Xenolith, Page 61A. Sparrow
Chapter 52: Running
Ara darted towards the grey pickup truck with a reluctant Canu in tow, squeezing his swollen hand to quash any resistance. Its young driver saw her coming and scrambled to lock his doors. But Ara sprang forward and yanked the passenger side open before the latch could click shut. She climbed in and slid across the bench seat, dragging Canu in beside her.
The boy flinched against his door, mouth agape.
“I hope you don’t mind giving us a ride,” Ara said, forcing a smile.
“Get the fuck out!” said the boy, chest puffing, mouth contorting. “Get out of my fuckin’ truck!”
Ara perused the red locks spilling from his cap, the freckles spattering his cheeks. She sensed meekness beneath his bluster, but watched his hands carefully; made sure he reached for no weapons as she stretched over Canu and pulled the door closed.
“Please,” she said. “We need to get to a hospital. My friend’s cut himself pretty badly.” In case Canu’s battered elbows weren’t convincing enough, she pulled at the paper covering his sword wound, removing part of the clot that had stanched its bleeding. Drops of brilliant red bulged.
“God damn it! Don’t drip on my upholstery!” He ripped a wad of tissues from a box behind his seat and passed them over.
“So you will take us?” said Ara.
The boy’s eyes flitted back and forth. “I’m not supposed to pick up strangers.”
“Please? This is an emergency,” said Ara. Her eyes flitted to the river bank seeking signs of Baas and Dieno.
“The hospital’s not that far,” he said. “It’s a long walk, but … I can tell you how to get there.”
“The light’s turning. Please. Just go!”
Horns sounded behind him. Flustered, the boy popped his truck into gear. As he started forward, an object deflected hard off the door. He braked abruptly, throwing Ara and Canu against the dashboard. “What the fuck was that?” He rolled down his automatic window.
“No! Keep it shut!” said Ara.
“That better not’ve scratched my paint.” He slapped a button with a red triangle that set his lights blinking and reached to open his door.
“Don’t go out! Drive away! Quickly!” More horns blared. Cars maneuvered around them.
A second bolt struck the window next to Canu’s ear and a spider web bloomed in the layered glass. Ara pushed Canu down and ducked behind the door post. She could see her two comrades skulking beneath the rail of the walkway at the end of the bridge.
“Jeezus! Was that a bullet?” said the driver.
“Go! Just go!” said Ara.
The boy stomped on his accelerator as the traffic light blinked red, squealing up a cloud of blue smoke, cutting off both lines of traffic on the cross street. As trees and houses flew past, the engine shrieked as if it might explode. Canu cowered in his seat.
“You can slow down now,” said Ara, entwining a seat belt around her wrists. “The others … can’t follow. They don’t have a car.”
The boy ignored her, eyes fixated straight ahead. Sweat glistened on his face. He raced down an underpass and up a ramp, hurtling past other vehicles as if they were stationary. After several miles of straightaway, the engine relaxed and its tone deepened as they decelerated down an exit ramp. He swung into a lane leading to the hospital emergency room and lurched to a stop.
“Griffin Hospital,” said the boy, appraising them nervously.
“Thank you so much,” said Ara. “Sorry about your window.”
“Just get out!”
Canu fumbled with the latch. Ara reached over to help. As she followed him out, the truck began to surge away before both of her feet could touch pavement. It fled from the parking lot, door flapping.
Ara watched him disappear around a corner. Queasiness gripped her as the consequences of her hasty actions caught up with her. Canu stood on the sidewalk, looking lost beside a plate glass window. “I don’t understand,” said Canu. “Why did you do this?”
“To save your life … you fool,” said Ara.
Canu stared at her, blinking and fidgeting. “What do we… what can we do now?”
Ara shrugged. “I … I’m … not sure.”
She stood, palms against the glass, admiring the wash of light and bright color inside the waiting area. It brought her back to her early days in St. Johnsbury when she had fractured her arm warding off a drunk behind a truck yard. She remembered wandering into a hospital like this out of the rain and dark, and the haven it provided when she most needed one.
“There are doctors here,” she said. “We can try to get you fixed up?”
She led Canu in and sat him down next to a woman holding a bag of ice against the knee of a young girl in a blue uniform. Streaks of prior tears dried on the child’s reddened face. Ara could see the woman striving not to stare, but felt the gaze of a janitor emptying waste receptacles linger as she approached the counter.
The broad-faced woman behind the registration counter looked up, her default smile shifting into a faint grimace. “Can I … help you?”
“My friend hurt himself clearing brush,” she said. “He’s cut deep and bleeding pretty badly.”
“Is he insured?”
“No,” said Ara.
“No Medicaid? Nothing?”
She interrogated Ara more thoroughly than the detectives in Greymore, asking about Canu’s immigration status, the identity of his employer, why the employer hadn’t brought Canu to the hospital himself or provided sufficient funds to pay for treatment. Ara could see a clipboard holding patient registration forms behind the counter but the woman made no move to retrieve it. Her hands remained firmly clasped in front of her keyboard. Clearly, she hoped that if she stalled long enough, they would just go away.
A nurse came up to ask about another patient. “Excuse me,” said the woman, stepping out of her glassed-in booth into the treatment area.
Ara turned around and looked over the mostly empty waiting area, drumming her fingers on a shelf of HIV brochures. The janitor sidled up. As he knelt to replace the bag in the receptacle beside the counter, he looked up.
“The shift changes in an hour,” he whispered. “The lady who works nights might help you. She don’t try to scare all the illegals away, like this one.”
“Thank you,” said Ara. She found a chair next to Canu, who had nodded off. She tried leafing through a travel magazine but felt too agitated to focus. She put it down and studied Canu’s face. He seemed so simple, so child-like, yet his face was so angular and devoid of baby fat – adamantly masculine. Why had she risked and surrendered so much to help him? Was it solely pity?
She tensed when a vehicle pulled up, concerned that the boy in the pickup might have contacted the police. Though it seemed unlikely that Baas and Dieno could have tracked them here, she could not relax. Not only had she probably made herself a target for Baas’ wrath, but as a deserter, she became fair game for any soldier of Sesei. A sense of regret deepened within her.
A security guard walked through on his rounds, but barely glanced in their direction. The woman at the registration desk glared occasionally, but otherwise left them alone. When she finally pulled on a sweater and clattered out through the sliding glass doors, Ara watched the registration counter expectantly to see who would replace her.
When a loud, fierce-eyed woman came swaggering in to the booth, Ara had her doubts as she approached the counter. But the janitor’s advice proved solid. This woman asked many of the same questions, but she handed Ara the clipboard from the start and keyed information into a computer as she spoke, however incomplete and false the information Ara provided.
As Ara checked ‘no’ in every box for allergies and pre-existing conditions, a young nurse came out and tapped Canu awake and brought him into a treatment room. Ara wandered in when she was done with the form to watch a resident wash and stitch Canu’s wound, covering it with a gleaming white bandage.
When the resident le
ft, Canu patted his bandage proudly, like a little boy admiring an unexpected gift. “Did you see the job this one did? He must be handy with leather. Beautiful stitching! I almost want to pull my bandage off to look at it again.”
Ara rolled her eyes.
One of the nurses took pity on them and brought them some cleaner clothing from the hospital lost and found. Canu chose a navy blue T-shirt with UCONN in block white letters. Ara found a pair of stretchy black sweat pants with a red stripe down the side. Walking down the hall past the cafeteria, they found the janitor sitting with a cup of coffee.
“Let me buy you something to eat. Whatever you want.” He rose from his seat and led them into the serving area.
Ara split a BLT and a carton of milk with Canu. The janitor encouraged them to load more onto the tray, but Ara didn’t wish to strain his charity. She knew how little janitors earned. They found a table far from the window, facing the entrance to the dining area.
“You realize we can’t go back to Sesei,” she said.
Canu didn’t answer immediately, concentrating instead on ripping the bacon from his half of the BLT with his teeth. Ara had been wrong to compare him to a child. In some ways, he acted more like a dog.
“You saw me crush that stone,” he answered, finally.
“Not just that,” said Ara. “I’m a deserter. And my comrades have you marked for treason.”
“You have it all backwards,” said Canu. “Baren is the traitor. So your leaving does not qualify as desertion.”
“The little people, like us, don’t get to define treason,” said Ara. “Those in power get to say what it is, and what it is not.”
“My Councilor will support us,” Canu said, confidently. “Seor will explain it all to him.”
“I hate to say this, but no Councilor from Suul can help us. The fallen provinces no longer hold any sway. And I’m not even sure your comrades are still alive. Baren, apparently, wanted to spare them. But Baas—”
Canu looked stricken by her implication. Ara met his gaze and held it, until he was forced to look away.
“I’m not staying here,” he said.
“You’re right. We can’t,” said Ara. “Not in this town.”
“I mean Ur. I won’t stay in Ur,” said Canu. “However corrupted Sesei has become, it is still my home. I’ll take my chances there.”
“And how do you propose to get us there?”
“You must know of other stones. No?”
Ara shrugged. “I used to. Near the place I lived in Vermont.”
“How far?” said Canu, his attention piqued.
“In a fast vehicle, maybe six hours.”
Maybe seven days. But I don’t even know if they’re still there.”
The interest drained from his face. “Forget it,” he said. “We’ll just use the stone I know.”
“But you said it was damaged.”
“It is,” said Canu. “But it still opens portals. It’s the same one you passed through to come here.”
Ara remembered Baren’s surprise at the early appearance of the convergence; the odd mix of imagery, dominated by a stone wall in a forest, but interlaced with the faintest suggestions of a red vehicle, buildings and pavement. And then there was the alarming brevity of the portal, slamming shut with a brutal finality. She fiddled with the hem of her shirt. “I’d feel better about using an intact stone, like the one in Vermont.”
“I’m not going any deeper into this world unless I’m sure I have an exit,” said Canu. “I know exactly where Seor tossed the other fragment. We can go there, fetch it and bring it along with us.”
“I’m not sure that’s wise, Canu. Baas and Dieno may be out there looking.”
“Bah … they have no idea where to find it. I told them nothing.”
Ara found Canu’s desire prudent, if risky. She had not passed into St. Johnsbury since before the war, and many xenoliths had been repositioned after the invasion. But the prospect of retrieving the other stone frightened her.
She had been impressed by how well the boy’s pickup had resisted Baas and Dieno’s bolts. If there was a way they could travel back in a vehicle, she would feel safer. But she didn’t dare press their luck with another car-jacking. Though, there were other ways.
“Wait here, Canu. I have an idea.” She left him stretched out on an idle gurney in a hallway, as she wandered the halls, dashing into treatment rooms, opening drawers, checking pockets of jackets hanging on coat racks. She found no cash, but scrounged a few handfuls of scalpel blades and gauze pads, which she stuffed into the pockets of a hooded sweatshirt.
She went out to the place where hospital workers went outside to smoke and solicited donations for cab fare so that she and her boyfriend could return home to Bridgeport to take care of her diabetic mother and one year old with colic. Every few minutes, someone new came outside, and within the hour, she had accumulated over thirty dollars.
She returned to find Canu being evicted from his gurney. He slumped moodily onto a bench surrounded by ferns and a fountain in the hospital lobby, but perked up when he saw Ara approach.
“We have a choice Canu,” she told him. “This is almost enough for a one-way passage to Vermont. Or it will buy us a cab ride to your stone, with something left for food.”
“I want that stone,” said Canu. “I don’t care if we have to walk to your Vermont.”