03. Let and the bookstore

I tie the Wayward up onto Sal’s dock in the howling wind. The rain is horizontal and freezing cold; the water around us seems to roar like thunder.

I look for a security system, figuring they’d have a way for visitors to introduce themselves to them without compromising their safety, but I see none. Instead, I knock on the door as hard as I can, hoping they can hear me over the sound of the wind. Vince cowers in his crate, both from the freezing wind and from the ferocity of my banging.

I’m about to give up and find a way to sleep under my blankets in the boat when they open the door just a crack. In the warm, electric light, I see their right eye cast its gaze outwards warily and then in recognition.

They open the door a little more. “Hey, Var,” they say, beckoning for me to come in. I quickly grab Vince’s crate by the handle and hustle indoors. Sal closes it behind me.

“You’re soaking,” they say. I’m leaving a steadily growing puddle on their hardwood floor, and I suddenly feel sheepish for having brought the elements in with me. They hand me two towels from a pile folded on a shelf over a small, metal radiator - one for me, one for Vince - and I take a moment to dry myself off as best I can. Vince uses his as a blanket and quickly burrows underneath.

If I didn’t know better, I’d think Sal had grown since I last saw them. They always stood tall, casting an imposing shadow, but somehow their silhouette seems to have gained in stature. Maybe it’s because, these days, I spend most of my time with a cat. Still, I find myself admiring Sal. It’s nice to see them.

They offer me a glass of synthetic whiskey and I accept it eagerly. The drink warms my throat as it goes down, thawing me out from the inside.

“It’s miserable,” Sal says, glancing through the window. The wind is trying it hardest to smash its way in. “Let’s let you warm up a little bit, and then we’ll get down to business.”

They have six upholstered, reclining chairs lined up in a circle. Each one has enough built-in shelving and power infrastructure to keep a person going for a day: chargers, drinks holders, the works. I take a position on the closest one and find to my surprise that it molds to my body. At first it’s creepy, in a way, but the warmth is undeniably soothing.

Sal takes the identical chair to the left of me. “So what’s new?”

“Aside from the message,” I say.

“Aside from the message.” Sal nods.

“Absolutely nothing,” I say, grinning. “I go to the market to trade supplies; I come back; I check my messages; I play with my cat.”

“Sounds idyllic.”

“For the first day, yes.”

Sal half-smiles and takes a sip of their own whiskey. They pause, perhaps thinking of what to say, and for a moment all I can hear is the storm outside.

“So tell me about your brother,” Sal says. “What was his name?”

Is,” I correct. “His name is Let.”

“Yes. Is. Tell me about him. You never have.”

I take a long sip of my whiskey. I feel the vapor rise up through my nose.

And then I tell Sal the story.

Let is older than me by eight years: always the biggest of big brothers to me. He was like my guardian, in a way, and as a small child I looked up to him completely.

Our parents left us early in the rise: a disease took them. We didn’t know which one. In the chaos of the change, it didn’t matter much. They weren’t able to get the medical care they needed: the price of it grew exponentially as resources became scarce, until the wealthy and the very fortunate were able to seek treatment. The rest of us were left to rot, and that’s what my mother and father did, with us by their side.

I don’t want to talk about it.

And then there was just the two of us. Let and Var. He would swim out to find food in the rising waters, braving the pollution, the radiation, and who knows what was under the surface. How we did depended on his luck: some days we would feast on unclaimed produce. Even meat was plentiful back in those days. But on other days, he would cook grass, or insects, or worse.

He would often disappear for a day at a time. I wouldn’t know where he’d gone, and he wouldn’t ever talk about it. Sometimes he’d return with something edible; other times, he came back empty handed. He sometimes had a look in his eye that told me he’d seen something he wished he hadn’t. I was young and naïve; it was hard for me to understand what it could be. I was just pleased to see him return.

There was a period of the rise marked by terrible storms, much like the one raging outside. We hadn’t eaten properly in a week or two, and we were both beginning to get sick. So Let decided to go on a riskier journey, where he knew there would be food.

Like a lot of neighborhoods back then, we were patrolled by something like a militia group. They might have been hired by the government - nobody really knew - but because they weren’t the real military, they weren’t constrained by real military policies. It was the beginnings of the downfall of the rule of law, when things were unravelling slowly, and you could often hear the gunshots of their so-called justice over the sound of rushing floodwater. There were groups like this everywhere, all over the world, fueled by nationalism and hatred, and given opportunity by the rise. Ours were called the King’s Soldiers.

The KS were nasty bastards, but they had food. Let didn’t want to tell me how he knew, but he knew. They ate well. If we were shrewd, we could too.

I remember being scared, really scared. Justifiably so. But he was determined: we had to eat. I had to eat. He felt like he had to protect me, and he needed to stay healthy to be able to do that.

So one morning, he hatched a plan and went out to steal supplies.

I insisted on going with him, and he insisted that I keep a safe distance. It’s not that I was a girl or anything stupid; he wasn’t like that. It was just that I was a child: a scrawny thirteen year old. He didn’t want to see me get hurt.

So I kept watch. The idea was that he’d sneak into where he thought they kept their supplies and grab whatever he could fit in his backpack, or whatever he could get in thirty seconds, whichever came first. If I saw the KS come back, I’d make a sound to let him know to get out of there if he could, or hide if he couldn’t. And if, for some reason, he got caught, or didn’t show his face after a minute, I was to run away as fast as I could and not look back.

The KS were based in an old bookstore on what used to be the high street. The books had long since been replaced with weapons, supplies, armor, you name it. The glass windows were painted over with their logo: a K and an S, joined at the bottom over a red and black cross. You couldn’t look inside anymore, so as soon as Let ran inside, as quietly and as fast as he could, I lost sight of him.

I counted under my breath: one .. two .. three ..

I got to twenty-five before I heard his voice. Thirty-two before I saw him.

He was trying to talk calmly as he backed out of the bookstore. A KS officer pointed a gun at his forehead at point blank range and was wordlessly advancing on him.

He didn’t look at me, but I knew he understood was there. I knew what he must be thinking; what he needed me to do.

I took one more look at his face, taking it in. It was wide-eyed and contorted in fear, but it was his. My beautiful brother. I committed him to memory and said a silent thank you to him.

And then I ran like hell.

I was onto the next block already when I heard the gunshot. It stopped me in my tracks, just for a moment. I felt like I needed to throw up and pass out all at once. He was all that I had left.

I kept running. I made it all the way home, and took all the stuff I could, and got out of there. It was all part of Let’s backup plan, the things he told me to do in case it all went awry, and he was right: less than thirty minutes later a KS crew torched the place to the ground.

Later, I found Let’s body - face smashed in, slashed and burned, barely recognizable to anyone but his sister, but his - on the pile the KS left in the town center as a warning to anyone who might think to cross them. He was gone.

Over the next few years, I moved from squat to squat, running with whoever I needed to run with to survive. It would be years before I found my way to Sal; before they made me a new identity and let me rejoin the world. In a lot of ways, I didn’t stop running. But now I didn’t need to hide.

I still trusted Sal implicitly. My home now, my life; it was thanks to them.

“You’ve never told me this,” Sal said. “I knew you were running, but …”

There’s more. There’s so much more. But I keep that to myself.

“Now,” Sal says, “let’s take a look at that message.”