama would have thrown back a few and Daddy would have thrown a few punches in response.

What would a real parent do? Ask about hobbies? Favorite food? 

Fuck it, I’m not parenting material. 

“So Mom and Pops raised you?” I prod. In part because I’m still fuming about the dead bike, but also because I want to know what kind of risk I’m taking carrying her to the Ferryman. 

I would like to think that I’m the type of person that will help out someone in need. A little girl like Styx, I’d like to think I’ll see her on the side of the road looking for a ride and I’d help her. That I would know that she’s a kid just caught up in the wrong-place-wrong-time scenario and I’d say “I’ll help you with no thought to what it might cost me.”

But I’m not and she’s not. No, Styx ain’t in need. Well she is, but she ain’t innocent. Can’t be.

Before I worked for The Grandfather I did odd jobs here or there. Fixed what needed fixing. Broke what needed to break.

Buried the bodies that needed to buried.

But The Grandfather is a different breed. I didn’t have to search for him—he found me. He sent me out for a year to watch someone. Some “friend” that his nephew or son knew.

An entire year spent watching.

The Grandfather doesn’t like His Family to get our hands dirty. Says he wants us to know as little as possible. 

I don’t even know the “friend’s” name. Never found out.

I just knew her comings and goings, the. . .intimate details. . .of her relationship with the son. Or nephew.

The Grandfather never even told me it was time. He didn’t come out and say it. He just gave me a letter that had a date, time, and code. 

The man was late. Extremely late. I started to wonder if The Grandfather hadn’t set me up when the man finally showed up, small package in hand. I tore it open without even bothering to read it. Walked into her room without question. She was sleeping with the baby in her arms. I looked at the baby and then I couldn’t stop looking. By the time I could tear my eyes away it was almost too late. I hadn’t hit my growth spurt yet so I could barely reach the bag. But I did. I injected it and left the room. I imagined that I heard “code blue in l&d,” but it could’ve just been my imagination. I was only, what, thirteen. Still a kid, really. I tried to pretend that whatever he gave me to give her was just to put her to sleep. Not permanently. I don’t know why I cared. I didn’t care before. I haven’t cared since. But I pretended all the same. 

I never saw the “friend” again, though. In a way I’m glad I didn’t catch her name. 

No one questioned me being at the hospital, now that I think about it. No one even blinked. In fact, they all looked through me. As if looking at me would get them killed. 

The Grandfather has a reach and it is far.

So why am I helping Styx? The Grandfather is after her, that much I know.

Mom doesn’t say much, and Pops says even less. The conversation went like this:

Mom: Townie. I’m calling in a favor

Townie: I don’t do favors

Mom: Fine, I need you to get someone to the Ferryman

Townie: He’s hard to catch these days. It’s gonna cost you.

Mom: It always does. She needs. . .she needs to be protected.

Townie: From?

Mom: The Grandfather

Townie: Are you insane? Mom, have you lost your goddamned mind? Why would go against my bread and butter

Mom: Townie, please. I can pay you. 

Townie: . . .How much?

Mom: How much does it cost to find the Ferryman these days?

Townie: One.

Mom: One hundred?

Townie: One million

Mom: Half

Townie: Sold. But if we get caught up I’m ditching the kid.

Mom: I would expect nothing less

After I started thinking. One, I definitely got the short end of the stick. Mom and Pops ain’t together together, but I know they can at least pool their resources. I’m over here eating eggs and grits and shit and they’re living in that mansion on the coast. Plain sight. We all live in plain sight, to be truthful. That was one of The Grandfather’s requirements. We know of each other. He knows us.

But anyway, I started wondering if it’s worth it. To take the girl underground. The Grandfather will know. But I need the money. This isn’t some vigilante mission. I don’t know why he wants her and I don’t want to know. I know I need the money. And I can talk Mom up to a million. 

I’m still on the market, besides. Mom knows I’m a businessman before anything else. If The Grandfather finds us before we get to the Ferryman and he’s in a gambling mood, I’ll play. I ain’t got morals to sell, and my soul is long gone besides.

Yeah. I’ll definitely play.

Even if she does remind me of The Girl. 

 

 

“Popeye”

Now. 

I bet Townie’s laid up somewhere fuming. I wouldn’t have sold it to him but the boy doesn’t have the sense God gave a billy goat.

Lucky for me I don’t have good sense either, but I can make a quick buck.

And shit. Townie knows good and damned well he won’t find a decent ride for a thousand dollars! Easiest thousand I’ve made in a while. If I had any kind of heart I’d feel bad. But no kind of honor amongst thieves and all.

I make good money from The Grandfather. I should—I’ve worked for him for damn near 25 years. And I don’t have a pension plan. 

The Family isn’t loyal, so that’s not why we stay. Not me and Olive, anyway. We stay because the money’s good, the rent’s cheap, and yes, I admit there’s a thrill to the kill.

Townie’s problem is he thinks too damned much. Always trying to find that fucking girl. That—his being loose minded—makes him soft. Weak. The Grandfather has to know that, so I don’t know why he keeps him around.

Maybe the pretty-boy attitude and the lack of brain cells makes him harder to follow. He’s not as good as I am but he’s still alive, so that must mean something. 

Mom and Pops are the same as Townie. Too liberal with their affection. I don’t know what the fuck is going on with that girl they’re raising, but that side of the family is fucked up. No one in The Family speaks of it, but we’re pretty sure Styx is related to The Grandfather—really related, not this family of killers shit we have going.

Olive was pretty torn up about Styx going to Mom and Pops and not us. They aren’t even fucking let alone nuptualed, so I don’t know what kind of shit’s going on over there. 

Now Pops. . .Pops is crazy. I’ve worked with him one time, and I’ll never do it again.  A few years back Hyde sent Pops and myself down into Columbia. Never been before, never want to go again.

Incognito. Hyde clearly said be incognito.

I remember yelling that at Pops, too, the coppery taste of blood still in my mouth. I could barely see through the heavy smoke. I turned to Pops, or the direction that I thought he was in, and and shouted, “The fuck?! You could’ve killed me, too!” That crazy motherfucker didn’t even have the decency to look sad when he stepped through the smoke to stand in front of me. He just turned his eyes at me, stared into my soul, and looked away.

We were there for one man, some diplomat that was loose with his constituents change. We had one mark.

The final count was 16. I work for the money and the money alone and I’m the first to admit I don’t care about their families, where they’ve come from, where they’re going. But Pops—he really doesn’t care. He doesn’t care who gets caught in the crossfire as long as he hits his mark. I don’t even know if the blood I tasted was mine. 

Yeah. Never again.

I think about him when The Grandfather calls. Usually he has Hyde contact me and Olive, so when I hear his voice I perk up. I stand by the window in the dining room, listening to his instructions while watching movement across the street.

In the 25 years that I’ve worked for him The Grandfather has never surprised me with a mark. So when he gives me the name—the names—I ask him to repeat them. Not because I didn’t hear—I can hear better than most.

I just need to hear them again. I guess I need to make sure he’s sure.

Guess I’ll be seeing Pops again after all. 

 

 

“Mom”

Then.

I had a house collapse on me once. Before I entered my tenure with The Grandfather I worked with a different type of family in London. We were tracking a small group of anarchists—amateurs, really, but without a core ideal between the lot of them. At any rate Prick (his name was Pritchard, but Prick was far more suitable) wanted to embed with the group.

He sent me in first, of course, saying I was sweet. Trusting. The rebels, they would trust me. 

One week, and we’ll pull you out, he promised. Two, tops.

It took me six hours. It wasn’t difficult to become acquainted with the young members of the group—a few shots all around and they invited me in. 

They were based outside of London, in an older, Edwardian home tucked away safely in Marlow. I remember walking briskly up the long cobbled drive wishing I had been given more protection than my wits.  

By the time I entered they were in the middle of a card game—spades, I think. My heart beat so hard and fast I was certain it would give me away. I didn’t ask about their mission or their goals—I didn’t have to. The youngest there was no more than 14. He could have been my kid brother. They were all children, really. 

He didn’t talk. I never heard him speak. He hummed—dodo l’enfant do. His humming was sweet and innocent; they played cards through it, but not impervious to the sound his humming made. It was calming. Peaceful. He met my eyes curiously throughout the games, but his humming was soothing and I couldn’t interrupt.

I would have perhaps asked about their families later, but I heard the noise first. A small buzzing sound—not at all like the beeping from the films. No the buzzing was loud and the smell was hot and I looked up for just a moment, making eye contact with Prick, staring down into a window. His eyes were like death, and he nodded just once at me before turning away. The explosion came instantaneously.

The feeling of being engulfed in flame is so intense as to be overwhelming—my mind could not comprehend. The smoke from the bomb—homemade, I later discovered, supposedly detonated by the rebels by mistake—was black and billowing, stretching up into the sky far beyond what my eyes could see. The roof was gone. I tried to move, but my left leg was warm and sticky with blood, a heavy body resting on it. The body was still warm but the eyes—which peered into me—had gone cold. The one who looked like my brother. 

With shaking hands I reached down to close his eyes before straining to roll him off of me. His body in death was heavy. I couldn’t stop the shame from bubbling in my stomach, shame that overflowed in the form of angry, hot tears. As I groaned with effort the house groaned with me. Through the smoke and coughing I ascertained that the entire roof was not, in fact, destroyed, and the three stories that I could see above seemed to be sagging.

My own breath was my undoing.

I inhaled sharply, taking in the heavy floors about to give way. I exhaled and the roof caved in, the building around me crumbling loudly. 

The boy’s body saved me. Hours later, when I was dragged from the rubble, I still held him close to me. Oddly bruised and mangled, his eyes were once again open. I did not bother to close them again.

My own eyes locked on the face above me, the arms that gripped me cruelly tight. It was not, as I had imagined, the face of a rescuer.

No, it was Pritchard. His eyes—I had longed for those eyes—had become dark. Pure hatred seemed to glow in them. . .a hatred reserved for me.

His mouth was moving and I’m certain words were coming out, but the bedlam of the explosion had rendered my ears useless.

My eyes were still trained on him as he lifted the gun, held it directly above me before lowering it to my knees. 

Pritchard never was a good shot, but the bullet lodged below my knee and I imagined my scream pierced through the night. The pain shattered my senses.

“Why?” I knew I wailed, but of course I could discern no answer.

Instead he pointed the gun at my eye, backing away carefully. Perhaps he changed his mind.

No.

He didn’t want my blood on the uniform. He smiled—no, sneered—down at me, and I watched his mouth move.

Beg, he mouthed. Beg me to spare you. 

I couldn’t believe I loved him. How did I love him? I wanted to beg for my life. Beg for something from him. Something like, “Fine. Don’t love me. But don’t leave me here. Please don’t kill me.” But I couldn’t. My mouth didn’t move. My refusal made him angry, and the pools of black grew ever larger. 

As the bullet exploded from the barrel I was aware only of the burning pain in my throat, the albatross of Pritchard slowing and stopping my heart. 

The smoke that surrounds me now is a different type, and I have learned to see through it. On my sooty, gray-gloved hands and sore knees I crawl around the floor, peering through the lifting smoke. In the distance I hear sirens.

Only seven minutes separate us from the complete, timed destruction of the house.

I am not a cook, which The Grandfather should well know. He must have known, because he is nowhere and I am almost certain the blast did not take him. It may have rendered him partially deaf, but the brunt of the blast came from the kitchen. The Grandfather likely walked away with smoke inhalation, slight bruising, and a killer’s thirst. But Pops. . .

My knees throb painfully but I keep crawling, determined (or perhaps desparate) to find him in the rubble. At last I do, and my heart catches in my throat.

His eyes are closed tightly and his nostrils are flared in unmasked pain. Blood trickles steadily from his nose, complemented by an angry gash on his forehead. Peeling off my gloves I press my finger to his neck.

His pulse is light and faint, but his heart still beats.

I breathe a heavy sigh of relief, breath I didn’t know I was holding. Lightly I trace his brow, calculating the distance of the ambulance. Three minutes. Pressing a chaste kiss to Pops mouth I rise steadily, heading for the kitchen. A small fire still simmers in the corner, and the stove emits a loud crack every few seconds. Ignoring both I reach underneath the smoldering sink, pulling the lever. The top of the kitchen island—still standing—rises gently. The top drifts away to reveal several drawers. From the first I pull a small case, heavy with the clothing I’ll need for travel. From the second I grab another case, larger and heavier than the first. I hesitate for a moment before pulling open the third drawer. The only drawer that I shouldn’t have.

The photo of Styx is my favorite. I shouldn’t have a favorite. It is normal and a part of our story to have photos of us pretending happiness with our “daughter” in the event we had guests or visitors. 

Our happiness was never pretend, though.

I wonder if The Grandfather knows that. Has always known.

This photo—I was caught off guard. The photographer—I have never known who exactly took the photo—snapped the picture just as I was looking down at Styx and she was looking away. The love for her that I didn’t know I carried until this photo was delivered is written plainly on my face. It is undeniable. It is in the pride of my eyes, the genuine light in my smile. Styx’s eyes are closed in an eternal giggle, her dimples deep and her curly hair hanging over her forehead. My hand is suspended just above her head in the photo, my futile attempts to brush it from her eyes captured forever. 

I contemplate leaving the photo behind. Whomever sent me the photo all those years ago must have known that this day would come. Must have felt that I would stand at this crossroads—do I find Styx and cede her to The Grandfather? Or do I find Styx and deliver her to safety? Or (perhaps more like what I should be) should I just run? Run away and keep running?

Gripping the photo tightly I press the lock code, backing away as the island readjusts. Rushing back into the living room I can see the lights of the firetrucks down the block. Kneeling next to Pops I lean close to his ear whispering,

“I’m sorry.” 

As I leap over the fence separating our yard from the neighbors I do feel guilt. I hope he survives. I want him to. When I place enough distance between myself and the house I stop, panting for breath.

Pain. Pain in my leg. Looking down I realize that a shard of glass juts out painfully from my calf. Gritting my teeth together I pull it out, gasping with the shock of removal. 

My chest aches and briefly I contemplate the glass shot into there, too. Looking down at my dress, ruined by smoke and ash, I espy no glass. My pain is internal. As unnatural as it was before, but ever deeper. 

The house. Our home. Our makeshift family. The photo. A brilliant wave of turmoil threatens to overtake me. I breathe steadily, walking stealthily to the car hidden in the shadows of the abandoned house four blocks from ours. In the distance I can see the smoke billowing into the sky. 

Squaring my shoulders I make my decision. Starting the engine the car purrs down the street and into the night, the black within and without taking me again. 

 

 

“Townie”

Now.

The others think I killed my family. My real family, I mean. They don’t agree on the details, but there’s always a kid sister. The story surrounding them varies depending on who’s telling it. 

“He murdered them. Every one. The Grandfather sent in van Cleef but Townie’d already done the job. van Cleef felt so bad he kept him. Thought The Grandfather could use him.”

“The sister was orphaned by their parents when he was twelve and she was just a baby. He ran off with her and raised her himself. After she died—fiery crash, I’m told—he went crazy. I don’t know how he met The Grandfather. But The Grandfather took pity on him and brought him in.”

“The parents were burnt up in a fire. So bad the dental work couldn’t even identify them. Somehow Townie and the girl—a twin sister, I think—survived. They were both adopted by The Grandfather. Don’t know where the girl is now.”

“Stop it. Townie was a nice boy. He got into a bit of trouble—got a girl pregnant, I think. He sends money.”

In the darkened corner of the booth Styx stares at me, waiting for a response. Shrugging I pause as I squint at the door.

“There’s a girl,” I begin, my eyes still focused on the door. “My sister. I call her Georgia. Called her Georgia, I mean.” The kid’s eyes widen for a moment, fleeting sympathy on her face. There but then it’s gone. Damn. Mom and Pops have conditioned her but good, because now she stares into me, emotionless and impassive as stone.

“She was murdered. Our parents were killed first. We were told it was a crash. It wasn’t until after—after Georgia was murdered—that I found out. Somebody—I don’t know who—someone killed them. And her. That’s why I’m in The Family.” This time the sympathy in the kid’s face is unmistakable. 

The kid was raised by a pair of assassins. Good ones, too. If you ain’t dead after this long you got to be. At her heart I’m sure she has it in her. But right now, listening to my story, she’s just a kid. 

I wish I could offer her some advice. Run, kid. Run away as fast as you can. Run away from me, Mom, Pops. 

Especially The Grandfather. 

I wish I could give her the advice that I should’ve given Georgia. Go out and live. Don’t cry for them. Fuck them. They would never cry for you.

It’s just us, Georgia. We need to take care of each other.

I need to take care of you.

I wish I could offer that to the kid, but like I said, I ain’t parenting material. And she’s a job. If I don’t deliver her like Mom said. . .I won’t get what’s mine.

And I won’t see my 31st birthday.

Like I said. Mom and Pops are good at what they do. 

My thoughts are turned to Georgia so I don’t notice the man until he’s upon us, already at the table. Her back is to him, but his eyes are trained on her.

As if he knows her.

As if he’s looking for her.

He is unfamiliar. The Grandfather must be getting desperate. It an’t not like him to hire shady bastards that have no hope of escape.

“Couldn’t help notice you’re in need of a ride,” he drawls out, still staring down at Styx. Over his shoulder I’m aware of the hush—every eye in the bar is trained on us.

Shit. They’re here for a show.

Styx’s eyes meet mine, and I expect her to be afraid. I expect to need to reassure her, to offer her a wink, let her know I’ll protect her.

I’m wholly unprepared for the glint in Styx’s eye. Her eyes are bright, brighter than I’ve seen them. She looks happy. Does she know this guy?

“Whatever you’re selling, we’re not buying,” Styx throws over her shoulder, that smirk back onto her face. The man snarls down at her, reaching out his hand lightly grasping her hair.

Styx stiffens under his touch, her eyes narrowing, the glistening light simmering into a fire. “Please don’t touch me again, mister. I need to ask you to leave me and my friend alone.” Her voice betrays nothing. Cool confidence. It renders me speechless. 

The man chuckles, letting his hand fall.

“C’mon, Ms. Styx. I’m your friend. Just let me take you on home.” Styx’s nostrils flare, and for the first time I am afraid. 

Don’t do anything stupid, I want to whisper. The man is standing behind the kid; if I pull the trigger now I may hit her in the abdomen. Somehow I’m sure this would be frowned upon by Mom and Pops. 

“You’re a stranger. Mom said never talk to strangers.” Strangers leaves the kid’s mouth in a small whisper, and the man chuckles again, reaching out before tugging a curl. 

She is her parents’ child. She spins around with shocking speed, catching the man’s hand and bending his finger back. The snap is sickening, and his face is drained of blood. Before he can react Styx punches him in the throat, pressing the back of his head until his forehead collides with the table. 

All of this happens before I’ve cocked my pistol. 

At least fifteen guns and rifles are pointed at us when I raise my hands above my head. Styx, however, is not prepared to give in.

“I’ve got your man,” she yells unnecessarily. I peer around her back, surprised to see the dagger that she has at his throat. His face is covered in blood, but I can’t tell if the shock is from the blade or the fact that his ass was kicked by a 120 pound teenager.

“Let ‘em go, little girl. Let ‘em go and we’ll let you take your friend here and get out.” 

“I have a better idea. You get out in thirty seconds, and I won’t blow the place up.” Various pairs of eyes meet. Styx presses the blade harder into the man’s neck, reaching into the bag beside her.

“Hey,” the man yells at her, but she ignores him.

She pulls out. . .

A fucking grenade.

“What the fuck!” I exclaim loudly. “Styx!”

“Shut up, Townie,” Styx yells, throwing a smirk over her shoulder. Her and those fucking smirks. 

This isn’t how I imagined I’d die. Killed by some obnoxious teen. 

“You’re playing with fire, little girl.”

“I’d listen to her if I were you,” I yell, deciding to join the discussion. 

“You have fifteen seconds,” Styx offers calmly. 

Shit. I don’t know Styx well, but she’s a teen, and they’re nothing if not impulsive. 

There is no way we’ll get out of here alive. No one is moving. They don’t think she has it in her. They’re trying to decide whose going to shoot first. Which one of us they’re going to shoot first. Do I let them shoot her and run, or do we shoot first?

My decision is made before I pull the trigger. The man who yelled collapses, the bullet lodged above his left eye. The next hits the man in Styx’s hand; blood splatters over her face and she drops the knife, shocked. I press the gun to the back of her head.

“Sorry, Styx,” I begin, but the sentence hangs in the air, unfinished. The blinding pain of a dislocated shoulder causes me to drop the gun.

As I fade to black, chaos surrounding us, I hear a cold, “Sorry Townie,” and then I am nothing.

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