The flashing lights blur together and sting my tired eyes as I look out the window. The unfamiliar motion of the car makes my stomach churn. I try to think of something pleasant – the river, meadows filled with wild flowers, water falls. It doesn’t work.
“I have to puke,” I say, cringing.
The cab driver quickly tosses a scrunched up ball of plastic at me. It lands on the seat between me and the girl. She opens it up into a bag and quickly hands it to me. I heave into it and lean against the door.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s okay. You’ve had a night.”
I chuckle despite my misery.
“Shit,” says the girl quickly. “Actually, can we stop by The Republic? I need to pick up something before I go home.”
“Sure thing,” says the cab driver, making a sharp turn down the street to the left.
“Sorry,” says the girl with a look of pity on her face as she stares at me. “I really need it.”
“Do what you need to do. I’m indebted to your kindness,” I reply, closing my eyes as the car speeds across another bridge.
It stops in front of a building with a flashing neon pink sign. I don’t want to look at it.
“I won’t be long,” she says, getting out of the car and rushing into a building.
A sharp beat rumbles repetitively from inside the building. Their music is strange here. In another minute, the girl is back inside asking the cab to take her home.
“What is that place?” I ask, wincing at the throbbing pain on the left side of my head.
“It’s a bar I work at. It’s always noisy,” she says.
“A bar. Ah, where people drink alcohol and act like they’re insane? My grandparents told me about bars.”
The girls laughs. “That’s about it. Hey, is this the first time you’ve ever been inside a city?”
“Wow. This must seem so strange to you.”
“That’s the understatement of the year,” I grumble.
Once the taxi stops, I get out of the car and close the door. I watch it drive off and disappear. My grandparents told me about cars many times, but I never thought I’d see the day where I’d ride in one.
“Come on, my apartment’s in this building,” says the girl, pointing to a high rise across the road.
When we get there, she unlocks the door. With the brighter lighting, I realize her hair isn’t black, but a dark blue shade. We take an elevator to the seventh floor. I don’t like the feel of the lifting contraption, but I marvel at the ingenuity. The girl’s breathing is quick and the small space magnifies her nervousness.
“Thank you for helping me. I didn’t expect anyone to be this kind.”
“You think you’ll be okay?” she asks, looking up at me with her black eyes.
“A good night’s sleep is what you need – and a good meal.”
I nod. “Thanks. It’s been a long journey.”
The elevator opens with a soft dinging sound and we walk down the hall, stopping three doors down. This place is like another planet to me. Now I am inside one of the monstrous buildings that mar the view ofthe horizon from the other side of the lake. As we enter her apartment, I take in the small, white-walled room complete with black furniture and a tiny kitchen. The space is so bare and ordinary.
“I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this,” I admit.
“It’s described as modern minimalism,” she says, walking up to the only painting on the wall and straightening it. “It helps keep my mind clear and calms me down.”
We both stare at the buck in the painted picture. I like it, but I think it would suit a homey hut better.
“So, you’ve really never been to a city before?” she asks, pouring a glass of water from a pitcher sitting on an elegant black table.
“What brought you here, then?”
She gives me the glass and I drink it all in seconds. The cool liquid soothes my parched throat.
“Long story,” I say, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand.
“I’ll bet,” she says, looking from my face down to my filthy pants.”You’re welcome to take a shower before you sleep.”
“Is that city slang for a bath?” I ask.
“It’s not a bath. The water showers down on you like a gentle water fall.”
She bites her lip and opens a narrow white door. She takes a folded towel from the closet.
“I’ll show you how to use it.”
I follow her to a tiny room filled with appliances I’ve never seen before, but I can guess what each one is used for. She bends over and turns the water on. I jump at the sound of running water pouring into the smooth tub.
“The body wash is on the side and you can use it,” she says, pointing to a pink bottle. “I’ll set the water to medium temperature. We don’t want you to get burned.”
“It’s been years since I’ve even had a hot bath,” I admit.
She laughs. Her voice is soft and sweet. How can someone so kind live in a place like this?
She pulls on a tab and the water flow suddenly rushes out from a spout higher up on the wall.
“I’ll leave you to it,” she says quickly. “Um, I’ve got some sweatpants that my ex boyfriend left here. Never got around to getting rid of them. They should fit you okay. I’ll put your pants in the wash. Don’t you wear shirts out there?”
I shrug as warm mist forms around us. “I had a shirt, but lost it along the way. I was out in the sun way too long.”
She leaves me alone to step into the wash basin. Warm water rushes over me, soothing my sore muscles like a hug. I stand there and let it wash over me. I use the liquid soap that smells like orchids and I scrub every inch of my body, including my hair. I stand in the calming cloud of steam before rinsing myself off. I step out and wrap the towel around my body; a soft knock raps at the door.
“Hey,” says the girl, handing a pair of black cotton pants through a narrow crack in the door to me.
I put them on and walk out to the sitting area. She’s sitting on a plush couch holding a short-sleeved black shirt.
“You can wear this. It’s pretty big on me so it should fit you.”
“Thank you,” I say, quickly putting it on. “These clothes are so soft.”
“You probably want to nap, hey?”
I nod, marvelling at the situation I’m in. “This is so kind of you.”
“You can use my bed. I’m going to go out for a bit tonight. I’ll have breakfast made for you in the morning. You think you’ll be okay here? I’ll only be gone for a couple of hours.”
“Yeah. I’ll be more than okay. I owe you my life and I don’t even know your name.”
She smiles wide and it makes her look even more girlish. “I’m Eva.”
“Isn’t it a little dangerous going out on your own at this time of night, Eva?”
She doesn’t even flinch as the corners of her little mouth turn upward. “I know my way around these parts. I’ll be fine.”
“Alright. I’m Barak. Thank you for everything.”
“Happy to help,” she says kindly, rising from her seat. “Get some rest.”
When I sit on the bouncy bed, I marvel at how soft it is. You can’t get a mattress like this in any camp. The moment my head hits the pillow, I fall into the jagged world of my dreams. No faces or voices haunt me here, but swirling colors, odd moods, and strange tunes chase me as I try to drift into the comforting black. I know it’s late in the day when I wake up several hours later. Facing the window, I glance out at the bright blue sky. The sun is low on the horizon. It’s one thing city and country folk have in common – they can always admire the sky no matter where they are.
Eva’s sudden appearance in the room makes me jump. “Sorry. I overslept.”
“Your head took a hit last night and you’ve wandered far. You needed the sleep. I’ll make you breakfast.”
“This is so kind of you. I’ll never forget this,” I say groggily.
“Life is hard. I try to help people when I can.”
I rise and go to the couch while she cooks in the kitchen. The scent of sizzling meat makes my stomach gurgle. It’s been a week since I’ve eaten anything of substance. She brings over a plate of bacon, sausage, eggs, buttered bread, and sliced apples. I’ve never seen anything look so good. I devour it as Eva quietly watches me. I lean against the couch with a pleasured sigh.
“Thank you,” I say with a big smile.
She holds a magazine in her hands. Her painted black nails dig into the paper. She’s still nervous about me, but she’s being brave about it.
“Where will you go from here?” she asks.
“I’ll wander for a bit and see what other camps are out there. Then I’ll start a settlement of my own.”
She leans forward and sets her magazine on the table in front of her. “You really want to stay in that life? I’m sorry if it’s a stupid question. It’s rare when people from out there venture into the city and I always wonder.”
“Our ancestors left the cities for a reason. In fact, I was shocked to know this city still exists. My grandparents told me they were all destroyed.”
Eva nods. “Most of them were, but some remained, as you can see. Humanity is adaptable. We rebuilt this city and while things aren’t just how they used to be, they’re better than they were during the riots.”
I rest my elbows on my knees, mirroring her gesture. “Aren’t you afraid to stay here?”
She smiles. “Not at all. There are things I want here that the wilderness could never give me.”
“I guess that’s how I feel about nature. I could never leave it behind. The noises here are too disturbing to me. I can’t hear myself think.”
“I can understand that,” she admits. “How old are you, by the way?”
I have to think for a second. “I’m twenty-one now. I feel older.”
She nods in understanding. “I’m the same age as you and I feel that way sometimes. I’ve been on my own since I was sixteen and learned a lot of things the hard way.”
The tall dark woman on the cover of the colourful magazine catches my eye. My heart almost stops at the sight of those hazel eyes staring back at me.
“What’s wrong?” asks Eva, frowning.
“Who is that woman?”
“Her name is Almaz.”
I try to swallow, but I choke instead.
“She was a great story teller of our time,” continues Eva. “Until she disappeared without a trace four years ago. Yesterday was the four year anniversary of her vanishing. There’s no one else quite like her and we miss her.”
I can’t breathe. I go to the window, desperate for fresh air. This place is cursed. I hate it. How could they make Almaz a goddess like this? She really was a wicked witch who cast spells on people. I’m so glad she’s dead.
“Barak, are you okay?”
I glare at Eva. “I need to get out of here.”
“I can walk you out if you want, but I’m worried about you.”
I wave her off. “I’ve survived in the wilderness all my life. I’ll manage.”
My hate for the dead story teller rises to the surface as I make my way to the door. I take a deep breath to quench the anger surging throughbmy veins.
“You seem upset. What did I say?” asks Eva.
“Why did you all love her so much?” I ask.
Her eyes widen. “You mean Almaz? Well, she told stories of redemption and forgiveness. Her life was difficult when she was young, but she used her experiences to inspire others. After she published a couple of books, she was hired to be a spokesmodel for various brands. She was -“
“Why does society value the idiots and assholes who parade their bodies around and lift their voices to show off to the world? Why won’t they recognize the men who sacrificed their lives in war?”
“Are you an army veteran, Barak?”
“I lost everyone I cared about! My friends all died in battle.”
She hangs her head. “There’s wars even out there.”
“Maybe if you weren’t so busy worshipping that bitch you would have taken the time to learn about what goes on outside of this place!”
She backs into the wall as I step closer to her. I could break her little neck with one of my hands. I grin at the thought. Maybe I’ll do it. She’s pushed me too far.
“You talk like you knew her personally,” she says calmly, her gaze direct. “Why is that?”
“She found her way to the camp I just left behind and charmed every single person there. Except for me.”
A gasp escapes from Eva’s opened mouth. “Is she safe and well? How is she?”
I stand over her, shaking my head.