Here you all go: my latest excerpt from my book. As usual, comments/thoughts appreciated!
Warning: Contains strong language.
Where was he? Chinna scratched at a scab on his knee. Doc was mad, and Chinna had no idea what he was doing. He didn’t have the head for technology or science like Leo did, but Leo had been missing for two days now. Doc was certain he was dead; no one survived for two days alone. People just disappeared, killed by their own hunger or by hungry people…Chinna tried not to think about what could have happened. He looked up at the sky. If Leo was dead, who would work for Doc in his place? Leo was the one who did the dangerous stuff so that Chinna wouldn’t have to. Not that Chinna didn’t want to do the dangerous things. He shifted his weight as the strap dug into his right shoulder; the weapon’s size and weight was about the same as his. He thought glumly of the comical scene of a nine-year-old trying to prop up this enormous machine. He puffed out his chest and tried to stand just a little bit taller, but his scrawny arms and chicken-legs gave away the charade.
Scowling, he slumped again and rubbed his eye. Was it always this boring for Leo whenever he went on watch? Chinna remembered being jealous whenever Leo would leave on Doc’s important errands. The boy was forced to do the boring work, like delivering messages, handing Doc his tools while he worked, or getting the old man food and drink. Dumb assistant stuff. On several instances, Chinna contemplated running away, but he knew that was a stupid thing to think about. Running away wasn’t a realistic option. Chinna knew he would be an easier target than he already was if he ran away, because of his age and size. No one would miss him if he fell victim to someone or something. He couldn’t outrun an adult, human or animal, and people do some really sick things when preying on innocents. The thought alone made Chinna shudder. And if that wasn’t enough to make him stay, the promise he’d made to Doc was. He pledged his life to the old man, however meager his life may be. And though he was young, he wasn’t stupid. To see the things he’d seen while working for the old man meant Chinna would be in even more danger if he decided to run away. He’d become a target not just of the Republic, but also of Doc himself. Whatever affection he’d developed for the boy would be gone the instant Chinna left. He’d have to kill Chinna to keep him quiet, and he’d probably send Leo to do it.
Chinna contemplated that. What would be the outcome? He couldn’t picture it, because his heart told him Leo wouldn’t be able to carry out the task. Indeed, Chinna was quite convinced that Leo would rather sacrifice himself in order to spare the boy’s life. Doc wouldn’t be able to silence Chinna without aid, and if Leo was dead that meant he’d have to send someone else. And by the time that happened, Chinna would have been able to slip into the shadows. He was quite good at hiding.
Still, his brain reminded him of Leo’s bond with Doc. Chinna hadn’t been there all those years ago when Leo found the old man, so he couldn’t imagine the attachment between the two. All Chinna knew was that Leo had found Doc, battered, feverish, and near death, and had nursed him back to health. Though Doc never again regained his full strength and suffered from occasional fits, he was a hard man and intimidating when mad. He showed little affection for anything but his inventions. But he was brilliant, and Chinna knew that was part of the reason Leo was so loyal to him. Leo admired Doc. So Chinna wondered again if Leo would pull the trigger.
His nose was runny and his scab itched. Chinna wiped his sleeve across his face and tried to ignore the scab’s irritation. He’d been clumsy while delivering a message for Doc a few weeks ago, thinking it would be faster to climb the rubble in the streets rather than skirt around it. He’d underestimated, however, the size of the debris piles and ended up taking a long tumble down the ruined stone and brick, tearing a chunk of flesh from his knee about the size of his hand. Chinna grimaced as he remembered the pain. He had wanted so badly to cry at the time, but he knew he couldn’t. He had to be strong and work through the pain. So he had stood up, picked out as many pebbles from the bloody gash as he could, and hobbled the rest of the way to his destination. By the time he’d reached it, he thought he might faint. The door had opened, and Chinna handed the dirty, crumpled and bloody envelope to a strange man. He had said nothing as he grabbed the note from Chinna’s hand. The man’s bearded face gazed briefly at Chinna’s wound before slamming the door shut in the boy’s face. His nose inches away from the rotting wood, Chinna wanted nothing more than to scream at the man to at least give him a bandage. Instead, he’d turned around and limped home. It had been the longest walk of his life. When he’d finally arrived at the steel door, he sat down and waited for Leo to return. He hadn’t had the energy to even knock.
Leo had found him, took one look at the wound, and started laughing. Chinna had been irritated at the time, but mostly humiliated. All he had wanted was someone to take care of him…but he’d never had that, and he knew he never would. Why did he expect Leo to? Chinna had been on his own for as long as he could remember, so he knew better than to cry like a baby. Crying wouldn’t get you anything in life. All it would do was get you hurt or killed. So he had puffed out his chest, staggered to his feet, and walked inside before Leo could say anything.
Later that night, though, as he nursed some leftover beer from that week’s rations, Chinna had allowed himself to cry. Not for his wound, but for his pride. His life had been nothing but hard, and it only got worse. He’d once heard one of the women in the first ghetto he called home say that ignorance was bliss. He wasn’t sure what it meant, but if it had anything to do with getting older then she must’ve been right. He’d scrounged for food in that ghetto, and the second and the third, for eight years before coming to Doc’s. The women always asked him where his parents were, and he’d always answered that he had none. It was the truth, after all. Chinna couldn’t really remember a time when he wasn’t scavenging for food or sleeping in the gutters. But the first place, that was the best…the women there looked at him with pity and care, and gave him bread and sweets they had made themselves. They were always baking and always had extra food for the children. One old lady had a particular affection for the small child. “Ikkadiki raa, chinna,” she’d say. “Eat. You look so hungry.” Then she’d hand him sweet cakes and warm milk and let him sleep close to her on cold nights.
But the war came to that place, as it did everywhere, and destroyed what little home Chinna had created amongst the people there. He and some other children had come home one night after playing in the nearby fields to find the buildings burning and the bloodied corpses of their parents and neighbors facedown in the street. Some people were still dying, crying out in such a horrible way that Chinna still had nightmares about. He’d run through the narrow alleys until he’d come upon the old woman’s home, charred and destroyed, and found her body beaten and bruised. Her lifeless eyes stared at Chinna’s face. She was propped up against the twisted metal frame of the hut, her palm facing upwards as if about to offer Chinna more sweets. Then, suddenly, the roof caved in on her body. Chinna had lunged out of the way, just in time, but could not see her after that.
He and the other kids ran from that place as fast as they could, and for the first few months they’d stuck together. But slowly, one by one, they went their separate ways. A few of the younger children died, too weak and too young to fend for themselves, and one of the older kids had gotten into a fight with some homeless man over a half-eaten pizza he’d found on the street. The man, much older and much drunker than any of them, had pummeled the boy’s head into the sidewalk as he let hunger overtake his humanity. Chinna and the other kids ran away, but in all different directions because of their terror. After that, it had just been Chinna and three other kids, two of whom were much older than Chinna. Eventually, the older kids began to disappear for hours, sometimes a whole day, saying they were going out to get food. Then they’d come back, arms laden with food and drink, and the boys would feast. That was Chinna’s first time trying alcohol. It was bitter, and burned when it went down, but he couldn’t let the others see him squirm. So he drank, a lot, and later when he was retching it all up he vowed never to drink again. But then the boys came back with more, every night, and every night Chinna ate, drank, and puked.
The older boys never told him where they got the food or booze. They’d punch his arm and tell him to shut up and stop asking questions if Chinna tried to pry. Once, he’d noticed one of them come home with a smear of blood on his shirt, before the kid pinched him to make him stop looking. He was almost certain he saw the two fighting over what looked to be a small pouch and wads of cash. He had shut his eyes tight so they wouldn’t hit him, but he couldn’t drown out the noise.
One day, the older kids dragged the third boy with them on their way out. They said it was time he was “initiated into manhood,” whatever that meant, and made Chinna wait by himself for hours. He had been so angry; the other boy wasn’t much older than he was, and was a complete dope. He was soppy, his nose was always running, his eyes were always half-closed, and he was so dumb it was like he was never even present. Why had they chosen him and not Chinna? But when they returned with more food than usual, he noticed the dopey boy was not with them. Chinna knew better than to ask questions, and days passed with no sign or mention of the boy’s existence. Eventually they forgot all about him.
Then he woke up one night to frantic screaming and sobs and choking. One of the boys looked and sounded like he was choking on his own tongue, his eyes rolled back into his head and his whole body shaking as froth bubbled from his mouth. The other boy was screaming at him to wake up, to snap out of it, and was sobbing as he prayed for the boy to stop. After only a few minutes, the shaking ceased and the horrible gurgling noise disappeared. The boy’s body lay motionless. His friend, wracked by grief and shock, grabbed Chinna so forcefully and shook him until he felt like his head would fall off. He choked Chinna, blaming him for the boy’s death, and very nearly killed him had Chinna not landed one serious kick into the boy’s stomach. The boy doubled over and Chinna ran. Far. He found himself alone several hours later, in a strange part of town, the lights turning on to symbolize the sun rising. A merchant caught him stealing food from his shop and grabbed his arm. He demanded his name, and the first word that came to his mouth was, “Chinna.” Well, after all, he had been called “Chinna” his whole life…it was the only name he remembered. But no one in this new place took pity on him or gave him sweet cakes, nor did they in the next ghetto. From that moment on, Chinna had been on his own.
That was until a year ago when Leo found him. Chinna was snatching rations from peoples’ pockets on Collection Day. He thought he was being sneaky, but Leo caught him. Chinna had spotted a carton of cigarettes protruding from a back pocket, and quickly looked over its owner. The young man, thinner than most but still much bigger than Chinna, was preoccupied; he was trying to catch packets of chips being thrown over the heads of the crowd by the ration squad. He hadn’t seen Chinna, or so the boy had thought. But as Chinna stretched out his hand towards the cigarettes, it was stopped. The man had grabbed Chinna’s wrist so quickly that Chinna barely had enough time to realize what was happening as the stranger twisted the boy around to face him. Chinna made to cry out, but Leo clamped a hand over the boy’s mouth and crouched low to face him.
“I’ve been watching you steal other people’s food,” he whispered. “Not many kids can get away with stealing from so many; not for so long, anyway. I have a use for you, if you’re interested. Don’t yell or shout for help. Let me tell you first.” And Leo began to explain how he and his employer were in need of someone skilled at darting in and out of shadows. He’d told him they needed a “courier,” though at the time Chinna had no idea what that meant. It didn’t really matter though, because Leo was offering him food and drink and shelter, in exchange for a small enough task that even an eight-year-old boy could do. Chinna was tired of scrounging in the garbage heaps for leftover food, and longed for a roof over his head on many dusty nights. He certainly didn’t immediately trust this stranger, but he had his knife and he knew what to do if he needed to do it. So Chinna nodded once, and Leo removed his hand from the boy’s mouth.
“Good. You know Understreet? Across the river from the old market? Meet me where Understreet meets the bridge across the river when the lights go out for the night. Come alone; I’ll know if you’re not. Now go, run.” Chinna was confused at first. Why did he want Chinna to leave? Who would notice such a small boy? No one, that’s who. Chinna knew from experience that nobody ever noticed him, nor did anyone care. He lingered for a moment, but that was a mistake. “Get away from me!” Leo shouted, and shoved him. Nearby people turned. “You filthy piece of shit! Don’t try to steal from me!” Someone tried to grab Chinna’s arm, but Chinna slipped away quickly and ran from the scene. After a few blocks and several twisted alleyways, Chinna found himself alone.
He had to walk far north to get to the Old Bridge, which took several hours. Once there, he waited for Leo just as the lamps were shut off. He waited and waited, though for how long he didn’t know. He felt like he had been sitting there for hours. Why had he come? Chinna felt stupid. Of course he shouldn’t have listened to the stranger. He’d probably just walked into a trap. He wondered what he had been thinking and what he had expected of this meeting. Stupid, he thought. You know better. You shouldn’t have trusted him! He was pinching his arm as punishment when he noticed a dark shape moving towards him. Startled, he pulled out his knife and slashed ferociously at the air, but a hand knocked the blade out of Chinna’s hand and sent it flying. It landed somewhere in the distance with a clatter.
“Christ, boy, that coulda been a real fuckin’ mess,” said a gruff voice. Chinna didn’t recognize that voice. “What in hell were ya thinkin’?” The voice coughed, and the shadowy mass spat near Chinna’s feet. Chinna could smell tobacco and booze, remembering his dead friend choking on his own spit.
“Doc, you’re scaring the kid,” a second, more familiar voice said, and Leo emerged from the darkness. He was holding an odd weapon. It looked kind of like the rifle Chinna had once seen the old woman’s husband use to shoot a rabid dog, only this one glowed. It had a bluish haze near the mouth, almost like it was smoking, and the center part was clear. Inside it, lightening bolts danced, bouncing off the gun’s walls. It was beautiful.
“Eh? Good. The boy needs to be scared. World’s far from bein’ a fuckin’ paradise.” The man with the gruff voice grabbed Chinna and brought him closer. Chinna noticed the man’s face: it was an older man, wrinkled and worn with watery blue eyes. He wore glasses with perfectly round frames as he peered at the boy. Chinna noticed he had two irises but only one pupil.
“Glad you could make it, kid.” Leo smiled at him.
“Niceties can wait,” the man named Doc said. Despite being an older man, Doc was in great shape, and he held Chinna firmly in front of him so the boy could not wriggle away. His arm muscles, which were bare, had knots like tree trunks. In fact, his biceps were probably as big as Chinna’s face. But he was short, and it wasn’t until he let go of the boy that Chinna noticed he was in a wheelchair.
“Eyes up here, boy, lotsa people are cripples nowadays.” Doc smacked Chinna in the head. “Ya gonna hafta learn not to stare if you wanna work for me. Don’t stare, but see.”
“I don’t…understand…” Chinna stammered.
“Good, ya don’t have to. All you need to do is what I tell ya, and what I’m gonna tell ya is easy enough for someone like you to do. Don’t worry, there’s only a small chance you’ll be killed. But that chance will be much smaller than your chance of survival if you continue livin’ on your own. How long do you think you’ll last, eh? Another year? A few more after that? Bet ya haven’t thought that far, have ya? Well, what’s the point? Folks are only lookin’ to survive the next day, no one’s givin’ a fuck what our future will be. And why should they? Shit’s as far gone as can possibly be, but it’s only goin’ to get worse. Just no one knows it yet. That’s why I’m here, fightin’. Don’t know exactly what I’m fightin’ yet, but I’m fightin’. And you’re gonna be one of my weapons, ya hear?” Doc snorted.
“What Doc’s trying to say is that we need you to work for us, in exchange for food and drink and a place to sleep. You won’t have to fight anything and you’ll mainly be an errand boy, delivering messages and assisting Doc in his work. That used to be my job, only now I have other, more pressing things that need to be done. The situation’s much worse than we previously thought, and we need all the help we can get if we want to stop it.”
“Stop what?” Chinna blinked. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re not making any sense! What are you fighting?!”
“The end of the fuckin’ world, boy,” Doc replied.
That had been almost a year ago, yet Chinna still wasn’t sure what Doc had meant by that. Here he was, working for that miserable old man and waiting on Leo to return home, and for what, exactly? Chinna remembered thinking that night that if he agreed to work for Doc then his questions would be answered. Some were, but most weren’t. In fact, Chinna felt he had even more questions now than he did then.
Chinna heard a few dogs snapping their jaws at each other, and he craned his head around to see two of them fighting over a scrap of food from the trash heap. They were about twenty feet from him, and though it was dark he could see the foam at their mouths as they salivated over dinner. Chinna remembered feeling that way, fighting off the dogs for food, his belly so distended from malnutrition he would have killed any of the beasts to eat what he’d found. But he didn’t have to now. He was well fed and slept peacefully at night, thanks to his employer. However tough and unforgiving Doc could be, Chinna couldn’t complain about not going hungry.
Suddenly, he noticed movement in his periphery, and turned quickly as he heard something shuffling towards him. He stood up, awkwardly grasping the oversized gun in his arms, and whistled: hee-hoo. He waited a while as the shape got bigger, listening. He needed a response. If it was Leo, he’d respond. If it wasn’t, Chinna might have to use the machine he was holding. He listened, and had just put a hand on the gun’s throttle when it came. A higher whistle, three times: hoo, hoo-hoo. Chinna relaxed, and let out a breath when Leo’s face finally came into view.
“Where have you been?” Chinna asked.
Leo put a hand on Chinna’s shoulder and took the weapon from him. Leo lifted it as easily as a child would lift a toy.
“Doc has been breathing down my neck for two days now, and he’s even more irritated than he usually is!”
“Well, I’m here now. So you can take me to him and let him unleash his fury on me,” Leo chuckled. They began to walk towards the base.
“I’m serious, Leo! I think Doc has gone mad trying to figure out where you were. He gave up, Leo! He thought you were dead!”
“And you?” Leo looked down at him.
Chinna stammered. “Well, I mean…I knew you weren’t dead. But…”
“You thought I’d been captured? Tortured? No, don’t worry. Near as I can tell, no one has any idea what we’re on about. Just the way it should be.” Leo opened the door. “Better yet, I think our little setback might be over. We might be able to kick our plans back into motion.”
Chinna’s eyes grew wide. “You mean…?”
Leo shushed him and led him inside.
The interior was little more than an old garage that miraculously still had a working garage door. The walls were covered with seemingly useless items: shovels, hoes, rakes, picks, rope, flowerpots, wires, baseball bats, golf clubs, satellite dishes, car batteries, pipes and countless others. Chinna knew Doc didn’t collect things unless he thought they could serve a purpose; but he sure did have a lot. For just the three of them, Chinna couldn’t imagine Doc needing this many supplies. But he kept his mouth shut.
In the center of the square room, there was a moldy armchair, a table with only three legs, and a stack of books lying on the floor. In the farthest corner from the outside door, there was a pile of pre-war newspapers. Leo walked to the newspapers, then turned left to the adjacent wall. He shifted one of the shelving units away from the wall, revealing a hole the size of Chinna himself. They walked through the hole and emerged in the main hub.
This was the room that made Chinna realize he wanted to stay and work with Doc and Leo. A small arsenal of the strange and beautiful weapons was against the far wall, while a makeshift kitchen stood to the right, next to the bunk beds Leo and Chinna shared and the recliner Doc slept in. The kitchen was centered around a surviving fireplace of stone, which Doc had remodeled himself so the fireplace would have a retractable locking lid. This prevented any creepers from crawling down the chimney when the fireplace wasn’t in use. In the center of the room stood a platform, about nine by five feet, which was packed with soil. From the soil grew a small but bountiful harvest of corn, beans, wheat and potatoes. Chinna tended this field most days, watering it and adjusting the lamps as necessary. He didn’t mind.
Doc’s lab setup was to the left, opposite the kitchen. Tools hung on the wall behind the workbench, and next to that was a desk with three computer monitors. That was Leo’s domain: computers were his specialty, and Chinna knew he had salvaged these pieces for this computer during the war. Leo had built this one, and was often seated in front of it when he wasn’t on watch or capturing test subjects.
Doc sat there in his wheelchair, busy tightening some bolts on his latest weapon improvement. Chinna wasn’t sure at first if Doc had heard them come in, since he didn’t look up from his work when Leo set the weapon down. Chinna cleared his throat.
“Well don’t just stand there and cough, boy. Any reports?”
“Good. Don’t get too comfy, though, boy. Second you let your guard down is when they’ll getcha.” Doc turned his good eye on Leo. “An’ you?”
Leo cleared his throat. “Yes, I…apologize, for my absence.”
“You’re damn right to be apologizin’. You think this chicken boy woulda lasted bein’ on watch by himself? What the fuck were you thinkin’?”
“Doc, I understand why you’re mad, and I am sorry. I was injured…”
“Well, ya look just fine to me. What coulda happened to that injury? It woulda had to be a bad one to keep you away for two days. But here you are, no missin’ limbs, no broken bones, no blood. So I’ll ask again…what the fuck were you thinkin’?” Doc chewed on the stump of a thick cigarette, long since burnt out. Chinna thought his good eye might pierce Leo.
“If it had been up to me, I would have come back after I collected the rations. You know I would!”
“And yet ya didn’t!”
“It wasn’t my choice! I was injured by this dog, and then this girl showed up out of nowhere, and she and her brother took me back to their place to patch my leg up, but the brother wouldn’t let me leave, and then I was talking to this girl, and I…”
“And you wanted her, eh?”
Leo blushed furiously. Chinna snickered.
“Is that really all this comes down to? A fuckin’ girl?”
“No! Doc, I think she can actually help us! The way she was talking to me, if she just knew the truth, I think…”
“Just knew the truth? What did you tell her?!”
“I didn’t tell her anything!”
“THEN I DON’T WANNA FUCKIN’ HEAR IT!!”
Silence fell. Leo looked as if he was biting his tongue. Doc had never looked madder to Chinna than he did in that moment.
“You will not disappear like that again, you hear me?!”
Leo nodded once.
“I don’t care if you’re attacked by a rabid bear and you have to crawl your shredded ass back to die on this doorstep, you come back.”
Leo said nothing, only nodded again and stared blankly at the wall above Doc’s head.
“Good. Now get back to work.”
Chinna found Leo later that night on the doorstep, smoking a cigarette. He inhaled deeply and exhaled large plumes of smoke from his nostrils. Chinna sat down next to him.
“Fuck me, kid, I really thought I had something,” Leo said as he handed Chinna a cigarette. He lit it with a match and Chinna breathed in deeply.
“I guess I just don’t get why you thought Doc would want to hear about some girl,” Chinna began. “I mean, even if she could have helped us, Doc’s not interested in taking on more people right now. He’s said so.”
“I know, Chinna. Christ, I just felt like there was something there. She actually thought, Chinna, she thought for herself. I haven’t met anyone like that in a long time.”
“Just because she thinks for herself doesn’t mean she’d be worth anything to us. What could she do?”
“She had a way with people. You should have seen how she handled talking down her brother and the woman who’s dog attacked me. And how the kids in her building treated her. People trusted her.”
“And you think she could have gotten her way inside that building? Heard things? Seen things? Reported back to us?”
Leo sighed. “Yeah, it sounds pretty ridiculous.” He took a puff on the cigarette before throwing it on the ground. He stamped out the butt with his foot. “Wishful thinking, I guess.”
And with that, Leo went back inside, leaving Chinna alone in the dark once more.