Boy From the County Hell
by Maya Tawi
"Seamus," Brendan said. "Been a long time."
I attempted a smile. "Long time since anyone's called me that."
Brendan just stood very still. Didn't react. I let the smile drop half-formed from my lips and took a deep breath.
Then I looked around at all of them, more careful than I ever thought I'd have to be with these people. For the couple years after my parents died, they were the closest thing I had to family: the gang from the refugee camp, the five of us against all the other refs and the world. Sharing everything- food, clothes, various diseases; there were days when all I had to do was step outside and I'd be laid up for a week with the flu. Eva or Brendan or Mel or Liam always looked after me, and I did the same for them. Brendan and I went even further back- back to when the whole thing was still an adventure, when Isaac was still alive.
Now they were looking at me like I was a stranger. Worse than that, a threat.
Not that I blamed them. Trust is fragile here. It doesn't survive three years of bad associations.
I cleared my throat and tried again. "Hey, guys. Room for one more for the night?"
"Maybe," Brendan said. "Could be." The wary, intense look didn't leave his face. Far as I knew, it never did. "Your friends kick you out?"
"Friends," I scoffed. "Tell me another. No one's got friends."
"Exactly my point," he said, sounding way more dangerous than I remembered. "You haven't been round for years, cousin. You've got better places to sleep than this. What the hell are you doing here now?"
I shifted my weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other, glancing back over my shoulder at the street before turning back to the tunnel entrance in front of me. Ref camps form mainly underground, in places hidden from plain sight and hard to get to, places even the Ubers don't know about. I'd been to six or seven before I'd found Brendan and the gang, and every second I spent on the street I felt more and more exposed. "Can I come in first?"
I sighed. "Hey, Bren? You wanna frisk me or something? I'm not working for anyone right now, buddy, I just need to stay out of sight."
Another moment of toe-curling anxiety and frustration, and then he jerked his head sharply towards the tunnel behind him, stepping back just enough to let me pass. "If you screw us, I'll kill you."
I kept my face deliberately blank as I brushed past him. People were getting very cavalier with my life lately. What with all the testosterone flying around this town, it was a miracle no one had an eye put out yet.
The tunnel entrance had barely closed behind me before Brendan said tersely, "Talk." His hand was gripping the makeshift knife at his belt. I very carefully didn't look at it as I spoke, keeping my tone light.
"Gaireth's through with me, Bren. I've been sold to the highest bidder or the friendliest sheikh or whatever, but either way he's kicked me off his boat. Jealous of my talent, probably. I'd rather not play along, you know, I'm kind of a rebel that way."
Brendan's expression didn't change, but his hand relaxed on the knife. Probably imagining all the ways he'd get to say "I told you so" later. "So you want to run with us again?"
"Actually, no," I said. "I got a plan."
"You have a plan," he echoed.
"Yeah, you know- a plot, a scheme, a scam, a setup. Look, guys, I know I can trust you and that's why I'm telling you this, but if you spread it around, it's worth my life. However little that may be." I paused and then added sharply, "I can trust you, right, cousin?"
It's not my nature to trust. I hope I've gotten that across by now. But I mean, fuck- it was Brendan. And I needed him to trust me. Mom always told me, give and get.
Before the Ubers beat her to death, I mean.
At least I seemed to be getting through to Brendan. "Harper, you know, you really don't have to-"
"Yeah, no shit," I interrputed. "But I want you guys to know. I mean, I didn't track you down for the dubious pleasure of your unclean selves. I want to tell you I'm getting off this rock."
Silence. I took the opportunity to study their faces in the half-light of dusk. Brendan looked as thin and dark and self-contained as always, like somewhere in his body he's running on the intensity of a hundred live wires and no way to ground them. That intensity used to scare me about him; then, later, it became a reassurance. He was furiously idealistic and utterly furious, and we always knew he'd take care of us till death.
Eva's blond hair had been chopped off at the roots. Fleas, probably. They swept through the camps about once a month, and the only solution was the Final Solution. Mel's impossible blue eyes seemed even larger in her face than I remembered; I'd put even bets on malnutrition.
Liam was conspicuously absent. I didn't ask. You just don't.
Almost inaudibly Mel said, "Bren."
"You're delusional," Brendan said finally. When it came down to the wire, they always let him do the talking.
"Very possibly," I admitted, with what I hoped was a disarming grin. "I'm also a visionary, which may or may not be the same thing. That doesn't change the plan."
Brendan blinked, incredulous. "You're not serious, are you?"
"As a Nietzschean raid," I agreed. "Not that you should read anything into that. I've got a ride lined up and I'm out of here tomorrow. I just need some place to hide out tonight. So you got a space, or what?"
Brendan's eyebrows lowered- disbelief, not anger. Then the faintest beginnings of smile started to hover around his lips.
"Oh, well," he said finally, "I think we can find a spot."
I was pressed up against the wall, basking in the feeling of fifty dirty, unhealthy bodies huddled for warmth and remembering why I'd left in the first place, when a familiar voice breathed in my ear:
"You're an asshole."
I tried to roll over to look at him, but wedged between his body and the wall like I was, I didn't get very far. I craned my neck around and stared into Brendan's baby blues.
"That seems unnecessarily harsh," I said quietly, after a moment.
"It does?" Brendan didn't move. He didn't even blink. I was starting to feel uncomfortably warm, a sensation I didn't usually associate with the camps. "You disappear one day without a word, we don't see you for two years, and then you turn up all of a sudden to say you're leaving the planet tomorrow. You don't think that qualifies you as an asshole?"
"I'm not big on goodbyes," I mumbled into the wall, hoping he wouldn't fall into the great big gaping logic hole in that particular statement.
He did. "Would've been fine two years ago, man. But what d'you call this?"
"I didn't want you thinking I was dead or anything when I went completely off radar." And that was it, really. We'd lost Isaac a long time ago. After that, the five of us had been a unit, a team. Now Liam was gone, and I would've been number three. I didn't want them to think I was beaten. I wanted them to know I'd gotten away.
Brendan didn't say anything; he seemed somewhat placated, thank God. But he didn't move away either.
I didn't want him to.
There's never been a lot of full-out, straightforward sex happening in the camps; at any given time, half the refs are sick and the other half are terrified of catching something from them that would shorten their already stunted life spans. Which is not to say that there's not enough, shall we say, non-invasive sexual hijinks going on to make up for it. You know what they say- in the midst of death we are in heat.
Or to put it another way, when you know you might die tomorrow you're not that picky tonight.
I always had a weakness for the ladies. As for Brendan, he always had a weakness for me. Back in my camp days, he'd featured prominently in several of my own late-night fumblings. Sometimes he was even the star.
By this point, I'm not even sure if Brendan is really my cousin, or if he's just someone I've known all my life, and it doesn't really matter anymore. It's not like we're getting married and settling down in West Virginia with a half-dozen inbred spawn to call our own; stupid and cliche as it sounds, we're just grabbing on to life any way we can.
Besides, everyone needs a send-off.
Afterwards, I started drifting off, in that peculiar half-dream state when you're too tired to stay awake but too wired to sleep. I was bobbing happily along in this nowhere land when I heard Brendan whisper, "You're really getting out?"
He sounded almost wistful. Wistful is not a tone often heard from tough-as-nails Brendan, and it brought me crashing back down to Earth. Figuratively speaking.
"That's the plan," I said cautiously, and waited.
Brendan didn't say anything, and I felt a stab of something curiously like guilt- something I thought I'd left behind a long time ago. Good manners dictated I ask him to come along. Good manners had no place in a refugee camp.
On the one hand, I had no right to offer. I was just lucky that, for whatever reason, Beka had taken pity on me; I wasn't about to drag along my street rat friends. Psycho Bobby didn't even like me.
Which was a nice, solid reason, but the truth was, I just didn't want Brendan to come. He was Earth, and I was leaving Earth behind. Which wouldn't really work if I went dragging a piece of it with me.
So I just lay there, tense and still waiting, until Brendan's breathing deepened and his head dropped against my shoulder. Then I closed my eyes and exhaled and tried to follow suit.
Brave new world.
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Epilogue