My eyes drifted closed. I gave up. I didn’t have enough willpower to force them open. Instead I let Jack guide me as we carried Tom between our shoulders. My feet found their way own through the cluttered streets. If I stepped on anything sharp – well the cold kept me from noticing. It was long since the high had seeped out of my bones. Its absence left me cold, shivering and exhausted.
I glanced over at Tom’s pale face. There was no thin fog of breath. Even sandwiched between two bodies his temperature was dropping too fast. We didn’t have long.
“Here,” Mike said at last, checking the narrow alley for movement he shoved a key in a battered wooden door and kicked it open.
He held it. We shuffled past. There was an uncharacteristic clang as he pushed it closed. It wasn’t rotten wood on the inside, but solid steel.
I’d never been to Mike’s place, if this was even where he stayed. Regardless, I didn’t have the will to lift my eyes from the floor. There was a strong door. We had doubled back, taken the most convoluted path we could manage. We were safe. That’s all I had the energy to care about.
“Put him down over here,” Danni said. I let Jack take Tom, slipping out from under him. Soon I was learning against a wall. Leaning became sitting.
* * *
“Hey. Wake up.” Something pulled my eyelid open. An odd sensation of one eye flooded with needles of light and the other happily closed in darkness. Danni let go and the light was gone. “When did you last sleep?”
“While ago. Had stuff to do,” I mumbled. She was still here.
“Your feet are fucked, kid,” she said.
“I’ll be fine,” I mumbled. I usually was.
“No, I’m serious. You can’t go walking around without any shoes in this weather you idiot.” She wasn’t going away. I blinked my eyes open to find myself slouched in the corner of a dimly lit room I had no memory of falling asleep in. There were two nests of blankets in the middle. A skinny arm stuck out of one.
“Tom, he alright?” I asked.
“He’s alive, whether he’s alright depends on what he’s like when that shit gets out of his system,” she replied.
“Bruised, but okay.” Her warm hands were on my face again, pulling at my skin causing me to wince. “You, however…”
“I’m fine,” I reiterated.
“I’m not so sure. I can’t tell with all this blood. Got to get you cleaned up anyway.” Without warning she shoved her arms under my legs and behind my back, lifting me from the floor.
“Hey! What the hell?” My first instinct was to twist free, my second to grab on. I quickly decided that trying to get free would mean down, and down wouldn’t end well.
“You can’t walk unless you want to make that frostbite worse, and you need to get cleaned up.” I could smell her breath. It wasn’t bad, just there. There was a hint of perfume under the dry sweet smell of exertion. That was a surprise, didn’t think she was the kind of person to wear perfume. Beth was the kind of girl who wore perfume…
Nope. Not thinking of that. Bad thoughts.
I was deposited in a heap of blankets in a small side-room. Boxes and crates shoved hastily aside lined the walls.
“Here, wash your face with these.” She threw a pack of antiseptic wipes in my lap as she left.
I followed her instructions, scrubbing my face until the soft white cloths stopped coming back the gritty brown of grimy bloodstains. Being awake, and being warm – the numbness of cold was beginning to fade.
I wanted it back.
I’m all for numb.
My feet hurt. It was a teeth grinding ache that started at my knees and ended somewhere in the other room. I didn’t dare take a look to see what state they were in.
Danni returned with a bag, “Your friend sure keeps this place kitted out,” she said, throwing it beside me and kneeling.
I didn’t reply. Mike was the kind of person to be prepared, but it was a strange place to live. Windowless, as far as I could tell, and filled with crates like they were store rooms.
“Look at me.” Danni picked out a cloth and bottle from the bag, squirting one onto the other before dabbing it onto the side of my head. “Doesn’t look too bad actually. Nasty burn but it might not even scar.”
I hoped it wouldn’t scar. I had enough scars. I’d have to tell Beth how I got it. She’d get mad at me. Danni rubbed in some cream that smelled familiar and taped a square of fabric to the wound. I was becoming painfully accustomed to antiseptic
“Take this crap off,” She nodded to my vest. I unbuckled it and slid it over my head, throwing it aside.
When she looked back I could see one eyebrow raise, and the corners of her mouth twitch. I looked down at my t-shirt. “It was all I had!”
“How old are you?” she asked, eyes on the awful kids TV logo I’d completely forgotten about. This is why I have to have a dedicated fund for buying fighting clothes. I can’t be scary and shop in thrift stores.
“Fifteen.” I wasn’t even sure. Had my birthday passed yet? I certainly didn’t feel fourteen anymore. “It’s tricky to find adult t-shirts that are small enough. Kid’s ones are easier. And cheaper.”
“You are a kid,” she said.
“Exactly. Here, feet.” She grabbed my legs and pulled so they were in her lap. Her face darkened the longer she poked, the sharp stabbing pain drowned out in the sea of aching. Eventually she sighed, and frowned, not meeting my eye. “You’ll be lucky if you keep your toes. It looks like you’re going to lose them. Sorry.”
“I’ll be okay,” I was tougher than I looked.
“If you say so. There’s not much I can do. No point trying to warm them up too fast, best let your body do it. Keep wrapped up and sleep some. I’ll get you something to eat, wait here.”
Of all the people who’ve been told to shoot me in the head, I think I’d found the nicest.
* * *
“What is this place?” I asked. I’d been asleep in it for at least a day or so. Turns out I was quite resistant to frostbite. My feet weren’t nearly as bad as Danni thought they would be. I could hobble quite effectively the next morning.
“It was my grandfather’s,” Mike said, feet propped up on the box we’d pulled a handful of chairs around. “He had a few of these. This is the only one I know he didn’t tell anyone else about. Always good to have somewhere to fall back to in case of emergencies. He never needed it.”
“Sensible,” Danni said. “Mind if I stay for a bit? My place probably isn’t safe right now, if it ever will be.”
“Not at all. Not after what you did for us,” Mike threw up his arms, gesturing at the walls around him, “Place is all yours for as long as you need it.”
“Sorry about what happened,” I said. At what point would she start wishing she’d just shot me?
“Don’t be,” was her only reply.
“So, what now?” I asked Mike.
“You tell me,” Mike said, “There’s an elephant sitting right in the middle of this room. If we aren’t careful it’s going to start making some noise, knocking over furniture and shit. We’re going to have to feed it and I sure don’t fucking know what they eat-”
“We get the message,” Danni said.
He gave her an mischievous smile, but in a moment it was gone. Back to serious business. “My brother isn’t going to let this rest,” he continued. “As I see it, we’ve got two options.”
“And those are?” I asked, but I already had a good guess of what he was going to say.
“We hide. Run away. Move state. You’ve got whatever the fuck authorities after you, we’re both top on the list of people to get fucked up by our more local governance. Best, safest option is to get the hell out of here. Start again.” No one replied to that. I didn’t want to leave, it would mean leaving Beth. She wouldn’t know where to find me when she got better… But then maybe that was for the best.
He let the silence hang in the air, all the while his grin grew wider, more vulpine. He pulled his feet off the crate and leaned forwards. “Or, we take things into our own hands…”