“So there I was,” Alden said, leaning forward, “they had me surrounded. There were six of them, and none of them had bathed in a month. They reeked!” He laughed, then turned serious in an instant. “But I didn’t think much about that at the time. I put my back on the wall, feeling the bricks crumbling behind me. All I had was my little knife, no larger than my middle finger.” He held up his hand for comparison - a strong hand, with long fingers and a gold ring and calluses on the palm. “Every one of them had a sword. There was nowhere to run, no way I was going to talk them out of killing me.” He paused, staring his nephew in the eyes. Mar, torn between laughter at the ridiculous situation and at the same time half-believing his uncle, didn’t miss his cue. “What happened?”
Alden leaned back, half closing his eyes. “They thought they had me,” he said, “but they’d forgotten one key fact - I’m an utter coward. I dropped my knife and fell to my knees, begging for them to spare me.”
Mar frowned, slightly disappointed. Alden saw it and smiled a little, holding up his hand again. “Of course they didn’t, but it did give them pause, so I ran, right between the two biggest thugs, and never saw them again. Never underestimate the advantage of surprise, Mar.”
“I suppose, but as stories go, that wasn’t one of your better ones.”
“True,” Alden cocked his head. “I’ll have to work on it. Perhaps add some perilous hand-to-hand combat, a gaping pit behind me instead of a wall, that sort of thing.” He stood, stretching. “Time for bed,” he said.
Mar slipped off his uncle’s bed. “Tomorrow’s Saturday,” he said casually.
Alden grinned sideways at him. “You’re not tricking me, Mar. I know what you want.”
“I suppose. Last weekend after school, after all. Be sure to get up early this time. You don’t want me to have to use cold water again.”
Mar whooped and ran out of the room and upstairs. He loved going fishing with his uncle on Saturday mornings, not so much because he liked fish but because Alden would tell him another story from his incredible collection, all of which he claimed were absolutely true .
“Mar, I thought you were in bed,” his mother said as he entered the kitchen. She sat at the table, reading a novel, wearing her pajamas.
“Alden was telling me a story,” Mar said.
“He’s always filling your head with nonsense,” Sophie said, but smiled. “What will do you after he leaves?”
Mar scowled at the reminder. Alden was graduating from college with his degree in medieval history next spring, and would be leaving to go to graduate school in California. “I wish he could stay,” he said. Alden had only been living with them for two years, but already he seemed a permanent part of the house.
“Get to bed,” Sophie said, rising to kiss his cheek. She had to strain to reach, and she smiled up at him. “You’re growing too fast,” she said. “I don’t know where you got your height.”
Mar almost asked if his father had been tall, but bit back the words at the last minute, simply telling her good-night and going down the hall to his room. He had learned not to ask about his father; Sophie would get angry and send him to his room, refusing to tell him anything. All Mar knew about his father was that Sophie had left him when Mar was two, moving here to Colorado.
Mar got on his pajamas, brushed his teeth, and sprawled on his bed. The air was hot and still, and despite the open window he felt not a single breath of wind to cool him down. Outside the raccoons called to each other in their eerie whooping voices, following by the screech of an owl. Moonlight shone in the window, lining the blankets with silver. Mar turned over onto his stomach, resting his head on his fists. His thoughts returned to Alden’s story and for the thousandth time he wondered if any of them were true . Surely not - Alden couldn’t have been in half so many fights, and who carried swords around anyway? But still, he seemed serious, most of the time, and he did have a number of strange scars, not to mention the cool silver-bladed knife he kept hanging on his wall in a beaded leather scabbard.
Mar drifted to sleep, dreaming about Alden fighting men in black coats like they wore in spy movies, and somewhere in the background a very tall man called out to Mar that he was his father.
He woke at dawn. He opened his eyes, staring without moving at the bird sitting on his windowsill. It was pecking at some imaginary crumb, but when Mar opened his eyes it froze, cocking its head at him. It was a redheaded finch, the sort that hung around in the hundreds, fearless of humans who held seeds. In the clear pale light every feather on its head was scarlet and sharp-edged. Mar blinked and the bird flew away, wings beating a noisy rhythm in the silence. Mar shifted his gaze to his alarm clock, noting that his alarm would go off in ten minutes. He thought of waiting, but he was awake now, he may as well get up. He dressed, choosing a stained t-shirt and his oldest jeans. He and Alden rarely caught any fish, but if they did he didn’t want to ruin any of his nice clothes with fish guts. Sophie was very stern that the fish be cleaned before they came into her kitchen.
The house was silent as Mar crept downstairs to the kitchen. His mother’s door was cracked a little, and through it he saw the blue glow of the nightlight she kept on all the time. He padded across the white floor of the kitchen and leaned on the edge of the sink, staring out the window. Rolling brown hills met his eyes, studded with faded scrawny shrubs. A few trees grew around the house, old cottonwoods and an oak, but beyond them the terrain was nearly a desert, shining in the dawn.
Mar quietly fixed himself a bowl of raisin bran. Alden often teased that Mar would turn into a raisin himself if he didn’t eat something else for breakfast, but Mar didn’t care. The day wasn’t right if it didn’t start with raisin bran. He poured the milk and sat at the table, idly flipping through the novel his mother had been reading last night. It appeared to be a romance, and Mar closed it in disgust. Give him a good adventure story anytime, or even a mystery. If he thought of Alden as a mystery, perhaps he could figure out his secrets, like where did he come up with all his stories, and even more fascinating, what had he done before he came to live with his sister and her son? Seven years ago, when Mar was ten, Alden had vanished from the apartment where he’d lived. Sophie had told Mar that she hadn’t really worried, knowing Alden was impulsive and adventurous. For two years he’d been gone. Then one day Sophie had received a call from a hospital near Denver, asking if she knew an Alden Finn.
Mar still remembered stepping into the hospital room as clearly as though it had been yesterday. The familiar smells of sickness and disinfectant, the white walls, the bed in the middle of the room where Alden lay, needles stuck in his arms and machines surrounding him. His chest had been swathed with bandages, and the doctor had explained that he had been cut deeply in several places and had suffered a lot of blood loss.
Alden had said that he’d been in a car crash; driving too fast he’d left the road and slammed into a tree. The window shield had broken and sliced his chest open, leaving one gash so near his heart the doctor had been able to see it.
For the next six months Alden had lived with Mar and Sophie, and it seemed as though he would settle down. He started talking about applying for college, fixed up the room in the basement to suit himself, and then one morning he was gone again, not to be seen for another two and half years. He’d returned looking older, full of wild stories and no facts, and without further ado had applied to college.
“Good morning,” Alden said, as he stepped into the kitchen. Mar jerked, then grinned. “You startled me,” he said. “How do you move so quietly?”
“Quietly? I was making enough noise a deaf person would have heard me coming. You were dreaming, boy.”
“I was just wondering if you ever went fishing while you were gone,” Mar said casually.
“Nope, nowhere to fish. Got your lunch?” Alden asked, opening the fridge door. He wore jeans and a black leather jacket that never came off, even when the weather was a hundred degrees and humid, as it promised to be today. Mar filed away what Alden had said, adding it to his mental list of clues his uncle had dropped. So far he’d figured out the place was relatively dry, not too cold, but not very hot, rainy, and sparsely populated. Which pretty much fit about half the world. If Alden wasn’t just toying with him.
They’d packed sandwiches the night before and Alden brought them out, along with a thermos of ice water. Mar loaded the cooler, closed the lid, and looked up to see his uncle staring out the window, frowning.
“Are you coming?”
Alden turned, twisting his mouth into a smile. “Of course.” He grabbed the keys, but his gaze drifted back toward the window and the smile faded. Mar looked out too, curious, but saw nothing new. The finches had gone, leaving a barren landscape. Shrugging, he carried the cooler out to his uncle’s car, put it in the side, and slid into the front seat. Alden got in beside him, turned the key, and drove down the street, speeding as usual. Having a car accident had not made him a careful driver. Mar put the window all the way down and leaned over, letting the wind blow back his hair. It stung his eyes, making them water.
Alden drove steadily along the winding gravel roads toward the lake. He was unusually silent, and at last Mar looked over at him. “Are you alright?” he asked.
Alden started, as though he’d been deep in his thoughts. From his expression, they hadn’t been pleasant ones. “Yeah. I was just thinking.”
Mar stared back out the window, seeing a heron for an instant as it flew across the river. “Did you know my father very well?” he asked, not turning.
Alden didn’t answer for a moment, and when he did his voice was guarded. “I met him a few times. Why?”
“Can you tell me about him?”
“I think it’s your mother’s place to decide what to tell you,” Alden said. Mar sighed. Alden swerved around a corner, then stopped in front of a small blue house. Mar glanced over at him. “Why are we stopping?”
“I need to talk to a friend of mine right quick. You can stay here, I’ll be right back.” Alden swung out of the car and walked up the sidewalk to the door. Mar studied the white curtains in the windows of the house. He saw a grey cat lying in one, asleep. A big lab barked from the back yard, wagging its tail. Alden knocked on the door, and it opened immediately, revealing an older man, unshaven, wearing a ragged jacket much like Alden’s. He peered at Mar, then turned his attention to Alden. Mar strained to hear what they were saying. A few words reached his ears: “Really? Maybe you’d better . . . No, I haven’t seen . . . Call if you hear anything . . . Sure.” The man nodded, stared at Mar again for a moment, then closed the door. Alden returned, getting in without a word and starting the car. They drove the rest of the way to the lake in silence.
Mar and Alden returned to the house late that afternoon. Mar went straight up to his room, hot and filthy, he needed a shower. Sophie poked her head out of her office, then drew back, wrinkling her nose. “Catch something?”
Mar nodded. “A couple bluefin.” He grabbed some clean clothes and darted downstairs, hoping to beat Alden to the shower. He was in luck, for his uncle was still in his room, the door closed. His voice, muffled by the closed door, could be heard - he was evidently talking on the phone. Mar paused, trying to hear, but Alden was talking too quietly.
After he showered Mar returned upstairs to fix himself a snack. The fish were stashed in the fridge, ready for supper, and he smelled them as he opened the drawer to grab an apple. Taking the fruit to his room he closed the door and turned on the radio, sitting on the windowsill. He thought back to the fishing trip. Alden had hardly said anything all day, and when Mar had asked him what was wrong, Alden had snapped at him, telling him it was none of his business. Stung, Mar hadn’t asked anything else, and they’d finished the fishing in cold silence.
Mar walked down the hall, with some thought of talking to Alden, but as he passed through the kitchen he thought he heard something. He turned, just as Alden climbed the last step, then froze, as though he too heard it.
Strangely, the kitchen door was opening all by itself. Mar frowned. The door led to the back yard, and his mother, the only other person in the house, was still in her office. As the door swung farther open, Alden stared oddly, almost knowingly at the door. For a moment the door hung open, swinging slightly in the afternoon breeze. Mar had just opened his mouth to speak to his uncle when a small, muscular man in a long black cloak burst violently into the kitchen, running straight for Alden, each hand wielding a fantastic, wicked-looking knife. He leapt at Alden, and Mar cried out but Alden darted nimbly to the side; his cheerful face turned suddenly savage, and as if from out of nowhere he now held a knife of his own, smaller than the attacker’s weapons, but still deadly looking. Mar pressed himself back against the counter, watching in shock as his uncle danced around the kitchen, dodging blows from his assailant’s shining blades. Finally, with one lightning-fast strike, Alden stabbed the man directly in the stomach. Blood gushed across the white tiles, and Mar felt himself sway; his vision dimming. Alden stepped back, his chest heaving. Some of the anger drained out of his weary face. He started to turn toward Mar but the dying man lunged, snarling, and sliced deep into Alden’s leg.
One minute Mar was leaning against the counter, feeling dizzy, the next he was kneeling by his uncle, shouting something, and Alden was telling him to get back, and he looked up to see his mother standing in the doorway, her hand pressed to her mouth, and then the world spun and went dark.
Sophie stared down at the empty floor where a moment before her son and brother had been. The pool of blood, startlingly bright on the white linoleum, she didn’t even notice. For a second she leaned against the doorway, pressing a hand to her mouth. Then she staggered forward, dropping to her knees. “Mar,” she whispered. “Alden.” Her voice fell into silence. There was no answer. Shaking, she buried her face in her hands.