I considered throwing the gun, tossing it in some pile of garbage by the side of the road. I wasn’t fond of drawing attention to myself, and carrying around something like that got people’s attention all right.
But it wasn’t something you want to leave lying around. I’d done my fair share of searching through trash to find something. Something to sell, something to trade, something to eat even. The desperate, that’s who might find a gun in the trash. Desperate, or a kid. Kids and desperate people tended to make bad decisions. I wasn’t going to take that risk.
Besides, I had my armour on and no coat big enough to cover up. Either way, I was going to draw people’s eye. Best just keep to the back roads, stay away from the night-life of the Island markets, the strips of bars, or strip bars. Alleyways, cut-throughs, and where I could, abandoned buildings.
What people I did see: the drunks, homeless and destitute, also had an aversion to people and stayed well clear of my path. They tucked into alcoves, or slipped down adjacent streets and in one case simply turned around and scurried quickly in the opposite direction. Whether it was the sight of my armour, the blood covering it, or the long black gun tucked to my chest, no one bothered to stick around.
Only when I started to get close to Mike’s hideout did I begin to take more care. I doubled and tripled back, circled. Finally, I picked a doorway to hide crouching down with cramping legs waiting for someone who might follow me. No one did, only when biting my lip failed to stop my eyes dragging themselves closed did I step back out and make the final few dragging steps home.
I knocked, not even feeling the sensation on my knuckles, the pain of the cold in my fingers gone. Replaced with a warm numbness. I finally let my eyes close, leaning against the wall as the camera stared down at me wondering if Beth was even awake to let me in.
It was barely seconds before the sound of locks sliding, muffled by the thick door, met my ears. A comforting sound, locks.
The door swung outwards and Beth grabbed me, one of her hands sliding under my shoulder. She used her height to take some of my weight. I let her take control and we staggered in through the doorway.
“Is it just you?” I nodded, she leaned me up against the wall. Only when her hands were gone and I was standing alone did I realise how heavy my body felt without her support.
Soft, warm hands took the gun from mine and after a quick investigation she snapped back something on the side with a metallic click. She had it tucked into her shoulder, taking a quick look up and down the narrow alleyway joining on to Mike’s pace, before returning and gently closing the door, sliding the locks home. I could finally relax.
“Are you okay?” She was at my side, voice thick with worry. Her hands were on my cheeks, cupping my face as she stared into me with sharp eyes.
“I- I’m fine” I stumbled over the words a little, my tongue thick. “Just tired.”
She looked down at my chest and she mouthed a little ‘o’ of shock.
“Fuck.” The gun rattled against the floor, forgotten. She started pulling at my armour. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
She couldn’t get the buckles undone at my sides. Whether it was the tears, or just panicked fingers struggling with the mechanism, she shouted with anger.
“Beth, it’s okay!” I grabbed her arms, pushing her away from me. Her eyes were red, wet. Snot dribbled from her nose.
“It’s not okay!” She was sobbing, her hands balled into fists, holding them like she was going to hit me.
“It’s not my blood, It’s someone else’s” I ripped at the straps, I could get it off with my eyes closed, and soon I had one side open and tore off the shoulders so it fell free from my chest. It slapped to the floor a sodden mess.
I pulled my t-shirt, but she’d already slipped her hands underneath. Hot, against my cold flesh. I looked down, sure enough there was no gore between her searching fingers – but a rose of angry purple bruising blossomed from where the bullet had hit, above and left of my belly-button.
Seeing it brought the pain. Both the dull ache, with highlights of needle-like stabs across my stomach and around my back on each breath. Maybe it was the numbness of cold wearing off, maybe it was the curious ability of the mind to hide things until they became important enough to notice.
Beth fell to her knees, she clutched me in an uneven hug, her face pressed against my stomach as she sobbed.
“I told you! Look, I’m fine.” She could see.
“You are not fine!” Now she did hit me. A clumsy fist slapping against my thigh. “This is not fucking fine!”
I slid down the wall till I was sitting with her, a heap of sobbing Beth. Her feeble assault had run its course and she settled for a soggy hug. At least tears were warmer than rain.
The shaking sobs soon turned into quiet crying. Eventually, that settled on an occasional sniffing, of which I was glad of. It hurt more having to endure her tears than any bruises.
At last, she whispered to me. “What happened?”
“Uh…” How to describe the night? I was at a loss where to even start.
“The others? Are they…?”
“I don’t know. We split up. Jack’s safe. Danni, I’m not sure, she probably got away. I don’t know about Mike. He’s not here?” I knew he wasn’t. Beth wouldn’t have asked, and I’m sure he would have surfaced by now. I still had to ask.
“No, no one.” Her eyebrows pushed together with worry.
“I told him to try make it to Jack’s Dad’s.” I wasn’t sure what to do to make any of this better. I wanted to make things better… but…
“You’re here.” She threw her arms around me again, pulling me into a hug tight enough to make me wince. “That’s what matters. You’re okay.”
I let her hold me, even if it did hurt. She wanted to hold me, she got it for as long as she needed.
Soon, even with her warmth against me a shiver shook me. I tried to resist it but I still had sodden clothes clinging to me. But it was enough for her to release me on the promise of a warm shower and something clean and dry to wear.
I held out my hand but she ignored it, taking me under the armpit and pulling me up the wall to my feet.
I needed it too. My legs weren’t legging properly. All jelly and jerking out in the wrong direction. A combination of cold, pins and needles from my awkward position and too much use left walking slow and painful.
Beth cursed me as we struggled up the stairs. She cursed me, Mike, the Island. I think I even heard her throw some words towards her father in her angry mumbling, but she was quiet after that. Wordlessly taking them back?
I had to stop at the top of the stairs for a rest. Sore legs made for slow work, but even that was too fast for breathing, which was becoming increasingly painful. Beth was frowning again. Was I still managing to hide my grimace on each intake of breath?
We made it to the large open bathrooms we shared with Danni. They were too close to the design of the school ones for me to ever feel comfortable with them. Whatever this place was, it had been designed for a lot of people to take quick showers without caring who saw them, only segregated for each sex. No way was I ever doing that. Nope. I had my showers late at night, when I knew Beth was asleep and Danni had one earlier. Change of clothes ready to hand. Chance meetings in the bathrooms were to be avoided. There was no chance. No meetings.
So, understandably, I pulled back. “I can manage.” I managed to say.
“No you cannot.” Not a good voice to argue against, but I had no choice.
“You can’t even walk, stand even! You’ll fall and smash your head in, or end up somehow drowning yourself.” She pulled me through the door. “Don’t think I don’t know what you get like when you’re hurt. I’ve seen you hurt. Right now you are.”
She’d seen me in a lot worse states than this, but we hadn’t been-
“I can manage.” I tried to pull away, but she wasn’t letting go. She wasn’t going to let this go.
“I don’t even know how bad things are, Alex.” She showed me her hands, her palms were pink with watered down blood from my t-shirt. “You’re bleeding from somewhere. You forget things, you don’t notice when stuff’s bad. I can’t just let you go off and… and…”
I wasn’t going to bleed out from a scratch, I’d had worse. There’s be a lot more blood.
But did it matter? Beth mattered. If it calmed her down… wouldn’t do any harm.
The shower heads mounted along the wall drew my eye. Too much like school changing rooms. It was enough to send a shiver down my spine that had nothing to do with being cold.
“Alex. This is me!” My head snapped back to her. “We…”
We were together. I knew that. It wasn’t that.
“It’s me. I’ve seen you before. It’s not new to me you know? Anyway… we’re…”
“It’s not like that anyway…” She was rambling. “I’m not… This isn’t…”
I know it’s not. But why would I care if it was? Is that not what I should be wanting? She is my girlfriend, right? I should probably say something. But I didn’t know what.
Her jumbled speech ended, “I just want to make sure you’re okay.”
I closed my eyes. It was easier not looking at the room so much. Easier to think, easier to talk. “Okay.”
“Do you remember anything? Where?”
I remembered a lot of things, none of them seemed to… no wait. That feeling of being drop-kicked in the back. It was almost familiar.
“Uh, bullet. Don’t think it’s bad.”