WARNING FOR NIGHTMARE, FIRE, BURNING BUILDING, CHILD DEATH
Heat, so hot it hurt. Her eyes flew opened. Red, yellow and orange flames licking across her clothes. Hands slapping and beating to put it out but there was too much. She struggled out of her shirt and tossed it on the bed. The flames gobbled it up hungrily and asked for seconds. Groans echoed throughout the room. She eyed the ceiling worriedly.
“Get up!” she shouted.
The others were rousing slowly, blissfully unaware. For these kids, it was just another day.
But the air smelt funny. It wasn’t just the stench of melting plastic but something else. She couldn’t quite put her finger to it. It was the scent of clean air and rain, there wasn’t the telltale sound of rumbling thunder. The back of her throat itched and she coughed. A cacophony of coughs started as every other kid began choking.
It wasn’t safe. They had to get out. Danger screamed in her head and it rocked her to her bones. Small feet padding over to the door. “Open the door!” one of the others shouted.
Her voice joined theirs, sharp and panicked. Her muscles corded as she twisted the door knob. It rattled but it wouldn’t turn. “Teacher Mary, let us out!”
Growing heat against her back made her look. The fire had devoured their beds and bedding, and it had grown into a beast. Roaring, crackling as it demanded for more tribute. Shrieks of panic filled the air as tiny fists hammered against the door barring their escape. Fear seized her thumping heart, but she forced herself to stay calm and think.
The windows are not locked.
She pushed through the crowd and headed towards the nearest window. She wrapped her fingers wrapped around the handles. One quick yank and push the window cracked open a tiny gap. A gust of night wind swept in and threw it wide open. They crashed outwards against the concrete exterior of the building.
“Windows!” she shouted above the din. Those who kept their heads heeded her words. More hands found handles.
She peered down. The ground lay hard and unyielding below. She gulped. Glancing back to look between the encroaching flames and locked door. The heat was near unbearable as cries and screams filled the air. Smoke choked her lungs. She gritted her teeth and found a chair. It scraped against the floor as she dragged it over and pushed it against the wall. A quick hop and she had clambered up onto the sill. Sitting on the edge for a beat, feet dangling out in the cool air, she inhaled and shoved the fear down. Between the space of a single breath, a fist squeezed her heart as it slammed against her chest. Her fingers kept a tight grip on the window sill as her toes seeking the tiny sliver of ledge below, inching, reaching. Her balance tipped and she slipped completely off the edge. She yelped but her feet found the ledge. It was steady and firm.
Eyes scanning but not finding another way forward.
I didn’t think this through.
She looked back towards the open window and tried to pull herself up. Grunts and cries of exertion were useless to the passive opening. The other kids stared back at her, their hands too weak to pull her up. There was no way back. Fingers scrapping trying to find purchase against the rough concrete, toes curling for a fraction more grip.
A explosion rocked the building.
Screams from the living and howls from the dying rang out. Glass and debris showered down on her. The window just ahead along the ledge was blown open. “All right, I can do this,” she shouted as her ears rang. “Just don’t look down.”
Fingers stretching out, toes worming forward, she inched along the ledge. She looked back at the window she came from, one of the other kids was trying to do what she did. A pair of feet coming down towards the ledge too fast.
“No!” she shouted.
It was a warning too late. Toes found air instead of purchase and the boy plummeted. In the split second between thought travelling through synapses, she jerked. Hand reaching out, then pulling back to the tenuous grip she had again.
I can’t help him. If I did, I’ll fall too.
She watched as body met ground with a solid smack.
Nike gasped as she sat up, her breaths coming hard and fast. Eyes wild as she searched for the red, yellow and orange. But it was pitch black. Sleepy murmurs and soft snores punctuated the hammering of her heart.
A dream, just a dream.
She sighed, running her left hand over her face and winced. It was heavily bandaged. Then she remembered. Frank and the others, her wrist popping and pain flashing, blue flames and a satisfying punch, the offer and now she was sleeping in the Reds’ base.
It was warm, it was infinitely more comfortable than her hovel but Dog wasn’t here. Dog always slept at her back. It made her feel safe. Without him, she had a hard time falling asleep. She didn’t know the others, let alone trust them. They might just be waiting for a chance to kill me. Eventually she shifted her sleeping bag towards the wall and managed to fall asleep after pressing her back against the cold wall.
Nike sat up, pulling her legs to her chest and rubbed her eyes. They were sandy and painful, but she knew from experience she wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep after a nightmare like that one.
Tenner led them down a street. It was deeper into the Slums than she had ventured before. There were almost no kids around, everyone were older than Frank. They were the youngest around. Eyes watched her, they tracked her every move. Nike rubbed the back of her neck uncomfortably. With a snarl she turned and glared. Her usual show of force did nothing. It was only met with derision.
“Look at the kid,” one of them laughed.
She was gearing up to give him a piece of her mind when she left a heavy hand on her shoulder. “This way,” Scars said, dragging her by her shirt in the right direction.
Nike focused her displeasure on Scars, lifting her good hand, making a show of punching his groin. She grinned when he flinched, his veneer of acting tough crumbling under her empty threat. But the feeling of satisfaction faded quickly. She was tired and hungry and more than a little lost. The day had been more exciting than her entire year put together. Sighing, she turned back to follow the others but stopped when someone with yellowing teeth and bloodshot eyes stepped into her path .
“Girl, walk faster,” Scars said as he nudged her from the back.
Nike stumbled but mostly remained where she stood, eyeing the man warily.
“Not so fast,” the Red Sand addict said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Are you selling the girl? How much for a turn?”
She cringed away while Scars bared his teeth, putting himself between her and the addict. “Get lost, old man,” he said, pushing the man out of the way.
The addict fell heavily. Scars ignored his cry of protest. His hand closed around her good hand and dragged her along. “Don’t ever stop for them,” he hissed as she shuffled along in his wake. His longer strides forced her to jog. “They are parasites, all of them. You’re one of us now and we take care of our own.”
In that moment, Nike felt safe. It was a feeling foreign and unfamiliar but not unwelcome. Her hand tightened around Scars’ larger one.
“Keep up, girl.”
“Nike,” she said. “My name is Nike.”
He looked down, eyes soft and sad for a moment before hardening. “Fine, Nike,” he said exasperatedly.
It wasn’t long before they turned into a dark little alley. Rats and sewage dominated the tiny passageway. “Follow them,” Scars said, pointing down the alley. “I’ll keep watch here.”
Nike bit her lip and did as she was told. She wasn’t feeling so good, using the blue fire tend to do that to her. This was one of her worst after effects. Her stomach had given up asking for food. All that was left was a deep gnawing inside her gut that hurt as bad as her wrist.
Tenner rapped his knuckles against one of the few doors that lined the alley. “Who is it? It’s too early for bloody stitches,” a voice rumbled from the inside as she caught up to the others.
“It’s Frank. Open up if you know what’s good for you.”
There was no reply and for a while nothing happened. But eventually there was a thunk as a bolt was slid back and the door creaked open. A man in his late forties, crowfeet trailing from the ends of his eyes, dark shiny hair slicked back from his forehead, opened the door. One hand scratching as his hairy bare chest. He eyed all of them before stopping at Nike.
“You’re new,” he remarked, before turning his attention to Frank. “What’s the problem?”
“Time to earn that discount you always ask for,” Cutter said and push past the Indian man.
Nike sat and swung her legs. Her oversized shoes threatened to slip off her feet. Tenner was tapping away at his omni-tool. She leaned over and caught a glimpse of a yellow circle eating dots on his screen. He glanced at her and leaned away, pulling the screen out of her view.
Cutter had left to join Scars after depositing Frank with the man. She glanced around the small space. It was clearly a clinic and a home at the same time. The stench of dried blood and antiseptic made her wrinkle her nose. Tenner glanced at her. “How old are you?”
Nike shrugged. “Does it matter?” she asked. “12?”
He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think so,” he said as went back to his game. “But I don’t think you are any older than ten.”
“Do I look ten?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“How would you know? You see many kids? How old are you?”
“Kid, you talk too much,” Tenner retorted.
She sighed and went back to swinging her legs. Before she could ask more, a yelp rang out. It came from behind the curtained-off area at the back. Frank was back there with the doctor - Stitches was what they called him.
Stitches’ chuckles came through slightly muffled but clear enough. “She got you good, boy.”
“I’m not a boy,” Frank growled, “and stop talking about this so loudly.”
“You mean while I literally have your balls in my hand?”
“Stitches,” Frank’s voice got low and dangerous. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Silence reigned. Nike glanced at Tenner. He had his eyes trained on the curtained off area and he pressed a finger to his lips. She recognised the gesture and pressed her lips together.
Stitches cleared his throat. “You’re done. Right now, it’s all swollen and I don’t have the equipment to check for sure.”
“You can’t be sure? And you call yourself a doctor?”
“Frank, do you have access to an ultrasound somewhere? That’s what I need to make sure. Then surgery to repair if this is a rapture and not a bruise,” Stitches retorted.
More silence. Nike gulped but kept starring at the curtains as if she could see through them. She was the one who punched Frank. Is this going to bite me in the ass?
“Fine,” Frank gritted out in the end. “I’ll need the good painkillers.”
“Those are expensive,” Stitches protested. “You can’t just barge in and demand things.”
“Not as expensive as your clinic. It will be a shame if I sic my biotic on you,” Frank pointed out. “I got one just out there now.”
Stitches cleared his throat again and sighed. Nike stiffened. Frank had mentioned the same word in reference to her. What does that mean?
There were more rummaging sounds before Stitches pulled the yellowing curtains aside. Frank hobbled out. “Cutter!” he barked.
The stout boy entered the clinic and helped Frank out. As he past Nike, he turned to Tenner, “Get her hand looked at and get her cleaned up. She stinks too badly now.”
“What about an omni-tool?” Tenner asked.
“We’ll see. Maybe I can fix something up with the junk we have back on base,” he replied. “Oh and feed her. Biotics need more food. We need to grow our little investment. I have plans for her.”
Tenner nodded and grinned. Nike shifted in her seat at the expectant look she got from both of them. Tenner jerked his head towards Stitches and she hopped off her chair. She shuffled behind the curtained off area and sat on a stool next to a table. Stitches’ mouth twisted at her arrival. “Quite a little gang our little Frank is building,” he remarked.
Nike kept quiet, she wasn’t sure what exactly he had expected from her. He sighed. It seemed to be his go to action. She felt the need to do the same as well. Maybe it was contagious. He took a long draw from the lit cigarette between his lips. “Let me see it.”
She angled her body away from him. The curling tendrils of smoke made her eyes watered a little. Stitches huffed again, blowing smoke in her direction. She coughed. “Look, your boss extorts money and supplies from me. I don’t need to add coddling a kid to the list. If you don’t want my expert opinion on your wrist, you can go. I don’t care.”
Nike shifted to face Stitches. He took a swig from a dirty little glass bottle on his desk. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he downed the liquid inside as if it was the nectar of the gods. He smacked his lips and thumped the half empty bottle on the desk. “So what will it be?” he asked as he burped.
Nike grimaced and offered her left wrist to him. It was now swollen and had doubled in size. Stitches seized her hand roughly and she yelped. “Hold still,” he grumbled.
He prodded, pressed and manipulated her wrist. Nike bit her lip, glaring at him furiously. Eventually he stood up and pulled a roll of bandages out from one of the drawers. “Now, where is that bucket?” he muttered to himself. “Wait here.”
Without waiting for a reply, he left. “Where am I supposed to go anyway?” she muttered under her breath, feeling more tired as the minutes passed.
Eventually Stitches returned with a pail of water and a bar of soap. “Wash your arm,” he instructed.
Once that’s done, he tossed her a towel to dry off. “Hold out your arm.”
Nike thrusted her arm at him. He started to wind the bandages above her wrist downwards towards her fingers and up again, until the entire roll was used up. “Done,” Stitches declared. “Get your ass out of my clinic.”
Nike needed no invitation to leave. She didn’t like hanging around Stitches anymore than he did with her. As they left, the doctor shouted from the back of the clinic, “And don’t come back again!”
What followed was a time of firsts for her. Scars was in charge of orienting the new kid. That first day, he showed her where they took baths. It was just a big empty space with shower heads lining the wall. The water they used were siphoned directly from the underground pipes the State had put in decades before. She tried the first one and the water dribbled from shower head like a sad little stream but it was warm.
Nike exclaimed as much. Scars snorted. “That’s not all,” he said, handing her a bar of soap.
She pressed it against her nose and sniffed. It was floral with a hint of medicinal scent. “Smells good,” she commented.
“Much better than what you smell like now,” he retorted. “Only a few of those shower heads work properly so use the right ones.”
The next day was a luxurious day of sleeping in and having food readily available. Tenner was holed up with Frank most of the day, discussing something with plenty of finger pointing in her direction. Cutter took a whetstone to his blade while Scars was working out. Nike was happy to spend the time in silence. But eventually she got bored and she wandered outside.
“Don’t go too far,” Cutter yelled as she crossed the threshold.
“I won’t,” she replied.
“Scars, watch her,” she heard Frank commanded.
Their building was a stout brick one with a large “Bl--k B” painted on the outside, two of the letters too worn down to make out what they were. It was one among many identical ones, but theirs was the only one that hadn’t collapsed under years of neglect. Nike could see the blocks running from A to H. They were in a small cluster. A rusty barbed wire fence ran the perimeter, enclosing the blocks within it. It was mostly still up but parts were flattened over with old mattresses for easy entry and exit.
She walked passed the long rusted over gate. The hinges screamed in protest as she swung it open. There was a wide two lane road outside. She watched as one old petrol fuelled car puttered by as she stepped out. A short brick wall facing the road had words on it. She walked backwards away from the wall so that she could read the words better.
“No!” It was Scars.
Nike ignored him and kept her attention on the words. Cocking her head she tried to read them. It was too long for her to sound out in her head.
“You were told not to wander!” he yelled as he jogged over.
“I was just looking,” she said, rolling her eyes at him. “What’s wrong with looking?”
“You were thinking about it, I know!” he insisted. “Come on, let’s head back.”
Nike planted her feet and pointed. “What does it say?”
Scars rubbed at the few scraggly hair he had on his chin. “You can’t read?”
Nike frowned and repeated, “What does it say?”
“Jurong Youth Home,” he said quickly, just to get them moving. “Come on, let’s go back.”
“What’s a youth home?” she asked, her feet remained stubbornly still.
“I’ll answer your question and then you’re coming with me. You don’t want to get me mad,” Scars warned, putting his hands on his hips.
Nike grinned. Scars looked decidedly not scary at all, especially considering he had no scars on him as far as she could tell. Still, she was in a good enough mood, clothed, clean and fed, despite missing Dog a little. What was there not to love about being in the Reds? But a tiny voice in her head told her not to trust anyone.
“Sure,” she agreed easily.
Scars narrowed his eyes, not quite trusting her smile. Eventually he gave up. “It’s a juvenile detention center. Basically a prison for little shits like you.”
Without allowing her to speak, Scars dragged her back to base. As Nike tottered along to keep from falling, she asked, “Why are you called Scars? You have none.”
That evening, Frank tossed Scars a credit chit. “You know what to do?” he asked.
“What?” Scars caught the chit easily and pocketed it. “For her?”
“Yes, for her,” Frank replied.
“I did it for Tenner the last time. He is the rookie here. Shouldn’t he be the one doing it?” Scars protested.
Frank stood up, stiffening a little. Nike bit her lip as she watched. He looked a little bow-legged. She was satisfied, looking at the lasting effects of her punch. “Scars,” Frank barked.
The younger boy flinched, his face reddening as he stood up. The chair scrapped against the concrete floor. “Fine,” he said.
Cutter shook his head at him, while Tenner made vague shooing motions. “Girl, let’s go,” he snarled, turning to go without waiting for her.
Nike trotted along side Scars. “Where are we going?”
Her eyes brightened at the name. “What is the Underbelly?”
Scars glared at her. Nike furrowed her brow comically back. “What is the Underbelly?” she repeated, louder this time.
He huffed and walked faster.