Subverter — Chapter 1
It had only been three months since I’d seen my brother, so I never expected that I wouldn’t recognize him.
My gaze flitted over the rows of shaved heads and green-on-green athletic uniforms lining up in front of us, desperately searching each stern, unsmiling face to find Damian’s. Finally I spotted him, third from the left in the second row, staring straight ahead just like all the other recruits. Without all his hair he looked so much older. I don’t know if I could say he seemed stronger or tougher or more serious than he had before boot camp—he had been that way ever since the day we returned from Arah Byen. He’d seen the face of war, and stared into the face of death, and the realness of it all had never left him. Somehow I’d always known he would end up in the military.
Maggie and my best friend Darcy crowded close beside me, cheering and whistling so loudly I was sure I’d go deaf. I watched, but couldn’t seem to find my voice. My throat felt strangled, like someone was trying to choke me who couldn’t quite finish the job. I took a deep breath and let myself smile, because smiling at least was safe.
Finally everyone fell silent to listen as someone who looked important started talking about how he had turned these recruits into Marines. He didn’t talk long; his speech was straight and to the point, decisive. After all, he was a Marine.
The platoon was called to attention.
Vaguely I felt Darcy shaking my arm. My mom had a hand on my other shoulder, but I barely heard her asking me if I’d seen Damian. Saying how strong he looked. I just watched, strangely numb, as the platoon turned and jogged off to finish their motivational run.
The next few hours passed in a blur. We were herded from one place to the next, ending up on bleachers to watch the parade. Finally my excitement caught up with me. I counted minutes until I could hug him, talk to him, ask him how he was. Tell him how proud I was. Tell him how much I’d missed him.
God, I’d really missed him.
The platoons reappeared, marching now, wearing their cammies. The military band blared a suitably martial song. I didn’t pay any attention to the things that were said, the words of advice for families, instructions to the recruits. I just kept my gaze fixed on the platoon, and there, in the second row, my twin brother. Then, abruptly, everything dissolved into a chaos of activity. The platoons broke up, the people in the stands were cheering, shouting, and clapping, shoving past as they rushed to track down loved ones. I stood close to Darcy to avoid being trampled.
“Go find Damian,” Mom said, shoving us gently. “We’ll wait here. It’ll be better than making everyone crowd down there, anyway.”
Darcy grabbed my arm and hauled me down the bleacher steps before I could even consider the wisdom of her suggestion. We edged through the herds of people, sidestepping enthusiastic hugs and weeping mothers. Where was Damian? I could’ve sworn I’d just seen him standing near his platoon, but with the forest of people around me, most of them significantly taller than me, I’d lost him.
I spun around. Damian appeared through a gap in the crowd, pushing his way toward me, his face one huge smile. I barreled toward him and threw my arms around his neck, and he lifted me clear off the ground in his enthusiastic hug. I didn’t want to let go of him. For the first time in months I felt like a whole person again, and I wanted to hold onto the moment as long as I could, because I knew it wasn’t going to last. After a moment Damian released me, holding me at arm’s length and studying me with a strange, almost sad smile on his face.
Okay, he had changed. He’d changed a lot.
I took half a step back, scrutinizing him in turn, as if he were some strange exhibit in a museum. My mind couldn’t quite process what I saw in him. I didn’t know what to think, what to feel. A part of me I wondered if I’d changed as much as he had.
Everyone told me I had changed when I’d come back from Arah Byen a year ago. They said I’d come back a completely different person. I’d lost friends over it, friends who couldn’t understand why I was so much more serious, so much more distant than I’d been just a few months before. The friends who didn’t run away didn’t understand the change either, as Darcy constantly reminded me, but they stood by me anyway.
And while Damian had come back from Arah Byen knowing exactly who he was and what he wanted to be, all I seemed to understand was who I wasn’t, and what I didn’t want to be. Somehow I’d muddled through senior year, at some point following Darcy’s lead and applying to my dad’s university. Now I had a shiny schedule of classes all set to start in a few days, and much as I wanted to, I hardly even cared.
All I really wanted was to go back to Arah Byen, but that option simply wasn’t one. Besides, the person I most wanted to go back for wasn’t there anymore, either. I had nothing. My heart was torn between two worlds, belonging to neither, with no place in either. An exile, still.
I envied Damian his certainty.
He was hugging Darcy now, grinning at me sidelong as she squeezed him tight, her cheeks bright pink against her golden hair. I’d always known she had a thing for him, and apparently he didn’t mind. Past Damian I saw my parents and Maggie wading through the crowd toward us, too impatient to wait any longer for us to bring him to them. My mom reached us first, and Damian stooped to receive her proud hug. She clung to him with tears in her eyes, and after a moment I realized he wasn’t just tolerating it. He hung on to her just as tightly, his brows knotted and eyes squeezed shut.
“You must be so proud of yourself,” Mom murmured, patting him on the back.
He lifted a hand to his eyes, while I stared disbelieving. Half of me wanted to look away, but part of me just wanted to comfort him. I wondered if I would ever really be able to understand, or share, what he’d been through those three months of Basic.
I watched him pull himself together and extract himself from Mom’s hug, then he turned to Dad and Maggie. Maggie rubbed his shaved head with a teasing comment, but Dad just clasped his hand, met his gaze firmly, then embraced him without any words at all. That was so like Dad. He was never one for words when silence could speak just as clearly.
Damian turned away a split second, dashing his hands across his eyes again. I could tell he was trying not to let us see it, but he failed miserably. We all pretended not to notice.
“Where’s Tony?” he asked, voice husky, as he turned back around.
And that was the question I’d really hoped he wouldn’t ask. Mom smiled at him, sadly, taking hold of one of his strong arms.
“He couldn’t make it, Damian. He sends you his best, though. Wishes he could be here.”
I wondered if Damian could tell it wasn’t true. Poor Mom. I knew from the sincerity in her voice that she desperately wanted it to be true. Tony hadn’t been the same either, since Dad returned with Damian and me last summer. We’d never really been able to explain to him and Maggie where we’d been, or where Dad had been all those years. It wasn’t the sort of thing that could just be casually explained and then forgotten. Maybe that wasn’t fair to Tony and Maggie, but Maggie had taken it better than I expected, while Tony had distanced himself from the family, and buried himself in his books instead.
Damian had seen it happen all through our senior year of high school—how Tony got more absorbed in his studies, spending more time away, avoiding more family gatherings. Since Damian had joined the Corps, I’d only seen Tony once, and that by chance in the university library. He hadn’t said a word to me.
I knew Damian had been hoping that things had improved. Mom didn’t fool him, though—I could tell by the sadness in his eyes. But he didn’t say anything to upset her. He just returned her smile and nodded.
“So what should we do now?” Maggie asked.
Damian suddenly spun around, scanning the crowds, then threw a hand in the air and shouted, “Hey, Cabra! Get over here, bro!” I couldn’t see who’d he’d beckoned to, but as he waited for his friend to come, he turned back and said, “Mom, do you guys mind if a friend of mine hangs with us today? He doesn’t have anyone here with him.”
My mom’s mouth dropped open with complete horror. “What, no family? No friends?”
“Family’s not on good terms,” Damian said, shrugging. “It’d mean a lot to him. And to me. He’s like a brother.”
The word held the very faintest touch of venom. I thought of our absent brother, then pushed the thought away. I wasn’t going to let Tony spoil this day for us. After a moment I realized that everyone was nodding approval, but Damian’s gaze was fixed on me. I smiled and shrugged, the best affirmation I could give. I couldn’t really say no. I couldn’t be that heartless.
I watched Damian’s friend stride toward us, and Darcy gave me a pointed, and painful, jab in the ribs. My heart sank, just a little. He was tall, well-built like all of the recruits, at least as far as I could tell through the bulk of his cammies. Good-looking, I had to give him that. Why did he have to be good-looking? He carried himself just like a Marine, hands clasped behind his back, head high, but there was a huge, silly grin on his face. His dark eyes flitted over our little group, and the smile got a little bigger when his gaze fell on me. I blushed and stared at the ground.
“Guys, this is Eduardo Garcia. Cabra, my fam.”
“Cabra?” Maggie echoed, skeptical. “Doesn’t that mean goat?”
“Yeah, man,” Eduardo said, with a wink and a wide grin, snapping his fingers into a double thumbs-up sign. “‘Cause I am El Chupacabra.”
Darcy giggled and Damian smacked Eduardo on the back of the head. As soon we’d all been introduced, my mom seized Eduardo in a warm hug.
“We are so proud of you,” she said fiercely, as if she’d adopted him then and there. That was so Mom.
My dad shook his hand and gripped his shoulder, then Maggie gave him a hug too.
Fantastic. Thank you, Mom and sis, for setting a precedent I’m going to have to follow.
Still, my heart went out to Eddie. It just wasn’t right for anyone to face graduation day all alone, without anyone to cheer you on, to tell you they were proud of you for getting through what was probably the toughest thing any of these guys had ever done. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. And from the way Eddie’s grin had gotten even bigger than ever I could tell that their hugs meant the world to him.
He turned to me. Damian was watching me too, expectant. Better and better—apparently my brother had joined the conspiracy against me. I sighed, just a little, and opened my arms. I gave an unintentional gasp of surprise as Eddie practically threw himself into my hug, squeezing me tight like I was a long-lost best friend or a long-absent girlfriend. Yuck.
In some corner of my mind, I remembered the last guy— not related to me—I’d let hold me like that. Yatol. I could still feel his arms tight around me, hear his words creeping back into my memory:
“I would go anywhere for you.”
“I stood at the gates of Hell for you.”
I jerked away from Eddie, heart hammering. Oh God, I’d heard him. Heard his voice, right there. Right behind me. I swung around, scanning the mass of humanity, but I only saw crowds of families, friends, and young recruits. I realized I was shaking, then after a moment I noticed everyone in my group was staring at me, puzzled. I tried not to look at Eddie, but out of the corner of my eye I saw him with his hands still extended, his face a perfect mixture of confusion and embarrassment.
Damian touched my arm. I hadn’t even seen him come up beside me.
“Um, Mer, what’s the problem?” he said in a low undertone. “It wouldn’t kill you to hug Eddie, you know.”
I couldn’t find my voice. Suddenly Damian pulled his hand away from my arm, studying me now in genuine concern.
“You’re cold as ice. You okay?”
I shook my head fiercely and clasped my shaking hands on my arms, self-conscious with everyone still watching me.
“I’m fine. Sorry, D. I didn’t mean anything by it, just…got a funny feeling all of a sudden.” I had to do something to salvage the situation with Eddie, at least for Damian’s sake. I racked my thoughts for something to say, then settled on the truth. “Sorry, Eddie. I just thought I heard someone call me, and I freaked out. Uhh…not so pleasant memories, you know.”
Eddie relaxed, but instead of grinning and waving it off like I expected, his confused expression dissolved into concern, and he hugged me again.
He rattled off a stream of Spanish that I only half-understood—and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to understand the other half—and finally ended in English, “You let me know if anyone here is bothering you, and I’ll take care of it, right? Me and Saber, we got you covered. No worries, okay?”
I hid a grimace behind a smile and nodded. Sometimes I didn’t understand myself. If I’d been any other girl, I would have been in absolute heaven getting this kind of attention from this kind of guy. Suave, hot, fit, sweet as could be and my twin’s best friend—what wasn’t to love? I could feel Darcy’s accusing gaze, wondering the same thing. So why didn’t I seem to get it? But I couldn’t help pulling away, couldn’t tear down that wall I’d built up inside. Anything less felt like I was betraying Yatol. All of my sane, mature, practical self was screaming at me to move on, to get over it, to let the past die, but I just couldn’t do it.
My gaze roved one last, desperate time over the people. I’d heard his voice, as clearly in my ear as if he’d been standing beside me—not the vague, quiet, internal voice of memories and dreams. But it wasn’t possible. My throat burned and I struggled to push back the rising knot of tears. I wanted it to be possible. It was all I really wanted.