The Ties that Bind

Painting of a woman with red hair holding a pair of scissors ready to cut a red string tied to her pinky finger.

I tighten the strings on my hoodie to hide my face as I round the corner. I pick up my step and slide by with my back to the traffic camera until I know I’m out of range. It sounds like I’m crab-walking down the street with a bag over my face, but I’ve done it so many times it looks normal. No one notices. I keep walking.

All the client gave me was an address and a time—and a dollar figure, of course—written a piece of grimy paper, shoved into my hand with sweaty fingers. The lack of info doesn’t bother me. I prefer to have as few details about the mark as possible. Makes it easier to close. Names and faces muddle up into feelings, and feelings run into money. Hard to whack a guy when you know he’s got a baby on the way. All I need is where and when and how much. The essentials.

It’s embarrassing how easy it is to get into the mark’s building. People think an intercom or a doorman makes you safe. They don’t count on the kindness of strangers. I dial numbers on the apartment listing until someone believes I left my keys on the coffee table and buzzes me in. Ninth floor, first door on the left. I let myself in the charming wooden door via credit card. God bless the architectural preservation movement. 

I’ve got about fifteen minutes before the mark gets home for lunch, so I toss my tool bag on the futon and make myself comfortable. Working during the day is tricky—no guns, no screams, no loud noises to draw attention—but it’s sort of my specialty. That’s why this client came to me despite the hefty price tag. Because I don’t get close, I don’t mind getting close.

It’s hard not to snoop, though. The apartment is an overstuffed studio; I can see every piece of this person’s life from where I’m sitting.

A guy definitely lives here. You can tell by the smell. Not that it’s bad, just that there is one—musty and musky, thrift store clothes sprayed with cheap cologne. There’s a brand-new TV and the latest console, but all the furniture is second-hand or made from milk crates. The walls are decorated with unframed posters, the cinderblock bookshelf overflows with paperbacks and DVDs, clothes cover most of the floor, and the coffee table is littered with fast food receipts.

I smirk. It looks exactly like my first apartment. I kinda like this guy.

But I rein that thought in sharp. Too close.

I skim the important details from the environment—the mark’s approximate age (early twenties), build (medium), and fitness level (sedentary)—and dump the rest, then run through the plan as I wait.

At the first scrape of a key in the lock, I’m on my feet, tucked into the corner behind the door, hands full. Showtime.

A swift ballet of arms and legs follows. His back is to me when he shuts the door, so cramming the ball gag into his mouth is easy. It’s secured and I’m kicking the back of his knees before he can react. He’s not very tall, so his fall—cushioned by a nest of t-shirts—barely registers a sound. I grab his hands as he goes down and whip an extra-long zip tie around both wrists, pulling until the skin turns white, then I push him over and do his ankles.

The whole thing takes less than fifteen seconds. Not bad.

Keeping him in view, I retrieve the last two items from my bag. The waterproof sheeting makes an unfortunate snap as I unfurl it beside him. He flips over at the sound, and I see his face for the first time. 


Oh, no.

Oh, no, no, no.

The sheeting drops to the ground as my entire body goes numb. We stare at each other with wide eyes for way too long.


My twin brother nods urgently back at me.

I scan the room again, noticing details that seemed innocuous before but now paint a painfully clear picture. There aren’t any photos, but there doesn’t need to be. Half the books on the shelf are Dad’s hand-me-downs; the poster over the futon is for a punk band we both love; a tiny bucket next to the TV holds the cactus I gave him when he went away to college.

Dave’s muffled shouts bring me back to the present. He struggles against his restraints, the look on his face now more defiant than scared. I yank the gag out of his mouth against my better judgment.

“What the hell are you doing here, Dave?” I demand in a harsh whisper. “You’re supposed to be at school—classes aren’t over until December. Does Dad know you’re in town?”

He scoots away from me. “What the hell are you doing here, Amanda?” he fires back at full volume. I gesture for him to keep it down, but he doesn’t. “Does Dad know you’re in town?”

I hold up the other item from my bag as an answer. His eyes widen when he sees the garrote. It’s a cheap trick, but it shuts him up. “You’re in no position to ask me questions,” I hiss. “Tell me why I’ve got a guy paying fifty large to make sure you don’t leave this apartment you shouldn’t be in in the first place.”

The defiance dims but doesn’t entirely disappear. He shrugs and says, “My roommate may have mentioned a respected businessman recruiting fresh faces for a lucrative opportunity in his organization. Josh is covering for me at school while I correct a few,” he hesitates briefly, “rookie mistakes I may have made.”

Respected businessman. That’s code for the mob. He owes the mothereffing mob. I almost go ahead and strangle him, but then I wouldn’t get to yell at him. 

“You colossal idiot!” I shout, shaking the garrote for emphasis. “If you wanted money, you should’ve gone to the goddamn cash advance, sold bodily fluids, charged dudes for the pleasure of your company, called me—something besides screwing up jobs for guys who kill people with the same care as taking a dump! Of all the stupid, selfish—”

“Because what you do is better?!” he roars back. “If you gave a shit about me at all, you never—”

A sharp knock against the floor beneath us cuts him off. We hold our breath until the lady downstairs stops yelling about calling the cops. 

But Dave doesn’t let it go. He narrows his eyes and whispers: “—you never would’ve taken off after what happened to Mom.”

Instantly, I’m in his face, our identical noses practically touching. I toss the garrote aside; I don’t need it to hurt him anymore.

“If you think we’re the same on any level except for an accident of DNA…,” I say, my voice low and even. “Did you ever stop to think about how Dad paid for Mom’s treatment? Or the funeral? Or the upside-down mortgage? Or the goddamn private college you just had to go to? He’s a lowcountry public defender, not a NYC corporate suit.” His eyes widen, and he tries to pull back, but I press in. “While you’re out here playing goodfellas to make yourself feel important—spitting on Dad’s trust and about to get yourself killed—I’m bankrolling everything you think I ran away from.” His head meets the wall, and he can’t escape anymore. “I may not be a good person, Dave, but I’m a damn sight better than you.”

I don’t wait for a comeback. I push myself to my feet and start collecting my things. 

“What are you doing?” he croaks.

“Leaving,” I say, using the sleeve of my hoodie to wipe down the places I’ve touched. “I don’t need this shit. Dude can have his money back.” 

“Oh my god, thank you so much. You’re—”

“Don’t.” is all I say. I swing my bag over my shoulder and head for the door.

“Wait! Aren’t you going to untie me?”

I pause, hand on the knob. “No.”

“What?! These guys aren’t going to let me slide just because you wouldn’t finish the job. Take me with you! You’re still killing me if you leave me here!”

That gets me to turn around. For a moment, all I can see is the fat little boy I pushed on the swings, the pockmarked teenager I took to his first concert, the guy who held me when we first heard the word “cancer” from Mom’s doctor.

But then I notice a duffel bag stuffed under the futon. A dead statesman and a bunch of his friends wink at me from the half-open zipper.

I set my jaw against the desperation in Dave’s voice, on his face. “You’re right,” I say. “But I’m not bailing you out this time, dude. You want to be a big mafia man, you deal with the consequences like one.”

And I walk out the door.

Or I try to.

I’m barely past the threshold when my left hand jerks back hard. I spin around automatically, reaching up to grab Dave and put him down again, mind reeling to figure out how he got free, but when I look, he’s still zip-tied on the floor.

Before I can ask any questions, I realize my fingers are tingling. The tingle turns into burning that starts at the tip of my left pinkie finger, then radiates up my arm and grounds out in my heart. I hiss and clutch my hand to my chest. A disconnected part of me wonders what you’re supposed to do when you have a heart attack.

But before I can do anything, the pain stops. I suck down a trembling breath and sag against the doorframe as my muscles unclench. When my vision stops swimming, I look down at my hand.  Then I look up at Dave.

“What the hell?”

There’s a thin, red string tied to the end of my left pinkie finger in a neat bow. It’s barely visible as it runs the length of the room, starting at me and ending at my brother. Blinking doesn’t make it disappear. Neither does swatting it with my free hand. It’s real.

“What the hell?” I say again.

A sick grin creeps over Dave’s face. “I never said what kind of business my employer is respected for, sis.” And he stands up, free of his restraints.

Suddenly, the air in the apartment is alive with what feels like static electricity and smells like burnt popcorn. I stumble inside as the door slams shut on its own, the deadbolt rammed home by invisible fingers. My heart is racing my brain for who’s going to explode first. This isn’t happening. It’s not possible. 

I press my back to the wall as Dave advances, the red string shortening like he’s reeling it in as he gets closer. He stops with barely an inch between us.

“You think you’ve got all the answers, don’t you, Amanda? You have no clue. The hole you left when you took off was so big we couldn’t fill it. We didn’t care about the hospital bills or the collection agency. We just wanted you to come home.” His grin turns to a sneer. “Well, Dad did. After a while, all I wanted was to make you pay for killing Mom.” The words land like haymakers to my gut, and I choke back a gasp. He keeps going. “If you had stayed—if you’d cared more about family than money—Mom would’ve been strong enough to fight. She would’ve survived. But all you saw was dollar signs written in red, and you left us when we needed you. When she needed you.”

His eyes glitter with angry tears. “So when I heard about a guy who specializes in revenge, of course I went to work for him. I discovered a whole world you can’t even imagine. He taught me to bend reality to my will, to channel the rage you left me with into action—to take control.” He holds up his own left hand to show me a matching red bow on his pinkie. “And he taught me about this. It binds souls, drawing them across time and space until they inevitably meet, holding them together until they fulfill their fate. Being twins made the spell so easy. All I needed was something of yours.” He gestures at a pile of clothes, and I recognize several of my old band t-shirts. I’d regretted leaving my stuff behind when I took off; I regret it even more now. Dave twangs the string between us proudly. “Add a little blood, a little magic, and voila. Instant soul-GPS.”

He nods towards the duffel of cash. “Skimming from his mundane front was just me being impatient. Once I found out what kind of scum you are, I figured it’d get you heading my way sooner or later. And now you’re here. Exactly the way I planned.”

My brain has completely stopped working. I know this because instead of throwing a punch or trying to smooth-talk my way free, I say, “You’re monologuing.”

Dave’s triumphant smile crashes into a sneer. He hauls back a threatening fist that bursts into crackling blue flame. “And you’re dead,” he snarls.

I dodge just in time. Dave hits the wall with sledgehammer force, the plaster exploding over me, leaving behind a huge singed crater. He goes to wind up again and howls with frustration. The break is long enough that I could dart under his raised, fiery arm to the back of the apartment. Going deeper in may not be the best plan, but I need to put distance between us, to buy a few seconds to think.

I throw myself forward as hard as I can, and my pinkie finger screams in pain as it nearly comes out of joint. The red string—barely a foot long now—keeps me tethered to its master. In a flash of horror, I realize there’s no running: I either have to kill my twin brother or he’ll kill me.

But first I have to deal with physics. The force of my attempted escape upsets my balance, and I crash into a small table by the door. I manage to catch myself by jamming my hands into a mountain of unopened mail, where my fingers close around something long with sharp blades. A weapon. Without thinking, I bring it up and across my body in a wild slash.


Dave and I watch transfixed as the red string separates, the neat bows on our fingers untie themselves, and the loose pieces float gently to the floor, shimmer briefly, then disappear.

The pair of scissors drops out of my hand into a pile of clothes. For a long moment, there’s no sound except the downstairs neighbor banging on her ceiling. I start to wonder what her problem is.

Then I start wonder where I am. 

I look up and realize I’m standing in someone’s living room. Someone who’s less than a foot away from me. A guy. A stab of panic hits me, and I take a defensive step back, patting myself down to check for damage, for missing clothing, for my wallet, phone, keys. Everything’s fine, just some white powder on my hoodie, which could be donuts or drugs, not sure which.

How much did I drink last night?

The guy takes a step back, too, holding up his hands. “Can I help you, miss?” he asks with concern. 

I squint at him. He’s sort of familiar in the same way as people you see coming off the subway and think you know them but they’re gone before you can be sure. He seems okay. The apartment’s a wreck, though. Typical guy.

“Yeah, I’m fine, thanks,” I say. A faint memory flashes: I’m on a job. Something obviously went wrong, and priority one is getting out intact. I give him half the truth. “I was looking for somebody in this building, but I must’ve gotten lost.”

“All good,” he says with an indulgent smile. I cannot, under any circumstances, imagine how a random stranger covered in mystery dust showing up in your living room is all good, but at least he’s nice about it. “Do you need anything? Can I call someone?”

I shake my head. “No, that’s okay. I should get home. Thanks, though.”

He nods and goes to the door, giving me plenty of space as he passes. But when he pulls on the handle, nothing happens. It’s locked—from the inside. My panic spikes again, and I scan the place for exits. The fire escape is the only other way out. I take a surreptitious step back towards the windows. But then he reaches up, twists the deadbolt, and swings the door open wide.

I let out the breath I’d been holding and snatch up my tool bag from the futon, controlling the urge to run into the hallway. “Sorry to bother you, sir.” I say as I leave. “And thanks for your help.”

He smiles politely. “No trouble at all. I hope you find whoever it was you were looking for.” Locks slide into place as I head down the stairs to the street.

The afternoon sun hurts my eyes and I pull up my hood against the late fall chill, hail a cab, and head for home. Whatever mark I was after is going to have to wait until tomorrow. What I need now is a hot bath, clean clothes, and a nap. I’m not sure what happened, but I get the distinct impression that my client knows more than he said. For once, I’m going to need some details.

Story content © Ellie Di Julio 2017
Art: “Free Will” by wordsaremyweakness