Helen’s hand twitched as if to drop a burning coal, but then it occurred to her that dropping a loaded gun was not a good idea. The XD Sub was an awkward shape to hold like a dead mouse, but Helen certainly tried. “Dwight, are you out of your mind -”
It’s only an instrument of murder if you use it that way, Dwight thought angrily, but that was an old argument and this was a new one. He stepped back from Helen, trying to get as much distance between them as possible without getting too near their dad. Their parents’ living room seemed smaller by the second.
“Stop intimidating your sister.”
On the surface their father’s voice sounded authoritative, but Dwight heared the fear lurking underneath. He was well-primed to listen for that, now. “Haven’t you done enough damage already?”
“He hasn’t done anything.”
Dwight gave the man a flat, warning stare and turned back to his sister. “Just fire the damn gun, Helen.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Like any other battle, Dwight had cautioned himself again and again in the months he’d had to think this over. Like any other battle. Choose the time, the place; know the lay of the land, how your opponent thinks; know what you could expect of yourself, and what you couldn’t.
Dwight couldn’t expect to be thinking clearly. Some men were like that but he wasn’t, wouldn’t be standing on his parents’ doorstep if he was. This was going to hurt like like hell, and the best Dwight could expect of himself was to be prepared for it. He’d had months, after all.
He knew his dad was home alone. He knew his mother wasn’t due back for hours.
He rang the doorbell.
“I - didn’t expect -”
“I got out of the hospital two weeks ago. Didn’t Helen tell you?” Yeah, she did. Dwight didn’t wait any longer than it took to confirm that from his father’s expression before he asked: “Can I come in?”
Dwight didn’t wait on his father to finish speaking, or move out of the doorway for that matter. This is your first mistake. He didn’t think this through; he reacted out of the hurt already pushing under his skin like broken glass. At least this wasn’t so bad, as mistakes went.
His father followed him in. “What do you want, Dwight?”
Dwight turned around to face him, acutely aware of every inch of height difference between them. “I want to know why you didn’t tell me.”
“Why I didn’t tell you - what?”
Dwight took a step forward. “About our family heritage. You know, the one that almost got me killed in Afghanistan.”
“Going to war is what got you almost killed.”
“You mean being a bullet magnet did. Don’t try to pretend you didn’t know, Dad.” I can see the truth on your face.
His father’s lips pressed into a thin, white, angry line. “It seems you have it all figured it already.”
“Except the reason you never told me about the family Trouble.” You know they’re called Troubles. Dwight hadn’t been sure; he’d used the word as a gauge. That his father knew this much only made it worse. “You never did anything to try and dissuade me from enlisting.”
His father snorted. “Are you going to say you regret that, now?”
There were men who Dwight loved like brothers who were alive now because of his Trouble. He couldn’t not be grateful for that, but he was also grieving: he’d never be able to set foot in a gun range again, would never be able to be a soldier again. Someone else would take his place; no soldier was irreplaceable. It still felt as if his soul had been ripped away from his body. The guilt was crushing, too: he had years left on his contract, years he owed now rendered a debt he could never return.
“No,” Dwight forced himself to say. His voice remained calm. “I don’t regret anything. But you knew that being a soldier was going to activate this Trouble, and you never even warned me.”
Flatly, his father said: “We don’t talk about this.”
His father’s expression remained shuttered.
This was where Dwight might’ve lost this, if he hadn’t prepared himself. He was angry enough to raise his voice, hurt enough to plead. Both reactions were mistakes he couldn’t afford. “There’s no ‘we’,” he said, and showed himself out.
He had to tell Helen. There was nothing he could do about his father; it wasn’t any of his business, what his mother knew or didn’t know; but Helen might’ve inherited this Trouble same as he did and guns were everywhere, not just in the military. And it wasn’t just that: his little sister was married, now. One day she, too, might have children.
Knowing his sister, though, he didn’t expect her to accept this without proof. That was why he dug up the XD sub-compact, the .40 caliber he’d bought for her years before. The XD Sub was a good handgun: small enough to comfortably fit in a woman’s hand and still a one-shot dead-stopper. She’d left it behind when she moved away, but she could handle it.
“I’m not firing a gun in the house.”
“That’s fine. We can go in the yard.”
“You do realize you don’t just sound crazy, you look crazy? You still look injured. And you’re telling me to shoot you.”
“It’s loaded with dummy rounds. And I’m wearing a vest. Just point it in the opposite direction of me, so the bullet loses more momentum. It’ll bruise, but that’s it.”
“Or your sister puts a bullet in her mom’s cabinets.”
Dwight glanced at their father without turning his head. “You’ve nothing to be afraid of. The only thing that bullet is going to hit is me. You never so much as hinted at anything. This Trouble is not going to activate in you now.”
“What does that mean?” Helen demanded. There was fear in her voice. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“It means this Trouble only activates if you -” desperately “- want to save someone else.”
Helen’s jaw shook. Their father opened his mouth to speak. Helen pointed the XD Sub at the ceiling and fired before he could.
Helen stared at the dummy round embedded in Dwight’s vest, then slowly looked at the gun she still had pointed up. God, Helen, I’m sorry, Dwight wanted to say, but that wouldn’t do anyone any good. He hated himself for putting her through this but she needed to know and she was never going to believe this without proof. He was going to say I’m not crazy and This is hereditary; he had his throat worked around the right tone of voice, the softness that was for his sister and not for young soldiers.
Helen swallowed decisively and he knew he'd miscalculated.
“Helen?” he asked.
She unloaded the gun and put it down on the coffee table in an orderly fashion. Then she looked him in the eye and said, tears streaming down her face: “I guess I don’t want to save you all that much, either.”
Or the bullet would’ve -
He hadn’t thought -
He hadn’t thought.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
He thought about that later in the hotel room as he checked his newest injury in the mirror. He knew Helen would walk away or he would’ve never put a gun in the hand of his sister and told her to shoot. He’d been so sure of that all along, he hadn’t thought about it; he had to do this to keep her safe. That mattered more.
That was always going to matter more. He laid his head against the cool glass. He was never going to outrun this. He knew that since that man, Grady, had explained what the Troubles were, what this Trouble was. He just hadn’t really thought this through until now.
Now he had no one but Lizzie to protect, and Lizzie he had to live for.
The truth was anybody might break. Those who didn’t accept that didn’t make it through training. The truth was Dwight broke, because that’s what it took to activate a Trouble. The truth was his Trouble probably saved him from something worse.
He straightened his back and deliberately met his eyes in the mirror, ignoring everything else. His body fell into the right posture on its own.
If he’d shattered, there’d be no one to protect Lizzie now. And no matter what else he’d lost, who else he’ll lose, he had this.
He opened the tap and bent down to wash his face.
He’ll make it.