Having stripped away everything, all that I was, it didn’t give me a lot in the way of people I could go to for help. Friends or those I would have considered family.
Couldn’t go to D. Wouldn’t. She’d have her hands full with the Fangs, and, according to Sarah, they weren’t so fond of me, to put it lightly. If I stuck my neck out anywhere near her, D’s hand might be forced to strike me down. I wouldn’t put her in that position. I wouldn’t put myself in that position.
I’d leave her alone. Probably for the best.
The fact remained, however, that my options were limited. But they weren’t zero.
I would just have to make my own luck.
Stalking the streets of the city, I searched for stress and strife.
Trash and debris drifted by my shoes and several feet away, like tumbleweeds. The wind itself breathed a hollow note, ringing in my ears. It gave a musical quality to the rhythmic crunch and crinkling of glass under each step.
There were other noises, farther into the distance. Sirens, screams and shouts, even a shot. I was seeing the aftermath of that disorder, the smoke rising above rooftops with no chimneys. The city was seething all around me, letting out yelps and barks, as if to warn anyone who might try and come closer. I heeded the warning, but I continued onward. I had left myself no other choice.
Until then, though, I was alone with my thoughts. And not the illusory kind.
I kept myself on high alert, eyes and ears open, watching and listening for anything that moved, anything that could make a noise. Extending my reach much farther than what my physical wingspan would suggest.
And after pulling all that in, everything gathered and taken stock, I was made starkly aware of my situation.
That I was alone, but I wasn’t by myself. Not quite.
More my ears than my eyes. In front, there wasn’t anything to keep my guard up for, aside from the very principle of just being in the city. Trash and debris here, smoke there.
Not ahead, then. Behind.
Listening, I picked up on faint but perceptible sounds. They weren’t too defined, too shapeless to be honed in on, but they were there, and they told me enough. That they were deliberate, that they were trying to dampen any audible clue of their approach but they could only do so much. One person would find it easy to blend into city’s ambiance, but several? Not as much, and that proved to be a setback.
And, it also told me that they were certain their numbers would make up for their lack in covertness. They were confident.
They were a crowd, they were coming up on me, fast, and they didn’t want me to be aware of them just yet.
I maintained my stride, though, in keeping with the act, except I was an active participant in it, now. I walked down the road, paved by anger and frustration and retribution against ill intentions. It was a familiar path, so I walked with purpose, able not to dwell too much on the distractions around me. No more detours.
The street was long, with a lot of forks to the side. Alleys. A foggy, muted memory drifted into the gaze of my mind’s eye, clouding it for a moment, before being blinked away.
Something, not unlike this, had happened before. At that time, Alexis Barnett had gone down one of the alleys. Now, it was my turn.
The street turned at a corner. The light was red.
I stopped there and waited.
The shapeless sounds behind me stopped where they were and waited.
Still looking ahead, I almost smiled to myself.
Keeping my eyes on the light and my ears focused in the other direction, I considered the identity of my potential pursuers.
The Fangs were my first thought, it wouldn’t have been so far-fetched that they had found me already. Even if I was nowhere near their territory. They would be racing, like I was, to find the one who had wronged them and take them apart, piece by piece. And I did a lot wrong.
In my case, I had more than one that I was after, and I had to get to them before the Fangs got to me.
Whoever it was behind me, I’d have to shake them off.
I mentally checked and double-checked everything I had brought with me. The bag strapped around a shoulder.
Was there anything I could take out right away to defend myself? I knew where everything was, even though I had packed them all in a hurry. The knives I had grown to be rather familiar with, the guns less so. I could still go for either to arm myself, though.
Was there a chance I could take them without arming myself, going with just my bare knuckles? There was, but it wouldn’t be smart. A group was following me, and while I probably had the collective strength of all of them, I’d learned better now than to take those kinds of chances.
Something in hand, I knew I’d need that much, but to instigate? Not here, not with these guys. Wouldn’t be worth the time it would take to kick them to the curb. Nope, I had places to be and people I needed to find, and doing both required time. Something that was slipping between my fingers. I knew that much.
Time starts now, V, it’s ticking already.
As it went.
But I stayed there at the light, waiting. When the light turned, I’d just keep walking, and let them make the first move. If they were wanting to start something, anything, only then would I look to end it, for their sake.
The light turned.
I walked, and kept walking. The sound behind me picked up again. I wouldn’t dare turn around.
Listening still for the creeping stalk, I directed myself towards other sounds, the sirens, the screams and shouts, more than one shot, now. I was headed there anyways, but if I was being followed, I might be able to deter them from going any further, or farther. Scare them off.
Keeping straight, going where things would be warmer.
They didn’t stop.
Louder. Hotter now.
“Get the fuck back, skinhead.”
-Turned, and saw who had been on my tail.
People, as I had figured, but not quite what I was expecting.
One person. White, bald, skinny, but considering how he went with a sleeveless denim vest even in this weather, I could see that he was fit, or he’d been working on getting there at least. Tattoos crept down his arms and fingers, reaching up to his neck and jawline. Younger or older, it was hard to tell, his face looked like it had seen too many fights, blurring his natural features. Either it aged him, or the callouses kept things in place. In a sense.
Mean looking guy, overall.
One person. The only one here who matched that description. The rest weren’t mean, but stern.
The ‘skinhead’ wasn’t facing me when I had turned, not directly. Instead, he had positioned himself to the edge of the sidewalk, his back to the road, so he could get a view of the opposition he had on each side.
And the one across from me.
A group. About the stark opposite from the skinhead. They all had hair, for one.
For the rest, however, they were all Asian. Different in size, in build. Trying to be conspicuous about the firearms they had at their sides, but not really. I could see them, and the skinhead could see them, too.
“Farther than that, asshole.”
Someone else from the group across from me.
The skinhead, the asshole, gave the group a hard stare, then at me, then back again. Keeping a mean looking attitude, as if he wasn’t deterred after having been followed himself, and now cornered. His feet were planted firm into pavement, his chin was level, and his head seemed cool.
He didn’t move.
I just watched.
At the head of the group, a guy called him out a third time.
“Crazy time we live in, huh? Never had to ask a cracker motherfucker if they know English or not.”
Several clicks and arms motioning at the skinhead’s direction. Firearms.
“You understand this? You’ve got three seconds to walk into middle of the street and let a car drag you across the pavement. Change incoming traffic for the rest of them.”
A few laughed at the small joke, but they were still dead serious.
Not a lot of seconds left-
The skinhead backed away a step, then another, and turned at the third. Hands in his pockets, seemingly still coolheaded, he walked towards the middle of the street, then passed it, crossing the whole thing.
Before he could step onto the other side, a crack rang out into the open air, and the skinhead hit the ground, his lips and chin splitting open as it kissed the curb. Blood pooled onto the street and sidewalk itself, where he dripped from the hip and face, respectively.
My chin, my jaw had to picked up from the ground, too. At least I was able to. Even I hadn’t expected that.
The group then formed a loose circle around me. Not to threaten, but almost like a protective barrier.
“You okay sister?”
The crack of the gun was still ringing in my ears.
“Beg your pardon?” I asked.
It was the guy at the head of the group who was addressing me.
“Skinhead there was tailing you for about a block or two. Good thing he was dumber than shit, or he would have noticed us sneaking up on him, sneaking up on you. Lucky us, lucky you.”
“Lucky lucky,” I said, mostly just to test my own hearing again. And, as if to test my sight and make sure I wasn’t under any spell or illusion, “You still shot him down.”
“Hey, I told him to go to the middle of the street and wait for a car to hit him. He went past the middle, and he didn’t wait. He asked for it.”
“He isn’t moving anymore.”
The guy put his gun away, tucking into the back part of his jeans. The rest of the group remained on guard.
“Don’t tell me you feel bad for him? Trust me, sister, that asshole was going to do much worse to you if he got his hands on you. Part of the reason we started putting together groups, doing patrols. Lookouts. We have to start watching each others backs, because ain’t nobody else gonna to it for us.”
This guy sounds a lot like Dong-Yul, a voice told me.
I didn’t disagree.
“Hard to drum up sympathy for him,” I said, “But I would have been fine if he really was stupid enough to pick a fight with me. Not that I didn’t appreciate you stepping in when you did, though.”
The guy motioned to the group. “What’s done is done, and it’s better to move in a crew, anyways. Where you headed?”
I fixed the bag around my shoulder, feeling the shifting weight of my guns and knives and costume inside. “Anywhere there’s trouble, but it looks like it found me instead.”
The guy laughed. “Maybe! Hey, now that I think of it, you look familiar. We met before?”
I paused, wary.
“Don’t think so,” I answered, careful.
He snapped his fingers.
“Shit, we have for sure! Wellport, remember? A girl, Jasmine? She brought you over, she commented on your glasses. A lot happened during that crazy fucking night, but I can remember that.”
My glasses now were a crushing weight on the bridge of my nose, feeling like it would split my entire face in half.
“I can remember that, too,” I said. “Definitely a… crazy night.”
“What was your name again… Wendy, right?”
Somehow, I found myself nodding, calm, and not in a fake way. Like the calm someone might have felt if they jumped off a building. Except, in my case, I’d survived more than once.
And after the first time, nothing else mattered anymore.
I nodded again, more assured.
“But that’s something of a government name,” I said. “And right now, I’m a bit of an anarchist.”
The guy laughed.
“Andrew, by the way, and good! Because we’ll need some of that right about now. Hey, why don’t you run with us? Before our detour here, we were on our way to a… demonstration, I guess you could call it. I got a truck, and room for one more in the back. Jasmine will be there.”
He brought her up as if that would entice me. It… somehow sort of did.
I gave the guy, Andrew, my answer. A third nod.
Jasmine gave me a hug. A hug from the side, since I still had my bag with me.
“Didn’t know we were there already,” I said, pulling away. Faster than I probably needed to.
A certain someone flashed in my mind, couldn’t help it. I dismissed the thought, just as quick.
“We’re all fam here, you know, we have to be.”
“I see you with the rhetoric, you don’t need to convince me.”
Jasmine grinned, I recognized that expression.
“Well, it’s good practice, for those who still need convincing.”
I grinned back.
As if on a general principle, I was beginning to gain an understanding on what fueled these people, now, and that particular understanding was running thicker than water. Anger and frustration, a need for blood. Those things fueled me, too.
A certain pressure had been made to boil under a certain population in Stephenville, and they were now finally jumping out of the pot, and they weren’t very happy. They were ready to turn around and kick the pot over, spilling everything out and setting the whole thing on fire. On principle, I was right there with them.
I was in the group with Jasmine and Andrew now, and that was group just one of many others.
A huge crush of people flooded the streets of Stephenville.
Too many to count, and yet there were even more who hadn’t gathered, doing their own damage elsewhere. Part of the bolstered numbers were because of the fact that not everyone here was a part of that certain population, but they showed up regardless, probably just to raise more hell than to stand and march in solidarity, but I’d imagine that their help would be otherwise appreciated.
Cheers and chants scraped my ears, and there was no rehearsed direction or plan to this parade. Being here, acting like a part of the procession, I was at the mercy of the crowd, meaning that I was at the mercy of random chance and chaos. It was definitely a demonstration. A demonstration in disorder, but a demonstration nonetheless.
With my hearing and the rest of my sense working overtime, I thought I heard Alexis Barnett’s name in that chorus, among others. But I didn’t focus too much on it, I wouldn’t let that affect me, now.
I hugged my bag, tighter.
“Should have left that at the truck,” Andrew said, raising his voice into my ear. Still wasn’t a fan of loud, but I had no choice but to deal.
“Better safe than sorry!” I replied back.
“What’s in there anyway?”
“You hear about Andrew shooting a guy on the way here?”
I raised my voice into Jasmine’s ear. She seemed alright about leaning over to catch it.
“I didn’t shoot him on the way here, I shot the motherfucker before we got in the truck to get over here.”
“Same difference!” I said to Andrew.
“I heard!” Jasmine replied. “You don’t know him yet but he’s trying real hard to be hard ever since this thing blew up! Wants to prove himself!”
“I don’t have to prove shit!”
“Then why are you trying so hard?”
Jasmine grinned again, and gave Andrew a playful smack across the arm.
I watched these two, I’d seen them before. Back at Wellport. Jasmine had to kill someone to save me, and Andrew didn’t bat an eye. And now, it was Andrew’s turn, but he didn’t have to go that far for me this time, but he did. They were so cavalier about it.
Not that I was any position to cast judgement, myself. I wasn’t. But it had still given me pause, each time, I could still feel it take a toll, a heavy note that rang through me, clear as a bell.
It made me wonder, brief, what had led them to that point. What was the path that brought them here?
Then I remembered mine, and how much it didn’t really matter. Not in the long run.
Something to take away from them, I supposed.
I kept talking so Andrew wouldn’t inquire any more about my bag.
“You know who started this whole thing?”
“You mean the parade?” Jasmine asked.
“Not what I’d call it, but sure.”
“What would you call it then?”
I thought about it.
“A stampede,” I answered.
“Stampede? That does carry the appropriate weight, to it.”
“The kind of weight that tends to crush.”
“Hell yeah, dude. But actually, I couldn’t tell you who put this thing together, only because I really don’t know. Shit like this goes through a grapevine, and I’m too low on the thing to really know where it came from. I just go where I’m needed, and do what I need to do.”
“Sure, I understand that. Doing the same thing, myself.”
Jasmine gave me another half-hug, her arm staying there for seconds longer.
“Dude! I knew we’d click the second I saw you.”
I felt warm. The crowd around us, pushing, and clothes I had to wear for the weather. The season still had some time before things started springing up again.
A certain someone flashed in my mind again. The connection was cut, but the feeling was still there, exposed and raw. Had to dismiss it again, even faster.
Warm, but I was still cold on finding what I was after. Or rather, who.
As a contrast to my limited options in terms of help, my list of targets was long, and it was only a matter who I’d get to first.
Styx, Mrs. Carter, Dong-Yul, all of the gangsters with a seat at the table. D excluded. Maybe. Probably. It was still a good policy to stay clear of the Fangs.
But with D excluded that still included a lot of people. People with their own people, protecting them, a force I shouldn’t underestimate. Would Jasmine and Andrew be able to help? They were neither friends nor family, just a convenience. But were they a convenience I could use?
Somewhere ahead of us, the crowd roared.
I replied to Jasmine.
“And I was thinking you might be right,” I said. “Hey, what are your plans after this?”
“After this? Getting the fuck out of here and making sure pigs don’t come following us and bringing their shit with them. Why? Thinking of coming with?”
“I was thinking about it. If you’ll have me. I wanted to meet with whoever was spearheading these, um, demonstrations. The guy at Wellport, with the tiger mask.”
“Oh, Helly and Skelly?”
“If you want to call them that, I’m not stopping you.”
“I do, actually, thank you very much. But, actually, I haven’t seen him up close, or any of the masked dudes, much less seeing them without.”
“So you’ve been following orders from people who haven’t shown you their face? What if they look nothing like you? Or us, rather.”
Jasmine was about to answer, but the crowd roared again. Still somewhere up ahead, but closer. She had settled for a simple look in the meantime.
When the uproar died down enough, she responded with, “Doesn’t really matter to me. We’re out here, now, we’re making noise and best of all, they can’t ignore us. That’s all I give a shit about.”
Not much else I could say about that beside a quick, “Fair.”
The uproar rose back to life, louder and more present. It took my attention and centered it towards itself.
Jasmine and Andrew and the rest of the group looked ahead as well.
“What’s going on over there?” Andrew asked.
“Don’t know,” Jasmine said, “Why don’t you check? You’re taller than me or Wendy.”
Andrew listened right away, starting to pushing between people. Despite how cramped and crowded it was, people gave him room to slip through.
The parade continued, crawling down the streets like a centipede.
A wave of sound hit, it was loud, and then the physical equivalent came. Threatening to crush.
Forward momentum was lost. People started falling back. The uproar was getting closer and reached a higher pitch.
Something was wrong.
Jasmine was already turning. She looked right into my eyes.
“Flood’s coming this way, start swimming!”
I spun, or more like I was yanked the other way. Jasmine had pulled on the strap of my bag, and I almost lost my footing.
She refused to let go, instead pulling even harder, taking me with her.
“No room to push back here, we have to move!”
She kept pulling, forcing me to move along.
Not everyone had their wits about them, being more interested in yelling and raising some kind of disturbance. Once the tide turned in the other direction, they hadn’t been focused enough to adapt accordingly.
People had been falling back, and now they were falling. Crushed by an incoming stampede.
I pushed through the crowd, keeping in step with Jasmine. If she tripped while still holding onto me, I would be the only one who could even get back up.
“I’m with you, just let go already!”
She finally did.
Andrew managed to catch up with us, but not without having to knock someone else over. He went and answered the question before Jasmine and I could save a breath to ask it.
“Cops coming in to shut things down! Riot gear, rubber bullets. Choppers!”
It was getting so loud that it was hard to catch everything Andrew was saying, and he was right there.
“Back to the truck!” he yelled. I heard that.
The group that Andrew had with him, and I had tagged along with, already dispersed into the rushing crowd, lost or maybe even flattened. I was only aware of Andrew and Jasmine, and I’d need at least one of them if they were going to be useful in getting me close to at least Dong-Yul.
With each step we ran, however, the prospect of that seemed to diminish, like I was getting farther away from that goal.
“Try over here!”
Jasmine grabbed for my bag and pulled again, but only to steer me in another direction. She soon released me.
The three of us pushed to the edge of the stream. I followed as Jasmine led us into an alley.
We kept running.
The alley was wide enough to accommodate the three of us, running side by side. Some others were starting to get the same idea, now, the stampede starting to spill out to the sides of the street.
We weren’t the only people who had that idea, apparently.
A block of metal rolled out to the other end of the alley. An armored vehicle. People started spilling out of that.
Jasmine skipped to a halt, turning on a heel.
She spun us around again, but instead of heading back to the street, there was another path perpendicular to the one we were on. She had us turn onto that.
I ran with them, and had to watch my speed. I didn’t want to make myself stand out.
We made it out, but from what I heard coming from our backs, we were lucky. The street opened up and we had much more room to move.
Andrew started to take the lead, taking us over to where he had parked the truck.
Again, he wasn’t the only one with that idea.
Over at the lot, a block away. More armored vehicles, beams of light illuminating the ground, gliding over everything. A quick check upward revealed the source, the helicopters Andrew had mentioned earlier.
“Fuck! They’re cutting us off!” Andrew shouted.
“Can we make it on foot?” That was from Jasmine. “It’s not like they can catch everyone!”
They started running, past the block where Andrew’s car had been parked, the armored vehicles and police cars being right there. Cops were standing in formation like soldiers.
I ran with them, and saw more cars coming our way, the tops of them bursting with red and blue lights.
This won’t last, I realized, It’s already running out of gas now.
We changed directions, moving onto another street. More people here, cops and rioters alike, as the latter started to spread out more evenly to blocks around the initial demonstration. The police worked to introduce their idea of peace.
They started firing into the crowd.
People fell. I didn’t see or smell blood, but people were being rendered immobile, thrown flat to the ground. None of them were made to be as bloody as the skinhead from before.
Andrew spun, arms flailing, face to the pavement. He had gotten hit.
Then I tripped.
A hard punch to the back, in an area not any larger than a dime. I felt my spine crack with pain, and my legs turned to jelly.
I had the sense to turn, so I wouldn’t land on my bag and accidentally pop the packets of blood open.
My shoulder rammed into the side of something sturdy. My healing worked to set my back straight again. I hadn’t fallen over completely.
Jasmine was already pulling me back up.
“Dude, you okay?”
Beside me, something beige in the night. A taxi parked next to the sidewalk. No one inside, and the windows were cracked, stray rubber bullets making targets of other things.
But I did see a number printed on the side of the vehicle, and that had gotten my mind running again, pulling me out of the daze of having been shot.
“Andrew? The truck?” I asked.
“Lost him, it’s too hard to find him in this. His truck is stuck with a bunch of cops!”
“You have a car?”
A bitter and impatient expression crossed her face.
“Parked in the same lot. Come on Wendy, we can still get out of here on foot!”
“You have a phone?”
I had lost mine at the church, and I didn’t have another one to pack at my apartment.
Not that I would tell her that.
“Why?” she asked, but she was getting it out for me. She helped pull me up too, from the side of the taxi.
She handed me the phone, and I took off.
Another street close by. More cops heading to block the stampede off.
I ran harder, crossing an intersection. The police cars came in between me and the other two.
I didn’t stop.
Not for the cops, not for Jasmine or Andrew. I abandoned them and their uselessness.
It wouldn’t have worked, not with them, but they did manage to give me another idea.
Still running, I dialed the number that had come to me out of that daze, and made the particular arrangements, tossing the phone soon after.
Never before did the mundane stand out to me by such a large margin. The hum of rubber on road, the mechanical clicks of a turn signal, the white noise chatter of a jumbled radio chatter.
My blood was still pumping hard, so hard that it thrummed in my veins, and I found it difficult to sit still and relax, even if there was nothing threatening about my immediate surroundings.
Just a strange sense of déjà vu.
“Gotta say, boss, I never thought I’d hear from you again.”
“Funny how it all works out,” I said, as if on instinct.
The taxi rolled across the street.
I was sitting in the back, shoulder against the door. Half-open eyes watched as the scenery past the window sped by, the colors of the city smearing together, painting an even more chaotic image than before.
Anarchy, on the other side of that glass. Which made the relative quiet of the taxi’s interior all the more deafening.
I tried to kill some of that monotony. When I spoke up again, I almost thought I was screaming.
“How have you been, Claire? Last time I saw you I… I guess you could say it was a lifetime ago.”
Claire kept her eyes on the road as she crossed the lights and made the turns. The meter climbed up and up.
“Nothing worth reporting. Found myself keeping an eye on the news more often now.”
“Oh yeah? What do you see?”
“The shit I’m seeing right now.”
I chuckled, dry a bit.
“You boss?” she asked.
I shrugged, not knowing if she would have caught that or not through the rearview. “Been giving you something to watch, I guess you could say.”
It was Claire’s turn to chuckle. Just as dry.
The taxi continued its snaking path around the city, the meter running just as long. The ride itself was smooth, so smooth that it had become a noticeable thing. The more Claire drove, the less traffic seemed to get in her way.
“Have you been busy tonight?” I asked.
“Very,” she answered, “Ever since the riots broke out across the city, everyone’s taking any opportunity to leave while they still can. That includes us cab drivers. Been getting like six or even seven people crammed into the back at a time, all begging me to get as far away from the Eye as possible, no matter how costly it got. Haven’t been getting this much action since the city allowed rideshares… or the times I had you as a passenger, actually.”
I grinned at that.
“Suppose this time won’t be any different?”
Then I dropped that grin.
“Let me ask you something, Claire,” I said.
“You call it action, but, I’m sure you’re aware of the danger as well. You’ve been taking people out of the city, driving past and through all the crazy… might not be long until it’s officially considered a warzone, from what I’ve seen. Anyways, it’s real, and it’s present. You haven’t thought about leaving as well?”
The ride was quiet for another moment.
“Of course I thought about it, but I also see an opportunity, here. Being busy means having had more customers, which means the pay’s been better than ever. And as far as danger, I know how to drive. You’d know by now.”
“I do,” I said, feeling more certain. “Your family still doing okay?”
She had left it at that.
The drive continued with that relative silence. The meter ticking like a clock, but only in one direction, never wrapping around.
“You hopped in and said ‘drive’ but, you never said where.”
“About that,” I said, “I actually want to leave it up to you. Where is the safest place you can think of, or the place you want to be the most?”
“The most? Um, maybe Sicily? I haven’t had a vacation in over ten years.”
“Somewhere your taxi can take us,” I said.
“There’s a diner at the edge of town. Are you hungry?”
“A little thirsty, honestly, but that can wait. Where else? I’ll need somewhere I can return to, rest up and stay low for an hour or two if possible.”
“How long are you expecting to use my services?”
“For as long as I need you. I’ll do my best to not take too much of your time.”
“I have to return the cab at the end of my shift, you know. That’s in a few more hours.”
Reaching into my bag, I pulled out a fraction of the money I had taken with me. It was only fraction of my total funds, but it more than covered the current fare.
I passed to Claire, who weighed it in her hand. She didn’t flip through it, the stack’s thickness indicated to her all she needed to know.
“Sorry Claire, but your shift has gotten a lot longer.”
“I can see that now, boss.”
The door swung open, creaking, light from the hallway creeping in. Claire flipped a switch somewhere inside the foyer, and the rest of the apartment opened up.
“Make yourself home, boss. For now.”
I brought my bag in with me. I was about to slip off my shoes, but Claire gestured, suggesting that I didn’t have to.
Following her deeper into the apartment, I looked around. Not a lot of room, and sparse of decoration, but it did looked lived in. Toys were strewn in places on the floor, and uneven lines of what looked like crayon and markers were scribbled across the wall, none them reaching higher than my hip.
Claire led me to the kitchen. Plastic tupperware and plates were collected on one side of a sink, and unfinished bowls of macaroni and cheese were left on a counter. Three glasses of milk filled at different levels had been left at a table.
Lightly tapping a toy car away with her foot, Claire went to the table, collecting the glasses of milk and setting them by the sink. She moved on to the fridge, opening it.
“Go ahead and take a seat. You said you were thirsty, and looks like we have…”
“Milk?” I asked, taking a seat.
“Orange juice. Fresh out of milk.”
“I’m fine, but thanks. Uh, do you happen to have brown paper bags? Like something to pack a lunch with?”
“I have kindergarteners, of course I have those.”
“Mind if I borrow a few? And some space in your fridge to store some stuff?”
Claire looked at me, eyes filled with suspicion, but she moved across to the pantry. She handed me several folded baggies. More than enough.
“Thank you,” I said.
Claire, for her part, had gotten a glass of juice for herself, and went to sit across from me at the table. She took a sip, and sighed when she finished.
An awkward beat.
“Never seen your face before,” Claire then said, barely below a normal speaking volume, probably as to not disturb the kids. “You usually have the mask, right? Or a hoodie, if I remember correctly.”
“You’re young,” she said, breathing the word ‘young,’ “You’re older than my kids, obviously, but you’re still so young.”
I didn’t get offended over that. If anything, I thought she would have commented on another aspect of my appearance. Part of the reason why those riots were happening in the first place.
“Is that going to be a problem?”
Claire shook her head.
“No problem, no, but… I’m sorry if this is too personal a question, do you have parents?”
I felt something kick, somewhere in my heart.
“I do. I did.”
Claire frowned a bit. Not disappointed, but sympathetic.
“I know this isn’t my place to say, then, but I can’t imagine how they might feel, if they’re still around to feel anything. As a mother, it would break my heart to see any of mine being out there, getting into trouble like you tend to do.”
“What are their names?” I asked, a little too quickly, “Your kids?”
“Caleb and Willem.”
“Where are they now?”
Claire lifted her chin, pointing down a hall to my right.
“Their room. Sleeping. Or they should be.”
I went for my bag, opening it. On the table, I placed more stacks of cash. More and more until there seemed to be more green than there was the brown surface of the kitchen table.
Claire watched, more than astonished.
“Well, Claire, if you help me, you will be guaranteeing that little Caleb and Willem will never have to get into my kind of trouble, or any other kind.”
Still eyeing the money, I saw the glint in her gaze. Also the concern within.
“But the price for that guarantee… you’re inviting me into that world of trouble.”
“It’s only for a day, maybe even less than that. I just need someone who can drive me around, and a place for me to recuperate. That’s all.”
“That’s all? That’s a lot.”
“I’m hoping what’s on the table can cover any inconveniences.”
Another silent beat. Claire roved the money with a curious, hungry eye.
“There’s more where this came from, if you need it. Just say the word. It was a lucrative business, having led a gang, and even if my connections aren’t what they used to be, I can still get you more. I know where things are stashed, how you can sell them. After tomorrow, you never have to work another day again.”
“That is a lot of money, Claire.”
We both turned.
From the hall that Claire had pointed to earlier, a woman had leaned against the wall. An Asian woman, about Claire’s age, maybe mid-thirties, wearing pink pajamas with white dots.
Watching us watching her, she then moved to the sink, picking up one of the glasses of milk. She started finishing it.
“Did I wake you?” Claire asked.
The woman finished the drink, moving onto the next one.
“I’m a light sleeper,” she said, taking a sip, “Ah, but I usually stay in bed with my eyes closed if I wake. Heard the door, used to that. But then I heard talking, and a voice I hadn’t heard before.”
She looked at me when she said that, drinking her milk.
“Sorry then,” Claire said. “This is… my boss, for the next twenty-four hours or so. Still working that out. And this is Kim. She’s my-”
“Partner?” I offered.
“Roommate,” Claire said. “Just a roommate.”
“Pleasure,” Kim said. She reached over for my hand to shake. I gave it to her.
Her hand was cold. It sent a shock through me. Eerie to the point of nearly pushing away my concentration and filling me with anxiety, instead.
“You felt that too?” Kim asked.
“Not sure what that was,” I said.
Kim let go, finishing her second glass. “Curiouser and curiouser.”
“Kim works in social services, and other jobs around the city. Though she has never been super specific in what she does.”
Kim gave Claire a look. “It’s money on the table, less chunk of rent you have to worry about.”
Claire nodded. “You’re right about that.”
“Speaking of, you want to explain what’s all this about?”
Claire drank more of her juice. Now I was starting to get thirsty for my own drink.
“My boss here is asking me to be her personal chauffeur for the next day. Might be a whole day thing, but she says she’ll try to make it less.”
“I understand the sudden burden I’m bringing you and your family, and Kim as well, so I’ll do what I can to make it quick.”
“What are you thinking, Claire?”
She turned to Kim.
“Money is money, and this might almost be worth it. Boss, how early did you want to start?”
“Early as possible, but I’d still want us to get as much sleep as possible tonight.”
“Kim? You mind taking the kids to school tomorrow before you do… whatever it is you actually do?”
“Sure, no problem.”
Claire took another moment, taking in all the money again. There was a lot here, and I was willing to offer more for the trouble.
She turned to me.
“Then I’m in, boss. We’ll start as early as possible.”
A relief surged over me.
“Thank you so much, Claire.”
Kim had already finished the last glass of milk, setting them all into the pile on one side of the sink. She yawned.
“I’m heading back to bed. I’ve got the kids, Claire, no worries. And Ms. Boss? It was nice seeing you, and I hope I’ll see all of you again in another time.”
Waving at me, Kim then went back down the hall, disappearing behind a door. The door shut.
I started to say, but I stopped.
“Will she be cool?” I asked instead.
“She will be,” Claire said. “She’s someone I trust. Someone I trust enough to let live with us. Kim moved here from Las Estrellas a couple years back.”
“Yeah. She was telling me about the riots that took place there back when she was a kid. Seems like this kind of stuff happens in cycles. First it was her, now you.”
“There were riots back then? Like the ones now?”
“Well, I’d say we’re living in crazier times, but she’d know more about that than I would. You would have to ask her.”
“That can wait, then.”
“It definitely can. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go check on my kids. Feel free to use the couch. I’ll be back to get you some blankets.”
“Thank you again, Claire.”
“You can thank me when this is over. See you in the morning, boss, I’ll be ready when you are.”
Claire got up and did as she had said, going to check on her kids first. Now that I was alone, I took the paper bags and stuff my blood packs into them, sliding them into any free spots I could find in the fridge.
Then, I crashed on the couch, too tired to change, not that I packed the clothes for it.
I set my glasses on a nearby coffee table, readjusting myself when I felt something sticking into my lower back. A toy truck, this time.
Crash was an appropriate word for things.
In one night, my whole life around me crashed down. I salvaged what I could, and now I had to work with what I had.
It wasn’t much, but it was something.
And if there was anything I was at least decent at, it was getting back up again after a crash.