Chapter 38: Preston
I was slowly forgetting how to talk. As I looked around the store I could only match a few names and faces. My vision would go from blurry to clear and back again every few minutes and I constantly felt sick to my stomach. The only person that was always clear to me was Crystal. She would sit with me for days on end, sometimes talking to me, even though she knew I couldn’t reply. It had confused me at first when I had first seen two of her at once- one sitting up and talking to me, the other sprawled on the floor with a bullet through her head. It took me a while to figure out that she was dead and that I was listening to her ghost. Before Svetlana gave me a concussion I would’ve scoffed at the idea of the afterlife. But now, it felt as if I was on death’s doorstep. Considering no one had done anything to assure my health I was surprised I was still alive.
I was lying on the cold, hard floor up against a back wall, that much I knew. I could faintly make out the sound of the front door opening and a few moments later I was able to make out three figures entering my vision. The first one had bright orange hair with a beard to match. The colors were so glaring to my now normally dimmed vision and I feared a migraine. He had come with two younger boys, one of whom I faintly recognized. I was so much better, in such a higher class than all of these people, and yet I was the one shriveled on the floor like a peasant. The first man began to speak and I was surprised to see that I could make out most of what he was saying, “Svetlana, we need to talk.”
“Da,” Svetlana replied, coming over to stand in front of him, “What do you want?” Then, noticing the blond boy standing beside the red haired man, “Derek, go to work.” Derek hurriedly left the side of the newcomer, who looked as if he wanted to call him back, but then thought better of it.
“It’s come to our attention that there’s a boy here with a serious concussion,” the red haired man said, glancing down in my direction. Was he talking about me?
“There is,” Svetlana replied with no trace of guilt in her voice.
“We know you haven’t been doing all you can to help him and, to be frank, we don’t think it would be the best thing for customers to walk in and see a half-dead boy on the floor.” I didn’t really know him, but I could tell I would like this man. Even in a time of crisis he was still thinking about the best business strategies.
“Skip Rogers, let me explain something to you,” Svetlana said to Skip, crossing her arms over and her chest and leaning slightly to the right, “Preston lies there as a symbol to everyone at Saper’s that anyone who opposes me will end up like him.”
“That is not good management,” Skip replied steadily, “And what about the corpse taped up against the wall outside? That needs to be taken down immediately,”
“If you’re going to blame anyone for that, blame Derek,” Svetlana argued, looking around for the mentioned before turning her attention back to Skip.
“As acting manager of Saper’s it is still your responsibility to take it down!” Skip was getting red in the face now, all traces of coolness gone. “Preston Winthrop is coming with us. As for the body on the wall, if that is not down by tomorrow morning, you will be removed from this store! You are required to attend tomorrow’s Council meeting at 1:00 pm as well to discuss food distribution. There’s more than enough food in here and people are starving!”
“You are not taking one of my workers without my consent!” Skip was lucky that Svetlana was currently void of weapons and only had her fists and words.
“Goth Boy!” Skip shouted at the other boy he had brought with him who instantly raised his hands, palms in my direction. In another second I felt myself being lifted up sharply and pulled toward the other boy. I saw Crystal out of the corner of my eye, following me, her eyes full of concern and fatigue. Before I knew it I was being pulled along by an outside force as Skip and Goth Boy began running to the door. I heard Skip call out for Derek and a moment later the other boy joined us. Svetlana shouted something I couldn’t make out, but it didn’t matter because in the next second I was outside. Outside, finally! After weeks of being cooped up in a dark, stuffy building, lying on a rock-solid floor I was now levitating in fresh air, feeling the wind whip through my hair. The softness of the leather upholstery I was placed on made me feel like I was floating on a cloud. I closed my eyes and wished I could stay like this forever.
“What does he think he is doing?” I asked, a little more than frustrated.
“He’s doing what any respectable man would do,” Dr. -------- replied, not looking at me. We were staying in a small hotel in Charikar with a few other members of Pozik Sukaldea Poltsak. So far I couldn’t say I liked it. I had been selected as the doctor’s personal assistant during this trip and one wouldn’t really describe it as “fun”. I hadn’t been sent to America yet, nor did I have the desire to. Dr. --------‘s ally, a man by the name of William Walker, didn’t sound like he was very hospitable. In fact, that was the man we were speaking of right now.
“I still cannot see why you have enlisted this man’s help. Are you sure he has no alternative motives?” I asked.
“Samatar, you astonish me,” Dr. -------- replied, pouring a dark purple liquid into a test tube. “You and I both know that you don’t want to be here, and yet you stay anyway. A young boy like you shouldn’t be out here. How old are you, again?”
“Nineteen” I replied as turned my face toward the window. What Dr. -------- said was true- I had no real desire to do be here. But, I was poor and my family was in need of food and shelter back in Somalia. I was a lousy fisherman and I was rarely chosen to go on hijacking missions. I had three children, all girls, none of whom respected me. My wife of fifteen years loved me, although she really had no choice. It wasn’t that I raped her or beat her, I was not like that. It was merely an arranged marriage in order to boost our families’ financial standings, although to tell the truth, no one profited from it. When Dr. --------- had arrived in Somalia, in search of thirty men to join his “company” (which, of course, turned out to be a terrorist group, unbeknownst to me at the time) I had jumped at the opportunity. And although not a single coin had been placed in my hand yet, I was kept alive on the promise the doctor had made to each man he recruited: Once the task it done, he said, you will all be reimbursed with more money than you’ll know what to do with. So for now, I bore the proud title of “Terrorist”.
“What makes you think that, doctor?” I asked, trying to defuse any possible tension. But the doctor did not reply. Instead, he turned his attention to the fax machine that rested on his desk. A paper was now emerging from it, the scratchy, squeaky noise of the machine grating against my ears. Dr. -------- yanked it out of the tray, read it over, and tossed it aside. “What is it?” I asked, trying to get a peek at the message.
“Nothing you’d be interested in,” Dr. -------- replied, still not looking at me. “News from Walker. The war has begun.” The doctor laughed, leaned back in his chair, and swiveled around to finally face me. “This is more entertaining than expected.”
I couldn’t tell where I was at first. Looking up I saw a fluorescent light shining above me. To my left and right were empty nearly empty trays and below me was a gurney. After a while I came to a conclusion that I was in an ambulance. The doors opened suddenly and an old man with skin like leather walked over to examine me. The man reeked of fish and I wrinkled my nose in disgust as he came closer. Derek soon followed him in and sat down beside my head on a chair I hadn’t noticed before. “Seems fine to me,” the old man spoke up after looking at me for a minute, “Just needs some rest.”
“You sure, Barney?” Derek asked, looking at the man, then back at me.
“Yeah,” Barney nodded, “Just a minor concussion. Seems to be getting over it pretty quickly, too. I’m impressed. What did you give him?”
Derek fidgeted for a second before replying, “I- I didn’t really give him anything,” he admitted sheepishly.
“Well someone must’ve given him something,” Barney said, looking back down at me, “He’s fine now. He’ll be up and walkin’ within the next hour.” With those promising words, the old man left and shut the door behind him. Crystal sat at the edge of my bed, looking at me with glassy eyes.
“Impossible,” Derek said to himself, shaking his head. He got up and looked down at me, “Well, pretty boy,” he addressed me with surprising contempt. After everything that had happened, Derek seemed to have little to no respect for me. I guess that meant we had the same amount of respect for each other, “You’re gonna get out. ‘N your life’s gonna be hell, let me you tell you that. ‘Have no choice but to go back to Saper’s. I’ll be there, Svetlana’ll be there- you know, the woman who left you to die? Surprised you didn’t. I’ll see you ‘round, man.” Derek laughed and shut the doors to the ambulance behind him after jumping out. I just lied there in silence, angry, alone, ridiculed by some neighborhood bully I’d scoffed at myself before the Destruction.
Since I’d gotten the concussion, the only ghost I’d seen was Crystal. My eyes widened now as I saw another transparent figure float through the door. My heart beat started to pick up when I recognized the ghost of Beebee, the girlfriend I had allowed to be beaten and murdered. She looked at me with sad eyes and waved, as if saying hello. If I thought about it, I guess she wouldn’t think that I had been responsible for her death. It had been Yuki, after all, who had delivered the devastating blows. Beebee had suffered a lot of internal bleeding after her fight. Had I wanted to help her? Maybe, but probably not. Beebee was saying something to Crystal that I couldn’t hear. They hugged and Beebee began to slowly fade. I blinked, and she was gone. I went to blink again, but I didn’t open my eyelids, and let myself fall asleep.
I was up and walking again, finally. The ambulance had been parked near the wrecked hospital, which I decided should be fixed later. As I walked down the torn up streets of Reyesent, I realized I had no fear. I couldn’t explain why I wasn’t afraid- maybe it was because I’d already seen the afterlife, seen that it wasn’t so bad. I looked over at Crystal, who was still walking beside me. As I walked by an alleyway I began to hear what sounded like a group of people yelling. I stopped and listened so more, just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. The yelling came again, angry, followed by an agonizing scream. Fear finally caught up to me again and I ran inside the nearest building. Once I was in I located the nearest staircase and ran up it until I came to a landing with a window. The window looked out upon the alley I had heard the yelling from and, tentatively, I peeked out to see what was going on.
Three men and a woman were circling a dark haired girl in a tattered black dress and bloodied skin. They were taunting her, throwing rocks and pipes at their victim, yelling things like, “Dirty freak of nature!” Or “Worthless bitch!” Or, more frequently, “What are you gonna do, kill me?” I couldn’t watch any more, but I wasn’t about to go down there and help her. I left the building as quickly as I could and ran in the opposite direction of the small gang. I soon grew tired and went to rest against a wall. Graffiti covered it, the most noticeable blemish being a crudely written message saying, “RESIST OR DIE.”
Resist? Resist what? Looking up I thought I saw smoke flying into the already foggy sky. It was coming in the direction of City Hall. I looked over at Crystal to see where she was, but she was gone. My stomach growled loudly and I remembered that I had nothing to eat, nowhere to stay, nothing. I couldn’t believe it; I was poor.
I remembered, suddenly, a resort on the outskirts of town that Chaz had mentioned when he first came to Saper’s. I began to concoct a plan in my head; get a car, drive up to the resort, and stay there. No one can kill you if they can’t find you.