Meeting an Old Friend
PART ONE: THE BEGINNING
Mina Anderson took a deep breath when she spotted the fibrous tissue of a pink scar around his neck. It was painful to look at. Painful because Mina understood the aggression involved. Painful because she was well aware that there had almost been a world without him.
Her gaze moved from the scar to the dark eyes of her old friend—at least that’s what she’d like to call him—a friend, even though they hadn’t spoken a word in years.
Caleb was Mina’s past. She’d 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 by a pungent smell of something rotting away in the destroyed houses.
They decided to have a drink.
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 savored 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, her body stiff and tense. She studied his face and all the details that went with it. Every line, every muscle was so familiar and yet so different. Only then did she notice the dark circles underneath his eyes. He looks old, she thought and took a nervous sip from her tea when a piercing voice snapped her out of her thoughts.
“You can’t do that in here!” 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 index finger to the poster with the soldiers. “States’ money, their rules, you see? So, no smoking.”
The air could have been cut with a knife as Mina waited for Caleb’s reaction. Not capable of looking at her friend any longer, her eyes darted to the waitress. She dared to take a closer look and then saw it. The woman’s face was heavily covered with makeup. She had the sickness. The application of the foundation was a masterpiece of a practiced hand. But on closer inspection, Mina could spot the damage the skin had suffered. The once blistered wounds and inflammations caused by the radiation syndrome had hardened, leaving remnants of slightly darker tissue that shimmered through the layers of makeup.
Yet, something didn’t add up because Mina knew 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.
Why give money to a person with no future to run a place like this?
Mina’s gaze wandered around the room and lingered once again on the omnipresent poster of the soldiers. Suddenly, she spotted the tiny party pennants spread across the room. The counter, too, was decorated in the official state colors, eliminating any doubt about the apparent influence. The café, which had seemed so sweetly vintage at first, was an accumulation of ostentation and power—state power. This was their place.
There was a clinking sound as Caleb stubbed out the glowing butt in the saucer of his coffee cup. He gave the lady a charming smile, the mischievous twinkle in his eyes all too familiar to Mina.
The lady realized she was being stared at by Mina, and in a half-hearted attempt, tried to hide her discovered eczema by turning her face the other way. “Unite for our leaders,” she then said, placing her 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, feeling Caleb’s stare resting heavily on her. He did not speak the words.
“Your order?” The woman looked Caleb over. His unwillingness to reply brought him attention he shouldn’t have been seeking.
“I think we’re good. We’ll be leaving soon,” Caleb answered.
With her lips pressed into a thin line, the woman shut her notepad. “Very well, then. I’ll bring you the check in a minute.” And without saying another word, she turned and disappeared through the swinging door behind the counter.
Mina exhaled long and noisy. She changed her position and her eyes faltered upon the rediscovery of the long scar protruding from Caleb’s collar. 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.
“Are you okay?” Caleb’s deep, calm voice brought her back to the café.
She nodded when all she wanted was to 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 these years of silence.
“Sure,” she told him, stirring her tea, her fingers playing with the spoon for a short moment. “How are your parents?” Mina opted for small talk.
“I don’t know. Haven’t seen them in a very long time.” Caleb took a sip of his coffee. “I’d put them in danger if I tried to contact them.”
Of course, Mina knew about the consequences of going underground, but she would be lying if she said his words did not affect her. Had she known ten years ago how it would all end, she might have made different choices. She might have been able to convince Caleb not to go down this path.
They might have been happy together.
“And your family?”
It was hard to look him straight in the eye. So instead, Mina stirred her tea again, the simplicity of the action giving her comfort. “Dad’s gone.”
Dad’s gone. Never before had she said those words aloud. Yet, there were no tears to shed, only the strange silence she’d gotten so used to in the past years overcoming her. “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 hung his head. He had known her father all his life.
“Caleb,” Mina spoke in a whisper, and she scanned the room for the waitress. “Aren’t they going to detect you?”
To her surprise, Caleb started to chuckle, his eyes reflecting a vibrant spell Mina had never been able to escape. “These fools are so eager to find us so-called radicals, they don’t even notice us when we stand right in front of them.”
“So, 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.” 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. “Eyes everywhere—people can hardly breathe nowadays.”
“The waitress...she does it for money then?”
“And medicine, if you ask me.”
Mina did not dare stare directly into the camera, but she sensed the menacing artificial eye glaring at the place. The eerie quietness of the device made her feel little, meaningless. And she wondered what kind of person was watching this café. Was it a man? A woman? Were they young or old?
Forcing herself to keep her face down, Mina focused on her friend, scared to hear the mechanical sound of a lens zooming in on them. And then she noticed the change in Caleb. He was present, and yet he was not. With his eyes wide and pupils dilated, Mina wondered what had happened to him in all these years. The sound of a foot tapping nervously on the floor tiles drifted to her from under the table. She opened her mouth to say something but was interrupted by Caleb leaning towards her. Mimicking his movement, their noses almost touched over the bistro table.
“We have a computer in our possession,” Caleb spoke under his breath. Mina blinked at him, unsure why he was so thrilled about this. She remained silent, though, giving her friend some time to explain.
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—a high-performance machine.”
Mina slumped back in her chair. Her chest had tightened, a suffocating force pushing from her lungs upwards to her throat until an ominous tingling settled in her head. “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 dictates all that nonsense?”
Mina’s pulse quickened as a heatwave of blood rushed to her face. “There’s no proof,” she said, but Caleb’s expression remained rigid and determined. “It’s impossible,” she urged.
But 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?”
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.” He sighed and took his time with the words he had to say next. “With this computer in our possession, our engineers can work on developing our own machines. We need to counter their power.” And his previous excitement was replaced by an urgency that made him 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 recognize him!
“Yes. How about we go to your place,” he answered and continued with a slight tremble in his voice. “Mina, do you remember when we went into the tunnels?”
She did. How could she 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, realization cutting through her like a sharp knife. “We didn’t meet by chance today, did we?”
Caleb didn’t waver but just stared back, his expression unreadable, unknown to Mina. “I thought having some coffee before would make things easier,” he told her.
“And? Is this easy for you?”
Caleb smiled at her attack but continued nonetheless. “You took something from that shop.”
Mina nodded, an indefinable fear seizing her.
“You still have it?”
She nodded again. She knew exactly what Caleb was talking about, visualizing the wooden box in her flat where it was stored safely.
“Thank God,” Caleb breathed and ran a hand through his hair. “You cannot imagine how vital this is for our endeavor because if we fail—” He went quiet as the waitress rushed out of the kitchen and placed a check in front of him. The woman then returned behind the counter and began cleaning some glasses.
Mina glowered at her friend. She realized 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, not caring about being uppish.
“Not yet, but it will, with your help.”
Anger flowed through her like hot, steamy lava. Caleb, of all people, had lured her here, had made her think that maybe something from the past—feelings—were still there. Yet, if she was honest, she was mostly angry at herself. She should have known that people change when they are radicalized by a group for too long.
Caleb put some cash on the table and stood up. He waited patiently for Mina, who remained seated, glaring at the man who was once her best friend. But after a moment, she, too, got up, knowing perfectly well that it would be unwise to make a scene in a place like this. She flinched a little when she felt Caleb’s strong hand enclosing hers as he walked her out of the café and onto the streets.
Mina followed. She asked no questions or tried to stop him. Instead, she just followed, watching his body pushing through crowds of people, the masses of faces blurry and unrecognizable.
She remembered the feeling when Caleb had first held her hand.
She remembered her family, her friends.
She remembered when it all had started.
But most of all...she remembered Caleb.