Chapter 12A Chapter by Domenic Luciani
The next thing Tyler Huxley knew, the sun had risen and everything was quiet. He rolled onto his side, wincing as he felt a sharp pain in his ribs and rolled back over. He stared up at the ceiling of the school house with his hands to his sides and legs together"corpse style. The yellowing drywall had peeled in most places, and there were rectangular holes where the florescent lights had been yanked out. He tried to remember what had happened the other day, and found that most of the details were hazy. He shut his eyes tightly and tried to conjure up the memories. There was his father, being dragged away. There was Sam running off to the ruined village on the outskirts of the city. He saw himself running, and the police, and the helicopters, and Matteo, and then he had passed out. He remembered the feeling of hopelessness he had felt right before falling asleep and came close to tears, but blinked them away focused on the present.
He shifted slightly, trying to figure out how much pain getting up would cause him. His legs were sore but he decided they would hold his weight"at least to the door, and then he could probably call for someone to help him. He was still wearing the tattered clothes he had on before, but his shoes were gone. His feet were bare except for the brace on his left ankle.
Tyler managed to get himself up and over to the door using the chairs for support and with a liberal amount of swearing.
The hallway beyond was empty, and Tyler suddenly had reservations about calling for help: the people here seemed hardy and he did not want to label himself as pathetic or annoying. He bit his lip against the pain and tried to bear it as he made his way down the hall, sliding his shoulder along the wall for support. At the stairs, he sat down on the top step and made his way down one at a time.
When he made it to the bottom, he saw a chair across the lobby and hobbled to it as if it were water in a desert. The chair had its back to the windows, so Tyler turned it around before sitting. The front of the school faced the remains of a playground. There was a ladder without its slide, a swing set missing more than half the swings, and a half-dome of monkey bars that must have collapsed. What little remained of the place was rusted over and hazardous.
There was an odd sound coming from somewhere far off, but Tyler assumed it was his ears going haywire. It would not have surprised him. However, the sound turned into a rapid vwum, vwum, vwum, and Tyler realized with a start that the helicopters must be back. Ignoring the stabbing pain in his thighs, he dove to the ground and tried to flatten himself against the wall beneath the windows. He could hear them flying just overhead, but did not dare to look out. There was no telling what sort of equipment they might have on those things, and a quick glimpse was not worth the price of being seen.
He waited a long while before he felt safe to look outside, until he could not even hear the helicopters anymore. Taking a moment to steady his rapid breathing, he peered out the window and squinted in the sunlight.
The helicopters were indeed gone, and now he realized he had not been the only one hiding. All over the place, people were emerging like mice from burrows. They popped out of crevices and from beneath sheets of metal and other debris littering the streets. Tyler wondered how long they must have been hiding there: he was sure he had not seen them before.
He watched curiously as the people resumed whatever they had been doing before. There were a few street vendors whose stalls could be ingeniously concealed to look like rubble. Some people were carrying crates of what looked like over-ripened fruit. Others were just walking around. Compared to the perfectly coordinated city streets, this place was like chaos.
Sam walked in, took one look at him crouched down by the windowsill and started to laugh. Tyler wanted to say something, but he found his legs were stiff and he was stuck. Sam watched him struggle into the chair, unable to conceal her amusement.
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Tyler gasped as he collapsed into the chair. “I’m not in pain or anything.”
“I’m sorry, it was funny,” Sam said, unsympathetic.
“Fine, remind me not to help you when you’re in pain. I’ll just point and laugh,” he sneered.
“Oh, give me a break. I did save your life you know. How about you remember that next time I’m in pain.”
Tyler gave in. “Yeah, yeah.” He looked at her and noticed that she had changed her clothes. She was wearing a faded blue shirt that looked handmade out of a thin material and her khaki pants were torn off just below the knee. Her hair was tied back as well. Altogether secondhand, yet comfortable.
Tyler looked at his own clothes and realized how much he stood out: collared shirt and jacket with slacks frayed at the heel. “I need to change,” he said.
“Yeah, you do. I’m sure we can find something around here for you, but it might not be the right size. Mama Quinn will have to make you some new clothes. That is, if you plan on staying here for a while.”
“I don’t know how long I’ll be staying. I’ll probably have to go back to the city sooner or later.”
Tyler frowned at her. “Because…my dad is in there. I don’t think they would kill him or anything, so chances are he’s locked up in there somewhere.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Sam snapped. “If you go back there, you’ll just end up exactly like him. In jail or dead, and trust me, dead is the better option.”
“What do you want me to do then, huh?” Tyler clenched his fist in frustration. “I’m not gonna live the rest of my life in this place. You can’t possibly expect me to do that. And in any case, the city will probably keep looking for me. They’ll keep coming.”
“If you’re worried about us, don’t be,” Sam said, putting her hand on Tyler’s shoulder. Tyler wanted to shake it off, but he did not have the energy. “The people here don’t want to just lay low for the rest of their lives. The city would come after us whether you were here or not, so don’t think you’re the only factor. The peace in this place is hanging by a thread: if you handed any one of these people a gun, chances are they’d run into the city guns blazing. They’re not just scared, they’re angry.”
“So at any moment, I could get shot down no matter where I am, that’s great news,” Tyler said bitterly.
“I’m just saying you’re better off here is all.”
Tyler was silent. Maybe Sam was right. In any case, he would be arrested immediately if he tried to get into the city. After all, he was a normal kid, not some secret agent. He had no particular skills that he could name off the top of his head, and even if he did, what was he going to do? Walk right through the front door?
He gave up. Sam was right. If anything, he would probably just make everything worse if he tried it. “I know,” he said. “It’s just so frustrating. I mean, what if your parents were locked up somewhere? Wouldn’t you want to help them?”
“My parents are dead,” Sam said coldly.
“Oh man, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to"”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s fine. It happened a long time ago.” Sam walked briskly out of the room, leaving Tyler sitting in the chair feeling ashamed. He cursed himself for being so forward. He should have just thanked her for her hospitality, or better yet, not said anything at all. With a pang of guilt, he realized he did not really know anything about the girl he had been stuck with for nearly two weeks. When they had talked, she had always been more interested in what his life was like. He never even thought about what hers had been like. Guilt washed over him, and he wished he could run after her, but presently he was not even sure he could stand up without help.
Luckily Matteo stopped in and saw Tyler sitting in the chair, staring glumly out the window.
“What’s up?” he asked, walking over and pulling up a chair beside him. Tyler noticed that Matteo had an accent. He had never heard one so prominent before, and it confused him.
“I think Sam’s mad at me.”
“What did you do?”
“I mentioned her parents and she told me they were dead.”
Matteo breathed in slowly and shook his head. “That was a bad move, friend.”
“It wasn’t my fault!” Tyler said defensively. “I didn’t know.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it; I’m sure she’ll come around.” Matteo smiled and patted Tyler hard on the shoulder.
“I just wish my legs would work. I feel like I’m crippled,”
“We can probably scrape up a wheelchair or something, if you want.”
“No, it’s fine.” Tyler did not want to suffer the further embarrassment of a wheelchair.
“Well, in any case, Mama Quinn wants to talk to you.” Matteo stood up.
“I don’t know. But if she wants to see you, it’s probably something important.”
That is vague at best, Tyler thought. “Am I supposed to walk there?”
Matteo thought for a moment then shrugged. He stooped over Tyler, his rippling muscles and large frame encasing Tyler’s more compact form, and picked him up. Tyler protested at first, but then realized there might be no other method, or none less painful, than this. And so, red in the face, he allowed Matteo to carry him like a baby out the door of the school house and into the street.
He could feel people’s eyes on him, but tried to ignore them. Some gazed at him with mild amusement, others with mixed curiosity and apprehension. He was sure it was the clothes. Ragged as they were, they were still nicer than what anybody else had on here. There were a few shady characters, he noted, who peered at him from inside alleyways and behind the brims of hoods. Tyler could swear there was a look of burning hatred behind their eyes. A feeling of unease settled over him as he noticed more and more people giving him these looks.
I didn’t do anything wrong, Tyler thought passionately. Why are they looking at me like that? He decided not to mention his insecurities to Matteo, although something told him he should have.
Eventually they came upon a building that seemed to be made out of recycled parts of other buildings. Some portions were brick with peeling plaster and others were wooden planks of varying thickness. Metal beams were part of the architecture as well: they held up a low-hanging canvas tarp that comprised the ceiling.
The old lady Tyler had met before was sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor. She did not look up as Matteo entered, carrying Tyler, but merely tilted her head in their direction. A chair was set up on the soil in front of her. Matteo set Tyler down in the chair, bowed, and then left.
A few rays of golden light penetrated the tarp through a series of worn holes that must have developed over time. The rays flickered as the tarp inflated and flapped in the breeze. Tyler sat silently, watching the old woman whose posture was remarkably poised for someone of her age. She did not speak for a very long time, and when she did, she hummed.
It was a sad tune, and after she completed one verse, she sang in a strange language Tyler had never heard before. He was caught by surprise, and though the melody was beautiful it bothered him that she was singing.
When she finished, she opened her eyes slowly and looked at him. “What did you think?”
“Of the song?”
The woman nodded.
“Um…it was nice. Kind of sad though,” he said quickly.
“Forgive me, I was only curious.” The woman stood up and stretched her limbs with astounding flexibility.
“Curious of what?” Tyler asked.
“I’ve heard that the people of the city lack emotions; that experiments had been done on them to take away their humanity. This is the first time a city-dweller has been among us, and there are some things that I would like to know.”
“Well, for starters, can you enjoy music? Can you draw a picture, or enjoy a beautiful scene?”
Tyler thought for a moment. He had never really considered things like that. “Of course I can. I can do whatever I want, it’s just…” he stopped, trying to figure out the right words. “It’s just that we don’t. There aren’t any laws or anything that say that we can’t draw or listen to music, it’s just considered to be weird if we get involved with stuff like that, so we don’t.”
The woman pursed her lips. “I think I understand. Oh! Where are my manners? You probably haven’t eaten yet, have you? Tobe! Tobe, get this boy something to eat.”
There was movement off to Tyler’s left, but he did not bother to look.
“I’m sorry if my questions seem a little forward,” she continued. “Samantha has told me a bit about you, but there are things you can’t expect of girl of her age"or a boy of yours"to consider.”
Tyler thought about Sam, about how she had walked off when he mentioned her parents. He knew he should not ask her about it, but he wanted to know anyways. “Do you know what happened to Sam’s parents?”
With an odd look in her eye that worried Tyler, the woman smiled. “Why do you want to know?”
“I’m just curious,” Tyler said, afraid that this conversation might be taking a turn for the worse. He wanted to mention that it was not because he liked her or anything, but felt saying that would raise more suspicion. He left it at curiosity.
The woman smiled again, broader this time, and Tyler had a sinking feeling she was thinking exactly what he had. “Well, what happened to Michael and Mary-Ellen was tragic, but unfortunately not uncommon. You see, they were killed in a raid.”
“As you can imagine, the city doesn’t like our presence here. In fact, to say that they tolerate us would be making light of the situation. For the most part, they know we’re out here. They just don’t know precisely where. If they wanted to, they could probably wipe us all out with the flip of a switch, but as long as we keep our heads down and stay out of sight of the traffic from the gated communities, they usually leave us alone. But we’re not the only group out here. Some people let pride get in their way and do stupid things that get them killed. Samantha’s parents happened to be with one of these groups. Now, I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt because they put their daughter before themselves, but others are not so righteous. A few of those idiots were throwing flaming spirits at the wall"you could see the flames from miles away. When the police came, they burned down everything in sight. If you think this place is rundown, about six miles east of here, there’s a barren no-man’s-land where there used to be a whole settlement of people. Nothing left of it now.”
At that moment, Tobe, a skinny little girl with dark hair and big brown eyes, came back with a half-loaf of bread and an apple. The bread did not look too bad: burned on the bottom and grainy, but warm and edible. The apple was soft to the touch and had a large brown spot on one side. Tyler started on the apple, making sure to eat around the brown spot, and then would move onto the bread while the woman continued.
“Samantha’s parents made it to the well, which is at the very edge of our territory, but turned back to try to help put out the fires. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what happened to them after that. The only thing that stopped that fire was that it ran out of things to burn. I think Samantha must have been three or four when that happened. Obviously it becomes difficult to account for age when the only record of it is your parents.”
The woman sat back down on the dirt floor and returned to her meditative trance for a while, humming softly. Tyler hastily finished eating then looked around for someone to come and get him, but no one showed up. He wondered if Matteo had forgotten about him, or if the woman was not done talking.
He sat still for five more minutes, drumming his fingers on his thighs and considering how far he could walk before collapsing when the woman spoke again.
“Where are your parents?”
Tyler should have guessed that was coming next. “My mom is gone, and my dad is locked up in prison because he tried to get us out of the city. Actually, I’m not sure if he really is in prison. He might be dead, too, for all I know.” Tyler felt depressed now. He did not want the image of his father’s face as the police pulled him away haunting his thoughts any more than it already was.
“I’m sure he’ll be alright,” the woman said, though she did not sound too confident.
“What happens now?” Tyler asked. He desperately needed someone to tell him the right course of action. Any cause, even a perilous one, must be better than the uncertainty he felt now.
The woman fell into a state of deep thought, and it was a long time before she decided to speak up. “I don’t know,” she said.
Well wonderful, Tyler thought grudgingly. He did not know what to say next, so he said nothing.
“In any case,” she continued, “this is no time to be rushing off and getting yourself into any more trouble. I believe the best course of action right now is to wait for a better one to reveal itself.”
A bunch of mystic garbage. Useless. For whatever reason, Tyler felt like his father was drifting further and further away, like a ship vanishing over the horizon. If only he had more time, or if he could somehow call out to him, and now this woman was telling him to do nothing but wave casually as his father vanished from sight.
The only thing keeping him from speaking out on this issue was the knowledge that he had no authority here. Come to think of it, he did not have any real authority anywhere. The thought made him bitter.
“Sometimes the right thing to do is to do nothing at all,” she added.
Tyler did not want any part of her philosophical nonsense. The longer he sat in that chair listening to her babble on he grew more and more frustrated with the situation. He rolled his eyes when she was not looking and barely managed to keep his tone polite when he said: “Maybe you’re right.”
“In the mean time, you should take a look around. Do some exploring. That’s what children of your age do.”
“I’m not a child,” Tyler snapped, unable to conceal his resentment.
“I didn’t mean to say you were. I don’t mean child in the sense that you are young. You see, coming of age is not inevitable. It happens if the body and mind are ready to accept the world for what it is, and though it’s natural for the young to experience this, it may not happen until you’re full grown, or an old man, or it might never happen at all. Until it happens, however, you are still a child. Once you experience the world, then you become mature, but all those people in that city will never know what the real world is like. They will always be children, and they will die as children.”
All of this sounded vaguely ominous to Tyler, but he was still angry about being called a child, so he had only been half-listening.
“Anyways, I didn’t mean to offend. You might want to look around the market, or see the library, or"”
“You have books here?” Tyler asked, his outlook suddenly brightening.
The woman seemed surprised for a moment, and then smiled as if his interest in books pleased her. “Of course. Not many, obviously. What we have is mostly just what we managed to pull out of the ruins and not in very good condition, but you’re welcome to any of them. I’m surprised you know literature. I wouldn’t have thought the city would allow you to read novels.”
“They didn’t. But a friend of my dad’s had some in his apartment when we stayed there. Those were illegal, though.”
“I can imagine.”
The woman kept on talking, but Tyler no longer felt inclined to listen. So when she finally called for Matteo and dismissed him, most of what she had said was lost on him. He regretted this somewhat, feeling that maybe somewhere in all her mysticism, there was truth he might have found if he had paid attention. Oh well.
He asked Matteo to drop him off at the library. Matteo consented and soon they were standing at the entrance to a small shack. By then, dark clouds were beginning to creep slowly from the East. Matteo stared at them for a moment. “It’ll be raining soon,” he said wisely.
Tyler nodded, and suddenly remembered the last time he and his father had taken their daily trip from their home in the gated community to the city. How long ago it seemed. He wondered if the car was still there. Probably not: the city would not risk an outsider carrying it off. The house would probably still be there, maybe cleaned out, or even with another family living in it, but it would still be there. He wanted to see it, to remember some of the sense of security it had always given him, and wondered if he would ever go back.
He shook the thought from his head and entered the shack.
Tyler was greeted instantly by a tall, muscular man with deeply tanned skin and a shaved head. The man was leaning against a counter with a book in his hand. Books of all shapes and sizes were splayed all over the floor. Tyler noted that the man was not wearing a shirt.
“You must be new,” he said almost immediately.
“How can you tell?”
“I’ve never seen you around before, but your clothes are the dead giveaway. Might as well paint ‘city kid’ on your forehead. I’m Mathew, by the way. Just call me Matt. What brings you to the library? I didn’t think you people read.”
“I do read,” Tyler said, curious as to what made these people so forward. “I like it a lot.”
“That’s cool. What kind of books do you like? Our selections aren’t exactly extensive, and if you find a bunch of books in a stack, chances are they’re all the same book.”
“I like stories with pirates in them.” Tyler remembered one of the books he had read in Steve’s apartment.
“Nice. I think I have a couple over here.” Matt hopped from one clear patch of floor to the next like islands in a pool of lava. He picked up a dusty volume that was hidden beneath an atlas of some sort and made his way over to Tyler. “I think you’ll like this one,” he said. He picked and prodded through another pile and came out with another book. “And this one.”
Tyler stowed them under his arm without even looking at the titles. “Thanks. What book are you reading?”
“Only the best book of all time!” Matt said excitedly. He picked up the one he had been reading when Tyler came in and handed it to him. Tyler looked at the first few pages then flipped through the rest of the book.
He looked up at Matt in confusion. “It’s blank.”
Indeed, there was not a single printed word in the entire book. The leather-bound cover was entirely bare, as well as the spine, and yet it was worn and covered in wrinkles from being opened so many times.
“I know it’s blank: that’s the point.”
Tyler just stared at him perplexedly.
“I don’t like reading books with words in them.”
“Isn’t that the point of books? How can anyone read a blank book anyways?”
“You don’t read a blank book,” Matt said angrily, though Tyler suspected this anger was not directed at him, “You envision it, you engage yourself in it, and you become it. When you read a printed book, the ideas are not your own, they are someone else’s being impressed upon you. Also, what happens in that book is concrete: no matter how you read it, the story will never change. When you look into a blank book, you’re free to make your own story, however you want it. Every time, new things can happen, or it can be an entirely different story altogether.”
“Why don’t you write a book then?”
“I don’t want anyone else to read my stories. I’m not embarrassed by them or anything like that; it’s just that it becomes too impersonal, you know? I want my stories all to myself; it’s just how I like things.” Matt paused and seemed to remember who he was talking to. “I doubt you would understand it, and it’s not your fault that you wouldn’t, but it’s just how I feel. I probably wouldn’t understand you either.”
“No, I get it,” Tyler said. In all honesty, what Matt had said made perfect sense to him"at least more sense than what the old lady had said. Tyler thanked him for the books and made for the door, but Matt stopped him.
“You should come by and visit again soon. I feel like you’re someone worth getting to know.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I’m interested,” Matt said quietly, “in who you might become.”
Tyler hesitated, wondering what he meant, then nodded thanks and left.
Matteo was waiting for him outside. Tyler noticed the tiny spots of darkness in the dirt. Matteo was right: it would be raining soon. The dark clouds had already concealed the blue sky. Matteo bent to scoop Tyler up, but Tyler stopped him.
“I think I can walk.”
Matteo nodded. “If you are sure.”
They made their way back to schoolhouse at Tyler’s painfully slow pace. Sometimes the pain in his ankle would flare up and he would have to sit down and stretch it a bit. Eventually the rain came, as Tyler knew it would. Thankfully, it was only a light drizzle and it would not pour until later that night.
At one of these frequent intervals, Tyler took a moment to observe the people around him. They moved with an impressive fluidity. The streets were by no means bustling, but there was a warm sense of community, an unspoken dialogue that existed between everyone who walked them. Tyler wanted desperately to be a part of it, but he feared the concept was beyond him. There were children playing with weary mutt of a dog while an old woman nearby kept a watchful eye on them. The dog snapped at a little boy who had gotten too close to the bone it held between its paws and the boy began to cry. The other children ran off while the woman scooped the boy up in her arms and carried him inside.
There were courtyards filled with nothing but yellow sand and in more than a few places, a dead and decaying animal. Only bones sometimes. There was a rule against changing anything noticeable outside, in case the city police decided to make a pass over the town. For now at least the fields would have to remain bare.
A distant boom of thunder made everyone look upwards.
When they reached the school, Tyler was disappointed that Sam had not yet returned. The rain that fell now in sheets was icy and soon the air, too, became cool. Tyler returned to his spit of mattress and laid down. For a while he did nothing but watch the rain tap sharply on the windows. He could not help but think about the people he had met, and wonder why they were so different from him.
He dozed off, only to awake a few moments later as Matteo entered the room with a glass of water.
“I’m leaving,” he said.
“To go where?”
“I am escorting Quinn to another territory. I will be back in two days. I came to say goodbye.” Matteo set the glass of water down beside him. Tyler propped himself up on his elbows.
“Who’s going to keep me company and carry me everywhere?” he said with a laugh.
Matteo smiled. “You should talk to Samantha.”
Tyler wanted to protest, but Matteo was already leaving. He rested his head back down and turned to look at the glass of water. Even though everything felt still and quiet the water vibrated from imperceptible tremors. He wished his senses were acute enough that he could feel the vibrations, too.
He dozed off again, and had a dream he was rolling on the waves of shifting sands. Their crests tumbling over him, tossing him into the air and catching him as he fell, bringing him closer to something he could never remain still long enough to identify.
His eyes opened. A few candles were lit around the room and heavy shutters had been thrown over the windows. Sam sat in a chair near the mattress, quietly reading one of the books Matt had given him. He was vaguely aware of the muffled sound of rain pounding heavily against the building.
He watched Sam as she studied the book, knowing that she could not read it. He wondered what it felt like to look at words and not know their meaning. She had let down her hair and it draped around her face like silk curtains. Her feet were bare and very dirty. Where had she been? he thought.
Sam seemed to notice the change in his breathing and looked over at him. Words leapt into his throat but went no further. He studied her face, trying to decipher the emotions lingering behind her blank stare, but it was useless: he did not know what to say.
“I’m sorry,” he managed to utter, his face practically red from the effort.
“It’s okay, but thanks anyways.” Her face remained placid.
Tyler drummed his fingers on the edge of the mattress hoping for inspiration to come to him, but the silence drew on.
“I found you some new clothes,” Sam said at last.
“Oh, thanks,” he said, glancing around and spotting a folded shirt and pants on a nearby chair.
Tyler stood up as best he could and hobbled over to the chair. He picked up the clothes and inspected them. They were simple and handmade, just like Sam’s. A belt had been placed between the shirt and pants. He looked over at Sam who had not moved, but stared intently at the ground. Was she just going to sit there while he changed? He cleared his throat loudly, hoping that she would clear out, but she did not move. Skulking to a dark corner of the room, he removed his clothes and put on the new ones simultaneously, keeping his back to Sam. He glanced back at her, but she did not seem at all interested in him.
With his clothes in a pile on the floor, he adjusted his shirt. The sleeves were a little long, so he rolled them up. Suddenly he felt a breath on the back of his neck and he spun around to find Sam standing only an inch away. He had not realized how quiet she could be. In a single swift movement, she grabbed his shoulders and pushed her lips up against his.
Tyler’s heart nearly gave out. His face turned bright red and he immediately pushed her away.
“What are you doing?” he asked, panicked.
She frowned at him, looking hurt and confused at the same time. Tyler regretted asking. He knew what she had done and why, and the question he had asked could in no way be answered with any amount of certainty. She turned and fled, hands clasped into tight fists. Tyler felt what she felt: the embarrassment of being rejected was nothing compared to that of having to explain why.
He wanted to go after her, to take hold of her and embrace her again, but the moment had passed, and he wondered if it would ever come again.
He listened to her heavy footsteps fade away, and for a brief moment he understood why the city had rejected emotions: all they did was get you into trouble.
© 2012 Domenic Luciani
Added on April 17, 2012
Last Updated on April 17, 2012
Forest of Men
AboutThat is my real name, and that is really me in the picture. Like Patrick says, I'm not in the witness protection program. I mostly write books and stories. I like fantasy, or fiction, but if.. more..