Jodi Lea Stewart
Carris watched out the window as a fancy red helicopter floated down behind a building just beyond the White Mountain Bus Terminal. She took a few quick steps to catch up with Will, her eyes watching the top of the rotary blades beginning to slow. “Will!” she called.
She stopped. How do you make contact with an automaton?
She watched her brother meander at random, going nowhere in particular. A wire connected his right ear to a pocket in his jeans. Another wire hung from his left ear to the game tablet in his hands. His phone peeked crookedly from his hip pocket. Could he hear her if she shouted at him?
She took a breath and yelled, “William!”
A woman turned toward her with a concerned look. After all, she was an unaccompanied young teen screeching her head off in public. Carris gave the woman her fake everything is great smile with lots of teeth showing. The woman smiled and walked on. Carris trotted to catch up with Will, passed him, and stood in his path as he came toward her. She waved her hands. She watched with gaping mouth as he stepped around her as if she were a piece of furniture. She heard the over-noise from his earphone as he passed.
He’s nothing but a self-absorbed troll! Where’s Dad anyway? I hope he won’t be late—Will doesn’t need any more ammunition to use against him.
Before the cancer enemy stole their mother for the last time, Will was the star of the wrestling team and voted most valuable point guard on the Pasadena High School basketball team. He had always loved technology, too, but now he hid himself inside it. His vendetta against their father began the day their parents announced they were divorcing four years ago. He had refused to talk to their dad on the phone or during any of his visits ever since. Will’s explosion when he found out they had to leave California to live with their dad in Arizona still stung.
He punched a hole in the living-room wall and shouted, “Are you kidding me? We’re being forced from civilization to live in the Wahoo Wild West? Who does Dad think he is buying a ranch in the sticks last year . . . Woody from Toy Story? Using outside crappers and riding cows to school. Oh, really cool. Maybe play our gee-tars on the front porch? That would suit you just fine, wouldn’t it, you little suck up.”
He had tromped off red-faced, screaming, “Why am I just fifteen? I hate everything!” He slammed his bedroom door so hard the hall pictures turned sideways.
He’d been surly and impossible ever since Mom’s cancer had come back. At the end, he started cutting classes and hanging with some of the more radical outliers at school. When he brazenly argued with his wrestling team coach over being late, he got a week’s suspension. When he missed an important meet later that month, he was kicked off the team. Sports, especially wrestling, had always been his passion, but now he said it was for losers. All he did these days was escape inside his numerous tech devices.
Now that the court had ordered the two of them into the custody of their out-of-state dad, Will had been in an even worse mood, including on the plane ride from California this morning. He didn’t really speak to Carris much anymore, but he made sure she heard him mutter, “As soon as I’m eighteen, I’m out of here. Maybe before then. You can stay behind and raise deformed chickens with heads growing out of their butts. That’s your style, so good luck.”
Carris bit her tongue and didn’t say anything then, but later, she reached her limit. As their Greyhound bus snaked through the steep but beautiful Salt River Canyon during the three hundred miles from Phoenix to the White Mountains where Dad now lived, Will said, “Anyone who gives up California for this crap place has to be a backward idiot. Dad’ll probably forget we’re coming, anyway. Can’t leave his moo-cow turds long enough to be bothered. Hope you love rattlesnakes, Jessie.” When she didn’t react, he said, “Maybe he sold his pickup truck and we’ll have to ride donkeys to his stupid ranch. Of course, you, being an ass, shouldn’t mind that.”
That did it. Carris grabbed him in a headlock—the same kind he’d taught her before he morphed into such a contemptuous brat. Catching him unaware gave her a slight advantage. For a minute, anyway.
“Stop talking trash about me, Will! You’re rude and mean and not at all like the brother you used to be. You aren’t the only one missing Mom. How is it Dad’s and my fault that she died of cancer?”
He could have easily thrown her across the bus if he’d wanted, and that thought danced in his eyes as they rolled upward to stare at her. Carris stared defiantly back at him. He pressed his lips together and slipped benignly from her now-loose grasp, turning his back to her. He was quiet the rest of the trip, even when the bus stopped for passengers to refresh themselves.
Now, standing in the terminal watching her brother stagger around inside his own world, Carris brushed away a tear sliding down her cheek.
Come on Dad, get here.
She spotted a vending machine down a short, dimly-lit hallway. She bought a pack of gum and a Dr. Pepper, turned, and saw Will walking back and forth like a zombie in the main lobby. While she was putting her change into a side pocket of her backpack, two scraggly men came into the hallway. Instinctively, she placed a foot inside one of the looped handles of her duffle bag sitting on the floor near her leg.
The men ambled closer. She squatted slightly to pick up her duffle bag while keeping her eyes on them. In a flash, one of the men grabbed the bag with both hands. It tripped her to the floor. The other man quickly closed the gap and began yanking at the purse strap crossing her chest.
“Stop!” Carris shrieked, slapping at clawing, dirty fingernails and dodging attempts to get the strap over her head. The exhaled air around the men reeked of alcohol, cigarettes, and foul breath.
Even with her duffle bag in a tug-of-war between her leg and the man on the floor trying to steal it, Carris managed to get to her feet. She freed herself from the bag handle and instantly slammed her heel down on the would-be thief’s hand in a crushing blow. She did it again. He slumped over his knees, cradling his hand. Greasy strands of hair dangled over his face as he rocked back and forth.
The other man tried to cut the straps of Carris’ purse and backpack with a knife. Spying the knife caused a new surge of adrenaline to pulse through her veins. She remembered her defense-class techniques from P.E. and rammed four fingers hard into the base of his throat. She spun around for a roundhouse kick to his crotch, but found her target sailing through the air like a rag doll. Will tackled him. In seconds, the man was folded in two, head between his legs. Penned.
The other man spider-crawled backward on all fours, never taking his bloodshot eyes off Carris. He scrambled to his feet and ran . . . straight into their dad’s grip.
“Great job, you guys,” said a man pushing through the gathering crowd and flashing his security badge. Voices and static came out of the two-way radio strapped to his belt. “Police are on their way. These are the two creeps who been causing all the trouble in our bus terminals from Texas to California. They target women and children. Looks like they tangled with the wrong young lady today,” he said, eyeing Carris’ engardè position.
Will released his groaning prisoner to three uniformed staff. Carris stepped toward her dad. The man in his arms flinched and struggled to get away.
“Yeah, you’d better be afraid. My two kids will chew you up and spit you out,” her dad said, handing the man over to security.
Late afternoon sun flashed brightly off cars in the parking lot as they exited the terminal. Dad directed them through a turnstile gate. He led them around a steel hangar, punched a code into a keypad on a door, and walked over to a shiny, red helicopter. Carris recognized it as the one she’d wanted to show Will earlier.
“Jump in—we’ll be home in about 15 minutes.”
Will’s eyes bugged. “Who-whose helicopter is this?”
“Ours, son. It’s a 1991 Bell 206B Jet Ranger III. This little honey is completely overhauled, rebuilt, and running fine. It was part of the deal when I bought the ranch last year. It eliminates the work of about five men on horseback. We use it for rounding up cattle and checking fences behind the Mesas de Angeles. Or, for short trips like this.
“Speaking of cattle, last Spring I implemented our use of a sensor and tracking device via an ingestible microchip. Now we can track any cow’s activity level, health, and reproductive behavior. It’s the best for monitoring and herd management solutions. Increased efficiency, you betcha! Oh, and next week, I’m meeting with some guys about a GIS for keeping track of some of my ideas for land management and conservation.”
Dad grinned. “Everyone around here calls your old man The Cowboy Geek. Crazy, huh? Well, let’s boogie.”
Climbing into the helicopter, Carris stopped midway and looked back at her brother’s dumbstruck expression. “Hey, bro, guess this really is the Wild West. Sure hope you brought your gee-tar.”