Illustration by Zatsun Nakoto
Memories glowed like a candle in the quiet darkness. Quincy saw Leon in the ambulance, blood pulsing from his pierced back faster than the Strand EMT's could staunch it. They'd been too busy to stop Quincy hopping in the back with his friend. He saw Leon's heartbeat normalize an hour from when the surgeon decided to sever the shrapnel and seal it inside him, rather than rupture his lung by moving it. Quincy saw Leon's mother lash out at him, more from fear than hate. It'd be a few years before she started to really hate Quincy.
He saw the moment, outside, that he realized that he was an orphan, maybe friendless too. When that faded, Quincy fell fully asleep for the first time in months.
"Hey," a gentle hand and familiar voice rocked him awake. Quincy blinked her to life. First her yellow hair, then her sad violet eyes, then her slouching blue night clothes came into focus. It really was Elly Carello. Quincy wasn't sure how to start, besides sitting up. Elly drew her hand back. "I figured I'd wake you before Active Hours... in case you didn't want your Uncle to know what happened."
"What happened?" Quincy bit. He regretted his tone as soon as he said it- she'd probably saved his life.
"You left a bloody head-print on my mother's door and fell on me in the dead of night," Elly started. The genuine concern in her words was even more harrowing than their content. "You had- have several broken ribs. My mom's a nurse, so she was able to fix your topical injuries, but she could only do so much for your insides. Then you laid on my couch and told me a story." A frigid surge stopped Quincy's blood for seconds that felt like days. Only those who'd heard it from others, who had a vague idea of what happened, knew that story.
"I..." Quincy choked. His heart failed to kick-start several times. His hand went automatically to his chest, which he found bare. The light from a nearby lantern glinted off of the empty Port woven into his skin. His hands shot out in every direction, searching for his shirt.
"Here," Elly handed him the torn, scorched, bloodstained garment. By the time he pulled it over his head, she had her hand out with something else. He rested his hand numbly on the saw-toothed triangle of cloth between him and Elly. It crumpled in his fist. "I got that off you before my mom saw. If you think she was hesitant to let you in before..." For a second, Quincy was six years old again, taking the bandanna from his dad at the end of a night terror. When he jammed it in his pocket, he was eighteen, face-to-face with a girl he hardly knew, half-beaten to hell by another girl he hardly knew.
"Most people have an idea what happened ten years ago, but no one understands..." Quincy's eyes traced the joints in the wooden floor to the legs of Elly's pants. He followed every contour, up to the soft cheeks that held her somber eyes. "Except you." It wasn't the story he'd told her, it was why he told her- why he came here, though he wouldn't say it. From the second she'd seen him from the train, she'd known just what to say, what to do.
"Quincy..." Elly mumbled, "I convinced my mom not to report this, but before you go..." for once, she seemed to struggle. That had Quincy clenching his knees. "I don't presume to speak for your mom and dad, but... I don't think it's fair to them or you if no one ever tells you..." She wrapped his hands in her own. With fluid dexterity, she worked the tension out of his fingers. "It wasn't your fault." For a second, Quincy almost believed her. Then his hand slipped away.
"Sorry about the stain on the door. And... everything else," he said beneath sunken, bloodshot eyes. Quincy wobbled to his feet and headed for the closest door.
"Don't apologize," said Elly, "Just don't let that be the last thing you say to me." Just when he thought nothing could snag him. Quincy gave it the time of two long breaths, longer than he could usually keep from biting.
"You know the way I walk home."
"You know I never wanted this day to come," said Corel, each word like a fifty pound weight.
It was just him and Quincy at this impromptu meeting at the picnic table overlooking the Academy from the very hill Greenknoll was named for. Corel only had a meeting like this once before, and the student's guardian hadn't helped. He even brought sandwiches from the Instructor's cafeteria with soy cheese- a novelty for a student of Quincy's caliber. The burst of flavor with each bite made the transition no less painful when Corel slid the packet across the table. The boldface heading on the front page read Order of Downshipment. With his young charge's temperament, Corel half-expected the document to scatter to the merciless winter wind. It hit him even harder when Quincy put a trembling hand on it and said,
"Have you ever been there?" Corel knew what he meant. The Nether Layer. The base floor of the Tower. The only part of it that touched the tainted Earth.
"No," Corel saw no reason to be false with Quincy now. He had been officially declared an adult and insubordinate by the Supervisors. In three weeks, he'd be escorted to a place where man and beast contended for the short end of the stick in the literal shadow of their betters. "But if anyone can handle it, it's Quincy Famino."
YOU ARE READING
Strand: the Silver RadioScience Fiction
A shape against the night, in the light of a highway construction sign, is a young man in trouble. An artist in an artless place, he must fit into Strand's machine, or be thrown away like garbage. From the best laid plans to hapless coincidence, Qui...