Note: This fictional story is a departure from my usual content in that it is not related to my ASD. I have aspirations of becoming an author/novel editor, and so I plan to use this blog to upload some of my creative writing in addition to my usual posts. This short story does form part of a wider fantasy narrative I’ve constructed, but still functions as a stand-alone. I would welcome any comments and feedback!
Friends Like These
I still have no idea how Wilbur managed to get us those jobs, working as servants for the wealthiest guy in the area. William Rainier was an unknown; a dark horse millionaire, appearing one day having just bought a string of three-story properties on the main street. But now, as we walked down the street in our stiff-collared uniforms, Wilbur’s still always somehow neater than mine, fitting him better where mine hung loose, I supposed I should be grateful for Wilbur’s knack for talking his way into things. The pay was good: we could afford decent food for the first time in a while. We had modest accommodation now. It beat being on the streets, and the risky business of pickpocketing.
Of course, it still wasn’t enough for Wilbur. Nothing was ever enough for Wilbur.
It had been six months now, since Wilbur had begun skimming just a little cash off the top of Rainier’s accounts each month. Being the smart one, he had access to those kinds of things, and made himself (and me) a sneaky little allowance. He’d revealed it to me, one night, almost by accident. With a cigarette in one hand and a bottle in the other, he’d confided in me in a smug, laughing whisper. I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was – I told him to stop. We’d had an argument. He’d said that he would stop; I’d promised I wouldn’t tell. I thought that would be it.
Two weeks later though, Wilbur proposed that we make a break for it.
In hushed whispers, standing outside the estate under the dirty blackish-blue sky, he had eagerly explained his plan. While he spoke, I’d watched the patterns illustrated by the glowing red end of his cigarette, tendrils of smoke curling and twisting like snakes. Rainier kept a key to the vault on his person at all times. When out at the market, we would both attack him. Wilbur would grab the key. We would go back to the house before anyone realised that Rainier was gone, open the vault, steal as much as we could, and then make a break for it.
Freedom. It smelled so good you could taste it, at least that was what Wilbur said. I’d never had freedom – I’d been born between the lines of this city, in the cracks, crawling my way up to reach the daylight, always under somebody else’s boot. But Wilbur knew what freedom was. These service jobs weren’t good enough, he said. They were well-paid enough to exist upon, sure, we could start savings, but we’d never earn enough to get us out of the city. That was all that he wanted – to get out. To go home. Wilbur came from the countryside, and in this rusty, smog-filled city, he clung to those memories, clutching them close to his chest like a sinner holds prayer beads. Often, while I listened, he would reminisce, lying in bed staring at the ceiling, of green-blanketed fields, of warm, buzzing breezes and wide open space. Wilbur talked about it like a man intoxicated – he was high off the idea of freedom. He wanted it more than anything. I wanted freedom because Wilbur wanted it. He made it sound thrilling, blissful – and now, he claimed, it was within our reach!
But the plan was insane. I told him so. He didn’t like that. A heated exchange of words, voices barely kept below shouting; a bottle smashed, and he stalked out into the night. When he got back, well past midnight, he sat down on his bunk, running a hand through his smoke-smelling hair. I pretended to be asleep. That didn’t seem to matter to him. “Tomorrow, Tommy,” he said. “Tomorrow, you’ll have to choose. You’ll come with me, you know you will. We’re brothers, aren’t we?”
I didn’t answer him, nor did I sleep well that night. The next morning, walking beside Rainier, heading to the market, I reflected that Rainier treated us well. If he wasn’t kind, with his cold, stern tone, at least he wasn’t cruel. He maintained an air of civility, always coolly composed with all of his servants. He had given us this chance, and I didn’t want to betray him. In a foolish way, I guess I looked up to him: he was fair. You couldn’t say that about a lot of the other people I’d worked for. If there was anyone who deserved to be robbed, it wasn’t Rainier.
And if we were caught…
Wilbur knew that he couldn’t do it without me, and he knew that I knew this. Wilbur had his tricks, but Rainier was a trained fighter. He carried a sword, and on several occasions we’d witnessed him spar. He was not a man to be messed with. Even with the element of surprise, it would be difficult to overpower him – it would take the both of us.
Rainier sent Wilbur on an errand, and Wilbur gave me a stern look before he vanished into the crowd. Trying to keep the conspiracy from my face, I walked on with Rainier for a while. The market was busy, humming with people. Everyone muttered and grumbled and shouted and chuckled and murmured – irregular spasms of noise occasionally breaking through but always lost in the tide of the noise. Then there was Rainier, stoically striding through it all. While others dallied and speculated between different stalls, Rainier marched directly between them, never distracted, always solemn and reserved in his tight-fitting blue coat. Was that how you got to the top? I wondered.
Wilbur stepped out of the crowd, approaching us with a carefully neutral expression. Dread turned in my stomach. Rejoining Rainier’s side, lingering just slightly behind him, he shot a look in my direction. We turned down into an alley, the bright sunlight interrupted sharply. Walls loomed close on either side. My mouth turned dry.
I shook my head.
Something terrifying flashed into Wilbur’s eyes. Then, to my horror, his expression turned resolute, fixing his gaze on Rainier’s back. He couldn’t do it without me – but I had underestimated his determination. I had never tasted freedom, I didn’t know how strong its pull was. An instant too late, I realised what Wilbur was about to do.
Wilbur leapt at Rainier, a knife materialising in his hand. But somehow, as though by some sixth sense, Rainier turned. Impossibly fast, Rainier’s arm came up to block the knife, catching the blade on his gauntlet instead of his throat. Immediately, Rainier threw a punch to Wilbur’s stomach, doubling him over. But Wilbur was quick, and dropped to a crouch, one leg sweeping round to knock Rainier’s feet from under him. Rainier fell, but rolled, and was back on his feet in a moment. He seized Wilbur’s wrist, twisting hard. The knife clattered to the dusty floor; Wilbur was shoved back against the wall.
I didn’t help him. Wilbur saw me standing there, frozen, and I saw the light leave his eyes. Momentarily, he looked as though he would defy it, but then it was quite clear he gave up. In a shameful instant, the fight was over, and Wilbur was on the floor, half-sitting with his back to the wall, blood running from his nose and the back of his head. Rainier stood with his sword drawn, tip pointed at Wilbur’s chest, breathing hard, but more from shock than exertion.
I stood staring. My brain felt full of cotton. It was horribly, horribly real.
Rainier was shouting now. Wilbur took it on the chin, eyes down, looking blankly at the blade just touching his chest, hardly even flinching as Rainier berated him. His autumn-brown eyes were dead cold, his shoulders hunched. Eventually he raised his eyes, but instead of Rainier, he looked at me. I felt his disappointment like a weight settling in the pit of my stomach.
Police arrived promptly, and Wilbur was dragged off the floor. His head hung, the emotion in his eyes lost in the shadow of his fringe. They grabbed hold of his arms, his shirt, and he hung between several of them, looking like a dead man, betrayed.
I felt a terrible shame.
Rainier turned on me. Paralysed, I stared back at him. His face was flushed, outrage gleamed in his eyes.
“Were you involved in this, Tommy?” He demanded, brandishing his sword. Jolted out of my stupor, I recoiled from the blade being thrust towards me. The other soldiers turned towards me too. I raised my hands, opened my mouth to speak. But the words died on my tongue, drying up in my mouth.
Wilbur’s head rose to look at me, urgently staring. His eyes begged me to talk. I couldn’t. Wilbur would be put to death for this. My own brother.
The soldiers moved towards me. My silence was a confession of my guilt. “Seize him,” Rainier said, white-hot rage turning to cold betrayal in his voice. The soldiers closed in.
Suddenly Wilbur erupted into violent motion, thrashing furiously.
“Tommy, run!” He yelled. There was a tremendous flash of white light. Momentarily blinded, I staggered backwards, one arm shielding my eyes, blinking away spots. Of their own accord, my feet carried me towards the other end of the alley. I dodged one man, who leapt at me. I heard shouts in my wake – cries of alarm – “He’s a light-twister!”
I didn’t dare glance back. As I reached the end of the alley, bursting out into daylight again, I sensed someone on my heels. I ran faster, charging towards the main clearing. People jumped out of my way, and when they didn’t I slammed into them, pushing and shoving a path for myself, carving a desperate escape. Still, there was someone behind me.
I glanced back, and stumbled as relief washed over me.
“Keep running!” Wilbur shouted, barely a second behind. We streaked through the market, barreling through stalls, toppling crates and vaulting tables. I was fast, but Wilbur was faster, quickly outstripping me. He crashed through a stack of crates that blocked our path, and I chased desperately after him. I heard the shouts of soldiers behind us, Rainier’s furious commands.
Breathless, I suddenly found my voice, and spat abuse in Wilbur’s direction. My words ran away with me, hitting him in the back.
“You bastard! What the hell did you have to go and do that for?”
“Shut up and run!” Wilbur retorted.
My anger wasn’t diminished. I ran even faster, catching up to him, almost overtaking as we reached the edge of the market.
Wilbur suddenly grabbed my arm, jerking me backwards into an alcove in the wall, my momentum sending me slamming against the stone.
“Ow!” I cried. In an instant, Wilbur’s hand clamped over my mouth. His face inches from mine, his wide eyes swivelled left to right, pressing back into the shadow of the stone.
“The money’s inside my book, in a secret compartment under my trunk,” he relayed hastily, just as out of breath as I was. Shouts erupted from somewhere just a few metres behind us, and we both jumped. I pulled Wilbur’s hand away from my mouth.
“How could you do this!” I hissed, trembling. He glanced back at me, and something threatening darted across his face, fleeting, like a glimpse of an animal through a hedgerow. A twitch of his jaw, the subtle narrowing of his eyes.
I felt a surge of fear as the realisation of his concealed anger hit me. Wilbur was furious. Actually furious. His fists clenched at his sides. He wanted to hurt me.
Then he pulled us both out of the alcove, shoved me forward, and took off in the other direction.
I watched his brown coat vanish into the crowd, then I ran. Weaving down bystreets, I had been running for maybe thirty seconds when all of a sudden, a gunshot rang out somewhere behind me.
I froze in my tracks.
A short, harsh cry of pain stood out an instant before it was overtaken by the alarmed cries of market-goers. Wilbur.
I stood in the middle of a street, staring down at the cobbles beneath my feet. The world seemed to stop. I was hyperventilating, could feel tears leaking from my eyes. For far too long, I stood there, trembling. I saw it in my mind. Wilbur’s retreating coat tails, the bullet ripping right through him. No, it couldn’t be.
I glanced back – seeing only the empty street behind me. Go back, I thought. Go back and find him.
I turned away again, and forced myself to keep going; to run away down the street without looking back.