UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 11/2011
This is the way the world ends
This is the third time Jess has left without me.
She won't get back before the siren. She never does. Not on her own. I fight my way to the counter, pushing past dancers and ravers, all too high to notice anything but the strobe lights overhead.
Her mother made me promise to take care of her. She gave me twenty-thousand clicks and made me swear on my life. It would've been easier to make Jess listen to me -- to forbid her from ever leaving the shelter. But that didn't make sense. Not to them.
The bar is made of metal. It's coated in glass. This is the best youth club in the city. The others are filled with men and women, dying to drug and drag us home.
I ring the bell and wait for the barkeeper. When he arrives, I get a knowing look. I'm past sympathy now.
"She run off again?" he asks.
"Yes, she did."
He presses a button on the counter and a security ray appears. He rewinds to thirty minutes before. I spot Jess by the right wing. She's with an older man. She'll never learn.
"You should ditch that girl," he says.
He passes me a drink. It tastes like acid and bile.
"Be safe. You've got forty minutes."
I nod and head for the security locker. She never checks out. I'm tempted to leave – to say I never saw her go. But I can't. She's never left this late before. She won't get back without me.
"Check out is at ten."
I give the officer my pass.
"My friend. She left. I need to get her."
Her eyebrows knit together.
"How long ago?"
"Half an hour."
"Mine or hers?"
"Jessica Montoya. That's her. I'm Kate."
"I don't know."
She buzzes me through, giving me the look most women do when they scan my pass. They can't understand why a mother would abandon a healthy child. And why that child lives in the southern district.
The streets are filled with lights and scum, all enclosed by gates and mammoth buildings. I can't see the stars. The cars drown out the music from the club. They're all headed in one direction -- home.
Above, a message fires in the sky. It glows red and leaves an after-mark.
Jess could be anywhere.
“Do you have two credits?”
I look up. There's a boy standing in front of me. His hair is cut short and his face is dirty. When he smiles, I see his teeth. Surprisingly, they're clean. He's tall and thin, wearing standard issue clothes. But they're ragged and torn.
“I need to buy a shelter pass.”
“I don’t have a card. It’s with my friend. Sorry.”
When our eyes meet, I recognize him, if only faintly. We went to school together -- before the bomb came.
"Kate,” he says. “It's Noel. From eight year."
His grin fades when he realizes I don't remember. I can't remember anything but faces -- and even then.
"I thought you were dead," he says.
"So did I."
He scratches his arm and follows me through the alley. It's too expensive to keep lamps lit at night. They absorb energy during the day. Then they glow. It's not pure light. It’s more like an echo.
"What've you been up to?" he asks.
"Not much. I'm looking for Jess."
"The very one."
He continues to scratch at one area on his arm. It's distracting.
"Why're you still hanging out with her?"
I wish I knew. Her mother was the first person I saw when I woke up. After that, there was nothing.
"Where is she?"
"I don't know."
"Then how are you going to find her?"
"I just do."
Noel rubs the back of his neck. "You just do?"
"Yes. I do."
We trudge through mud and paper. It litters the alley way. Except for the sleeping children, we're alone.
"What are you doing out?" I ask.
He looks away. "I lost my pass."
"How long ago?"
I stop. "You've been out three years?"
"Yeah. I'm undesirable. I was there when my parents died. Hence this."
He rolls up his sleeve and points to a mark on his arm, the arm he was scratching. It's etched deep -- red and leathery, like a brand. Around it are various needle marks.
"What about you?" he asks.
"I can't remember."
"You're one of them."
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wad of gum. "Want some?"
He shrugs and shoves the entire thing into his mouth. When we reach the end of the street, I stop at a building and pull down the fire escape.
"She up there?"
He pulls it down with me, his face trained on mine.
"Where do you stay?" I ask.
"A little bit of everywhere. I lived with my brother for a while, then he kicked me out when his girlfriend moved in. Then I stayed with a friend, but her mother was insane. She had a million kids and she kept upping the rent. One day it was fifty clicks. Then it was one-seventy-five. I barely make thirty a week."
Noel spits on the ground and lets me up first.
"What about you?"
"Jess and I stay at a hostel."
"Where're your parents?"
"Her mom died right after her dad."
"Your parents, not hers."
"My mom abandoned me when I was in the hospital. Jess's mom took custody of me." He looks sorry. We’ve all felt sorry for ourselves, and I suppose, with that little bit of empathy, we can extend that even further. I don’t know how to feel. I can’t remember my mom. I see faint flashes of her face when I sleep. They always hover above me, just out of my grasp. “How much do you remember?” he asks.
“My sister’s the same. She can’t even remember how to speak.”
I think he’s crying, but I can’t tell. I’m above him on the ladder, climbing carefully, surely to the top.
“What do you do for money?”
“I’m a rent boy.”
He says it without shame. Like he’s daring me to judge.
“For women or men?”
“Men, mostly. And you?”
“Jess’ mom left me money to take care of us.”
My hands are tight on the rail. I look down. We’re fifty feet up.”
“How is it?”
“It pays. I get free food. I’ve probably got a million diseases and I know I’ll die in three months. If the radiation doesn’t get me, I’ll starve. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss school.”
I can’t remember what school was like.
“I cried when they couldn’t find you,” he says. “They said you died when the building collapsed.”
“Obviously.” He spits again. “I looked for you.”
“We were friends?”
“Yes. Yes, we were. Good friends.”
“I can’t remember.”
“I know. No one does.”
He doesn’t sound bitter. I wish he did. Then I could apologize.
“What is my last name?”
“It isn’t on your pass?”
“Jess’ is. No one could remember mine.”
He laughs. “The irony.”
“What is it?”
“Nothing. Your name is Kate Ash.”
It doesn’t resonate.
“And what’s yours? Your last name?”
“Austin. Noah Austin. We sat next to each other in first period.”
We continue our ascent to the top. It takes ten minutes.
Jess is sitting on the edge, swinging her legs back and forth. I sit next to her. Noah stands behind. I beckon for him to join us.
“You shouldn’t run off,” I say.
She nods. “I know.”
“I hate it here.”
Noah waves. She waves back. They recognize each other.
“What was school like?”
Jess sighs. “So much better than here.”
I wait for elaboration. But it doesn’t come. Noah picks up where she left off.
“It was quiet, except at lunch time. We had teachers. And books. And grass.” He pauses. “Do you remember what grass looks like?”
“Neither do I.”
Jess rests her head on her hands.
“You’re taking me back, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I am.”
Across the city, the lights go out. In the horizon, I see a faint glow. It’s orange, purple, and red.
“We should get to the shelter,” I say.
Jess doesn’t move. I look to Noah. He’s focused on the sky.
“I’ve seen this so many times. But not from up here.”
It looks like a supernova, or the northern lights. But it isn’t. It’s a bomb. Hundreds of bombs. All going off a thousand miles away. “They’re so pretty,” Jess says.
I nod because there’s nothing more to say.
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