The worn-down taxi cab was twice older than Caleb and Willem, seven and five respectively. As familiar with this hunk of junk as she was her own children. The air freshener – now stale – that was hanging from the rearview, shaped like a pinetree. The paper dragon that Caleb cut and taped together, resting lopsided on the dash. A tiny, tiny chunk of vomit by a windshield corner she couldn’t reach, from when she had no choice but to bring baby Willem for a day. Now, thank god for Kim.
A place more familiar to her than her own apartment. When she sat, hands on the wheel, she was in her own little world. A home she could take with her to see the world, or in this case, Stephenville.
People would come in, sitting in the back, bringing with them their own stories, their own worlds. She would get to travel, and, for a brief moment, get a glimpse at all those different worlds, all from the comfort of her own. To make a decent living out of it… wasn’t such a bad deal.
Claire sat in her own little world, bathed in the dark of an alley. Waiting, silent.
She was never a fan of sitting in silence. It meant shutting out the world, or at least a part of it. She didn’t want that. She wanted to be here, be there, be present. To be able to drive through it.
Claire turned the dial and let a little bit of the world in.
“-continues to ravage the streets of Stephenville as the city enters another calendar day of civil unrest.”
“You’re pretty kind to just be calling it civil unrest, Slims.”
“Is ‘protests’ a better word?”
“But what are they protesting?”
“It’s a whole thing down there with the Asian American community. A whole damn thing. They’re tired of all the abuse and discrimination that’s been brought down against them lately.”
“But we’re seeing everyone on the streets, and I mean everyone. Asian, Black, Caucasian, we’ve got the whole A-B-C all the way to Z of people just painting the town red. It’s unreal.”
“It’s real enough for us to talk about it.”
“So we’ve got all those people, just tearing up what they can… you know what gets me?”
“And what’s that?”
“What gets me is all the theatrics around it. Some of these outbursts are planned of and some of the other outbursts are just chain reactions from the first category of outbursts. But the first category… you see all these people with masks. It’s a mob, really, a whole gang of fools just doing these coordinated attacks. Did you hear about a string of car bombs, blowing up major roads into the city?”
“No I haven’t.”
“Ever since that superhero started coming on the scene… the Bluemoon, right?”
“Yeah. Heard it was a girl though.”
“Ever since the Bluemoon started coming on the scene, now everyone’s trying to get a piece of that blockbuster weekend superhero spectacle action, except now it’s not stuck to being in the movies, it’s happening out there in real life with real lives at stake. It’s only going to get worse, and now the National Guard is going to have a harder time getting in because of the roads!”
“I heard the government is considering labeling the city as uninhabitable. Turn it into a No Man’s Land type of situation.”
“Well, let’s hope it doesn’t get to that point, Jimbo.”
It was a channel Claire had grown to be very familiar with. Late 94 with DJ Slims and Big Jim, or Jimbo for short, even though it was the same amount of syllables. They weren’t exactly the brightest bulbs that illuminated her night drives, but they were entertaining, and that was enough to be better than silence.
Claire continue to listen in on the old men’s banter.
“And to speak on theatrics, Jimbo, you never did answer my question.”
“What word would you use to describe the situation over in Stephenville?”
“The situation over in Stephenville? Actually, it reminds me a whole lot of the situation we once had here in our own backyard.”
“You… ah, that’s right.”
“Back in the-”
“When cellular phones were still referred to as cellular phones, I can recall.”
“It was a whole thing back then too. A whole damn thing.”
“Oh yes, it was. Didn’t last as long nor was it as bloody.”
“Well, we’ll have to see about that first part, Jimbo. The second part I can agree with.”
“Still pretty bloody though.”
“Oh yes, still pretty bloody.”
Over the old men bickering, Claire heard a heavy thump somewhere behind her taxi. She took a look through her rearview mirror, but it was too dark into the alley to see anything.
Another sound, right after. A passenger side door opening, and the boss sliding in.
Claire waited for the order.
That was the order.
Claire drove out of the alley and into the street.
She turned the dial and let a little bit of the world out.
“Never did answer the question,” she murmured to herself.
“Oh, thought you were asking me something.”
Eyes on the road, watching traffic and for any other potential obstacles, like the police or black vans or a bike or everyone, Claire drove. Her hands were steady on the wheel.
When she started, she was competent enough as a driver, but everyone started out that way. Then she got better, and over time she got better than the other drivers she had started out with. And then, she got to be rather good at her job.
And now, all those years, that learned skill and experience, were all being put to the test. All on the account of the young woman sitting in the backseat of her taxi.
Claire could recall the first time this young woman took that seat and told her to drive. She could recall what she had on her mind that night. Making enough to make ends meet for that month. Rent and other bills and Willem’s birthday coming up. She was listening to Slims and Big Jim then, too.
The night that followed, and every subsequent night that followed whenever she got that call, and had that young woman sit in the back of her cab, had branded themselves into her memory. Searing, hot. Forever leaving an impression.
And impressed she was, or was it fear? Or even something else? Because, when Claire had the young woman not in her cab, but sitting across from her in her own apartment, she didn’t see what everyone else wanted to see. The superhero, the supervillain, the monster, or whatever shape people needed in order to fit a specific context or understanding.
She saw a teenager, a child. Someone even younger than the young woman who sat in her cab for the first time, shrouded in darkness. And for those minutes, sitting in her kitchen, basked in the stark, artificial light, she saw someone as they really were. Presented in their entirety.
A girl, tired, sleepy, hair frayed at the ends and sticking up and out in parts. Eyes low and baggy, hiding behind glasses that caught the light, as if in attempt to obscure that part of her, to not reveal too much about herself. But it was too little, too late. The mask was already off, in a sense. Perhaps without being conscious of it herself, she wanted to show something of herself to someone, even if she couldn’t help but put a wall up, here and there.
And it spoke to something within her nature, despite her nest being rather full. But Claire couldn’t just take the money and walk away now, if it meant leaving this young woman behind.
“How did it go?” Claire asked. She asked as if she really cared, because she really did.
The taxi rolled along, the ride smooth. Claire was able to peek through the rearview again.
The boss stayed in the back, leaning so her face remained traced in shadow. Her mask was off, her hood down, but she still felt a need to hide somewhat.
She seemed to be working at something, her arms moving back and forth.
“Went about as well as you’d expect,” was her answer.
“I didn’t have any expectations, aside from you making it out okay.”
“Oh, well, thanks then. At least I managed that.”
“You didn’t burn the place down like last time. I’d consider that a step up.”
“Oh yeah. I wouldn’t do that Santino a second time. But there are plenty others who still need their turn. So let’s not waste another second.”
“Going as fast as I can, boss.”
Fast as she could, but not too fast. Still had to stay inconspicuous. Claire checked behind her again through the mirror, and caught a bright light. She blinked, and it was gone. But it was never there.
The Panorama in flames. That image had burned itself well into her mind.
“Are you planning to set fire to every place you go tonight?”
“I have my plans. Your job is to take me to where I have to be to execute those plans. Don’t you worry about what I do or do not have planned when I get there.”
But I can’t help but worry when I look at you.
Claire didn’t dare voice that.
Her eyes were back on the road, she signaled for a turn. She already knew where their second stop of the night was.
The radio droned. Slims and Jimbo were still prattling on current events like how older people tended to do. Better than silence, but not good enough.
She heard lips licking together. A sound of metal hitting or going into something. When Claire checked, a quick glint caught her eye.
Better to keep her eyes to herself.
“Actually, boss, I guess I could ask you this question, if you don’t mind?”
“Depends, but I’m up to hearing it.”
“Once this is all over, and I hope I’m not prying too much, boss, but once you’re done here, what’s next?”
A long, drawn beat of radio drone and the hum of road.
“I don’t think I have plans that go that far.”
It sounded like it an admittance more than anything else, a confession.
“I’ll have to figure that out if I get there. But I can’t even afford to have that in my mind right now. This is what matters. Right now, right here. Tearing, burning down as much as I can. Until I get through everything and everyone, or if I get stopped first.”
“Seems to me you don’t mind too much if it’s the latter.”
“You are prying too much.”
Hearing that, somehow, it stung.
“Allow me to apologize,” Claire said.
A soft breath from behind. It lasted long enough to sound shaky, falter, then ultimately shatter.
“It’s just… yeah. Let me do my thing, and you help me to do that thing. And let’s just leave it at that, alright?”
There was a tension in the air that Claire was more than familiar with. Like the moments after Caleb had thrown a fit over not getting thirty more minutes of a cartoon before going to bed, the harsh quiet that soon followed when he’d have to understand that he wouldn’t get what he wanted, a lesson he had to learn night and night again. She had the patience for it, but that tension was still there, and every night, that rubber band would be pulled.
It sat heavy in the air like static from a radio. Except in here, it had been dialed up to eleven.
The young woman was sitting back there, working on her own business, and ordering Claire to mind hers. And Claire was more than able, even when every maternal instinct within her was telling her to reach out and… not push, but pull. Bring her in. Her own nest was full, but that inclination was still there. She couldn’t deny it.
But she would have to ignore it. In this cab, she wasn’t a mom, she was a driver.
And isn’t that just a shame.
Claire took another turn, going down another road. Not another word was uttered until they arrived at their destination. The second stop of the night.
“Alright,” she said. The word felt heavy in her mouth.
Claire put the taxi in about the same place as before. By the sidewalk.
The door opened and shut without so much as a ‘see you later.’ Not this time. She was already on the move. Which was disappointing.
Claire went back into the flow of traffic, back to silence.
She raised the volume again.
“-long until this coalition begins to, what’s a good word for it, devours itself.”
“How you figure, Slims?”
“Happened last time. The Koreans were mad as hell because the police were down at Little Tokyo, not Koreatown, because all the city centers bordered there. Things weren’t so pretty between them Asians once it all settled back down.”
“Things weren’t so pretty with everyone.”
“Point is, Jimbo, Stephenville doesn’t have a Koreatown, do they?”
“Don’t have a Little Tokyo neither.”
“Oh boy. That’s not going to bode-”
“Well, there’s still time for things to simmer down. We can see how it plays out then.”
“And that, we shall. I think it’s time to take some late night calls. We got one here from, oh, our hometown of West Vineland. Welcome to Late 94 with your host Slims and my buddy Jimbo…”
Claire missed the rest of the call. She would have kept listening, but a faint yet more pronounced noise stole away her attention.
In the thin sliver of mirror, a pinetree dangling off from it, a plume of smoke started billowing into the night sky. Another one. Far too late to consider these as isolated, incendiary incidents. They have long since been a trend.
Way down the street, Claire could see the building. Morricone’s, the Italian restaurant they had visited earlier in the day.
A rumbling rocked the building. Claire thought she felt it through the tires.
The red brick building kept breathing out the smoke. Claire inhaled, gulped, and breathed out too.
Ragged and threadbare, the driver’s seat safety belt had ran through the loop by Claire’s head so many times that it was near paper-thin. Wearing a shirt or a bra, she was that used to it around her body. Never before had it pressed this hard into her chest, digging that far into it. Her foot on the pedal, flat on the floor.
Later in the night, and it wasn’t silent anymore.
The taxi tore through the street, following the action. Chasing after it. To be more precise, chasing after the the black muscle car thirty feet away.
Sharp, a right around a corner. No warning. The black muscle car flexed its stuff and turned on a dime. Smooth, almost gliding across the pavement, before the tires gripped for traction and bursted into a line again.
Tires and brakes squealed when Claire turned.
She rounded the corner. It wasn’t sharp or even right at all. No amount of coins could cover the difference. Thirty feet became fifty.
Rough, skidding and skipping, kicking up bits of concrete. Nowhere near as graceful.
But that wouldn’t be enough to slow down Claire.
She fixed her hands on the wheel, holding them firm, in place. She played with the brake and gas pedals, switching between them to at least ride it out instead of spinning out. All things considered, Claire didn’t spin out.
Gas to the floor again, and she was going straight, narrowly missing a separate vehicle. Wrong place, wrong time. The light was red the whole time.
The chase continued.
Claire was still on the tail of the black muscle car, but she had lost any purchase on them she might have had. Fifty was becoming sixty. At this rate, she would have lost them completely.
Wind whipped through a window in the back.
“We’re losing them!”
Her voice was almost whisked away from how fast they were going.
Claire gripped the wheel harder, knuckles going white.
Her own voice could be heard just fine.
“You want me to drive? I’m driving!”
She couldn’t believe she was doing this a second time. Or, maybe she could, but her mind was on about a hundred other things at the moment.
Like catching up to that black muscle car, like the fact that they were facing oncoming traffic, like how she had to swerve between vehicles, hearing them honk as the zipped past. Like how the taxi was rattling as the speedometer steadily tilted more and more to the right. Like how she was doing this a second time.
Like the fact that she was also getting shot at.
Claire tried to scream that, anyway. Wasn’t sure if it came out as a word or just a general shriek.
She got a reply regardless.
Then the young woman fired shots of her own.
Claire screamed again. Not a real word.
She didn’t have a gun before. Did she? Claire didn’t remember a gun being a factor last time. The last time she had to race through the streets of Stephenville. But there was one now. There definitely was one now.
The ringing in Claire’s ears were testament to that.
A high pitch that pierced through her hearing, but she kept her focus on her focus, just so she could continue to charge ahead while still avoiding every obstacle coming at her. Some very large, others not so much.
The taxi veered to the left, dodging a truck and more bullets.
“Keep to the left, they’re taking the turn!”
Claire adjusted while her boss continued to fire.
Her boss was hanging out the side of the open window, mask and all. Gun in hand, popping off in the direction of the black muscle car, and other perceived threats. For the latter, Claire would have to let her be the judge of that. She didn’t like leaving that up to someone so young.
Hard to remember how they got here. Too hectic, too sudden. The boss got back into the taxi after Morricone’s, said something about an Inez being served their last meal, then they were off to their next stop and then-
A bullet pinged off the windshield. Didn’t break, but a line like lightning cracked along one edge of the thing. Claire screamed again.
And then that.
It was a bumpy transition to the next street. The taxi clipped the corner, hitting a trash can, contents flying out. People dove out of the way.
People who were way too close.
Claire yelled. “You have to stop them already! We can’t keep going-”
“-Faster! Just a little more!”
Claire yelled again, but her foot was back to being flat on the floor.
Thing was, the money really was that good. Yet the price was seeing a world too seedy for her comfort.
Or was she considered a part of it, now?
No time to think on that.
The taxi gained, somehow, the black muscle car swerving, more wild than before. A popped tire? The boss kept firing.
“There!” she called out into the wind. “Got the tire! Peace Phoenix Plaza! Pick me back up-”
But she had already left.
The boss jumped out of the speeding taxi, going well over seventy miles an hour. Claire kept on going straight, finding it easier now. There wasn’t a body hanging off the side of the taxi, and she was going the correct way down the street, now.
Rolling off the momentum from all the action, she got ready to steer. The black muscle car was slowing down.
From above, a figure landed on the hood of the car. An impact hard enough to dent, hard enough to pin the car in place. After a hard bend off the road, knocking into another car and the pole on the way, the black muscle car was finally put to a stop.
Claire slowed down some, steering around the crash, slipping by before anyone else could. Putting as much distance between her and that as possible.
By the impact, another car screeched to a halt, people getting out. A second black muscle car.
She was being chased too?
That thought hadn’t even occurred to her. Was the boss firing rounds to keep them at bay?
Before she could consider the answer, the first black muscle car, the one they were chasing, burst into a great ball of flames. Claire could feel the sweat trickle down the back of her neck.
She turned and got away.
Putting several roads and a mile between them, Claire knew where to go. Peace Phoenix Plaza. It wasn’t that far from here.
Claire started heading in that direction. With the police presence spreading thinner and thinner, once she got the taxi in flow with normal traffic, near other taxis, she was able blend back into the background, as if she had never stood out. The chase couldn’t have lasted more than several minutes. But that was enough to age her. She couldn’t afford that loss of time, though, she still had a whole motherhood ahead of her.
As she drove, Claire fixed Caleb’s paper dragon on the dash, setting it upright.
She arrived at the Peace Phoenix Plaza, the park close to the area considered the Eye. The word ‘plaza’ still applied, because it was built as one, it still was one. ‘Phoenix’ fit, now than ever. When Claire looked in the distance she saw the namesake statue on fire. Police were blocking off the entrance, redirecting anyone who happened to pass by.
So much for ‘Peace.’
Claire turned the taxi around, setting in park at loop where other taxis would wait for any possible passengers. Close enough.
Time to breathe, time to think. Didn’t even want to listen to Late 94 right now.
She remembered having to race people to airports, or even runs to get people out of the city. But it was nothing like this. Or the last time she had the young woman in her taxi.
Claire also remembered that time, that last chase. A van. No guns, but just as insane. Because the driver of that other van was a little girl. Where was that girl now?
She only had a glimpse of that world, but it was so ugly, so wrong. Yet, there she was.
From inside, she inspected the damage to the taxi. The hairline crack on the windshield, a few dents across the hood. She couldn’t see if there were any bullet holes punched into the vehicle, but she didn’t want to go outside and check. She was too scared to, as if something worse would happen if she ventured outside.
At least in here, she was in the comfort of her own world.
Claire checked a switch by the center console. Still off. The sign on top wouldn’t light up. She wasn’t available for any other business. The business she was in now was too crazy.
No, not business, trouble.
At least the sign is still up there, this time.
She just wanted to get home and back to her kids.
Time ticked until the ticking became unbearable, and Claire turned the ignition to save gas. The taxi went still, the rumbling rust bucket wheezing no more.
Was the boss even coming back? How long was she expected to wait? They didn’t have any line of communication outside of maybe her phone. But everytime she called, it was through a different phone.
Her bag was still in the back, with all kinds of heat Claire didn’t want to be stuck with. Someone else had better take it, because it wasn’t hers.
She ran her fingers through her hair, fixing it.
The door open and someone threw themselves in a hurry.
Claire turned the key and was back on the road before a young woman tell her to-
They left the general area of the park, the flames of the Phoenix finally being extinguished. Claire checked.
“You alright boss?”
She had to check on her, too.
The young woman was going through her bag while she answered, her thoughts seemingly elsewhere.
“You mean in an existential sense?” She paused. “Sorry. We’re fine. There’s no heat on us. Can’t say the same for Edward and Gary.”
Who the hell was Edward and Gary?
Now, the only way she’d be able to sleep tonight was if she could really believe these people deserved, whatever the hell her boss did to them. Claire didn’t put her thoughts there.
“I meant,” Claire said, “Are you alright?”
“What, yeah, me? I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
Claire pressed her lips together, firm, before speaking again.
“When you’re doing the things you do, and I’m watching you do them, makes it a lot harder not to. At least when I’d drop you off somewhere, you go off and I try not to think about it. But now…”
She trailed off, unsure what she was trying to say, or what she was getting at.
Claire drove, not answering, now just pretending as if she didn’t hear.
“Is that all for tonight? It’s getting late, and I wouldn’t want you to push your luck. Or, maybe you’re done now?”
That last question came more from wishful thinking.
“Nowhere near done. Got a whole list left.”
Claire felt her heart sink.
“But we don’t have to run through it all tonight.”
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough? That you made your message clear?”
The young woman zipped up her bag, holding something smaller. An orange streetlight filled the interior for a quick second, and Claire looked away. Back to the street.
“There is no message, and I’ve nowhere near had enough. I’m sorry Claire, but I’ll need you for one more night.”
“These stops took longer than I had anticipated, especially that last one. It worked out in the end, but that was a lot of time lost. But you’re right, shouldn’t push our luck. So, one more night.”
Now with a new destination in mind, Claire now drove with more purpose. Home.
“You can’t just spend your nights throwing away your-”
The young woman reached across to the front of the taxi, tossing a heavy wad of wrapped bills.
“I’ve got a few thousand to spend and throw away right here.”
Claire would have said more, but the young woman was busy with something else now. Apparently taking a drink of something.
Claire took the wad, feeling the weight. Buying her silence, buying her cooperation. But there had to be a cost, somewhere, from both sides, that couldn’t ever be recurred. Sinking.
The taxi rolled on, going through the world, a world on fire, a world Claire was no longer familiar with. And in the taxi, there was another world she felt she had some responsibility to at least… do something. She thought of Caleb and Willem.
But the cost? A few thousand she might end up throwing away.
Claire set the money in the seat. It was a price she was willing to wager.
The steering wheel itself was loose, when left alone it leaned a tad to the right, which made going straight a bit of a hassle. Claire remembered when she first reported it to Bill, her real boss, and he had her send it in for a repair, among other things. It came back worse, but enough other stuff had been fixed that Bill couldn’t justify sending it back for the one issue. She learned to deal with it.
Claire prepared to make a right, loosening her grip on the wheel. She let it slide out of place before turning it all the way.
The sun went up and down, a half-circle across the sky. Now it was moon’s turn, hovering above them.
Another turn, another night.
Claire drove while the young woman sat in the back.
If there was any consolation, it was in that there wasn’t much to do during the day. For Claire, anyway, her boss had gone out after… after breakfast, and didn’t return until the sun began to set. Her kids had come home from school and were already in bed, but not with countless question on if their guest would be joining them for dinner, and why she wasn’t at dinner, and why wasn’t home for bedtime, because it was way past bedtime. Claire had ran out of answers by the time the young woman got back.
And now they were back, back out on the streets, on the prowl. Claire hoped this would be the last time she’d have to do this. For her own sake, and for the young woman.
A sharp hiss.
“Yes boss?” Claire asked, by reflex.
The young woman looked at her through the mirror, momentarily confused.
“Oh, it’s nothing. I think.”
“If it’s not nothing, then I might need to know about it,” Claire said. “Might have to chase after it. Or get away from it, apparently.”
The young woman grinned, small. For now, her mask was off.
“It’s really nothing. I just keep seeing things,” she said. “I think.”
“You get enough sleep?”
“This a regular thing? I hope it’s not a bad habit.”
“Oh it is,” the young woman said, almost laughing. “It most certainly is.”
Claire frowned. She couldn’t help it.
She spoke like she was talking to either Caleb or Willem. “That’s no good. Everyone needs rest, and sometimes they need it more than they need food, or, you know, whatever it is you had for breakfast.”
“I know. But there’s no rest for the wicked.”
“Wicked. Is that how you see yourself?”
“It’s how I see myself sometimes.”
“And other times?”
“Could you turn down the radio there?”
Claire turned it down, she hadn’t realized it was on that loud. She had gotten so used to DJ Slims and Big Jim’s voices that she could tune them out, easy.
But Claire also noticed that the young woman didn’t answer the question. How much of that was intentional, she didn’t know.
Would she let that go?
Even if she did, she still had something she wanted to say.
“I think it would be good for you to start thinking what you want to do after you’re done here.”
There was a long beat. Nothing. Not even Late 94 to brush away the silence.
All the young woman said was, “Prying.”
“I know I am,” Claire said. She was terse. “But I think it’s important for you to have some goal or priorities in mind that aren’t… this.”
“Too late for that,” was what she got. “Too late for me.”
Claire shook her head, still watching the road.
“No it’s not, it’s not. It’s never too late. There’s always a way, you just have to want to find it.”
Another, longer beat. Then the young woman spoke.
“Claire, I have a lot of respect for you. Now more than ever. You’re reliable, you’re kind, patient, and all those other wonderful things. Maybe you hear that a lot, maybe you even think they’re just normal, but trust me, from what I’ve seen and the people I’ve met, that’s a real rarity. Lying and cheating and stealing, that’s what it takes to survive in the world I’ve been in, but that means people will try and to do the same thing to you. So I can’t go back to normal, or all those other things, because I’ll always have to watch my back. Even now, I have to keep low in case any of those people are plotting things that I’m not aware of. Part of the reason why I was gone all day.”
“I hope you won’t bring any trouble to my home, then,” Claire said. “Whatever happens to or around this taxi, fine, this is its own world, but not there, not my home.”
“I won’t, and I didn’t.”
“But,” Claire breathed, “That’s not the point. You sound so… you’re not even going to give it a try? Finding something that isn’t this?”
“This is all I know.”
“You can learn!”
Claire stopped the taxi, parking it to the side. The young woman’s back straightened, sitting up.
“Hey, we don’t have time to waste.”
Claire turned around to face her. The young woman.
A teenager, a child. Whatever life this child had led to get here, in the back of her taxi, probably enough to fill over a hundred chapters in an opus, Claire might never know the details to, but she still saw the youth in her. She hadn’t been completely soiled. Or in that soil, there was still a chance for roots to grow, become something new.
Something that wasn’t this. Revenge and blood and fire. There had to be more to her world than that.
“What’s your name, boss? Not the mask’s name, yours. I noticed you never told me.”
The young woman’s lip curled up, slight.
“Call me Vee.”
“Like the letter.”
“Okay, V, what I’m trying to get at is, I refuse to believe that there’s nothing else for you. I’m just choosing not to believe it. And while I hate to bring up that I have more years on you, because you probably have a lot more packed into yours, but I’ve seen my fair share, too. Redemption. I’ve taken people to as many drug dens as I have hospitals and rehab centers. Sometimes it’s the those same people for both. And sometimes, they truly do get better. I’ve seen it happen, is what I’m trying to tell you. From the lowest and darkest places, to even just a few rungs up, but it’s not nothing.”
The young woman, V, listened. Not that she had any choice to.
Claire watched for any sign, as intently she would her own child. A brow, a lip, the flutter of an eye, to indicate that she’d at least listen.
She got one of those things.
“Has it gone the other way?” she asked. “From rehab back to the drug dens.”
Claire frowned again.
“I’m not going to lie to you and say that doesn’t happen. It’s not realistic. But that’s-”
“Not your point. I know. I hear you.”
Claire’s lips formed more of a straight line now.
“But why do you care?”
Claire smiled. That was easy.
“Looking at you, someone has to.”
V went silent, and Claire would have to wait. But that was a silence Claire could sit through.
“Okay,” V then said, “Fine. I can… Maybe it’s worth a shot.”
“More than you know,” Claire said, smiling wider now, “I can help you too, if you’d like. Look up some stuff, find some options. Schooling, if you’re interested. If you don’t want to be in a system or record there are plenty of libraries that hold classes to teach basic trades, not to mention-”
V raised a hand. Claire stopped.
“Hold it. I still have my plans. And you still have a job to do. All that can wait until after tonight. Alright?”
Claire nodded. It would have to do.
“Alright. After tonight. We can do it.”
V then gestured. “Then please.”
Nodding again, Claire put the car on drive, adjusted the steering wheel, and moved on once again.
“So, Irving Street, as nostalgic as it is, we didn’t visit it yesterday. What’s there?”
For whatever reason, Claire was feeling more chatty now.
Through the rearview, V started getting to work with her bag. Mask and guns and knives.
“No need to know.”
“Considering how your plans changed last night, especially with that chase scene, I’d like to know what I’m getting into this time.”
“Heard something while I was out today. Did some scoping. Apparently the leader of the gang that’s spearheading these riots, is using the warehouse on Irving as a base of operations.”
“That place seems to switch hands quite often.”
“Apparently. Worth a check now that it’s dark and I can drive.”
“I’m driving.” Claire smiled to herself. “But that’s okay. We’re coming up on it now.”
“Yeah.” V had her mask halfway down her face, over her eyes.
Across the street, a cement truck with the large cylindrical tank crossed the intersection, perpendicular to them. The truck was slow, and Claire had to slow the taxi as a consequence.
“You want me to put the taxi in the same place as before?”
Claire never got the answer to that question.
A harsh suddenness, a certain violence that encircled them and took away all control.
The world, spinning out of control.
The steering wheel leaned far more to the right than ever before, nearly a complete revolution. Useless. So were the brakes and the gas.
Her body went slack, limbs flailing, unable to take back their own volition. Just noise and pain and crash and broken glass and twisted metal.
Violence, suddenness, harsh. Over as soon as those things happened.
Coming to was a whole other thing. A whole damn thing.
Claire coughed herself awake, a sharp pain all around her.
Hanging by the ragged and threadbare belt. She was hanging upside down. Arms over her head, but to the ground.
Coughed again. The pain sharper. Something was broken.
Her vision was filled with colors that ran together, but she could make out some details. Not something, everything.
The pinetree was hanging the wrong way as well, the paper dragon lost. The thin crack of the windshield had burst into a spiderweb.
Complete and total silence. The heavy ringing and the blood flowing the wrong way made it hard to hear.
In a very real sense, her world had been turned upside down.
Came out muffled, but she could make out her own voice.
No answer for either question.
Vision still murky, Claire looked through the glass of the rearview. It was broken now. But through the shards, she couldn’t see the young woman she had as her passenger and boss. In fact, it looked like the door to the side had been opened.
Then the door to her side opened.
Claire saw feet. Shoes. Upside down. Right-side up.
The legs then bent. She saw not a face but… a clown? Now Claire was the one seeing things.
“Got the driver here. Still alive, though barely. If anyone has a gang doc on hand we could help her out.”
Claire groaned, trying to indicate something. Anything, by this point.
Another pair of feet entered the frame. The beak of a bird swooped down and was pointed at Claire. It swooped back up.
“Forget about her. Where’s V?”
A third pair now. They didn’t check inside the taxi but they sounded young. Younger than the young woman.
“They’re after her right now. Told you she’s fast.”
“But still… shit. The block was fucking locked down, too.”
“She’s out in the open now, that’s what matters. We just need to keep her moving, never rest, and she’ll fall into someone’s hands. Either ours, or the police, I can see the helis in the distance. When that happens we’ll pick her up.”
“Better be soon. Last thing I need is for someone else to get a hold of her. I want to see her. Look at her right in the face. I want her to know it’s me.”
“You know, there’s a chance she might not recognize us at all. And come on, can someone get her out of there?”
“D, tell Mrs. Carter and Styx we’re moving up. I am not letting her get away.”
“No big, Big Sis!”
Claire was starting to lose consciousness again. Unable to understand anything, it was almost better to fall back to sleep, and hopefully wake up somewhere else, somewhere safe.
She thought about her kids. She thought about Kim. She thought about V.
Hers was full as it was, but she was willing to nest another egg. The egg being V’s world. But now, it might be close to being cracked and destroyed.
And there was nothing she could do about it now. Claire was stuck, in the worn-down taxi cab.