art by Erin Cardwell
Yazen bounded up the stairwell of the apartment building where he and his mom lived. He slowed when he saw Tix waiting for him on the landing. He was afraid this might happen.
Tix was actually a year younger than Yazen himself, but he was a few centimeters taller, and an extra ten kilos.
Yazen avoided Tix’s eyes — which were puffy, and yet blazing — and continued to climb the stairs. Tix moved over to prevent him from stepping onto the landing. Tix glared down at him, his extra height exaggerated by the last stair.
“Just let me go upstairs.” Yazen did his best to keep his voice from quivering.
“Rhene didn’t deserve to win.”
“She didn’t break the rules.”
“But she didn’t deserve to win. That was obvious in the next grum.”
“So what she lost in the second round? She beat your sister.”
Tix shoved Yazen backward. He knew he wouldn’t be able to keep from losing his balance, so he leapt backward off the top stair and floated for a second before his shoes turned back on, pulling him onto the steel tiles of the next landing down.
“What do you want?” Yazen asked.
“My sister deserved to win that grum and you know it.”
He eyed the other boy. “You want me to give you my mom’s cut.” Yazen had picked up the prize money for winning the first-round grum. That was their custom, so that his mom wouldn’t be tempted to turn around and gamble it away.
Tix didn’t reply. He just stood, staring down from the top of the half-flight of stairs.
“And when my mom comes home?” Yazen continued. “She’s not going to be pissed at me, you know.”
“Then she can take it up with my sister. In a fair fight, you know Rhene doesn’t stand a chance.”
“A fair fight! Ha! We saw that today.”
Tix scoffed. “The only reason Rhene was able to splash Kasi today is because she was cherry-picking.”
“That’s how grums work, dummy! You can’t get so focused on taking down one person that you let someone else surprise you.”
Tix launched himself off the landing toward Yazen. Yazen yelped and charged up the stairs, under Tix’s gliding feet. Tix growled, hitting the lower landing and racing up after him.
Yazen took the steps two at a time, which was all he could do with his short legs. Tix caught hold of his left ankle, causing him to fall down onto the stairs. Yazen drove his right foot down onto Tix’s wrist, and he let go.
He scrambled to his feet and bounded up to the next landing, throwing open his door. He tried to slam it shut behind him, throwing all his weight against it, but Tix was already on the landing. His extra weight allowed him to shove Tix backward — magnetic shoes scraping on the metal floor.
Seeing that he couldn’t win here, he abandoned the door to run deeper into the apartment. Without his resistance, the door flung open, slamming into the wall. Before Yazen had a chance to take more than a couple of steps away from the door, Tix’s arms closed around his chest.
“Give me the money!”
Yazen’s mind reeled as he tried to remember what his mom would do in a grum.
He threw his hips back and spun to the left, slamming his left forearm into Tix’s gut to push him away.
Tix breathed out with the shove, grabbing Yazen’s arm and reeling him in. Yazen used the force of Tix’s pull as a source of momentum throwing a jab with his right hand.
Tix had him too close, though, and the punch was too far inside Yazen’s reach to be effective. Tix threw an undercut into his stomach. He crumpled to the floor.
Tix moved to pin him down, and Yazen kicked at him wildly. Yazen’s steel-clad shoe connected with his shin. He let out a yell, grabbing his shin and hopping onto the other foot. Yazen kicked at Tix’s remaining leg and the younger, larger boy went down.
Yazen scrambled away through the small living room. Tix was up and after him in a flash. Yazen darted into the bathroom and tried to shut this door behind him also, but didn’t quite get it closed in time. His shoes started to slide back — but then his feet hit the door of the shower and stopped.
With something to brace against, he was able to push the door closed. He took one hand off the door to reach for the lock, and Tix pushed it open again, slipping his arm through the gap. He didn’t have the strength to hold the door closed with one hand while he locked it with the other.
“Just give me the money,” Tix grunted, reaching around the edge of the door, trying to knock away Yazen’s hands.
Yazen didn’t reply. Beads of sweat were forming on his face and his breath was quick pants.
Tix braced his arm against the wall on the inside of the bathroom and put his back against the door — and pushed. Yazen’s arms were being forced against their will to bend.
He got an idea. “YB, don’t let me transfer any money until my mom gets home.”
“Account locked,” YB replied.
Tix forced his way into the bathroom, his eyes wild with fury.
“I can’t give you the money, even if I wanted to.” Yazen tried to catch his breath, kneeling on the floor before Tix.
Tix’s face contorted into a more vicious snarl, but he turned and stormed back into the living room, eyes roaming wildly. He grabbed a floor lamp and swung it against the corner of the wall between the living room and kitchen. It snapped in half, the top flinging across the kitchen and smashing into the wall.
He stood with the bottom half of the lamp dangling from his hand, his chest heaving.
“Why do you need the money so badly?” Tix ignored him, passing through the kitchen to retrieve the other half of the lamp on his way out the door.
Yazen got up, and hovered cautiously near the bathroom.
After a minute, Mr. Nolter appeared in the doorway of the apartment. He had on olive green trousers over his exoskin. “Are you okay?”
“I heard a crash.”
Yazen shrugged. “The lamp broke.”
“I see.” Mr Nolter stepped into the living room, noting some broken bits of plastic on the rug. “But you didn’t break it.”
Yazen shook his head.
Mr. Nolter bent down and scooped up one of the larger pieces.
“I thought I heard Tix’s voice earlier. Did he do it?”
Yazen looked away, saying nothing.
Mr. Nolter nodded thoughtfully. “Tell your mom what happened when she gets back.”
Mr. Nolter went out the door, walking upstairs to the penthouse.
Yazen went into the kitchen to get the hose for the central vac. When he came back into the living room to clean up the broken bits of the lamp, Tix was standing next to the small sofa, facing away from him, plugging in an old — but working — lamp.
When he noticed Yazen staring, he shrugged. “Keep it. Kasi and I won’t be needing it.”
Read the next chapter: Kinch