Thomas and Katherine: The Game

     He’d been looking after Katherine since she’d been born. Mother tried, but it wasn’t easy to raise two kids by herself — especially when one was special. So Mother went to work and Thomas dropped out of school to take care of his sister.

     Katherine was sweet and funny. She was curious about everything, but she couldn’t grasp more than the most basic of concepts. Thomas learned to speak slowly, clearly, and to use simple words when explaining things to her. He seemed content to spend his days watching after her, teaching her, protecting her. He reasoned it was good practice for when he was older and joined Dawn’s Light and would use his air magic to protect others.

     Mother started staying away longer. The pay she brought home dwindled. The pile of empty bottles in her bedroom grew larger.

     As Katherine grew older, Thomas was the one to help his sister understand the changes in her body and her feelings. Mother was nowhere to be found as Thomas sat holding Katherine, reassuring her that the blood didn’t mean she was dying. Comforting his sister, Thomas realized he didn’t care if Mother never came home. Whether she returned or not, Thomas knew he’d never be able to leave Katherine.

     If he had any resentment towards Katherine for having to give up his dreams, he never showed it. He reserved his resentment for his father who had disappeared when he was 6, and for Eli — Katherine’s father — who left Mother before Katherine was even born.

     He wasn’t really sure when Mother stopped coming home. He didn’t have time or inclination to worry about her. One of the coastal resorts was opening a camp nearby and Thomas hoped to find work that wouldn’t keep him away from Katherine for too long.

     They needed staff to serve and clean up after dinners. The work would be hectic, hot, and dirty, and he would be expected to look his best and smile while serving self-important tourists. But it was pay and it was close to home. Katherine would be all right by herself for a few hours every evening. She liked to play with her puzzles in the evenings, and he would be home in time to get her to bed. Thomas accepted the job.

     The work was hard and thankless, but it meant they had a bit of money for food and clothes. Sometimes Thomas would bring home left-over desserts. Katherine especially liked the tiny chocolate cakes topped with fresh berries that he brought home for her 16th birthday. Then one day Katherine got bored with her puzzles and was curious about what her brother did when he went out each evening. She had watched him walk off towards the trees before, so she decided to walk that way and find him.

     Thomas found the guests this week particularly odious. The grown children of wealthy families, they were used to having whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it. They were the kind of people who had more money than morals, and the four men Thomas had to serve were the worst of the lot.

     They were just starting to serve dinner but only two of Thomas’ charges had arrived. He really could not have cared less if they missed their roasted pheasant with jaru berries served on a bed of ancient Earth grains, but late arrivals threw off his timing for serving and this group delighted in complaining about situations of their own making.

     The other two guests at Thomas’ table were also missing their friends and looked around often for them. A loud crash from deeper in the camp drew their attention. “Ah — here they come now!” one grinned as three figures staggered towards the dining patio.

     “Leave it to those two to find some local game.” The other one laughed.

     The two began sharing crude jokes and stories about local girls, laughing about what they would do. Thomas had to grit his teeth to keep from lashing out at them and quickly strode to the kitchen to fetch dinner for the late arrivals. He returned just as the other two arrived, supporting a drunken girl between them.

     “Hi, Thomas!” Katherine greeted her brother with a sloppy grin and slurred words. “I came looking for you!” She couldn’t stand without the help of the salacious men on either side of her.

     Thomas dropped the plates. “Katherine,” he tried to keep his voice calm and reassuring. “Come on, let’s go home.” He stepped towards her, hoping the repugnant guests would not cause trouble.

     The repugnant guests decided to cause trouble.

     “Not so fast.” One of the two men pulled out from under Katherine’s arm to stand between Thomas and his sister, pushing Thomas back. “Our new little friend here is going to join us for dinner, so you just scurry on back to the kitchen and get us fresh plates.”

     Thomas glared murder at the man, but kept his voice calm for Katherine’s sake. “She doesn’t understand what you want from her.” He spoke through clenched teeth. “I’m taking her home now.”

     “No, Serving Boy, we’ll take her home when we are ready — and we won’t be ready for a long time.” The two at the table stood to join their friend in blocking Thomas’ way. The man holding on to Katherine flashed a lecherous grin at Thomas and waggled his eyebrows. The guests at the other tables laughed and cheered on their leaders while the other servers nervously watched the confrontation.

     “Katey, remember the game we play out in the field?” Thomas had to stand on his toes to see her over the wall the guests had formed before him.

     Katherine frowned as she tried to think, the alcohol haze making it difficult for her. Then she smiled brightly. “I like that game! Are we going to play it?”

     Thomas smiled. “Yes we are. You know what to do, right?”

     Katherine frowned. “But there’s no grass here…”

     “It’s all right, we can still do it here.” Thomas assured her. “Ready?”

     Katherine quickly pulled away from the man holding her upright and ducked to the ground. She curled up tightly, her arms covering her head. “Ready!” she called back happily.

     “Hold on!” Thomas told her. He kept his voice light for her benefit, but there was a feral glint in his eyes as he looked at the brutish men standing before him. Though Thomas remained still, the men started to shift uncomfortably and look around nervously.

     The air around Thomas seemed to grow heavy. Table cloth corners and loose hems of shirts seemed drawn towards him as Thomas called the surrounding air to himself, compressing it tighter and tighter around him. He met the leader’s eyes and grinned. With a loud CRACK! Thomas released the gathered air. The shockwave sent people, tables, and roasted pheasant with jaru berries flying in all directions.

     Katherine looked up to see she was now alone with her brother. “Wow! That was a big one!” She laughed and clapped her hands. She tried to stand but instead fell back to the ground. “Oops!”

     “Yup,” Thomas agreed. “That was a real big one.” Exhausted from the spell, he stepped over to help her up and wrinkled his nose at the strong smell of liquor that lingered around her. “Come on, Katey, let’s get home.” He got her to her feet and looked around to find they were surrounded by heavily armed security guards.

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