Warmth In Coldness

Hello once again, and it certainly has been a while, and whilst I have been slowly chipping away at my projects and at my other obligations, I remembered that I actually had a much larger backlog than I remember. This short story in particular is back from January of this year, so about eight months ago I had written this for a contest to no avail, and in the coming days expect a lot of these pieces where I have dragged from the contests that I had participated in so long ago. These pieces I have not edited in any great manner, though I did clean up some of the grammatical choices which I now wouldn’t do, which looking back, gives me quite a nice perspective of my differing writing status then and now. Now, I think I am much better than I was before, and I think it really does show if I were to compare my stories back to back. But anyway, here you go, “Warmth In Coldness.”

I ran as fast as I could through narrow alley ways and  people. I had in my right hand a bag filled with three day’s worth of food, and in my left, a rusted crow bar. I ran until I could run no more but even then I still ran. I looked behind me to see my pursuers close on my tail. Two men clad in blue uniforms brandishing black batons. They didn’t have the gall to shoot me. I used that to my advantage. I ran to a fork in the streets, and turned left. I wasn’t thinking at this point but I  knew the route I needed to take. I made another hard left, and braced myself for the waterway. I leaped over the gap over the river, and barely made it to the other side, my crowbar managing to make a decent lever. I looked behind me to see the two men staring at me vehemently. I laughed at them, but I didn’t have time to stay for much longer. My grip was slipping, and if I had let go, I would’ve been neck deep in water, and knee deep in smudge.

“Well if it isn’t Cat.” I looked up towards the voice. It was a husky voice that was filled with glass and scraps. But it was a voice that I found quite comforting in my current predicament.

“No time to talk, pull me up Rat.” He looked at me like I had just cursed his family. I knew that if I couldn’t convince him to pull me up now, there would be no way I would see the light of tomorrow. My hand was beginning to slip, and I had no choice but to throw my right load towards Rat.

“Take a day’s load!”

“How generous, Cat,” he said with a smirk. He reached over, grabbed my arm, and pulled me up along with my rusted crowbar. I couldn’t help but sigh when I felt the pavement on my back. Small snowflakes were falling down on me as I looked up at the grayed sky. The cold of the pavement made me want to cuddle up into a ball, and the gloves and boots I had on didn’t do anything to help. I could feel the energy draining from me, but I was quickly reminded of the company I had.

“You don’t usually help others,” I said sarcastically.

“It’s winter. People die, you know that Cat.”

“People die. And people grovel. But it’s not your job to help them. It’s your job to report them. That’s who you are.”

“Come on, don’t be like that. You know now’s not the time to be worrying over details Cat.”

“I’m not worrying over anything. I’m just stating facts.”

“You think quite little of me don’t you Cat.”

“Everyone does. But everyone also relies on you. That’s a fact I don’t want to say.”

“My spot was good though wasn’t it?”

“Except you’re taking some of the load.” Rat laughed. I got up, and brushed the snow off my pants and gloves and picked up my things.

“Say, have you seen Rook?” I asked. Rat took a minute to think, which was quite strange for him.

“Can’t say I have. Although he usually hangs around the Noose Tree.”

“Of all the places?”

“Kid’s got an affinity for it, I guess.” Rat turned around, and began walking.

“I’ll be seeing you around, Cat,” he said. I turned as well, and began heading towards the Noose Tree at the park on the other side of town. I didn’t mean to make friends, I’m not a saint, that’s for sure. However, there was something in me that just wanted to see the kid. I don’t know what, but, I just couldn’t get him off my mind. Kid’s too young for this, that’s for sure. Maybe I saw something in him, that I see in myself. But that isn’t like me. Maybe it’s the cold.

“Cat! Haven’t seen you in a while.” I turned towards the voice that snuck up behind me. Like a bird. No. Like a shadow.

“That’s just like you, Shade,” I replied. Shade was a tough case to look at. Had a child of her own, all on her own. Dirty blonde hair, and her face looks like she just got out of a dump. Her body’s as skinny as the Noose Tree, and she looks like she’s about to keel over at any moment. Except, she’s got more strength than any of us. Even Rat doesn’t like dealing with her. She can even deal with Stale, and that’s saying something. I really didn’t want to bump into Stale today.

“You don’t get out much,” I said nonchalantly.

“Can’t say the same for Crow and Tell,” she replied.

“You have to stop doing that.” Shade leaned forward before answering, “Doing what?” I guess she was trying to be playful, but it was hard to tell in her state.

“Keeping tabs. You don’t get out much, we know this. It’s fine,” I said.

“Knowing your enemy is half the battle.” She stood tall as she said this, a sort of height that made her more persuasive, or so she would think. I’m good friends with Shade, so she knows that I know that she’s just playing around. In fact, I think I’m pretty neutral with everyone. If they don’t get under my skin, I don’t get under theirs. Except Stale.

“Not your enemy though. Unless you think I am,” I said.

“You’re not. But, you could be.”

“At a drop of a hat?”

“For you, a pin.”

“Gracious.”

“Good haul?” She looked down to my right hand. I knew she wasn’t asking for any, and I didn’t plan to give her any, but I still felt bad for being protective. I tensed my hands without realizing.

“Rat took a bite though. It was good.”

“Leftovers?” I didn’t like using jargon, but many of the residents…No. Many of the wanderers liked jargon. That’s the truth. As I opened my mouth to speak, I saw my breath escape my mouth in a cloud of white. It was cold, I thought. No. It felt cold as the sharp winds jabbed my face, and as the small flakes fell on my exposed head.

“Maybe. I might check at the end of the week though.”

“Litter?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“I won’t fight you.”

“I know. But the same can’t be said about anyone else.”

“Abandoned pity?”

“Unlikely. You’re famous, you know that?” Shade looked to her side, seeming to smile at something that wasn’t there. Although, I knew that was her own way of looking past the obvious, and looking away from her problems.

“Food stamps?” I asked.

“Not forever, Cat.” This time, I looked away. I looked towards the horizon, and towards the cold flowing river. The only thought in my head, that I wanted to keep, was my desire to go see Rook.

“You’re looking for Rook, right?” Shade asked.

“You can tell?”

“Just like me, you want to see them. Even though, he isn’t yours, and you know that.”

“I know that. I know, but I’ll still go.” Shade smiled, and then replied, “That’s why people like you, Cat, are strong.” I sighed, watching my breath once again, and turned.

“I’ll see you around, Shade.” I then walked forward, not waiting to listen for a reply. It really was cold that day. My hands were slowly turning red, but I ignored the pain. I trudged on, and walked forward.

“You’ll freeze,” I said as I arrived at the Noose Tree. Undeniably, Rook was there. A small kid, I thought. No. He was short, for his age. He had a future, I think. No. He has a future. Dirty blonde, but he’s quiet. Unlike most kids like him. He doesn’t look like he’s feeding off scraps, though.  That’s good. Well, it won’t be in a few days if he keeps this up, I thought.

“Haven’t seen you move more than a hand,” I said as I walked towards him, as he sat on the Noose Tree.

“You’ll not only freeze, but starve.” I stood a few ways away from him, and waited for a response. He didn’t look up, and simply kept his gaze fixed on the ground in front of him. I don’t know the exact details of his case, but I do know that he had only shown up a few days ago. Rat says he’s in a coffin,  just waiting to be buried. But I figured I’d like to prove him wrong for once.

“You know, just sitting here and staring isn’t going to do you much.” There was rope scattered around the perimeter of the tree, and the branches had been tilted down, almost like someone had hung themselves. The tree was very dead, but I knew that it held lots of life. The snow had been cleared from the base, allowing Rook to sit without much trouble. However, the soil under him looked very cold.

“If you have time to sit there, then you have time to live,” I said, not sure if I would get through to him.

“What do you want?” Rook replied viciously. His head was still down, and he was still fixated on the ground, but his voice had spoken up. His voice was cold, and his hands were tucked deep into his coat pockets. His face was feeling the sharp end of the cold winter, and I knew that he didn’t want to be here.

“You may not know this. But we’re all connected.”

“Rat told me,” he mumbled.

“Whether you want it or not, and whether you care or not, what happens to you, happens to the rest of us.”

“Just leave me alone then.” I looked at him, and the only word that appeared in my head was pity. I pitied him, I thought. No, I wanted to see him prosper. There was so much in this cold world that was unforgiving. We are the people. And we are left without anywhere to go. I won’t have anywhere to go. But I’ll keep living and so should he, I thought.

“I can’t do that,” I answered.

“Look, I don’t know what your problem is but–” Rook looked up, his eyes locked onto mines, and perhaps he saw the pity in me. Or perhaps, he read something else, but his eyes widened for a second. He stopped, and he watched. Then something lit in him, and he spoke again.

“I’m not going anywhere. I don’t care if you let me die. That’s why I’m here. I have nowhere else to go–”

“So?” I interrupted.

“So why should you care!?”

“You’re right. I shouldn’t. Why should I. It’s a waste of time, and food, if you ask me. But I can’t let a kid like you out in the cold like this.”

“I don’t know what your issue is, but I’m not your kid.”

“What?” I asked, my voice raising.

“Your eyes. They say everything. You lost your kid right? After you became stranded.” Rat had told me that Rook was perceptive. Now I know why Rat didn’t want to deal with him. He was right. I couldn’t hide my past. His talents could be used, people like us, the Stranded, could use a person like him. Having him die like this would be a setback for us.

“Doesn’t matter,” I begin, my voice returning to normal, “You’re coming with me to Fence’s Shelter.” Rook continued to look at me, but I tried my best not to falter. I looked back at him, my eyes not moving, and my eyes trying to pierce through his. I’ve dealt with his kind before. All you need to do is stare better, and stare hard. The moment you show weakness, you’ve already lost.

“Fine,” Rook said, “It’s not a choice, it’s an order, right?” I nodded, and led him towards Fence’s Shelter. Types like him are too rare to let go. If he were to die like this it would be too much of a waste.

“But,” Rook began, “After this, if I were to die, then you have no right to stop me.”

“I’m not your kid, right?” I said, mocking him. Although at the time I never thought much about those words. We soon arrived at Fence’s Shelter. It was a decrepit place, hidden under the train tracks above. Fence, the owner, set up barrels lining the perimeter and the insides. They would be lit on fire for light and warmth. Although he did this, it was still cold. The pavement was cold, and no amount of barrel oil could stop that. Other Stranded were already resting there when we arrived. Fence was known for this, he set up shelters all across town, and would move them every so often. He’s had this one for a couple of weeks now. The only problem with Fence, is that he doesn’t tell you when he leaves, or where he’s going to show up. Only Rat knows, and getting in touch with Rat is a hell all of its own.

“Rat told me about this place,” Rook said in disgust, “Told me it’s my door to salvation.”

“Only if you’re inexperienced. Travelling alone, and finding your own place is the best way to go.”

“Only if you’re a loner like Cat.” A brash voice boomed in the area as Fence grumbled over, shaking the very ground he stood on. Fence was a large man, considerably large, although, it begs the question of how he could pack up his shelter and leave so quickly, and how he sets up so quickly. Rat told me he gets help, and I can see why. I don’t harass Fence for it, I respect him, but many Stranded despise him, despite using his services.

“The name’s Fence, although if Rat told you about anything, then you would know about me.” Fence began laughing as he finished his sentence. He looked up and down at Rook, giving him a thorough examination.

“Rook, if I remember correctly.” Rook nodded.

“Well, stay as long as you like. No rules. Well, foods on you, and if I leave then I won’t tell you. Other than that, no rules.” Fence trudged back to his sleeping area. I didn’t personally plan to stay at Fence’s Shelter, but since I brought Rook here, I figured it wouldn’t hurt. Most Stranded usually die on the third night, some on the seventh, but rarely on the first. You can say that’s the curse of Fence, or you can say that’s a blessing. I call it a trial period.

“Well, days gone by, no point heading out now, catch some shut eye,” I said to Rook as I stationed myself on a makeshift trash wall. It was well made from recycled wood and plastic, although I wasn’t sure who made it. Rook never answered back, but he laid his back on an unlit barrel, and began shutting his eyes.  It was cold, the ground, the air, and even the people. It was cold that night, at Fence’s Shelter.

The next morning, I woke up to some rustling. I wasn’t much for heavy sleeping, and when I opened my eyes, I saw Fence. He had his things. I wanted to call out to him, to tease him that I had caught him moving, but my eyes were too tired to adjust. I tried to peer out, to see the sky, but it was gray. Snowflakes fell, and it was cold. I looked across from me, to where Rook was last night, but saw an empty space.

“The boy’s gone,” Fence said as he noticed me.

“Gone?” I asked.

“He began rustling and moaning in his sleep. Got up when I did. Left before I could say much though.”

“Did he say where he was going?”

“Don’t know. Ask Rat, but who knows where he is.” I got up, feeling the ache in my bones fill my body. In a struggle to find my balance, I held onto the wooden wall I slept on, and waited.

“Kids going to die out there, Cat.” I looked over to Fence, who was already at the exit.

“I’ve seen too many like him. If the atmosphere don’t kill him, then we definitely will.” I gathered my things, and rushed to the exit behind him.

“You know this, Cat. You know this all too well. We don’t take kindly to spoiled brats. If you’re a Stranded, then you best learn to be one, or you’ll anger the originals.” I clenched my fists. I knew that Fence was right. I knew that Rook could already be dead. But I still wanted to go and look for him. I felt like I had a responsibility. No. It was my own pride.

“I’ll tell you what, Cat.” Fence turned around with a smug grin on his face, and handed me a handgun.

“Two day’s loads that you’ll have to fire that thing. Three if it’s to kill the boy.” I turned the gun in my hand, and checked the magazine. One bullet.

“You’ll only need one after all. You either kill a Hunter, kill a Guard, or kill a boy. Your choice.”

“Your on,” I said with pride. He laughed, and began walking. So did I. I was confident that I didn’t need to shoot. After all, I hadn’t shot in so long. I hadn’t shot since I became Stranded. I had no intention to begin again. The first place I checked was the Noose Tree, but my luck wasn’t that good. There were only so many places one could wander off to, though if he was already dead then I would be looking at all the wrong rocks.

“Looking for someone, Cat?” I turned towards Rat, who seemingly appeared behind me.

“Reckon you won’t tell me for free,” I replied.

“You’ve already helped me plenty. Just win that bet with Fence, and give me a slice, call it even, Cat.” I wasn’t surprised that he somehow knew about our small bet, but I had no time to be picky now. The air was cold, but I knew there was something in the draft.

“Check No Man’s Crossing.” My eyes widened, and I knew that if he was there, he was asking for trouble. Without answer, I left for No Man’s Crossing. It was far too dangerous. And I cursed as I ran. No Man’s Crossing wasn’t any singular location, it was a zone. It was the outskirts of town, where the Hunters and Guards congregated. The Guards have their stations there, loaded with supplies. And the Hunters lay their camps all too near the gates in hopes to get easy game. Going there means suicide, and for someone like Rook, an easy way to get shot. I rushed as fast as I could, hoping to catch him before he crosses the line that leads into No Man’s.

“Rook!” I yelled as I arrived at the edge of the Crossing. Rook stopped, and turned towards me as I struggled to catch my breath.

“Rat told me that you would come. I thought he was lying. Guess he doesn’t lie.”

“Not if he can’t help it. You’re not crossing that line.”

“You said you would let me die, didn’t you?”

“No. I didn’t. You said that if you were to die, then I should let you die.” I remembered his words very clearly. They were words that I once said. How could I forget.

“And by crossing this line, I would die.”

“No. It would increase your chances of dying. You might get caught in a gun fight, but unless you want to die, you probably won’t be killed.”

“Then watch me,” Rook said as he crossed the line. He began running, running towards the Hunters. I cursed and swore as I began running towards him. The last thing you want to do is run towards the Hunters. They would shoot without question. In the dead of morning, though, maybe he has a chance, and maybe I have a chance. I gave chase even though my breath was more like a wisp, and the prospect of the gun straddled in my pocket beaconed to me. If I shot him now, I could drag him back. Though, that defeats the point of trying to save him.

“Over there!” A voice called out. It was a loud muffled voice that called out. A Hunter. I knew their voices all too well. This was bad. A patrol. I had a feeling, but I didn’t want it to come true. I focused on the man, who gave hand motions to wave in other Hunters to the gates. Once the wave comes, the Guards will get alerted, and a gun fight will erupt. Though, my main concern is to get Rook out of there.

“Shoot him! Now!” The man yelled to the wave that erupted at the gates. A whole swarm of them was about to open fire, and things weren’t going to look pretty for either of us. I braced myself and picked up speed, taking my rusted crow bar from my pack and threw it at Rook, effectively dropping him onto the floor as a few bullets flew by. The Guards worked quickly, and returned fire, giving us time to react. I picked up my crow bar, and just as I grabbed onto Rook, a bullet flew by, inches away from my face. There wasn’t enough Guards.

“Let go!” Rook said. I crouched down, and considered my options. I looked around in a frenzy, and saw a trench near the gates, where a house used to be. Perfect. Looks like I have to thank tradition later, I thought. I grabbed onto Rook, and forcefully dragged him to the trench, somehow avoiding the bullets that came our way. Once we got in, I leaned back and tried my best to catch my breath.

“You’re reckless, you know that,” I said.

“And you have no right to stop me!” I pinched my crow bar to Rook’s leg and dragged him down before he could peek his head.

“They saw us move. They will come to us,” Rook said. I knew what he said was true, but before I can act, I need to be able to breathe. My next plan was to make a run to the nearest not-dangerous-place, but, knowing Rook that’s going to be harder than it seems. I peeked my head for a split second, only to be met with a bullet in the dirt beside me. I knew that if I didn’t act now, we would be sitting ducks. I tried to think of a plan. The gun was still in my pocket, but I didn’t want to shoot. Not them, or me, or Rook. I kept telling myself that.

“We’re getting out of here in one piece, you hear me,” I yelled to Rook.

“If you want to run, then go ahead. I’m staying right here.”

“No. I have a plan. For both of us.” One of the Hunters peered over the trench just as I grabbed my crow bar and flung it over his head. He dropped into the trench, and I quickly scouted the area for any more.

“Let’s run, now!” The battle was starting to thin, and the Guards were losing. That meant easy game. Rook wasn’t moving, though. Stubborn till his death, I thought.

“Rook, look, this isn’t the time to be sobbing over the past! You ran into the middle of death, but I’m dragging you out!” I grabbed his arm before he could respond and began running out of the trench, towards the next building. Bullets zipped by, but I knew that with Rook with me, I couldn’t make much distance. I prioritized Rook as much as I could, but he was simply dragging his feet. I cursed again, and flung us both down as a hail of bullets went by.

“I don’t care what happened in your past!” I yelled over as I got us both back up and running.

“Your whole race may have died, but you’re breathing, right now! You have to keep living! That’s how we are!” Rook didn’t respond, but as we ran, I knew he was thinking about my words, and so I continued, ducking down both of our bodies when necessary, and picking us back up.

“Giving up your life, is like giving up those who died for you! You don’t respect the dead? Your family? If so, live.” The air was cold as we ran. Sharp winds glazed my face, and I couldn’t help but have one eye closed as we ran for our lives. Damn Hunters, I thought. Chasing us all the way here.

“Being Stranded, doesn’t mean being abandoned, or being left to die! It means a second chance. We have been given a second chance! We’ve been tried, and we’ve been looked down upon, and we still are, but we live! That’s why we do what we do, and that’s the only thing we can do!” Suddenly, a bullet entered my leg. I felt it all too quickly, and the pain ended all too quickly as well. I fell to one knee, but quickly picked myself up, somehow, and continued barely running. It was bleeding, I felt that, but before I could make much distance, another bullet went through my left arm, and then my left leg, and then I was down. I saw Rook over me, looking panicked. I laughed.

“Get the hell out of here!” I yelled to him. I grabbed the gun from my pocket, and raised it. There was something in Rook’s eyes and expression before he left  to safety. I didn’t know exactly what as there was dirt in my eyes, but the words he said gave me a hint.

“Thank you. Sorry,” he said. I laughed again. The Hunters closed in on me, they were only a few bodies away, and as I turned towards the grey cold sky, with my gun held, I laughed. But it wasn’t because of how I was able to save Rook, or it wasn’t because of how my situation was that I laughed. I laughed, because I felt something warm. For some reason, I was warm.

 

 

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