I realized as a small animal bit me that I had fallen asleep. As I opened my eyes, the circumstances leading up to my spending the previous night in a dumpster came back to me like a hangover. I groaned quite audibly. Sure, I had decided the previous night that the score between Zane and I was even. So why did it feel like I had lost? Something told me that the bastard had slept in a very warm bed last night. Thoroughly pissed off, I roused myself from the garbage that surrounded me and climbed out of the dumpster. A moment passed. I coughed. It was entirely possible that I had caught a cold.
Stretching, I considered where I could go; what I could do. My father was probably disgusted with me now; I couldn’t go home. Tyler was the one who turned me in. I would definitely be paying him a visit in the future; there were no doubts there. But that was lower on my list of priorities. Suddenly, a thought occurred to me: Stacy! There was no way she could have betrayed me. I even saw her leaving before I lost consciousness. She was just surprised. But I look normal now.
The hospital was still visible to me from the alley I stood in. I had been there before, once, a few years ago. I knew where it was in relation to Stacy’s apartment. About a quarter-mile away. There were…two police checkpoints between me and there. But I was no stranger to finding detours. Life in the city teaches one how to work around the little barriers. I voiced the route in my head to make sure I was getting it right.
“Take this alley to Clare Street, cross the avenue, head to the tram station and take the skywalk two blocks over. Get off that, use the alley in between the two banks and take it to the fire escape. Got it.” An uncomfortable draft reminded me that I was still in a hospital gown. Small chance I wasn’t going to attract attention. My attention found its way to the dumpster. There was hope. Without even a second thought, I dove back in.
Food. More food. Good lord, I need to go vegetarian. Was that a TV? Wish I could wear a TV. Wow, that’s a ton of bottles. Aha! Pay dirt! I pulled out the filthiest pair of jeans I had ever set eyes upon. They no longer had knees to speak of, what seemed to be grease stains covered them, and all of the belt loops had been torn off at some point. Two days ago, I wouldn’t have been caught dead in these things. Today, they seemed like a gift from the universe. After sliding them on, I had to admit that they were quite comfy. Now in possession of the requisite amount of clothing to walk about the streets, I ditched the hospital gown after putting the contents of its pockets in my new pair of jeans. Stacy’s younger brother probably had a shirt I could borrow. Until then, I could stand the cold. It had been a mild March so far, though we were only a couple weeks in. There was always room for things to get worse.
The route was just as freezing as I expected, and I did draw a few odd looks, what with my shirtlessness and all, but I managed to find my way to Stacy’s building quickly and thankfully uneventfully. Standing in the alley underneath the fire escape, I breathed heavily, almost surprised that I hadn’t been shot on the way there. A bit of a head rush followed, along with a feeling of nausea. Cussing to myself, I realized why: I needed the Formula-15. A breeze blew by as I reached into my jeans and pulled out the bottle Zane had given me. I grunted softly as I opened it and let fall out a single pill. It was pink and square shaped. Not even half the size of my thumbnail.
“Oh I bet you’re loving this,” I said to the pill. “You get to decide if I live or die. You insignificant little speck!” I stopped myself, realizing how silly I must have looked doing that. Frowning, I swallowed the pill and put the bottle away.
“Is she five stories up, or six?” I decided it was six and hopped up onto the fire escape. It was funny. I had made this trip countless times before, but something felt odd as I clambered up to the sixth floor. It came to me outside Stacy’s window: it had only taken me one try to reach the ladder leading up to the rest of the fire escape. On almost every other occasion, I had to try a few times before getting a good grip. Chalking it up to good luck, I nodded to myself for some reason (it’s a shitty method of self-affirmation, to be sure) and knocked on the window. Immediately I heard a chair sliding around inside and after a few moments the curtain opened and I saw Stacy, white as a ghost. Her eyes, typically half-closed at me in a sly, sultry manner were now wide open in both fear and surprise. She opened her window.
“You need to go. Now.” I recoiled in shock.
“What? No! They’re after me. You must have seen them after Tyler-“ she interrupted me in a hushed, quick voice.
“They’d kill me if they knew I was talking to you. You’re an Alter. I can’t consort with you. It’s forbidden. Please, go.”
“They don’t need to know. Please, just let me stay the night. You don’t know what they were trying to do to me.” She hesitated for a moment, obviously ignorant to the fate that awaited me. Though scared witless that any slip up might mean that I spend the rest of my days in a cell, I exaggerated. “They want to experiment on me. I’ll die. Please, Stacy, I’ll die if you don’t let me in.” This wasn’t entirely untrue: there was no way I would let them take me alive. Frustrated, she groaned and motioned for me to come in. Without wasting another second, I crawled in through her window and sat down at the foot of her bed.
A few minutes passed in silence as blinds were drawn and breaths were held. Satisfied that we were alone, Stacy turned around to face me.
“I don’t know what was going through your head when you came here, but let me clarify something for you: you can’t be a part of my life anymore. You should know this already, Cal.” I did, but it still hurt. What made it worse was the fact that I was the one who told her of the protocols for dealing with Alters. Feeling sick to my stomach while doing it, I tried to undo what I had said.
“Yeah, I know. I know what I said. But I’m not some psychopath wandering the streets setting things on fire with my head. This is me, Stace. They say Alters are born unable to feel remorse or guilt or fear or any real feelings, but you’ve got to believe me when I tell you that I have never felt so scared.” She still looked skeptical. “Look at me Stacy. Please. You have to believe me.” A few moments passed. My heart felt like it was trying to work its way out of my chest by force. Finally, Stacy sighed in relent.
“Fine. You can stay one night. That’s it. When I wake up tomorrow, I don’t want to see you ever again. Maybe you’re still human, Cal, but I don’t know what they’d do to me or my family if they discovered I helped you.” Elated, but still calm, I nodded to her silently. She got up, running her hands through her sandy-blonde hair and groaning.
“When you go to bed tonight, it’ll be the last time you see me. I promise, no harm will come to you because of me.” She shook her head.
“There’s no way you can be sure of that.” Frowning, she sighed. “Jesus Cal, why you?” I shrugged, not entirely sure.
“I didn’t choose this. God, I would give anything not to have it.” As I said this, I felt at the bottle of Formula-15 in my pocket. Stacy raised an eyebrow.
“Can…can you show me? Your alteration, I mean.” I laughed bitterly, shaking my head.
“It’s been suppressed. They put me on these pills that neutralizes the alteration. It’s pretty addictive, too. I’ve never thought of an inanimate object as cruel, but…” I showed her the bottle of pills, “…well, there’s a first time for everything, I guess. I’m half glad, though. Can’t remember much of what happened to me other than the pain. God, Stacy, it was like someone had injected the sum of all human suffering into me and gave me a boot to the head for good measure. What did it all look like?” She gave me a lopsided smile and sat back in her chair.
“You were – it was – scary. Like you were ceasing to be there. The shadows in your apartment stopped making sense. They got too small, and then too big, and finally just converged on you.I felt dizzy.” I raised an eyebrow.
“So with answers come morequestions. Par for the course at this point. Lord, I still need to work out where to go from here.” A silence followed that felt loud. Like the void was screaming in my ear, drowning out all else. My head sunk as a realization good and truly hit me. “I’m going to miss you, Stace.” She looked as though she wanted to respond, but something tripped her up.
“You’re going to need a shirt, right?”I responded with a silent nod. It was obvious that she was trying to avoid looking at the puncture mark that the IV had left in my skin. She didn’t want to know what had happened during the last 48 hours or so, and I didn’t even begin to blame her. She made her escape from the room and, a minute or two later, brought back a black muscle shirt and similarly colored hoody. I raised an eyebrow.
“This…isn’t what I usually wear on my off-hours.” For the first time since I came in through the window, Stacy laughed.
“Cal, you don’t have off-hours. You don’t even bother to change out of your school uniform on weekdays, and you wear button downs on the weekend. I’ve seen you in a tee shirt twice.
“Tee shirts are for layabouts.”
“Give me a break.” She threw the clothes at me like I was a coat rack. The sweatshirt draped itself over my face while the muscle shirt landed on my left shoulder. It must have been funny, because she laughed. Reluctantly, I pulled the tank top on and threw the hoody on over it, zipping it up to mid-chest level. Fidgeting in discomfort, I grunted before finally lying back on her bed and closing my eyes. I was still nervous, so I folded my hands across my chest and attempted a breathing exercise I had learned a few years back when I had first started practicing Hapkido. It was one of my few hobbies. Tyler used to tell me that it was just another pile of work for the serial overachiever competition addict. Tyler, as far as I was concerned, could fuck right off and die. Now angry, I clenched my fists, dooming the exercise to failure. I was about to hit something when I felt Stacy’s lips brush against mine. They tasted salty.
“That sure didn’t feel like being dumped.” My eyes were still closed but I could tell she was smiling.
“Well, the way I see it, we could sit here feeling sorry for ourselves for the rest of the day or we could enjoy the last few hours we have.” I heard a zipper. 3-2, Zane.
That night I dreamt of slaves. Hairless, naked and grey, they pulled what first seemed to be formless masses with ropes. I saw their faces, though. Dehumanized though they may have been, not one was identical to another. I flew past them, taking in their idiosyncrasies as they moaned in pain and exhaustion. A child, no older than eight, dropped to the ground. His hands bled from the blisters and the blood was inky black. It smiled at me in a way only a puddle of blood could. Unsettled, I looked to the sky and found it to be a reflection of the scene on the ground. The same faces, the same bodies, the same pain. Morbidly curious as to what the slaves were dragging, I drifted to the back of their ranks and found myself agape in horror.
The ropes were lashed around leviathan mounds of flesh, almost liquid in their corpulence. Looking closely, I could see puny, malformed limbs sticking out of these…things and flailing in delight. At least, it looked like delight. When I found one’s head, if it could so be called, I saw a smile that made me never want to laugh again. The black blood dripped from its mouth, which hung open as if expecting to be fed. If it had eyes, they were pressed shut. In fact, there were no recognizable features on its face besides the mouth. Only a greater number of folds. Did it know what suffering it was inflicting upon its slaves? Almost pitying their mass, I was about to give them the benefit of the doubt when the one closest to me let escape from its mouth a series of giggles so hideous and disgusting that the concept of joy itself would be erased from existence if it heard the noise being made in the waking world; I was sure of it. Close your eyes, Cal. Was I telling myself to do this? It scarcely mattered anymore. I obeyed, forgetting for a moment what second thoughts even were.
Now in the dark, I could only hear that infernal laughter and the combined moaning of the slaves. Somehow I moved myself, though I had no idea which direction. The sounds grew fainter as I pushed even harder. The edges of my consciousness were soft but firm, and I had no means of piercing them. I realized that I was screaming in both pain and fear, rabidly clawing at the wall, hoping to escape. This went on for what felt to me like decades, and only when my hands were worn down to bloody stumps did a light begin to shine through in a horizontal line that looked to bisect the part of the wall that I could see. Slowly, it widened in the middle and more light shined through to me. When my eyes adjusted to the new light, I saw Stacy in front of me, sound asleep in my arms. For a brief moment, everything went black again before I awoke to the same sight.
It was about six. I had promised to be gone by the time Stacy woke up, so I carefully slid away and headed to the bathroom. The fact that she never commented on my dumpster smell boggled my mind. Turning on the shower, I remembered the Formula-15 and reluctantly swallowed a pill. A frustrated groan escaped my throat and I climbed in the shower, sitting down. I stayed in this position for a few minutes until it occurred to me that I might need to wash my hair. More groaning. The water felt good against my back; this was a rare occurrence. Typically I would have to play with the temperature for a minute or two. Could be I’m just really high strung. I thought about this for a moment. High strung or high standards? I think you know the answer, Cal. A grin crossed my face.
Clean, I exited the shower and got dressed. I had put my jeans in the laundry the previous evening and it turned out that they were black, once upon a time. Now they were just a vaguely gray color. At least they no longer smelled. Shrugging, I zipped up my hoody and headed to the window, being very careful to open it quietly. Maybe I should have woken up Stacy or at least left a note, but there was an uncomfortable and vaguely painful sensation in the back of my mind that convinced me otherwise. In any case, I caught my last glimpse of her and closed the window.
Cold out. I put my hood on and climbed down the fire escape, wondering what my next move was. There were a few things that needed to happen. The first thing I had to do was find a way to either get my hands on enough Formula-15 to last me awhile or break my dependency. To be sure of how much time I had left, I checked the bottle. After a couple of minutes, I had counted enough pills to last me about a month. Assuming I’m even a free man for that much longer. Which brought me to the next order of business, and the most important one: figure out how to avoid arrest. It wouldn’t be easy. I wasn’t even sure why they hadn’t checked Stacy’s place first. Zane had some plan for me, I was sure of it. It could have been that I was playing right into his hands. Shivering at the thought, I decided that the best course of action would be to find some place I could hide out for as long as I needed. A thought entered my head. My first reaction was to recoil. There has to be a better way than that. Going over it in my head, though, I realized that I didn’t really have any other options.
About fifteen years ago, a couple of big things happened in the city whose consequences still stand as a testament to poor planning. With the construction of the tram system, the need for the old subway diminished. Inside of a year, it lost funding and closed down. At the same time, the homeless problem in the city had grown too large for the upper echelon to ignore; the unfortunates and unwanted could no longer be contained within the slums. A solution was offered: build low-income housing in the former subway tunnels, creating a sort of lower city. This solution was ignored in favor of converting the stations into retail space; underground strip malls. Tracks were removed and replaced with linoleum. Stores were built into the walls. The homeless were urged to retreat into the undeveloped parts of the subway tunnels or face increased police action against them. Out of options, they relented. The winding tunnels became home to thousands of homeless, the underground strip malls a sort of gate to this community. Before that day, I had never given the part of the city dubbed “the Derelict” a second thought. Now, I was so full of sanctimonious rage at its existence that my knees refused to bend as I walked towards the nearest subway station. At that point, I was less angry about the injustice that the homeless faced and angrier that I was being made to hide out among them.
“This is the bigwigs’ fault.” No one amongst the crowd of people in the underground strip mall heard me. They wouldn’t have cared. Hell, I hardly cared. Usually I had Jay to vent frustrations to, but that ship had sailed while I was sedated. Still grumbling to myself, I contemplated whether or not I had the right to be as self-pitying as I was being right then. After drawing up a pros and cons list in my head, it became evident that I wasn’t hurting anyone by pouting. So pout I did, and I kept pouting until I began to hear sounds from the Derelict, further down the tunnel. There were really no walls separating it from the station strip malls; the flooring and fluorescent lights just sort of stopped after about a quarter mile.
I have to say, I did know exactly when it was I had entered the derelict. The first tip-off was the long string of Christmas lights that illuminated the entrance like an arch. Underneath their glow I saw faces that eyed me with a silent suspicion before deciding I wasn’t worth the trouble of a shakedown. Not that I was planning anything. A tall, older man of indeterminate ethnicity wearing a woolen jacket gave me a grin.
“Welcome to Derelict, little man.” His voice was iron oxide given sound. I did something like a scoff (though I’m pretty sure I was just choking on the smell of raw humanity) and replied.
“Glad to be here.” I didn’t mean it, but put absolutely no sarcasm behind it, either. The line between “homeless man” and “ruthless criminal” was embarrassingly blurry in my mind, and I was now more terrified than anything else. Sure, I knew how to defend myself, but I was unarmed and had no clue of what I was doing. The man with the jacket seemed to pick up on this.
“That sweatshirt’s clean. First night on the streets, guy?” I was now faced with a choice. Shrug him off and pass up on any help I could get from him or give him an answer and risk getting scammed, murdered, or otherwise victimized. After sizing him up, I went with the latter.
“Yeah, guess so.” Ask for help, but don’t show any vulnerability. “Anything I should know about the place?” He laughed, which lead almost immediately to a cough that sounded like a load of bricks getting dropped into a shallow pool of tapioca pudding. Grimacing, I waited for his reply.
“Just like any other place, little man. You pull your weight, you keep on your toes, you get by just fine. You start thinking things are gonna be easy or you keep wearin’ that haughty look ‘a yours, you’ll end up facing the same thing down here we did up there.”Fair enough. I was looking for specifics, but it was a start. After a moment, I dropped whatever look he said I was giving him and shifted to a laid back smile. This was difficult at first, as the expression had atrophied from disuse. I continued walking, noticing a look on the man’s face that I had a hard time placing.
The noise grew as I came to a corner. Turning it, I was quite taken aback. There had to be hundreds of people in this part of Derelict alone, and every one of them looked so…human. Not mentally unstable and filthy, but not inspirationally disadvantaged, either. It was odd. I looked around at all the faces bathed in a reddish glow from the thousands of Christmas lights that brightened up the cavern, and I felt, to be honest, kind of confused. My first instinct was to pity them, or to count myself lucky that I had lived so comfortably up to now, but just looking at the place and looking at them, I saw no reason to. Intrigued by my own feelings, I wandered around, taking in the sights.
Underneath the glow, groups of people talked quietly amongst themselves. Many were huddled around small fires, the smoke from which flowed towards a few vents, which, I could only assume, lead to the surface. There was a smell in the air not entirely unpleasant, but hard to describe. Food? No. That would have been nice, but there didn’t seem to be any food down here. Lost in thought, I stumbled over a small pile of bricks and fell against the wall. I sat down; trying to look like I had done that on purpose, but some laughter coming from beside me made it even worse. Annoyed, I turned to see a young man and woman sitting a few feet from me. They looked similar, and were likely related. The man, who wore a small beard and an interesting necklace, spoke.
“New here?” I rolled my eyes.
“Ho boy. How many times am I going to have to hear that?” The woman gave me a sly grin. She didn’t look any older than twenty or so, and though a shower would have probably proven beneficial to her, I couldn’t really say that she was unattractive. Her hair, a rusty red color, was tied back in a bun.
“Until you’re no longer new,” she answered. I pursed my lips.
“Well, yeah. Is that going to take very long?” They chuckled at one another.
“What’s your hurry? If you’re down here with us, it means you’ve now got more free time than you know what to do with. You want a drink?” This was the goateed man, who held out a small water bottle full of…something brown. I took it, nodding in thanks, and smelled its contents. It was immediately recognizable.
“I’m eighteen, so…” the woman rolled her eyes and shrugged, almost accusingly.
“So what? He’s nineteen and I’m twenty. Quick, someone call the cops!” I laughed despite myself.“You’d better drink up; it’s your only freebie,” she said. Putting her hands behind her head, she leaned back.
“The princess of congeniality is Jan, stranger. I’m Wendell. Call me Wendy. Tell me, who would you be?” He gave me a knowing smile whose origin I couldn’t determine.
“It’s Calvin. Don’t call me Calvin, though. I hate it. Cal is fine.” Wendy gave Jan a look and both nodded.
“Cal it is. So, you a runaway? Hell on your folks? Gimme something, here.” I was a bit uncomfortable answering that. He almost seemed to know, though, and kept giving me that mysterious smile. Jan rocked her knee up and down impatiently.
“I’m…not sure I’m quite comfortable telling anyone that. For now, I guess you could say I’ve been having some problems with the law.”
“Oh, ho ho!” This was Jan, thoroughly unimpressed. “We got ourselves a regular Charles Bronson! Tell me, can you hear me, or is there too much tragic past lodged in your ear?” I furrowed my brow and frowned. Wendy was about to admonish her, but I was in no mood to have anyone fight my battles for me.
“Oh, what would you know?” Wendy took the opportunity to back off, clearly not wishing to be in the middle of this. Jan, however, seemed to have a competitive glint to her eyes that I hadn’t noticed before.Oh, fun.
“Well for starters, I know that you forgot to leave that sense of superiority at the door.” I pointed accusingly at her.
“How could you possibly know that? I’ve only been kind of private.You’re just trying to trick me into saying something insensitive so you’ll actually have something to go on. Well I’m not going to. And that bun looks awful.” It didn’t. It looked like a bun. But if she wanted blood, she had it. As a snarl rumbled out of her throat, Wendy stepped in.
“Oh no. I’m not letting this descend into pettiness this quickly. Trust me, Cal; she was just about to match that last comment. Probably with some line about your puberty beard.”
“What puberty beard?”
“Anyway, I don’t think any purpose is served by your picking fights, Jan. As for you, Cal, tread lightly or she’ll bite you. That, I can’t and won’t stop. Too dangerous.” I crossed my arms.
“Fine.” Jan gave me a look that probably could kill and shrugged, pretending I wasn’t worth her time. Ignoring her, I turned back to Wendy.
“So is it that important I tell you why I’m down here? Because if my staying quiet sparks as much contempt in everyone else here, I might consider it.” Jan flipped me off as Wendy considered his answer.
“There are no secrets in Derelict. Besides the ceiling, that’s what separates us from the Roths.” I raised an eyebrow.
“Oh, that’s Roof Over Their Heads.” I smirked.
“Cute. But this is still pretty honors system. I bet a crazed killer would just love this place. No cops, lots of bodies.” Jan scoffed.
“You know why they wouldn’t come down here? No cops, lots of bodies. And it only takes me five minutes to sniff out someone with…ulterior motives.” I back-scoffed.
“Really? Did you sniff me out? Who knows, maybe I’m a deranged killer teenager out of a shitty TV show.”
“No need. You’re a scrawny kid with a superiority complex whose ass a child could kick.” This would not stand.
“Hey, I know Hapkido.”
“You know jack,” she said, contemptuously slowly. I threw my hands up in defeat. Arguing with her was pointless. Wendy put his finger in the air.
“Private chat, Cal.” He pulled me aside as Jan basked in her victory. I sort of glared at him sarcastically.
“Is she going to keep doing this?”
“Until she feels you’ve gotten the message. Give it a week. That’s not what I wanted to talk to you about, though.”
“No. Thing is, Cal, I meant what I said. There are no secrets down here. And I didn’t just mean that you shouldn’t keep secrets. You can’t.” I raised an eyebrow.
“Can’t I?” He sighed, making a face a world-champion chess player would make after being challenged by a ten year old kid who didn’t even know if the king went on the right or left.
“The first clue was your sweatshirt. It looks expensive. You obviously come from some privilege. Next was the sound that pill bottle of yours made when you fell. There are a few addicts down here, but prescription drugs are too expensive a habit to maintain. Next was that scared look in your eyes and your hesitance to share with me the circumstances that lead you here. The biggest clue, though, was the fact that Zane’s men came down here two hours ago looking for you. They brought pictures.” My eyes were wider than softballs, I swear. Ten different otions appeared in my head and most of them ended with ‘and then hide the bodies so they won’t find you.’ I scanned the area for a weapon before something occurred to me.
“You know his name.” He grinned at me like the goddamn Cheshire Cat. I almost wanted to punch him for nearly giving me a heart attack.
“Well, yeah,” he said, reaching into his pocket. “The bastard gave my first bottle of Formula-15.” The bottle he procured was empty, with the words ‘Fuck You’ written across the label in pen. From a few feet away, I saw Jan, giving me a double snap-point and giggling like a little kid who just heard a dirty word.
“Five years ago. Both of us, at the same time. Started with just nasty headaches, but then I developed the nasty habit of calling people up on their cell phones and telling them exactly where they were and what they were seeing. My sister got so goddamn disgusted with just about everyone besides me and my parents that they knew something was up. Zane found us both not much later.” I was having a hard time processing all this. Both Wendy and, oddly enough, Jan seemed to understand. “Turns out,” he continued, “I was something Zane called a sympathetic locator. If I knew someone’s name and face, I could find them. Could even see through their eyes without their knowing, too. The girl’s locker room was a fun place in the month before we were discovered, let me tell you. Jan-” he was about to explain, but she pushed him out of the way.
“I get my own introduction, thanks. Me, I’ve got psychoanalytic abilities. Means I can learn more about you and your motives and character and issues and shit in a five-minute conversation than a therapist could learn about you in ten years and you could learn about yourself in a lifetime.”
“You’d think you’d be more sympathetic to…people if you knew so much about ‘em.” She laughed.
“Oh, cute, you’re still an optimist. No, the more I learn about people, the harder it is not to hate them. Just about everyone is scum at heart. Lucky me, though, I have to concentrate to analyze people. I don’t do it often. Didn’t do it on you. Already knew who you were.”
“Huh. Well, you’ll forgive me for having though for a moment that you did.” Her smirk broke for a second, revealing a sullen look.
“No. If I had, I probably wouldn’t even be able to stand the sight of you. Like Wendy was saying, him and my parents were the only ones I scanned who came out of it with positive results.” That was almost sweet, in a gratuitously misanthropic sort of way. “So, what can you do?” she asked.
“I’m not entirely sure. I had a bloody meltdown a few days ago that ended me up in Zane’s hands. Firsthand accounts described me doing weird things with shadows. It was…horrifically painful. Before you ask any follow-up questions, though, can I ask who Zane is?” Wendy and Jan thought about this question for a moment, like they were being asked their opinion on a hot button political debate. It was Jan who made up her mind first.
“Zane is…not to be trifled with. It’s a miracle he hasn’t discovered us hiding down here in Derelict yet.” Wendy’s expression turned to worry after hearing this.
“Wait. Who’s to say he doesn’t already know? His men came down here looking for Cal, Jan. They had his name, his face…” I went pale. Wendy had a point. It was entirely likely that Zane was further ahead of the game than we had been giving him credit for.
“So, how do we deal with this, then?” Jan sneered at me.
“Where are you getting this ‘we’ shit from?” Wendy elbowed his sister and pushed her behind him.
“What Jan meant to say is that we need to assume the worst. Derelict isn’t safe anymore. Neither is the rest of the city. I think we need to find the Priestess.” I raised an eyebrow.
“She’s an Alter. A healer, but she’s off her nut,” Jan explained. “Can’t blame her. She was around for V-M Day. Saw things the three of us could hardly even imagine. If we’re lucky, she could help you break that Formula-15 dependency.”A step in the right direction.
“Sounds like a plan. Wendy, can you find her for us?” He pursed his lips and lowered his eyebrows.
“I don’t know her real name. I need know a person’s real name in order to find them, otherwise my locator bounces around the globe and I end up with a newborn whose umbilical cord hasn’t even been cut yet. It’s the reason I don’t have Zane’s number. Not his real name. The good news, though, is that I know where she lives.” Jan looked frustrated.
“Hardly good news.” I raised an eyebrow.
“Why, is she on the other side of town or something? Don’t worry, I know how to avoid police checkpoints.”
“You’re adorable, High-Rise. Try Milwaukee.” Somewhere off in the distance, a dog barked. A cough echoed throughout the cavern. My optimism died.
“That’s…slightly across the Rockies.”
“It’s not going to be easy. The cold’ll be the biggest problem. Cargo trains are all well and good, but they get searched too often. We’re going to end up walking. A lot. Spring is coming, so hopefully the weather will be fair.” I put my hands up.
“Wait, hold on, here, you mean we’re doing this? Just like that?” Oddly, I was almost disappointed that I wouldn’t be spending as much time in the Derelict as I had expected.
“Oh, what, are you so in love with Portland that you’d rather sit around and risk Zane finding us? Fat chance, Chin-scruff. If you stay, Zane will catch you. And if he does, he’ll find us through you. That’s not happening. We’ve avoided him for far too long. You’re not fucking this up for us. You’re coming.” Jan had been backing me into a wall while saying this, her pointer finger an inch from my face.
“Okay, okay. You win. Guess I should be glad you didn’t just kill me to preserve your secret.” Her expression went dead serious.
“I don’t kill innocent men. That’s what Zane and his ilk want. I will never be the kind of Alter they say I am. Never.” She swiveled around and headed for the exit.
“Guess that means we’re leaving,” Wendy said in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. Left with no other choice, I put my hood up and followed.
“You seem oddly cool with being called a girl’s name.” We were a few hours out of the Derelict, walking south along the Willamette. It was a little after noon, and the waterfront was mostly empty.
“Neither of us really remember it, but it was what Jan called me when the two of us were toddlers. She couldn’t quite pronounce her ‘l’s. I got embarrassed of it once we started school, but it was already my name. Figured at that point, it had become who I was, you know?”I raised my eyebrows and nodded. While I couldn’t say that I would have done the same, I sort of understood where he was coming from.
“Don’t worry if you don’t understand,” Jan said. “You will. It’ll happen again and again.”
“What? No it won’t. Cal isn’t a girl’s name.” I was just toying with her, but I put so much sincerity behind it that it fooled both her and Wendy. He cradled his forehead in his hand while Jan just gave me a sour look.
“That’s not what I meant.” Laughing, I slapped her on the shoulder. She didn’t seem to appreciate this, but I didn’t even begin to care.
“Yeah. Got that.” A thought crossed my mind. “Hey, how many times have you two made this trip?” They were hesitant.
“Technically, this is our first time heading in this direction,” Wendy said. “But we came here from Milwaukee on our own a few years ago. It was…certainly an adventure?”Well, I’m bloody sold.
“And how long did it take you? Less than a month, I hope.” Jan answered.
“Longer, actually, but that was because we stayed in Billings for awhile before Zane caught our scent.”
“Jesus. Who’s signing his checks? He must either be making Uncle Sam a happy man or just hate us more than the average bigot.” Jane smiled.
“Pardonnemoi, monsieur, but were you not just an average bigot a week ago?” I thought about this. She was right, but I didn’t see her point.
“Well, yeah, but-”
“But nothing. You haven’t experienced bigotry yet. Not really. Don’t think you have. Zane may be an evil son of a bitch, but he’s one man. Any asshole can handle the hatred of one man. But when you really start watching doors close on your life because the world is scared of what you can do? You’ll understand then.”This seemed like as good a time as any to shut up. Jan stomped along, her pace unchanged by her speech.
In the light, it had become clearer that she really could have used a shower. Stray hairs that had escaped her bun were sticking up everywhere, her palms were stained brown with dirt, and a chimney’s worth of soot covered her face and hair. She wore a denim jacket, fraying around the cuffs, and army fatigues that tested the limits of the durability they were built for. Her shoes, interestingly enough, looked rather expensive, if soiled. As if aware of my silent critique, she let her hair down. It was still a tangled mess, but at least it was less ashamed of itself now.
Wendy had been rinsed his hair in a public restroom about a half hour ago, so he looked slightly more presentable. He had, in an odd way, seemed to turn his rattiness into something of a style. A second belt hung diagonally off of a first one, attached via stitching but serving no purpose I could see. On his hands he wore duct-tape biker gloves, which complemented his combat boots, taped up with the same roll, I imagined, quite well. His red and black flannel jacket and jeans were in surprisingly good condition.
I was about to ask about what Milwaukee was like when I noticed a woman staring at us from about fifty feet away. There were more people in the part of the city we had come to than there had been earlier, but her gaze was no easier to ignore because of it. She was middle aged, wearing a long, red jacket and carrying a matching purse. For a moment my gaze met hers before she looked away and reached into her bag. I didn’t wait to see the cell phone she was about to procure to panic.
“We need to get out of here right now.” Wendy looked confused, but Jan had traced my line of sight. Nodding, she quickly spoke.
“Got it. Wendy, sewer. You’re with me, Draw-Strings.” As if to explain the nickname before I asked, she grabbed both my namesakes and pulled with surprising force as we kicked pavement. The faster I ran, the less it hurt, so I sprinted with a speed I never thought capable of until my lungs felt like deflated beach balls and my blood felt like it wanted me dead. Risking getting choked, I looked back but saw no sign of Wendy. Good. He had high-tailed it as fast as Jan had wanted him to. His safety was up to him now.
My safety, it seemed, was up to Jan, who weaved through the crowd with ease while I struggled to mirror her movement, to limited success. By the time I knew what she was planning, I simply groaned. Seconds later, the two of us had flown over a bannister and the cold water of the Willamette came at me like explosive decompression.
“Just follow me,” were the only words she said before plunging beneath the water. I followed, hoping I could keep up. Swimming was never my forte.
The water now surrounding me was freezing but my blood was running too hot for me to notice. Jan directed me to a small yacht. I could see its name printed towards the bottom of the hull: Emily’s Hubris. Curious name, but I wasn’t about to get critical. Metal rungs were attached to the hull close to the aft, and the two of us climbed up and onto the boat. I took a quick look around. There didn’t seem to be anyone aboard but us. Noticing that I was standing upright, Jan pulled me down to the deck by the collar.
“The hell’s the matter with you? This is all going to be for nothing if you’re careless.” I nodded quickly and nervously. The two of us crawled to a door and went through, being sure to lock ourselves in before making any sort of conversation.
“How long do we have till they find us here? And why here?” Jan gave me an uncharacteristic grin.
“About two more minutes until Zane’s men arrive at our last known location. But we’re going to be long gone by then. This here,” she said, gesturing to the helm and then the rest of the ship, “belongs to a certain businessman out of Seattle whose secret I stumbled upon a few months ago while he was here visiting his kids. He promised me he would provide emergency getaway services if I were to tell no one about his talent for unassisted flight. I probably could have gotten away with more, but the poor guy already looked like he had been through enough. Giant burn he got on V-M Day splotched right across his face. He was obviously smart enough to stay hidden after that, though,” she said, opening up a mini fridge. A beer flew my way and I just barely caught it. After fumbling with the fool thing for a few seconds, trying to avoid dropping it, I finally got a good hold and held on like it was my only child. Jan laughed.
“Easy there. Now, lemme try to remember where he said the keys were.” She snapped. “Ah! The bunk bed. Head down those stairs. They’re right there.” I gave her a sideways glance.
“Why should I have to do it?” She didn’t even dignify the question with a response. Sighing, I headed down below decks. In this small bedroom were a bunk bed and a single dresser. There was a bathroom adjacent to it and a Monet print on the wall. After looking around for a few minutes, I found the keys stuffed into a pillowcase. Upon arriving back at the helm, I saw that Jan had gotten comfortable, having removed her wet shoes and coat. Underneath, she wore a dark blue button down shirt a few sizes too big for her. She was wringing out the sleeves as I handed her the keys.
“Ah, so he proves his usefulness. Good. Let’s get a move on. I retracted the anchor while you were gone.” I crossed my arms.
“What about Wendy?” She sighed, clearly worried, but then shook her head rather violently, emerging with a much more confident face.
“He knows what he’s doing. With any luck, we’ll meet him on the way there. For now, we need to head south down the Willamette. There’s a train yard just north of Canby. He’ll know to find his way there.” There wasn’t much more I could say on the subject. As she hit the ignition and waited for the motor to heat up, a thought entered my mind.
“You know, we’ve only known each other for a few hours. Yet you risked your brother’s safety for mine. No offense, but you don’t exactly strike me as the Good Samaritan type. What gives?” She cracked her knuckles.
“There are too few of us to do anything but keep each other alive. Wendy knows how to do that alone. But I don’t trust anyone but myself in matters of import like keeping a naïve kid out of Zane’s hands, least of all said kid.”
“I’m not a kid.”
“Forgive the confusion. With that dust bunny living on your chin and your voice cracking when you get pissed, a girl can’t help but get mixed up.”
“You’re a girl?” Her eyes lit up like the flames of Gehenna. I was on thin ice here.
“Forgive the confus-“ I might have finished that statement had her shoe not decided on an impromptu game of patty cake with my forehead. Alas, the world is cruel and this was not the case.As I law sprawled out on the floor, I felt the boat move.
“We’ve got free reign of the river, right?”
“Only the Willamette. We’d be screwed if we headed up the Columbia. It empties out into the Pacific, and they’d stop us before we even got halfway there. The Willamette’s not too important, so they don’t waste manpower patrolling it.” Made enough sense.
The next few hours left in the day were spent in silence as we sailed quite slowly down the Willamette, praying to every god we could think of that we might make it to Canby safely, and that Wendy would too.Close your eyes, I said to myself. You could really use a break.