He was still following me when I got on the bus, so I figured I’d let him pay my fare. If I couldn’t ditch him, might as well use him, right? I stalled until he got on the bus and latched onto his arm.
“Thanks for paying, sweetie.”
“Uh, right, yeah.”
While he pulled the cash out of his very nice wallet, I moved to the back of the bus to find a seat. He followed, but I plopped down between a woman knitting a horrendously ugly scarf and a man staring intently at the wall, forcing my strange friend to stand in front of me if he wanted to talk. The bus lurched forward, sending him stumbling, and I pulled out the phone, faking interest in the blank screen. A pop song I didn’t recognize screeched from the speakers, effectively drowning his words when he tried to talk. I smiled. Maybe I wouldn’t have to pretend to care today.
That was a stupid dream.
With annoying persistence, he started shouting to be heard, drawing the attention and subsequent glares of over half the bus patrons. Including mine.
The woman to my left started shaking her knitting needles at him, and the man fixed his rapt gaze on my obnoxious companion, lowering his bushy eyebrows in frustration. After a few stops of shouts and other noises, I slipped off the bus as gracefully as one can with one sprained ankle and a thigh full of stitches.
I’d hoped he would stay on the bus, but as I hopped the corner to Lita Road, there he was behind me. Huffing and out of breath, he jogged in front of me and leaned against the wall.
“Are you trying to get rid of me or something?”
I kept moving, and with a sigh he pushed off the wall to walk besides me.
“Your feet must be killing you. How are you even walking? You should be dead in a ditch by now.”
I gritted my teeth and forced the words out. “Shut up.”
“Actually, I don’t think I will. Let me come with you. Please. I need answers.”
I didn’t reply. My head was pounding, my ankle was throbbing, and my right foot ached with the strain of bearing my weight. I grunted and jerked abruptly to a stop. It took a few seconds for me to get the breath in my lungs to speak a full sentence, and I spent the entire time glaring at the strange guy.
“What do you want from me? Get lost.”
“I told you, I want- I need answers.”
“One second, let me grab my big ol’ book of answers and I’ll be right with you.”
“I’m serious.” His face was pinched in an annoying expression I couldn’t quite place.
“So am I.”
I wanted to leave, but I also really wanted to go to sleep. Move, I told myself. Move, legs. My legs refused to listen. Very rude of them, really.
“At least give me the phone.”
“This?” I pulled the device from the too small pockets of Aspen’s too large pants. “Finders, keepers. It’s mine now.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. It’s my property. Stop being a child.”
“Nope. You left it. Unless you’d rather I report you to the Council for possession of a bomb? I hear they don’t take bomb threats that nicely these days.”
I had him there. But he was doggedly persistent.
“Please, just tell me where you’re going.”
“I have a meeting.”
“That’s right.” I rolled my neck with a chorus of pops and snaps.
“Well, is it the type of meeting I can come to?”
“Look, I don’t have all day. Tag along if you want, but I really don’t think it’s your kind of meeting, ok?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
I was tired of this. Well, I was tired in general. Of everything. But this guy was especially getting on my nerves.
We made it probably a whole ten feet before he decided to chime in again.
“You know, you should probably get some crutches or a wheelchair or something. You’re making quite the scene hopping around like this. Probably not very good for you either.”
Yeah, and it hurt like blazes. But I didn’t dignify that remark with an answer. We were almost there anyways.
“You’re not very chatty, are you?”
His stride was aggravatingly easy. I’d already forgotten what it was like to walk normally. I promised myself I’d never take it for granted again.
“I’m not normally that talkative either, but when I get nervous I tend to ramble-”
“You say that a lot.”
The door of number 17 Lita Road was plastered with advertisements for a wide array of medicines with dubious-looking results. The only space not obscured was a brass “17” and a small sign boasting the open-ness of the apothecary.
I twisted the heavy handle with a groan and trampled inside. The heavy odor of spices and the sharp tang of bleach assaulted my nostrils, making me blink several times in the dim light. The boy was right on my heels.
“Hello, dears. Can I help you?” A tall, willowy woman with a kind face and hair wrapped in a decorative scarf smiled at us from behind a counter across the cramped space. Shelves overflowed with everything from modern-looking headache medicine to something I was pretty sure was meant to drill demons out of your head.
“Are you Laura Smith?” My voice sounded flat in my ears, and I forced a weak smile around the ache in my... everything.
I picked my way closer as gingerly as I could, and I began to make out little wrinkles surrounding her eyes. I still had no idea how old she was. She could have been in her early thirties or old enough to be my grandmother. She had one of those ageless faces.
“That’s me.” She squinted in a way so similar to Aspen it made my heart twinge. “How do I know you?”
“I’m a friend of Aspen Kane. She said I might be able to get some crutches here? Maybe some fresh bandages?”
“Oh, Aspen? Yes, any friend of hers is a friend of mine. Lord knows I owe her countless favors. I’m sure I can find you something in the back, I’ll only be a second.”
After she’d disappeared behind the counter, the stranger spoke in a hush.
“That Ms. Kane comes prepared, huh?”
“She’s nothing if not prepared.”
“So, how do you two know each other?” His eyes were glimmering pits in the low light.
I gave him a sideways glance. “Long story. Don’t you have anything better to do than tail a crippled girl around the city all day?”
“I’m on pre-FCE.” That was a surprise. If his school was anything like mine had been, everyone with any aspirations beyond “anonymous factory worker” would spend the week-long vacation before the Final Council Exams at school, studying furiously for the chance to be one of the lucky few to gain the interest of the Council. But I had the feeling his school wasn’t very much like mine at all. His family was already in with the Council, and he’d never have to worry about higher education or internships or jobs or anything. It was lined up for him.
“How old are you? Shouldn’t you be preparing for the FCE too?”
That was a difficult question to answer. My seventeenth birthday had only been two weeks after that day, but that had both never happened and happened a million times.
“I’m not taking the FCE.” That was the easy answer. It felt wrong to say, like a violation of my old self, but it was true now. Sitara Lynn-Parks was dead. My careful plans for my future were gone.
“You’re not? You dropped out?”
I shrugged, fighting back tears and hating myself for it. I hadn’t yet shed a tear for Elliot or Micah or anyone, but a test was what made me upset? I supposed the simplest problem was always the most daunting.
“Something like that.”
Laura Smith, bless her soul, saved me from explaining further.
“Here are the crutches, come, I’ll adjust them to you.” She waved me over and started holding the crutches against my body before waving to the boy. “And you, would you be a dear and carry that pack of bandages for your friend?” Without checking whether he obeyed (he did), she turned to face me again and messed some more with the settings on the crutches. “I included some anti-infection creams in there and instructions on properly wrapping all sorts of wounds. Have a nice day!”
We were out on the street again in a whirlwind of goodbyes and well wishes before we even knew what hit us. I leaned precariously on the crutches and wobbled to face the stranger.
“Do you have any clue how I’m supposed to use these?”
“I broke my leg once, in lower school. I think I remember how to use them, let me show you.” He reached for the crutches and I drew them back, already protective.
“Use your words.”
“Let me help you walk please?”
I shook my head, stifling a laugh. “No, use your words to describe how to use them. I’d like to stay standing.”
“Uh, right, ok.”
He mimed grabbing the crutches again and lifted his left leg in an exaggeration of a limp. “You put one crutch under each arm and grab the little hand-hold thing.” I followed along, fitting the crutches in my armpits and latching on like my life depended on it. Maybe it did. “Now, to walk, you are going to switch your weight between the two crutches and your good foot in one continuous motion. Like so.” He mimed swinging the crutches forward while balancing on his right leg, then stopped. “I can’t really act that part out without the crutches but pretty much you just need to put your full weight on the crutches and swing with both feet.”
“You’re horrible at instructions.”
He made a face at me. “I’d be better if you weren’t such a crutch hog.” I laughed, for real this time. “Now show me what you’ve got.”
With a deep breath, I stood on my aching right leg until I stopped wobbling, then swung the crutches in front of me like he’d shown me. I planted the crutches and leaned my full weight into them, and started to pitch forward. I panicked and lurched backwards, landing on my rear with an ominous pull in my stitches. I drew in a sharp breath at the pain, but once my head cleared I realized the guy was laughing at me. I scowled and tried to get to my feet several times unsuccessfully before he stopped laughing long enough to offer me a hand. Passersby were starting to stare.
Take two was only mildly more successful than the first. I managed to stay on my feet, but lost my balance and careened in a limping circle.
The third time, I moved forward, and from there I started to lean-hop-swing my way down the street. Mystery boy fell in stride.
“So, where to? Or was Laura Smith your mysterious meeting?”
“Yup. That’s who I was meeting. I’m going home now, bye.”
“You know, you are a horrible liar.”
“You know, you are an obnoxious stalker.”
“Checkmate. But hey, blame your ‘mother.’ She’s the one who asked me to keep an eye on you. My interests and free time just happened to coincide.”
“You know, you should really be studying. Wouldn’t want you to end up in a gutter somewhere, begging for scraps.”
That hit a nerve, but he just shrugged.
“I get perfect grades, and I’ve already studied tons. I’ll do fine.”
Where I came from, fine meant you were stuck in a life of flickering light and crowded halls. Only the truly exceptional got the attention of the Council. The exceptional, and the rich kids.
“What time is it?”
He looked confused at the change in topic, but looked down at his watch all the same.
“Twelve and a quarter, why?”
Blazes, I hated it when people talked like that. All those quarters and halves, I wished they would just give me a number. Life was short enough without wasting time on math.
“Walk faster. There’s a bus stop a block from here, we’ll take that to my meeting across town.”
“No there isn’t.”
I kept walking. “What?”
“There isn’t a bus stop a block from here. The closest bus stop is on the other side of Lita, where we got off last time.”
“Yes there is. I use it all the time. The stop on the intersection of Oak and Hill.”
“I just checked the bus route, and I promise you there is no stop there.” I stopped moving and turned to snatch his phone from his hand. Sure enough, it was opened to a map of stops in this part of the city. I scanned it and thrust it back in his direction.
“Must be outdated.” As soon as I said the words, I wanted to slap myself in the face. Of course it wasn’t outdated. I was outdated.
“Nope. Updated only two weeks ago.” He pointed to the date in the corner of the map and I scowled.
“You lead the way, then. I don’t want to be late.”
We got off the bus with five minutes until my meeting and a two minute walk to the alley. I’d rather be earlier, but at least we weren’t on time.
“So, this is the kind of meeting in dark alleys, huh?”
I gave him a skewed look over my shoulder as I hobbled along.
“Told you I didn’t think it was your kind of meeting.”
He straightened his shirt, looking mildly uncomfortable and a bit terrified.
“No, no, I meet strangers in dark alleys all the time.” His voice dripped with way too much sarcasm for the situation. “But aren’t those kinds of meetings supposed to happen at night? You know, with knives and flickering candles?”
“Well that would be suspicious, wouldn’t it? Someone might think something shady was going on if we met like that. No, I’m just looking to join a non-profit organization.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“As the grave.”
93 Cobb street was a barber shop that looked like it itself could use a haircut. All the lights were off inside, and there wasn’t a soul in sight. The whole street was abandoned. The alley behind the barber shop was wreathed in shadow, and I gestured for the boy to stay on the street, and he nodded gratefully.
The Devout were very punctual, I’d give them that. Exactly one hour after I called them, three figures slid from the shadows, faces obscured by black masks.
“Hello, how are you today?” It was the chipper guy who’d first answer the phone who spoke up.
“What’s with the masks?”
“Just a precaution.” I recognized the cold tone of the second woman I’d spoken to.
“Right. Hey, I’m just looking for a friend. Any chance you fellows know a Cade Burnan?”
Before I knew what was happening, I was lying on the ground and three handguns were pointed at my face.
“How do you know that name?” The woman’s sneer was practically radiating through her mask.
I raised my hands in surrender. “I told you, he’s an old friend.”
The woman sounded unconvinced. “You’re coming with us.”
“Sounds good to me.”
The third masked figure, a voice I didn’t recognize, came jogging up and spoke to the woman in a whisper I could just barely make out. I hadn’t even realized he was gone.
“There’s a guy with her. Average height, probably seventeen or eighteen. Looks physically unable to hurt a fly.”
“We’ll just take him too.”
Then, she turned back to face me. I think. It was hard to tell with the masks.
“Sorry for this. You’ll have a killer headache when you wake up.”
And everything went black.