Ajax backed away as his father stumbled over to Leo’s body. Jim fell to his knees beside Leo, patting his face, shaking his shoulders. “No, no!” Then he glared at Ajax, his eyes bloodshot. “You did this?” He fumbled in his pants pocket as he looked around, and when he spotted the broken bat a few yards away, his eyes widened. “You did. Oh, Ajax…”
Ajax realized he was crouched down, hugging his knees. Numbly, he unfolded himself. “Not me, Dad.”
“It’s your bat,” said Jim grimly. “Jesus, Ajax, I knew you two had trouble getting along, but—
“Dad! It was not me! There was—” Ajax faltered, “—somebody else.”
Jim looked around and spotted Natalie trying to climb to her feet in the puddle of black blood. His eyes narrowed and he got that expression he always got when he was working something out, telling himself a story he could tell somebody else. Then, his mouth set into a line, he finally found his cellphone and opened it.
New horror blossomed from Ajax’s numbness. “Dad, listen to me—”
Jim paused. “I don’t want to hear it, Ajax. Directly or indirectly, you did this. Don’t lie, because I heard you fighting out here. I just wish I’d gotten out here in time…” He shook his head. “I can’t deal with you anymore. I can’t deal with your shit anymore. I’ve got to call 911 for poor Leo, and they’re going to send the cops, and I’m going to tell them what happened. If you’ve got two braincells to smash together, you’ll take your druggie girlfriend and get out of here.”
“Sir,” said Natalie, limping over, holding her side tightly. “It wasn’t your son. If you can be patient for a few hours, I can have somebody come explain what happened to you.”
Jim looked startled. “What? No! You’d damn well better not send anybody to my house, or they’ll regret it too.” He finished dialing and spoke into the phone. “A fight. I think somebody’s badly injured, maybe dead.” His whole demeanor shifted as he spoke, into the face he presented to clients: harmless, charming— and, this time, distraught. There was a shrill note in his voice that hadn’t been there when he spoke to Ajax. “My son came home, on something. The front of the house is wrecked. He brought a friend— friends. They attacked my tenant. No, ma’am, I can’t say that I do. He and his friends ran away but they said something about coming back again if I called anyone. But my poor tenant, how long will it be? He’s my business partner, too. My own son did this! I just don’t know what I’m going to do—”
Seth’s hand fell on Ajax’s shoulder. “We should get out of here, man. Are you going to stay?”
Ajax watched as his father turned his back on him and walked back inside the house. “So I can get arrested? No thanks.” He turned and started walking down the street.
Sirens sounded in the distance, and then behind Ajax the sound of a motorcycle. Natalie rolled up on the bike Ajax had noticed outside his window a lifetime ago. Seth skated up on his other side.
“Come with us,” Natalie said.
“Why should I?”
“Well, for one, we can make sure those cops will never find you.” said Seth.
“You’re not going to get very far on foot. We can explain once we get out of this part of town?” offered Natalie.
Ajax hesitated, then swung up on the bike behind Natalie. Natalie nodded, and Seth grabbed hold of a tow cable wound behind Ajax. “Whee!”
Natalie sped up and Ajax tiredly wondered if Seth was going to end up splattered all over the landscape. But both Natalie and Seth seemed to have experience traveling this way.
After only a few minutes, the bike pulled to the curb beside a tall building with mirrored windows and a bus stop out front. Natalie took the bike up to the sidewalk, parked it beside the bus stop, and dismounted. When she sat down on the bus stop bench and leaned back, Ajax said uneasily, “I don’t really think we’re far enough… are we really waiting for a bus?”
“No,” said Natalie. “I just want to get my breath back before we go on. I never knew riding a bike could hurt so much.” She probed her side and hissed between her teeth.
Seth sat down beside her and put his head in his hands, and Ajax realized both of them were even more beat up than he was, with his injured side and bruised arm and dozens of minor scratches and bites. Seth’s face and pale hair were crusted with blood. Ajax had never been able to see past the other boy’s annoying smile to notice.
Natalie burst out, “I can’t believe your father. Why wouldn’t he even listen to you? I’m so sorry. If I’d handled it properly, had somebody come talk to him first, this wouldn’t have happened.” She hesitated. “We can still do that. It could help.”
Ajax laughed. “You couldn’t pay my father to take me back again.” He considered, “Actually, you could. Pay him, I mean. Cold hard cash would probably work.”
Natalie bit her lip. “There’s a little bit of money involved—”
Seth raised his head, “You’re not helping, Natalie. Chill out.”
“But his father was awful.”
Seth rolled his eyes. “It isn’t polite to tell somebody how bad they have it.” He heaved himself to his feet and walked around behind the bus stop.
Ajax did his best to ignore the exchange. “So, let me get this straight. You guys are soldiers in some sort of war against invisible monsters, and you— what, have recruiters come talk to people?”
Natalie, subdued, said, “Some of us are born in the Tower. But we recruit kids who have talent, yeah. Somebody on the Council talks to their parents.”
Seth’s voice drifted around the bus stop. “It’s like a very special boarding school, with monster-hunting as a varsity activity.”
Ajax frowned. “What’s this Tower?”
Seth tapped something on the mirrored face of the building in front of them. Each tap rang louder, until a bell-like tone suddenly became deep and watery. The mirrored surface rippled and Seth pushed his hand into it. Light streamed around his wrist.
He looked over his shoulder at Ajax. “Come and find out.” Then he stepped into the moving surface and vanished.
Ajax stood stock still as Natalie got up and pushed the bike over to the mirrored portal. “Please do. You saved those kids. You belong with us.” She smiled at him, and waited.
It was a beautiful smile. With such enticement before him, and the sound of sirens behind him, how could Ajax say no? He didn’t know where the portal went, but he knew he didn’t have a future. It seemed like the only fitting way to move forward.
With a deep breath, he took a step forward, into the unknown.
The story continues in Nightlights: Guardians…