“But it’s not mom,” she whines a little too loudly.
I force my palm against her mouth, sweat causing it to slip.
The front door slams open, rattling the house.
Ruby stifles a squeal, burying her face into her pug, Komodo. She rocks back and forth in the corner between the bed and the wall, Komodo shaking in her grip. I move away from her and begin to crawl under Mom’s bed, trying my best to squeeze into the twelve-inch gap between the floor and the bedframe.
Footsteps thud downstairs. Voices echo even through the closed bedroom door. Whoever is here doesn't care about silence. They must think we're not here. They probably know Mom's gone just because her car isn't out front.
I reach forward underneath the bed, my thick back scraping against the bedframe as I get my hand on a glint of silver. It slips out of my sweaty grip. My breathing escalates, my heart beating too loudly. Ruby’s whimpers are hardly audible, but I can feel her watching me. I wriggle further in, disturbing the dust. It floods my mouth and nose.
Oh god. I'm gonna sneeze. I can't sneeze right now. I clinch my teeth so hard that it hurts, all for the sake of letting out a silent ‘chu. I stay here for several seconds, trying to force my heart to slow down. The voices are right beneath me. They’re in the living room.
“Max...” Ruby whimpers.
Not now. Be quiet! I want to say, but I can't. I steady my grip against the cool, grainy handle, and after three more breaths, I proceed to slither out. The bedframe almost tears my shirt off, scratching my ear as I escape. God, why didn't I take gym? I'm too big for this.
“Don't go,” Ruby says, eyeing Mom's revolver in my hand. It's heavier than I thought it'd be. I put my thumb on the hammer and carefully, quietly click it down. I hardly hear it over Mom’s stern voice echoing in my ears.
“Keep the lights off after nine-o'-clock and lock yourselves in my room. I will be home just after eleven. If any of those tweakers try to break in, you get my gun and you stay put. Only shoot if they come through my door, and you keep your phone on you and call me if anything happens.”
She says it every day before going to work, like I'd forget, but she was right. I did. The light's on. The door's unlocked. My phone is downstairs by the PC. I was so caught in my game that... I didn’t listen.
Thud. Oh no... That was a step. They're coming upstairs.
And slowly. They must have heard something. They're gonna come in here. They're... I look at Ruby. She's only eight. They could... Oh...I raise the revolver and peek over the bed, my throat suddenly parched and my hands clammy. I'm getting dizzy. My head feels light. I manage to stand.
“No...” she cries from behind. “Don't leave me.” She's right. I can't leave her defenseless, but I can't lead them in here.
“Okay,” I say aloud to myself. “Ruby.” My voice is barely a whisper. “You stay right here.”
“You, shh—shh! Look. All you have to do is point and pull the trigger. If I don't knock on the wall twice. Listen to me. The wall. Not the door. The wall.”
“Nooo.” She's crying. Tears scatter across her face, and nothing but quiet air escapes her lips as she croaks No a third time.
“If you don't hear two knocks on the wall, and that door opens. You shoot. You hear me? You shoot?” I force the handle of the gun into her reluctant palm and face the door. I wipe the sweat off my face with my even sweatier arm and tip-toe toward the door. I can't just lock it. They're already on the stairs. I have to... maybe I'll scare them. I'm tall for my age, and I'm big, and I'm gonna be a linebacker someday. I can do this. “I can do this,” I repeat aloud as I turn the knob.
The door creaks open. I cringe hard, clenching my teeth. I peek over the railing. I see the front door. It's still open. I look toward the stairs, but I don't see anyone. I inch forward, one hand on the rail, eyes peeled. I pass by the laundry room and jump in place as I look inside. There's nothing. I just... thought there might be. I get closer to the stairs, hand still on the railing, when I look back toward the light. I left the bedroom door open.
A massive hand grips my face. Another seizes my hair. My gums are caving in the tight clench. I'm ripped from the floor and tumble down the wooden stairs. Two of my teeth burst into pieces as I fall face-first on a step. I roll over my neck and land at the bottom. SNAP.
“Agh!” I cry, spitting blood everywhere as the sensation of knives shoots up my cracked arm.
“You're a heavy one, kiddo,” a baritone voice growls.
I roll over, and can't see more than a silhouette stomping down the steps.
“Please,” I start, but I don't know what to say.
A second figure scurries in, much smaller than the guy on the stairs. He clutches a crowbar with two hands.
“Thought you said no one was here,” the big man barks.
“I cased this house three times, man. The woman always leaves at three and ain't back till late,” the squeakier man protests.
I know that voice.
“And you forgot the kid?” The big man points down at me while the smaller one follows his finger.
“Ain't never seen a babysitter over here. Never even seen this kid on a skateboard... wait.” The smaller guy leans in closer, letting the moonlight from the doorway illuminate his goatee and shaven, alien-shaped head. I know him. Tristan. He bullied me at school until he got kicked out for drugs.
“Aww man. I know this kid.”
“Man I ain't never met his momma! I ain't know it was his house. Aww, jeez. He's gonna know. He's gonna talk,” Tristan fusses as he paces the doorway in panic.
“No he ain't,” the deep-voiced man says, removing a large knife from his belt.
“Wait, wait,” I cry. This can’t be happening.
The big man descends the last two steps, knife steady in his hand as he steps into the moonlight. He looks down at me, his sunken, brown eyes betraying a slight smile. He raises the knife, muscles thickening as he flexes his grip.
His arm moves down. I squeeze my eyes closed.
Bow wow wow. I open my eyes. Komodo's on the stairs. The big man turns. Behind the dog—BANG.
Blood splashes on my face. The gun topples down the stairs. The big man falls on me. I yelp as his body lands on my broken arm.
Something strikes my leg. Tristan hits the floor, tripping over me. The crowbar clangs as it drops. Tristan's up in another second and bolts out the door.
“Max...” Ruby begins. I can hardly hear her over my own ringing ears and swirling thoughts.
“...are you okay?” She starts down the steps, holding her ears with both hands. Komodo holds position behind her.
“Yeah...” I breathe.
She saved me. She saved us.