I won't tell a single story that isn't ridiculously complicated. I have collected them from my own memory, Koe's memory, Caspi's, Savarem's, Jon's. Nobody involved in the unveiling of this story wished to write it, because they wouldn't or they couldn't, and so they told it to me to write in my own free time. You're not going to understand these the first time through, and you're probably not going to understand me, either. That's okay.
I think I can sincerely say that it's all Duc�'s fault. I say this not because I'm jealous of him, not because I want to spite him, but because it's just true. None of the horrific events that befell me occurred until I went to pick him up from the train station that fateful summer day of September 10, 2047.
My mom felt the Mutt belonged in the North, with us, instead of in that place he lived in South Shurey named the Alexia Wilderness, which is, you should know, straight-up WILDERNESS. You can't get more wild than that place. My mom and I didn't like the idea of my best friend fighting off wild animals and killing them to put food on his table every night, so we told him to come move in with us. He wasn't happy, at first, but felt obliged to comply.
My mom was using our car at the time, and Duc�'s was coming by train the following weekend, along with his massive pet juran. So in the meantime I went to pick him up by public transportation. I took the subway, followed by the bus, which lumped a good hour and a half to my commuting time. Silver Morning Park had just reopened, spanning seven hundred acres in area and stuffed with trees that towered like skyscrapers. I wandered through there on my way to the train station, hoping to arrive in time to catch the Mutt at 11:30.
On Saturdays the train station bustles with a constant stream of commuters from all around the country, moreso than the jet stations, stables, subways, roads and rivers. The train arrived slightly late, at 11:45. I could see over just about everybody's heads, and people gawked at me as if I were a giant, which, at 6'5", I guess I sort of was. I spotted the Mutt with ease. Humans, I easily passed up, because he looked nothing like us at all. Kytans have catlike ears, but on the sides of their heads, and tankhen ears are sort of angled, such the way a cat's would do when shaken by a loud, abrupt noise. No, the Mutt's are different, which is where he gets his name. His ears stick straight up, like a bobcat's or a fox's, with black tufts of fur on top. His ears poked up into the air above a sea of strange, dark hair, tinted so diffusely he became a walking illusion. A kytan and a tankhen could stand on either side of him and not know whether the brown-haired kid was a kytan or the redheaded kid was a tankhen.
The Mutt discovered me instantly, easy as it is to spot me. He looked so extremely lost and disheveled with his two suitcases, one on top of the other, rolling behind him, that I almost felt pity. Actually, I don't think I've ever stopped pitying him, not since the day I met him.
His name is Duc�, rhymes with prey.
"How was the trip?" I didn't offer to take Duc�'s bags; he was too autonomous for that. Always has been. Not to mention he's not a girl. I started to walk with him through the warring stream of commuters. Duc� squinted the whole way. I knew his ears were killing him.
"Scarring," Duc� replied, as we made our way to the door. "Ah'm scarred for life, man. Why are there so many babies on trains, man? And all of 'em crying. Crying." He couldn't seem to fix his eyes on one attraction or the other as he swam through a pool of color and sound. "But ah'm not surprised. Know why?"
"Nope, but you'll tell me." His rants always amused me.
"Ah sure will. Ah'm surprised because the train's so fast! Jay, ah ken barely hear. Mah ears are-"
"Killing you, right?"
"Don't mock me, bum."
"People don't say 'bum' in the North. We've scratched that out of the slang dictionary. Here we say 'jackass.' And we don't 'mock,' we 'mark.'"
"Fine, jackass. Don't mark me."
"Good job." I patted him on the back. "You'll be fine, Dee. Trust me."
Duc� gave me an incredulous look. "Like ah have a choice." I could feel his contempt like the cold air of a cemetery, but he managed to laugh it off, relieving me immediately.
I took a deep breath as I reentered Silver Morning Park, pacing slowly down a small slope into the dewy forest. "They just finished renovating this," I told him. "You won't hear so much noise in here; it's really quiet."
"They just finished building it?" Duc� paused to look around.
"It's a city park, Duc�. People put it here."
Duc� stood still in the middle of a fresh, unpaved path, taking in the sights and smells just as I did before. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to discern, I thought, the difference between real and artificial air. Opening his eyes he looked troubled, as if he found, to his chagrin, there was no real air at all. His tail dipped into the mud that clung to his boots, sloshing through it carelessly as it did when he lived in real forests. He was silent the rest of the way through the park, until I stepped on something shiny in the pathway.
Duc� practically leaped to snatch it from under my sneaker. He examined and flipped it in his palm. "What is it?" He turned it over, letting the dirt and grime chip away into his palms.
"Don't get excited," I said, swiping it out of his hands. "Looks like a media player. A really nice one, too." I pressed the button on the top of the rectangular box to see if the screen would light up. It glowed orange, then blinked and said "HELLO" in its tiny screen. "Probably a Factionist's. They like to hang out here in the evening."
"Then do me a favor and put that shit down. Ah don't want it."
"But I do."
Duc� gave me another of those "I can't believe how stupid you are" looks. "If you don't already know Factionists are bad news, ah don't know what ta tell ya."
The soldier from before was still playing chess, this time with a frend, another man in green. They paid me no attention, but the new guy stopped to stare at the Mutt. As urban scenery faded farther and farther away, so did the traffic and noise. But Duc� scratched his ears, complaining of the buglike buzz of traffic closing in and going away, and sirens blaring off and on. It got so bad that Duc� let go of his bags to muffle his ears with a headband. I laughed at him. "I'd trade my hearing for yours any day, you know."
"No offense," he said, "but there's nothing about bein' me ah'd ever wanna trade you." Then he managed a smile, before struggling to mute the unbearable noise in his head.
He tried to keep quiet as we reentered the inner city; billboards and streetlights, random hovercars floating above the ordinary and less expensive, stores with flashing lights. The light across the street blinked red, warning pedestrians to stop. I didn't want to tell Duc� that this was the only way to go, and that he'd have to wander the big city with me if he wanted to make it home.
"They look like rockets," said Duc�, staring up the shaft of a skyscraper.
"Don't look so disoriented. You'll be okay."
He kept on staring.
"C'mon, we've got a long way to go." I nudged him forward as the light turned white.
Duc� ears sank while we made our way to the bus stop. He hardly blinked, looking into lit-up store windows, asking questions I generally branded as complete bullshit; things like, "Why are the windows lit when the sun's out?" or "What would anybody want with a bacon cooker, an' why can't you cook bacon in a regular over? Tell me that."
After a few unanswered questions, he started to answer them himself.
"Why do they need that enormous billboard to advertise some ignorant-ass housewife's weekday soap, anyway? Because it gets somebody paid, ah guess. Ah dunno who, but someone's gettin' paid off that middle-aged lady on the ad. Huh. And what do ya need a media player for? Why so many ads for one little thing? Look. There's one. There's one-"
"They're entertainment, Duc�."
"Is that all?" He seemed content to just talk and complain, which is a rare side of Duc�, a sign that he was probably hungry or tired. "You can play music with anything, Jay. You can play music with a stick. Stick music. It's possible, Jay, ah've done it."
"I know. I saw you do it. It made me mad."
"If everyone in this city has a media player," Duc� continued, "then that's...how many people live here, Jay?"
"Seven hundred thousand."
"Seven hundred thousand. Damn. Seven hundred thousand?"
"That's right." I checked my watch. If I gave him forever to talk in his condition, he'd talk for ever and a day. The bus to Evangeline was rolling down the street towards us. "Quit wasting time, Duc�, we've gotta go. Our bus is coming."
"All ah'm sayin' is," he started, then paused. "Why can't we just walk back?"
"It's forty-something miles back to Evangeline from here. We can't do that."
"Well, you were raised by wolves." The bus stopped, and I gestured for him to follow me aboard. "C'mon, we'll be in Evangeline in no time. Forty-five minutes, tops."
An hour later, we had barely left downtown Heighton, there was so much traffic in the area. So we got off and hailed a taxi. My watch said 1:30. "Amazing," I said.
"We should definitely walk," he said as the taxi stopped in front of us.
"We're not walking, Dee. Get in." And so he did.
Ten minutes later we scrambled out the back of the taxi, lurching from the smell of puke and beer. The driver almost pulled off before Duc� could grab his bags.
"Dear God," I heaved, sitting down to catch my breath. I checked my watch again.
"We should walk-"
"Shut up, Dee. We're catching the lightrail."
"What the hell's a lightrail?"
Still sprawled on the sidewalk, I pointed to the smooth tracks in the middle of the four-lane road. "Just wait."
Five minutes later we got on the lightrail, and everything seemed fine. The car was packed, and we both had to stand in between a mob of smelly little kids and their field-trip escort, but everything was fine, all the same.
"The lightrail works," I said to him, grinning. "We'll be at Clairemont Harbor in no time, and there we'll catch the Number 64 at Beaumont to Baypointe, and from there we'll..."
I didn't mean to stop talking, but Crazy Frank was sniffing at Duc�'s lapel, and I had to swat at him.
In order to protect Duc� from the likes of Crazy Frank, who I will try not to describe until need be that I should, we got off the lightrail and started walking.
"So...Crazy Frank is who again?"
"A crazy mad idiot."
"Ah see." He looked confused, but what can I say. Crazy Frank deserves no words.
Meanwhile, Koein and his gang were frolicking in Silver Morning Park. Well, not necessarily frolicking, because Factionists don't frolic. They frown and scorn and stomp around and stab people with tazers, then laugh and, most of the time, run away. But anyway, Koe and a few other Factionists were hanging out in the park. To this day I'm not entirely sure what attracts people like the Factionists to places of natural beauty; they must be frightened by it, and therefore intrigued by it, each and every one of them.
I know that Koein is that way. He was there with a few "friends," he called them: a human woman with dark brown dreads, a small little guy with enormous ears, and another human guy with braids like mine. It had been a while since they'd been assigned to a duty, and therefore had all the time in the world to wander through the parks and consider their usefulness in the world.
Camille took Koe's hand, a gesture she often made to attract his attention, as not much could. "What do you think of it?" she asked him. "We should have a park of our own. On the Faction property. What do you think?"
He looked disgusted with her.
"C'mon. Use your words, not your snide facial expressions."
Koe started to shake his head, then he sighed. "What are flowers gonna do for Factionists, Camille."
"Ditto," said the boy with the braids, staring into the crevasse of an old tree, perhaps at a bug.
Camille looked exasperated. "It's pretty, you guys. Pretty is good, sometimes. I mean, think about it. I'll put it in terms even you'll appreciate." As Koe started to look around she grabbed his hand again to make him look at her, then continued with a gesture into the forest. "This park is city property. Heighton owns it. That means, we own it too. You could earn some money from it. You could, I dunno, charge admission, or something. You could make it official Faction property and convert it into a giant station-"
"Full of trees?"
"Yeah! That way, environmentalists won't hound us for being so, you know, technological about things."
This got Koe's attention. He gazed around the place, analyzing the trees. "Oh," he murmured, surveying the land. "So I could...cut them up, then. Make something useful out of them."
"Koe, that's not the point. In fact, it ruins the point."
But Koe wasn't listening. Caspi Jin, the short little dude, dragged a stick idly through the mud.
Since Koe could never be a captive audience, and Caspi Jin at times failed to do so much as pretend to pay attention, Camille decided her most willing audience would be Dante, the guy fascinated with bugs in trees.
"You know about that old Phoenician myth about the muses?" she said to him, grinning, hoping he'd at least try to sound interested.
Perhaps sensing her need for attention Dante answered, "Yeah, I know about the muse foxes. Why?"
"See those roses over there? Muses are attached to roses."
"Is that so."
"Yeah! I wouldn't be surprised if I saw one right now. Wouldn't that be cool, Koe?"
He gave her that same bored look he'd give anybody else, waited for a moment, and then, realizing he would probably need to talk to get her off his back, responded in a languid tone, "I don't really care."
It was then Camille decided it was time to go.
When Ma didn't answer her phone-she was probably at work-Duc� and I ended up walking most of the forty-whatever miles back to Evangeline. Duc� had a blast, as I figured he would, doing all the things you tell your children not to do when they're really young. He ran through the streets to see every shop and stand he could find; he went through trash he thought "smelled interesting;" as the sun made its way down, he talked to strangers and hobos and hoes-especially hoes. He was fascinated by the nighttime call girls; I guess they don't make 'em in the South like they do here. All the while I was checking my watch. I couldn't wait to get home.
We made it through the door of my ma's two-story house in the suburbs at 8:00-over five hours behind schedule, and I was completely out of breath. Duc�, however, with his two suitcases, was perfectly fine.
"Since the bullet trains won't take him, they're sending my juran by truck," he informed me as he rolled his cases into the living room. I already knew everything he had in those bags. In the smaller bag, he had his clothes, which were mainly uniforms from the Shurey Protection Agency where he worked. He worked in the same place he lived, in the forest. In the larger bag, a crazy amount of weapons: some knives, a collection of throwing stars, rat poison, juran poison, general poison, brass knuckles, brass claws, various types of armor, and some other malicious shit he took from his job. I couldn't move another inch, so I hunkered down at the kitchen table, the closet seat to the door. I dropped my head on the table as he continued. "He'll be here by next week. Ah got a little money for an apartment somewhere, if he can't stay here."
I didn't say anything, not that I could have. I wondered if my mom was home. I couldn't hear her.
"You okay?" He peeked through the archway leading to the living room. "Oh, damn. You look kinda pale."
I thought of the guy in the soldier's garb that looked so much like my father, or, I guess, what my father used to be. He had fairly dark skin and a soft eyes contrasted by their stony color. But the goatee didn't suit him. It didn't suit my father, either.
Not long after I collapsed at the table did I realize the sound of my computer beeping. Screeching, actually, from the basement. It always went off like that, every day at three. Mom hadn't been home yet at all.
I never really knew how to turn that damn sound off, but I had been on my feet for eleven hours. The disturbing sound could wait, I thought, but I wasn't thinking of Duc�. A couple minutes later Duc� went down into the basement. I watched the light flick on from downstairs. Seconds later, the sound cut off, just like that. He'd probably unplugged it.
That's his answer to everything.