The hospital had a peculiar smell - a combination of antiseptic, laundry and overcooked food. It took me back to the day we’d met Jesse, although the circumstances couldn’t be more different now. I was no longer an intruder, as proven by the laminated photo I.D. clipped to the front pocket of my purple cotton scrubs. But still I jumped whenever I ran into a member of staff - a doctor, a nurse, a cleaning attendant - and had to remind myself that I had every right to be here now. I had a reason to walk through the hospital doors, the job title of ‘VOLUNTEER’, spelt in capital letters under my name on my photo I.D. - and even my own proximity access card: a small rectangular piece of plastic that, if held near certain doors, gave me access to areas marked as ‘Authorized Personnel Only’.
I hurried down the long wide corridor of the ward to which I had been assigned for the morning: ICU - Intensive Care Unit. The patients staying were seriously ill, but my job was actually pretty easy. I helped the nurses bathe and clean patients, change bed sheets, things like that. Although most of the times the people I was helping were barely aware of my presence, I found it rewarding to know that I could somehow help alleviate the discomfort of a fellow human being, even if it was by just wiping their mouth, or plumping up a pillow. I couldn’t make their pain go away, but I knew all too well how much better it felt to be clean, warm and dry after the weeks I’d spent living in a tent; and I’d never forget the sight of my own brother, strapped down to a bed, wet and dirty, deprived of any human dignity. Sometimes, if a patient was being demanding, or if a relative complained that their loved one wasn’t attended to quickly enough, I’d think to myself, you have no idea how lucky you are. Just as well that my years of working with tantrum-prone officers had taught me to hold my tongue.
I checked the blue sign on the wall - ICU 3 - that was where my shift started. Just as I was about to flick my ID at the proximity sensor, a nurse slowly appeared through the double doors, her attention focused on her cellphone.
“Is it ok to go in now?” I asked, trying to get her attention, so that I could get past her.
“Oh, hi!” she said, looking up. “Of course, yes.”
She tucked a strand of blonde hair behind her ear with an awkward smile, but didn’t move.
“It’s..Taylor, right?” she said, pointing at my I.D.
The nurse nodded expectantly.
“I’m…I’ve got my schedule here if you want to check?” I said, taking out the folded piece of paper from my pocket.
“No, no, it’s ok, I’ve seen you before.” she said, still smiling.
“Oh - okay.”
I didn’t remember seeing her but there were so many of them - nurses, mainly female - and they all looked pretty much the same to me, in their dark blue scrubs. Most wore their hair in a tight ponytail. All of them walked around with an air of authority that reminded me of the soldiers we’d seen upon our arrival in the City. “You want to keep on the good side of the nurses”, Jesse had warned me on my first day. “They run the place.”
“So, is it ok if I go in now?” I said, awkwardly.
“Sure.” the nurse sighed. Her smile had gone. “Make sure you report to the nurses’ station when you’re done.” she said, and hurried off.
Was I supposed to say something?
I had nagging feeling that I had done something wrong but it was hard to tell with the nursing staff. They largely ignored me, especially when I was wearing my uniform - the purple of my scrubs clearly highlighting my status at the bottom of the hospital hierarchy. Purple for volunteers, unpaid and therefore lower than the cleaning staff, whose uniforms were a very bright shade of pink.
I didn’t mind my low rank - I was used to taking orders; the army-like structure of the Flock had been good training. I knew how to blend in and respect my superiors, and through years of processing I had learned how to give the appearance of a respectful, obedient ‘soldier’.
The main difference was that the orders my superiors gave me at the hospital actually made sense. What I was doing was useful - it meant something. Even if I wasn’t getting paid, I enjoyed getting up in the morning with a clear purpose, knowing that my actions for the day would have a clear, immediate result, and that I was doing some good.
I volunteered two or three times a week, working around Jesse’s shifts so that I could get a ride to the hospital with him. I did whatever jobs I was given by the nurses - help patients wash themselves, serve meals, empty bedpans. I didn’t mind getting my hands dirty. It was better than whatever I had done before at the clubhouse, and I for the first time in my life, I felt that it was the actual work I did that, for a change, mattered. Not the end result, the tokens or the money that I’d received in exchange, and that had undeniably served a purpose.
It had only just occurred to me.
I’m doing this for myself.
Only a few weeks had passed since we’d got back to the City, exhausted from the long journey and unsettled by the turn of events that had forced us to abandon our search. We were all on edge, except for Zac, who had blissfully slept through most of the long drive home, waking up only for food and bathroom breaks. And once we were through our front door, he’d headed straight for our bedroom, picked up his guitar and started practising. As far as he was concerned, the search was over.
Someone else shared his view - Detective Weathers.
The following day he called Jesse, and after stressing the fact that he was using a prepaid cellphone, Weathers told him that things had taken a strange turn and that he had been offered a transfer to a remote precinct in a lakeside county in the former state of Canada. It was a choice between the transfer or early retirement, and Weathers said he had opted for the former, his dream of spending weekends fishing by a lake too hard to resist. Before hanging up, he’d warned Jesse to be careful.
We spent several evenings talking through what had happened in San Diego, and Weather’s ominous warning. Nothing made much sense - someone had tried to put obstacles in front of us, stopping us in our tracks, that much was clear - but we couldn’t understand their motives. Why would anyone have any interest in us, what kind of threat could we represent in our current state to any CANAAN citizen, or institution? We had no money, no power, no connections. It made absolutely no sense.
We went through every possible theory that we could conjure, each one more unlikely than the previous. Eventually, we agreed on what seemed to be the most logical explanation: perhaps the CoR was trying to prevent us from reconnecting with what was left of our family. It could have been arranged by our mother, who was married to one of the highest ranking officers in the Compound, and no doubt had privileges that would allow her to reach out for contacts on the Outside.
She would have known that we had nobody out here, and that we might have tried to find our father. Maybe this was one last attempt to close all possible avenues for us to survive out here; maybe she thought this was a way to entice us back in. We talked and argued about it, night after night, until we exhausted every theory and every option. Letting go of him - of the idea of him -was hard - especially since we had been so close, a click away from a sample of those very cells that made up our skin and bones, the genetic code that mapped every tiniest particle of our bodies.
But there was also another valid reason to quit the search: Jesse. He had a lot more to lose than we had, and although he never said it openly, I could tell that he was worried. The last thing I wanted was to be the cause of even more trouble - not after all he had done for us. He was our only friend, and the three of us all agreed that he mattered more than the remote possibility of meeting a father that, by now might not even want to know us.
So we abandoned our search, and all that there was left for us to do was to learn to live like Outsiders.
It had been Jesse’s idea to find me some voluntary work at the hospital. I’d asked him what qualifications were needed to become a nurse or a paramedic. I’d had no proper schooling outside the Compound classroom, so nursing school was as distant a dream for me as becoming the next president of CANAAN. Jesse didn’t think the idea was completely impossible, and promised he’d find out about programmes that could get me a diploma of some sort, a qualification, by doing a job and studying at the same time. He suggested I volunteered a couple of times a week to get some experience to put on my resume - another important piece of paper that, unsurprisingly, my brothers and I didn’t have. I’d had plenty of work experience - my Club House job entailed a lot more than just entertaining officers. Jesse, however, said that it was better to leave it out; “Hospitality Manager for in-house brothel with religious cult is not really going to help you get a job, Tay” he’d pointed out. I knew he was probably right, but it was disheartening to think that my life at the Compound didn’t count - as if, until now, I had never existed.
It was hard to stay positive, to have hope that one day we could fit in. When Jesse told me that he’d got me an interview with the hospital volunteers co-ordinator, I was thrilled. “You do realise that you won’t get paid for it?” he’d said, surprised and amused at my reaction.
I didn’t care. All I wanted was to feel useful, and now that we were safe and Zac was healthy, there was nothing for me to do all day apart from keeping the apartment clean and tidy and taking care of the cooking. I did it because I wanted to, not because Jesse expected it - he’d said more than once that he would have hired a cleaner if he’d wanted one - but I was the least I could do to give something back. And besides, I would have to earn a living, at some point. I’d spent all my life taking care of Zac and supporting my brothers, and I wasn’t used to depending on other people. That, however, seemed impossible in our current situation. “Let’s wait to see what happens after the elections” Jesse had reassured me. “If President Leclerc doesn’t get re-elected, the new one might abolish the quotas. It might become easier for you guys to get jobs. In the meantime, some work experience at the hospital would be a start.”
The elections were only a couple of weeks away when I first walked through the hospital doors alongside Jesse, ready to start my new job. This time I wasn’t a fugitive, a displaced person, or even a patient. Looking down at the laminated photo badge clipped to my uniform, for the first time since I could remember, I felt pride.
I’d been busy all morning, starting with bathing patients in ICU, then over to a different ward to help with meals. Some patients were so sick and frail that reverted to behaving like helpless babies, and needed help with cutting their food or dipping a spoon in the bowl of whatever gloopy substance they were trying to eat. So I’d pick up their fork and stab one of the pieces I’d just cut for them, or scoop a small amount of food on a spoon, and then I’d hand it to them, wrapping the patient’s fingers around it if necessary, steadying their hand with mine as they tentatively took a bite.
It must be mortifying to lose your independence to the point where the simple act of bringing food to your mouth is no longer possible. That’s why I tried to give the people I was there to help a chance to do something for themselves. It took a lot longer to get through mealtimes and my supervisor wasn’t too pleased, but once the patient had taken charge of his of her own spoon, and was all intent in polishing off their meal unassisted, there was nothing anyone could do to stop them.
It was different with the elderly. Sometimes they’d drop the cutlery onto the plate after a couple of attempts and give up. Today was no exception.
“You do it, sweetheart.” the woman said, leaning back on the high tower of pillows that propped her up. She couldn’t have weighed more than 90 lbs, and the hospital-issued bracelet was loose around her wrist.
I picked up the fork and leaned in closer.
“Are you sure? Because I’ll probably end up eating it myself.” I joked, pointing at the rather unappetising meal on the plastic tray.
“You can’t be that desperate” she laughed.
The elderly woman was right. I wasn’t that desperate - not anymore. However, many of the patients were. Some would do anything to get admitted into hospital in the hope of a hot meal and a bed for the night. I could relate to that; only a few months before I’d been in that position, and I knew that back then I would have done the same, or worse, to get my hands on the grey piece of chicken and congealed vegetables sitting defiantly on the plastic tray in front of me. I shuddered, and tried to force the thought away, but it wasn’t easy. They were everywhere - the displaced. Young, mostly male, people like me and my brothers who had not been as lucky as us. They sat in the waiting areas, taking up every free chair and bench in every corridor and in every hallway, looking up with a tinge of hope whenever a member of staff walked by, waiting to be called. Waiting for a stranger to help.
After finishing meal duties, I went to collect my things from the volunteers’ staff room. I put my key into the locker and a coin clanged into the plastic receptacle that was built into the metal door. There were a lot of volunteers coming and going all the time, and our lockers had to be emptied it at the end of our shifts. Permanent staff had their own storage space, which needed no coin and even had their own small padlocks. As a doctor, Jesse could leave toiletries and a change of clothes at the hospital, and didn’t have to empty his locker when he left. Already I wondered if one day I’d have one too - another small slice of something permanent, somewhere that I didn’t have to vacate at the end of every working day. Jesse had taped photos to the inside door of his locker - snaps of him with people I didn’t recognise, pictures of Australia. One showed Jesse on a beach, wetsuit rolled down to his waist, the empty sleeves sticking out floppily by his hips. He looked so different with a surfboard tucked under his arm, squinting in the sun; he looked so young and carefree, so unlike the professional, committed doctor his patients saw every day. It fascinated me to think that a camera could capture someone’s true essence in just a split second, and at the same time, it was a stark reminder that I didn’t have any photos of me and my brothers, of our mother, of our home at the Compound. Photography was only allowed for official CoR occasions, and I had never held a camera in my hands, let alone used one.
Maybe our mother had some old photos from before we moved there, but I didn’t recall seemeding any. It wasn’t something I had ever given much thought to, but now that our past seemed so firmly behind us, I wished I had some permanent memories of it - of our childhood, of us three kicking a makeshift football in the dirt courtyard that had been our secret playground between lessons.
I wished I had a physical reminder of what we’d looked like, back then - of the self-contained little family we had become. And where my memory couldn’t help, I wished I had something to fill the blanks - a photo of Zac as an infant, of the trailer that Isaac had described, with the beaded curtain and the fake plastic Christmas tree.
I’ll ask Jesse to take some photos of us - I thought, as I took out my belongings from the locker and closed it again, leaving the key in the lock. I had a jacket; a wallet, with my official CANAAN i.d, some money, and a cellphone, which Jesse had insisted I started to carry around with me whenever I went out. He’d bought one for Isaac too, and had programmed all our numbers on single keys, so that even Zac could use it in an emergency. I wondered what kind of emergency Jesse was worrying about but I didn’t really want to question it too much.
Everybody had cellphones at the hospital - the nurses were always glued to the small shiny screens, tapping things into them, laughing to themselves. Mine was a basic model, which I could use to make calls and send text messages. Jesse had showed me how to do it, so that I could reply to his messages - he texted me all the time, telling me funny things that his patients had done, or simply just to let me know how his day was going. Sometimes, he’d just text to say he was bored, although that tended to happen more when he was at the hospital on his own during a night shift and there were no emergencies. Only a couple of days before, he’d sent me a message in the middle of the night.
“Nothing happening here. Going to chat to a comatose patient in ICU to kill some time.”
I’d laughed to myself, obviously not quietly enough as Zac stirred beside me, mumbling something in protest, then promptly falling asleep again before I could apologise. I put the phone on silent, leaving it on in case Jesse messaged me again.
As I made my way to the E.R.’s cafeteria, where I was going to wait for Jesse to come off his shift, I couldn’t avoid walking through the main waiting room, which was really just a large hallway facing the main reception desk. The smell of sweat and unwashed bodies hit me before I had made it through the doors. I was getting used to bad smells in the hospital but this was different: it was the smell of the displaced, of the body heat of too many people in a packed mess tent at meal times. It was the smell of Blue City.
The second the the soupy, nauseating stench hit my nostrils, I was back at the camp. It was a smell that lingered in my memories more than any other, and sometimes I’d get phantom wafts of it, at random moments - in the middle of making dinner, or when I helped a patient get dressed. When I held Zac close to me before going to sleep.
Why is it that the memories you want to forget are the most stubborn, clinging to whatever recess of your mind they latched on to, always read to pounce on you, to ambush you when you least expect it. Memories I’d really like to forget. Shame, pain.
I held my breath as I crossed the hallway, trying hard not to make eye contact with anybody - partly as I was worried that someone might recognise me from the camp but also because I felt guilty for having somehow managed to escape that fate.
At least until now.
We were still hanging from a thread, dependant on Jesse’s goodwill and knowing that it could just all end tomorrow. Every morning I’d wake up wondering why we were so lucky, what made us so special to deserve someone a friend like him, who just helped us without asking for anything back. It made no sense, and the longer I worked in the hospital, the more I asked myself why - it was obvious that nobody ever did something for nothing. The nurses got paid, the doctors got paid even more. Even the unpaid volunteers, like me, had something to gain: some wanted some experience in the hope to get a proper job down the line; some were on government training schemes, or were doing community service after breaking the law for minor offences. And even I, if I was honest with myself, was there because I needed to feel needed.
The fact that Jesse was giving food and shelter to three guys he was not related to, who would probably never be in a position to return a favour, let alone pay him back, sometimes seemed too good to be true. Unless - unless he got something out of it too, the question being, what?
I was glad to eventually retreat to the ER cafeteria and its lingering, comforting cooking smell, the product of the many different meals that were served round the clock to staff and patients. Sitting under the heated lamps along the counter were the day’s choices - scrambled eggs, sausages, some kind of pasta and meat dish. Salad, fries, boiled eggs. Cheesecake, chocolate mousse, fruit salad. Yoghurt in three flavours: strawberry, vanilla and plain. I found myself running through all the possible choices, eventually settling for just a coffee. I wasn’t hungry, and I didn’t want to spend money on food just because it was there.
Paying for things with actual money was still a novelty; having to pay for meals was even stranger. At the Compound we could buy food with tokens, but one meal a day was always provided. So this is the price to pay for freedom, I thought. You have to fend for yourself. Without money, I couldn’t see how anyone would survive on the Outside for more than a few weeks. It’s not as if one could just …hunt or fish, or pick fruit from trees. Under the appearance - or illusion - of freedom, there was an even bigger, more complex set of rules than what we had grown up with: you had to have identification, a social security number, a job to have money to buy food from supermarkets. There seemed to be little margin for failure; but maybe the prospect of ending up on the streets with the Displaced was enough motivation for an Outsider to abide by all those rules.
Still. We’re better off here than at the Compound. No doubt about that.
I headed for an empty table in a corner of the cafeteria and sat there waiting. It was my favourite table, with a view on the hospital car park through the glass floor-to-ceiling window that made up a whole side of the cafeteria; from there, I could see the large, film-thin TV screen that looked almost painted on the opposite wall. There were several TVs in the cafeteria, all set to the same news channel, all with the sound turned to ‘mute’ and the subtitles running across the bottom of the screen.
I enjoyed watching the news, something which amused Jesse and which prompted him to call me a ‘news junkie’. I wondered how could anyone not be interested in what was going on in the world, though. The news channels ran 24 hours a day, with non-stop bulletins on events that were happening right in that moment not just in CANAAN, but also abroad. Sometimes they even talked about Australia, and when that happened, I’d make a mental note of what was being said, or, if we were at home, I’d call Jesse over to watch. He’d humour me, although he never really seemed to care much for what happened in his country. I couldn’t understand why. In his position, I would have wanted to know as much as I could.
A headline flashed across the screen:
PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE CHARLTON McALLISTER RIDES NEW WAVE OF POPULARITY AS POLL NUMBERS SURGE
I felt a certain satisfaction in knowing who the candidate was; clearly my interest in current affairs was beginning to pay off. Although, I had to admit, the candidate’s face was actually plastered all over the City by now, so much so that Charlton McCallister looked almost familiar. Isaac insisted that he reminded him of someone from the Compound, which in my opinion showed just how effective the presidential campaign was. Thanks to his unstoppable publicity machine, by now I felt as if I didn’t just know Charlton McAllister, CANAAN presidential candidate, but also his press secretary, his campaign manager, even his wife and daughter, who often appeared at his side during photo opportunities, shaking hands, clapping enthusiastically at the end of his speeches. Mother and daughter looked remarkably alike, with the same blue eyes and the same immaculately styled blonde hair, which the daughter - whose name was Marcia - wore a bit longer than her mother’s; they flashed identical smiles that revealed perfect white teeth.
I was hooked on all the excitement and media buzz of the presidential race. One night, when my brothers had gone to bed and Jesse was working, I stayed up to watch a televised debate between the two candidates. I couldn’t really tell the difference between McAllister’s policies and President Leclerc’s, save for the fact that the former pledged to remove the quotas as the first legislative move of his presidency. I thought that that could only be a good thing, although when I talked to Jesse about it, he said that it was too late, and that the quotas were not the only reason why things were so bad. It was all very complicated, which made me all the more determined to follow the news even more. I wanted to understand how the country was run, and my own ignorance frustrated me. There were plenty of ways to find out more -the TV, the daily newspapers that I could read on Jesse’s computer. I binged on it, trying to make sense of words and concepts that I knew nothing about, and inevitably, I’d end up feeling even more confused.
My cellphone buzzed, and the small screen lit up. It was a text from Jesse.
Almost done here unless someone else decides to get stabbed tonight.
I tapped the screen with one finger, hunting for each key one by one, then hit ‘send’.
You could let somebody else patch them up for once?
The screen lit up again:
Sure. Or I might let them bleed out.
I laughed to myself. Jesse hardly ever came off his shifts on time, as he didn’t like to hand a patient over to another doctor in the middle of treatment. I was used to having to wait for him by now, and came prepared - I always had a book in my bag, although, more often than not, I’d end up staring at the silent screen, captivated by the TV headlines and the bright yellow BREAKING NEWS banner scrolling at the bottom of the screen.
I’d become engrossed in footage of a tornado that had devastated the former US state of Oklahoma, when Jesse appeared in front of me, his hands shoved inside his coat pockets.
“Ready to go? Or you can stay here and watch TV if you like.” he said as if he didn’t care much either way. Jesse could say the funniest things and still keep a straight face. It threw me, initially, but I was used to it by now.
“Hi Jesse.” I glanced up, trying to think of a quick comeback. It was no use - humour was not my forte. I picked up my bag and took one last swig of my now lukewarm coffee.
“I’m quite happy to go home.”
As I followed Jesse through the crowded waiting hall once again, I sensed the gaze of hungry, tired strangers follow me, and all of a sudden I felt exposed, as if all my thoughts and my past were flashing like headlines across invisible screens that everyone could read. I tried to suppress it but I couldn’t help it, I couldn’t shake the shame and guilt, for having been given a second chance. For not being one of them. I’m sorry, I silently pleaded. I’m sorry.
“Are you sure you boys don’t want anything else? Some more coffee? Another slice of pie?”
“We’re good, thank you” I said, as politely as I could. It was the fourth time that morning that Mrs Krasowski had come in to check on how the work was proceeding, offering coffee and home-made cherry pie. It wasn’t even yet lunchtime. “It was delicious, but I’m still full.” I apologised.
“Erm” Zac objected behind me. He was sitting crossed legged on the floor, guitar on his lap.
“What about you, sweetheart, would you like a bit more?” Mrs Krasowski said, latching on to my brother’s hesitation.
“Hmmm…. would that be ok?” Zac grinned, his cheeks reddening with the slightest tinge of embarrassment. He looked up at the woman, his chin tucked into his chest, until his gaze was firmly set somewhere roughly near her shoulder.
“Of course it is, honey, and would you like some ice cream with it too?” she said.
“Yes, please” was my brother’s prompt reply. We’d already had ice cream with the previous two helpings. Trust Zac to keep things consistent.
“And how about some coffee?” Mrs Krasowski asked, in a hopeful tone.
“Hmmm…” Zac hesitated, cocking his head to one side slightly, obviously torn between the advantages of having a hot drink with his pie, and the not insignificant problem of not actually liking coffee very much.
“Hot chocolate? Would you like a hot chocolate instead?” Mrs Krasowski beamed, expectantly.
“Hot chocolate would be awesome.”
“Right, I’ll be right back then!” she said. “And you definitely sure you don’t want anything else, sweetheart?” she added, turning to me.
“No, honestly, I’m good, thank you Ma’am” I said, putting a hand in front of me as if to stop her from physically force-feeding me.
As she hurried out of the room to get more pie for Zac, I stifled a laugh. I wasn’t sure if he was doing it on purpose, but my brother was systematically winning over the hearts and minds of all of our neighbours - especially female ones. I’d started to do odd jobs around the building after helping an elderly lady from the third floor whom I had bumped into on the stairs. She had mentioned a curtain rail that had collapsed and needed fixing, and I’d offered to help. It was an easy job, and I hadn’t even thought of asking for payment, but before I left, she’d insisted on giving me some money. I’d tried to refuse it, but she wouldn’t have any of it.
“Nonsense. If you don’t need it, maybe you can buy something for your brother” she’d said, referring to Zac, who had sat there waiting for me while I worked. Over time, other tenants had begun to call on me whenever anything needed doing in their apartments - anything from putting up shelves to replacing a leaking tap. I was glad to keep busy, not to mention being able to earn some money of my own. But I suspected that it wasn’t just my handyman skills that had made us so popular with the other tenants in the apartment block. They loved Zac. Especially women. They’d find any excuse to hover around him as I worked - offering food that he never refused, asking about his health, his eyesight, about our past. Zac had a knack for deflecting their questions without ever coming across as rude; he smiled a lot and filled his mouth with endless slices of pie, sandwiches, plates of cookies, bowls of ice cream. I didn’t understand why women had this irresistible urge to feed him - he had certainly packed a few pounds in the last few months, and was no longer the skinny, malnourished waif that we had broken out of the Detox Center. But still, our female neighbours seemed to think that my brother’s blindness could be healed by means of copious amount of food, and Zac was perfectly happy to go along with that school of thought.
As for me, I was just grateful to be able to work and take my brother along with me. I hadn’t forgotten what things were like at the Compound - how little time we all had to spend together back then. I’d always been the first one to leave in the morning, and of course, Taylor worked until late at the Club House most nights. We always tried to sit together, if not for a proper meal, at least for a cup of CoR-issued purifying tea, but those moments had to be carved out of our structured, regimented life with utmost precision.
At night time, my brothers always had the luxury of spending a few private, intimate moments together, and if they were too exhausted, if Taylor had come home too nauseated from an officer’s demands, they could still fall asleep in each other’s arms. That’s how I’d find them at dawn: a tangle of legs and arms, their sleep undisturbed even by my brothers’ respective snoring, which they could no longer hear. It was the only time in the day when Taylor looked at peace.
I’d never had enough time with to spend with my brothers. I had responsibilities, a job and the father-like role that I had never chosen, but which I had come to accept over the years. If I had never quite resented it, I can’t say that I enjoyed it, either. And now that we were able to be together as a family, there was nothing I wanted more than spending as much time with them as I possibly could. Things were perfect, or so they seemed to me, anyway.
“I can’t believe you’re still hungry” I said to my brother, as I picked up the paint roller from the plastic tray on the floor in front of me.
“I’m not. But that cherry pie is really good.”
“Yeah but…you don’t have to eat all of it.” I protested. Sometimes I struggled to follow my brother’s logic.
“Why not? Who knows when I’m going to get to eat another piece of cherry pie? We could be back on the streets again tomorrow, for all we know.” he shrugged.
I stopped with the paint roller mid-air. Zac’s statement sounded flippant, but it hit a nerve. He was right - who knew what was in store for us? I tried not to think about it too much, but I was painfully conscious of the fact that we were still wholly dependant on the kindness of someone who was still, fundamentally, a stranger. What if Jesse suddenly decided that he’d had enough of supporting us? It was unlikely, but it was certainly possible. It was a thought that often kept me awake at night, and in my sleepless hours I would rack my brain trying to come up with possible solutions to problems that had yet to arise. How much money we’d need to save as a safety net if we were homeless again; what kind of places I could turn to for a job. Most importantly, what kind of job could I do where I could take Zac with me? As usual, Zac was the focus of my worries, and of Taylor’s. We both knew that, if according to CANAAN’s standards we were almost useless in terms of paid employment, Zac was beyond redundant. There was no work for him, and very little help from the government, as Jesse had found out when he’d called the CANAAN Department of Work and Welfare on our behalf. In order to get even the lowest amount of state financial aid, Zac would have had to qualify under an astonishing array of rules and regulations and criteria that were obviously not planned around someone who had been outside of the state machine since birth. He didn’t stand a chance.
I looked at him scoff a third slice of pie, oblivious to the fact that his words had felt like a punch in the stomach, and knew that I’d give anything - anything - to take that sense of uncertainty away from my little brother, to tell him that there would be plenty of pie later, tomorrow, next week. That there would always be enough food and a warm place to sleep. That we would never be that desperate again. That we would always, always be safe.
“We’re going to be ok, Zac.” I said, in the most convincing tone I could muster.
He turned his face to one side, as if he could really see his fingers lift lightly and then effortlessly find their way back onto the fretboard, like a perfectly choreographed dance.
“Zac? We’re going to be ok.”
Boy, this pie is good, I thought, scraping the last traces of pastry from the plate.
“Zac: just accept it. It’s gone” Isaac said, laughing.
“Hmm.” I put the plate down on the floor. Then, on second thoughts, I picked up the spoon again and put it back in my mouth, and proceeded to give it one final, thorough lick.
“You know, I’m sure Mrs Krasowski would be happy to give you one more slice if you ask her.”
I took the spoon out of my mouth.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” I dropped it back on the plate. It made a sad, metallic sound. An empty sound.
“What’s so ridiculous about it? You’ve already had three pieces, she clearly likes feeding you.” Isaac said, his voice covering the soft wet sound of the roller he was using to paint the wall.
“If I ask her, I’ll look greedy. It’s ok, I can wait until lunch time.”
“Oh, so you expect to have lunch as well, do you?”
“If she’s making us lunch, I’m planning to eat it, yes.” I picked up my guitar again and picked at the strings. I was doing a good job at memorising chords and the position of my fingers. It really wasn’t that hard.
“What if she doesn’t offer us lunch?” Isaac insisted. Sometimes he really seemed to enjoy being difficult. When I was younger, that kind of thing used to get on my nerves. Now I knew that he wasn’t totally serious. And even if he was…these days I was inclined to forgive him pretty much anything. Who would have thought.
“So?” Isaac asked me again, determined to follow his pedantic line of questioning right to the end.
“So what?” I pretended not to follow.
“What if there’s no lunch on offer?”
“If that’s the case, we just go downstairs, open the door, go into the kitchen, and you make me lunch.” I said flatly.
“Right. I see, you’ve got it all planned.”
The soft wet sound of the paint roller stopped abruptly.
“And have you got any particular request in mind? As we’re discussing it?”
“Well, I guess if you’re cooking I’ll just have to make do with scrambled eggs or something. But that’s ok, Taylor will be home in time for dinner and then we’ll get a proper meal.” I lowered my head to let my hair cover my face, so that Isaac wouldn’t see me laugh.
“I’m suddenly getting the urge to paint your face cornflour blue. Would you like that, Zac?”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
I heard my brother take a couple of steps towards me, and I could tell from the the smell of paint that he was still armed with the roller. Maybe he was going to paint me cornflour blue, after all.
“Ike, don’t…” I tucked my head into my chest, preparing myself for the attack. “…you’re going to get it all over my guitar, Ike, please!” I pleaded. I felt my brother’s hand on my head, and then he laughed and ruffled my hair.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to waste any of this beautiful cornflour blue paint on your ugly mug, Zac.” he chuckled. I knew he didn’t mean any of that. When we were alone, he always told me I was beautiful. I wasn’t so sure - I hadn’t seen my own face for a long time now, and anyway, even from what I remembered, it was nothing special. I had a really wide mouth, really fat, oversized lips and a crooked nose. Taylor was, without a doubt, the best looking one of the three, and that had only been a source of trouble. If he hadn’t been pretty, maybe they wouldn’t have forced him to work at the Club House.
He did it for me.
I tried to push the thought out of my mind. It was in the past now, and things were better, at least for now. Focus on the good things, I told myself.
I ran my fingers along the guitar’s neck until I found the right place, and began to play one of the three songs I had managed to learn from beginning to end. It was useful to have something to play from memory - to distract myself. I had used the same method to get through the worst times at the Detox Center, when I had to tell myself to breathe in and out, in and out, and then eventually my lungs would follow the lullaby in my head, and oxygen would flow.
Playing a song was much easier, and a lot more fun.
We were lucky with this job - Mrs Krasowski didn’t mind me playing while Isaac worked. She said it was nice to hear it in the background, although I did wonder if she could hear it at all, as her TV was always so loud. I’d started to take my guitar with me one time when we had some work to do in an empty apartment; then it had become a habit, and I’d just take it with me anyway, and asked if it was ok if I played, quietly. Most people didn’t mind, and Isaac had said that sometimes they’d peer in and just listen. It couldn’t be because I was very good, so I figured that they just found it interesting to see me play, knowing that I was blind. Isaac said that they probably found me cute. I guess they felt pity towards me. Whatever the reason, that was okay with me, as long as I was allowed to tag along with Isaac, and practice my guitar if I felt like it. Sometimes I wasn’t in the mood, and I’d just sit on the floor, and Isaac and I would talk - about the Compound, about the people we knew there whom we’d left behind. Since that time when I’d got the electric shock at the motel, Isaac had stopped trying to bring up the Detox Center and the stuff that had happened while I was in there. I knew that he’d listen to me, if I wanted to talk, but I really didn’t fancy going over that subject again. Things were good now. I was happy being out working with my brother - well, being allowed to sit there while he worked. Holding a cup of hot chocolate while Isaac painted walls and put up shelves and hung pictures. One could say I felt content. Once I even fell asleep when Isaac was laying down a new floor - and that had now become one of his favourite stories, one which he couldn’t stop telling Taylor and Jesse at any given opportunity. “And I thought he’d gone quiet, and then I turned round and he’d curled up on a roll of underlay and was fast asleep! He’d gone to sleep while I was nailing down floorboards!”
I wanted to say to him, I’d take the banging of a hammer on floorboards than the silence of a cell in a place where nobody can or will hear you. But if I said that, I knew my brother would lose whatever peace he’d found in recent weeks. He didn’t need to be reminded that there had been things he’d been powerless to stop and I was determined to spare him any more pain, if I could help it. For once I was enjoying the fact that I was making him happy - in more than one way.
We were home long before Jesse and Taylor were back from the hospital. Isaac showered and then filled the bath for me, leaving me in there to soak while I listened to music. I’d tried to pull him into the tub with me, we had enough time and anyway, I knew Taylor didn’t mind, but Isaac broke away from my kiss and whispered something about later. I could wait - I knew by now that my brother didn’t like to rush things. And Taylor would be back soon. A warm flush spread through my whole body at the thought of both my brothers, with me. There was nothing I wanted more. Some nights, when the time was right - when Taylor wasn’t too tired from the hospital, or if my brothers had a drink or two, they swooped down on me like birds of prey, and shared my body between themselves like the spoils of a war they’d both won. Those moments were like nothing else I’d ever experienced before, and like nothing an Outsider could ever understand. There was nothing quite like being the one person my brothers had always wanted, their most prized possession, their reward and their trophy. The eye of their own inner storms which I knew would never stop raging. Did that made me wicked, to lie with my brothers and share their love? Did the shameless, unbridled desire I felt for them taint the pure, brotherly love that had nourished us steadily over the years? Was I giving in to compulsion when I pushed my brothers into each other’s arms, was I wrong to demand things of them, a kiss, a touch, whatever they would consent to, pushing their boundaries further and further every time, because I knew that whatever I asked for, sooner or later, I’d get?
I wanted my brothers to get as close to each other as they were with me. To close the circle. To know everything that was left to know. I knew that one day, soon, it would happen, that it was only a matter of time. It was okay. I could wait.