* * * * *
Alison, her head jerking right then left, threw her arms up over her face, having no choice but to follow her interrupted momentum to the floor, where she suddenly laid splayed out on her back.
Conner watched as Ali got up to a sitting position, then she noiselessly picked herself up and walked back to the center of the mat. A couple of kendo partners practicing a weapon kata, who knew the siblings well, perked up at the fall. It was not uncommon for them to trip or occasionally knock the wind out of one another, but this was something else. Ali blinked away the dizziness and probed her rattled jaw with her tongue, but said nothing as she brought her hands up and inched closer to engage her troubled brother again.
She noticed how he was favoring his left side and had winced a couple times already after tweaking something in his upper body.
Conner offered no apologies, but collected himself and started in with another string of right-handed jabs. “My life affords me enough time to consider my mistakes,” he explained. “I don’t have the luxury of incessant busyness—never having time to worry about the last mistake you made because you’ve got to move on to that other thing.
“I just can’t move on so soon after what happened. And you can’t push me along,” Conner said, his voice ringing with the sound of finality, bringing their sparring session to an impromptu close with a high toe kick. He turned and began to walk away from her.
Ali blocked the kick and slipped to Conner’s weak side as she mistook his resigned body language for arrogance. “So that’s what this is about,” she rebuffed, reaching out to execute a basic judo throw.
Conner’s head whipped back in shock as Ali applied pressure to his shoulder, and he squelched a cry of pain. Ali released him and Conner collapsed to his knees.
Alison rested a light hand on her brother’s back as she kneeled to inspect him. Conner’s lower lip was trembling, and his body had been sweating at an exaggerated level—a clear sign of the physical pain he was hiding. She was about to ask of his condition when another thought leapt into her mind.
“Can you even remember the boy’s name?” she asked, not a sliver of judgment in her tone.
Conner, mouth ajar and body heaving from fatigue, looked up ahead. Near the exit, Conner saw a young boy standing in the doorway, waving his hand as if gesturing for Conner to come join him. The eager youngster was laughing, pounding his foot in excitement, and wagging his head to spur the slow adult into action. Everything else around the boy was blurry, indistinct, and Conner couldn’t tear his eyes away. Then something interrupted the scene, and Conner watched as the boy’s parents caught up with him and all joined hands as they left.
Conner turned to his sister, eyes blinking tears amidst the sweat. Maybe it was the pain, the exhaustion, or the distance of time. All he could do was shake his head.
“I know,” Ali whispered. “Because I remember. I remember pressing my lips to his, blowing air into his dying lungs. I remember doing the repetitions, trying in vain to keep his heart from failing. I remember you were there, too, and how much I cried until it hurt when it was over and he was gone. I think I cried mostly because of you. But I still remember. His name was Oscar.”
Ali leaned over and kissed her brother on top of the head before she stood up to follow a couple and their bald child out. She didn’t like leaving him, but Conner was right when he had implied that she was a slave to her lifestyle. Someone somewhere needed her, someone not capable of helping themselves.
Conner stared at his hands, both quivering and shaking. He focused, breathing and heart rate becoming normal; a slight buzz floating around the few areas where he had been hurt two days ago. He felt lightheaded, just for a moment, and then settled, his concentration fully in hand. His emotions were in check; he had passed the emotional and physical test. He gazed up at the huge digital clock built into the wall overlooking this part of the gym.
No more time to lose.
* * * * *
One more pair of teasers upcoming!