I peer out the window. The vehicles stopped somewhere beyond a ridge where we can't see them. Ellie begins her Russian cussing again.
"I thought you said a couple Mercs," my dad exclaims. "There's a whole army out there. Do you expect the five of us to defend ourselves against that?"
Ellie is surveying the land through some binoculars. "Looks like they mean business this time. I really underestimated their resources."
"Do you have any idea who they are?" asks Marcia. "What the hell are you involved in?"
"We're going to need backup," says my dad. "Can you disconnect the cell jammer?"
Ellie peers through the glasses. "They've already overrun the device. We're on our own here. Wait, they're sending someone up."
I watch as a black-clad man approaches, carrying a megaphone. He shoulders a rifle on his back.
"We only want Galistina," he says through the megaphone. "Send her out unarmed, and we'll spare the rest of you."
"What?" cries Marcia. "They're after you?? You thought you could hide out here? You've put us all in danger, you stupid bitch!"
"Knock it off," shouts my dad. "I don't know what the hell is going on with you kids, I frankly I don't give a flying fuck. She's good, she's bad, well, I don't care. Nobody comes to my house and threatens my guests. If we have to fight these bastards, that's what we'll do. Ellie, you mentioned you brought some weapons. Let's bring them out and give them an answer."
"Alex," she says, "go into the crawlspace. There's a chest down there, and the combo is 0325." The day we first met. "Bring everything you can carry, and don't forget the ammo."
"Brad, you go get my stash," orders my dad. Stash? "Yes, Alex, I've got a few things hidden away myself. I thought a day like this might come, although I thought it would be for me."
The man outside is still threatening, giving us five minutes to comply. Ellie is surveying the men running around outside. I run in, carrying a stack of rifles and ammo. "Stay down," says my dad.
Marcia grabs a rifle and a clip, loads the gun and releases the safety.
"Get out!" she fairly screams, pointing it at Ellie. "Get the fuck out of here before I blow you away!"
Ellie looks at her and returns to watching the men outside. I walk in between them. "Marcia. Please. If you give her up, she'll be dead and we may never know who's behind this. And do you really think they'll stop with her? They know she's the most capable fighter in here, of course they're going to call her out."
"How did they know she's here? Maybe she'll go out there and leave us here to die."
"Fucking hell," breathes Ellie. "There are at least thirty men out there. Does everyone have a gun yet? Let's show them we mean business." She starts pointing out various positions the men outside have taken.
I finger my weapon, an illegal automatic AK-47. I've fired them before as a kid, when my dad used to take us to shooting ranges. I find a spot behind a thick structural log.
Marcia is still standing behind Ellie, pointing her rifle at her.
"Come on, Marcia," shouts my dad. "Get your target in sight. We'll deal with your issues with Ellie later. We need everyone in on this."
Marcia screams and finds some cover. Ellie's been assembling some kind of Chinese sniper rifle, I couldn't tell you which one, but definitely a highly specialized piece.
"Three-shot rounds, fire and cover, on me. Someone needs to go up top."
"I'll go, volunteers my dad. "I know the perfect spot."
"Thirty seconds," calls the man outside.
Ellie holds up her hand. "See you on the other side," she says.
"Ten seconds," calls the man.
Ellie drops her hand and we start shooting, right through the windows. The entire room explodes in a shower of glass and dust as the men outside open fire with everything they have. The windows disintegrate, the walls splinter, the drapes fall, and the air fills with the whistling and snapping of bullets.
For almost a minute we withstand the torrent of gunfire. I see the decorations and paintings on the walls crumble, the TV is riddled with holes and then falls over, every fixture is smashed. To my surprise, I see that Brad has dropped his weapon, and is huddling on the floor, his head on his hands.
"Brad," I scream over the din. "Brad! Are you hurt?"
Ellie flashes some signs to Marcia who crawls over to check him out. Perhaps I've had no greater shock in my life when I realize that he's not hurt, he's just scared. The man who made my childhood hell, who constantly berated me and put me down, who beat me up on occasion, who was a complete jerk to me all my life, who had a military career with commendations, was a quivering mess on the floor.
Maybe it's because all I've been through in the last few weeks, or maybe it's being around Ellie with her inner toughness and determination, or maybe I've found something inside of myself, but I want to fight those attackers. Sure I'm scared, and I'd like to do nothing more than run away as fast as possible. But I'm not leaving Ellie or my family here.
"Brad!" I call out. "Brad! Pull it together! We need you!"
Marcia waves me off, and kneels down next to him. Ellie is rummaging through her sack and pulling out some round metal objects. She clips a few to her belt.
"We need help," she announces, and squeezes off a few rounds at the attackers. "I'm going out there. These are smoke bombs. I need you to get them out there as far as you can, and I don't have any launchers."
"What," cries Marcia. "Don't let her go, Alex. She's escaping us."
I shoot at a tree for a second. "If she says she's going for help, I believe her. Brad. Brad! Come on dude, we need you. You've got the best arm here."
Ellie points out where she needs the bombs. I crawl over to Brad who's shaking.
"Dude," I say, getting in his face. "What's going on? I thought you were all military?"
"I've never been in combat," he admits, his voice pitiful. "Don't tell dad. Please don't tell dad." He can't make eye contact with me.
"Brad, please. We need you right now. You can do it. I know your life hasn't going to plan. It's no secret that you've been unhappy. But Marcia's your wife, and I'm your brother. You've got to pull it together and be a man. You can do it."
He picks up his head and nods. "Yeah, my life is shit. You've taken everything I could dish out, Alex, and never blinked. I've been such a shit all my life, and you've gone out and done exactly what you've wanted to. Do you want to know why I always was so hard on you? Because all this time I've been jealous of you. You were always dad's favorite, and he sided with you on everything. I always got his wrath, and you always got his love. You were the smart and independent one. I had to do whatever dad says, no questions asked."
"You know, Brad, I'd love to discuss all of this with you, but right now there are people shooting at us, and we need to lay some smoke down. Can you do it?"
"Dammit." We duck as a particularly heavy round rains in. I press the bombs into his hands and point out where Ellie wants them.
"Are we ready," yells Ellie.
"You better fucking come back," replies Marcia.
"If I don't it's because I'm dead," she retorts. "You better cover me, and be careful because they're starting to close in."
"OK, Brad, throw them on my mark. Everyone else, go fully automatic, and don't stop until you're out. Ready."
She squeezes off a few round at various targets in quick succession. "OK, go." Ellie runs out of the room, heading for a side window.
The room erupts in noise, smoke, and fire as we blaze away into the forest. Brad lights the bombs and flings then as far as he can. A barrage on incoming fire implodes on us, and I see small red spurts as a couple of bullets find Brad's shoulder and leg. He cries out and collapses on the ground.
"Brad!" screams Marcia, jumping to his side.
"Brad's hit," I call out to my dad, hoping he can hear through the din. Brad is writhing on the floor, holding his arm.
Outside I can't see much as the smoke billows out from the bombs, covering the landscape. As the firing has subsided for a moment, I crawl through the debris covering the floor over to Brad, who's grimacing and moaning.
"I think they're just flesh wounds," she says. "But we've got to get him somewhere safe. Dammit Alex, if anything happens to him--"
"Ellie will come through," I cry. "She would never leave us behind."
"I hope you're right. Let's get him into the kitchen and put him near the ovens. The metal should protect him."
I put my arms around his chest, and Marcia lifts his legs, and we half drag him into the kitchen.
"Grab me some of that cheesecloth," Marcia asks. "I'm going to try to bind these wounds a little."
I hear a piercing shriek from outside. It's not the sound a man makes when shot, it's a much more direct scream. It's followed by the sounds of gunfire, this time not directed towards the house. Marcia nods.
"OK, it sounds like your girl is actually doing something out there."
A disturbing amount of blood is pooling on the floor. "Marcia, is he going to make it?"
"I think the bullets passed through cleanly. But without any medical supplies, it's hard to say how long he can hold out. We need to get him to a hospital."
"Come on Brad, hang in there." Already Brad's face is looking a little pale as the shock starts setting in.
I look at Marcia and see some tears welling in her eyes. She shakes Brad's face a little bit. He's still conscious, but he's out of it. "Please, Brad, please don't die on me. Please Brad, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry about everything. You deserve someone better than me. Please, Brad, stay with me. Brad! Brad!"
He mumbles something. I hear another scream from outside, but then a subtle clinking of glass.
"I think someone's in here," I say, grabbing my rifle. Before I can move, rough arms grab me from behind, and someone jumps on Marcia. I struggle violently but I'm throw up against a wall and fist buries itself in my gut, blowing all the air out of my lungs. I collapse on the floor, gasping for air.
What I'm about to describe happens in mere moments, but its taking me a long time to write it all down. As I'm almost puking on the floor, I see Marcia in a similar predicament, flung up against the wall with a knife to her throat. I hear a high keening sound, and like a blur of red and black, Ellie jumps into the room onto the back of the man holding Marcia. He recovers in a moment and flings her off. She lands like a cat. I grab the leg of the man who's about to kick me.
I notice that Ellie is covered with blood. I pray it's not hers. Her whole face is like a massive red river, only her white eyes breaking through. The man collects himself and starts slashing at Ellie. She's as fast as lightning, dodging and skipping every blow, while looking for an opening. The man lunges too far, and she jumps at him, digging her fingers into his eyes. I hear the scream that has been echoing in the woods. She rips one of the eyes out before he can dislodge her. Now it's like a cat playing with a mouse. He slashes at her weakly, but she knocks away the knife. At this point I know what's coming and I turn my head. In a moment the man is lying on the ground, pulling his last breaths through his ripped throat.
The man I'm holding onto stops struggling and looks at Ellie who is dripping with fresh gore. She spits a red chunk of something on to the floor and wipes her mouth. She's muttering something in Chinese this time and tiptoeing towards the man in some kind of kung fu move. She raises a bloody hand and screams at him between clenched teeth.
"Get the fuck out!"
The man struggles and I let him go. He runs out of the room, and hopefully out of the house.
"Holy shit," breathes Marcia.
"I've called in backup," says Ellie nonchalantly while wiping the blood off her mouth and hands. "How's Brad?"
She bends down to look at him, examining his eyes and listening to his chest. "He's lost a lot of blood."
She pulls out something from her jumpsuit. "Here Marcia, give him some of these. It will help keep his blood pressure up." She hands her some tablets. "OK, Alex, you're on me. We need to hold these guys off for a while. Here, grab this guy."
Once again I'm carrying a person. Blood keeps spurting out of his neck, and he starts choking on it as it fills his throat. Ellie nods towards the window and we heave the man out. Ellie shouts out the window so everyone out there can hear.
"Anyone who tries to enter this house will get more of the same! I will kill anyone who enters! If you want to die like this man is dying, then bring it on!"
A round of bullets answers hers. I hear some firing from upstairs, so I know my dad is still going strong.
We fire a few shots ourselves, then sink down behind the wooden pillars. I don't know how long we can hold out, and Brad's fading fast. We're close enough that we can reach out, and Ellie squeezes my hand briefly. Somehow, when I look at her, I know things will work out. They have to.