Meeting an Old Friend
Caleb was Mina’s past. She bumped into him earlier this afternoon amidst the ruins of a war long gone, and her gut feeling told her that he would become her present again. He had stood on the corner of the bombed out financial district, like a lighthouse surrounded by a spray of broken bricks and shattered windows--tall and confident, his dark hair shorter than usual, his features calm. Caleb was the most beautiful sight, even as they were engulfed with the pungent smell of dead animals rotting somewhere in the destroyed houses.
They decided to have lunch.
...The snicking of a lighter...
...The earthy scent of tobacco...
Caleb took a long drag from his hand-rolled cigarette, drawing his cheeks in, then let the smoke escape as he savoured the moment. An oversized poster of soldiers adorned the wall of the small café. Like the rest of the place, the picture was new along with the smell of fresh paint filling the air.
Mina watched Caleb intently. She studied his face and all the details that went with it; every line, every muscle--everything was so familiar and yet so different. Only then did she notice the dark circles underneath his eyes and the pale colour of his face.
He looks old.
A piercing voice snapped Mina out of her thoughts, “You can’t do that in here!” And a middle-aged lady hurried over to them, her hair a tangled mess of loose strands. The woman came to a halt with one hand on her hip. “I got support from them for this place,” she said and pointed with her finger to the poster with the soldiers. “States’ money, their rules, you see? So, no smoking.”
Tense muscles mirrored Mina’s edginess as she waited for Caleb’s reaction. Her eyes darted to the waitress, daring to take a closer look. The woman’s face was heavily covered with makeup.
Ah, Mina thought.
The application of the foundation was a masterpiece that required a practised hand. But on closer inspection, Mina could spot the damage to the skin. The once blistered wounds and inflammations caused by the radiation syndrome had hardened. The skin tissue had taken on a different colour and shimmered slightly dark through the makeup.
But something didn’t add up.
Mina knew that there was no charity in this world. The State did not believe in welfare, and certainly not for people with the Sickness. The State only took.
As so often when I meet people with the Sickness.
There was a clinking sound as Caleb stubbed out the glowing butt in the saucer of the coffee cup. He gave the woman a charming smile, and Mina couldn’t help but grin at the mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
“Unite for our leaders,” the lady then said with reverence, placing her gloved right hand on her left shoulder in the traditional way, the length of her arm crossing her heart. Mina knew immediately what was expected of her.
“Unite for the people,” she replied with discomfort when a group of marching men passed the window of the cafeteria, their boots producing a ponderous, commanding noise on the asphalt. Mina did not even bother to look.
“Your order?” the lady demanded, and Caleb decided on a pasta dish while Mina didn’t feel like eating at all. The woman hastily wrote something on her notepad, turned around without saying another word, and disappeared through a swinging door behind the counter.
Mina exhaled long and noisy.
She changed her sitting position and faltered upon rediscovering Caleb’s long scar protruding from his collar once again. Deep inside, she knew what had happened to him, knew what had caused the injury. And yet, her brain fought feverishly to banish the image of a rope around his neck.
Mina closed her eyes and tried with all her might to push the horror out of her mind.
“Are you okay?” Caleb’s deep, calm voice brought her back to the here and now. She ordered her head to nod, though all she wanted was give in to the urge and take him in her arms, hold him close and feel his heartbeat against her chest. Only then would she have been assured that Caleb was here with her, alive, after all those years of silence.
“Sure,” she told him, stirring her tea, her fingers playing with the spoon for a short moment.
How do you converse with a person you haven’t seen for years and with whom you once shared so much?
Dad’s gone. Mina believed she had never said those words aloud, and suddenly, she became aware of her limp hands in her lap. She waited for the tears to come, yet she remained strangely calm, composed. “He was taken. We don’t know if he’s dead or alive, but our hopes aren’t very high for the latter.”
“Jesus.” Caleb lowered his head and took a deep breath as the march of another group of men echoed through the streets. He had known her father all his life.
“Caleb,” Mina spoke in a whisper, and she scanned the room for the waitress. “Are you in danger?”
And to her surprise, Caleb started to chuckle, his eyes reflecting a vibrant spell Mina was never able to escape
“Of course I am. But these fools are so eager to find us radicals that they don’t notice when we stand right in front of them.”
“You think she’s one of them?”
“The waitress?” Caleb peered in the direction of the kitchen door. “I don’t think she’s really one of them, no. Just a useful person for whom not much persuasion was needed to play along. I mean, look at this place.” And he raised an eyebrow and nodded to the right corner behind his back. A black surveillance camera hung above their heads, its flashing red light betraying that it was attentive. “They have their eyes everywhere.”
“She does it for money then?”
“And medicine, if you ask me.”
Mina did not dare to stare directly into the camera but she sensed the menacing artificial eye glaring at the space. The eerie quietness of the device made her feel little, meaningless. And she wondered what kind of person was watching them. Was it a man? A woman? Were they young? Or old?
Mina forced herself to keep her face down and focus on Caleb, afraid to hear the mechanical sound of a lens zooming in on them as she noted a change in her friend. He was present, and yet he was not. With his eyes wide and his pupils dilated, Mina wondered what had happened to Caleb in all those years.
The sound of a foot tapping nervously on the floor tiles drifted to her from under the table. And Mina understood--he was excited.
She opened her mouth to say something, but was interrupted by Caleb leaning towards her. She mimicked his movement until their noses almost touched over the bistro table.
“We have a computer in our possession,” Caleb spoke under his breath. Mina blinked at him, not sure why he was so thrilled about this. She remained silent though, giving her friend the time to explain himself. Caleb noticed her hesitation and the shadow of a smile passed over his face.
“I’m not talking about that old junk from the previous century. I’m talking about the kind of technology they used in the war.”
Her chest tightened. A suffocating force pushed from her lungs upwards to her throat until an ominous tingling settled in her head.
“I’m talking about a high-performance machine.”
Mina slumped back in her chair. “Bullshit. Everyone knows these computers don’t exist anymore.”
“Everyone believes they don’t exist. Destroyed and banned in a joint enterprise of all countries after the third nuclear wave. The know-how lost, bombed or buried with the dead.”
“That’s what school taught us, yes.”
Caleb puffed and tilted his head. “Come on, Mina. The curriculum, the educational goals, the teachers, the textbooks--who do you think is responsible for that? All lies.”
Mina’s pulse quickened while blood rushed to her face. “There’s no proof,” she said, but Caleb’s expression remained rigid and determined. “It’ s impossible,” she urged.
He shook his head. “They have hundreds of them. Those bastards had them all the time while telling us to lead a simple life, diverting our attention with other amenities.”
“But how do you know? How?”
And Caleb looked out the window, the brutality of his scar now more evident than ever, his gaze distant, as if he were no longer sitting in a café.
“Because I saw them. I saw the people operating them. I saw what these monsters have been planning in secret all these years.” Caleb sighed and Mina recognised how he pondered every word he had to say next. “With this computer in our possession, our engineers can work on developing our own machines to counter their power.” And his previous excitement was replaced by an urgency that made Caleb seem desperate, almost panic-stricken.
“Caleb, you have to get out of here.” Mina felt sweat break out on her forehead as the red light from the surveillance camera started to torture her nerves. They’re going to find him!
“Don’t worry. I still have some time,” Caleb said, and she heard a slight tremble in his voice. “Mina, do you remember when we went into the tunnels?”
Of course, she did. How could anyone ever forget such a gruesome place.
“Do you remember how we found the entrance?”
“We went into that ransacked shop--” And then the penny dropped. “We didn’t meet by chance today, did we?”
Caleb closed his eyes and confirmed Mina’s suspicion with a brief shake of his head.
“You took something from that shop, right?”
“You still have it?”
Mina nodded again, visualising the wooden box in her flat where it was stored safely.
Caleb dropped his shoulders. “Thank God,” he breathed and ran a hand through his hair. “You cannot imagine how vital this is for our endeavour, because if we fail...” Caleb grew quiet as the waitress rushed out of the kitchen and placed a pasta dish in front of him. She then returned behind the counter and began cleaning some glasses.
Mina glowered at her friend. She realised that she too had become a useful person for the purpose of others. Had Caleb been watching her? Had he been present the whole time without her knowing?
“So, your computer--does it even work?” she asked, condescending.
“Not yet, but it will--with your help.”
Anger flowed through her like hot, steamy lava.
Mina looked up, and her gaze softened at the sight of her opposite’s glazed eyes. “I mostly remember how everything went down the drain.”
Yes, she remembered. She remembered her family and friends. She remembered when it all had started.
But most of all, she remembered Caleb.
It has always been Caleb, Mina thought. And why does he need my amulet?