Summer Sketches (1st revision)
Sierra Summer flung the door open to see Heidi unconscious on the hospital bed with her knees bleeding and bruised. The door hit the stopper on the wall with a loud thud. Sierra stared, soaking in the scene, then stepped into the room and sat on a chair against the wall. Her mom, across the room and dressed in scrubs, only nodded her way before returning her attention to Sierra's older sister on the bed.
Sierra's dad arrived next, still in uniform. Sweat dribbled down his face and neck like he'd run the full five miles from the police station to the hospital. She suspected he actually had, though he caught his breath within the minute he stood still in the doorway, staring dumbly as Sierra had. He proceeded to the edge of Heidi's bed and blocked Sierra's view of her sister's mangled knees.
Sierra turned her attention to Heidi's face, calm, yet bruised on both cheeks with one black eye and a cut on her neck close to her throat. Blond hair touched her shoulders and spread around the pillow. In silence broken only by the beeps of the heart monitor, Sierra could almost hear each of her sister's breaths.
Her dad sighed and spoke with his wife. Sierra's own thoughts filled her head and bounced any spoken words back out. This was no accident, so who had done it? And why? Why did Heidi let it happen? She could fight well, and if not that, she was stupidly good at running away. Sierra doubted one person had done this. At the very least, Sierra's few serious fights with her sister suggested she could throw a good kick or two.
Sierra brushed her own hair over her eyes. She saw straight white strands now rather than her sister's beaten face. Her thoughts did her no good. She'd leave everything to her parents. Her mom could heal her and her dad could catch whoever did it. She could do nothing. Somehow, that both comforted her and made her feel sick.
Sierra felt a hand on her head brush hair from her eyes and looked up to see her dad. “C'mon,” he said with a weak smile. “Up with you.”
Sierra stood, felt dizzy, and followed her dad out of the room and out to the parking lot, where Officer Summer unlocked his wife's silver van. Sierra hopped in the passenger seat.
“All the working cars were out,” he said as he groped around the left of the seat before eventually finding the adjustment controls. “Bad scheduling, bad planning, bad coordination — we are better than this.”
Everyone makes mistakes, Sierra thought, but said nothing. Could her dad have prevented Heidi's injury had the police been prepared? Could she have prevented it? Maybe if she stuck to her sister like an annoying human shield. Would that have been enough?
“You're quiet today.”
“You ever feel powerless, Dad?”
“With a gun on your belt?”
He nodded. “Maybe less than you with your philosophy, but still some.”
“Pacifism has nothing to do with it,” Sierra said.
“Sure,” said her dad, sounding unconvinced.
Sierra looked out her window. She focused on the blurs of people and buildings near the sidewalk. Black and blue graffiti flew past like the wind was bruising the buildings in succession. They passed that quickly. The police at least kept graffiti to a minimum.
On the few occasions her dad drove her home, he would usually ask how Sierra's art lessons went. She'd reply positively regardless of how the lessons had gone and her dad would nod and proceed to specifics. Sierra would elaborate. Her dad would ask a few more obligatory questions and forget the answers to them — and Sierra wouldn't fault him for that. She didn’t remember much he told her about his job either.
A few streets later, they turned into their driveway. Sierra stepped out of the van. She looked at the three steps up to the front door and realized Heidi wouldn't be able to jump up and down those like she used to. She ascended them herself and stepped over the half-foot rise from the porch to the door frame. Heidi wouldn't be able to cross this on her own for a long time. Sierra sighed and walked straight up the carpeted stairs just inside the door, down a short hall, and into her room. She flopped onto her bed and drew out her phone. Twelve messages, it said. She tossed it somewhere. She didn't feel like texting anyone today.
She flipped over and moaned into her pillow, then looked across the room at Heidi's bed. It would be empty for awhile. On the bright side, Sierra could use the extra privacy to her advantage and draw things Heidi would never let her hear the end of. That in mind, she shuffled through a layer of discarded junk and sat the wrong way on the chair in front of her computer desk. She picked up her tablet pen, turned her screen on, then stood up and flopped back down into bed.
Today was just a bad day. Sierra just needed to sleep it off and she’d be better tomorrow morning.
She woke at night and remembered that she usually wasn't capable of sleeping 16 hours on a whim. Moonlight peeked through the window at the head of her bed. She looked out it. Beyond the wraparound roof, a trampoline, and a 10-foot fence, three figures on bikes pedaled past. Sierra watched them go till they rounded a corner. Then her phone beeped and vibrated. She found it at the foot of Heidi’s bed and unlocked the screen.
One new message from Heidi Summer.
Just those words brightened Sierra a bit. Less than a day in the hospital and Heidi was already breaking its “no cell phones” rule.
Girl, late teens, black scarf, blue sleeveless, Russian long face, super-pale, red hair.
Guy, our age, black hat, blue hoodie, black, short beard, black hair.
Guy, early twenties, black pants, blue T-shirt, mustache, blond hair.
“Since when do you punctuate a text, Heidi?” Sierra said to the screen. What was she talking about, anyway? Descriptions of people, but of who, and why? Were they descriptions of the people who'd smashed her knees? That was all Sierra could come up with. She read it over a few times and the notion solidified in her mind. All three wearing black and blue suggested a gang of some sort, which would explain how Heidi lost the fight, if there was one. Reading over the descriptions, she started to hate the people they depicted. How dare they gang up and attack a single girl. How dare they ruin her dream of playing varsity volleyball in the fall for whatever petty reason they had to hurt her? How dare they do such a thing and not immediately turn themselves in? How dare they hurt a police officer's daughter? How dare they hurt her sister?
Sierra pocketed her phone. She was still wearing her day clothes: a blue tank top, black basketball shorts, and sandals. They still smelled like sweat from playing volleyball on the beach, then running to the hospital. She didn't care. She rolled out of bed and left her room, jogged down the stairs, stopped just long enough to grab a baseball hat and a spring jacket on a whim, and stepped out into the driveway.
Kay, she thought. Now what?
Go after the bikers, maybe? There were three of them, but that hardly meant they were the people she was looking for. She had another idea and headed downtown at a jog, threading her ponytail through the back of her hat and under her coat. She pulled the hat's bill down to cast a shadow over her eyes. It was past curfew and she was three years underage, and, being the only albino in the city, she was unfairly distinctive. Because of her dad, every cop in Golden Hills knew what she looked like, so it wasn't like anyone would forget if they saw her out late.
This was just one night. She'd pursue her idea for just this one night, then she'd stop breaking the law.
She arrived in downtown Golden Hills and walked quietly as she could over to the train yard, checking corners and listening for any sign of life. As far as she could tell, she was alone. On the side of a boxcar that she couldn't remember moving in years was black and blue graffiti declaring the authority of a gang called “Crossroads” illuminated by dim moonlight.
So was this the product of Heidi's attackers? She liked the painting — she'd always respected the way graffiti artists could make simple text into compelling artwork — but she was certainly capable of liking art while hating the artist. So what should she do? She remembered seeing the graffiti here after passing it earlier today, but it was on several other buildings. It didn't look like much when she passed it in a moving van, but it occurred to her now that three people shouldn't be able to control such a large turf. Sierra barely controlled half of her own bedroom when Heidi was healthy.
She could report it to the police and have it erased, but the artist in her slapped the cop's daughter in her for even thinking of that. She'd always wanted to try graffiti herself, and this was a good opportunity to do so. For now, she knelt and searched around until she found a piece of broken glass. She scooped it up, gripped it tight, and mashed it into the side of the train beside the existing graffiti. Slowly, painfully, she carved her first message into the boxcar:
Watch your backs!
She tossed the bloody glass aside and clenched her fist. It hurt, but it made her feel better for some reason. The more it hurt, the more she hated the “Crossroads” gang. She clung to that hate. It motivated her and conjured images in her mind that she'd have to get down on paper, then possibly onto a wall. She stood back and admired both her work and the gangsters' for a moment before heading home at a jog.
The streets were empty and the dark was dotted by inconsistent blips of light from bedrooms or bathrooms or the few businesses still open this late: gas stations, fast food, and a flower shop owned by a husband and wife who slept in shifts and kept the shop open all day, every day. Sierra had only broken curfew twice before, both times on Heidi’s dare. They’d eaten at McDonalds first and bought flowers for an elderly friend with cancer the second time.
On her third time, she found herself missing Heidi.
When she arrived, she went straight to the bathroom and showered fully clothed, minus her jacket, hat, and phone. The hot water stung her hand, which was torn up worse than she'd thought. When the blood washed off, though, the cuts looked significantly better. Still, in retrospect, she'd been stupid to use broken glass as a pen. The pain gave her an idea, though. She turned off the shower, realized she'd rather not sleep in wet clothes, stripped, and went to her room in a towel. She opened her pajama drawer, yawned, closed it, and flopped down into bed. Sleep came surprisingly easy considering she'd only been awake for two hours or so. She dreamed of a giant made of paint cans crying under a bleeding boxcar. Still somewhat lucid, she scolded her mind for making no sense and turned her dream into happy one, then into a dirty one, and then she stopped dreaming.
Sierra woke up to the front door slamming. She heard footsteps coming up the stairs, going down the hall, and then a knock came at her door.
“Are you up yet, Sierra?” her dad asked. He sounded irritated, much more than usual.
“Yeah-hm,” Sierra said.
“Come downstairs. I have a strong urge to own someone in Mortal Kombat.”
“Challenge accepted,” Sierra said, and slipped out of bed. “Wait, why? Didn't you confiscate that last year?”
“I'll tell you later. Go take a shower and stuff. I'll make coffee if you want it.”
Sierra showered and checked the temperature on her phone before pulling on a hoodie that was too big for her and another pair of basketball shorts. It occurred to her that she'd worn the same general type of thing all summer regardless of the weather, but she didn't care. She only ever paid attention to fashion when Heidi told her to.
She arrived in the living room and plopped down on the wide white leather couch in front of a TV that still looked huge to her even after owning it for five years. Her dad set a steamy mug on the table beside her, then picked up two of their four controllers from the stand under the TV.
“How’s Heidi?” Sierra asked as the game console’s logo appeared on the screen. She glanced over at her dad. He still wore his uniform.
“Awake now, won’t talk to me much.”
“Like you talk to her much anyhow?”
Her dad shrugged. “It’s not that I don’t want to talk to her. I don’t know. Maybe we just don’t have anything in common to talk about?”
“Huh,” said Sierra. “But neither do we. Except this, I guess. Why do you suddenly want to play violent, corrupting games with your innocent, impressionable daughter?”
“Last year you said this game was an outlet for your ‘underlying violent tendencies.’ Or so you called them.”
“I was an idiot last year, Dad. I have no violent tendencies.”
“I know. I don't think you're impressionable enough to pull people’s heads off because Johnny Cage did it. Or strong enough, for that matter. That and you have to follow the laws of physics and he doesn’t.”
“Aren't you using the same arguments Heidi did last year?”
“I don't care. Also, the chief said I couldn't investigate that.”
Sierra selected a character: Sonya Blade, the police officer. “Heidi's attackers?”
“Yeah. I know the rules and I know officers are usually taken off cases where their families are involved, but I still don't like it. My wife gets to help Heidi and I can't jail the ones who hurt her to begin with.”
They paused and both concentrated on fighting till they settled into a rhythm.
“That's not fair,” Sierra said.
“It prevents bias. But I still don't like it and hey, you know what else is unfair?”
Sierra's character stood dazed in the middle of the screen. She'd picked Sonya so her dad could beat on his colleagues without actually beating on them, but she thought she’d have to sandbag and let her dad win. She hadn’t. His character jerked around on the screen a bit as he tried to pull off a fatality, but a few button presses from executing it, he let the combo break, walked over, and finished his daughter's avatar with a simple punch.
“Flawless victory,” Sierra said at the same time as the in-game announcer and her dad. She narrowed her eyes. “Have you been practicing this game? Even after you said it was a bad influence?”
“It's just for today,” said her dad. “I really don't want you playing a game where you can casually break every bone in your sister's body and proceed to rip her in half.”
“Oh, come on. This violence is so cartoonish you'd have to be under five or over forty to be offended by it.”
“You're killing me, Sierra,” said her 48-year-old dad.
“No, Dad. You’re killing me.” She nodded toward the screen. “So messed up. Since when do parents beat their kids at video games? Has that ever happened in the history of anything?”
“I played Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat in arcades, Sierra. I’m not as old as you think.”
“Yeah, still not supposed to happen.”
She looked up at her dad. He looked pretty smug. They played twice more and she lost both times, but didn’t let him get any more flawless victories in. She even managed to win a round after discovering a combo he couldn’t counter till halfway through the next round.
“When did they remove the ‘friendship’ finishers?” her dad asked as they sat on the character selection screen. “Are half these characters not friends in the campaign mode? Why do I have to kill you?”
“Saving that for DLC?” Sierra guessed. “I dunno. Ask Heidi.”
“Just walk up to her in the hospital and ask her why Mortal Kombat characters kill each other?”
“Hey, I’ll do it if you’re afraid to talk to your own daughter.”
“I’m not afraid. I just don’t think she’d answer me.”
“Not even if it was about something she’s interested in?”
“I tried volleyball and the ice cream shop.”
Sierra tried to imagine that. It was awkward at best. Regardless, she downed her cooled coffee and stood up.
“Dad, I’ll go see Heidi and stuff. I'll be out for a bit.”
Sierra slipped on her shoes and headed out. She grabbed her bike this time and pedaled downtown. It was a five-minute bike ride. It took her ten minutes, as she occasionally stopped to talk with people who had read about Heidi's condition in the newspaper, or friends who were headed to the beach. She was the only one headed for the store.
Sierra spent that morning shopping. Her art only made a little money when she posted it online, but it had added up over the years. With a couple hundred dollars, she picked up several cans of red and white spray paint as her own “gang colors,” dark clothes and gloves to keep her hidden in the night, a black respirator to keep the fumes out of her nose and mouth, safety glasses, and a new pair of running shoes.
“I've seen your art online,” said the clerk when she checked out. “You're Sierra Summer?”
“You should draw something for me next paycheck. I love how you do backgrounds.”
“Well, you're getting better, but it's your backgrounds most people commission you for, right?”
And it's time to add a new skill to my repertoire, she thought as she left the building. She hooked several bags over her handlebars and pedaled out toward the train yard. She stopped. Several people stood side-by-side in front of the boxcar she'd carved on — more than three. She wanted to know how they were reacting, but she assumed that for all they knew, it was just a new rival gang challenging them. There were several more gangs than Crossroads in Golden Hills, anyway.
That gave her an idea.
Sierra arrived at home in way too good a mood. She went straight to her room, turned on her tablet, picked up her pen, and drew. Graffiti was new to her, so she opened several references on her second monitor. She practiced for hours and hours, stopping only to make herself a fruit smoothie around lunchtime before returning to her work. Painting graffiti on real cement or steel would be different from painting it in Photoshop or Illustrator — precision would be more challenging and she wouldn't have an erase tool, and she'd also have to watch for police or the gangsters.
She let her ideas flow from her pen onto her screen until dark. By then, she was drawing without references. She'd formed several styles of her own, and every last one would contribute to her plan. At 10, she donned a black hat, black clothes, her glasses and respirator, and her running shoes. She squeezed two spray paint cans between her belt and her hips, realized that wouldn't work, and carried them in her hands. She stuffed spare cans in a bag and slung it over her shoulder.
Sierra left through the window. She closed it behind her and jumped off the roof, landing awkwardly on the trampoline, twisting her ankle, and rolling off in silent agony. She lay in place for a minute while she let her ankle recover, then set off on foot. In hindsight, she probably could have gone out through the front door without waking her parents. Her hindsight didn't make her ankle feel any better.
She jogged downtown and made it in about fifteen minutes. She went to the train yard, but made about five patrols around it before entering. At the boxcar, the gangsters had painted a single word over her message in fresh blue paint:
Nice and simple; they hadn’t even put any artistic effort into it. It was just a dripping word. She circled to the other side of the boxcar. It was big, but it had enough handholds in various places that she could climb around it and paint the whole thing. She flicked the lids off her paint and went to work, breathing hard through a stiff respirator that she regretted not trying before buying. Each breath fogged up her goggles, so she eventually just removed them and stuck them in a pocket. She painted for a good hour, making her work as clean as possible while using as little paint as possible. She still ran out of paint in the first two cans before she finished. No matter. She had plenty.
When she finished, she dropped a few feet to the ground and stood back. The word PATH in all stylized red caps stood out against a background of white. She'd painted around the natural red of the boxcar to form silhouettes: three human figures walking down a path in simple one-point perspective. She'd drawn red and white fire burning out of the letter A, where the path ended. Ten silhouettes, white against the red letter, walked out of the flames to meet the first three.
Satisfied with this piece, Sierra jogged out of the train yard, pulling her respirator down as she went to breathe easier.
She located more black and blue graffiti on the side of a convenience store closed for the night: a solid black X dotted in the middle with the natural light gray of the convenience store. At least Crossroads understood how to use the canvas to their advantage. She ducked behind a dumpster as a police car passed, then raised her paint and sprayed:
Peter of PATH.
She emphasized the P in both Peter and PATH, drawing it like the fancy first letter of a chapter in a novel.
Next, she found black and blue graffiti on the wall of a back alley. She peeked around every corner and in every window before painting:
Antonio of PATH.
This time she emphasized the A, simpler than the P, more like bold font in Photoshop. She made it sketchy with several small “brush strokes” of her paint
She went on like this. Every time she found black and blue graffiti, she painted near it.
Tara of PATH. She emphasized the T, made it more like a crucifix.
Hector of PATH. She emphasized the H and painted fire on it.
That completed the names of the founding four members in her head, so she just randomized the next six.
Aria of PATH.
Dan of PATH.
Nick of PATH.
Jordan of PATH.
Rick of PATH.
Kidd of PATH.
She took more time on each one than she should have, but she painted faster with each successive work. She personalized each one with a different style, switching between using her left hand, her right hand, and both at once. She made some text sharp and some soft, some with fancy fonts and some painfully simple — Jordan's, especially so. She even punctuated his properly and made it easy to read. He could be the gang's English guy. Peter, Antonio, Tara, and Hector respectively painted right-tilted, left-tilted, small, and large.
When she finished everything, she could see the sun on the horizon. She backed up and leaned against a paint-free wall, letting out a long breath. There were less police patrols than she’d expected, but then she remembered they were apparently disorganized at the moment. There were more cars out now, but still not enough that she couldn't stay hidden. She was tired, but she couldn't sleep yet. She had two things left to do.
First, she went home, stripping off her paint-covered clothes and pushing them into her bag as she went. She still wore shorts and a T-shirt underneath. Her dad was up, making coffee, again in his uniform. Did he work night shifts, or did he leave right after breakfast? She couldn’t remember. He turned around as she walked in the door.
“Hi,” she said. “Before you ask, I was just grabbing my paint stuff from the garage. Remember, we put it there two years ago?”
Sierra made a mental note to actually get her paint stuff from the garage within the hour. She'd actually forgotten about that till it was time to make up an excuse.
“About that,” said her dad, “you should really use your paint more. It’s like hundreds of dollars down the drain and replaced by some touchy monitor.”
“Called a Cintiq,” said Sierra. “Three grand of pure awesome. If it didn't pretty much replace all my old stuff, it wouldn't be worth it.”
“I doubt that.”
“Me too. Can I have some coffee?”
“Coming right up, Princess.”
Sierra headed up the stairs. Over her shoulder, she said, “I'm not that entitled.”
When she thought about it later as she was getting her paint from the garage, she realized that in some ways, she probably was that entitled.
Two hours later, Sierra left the house again, this time with her phone, dressed in day clothes, and filled with caffeine. She rode her bike down to the hospital. Heidi was awake now, and her mom was there with her like she'd been the first day.
“Yo. Sierra.” Heidi grinned when Sierra entered. “Good news and bad news.”
“Bad first,” said Sierra, taking a seat. Heidi looked comparatively healthy from the waist up, but her knees were still a swollen, broken mess.
“No volleyball for me till senior year.”
“Jeez. What's the good news?”
“I'm gonna make a full recovery. It'll just take a while.” She changed the subject abruptly. “You look really frickin' tired.”
“Quiet, you,” Sierra said. She smiled. “I can't sleep when I'm worried.”
“Aw. You cutie, you.”
Across the bed, their mom just smiled as she went about her work. The moment she left the room and closed the door behind her, Heidi's tone changed.
“Did you get my message?”
Sierra nodded. “I pretended to be an entire rival gang and painted on their turf all last night.”
“Dude, nice. Don't get caught, though. I was lucky to get out with just this.” She nodded down at her legs.
“Yeah, about that,” said Sierra. “What happened?”
“I tried to erase their graffiti and they saw me.”
“Why? Their graffiti is actually good.”
“It's illegal, too.”
“And you've cared about the law... since when?”
Heidi shrugged. “I dunno. But erasing graffiti and cleaning up and stuff — isn't that what good citizens do?”
Sierra started to reply, stopped, thought about it, and eventually said, “Actually, you’re the first person I’ve heard of actually erasing graffiti. But good artisans wouldn't dare. So that's really it? You just erased graffiti and whack?”
Heidi nodded. “Yeah, but I'm totally okay with you doing it. You're doing it for a good cause.”
“Well, good enough. You're like 'chaotic good' or something. Like Johnny in Mortal Kombat, or the Office terrorists in Counter-Strike.”
“Have you told Dad who attacked you?”
Sierra raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”
“I’ll tell him later. I’ll wait and see how your thing works first. If I told him, he’d just nab the baddies and you’d have nothing to do.”
“Fair enough. And hey, the department actually won’t let Dad on your case. It ‘prevents bias’ or something.”
“Well,” said Heidi, “then that works out for all of us.”
Their mom came back and all talk of graffiti and gangs ceased. Sierra left after five more minutes, hopped on her bike, and rode back to the train yard. This time, she dismounted and walked straight in. There were five people dressed in black and blue there. Four turned to look at her as she approached. Three of them fit Heidi's descriptions. She hated them. But she kept her face calm.
“Hi,” she said. She motioned toward the side of the boxcar with the black and blue Crossroads on it. “Mind if I take pictures? Not of you — just of the art.”
“Knock yourself out,” said the one who hadn't turned away. He was a taller guy with black hair as long as hers. He painted as he spoke.
“Wait a minute,” said one, a girl who looked about Heidi's age. Russian long face. This was one of the three who'd hurt Heidi. “What for?”
“Inspiration. I draw stuff sometimes and thought your stuff was pretty cool.”
It was the truth. The girl nodded, but didn’t look very agreeable. “Fine. Go ahead.”
Sierra went ahead. She also took her time and listened as the gangsters chatted. They talked about their lives, their families, what songs they liked, and most importantly to Sierra, this new PATH gang.
“Ten people in it,” said one. “Going by the paint, anyway.”
“Even with ten, doing as much as they did in one night without us seeing them is just weird. Let's catch 'em tonight.”
They hushed their tones from there on, glancing up at Sierra. She took a commemorative photo of her first piece — which Crossroads hadn't touched. As she hadn't painted over their work, they hadn't painted over hers. They did, however paint more, some with direct threats toward PATH.
Shove yourself back up Detroit’s polluted ass, was her favorite, painted in solid black against a blue city in the background. She took a picture of that. The others were either not as fun, not as skilled, or were just unreadable.
“It pisses me off,” said a gangster. “It's like they're looking for a gang war. I bet they're just a bunch of cunts from Detroit who can't compete with the real gangs up there. Y’know, the Al Capone type with fedoras and classy suits and Tommy guns.”
“I don’t think they have those anymore, dude.”
“Maybe not. But, like, Mafia and stuff. Cement shoes and bank robbery real. Not like rap groups. Or us even.”
Wear black and blue, paint graffiti in the most hideout-ish place in town, and you’re not a real gang? Sierra thought, and walked toward the exit. “Thanks, guys,” she said. On a whim, she turned around, but before she spoke, one of them said:
“Wait. You. Albino. Which art is better, between us and PATH?”
“Well, obviously I'm under pressure to say yours are.”
The speaker, a brown-haired high school-age guy, said, “Be honest. I wanna know.”
“PATH,” said Sierra. “Your stuff is more detailed, but PATH has more raw skill, I think. How long have you been painting?”
“From one to ten years,” said the guy, motioning around to the others. “Anyway, that's all I wanted to ask. Get your ass moving.”
Sierra had planned to sleep after this, but she couldn't pass up an opportunity. She stopped at a gas station and downed another coffee, then sat against a tree where she could see the train yard and started doodling on her phone. Before too long, she got bored and edged closer till she was barely within earshot. She climbed halfway up a car’s ladder so her feet wouldn’t show, then listened. The gangsters didn't say anything interesting until about twenty-five minutes into her eavesdropping session, and by that time, her fingers were starting to hurt from hanging on to the ladder.
“So speaking of kids, I'm thinking that albino might have been part of PATH.”
“Really? She's pretty young.”
“Can't be much younger than Lin.”
“Shut up. She’s at least five years under me.”
“Nah, I don't think so. You sure you're just not mad she thought PATH painted better than us?”
“Fuck you, man. I just thought she could be Aria or Tara.”
“Who names their kid Aria in this country?”
“It’s better than Bertha.”
From then on, they got onto the topic of names, and Sierra wasn't brought up a second time. They might still suspect her, though, so showing her face again would definitely be a bad idea. She listened to them talk for two whole hours before they finally all left.
She followed them.
They walked up and down various streets. They stuck together, one peeling off occasionally to enter a house. They did this, and yet when there was only one left — the long-haired man — he turned around and walked all the way back about three blocks. Apparently he was just being a good friend and walking his friends home — something Heidi and Sierra did with their own friends. She remembered, though, that this man had been the one to give her permission to take pictures. Maybe he was just nicer than the rest. He hadn’t been on Heidi’s list, anyway.
Regardless, Sierra remembered his house’s location. Now she could get some sleep.
When she got home, she changed into pajamas and sat on her bed, then got an idea. She went to her computer and started drawing. Preemptively, she set her alarm to go off at eleven.
She finished one picture, then moved on to another. Getting into the heads of ten characters in such a short time was hard. To improve her made-up gang, she had to know everything about each of its members. Conveying their personalities and problems and goals through their art wasn't easy, but she managed to get at least some distinction between half her gangsters. Peter was a “freedom fighter,” a rebellious man with some sense of justice; Antonio was a straight gangster, into rap and cars and women; Tara was just looking for love in a hateful world; Hector was “the mysterious quiet one” who spoke through his art.
Sierra realized there was something wrong with these characters, but couldn’t quite place it. It wasn’t like she went around creating fictional characters all the time. Regardless, it was better than having them all be exactly the same person. This, at the very least, would make her ten personas feel like different people beyond their handwriting as long as she kept their personalities in mind when she painted as them.
Three gang members were still not fleshed out too well by the time her alarm went off. She shut it off before the first note ended and realized she'd been drawing for close to ten hours. With a yawn, she donned her paint gear and jumped out the window again. She turned and landed on her back in the center of the trampoline this time. Her ankle still hurt more than it should for such a simple injury, and she noticed that the cuts on her hand were starting to scar. They looked horrible — like they'd been caused by something much more serious than simply using broken glass as a pen.
The jog into town flew by and she completely avoided the train yard this time. She went straight for the houses, avoiding all the streetlights. Just when she thought her stealth was working, someone’s dog woke up and started yapping at her. She ran past it and around the block. A few seconds later, she heard a door open, and the close. The yapping faded, but was still faintly audible. Sierra reached the first house a minute later. On its side wall, she painted:
PATH knows where you live.
On the second house, she peered in the window. An old black woman was reading a newspaper by the fire. Sierra wrote:
PATH knows who you love.
Painting this hurt her heart. The old woman had done nothing wrong, and though she wasn't in any danger, she felt horrible for threatening an old lady.
In the third house, a woman of maybe twenty or so, naked under a thin nightgown, repeatedly went and looked out the window by the front door. Sierra painted:
PATH knows with whom you lie.
She didn't see anything too extraordinary about the fourth house, so she painted a generic:
PATH is always watching.
The fifth house was fully lit. Sierra crept up to the window and peeked in. She saw a man and a woman, both around forty, standing close and shouting something at each other. Even through the wall, Sierra caught a few words that the couple emphasized. “Payments,” “child care,” “abortion,” and “God” were among them, though she couldn't hear the context. With that much noise in the house, no wonder their child preferred a gang. Regardless of circumstances, though, said child had hurt Heidi.
On the side of that house, Sierra painted:
She heard gravel crunch, but didn't have time to turn. Something thick, cold, and hard clipped off her head and slammed into her shoulder. She heard a crack and felt something tear in her body. She screamed. Dropped both paint cans. Her arm fell to her side and the very motion burned. Lights flashed in her eyes. Her entire body stiffened. She fell on her hands and knees first, then collapsed when her right arm wouldn’t support her weight. She couldn’t afford to lay still. She kicked at the ground, clawed with her good hand. She heard another whoosh from the bat and rolled forward in an awkward somersault. The bat bounced off the heel of her shoe. She barely felt it. She struggled to her feet.
Sierra ran. Her ankle didn't hurt anymore, nor did her hand. Her lack of sleep didn't bother her. All she felt was agony in her shoulder as she ran. With each step, she expected the pain to overwhelm her and send her toppling to her attacker's mercy. She couldn't breathe. She tore off her respirator and squeezed it tightly in her good hand as her other flopped uselessly.
Footsteps matched hers behind her. Someone was shouting and someone was screaming. It wasn't her. She could hear her voice leaking out here and there, but she wasn't screaming or shouting.
A light flashed on in a house to her left and a window slid open. Two houses down, another light went on. A woman stepped onto her porch with a shotgun, but Sierra only saw her for three seconds, then never again. Maybe just as well, maybe not.
More lights popped on, but died out as she ran more and more. Her hair fell out of her shirt at one point. It billowed out behind her, white and long and distinctive, practically glowing in the moonlight as it bounced off her back and stuck to her skin. Surely her pursuer recognized her by now.
She turned corners. She shot through alleys. The shouting and screaming had stopped, but she couldn't stop running. She knew they were still behind her. She couldn't turn around to check — they'd see her face — but she heard footsteps still.
When she realized she was running straight toward her home, she turned another corner, then another shortly after. She saw an open dumpster and dove in, slamming the lid down behind her.
Then a footfall on pavement. Then another. No voices. Only footsteps. Louder. Quieter. Silence.
She felt around below her with her good hand. The dumpster smelled like rotting food and barf, but all she felt was cardboard. Piles and piles of cardboard. Quietly as she could manage, she got under them. It was slow. Every movement hurt her, and she had to stop and reset her position several times to keep from screaming in pain. She eventually got under several layers, though.
She lay there, curled in a feeble ball for maybe five minutes. The dumpster's lid opened and someone sifted through the boxes on top of her, breathing hard, wheezing here and there, muttering under his breath, cursing occasionally. She heard “albino” a few times. She heard “Aria” and she heard “Tara” and “PATH.” She didn't move. Maybe thirty seconds passed. Maybe a minute. Too long. Regardless, the lid shut again and Sierra was still alive.
She wanted to wait longer, but her adrenaline was wearing out and her shoulder hurt even more now. She waited a minute and left the dumpster, cringing as the movement stung her. She stumbled out of the alleyway, her adrenaline and energy gone. She didn't look to either side. She just headed home.
She saw a light flick on in a house somewhere off to her right and someone called to her, asking if she was all right. She said she was and kept walking.
No one else stopped her.
In her house, no one came down to meet her at the door. She didn't make much noise, but she thought for sure someone would have at least heard her shuffling in. Were both her parents sleeping? At work? In hindsight, memorizing their schedules would have been prudent.
It was over. This injury would probably cripple her for life if she didn't get help. She made her way over to the freezer and removed a bag of frozen peas. She gently placed it over her shoulder, twitched, and opened her mouth to scream. She didn't. She let it catch in her throat. She clenched her teeth and held the peas there. She went up to the bathroom, tripping over three steps on the way. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, she couldn't see anything wrong with her shoulder on the outside. She started to pull her shirt off, but her shoulder wouldn't let her. So she took scissors from below the sink and cut her shirt off. Her shoulder looked like Heidi's knees. It was black and blue and red, starkly contrasted against pale skin. Seeing it made it hurt more. It had started to swell, and she couldn't even move it slowly anymore.
She had to tell her mom. It had been fun, but it wasn't a game. Her health wouldn't regenerate if she waited behind cover for blood to fall off her face. She couldn't pick up a health pack or simply bandage something like this. Eating food wouldn't instantly restore her health. She'd done everything in her power to get revenge for Heidi's injury, and now she was down and out, too.
No. Not yet. She hadn't been caught — not even by the police. She could still walk and run and paint. She just needed one more day. If her arm felt better tomorrow, she'd be fine, and she wouldn't have to tell anyone. If it didn't, she could go directly to the hospital and make up a story.
She lay in bed, but couldn't sleep despite staying up three nights in a row. She was starting to see things floating around in front of her. There was a boxcar in front of her door one moment and it was gone the next. Her tablet was made of glowing red and white plastic for a moment, Heidi’s bed flashed on and off like a light and then she couldn't see it in the dark. Her shoulder felt good on the peas now, as they were squished into the pillow. When the swelling went down, she'd put a heat pad on it.
The sun came up and Sierra had only drifted off a couple times. She had never felt so drained in her life. Her shoulder didn't hurt much anymore unless she moved it, but it was stiff and swollen and she couldn't move it independently to begin with.
She smelled bacon and coffee downstairs and fell out of bed. She changed into a new pair of shorts pretty easily, but she struggled with tops till she finally managed to get a hoodie on by pulling it over her bad arm from below. She turned on the shower and dunked her head in long enough to soak her hair, then dried it one-handed and went downstairs with the towel draped over her shoulders.
“Sierra, you've got bags under your eyes.”
“Couldn't sleep,” said Sierra. “Too much coffee. Can I have more?”
She stood there, swaying a bit at the bottom of the stairs. Her dad approached her and put the back of his hand to her forehead.
“I'm a mammal.”
“Darn. I got, like, one thing to do in town today and I'll come back and sleep for, like, ever. That okay?”
“I’d like to say ‘go for it.’ But first, what’s so important you have to abuse yourself for it?”
“Heidi,” Sierra half-lied.
Sierra rode her bike one-handed. She had three things to do today: check on the gangsters, buy peas to replace the ones she'd ruined, and go to the hospital. She wouldn’t paint today unless she absolutely had to.
Somehow, she ended up at the hospital first. Her mind had just taken her there. She walked in the doors and went straight to Heidi's room. It was still early, so Mrs. Summer wasn't working yet, and Heidi was alone in her room. She looked up at Sierra and her smile disappeared.
“What's wrong? You look like you haven't slept in forever.”
Sierra plopped down on the chair beside her sister. “Heidi,” she said. “I messed up. I can't paint anymore.”
“Did you get caught? Why haven't you slept?”
“No. And I haven't got around to it. They got me, though. Didn't catch me. Got me. Hit me with a thing. I'm gonna watch them for today, then I'll be back here.”
Heidi said nothing for a minute. “Forget about my message,” she said. “Forget about the gangsters. You haven't slept since that first day, have you?”
Sierra shook her head. “It's all right. I drank a ton of coffee, so I can stay up.”
“You're gonna kill yourself, Sierra. Stop. Just close your eyes and sleep here for a while. Please.”
“Sorry,” Sierra said. Her sister’s features knitted themselves together.. “Just one more thing. I'll be back really quick.”
“Really quick,” Heidi repeated. “Really quick.”
The train yard was empty. Sierra sat on her bike by the entrance and and stared in at the untouched graffiti on the boxcar. She sighed. Maybe it was best to go back to the hospital first, after all. Every second she didn't get treatment could reduce her odds of a full recovery, and every second she stayed here increased her odds of getting shot.
“Hey,” someone said from behind her. Sierra turned to see one of the three people Heidi had described: a young black boy, Sierra's age. He had a short beard, but today, he wore blue jeans and a white T-shirt. Sierra's heart jumped and her mind told her to run, but she couldn't. She had no energy left.
“You're the albino from yesterday?”
Sierra nodded dumbly. Maybe, by some miracle, this guy didn’t know what had happened last night.
Instead of shooting her in the face, he smiled. “You look tired as hell.”
Sierra nodded again, smiling a bit in return. She thought words, but didn’t say them. Not enough energy.
“What would you say if I told you Crossroads was done?”
Sierra did her best approximation of a swivel on her bike seat. It didn’t work. Her foot caught the wheel and she fell off. To her surprise, the boy helped her up. His hands didn’t go anywhere near her bad shoulder.
“C’mon,” he said. “Walk with me.”
He half-dragged her into the train yard, not forcefully, but with just enough pressure that she started to tremble.
“We know who you are and what you did, Aria. Or is it Sierra? Sierra Summer?”
“Codename Aria,” said Sierra with a weak smile.
“This was all revenge for your sister, then. You really are Sierra. Did you join the gang after or were you always in PATH?”
“Funny, that,” said Sierra. “I’m kinda the leader.”
She felt something cold press to her head. Contrary to her expectations, she didn’t hear the distinctive chk-chk. Instead, she heard a girl’s voice.
“So if I painted your final piece with your brains, PATH would die?”
“Maybe,” said Sierra. “They’d be a bit mad, I think. Hornet’s nest and all.”
She was just babbling now, but it seemed to work. At the very least, the gun didn’t fire and she was still alive. She’d heard somewhere that humans had a higher chance of survival being shot in the head than they did being shot in the chest. That was pretty hard to believe, what with one pressed to her head and all.
“Put the gun away,” said a young man’s voice. Sierra felt the gun move away.
“Why? Can’t we just cap her and make it look like someone else did it?”
Sierra looked over her shoulder. The long-haired man was speaking and everyone else was looking at him. The Russian-faced girl had a gun, but no one else did.
“Do any of you really want to get involved in a murder? Against a kid, no less? One who’s never hurt any of us?”
“She painted on our houses,” the black boy offered.
“Did she? PATH knows with whom you lie seems a bit... not like something someone her age would write. Fourteen?”
“Fifteen,” said Sierra.
The girl swung the gun up again. “Who else —” she began. The gun barrel clipped Sierra’s head. She stumbled, then fell. “Whoops.”
The long-haired man sighed. “When I say ‘put the gun away,’ I wish you’d do it.”
Sierra rubbed her head with her good hand. The girl pocketed the gun and kicked Sierra onto her back, then set a foot on her chest. “So who was with you last night?”
“No one was with her last night,” said the long-haired man. “After you hit her, Lin, you chased her. I saw a few people run out and try to catch up, but none of them had paint and they all came from houses. Last night, Sierra worked alone.”
Lin whirled on the man, releasing Sierra. “So you just sat there and let me chase her alone?”
“What would you do if you caught her?”
“Snapped her neck and tossed her in a dumpster.”
“Huh. Maybe I should have chased you after all.”
“Pardon me if I side with the person who doesn’t want to murder a child.”
The girl clenched her fists, but sighed and started walking. “Fine,” she said. She kicked Sierra’s ribs on her way by. “Just let her go, then. After we finally have PATH’s leader, just let her go. You know what, actually? I’m not letting her go.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“I’ll do the same thing to her we did to her sister.”
“No,” said the man. “If you have to hurt her, don’t leave anything permanent.”
Sierra could see the girl’s agitation rising in her face. She turned around suddenly. Sierra felt hard rubber crack against her cheek, then her head slammed into the dirt. The girl kicked the side of her stomach, then stomped on her ribs. She stepped back for a moment as Sierra curled into a quivering ball.
“Anyone who wants no part in this, follow me,” said the long-haired man. “Lin, we’ll be at my house. If you kill that girl...”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.”
Sierra groaned and looked up. Her vision was spinning already. She tasted blood in her mouth and it hurt to breathe in. She saw the long-haired man walk away, followed only by one person: the third person on Heidi’s list. The other three gathered around Sierra.
“I do kinda want to kill her,” said the girl. “If I did, would anyone ever know?”
“Probably,” said the brown-haired guy beside her. It was him, her, and the black boy.
The guy kicked Sierra’s bad shoulder then. She screamed and rolled, trying to get to her feet and run. Something hit her face as she got to her knees and sent her back to the ground.
“Lin, c’mon, don’t kill her.”
Sierra opened one eye. Lin had her gun out again.
She grabbed Sierra’s hair and yanked her head back.
“We’re not gonna have long after this,” said Lin. “So be ready to run. Also, cover your ears.”
Sierra screamed and jerked around on the ground. Maybe she could have slipped away any other day, but she was too weak now.
“Wait a minute,” said the black boy. “Wait, just wait.”
Sierra’s ears rang and she screamed, but she heard nothing. She couldn’t see. Her vision was brown and black. She felt the ground vibrate under her head, and then she was choking. She breathed in dirt and sand whenever she tried to breathe. What was left of her vision started to fade as she ran out of oxygen.
She felt something hard drop lightly onto her head, then onto the ground. She grabbed it with her good hand.
She rolled onto her back, opened her eyes. Everything was blurry and her eye stung. The black boy wasn’t there anymore, Lin was doubled over, shaking her hand, and the high school guy was standing, frozen. Sierra raised the gun, pointed it at the air. She pulled the trigger. Presumably, it fired, but she only felt the kickback. There was no sound except the screaming filling her ears. She fired again. Again. Again. Again. Then there was no kickback. She threw the gun as far as she could — five feet if she was lucky.
She closed her eyes again to stop the stinging. It stopped. So did everything else.
When she woke up, her family was there. Heidi was in a wheelchair and her parents stood. She looked down at her shoulder. It was wrapped and it ached, but it didn't hurt.
Her mom clicked something on her watch and sighed. Heidi looked like she was crying, but Sierra couldn’t tell. Her vision was still too blurry. Her ears still rang a bit, but she could hear things now.
“Can you hear me?” her dad asked.
Sierra nodded. “Yeah.”
“Do you feel all right?”
“My everything hurts. Am I dead?”
In response to herself, she blacked out again.
She remembered walking to the van, then nothing, and woke up in her own bed. Everything ached, but she felt awake. She looked across the room. Heidi sat on her bed on the other side of the room, pushing a wheelchair back and forth with her toes. Sierra looked at the door then.
“We're grounded,” said Heidi. “For forever. Sorry.”
Sierra could hear her perfectly and the ringing was gone. That was a good sign.
“Till the end of summer. Dad says we get an exception for my birthday in July and nothing else.”
Sierra shrugged and found that her injured shoulder actually moved. “That's not forever,” she said. “Considering what I did, I'm surprised it's that short.”
“Wanna know why it's short?”
“Try raising your hand.”
Sierra raised her hand.
“The other one.”
Sierra tried to raise her bad arm. It wouldn't go past her shoulder.
“It'll be like that forever.”
“Nope,” Sierra said. She tried to raise it again to no avail. “I bet you it'll heal before summer's over.”
“Maybe,” said Heidi. “I hope so. There’s another thing, though.”
“Do you feel, like, different?”
“In your mind or something. Dad says you might have some sort of trauma.”
Sierra ran a mental inventory check. She didn’t feel too different, probably partially because she had no idea what had happened in the train yard.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“What happened, anyway?”
“I don’t know. Dad won’t tell me. He says you almost died, though.”
“Wow,” said Sierra.
“Yeah. I think I owe you a lot now. Like, a whole ton of a lot.”
“No you don't,” said Sierra. “Just tell me why you really went around erasing gangsters' graffiti and I'll be happy.”
Heidi bit her lip, then spoke. “I just want to get along with Dad like you do. Like, I thought he’d appreciate me doing ‘good citizen’ stuff.”
“Did you tell him that?”
“Let's make a deal, then,” said Sierra. “You straight-up tell Dad you wanna be a daddy's girl and I won't make you buy me a one-twenty hertz monitor.”
“Dude, you don't even play games. Why do you need a gaming monitor?”
“I don't. I'm blackmailing you.”
“But I want a gaming monitor.”
“I suck at blackmailing.”
“You're just the best sister I could ever ask for, Sierra, and I love you. Don't make me say that again.”
Sierra smiled. “Never again.”