There were times when Wesley hated the world. This was one. He waited until Drew became a tiny figure in the distance before he let out his frustration.
“This is all your fault, Ben,” he started. “You can’t tell me what to do. I was gonna put the rifle back before you opened your big fat mouth. But I’m not some dumbass running around doing everything you say. Now that old bag got to stick her big, ugly nose into everything. It’s none of her business. And that stupid girl saw me….” Wesley could feel his throat constrict, his words struggling to squeeze out. He paused a beat. “Who does she think she is? Now she’s trying to tell me what to do?”
“What?” Ben’s eyes widened.
“And why did you have to invite Drew to the gym? Why don’t you guys go somewhere else for once? If you weren’t around, Drew wouldn’t have been able to make that video.”
“We work out in the gym all the time, Wes. Why should I go to another gym when we’ve got one at home?”
“Now everyone’s laughing at me, like I made up some kind of story, like I did something wrong.” Big brothers should look out for little ones, not laugh at them, Wesley thought. The image of Ben smiling and laughing with Drew made the blood in Wesley’s cheeks flood out to his hairline. He was now breathing heavily, his chest pumping through his jacket. “I was being nice to those birds. I wasn’t feeding them bread. I looked it up and got good stuff for them. It was supposed to be a chill nature video and they just attacked me.”
“C’mon, Wes. Those videos, your YouTube, they don’t matter!”
Wesley couldn’t contain his anger any longer. “They don’t matter to you ’cause YOU don’t matter. You don’t have anything! Nobody cares about what you do or who you are.” He knew people might be able to hear him shouting, but he didn’t care. Ben deserved it. He was just so ignorant of social media popularity, too lame to amass his own following.
Ben didn’t look hurt enough, in fact he didn’t look hurt at all, so Wesley jabbed the knife in again, giving it a good twist this time. “The world would be a better place if you weren’t around at all. That’s not just my opinion either.”
Ben was silent, his head down, his eyes on the ground in front of him.
Good, Wesley thought, just keep your big, know-it-all mouth shut. Still, even with this small victory, Wesley felt unsettled, like when Mrs. Clark, his fifth grade teacher, had called on him and he’d misunderstood the question and given a ridiculous answer and everyone in class had laughed hysterically. But he had known the right answer! So he raised his hand to answer the next question and Mrs. Clark wouldn’t call on him. “Let’s let someone else have a turn, Wesley. Someone who’s actually read the story.” And everyone laughed again. Well, he wasn’t in fifth grade anymore and it wasn’t up to Mrs. Clark to let him prove himself. He was old enough to take charge now. And now he had no choice but to follow through with everything, to prove that he wasn’t lame or wrong. What would his dad say if he didn’t stand up for himself? That stupid nothing of a girl had challenged him. In front of everyone. Maybe she had caught him at a weak moment on the mountain, but that would never happen again.
At times like these, Wesley would recall a very vivid memory he was sure wasn’t a dream. It was a short, simple image of his mom and dad hovering over him. Sometimes their hair or their clothes or the background would change, but they always had the same message, “Fight, Wesley. Don’t give up. You have to fight.”
Wesley knew he would have to do everything he could to win. Even if that thing turned out to be the reincarnation of Hachi, it didn’t matter. That dog had to die.
Sam had made it to a trail out of sight of the main roads, but she had seen animal control officers walking these trails before. She knew she wasn’t safe yet. The path she was on was rutted and uneven — some hikers stomping through clearly carried more weight than others — making the walk longer and more difficult as she navigated around obstacles. She couldn’t imagine how much pain the dog must be in and how much every bump added to his torture. So she was slow and deliberate with each step. There was still plenty of time to get home, clean up and prepare for the Challenge. She just needed to make it home without being seen.
A strong gust of wind blew a small branch off a tree above Sam and it fell on the path in front of her. Shivering, she watched the trees around her sway in unison. She kicked the large stick out of the way and was startled when a white terrier mix darted past her from behind. The small dog grabbed the branch, which was three times her size.
“Really, Dixie? And what about your ball now? Who’s going to carry that?” Roya Kossari called out, laughing at her dog. Dixie had the middle of the branch in her mouth and was trying to return to her human with her prize but couldn’t get the long stick past the tree trunks along the sides of the trail.
“Off, Milton! Sorry there! Off!” A Golden Retriever had caught up to Sam and was busy sniffing the dog and his strange stretcher. Roya jogged to catch up with her dogs and Sam could see her face cloud with concern as she assessed the dog. “Oh my. You poor puppy! I hate mange. Dixie had it too when I rescued her. I’ve had a few rescues who came to me with it. If you need any help at all—”
A barrage of ferocious growls, barks and high-pitched screeches erupted beside them. Out of nowhere, a tiny Chihuahua had appeared and was now scurrying away from Milton.
The sound of a woman’s shriek then came from the trail ahead. “HEY! You stop your stupid dog! He’s killing my dog!” Trudy Bingham screamed.
Roya grabbed her Golden Retriever by the collar and rushed to put his leash on. The Chihuahua was all alone now but still frantically yelping. Dixie, oblivious to everything that was happening, was off in her own world, wrestling with the branch.
“Control your stupid dog!” Trudy was now beside them, but she was still shouting. Her enraged eyes bounced back and forth between Sam and Roya, unsure of which enemy to fixate on. She scooped up her tiny dog, her hands shaking as she reached for him, and kissed him repeatedly. He stopped crying and started growling and barking aggressively instead.
“Your dog startled Milton and he reacted, but I don’t think he bit him. Is your dog hurt at all?” Roya asked, clutching Milton’s leash tightly.
“Don’t you have ears? Can’t you hear him screaming?” Trudy yelled. Sam could see a pink tint around her water-filled eyes.
“Oh yes, we can hear screaming all right,” Roya said, giving Sam a sideways glance, like she and Sam were already best friends sharing an inside joke at Trudy’s expense.
“Your dog might have just been frightened,” Sam suggested, hoping the idea might calm Trudy.
Trudy ignored Roya’s comment, but she did stop yelling. “There are animal control people back there and they are coming this way. Your dogs should be on a leash.”
Sam felt a bolt of panic strike her. She looked past Trudy, trying to spot the animal control officers.
“Excuse me, but your dog was off-leash too,” Roya protested.
“Look at how small my dog is and look at how big yours is! Yours can kill somebody, but mine is like a baby!” Trudy’s voice grew louder. “Are you two coming with me to the vet clinic now to pay for my bill?”
Sam’s heart beat faster. Animal control officers would definitely be at the clinic by now.
“I’ll go with you to the clinic. Milton is my dog. But she has nothing to do with this.” Roya turned to Sam and added, “So you go on and take care of your dog.”
Sam stared back at Roya. Continuing on the path was the last thing she wanted to do now. Her heart pounded as she glanced ahead on the trail.
“Hey, you can’t leave! You are a witness to this dog attack. I need your information,” Trudy barked, grabbing Sam’s arm.
Sam looked around for an escape, but there was nowhere to go. Animal control officers were on the trail in front of her. They were probably at the clinic too. And now, she had somehow gotten herself in the middle of a fight. She was trapped.
Ben bent down and pretended to tie his shoelace. He was tired of talking to his baby brother. He stared at a crooked part in the back of Wesley’s head where his scalp looked bright white against his dark hair. He suspected that his brother never combed his hair. The back of it, at least. He couldn’t understand how Wesley spent so much time in front of cameras but so little time preparing to be seen, or why Wesley craved acceptance from people he didn’t know and would never meet.
A few months ago, he had accidentally walked in on Wesley crying in the pool house bathroom. Wesley had just published his first YouTube video and had confided his disappointment with the overwhelming number of downvotes his video had received. It was a rare moment of vulnerability and Ben felt compelled to act. With just a few scripts and fake accounts, Ben increased Wesley’s fan base significantly and ensured that hundreds of upvotes would be automatically generated for all his videos. The difference in Wesley’s mood afterwards was amazing. That time, it had been easy to help Wesley. Ben wished it could always be that simple.
A large streak of bird poop had stained the shoulder of Wesley’s jacket and dripped down his back. Whenever Wesley looked back to glare at Ben, it appeared as though the poop had come straight from Wesley’s mouth. He looks like a strange little alien, Ben thought. Wesley’s head was now cocked to the side, bobbing up and down as he shuffled forward. Ben wondered if he really did share the same two parents with his brother.
Even though Ben couldn’t always understand Wesley, there was one thing he was certain of — his parents adored him. His mother had told him that when she was carrying Wesley, she had gone through a very difficult and dangerous pregnancy. She had ballooned out to 250 pounds from her normal 120 and was on bed rest for much of the time. Then, Wesley was born prematurely. Almost too early. He was barely over one pound at birth. And though he was plagued with serious medical issues, he had survived. After years of hospital visits, Ben could see that there wasn’t anything in the world that Wesley couldn’t have. He just had to mention what he wanted and his parents would find a way to give it to him. Even after they separated, when everything was chaos and hate, Wesley not only got whatever he wanted, he could do no wrong in their eyes. Unlike me, Ben thought.
Ben spotted a bulky figure outside his home and his stomach dropped. Jefferson Black was waiting in his office, announced Mack, Jefferson’s head of security, as he greeted the boys at the front door.
“FYI, I’ve already ordered to have the locks on the office and gun room changed,” Mack said. “Pick one of my locks again and you’re going to find yourselves in a situation where you’ll be begging me to give you a quick death. I don’t get paid enough to have to babysit you little girls.”
Wesley grabbed for the door handle, but Mack held the door firmly closed. He leaned down to look Wesley and Ben in the eyes. “Get this straight. I don’t care what happens to you. I’m here to do my job and collect my paycheck so I can feed my family. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d quit in two seconds. I’d never have to see your ugly faces again and it would be the happiest day of my life. Until that day, you do as I say or you will live to regret it to your dying day.”
Mack never hid his dislike for kids — the Black boys in particular — but he had never threatened them before. Ben wondered what had pushed him over that line and how far he would go. Did his father refuse him a raise? Was he sick of Wesley’s stunts? What exactly did he have planned for them? Ben thought of the time when he was nine. He watched Mack break the arm of one of the drivers for closing the security gate too slowly. Mack could never regain Ben’s trust after that. Too impatient. Too temperamental. Way too shady. He always seemed to be on the phone mumbling quietly, scowling at everyone to keep away, walking into corners to make sure nobody could overhear his conversations. How many locks could he possibly have to change, anyway? Nothing ever seemed to happen in Glacier Village. Except for the shooting during the robbery a few months ago. Even then, Mack didn’t change any security measures at home. He said that what had happened then was an isolated incident. But how could he know that for sure? Too cocky, as well.
Ben had hoped that they would be able to return the rifle without their father noticing. But that dream was dead. And soon with it, my soul, Ben thought.
The meeting went just as Ben expected. A short talk with Wesley in the room, then the real discussion after Wesley was dismissed. Although it wasn’t really a dialogue. It was more of a monologue, filled with words like “your responsibility” and “such a disappointment” and “no son of mine.” Ben hated these kinds of phrases more than anything else in the world.
Wesley and Mack seemed to be in an intense conversation when Ben came out of the office. They moved further away when they spotted him. A patented Mack the spy maneuver, Ben thought. Whatever. Let them whisper and gossip. Who’s acting like a little girl now?
Sam could almost make out the red jackets of animal control officers in the distance ahead. She was definitely on a collision course with them. Despite Trudy’s best efforts to keep her from leaving, Sam had exchanged numbers with the two women and broken away from the fight.
She turned around and doubled back on the path. By veering away from the village and going deeper into the trails, she could circle all the way around town to get back home. Surely this was the best strategy to avoid Animal Control, but the route was significantly longer. Her mind raced. Could she do it? Making it home in time to get to the orientation session would be nearly impossible at the rate she had been traveling. She jerked the rope higher on her shoulder to a spot that wasn’t bruised from pulling the stretcher and walked faster. There was no way she was going to just give up and hand over her dog to certain death.
She glanced over her shoulder. Too much time had been wasted with the dog fight and she could see the figures getting closer. Even though her hunger and exhaustion made her dog feel twice as heavy, Sam picked up the pace.
She spotted a small, lightly used trail fork away from the path. It would be rougher going than the main trail, but she took it. The officers probably wouldn’t veer off, unless they were onto her already. She shifted the rope again and sped up.
As the wind picked up and a cluster of small tree branches fell in her path, Sam stopped dead in her tracks. Was that a sound behind her? Had they followed her onto the smaller path? She caught a glimpse of red and her heart jumped. Her chest pounding, a burst of panic pulsed through her. She leaned into her rope and started jogging, scanning the trail for ways to escape.
“Hey!” An authoritative voice called out.
Sam ignored it and jogged faster. Was that a fork in the trail ahead? A quick glance over her shoulder told her she could make it. There was nobody behind her, yet. Now she ran as fast as she could while pulling the heavy stretcher.
Sam was almost at the fork. A few more steps.
“HEY, STOP!” The voice was much louder. Sam didn’t dare look back. She steered left. The offshoot led downhill slightly and she was at full speed now. The top layers of snow had melted away on a large sun-soaked section of the trail, revealing a shiny, icy patch below. Sam couldn’t brake fast enough. The stretcher hit the back of her leg, taking it out from under her. She fell onto her hip behind her dog, who let out a yelp, as they slid down the hill and came to a stop near a boulder.
Sam crawled over to her dog. Had she injured him? She rubbed his ear and checked him over carefully. That’s when she heard a voice on top of her.