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Young Love, on the Drowned Side of the City
by William D. McIntosh 30 votes, average score = 7.37

"I just had a brilliant idea," Krik said.

We were sitting on the edge of the pavement, listening to sad music drifting from the Dry I Am pub on Highbury. Through the window I could see an adult lifting a pint of the thick sludge that adults drink.

"Oh yeah? What's that?"

He smiled. It was just like Krik to toss out a comment like that, then make me wait. He nabbed a roach skittering toward the sewer and popped it into his mouth. I was hungry too; I scanned the pavement, but there was nothing else around. No worries; a bit later we could pop a manhole and snag a couple of rats to cook up.

"See that bus?" He pointed. It was a double-decker in the middle of the street, a block away. All its windows were already busted out.

"Yeah?"

"It's half a block from the hill. I bet we can push it and get it rolling down."

I laughed. "That would be bloody brilliant."

We stood, brushed our bottoms, and headed for the bus.

"Hey Whistle, hey Krik."

I turned toward the voice. It was Caryn, crossing the street toward us. For two days I'd been trying to find a way to bump into her, and now here she was, wandering down Highbury all alone. All of a sudden my hands felt out of place, like they were dangling and shouldn't be. I stuffed them in my trouser pockets, then pulled them out again.

"Oh, hello," I said. I couldn't stop looking at her. She had clean blonde hair, and pretty lips, very thick and full. And there was something else, some way that she had. You could see it in her walk—like she was heading somewhere, not just mucking about.

She came up and patted me once on the shoulder.

"Are there any parties going on? I can't find any of the usual lot."

"Don't know," I said. "Haven't seen anyone."

"We've got something going on, though. Stick around," Krik said.

Caryn followed us. Krik and me leaned against the back of the bus and pushed with our feet. It wouldn't budge.

"What are you trying to do?" Caryn asked.

I felt foolish, after building it up and all. A pack of seven or eight tykes came running round the corner, playing some game.

"Hey, give us a hand," I shouted. They ran right over. Nothing a tyke loves more than helping out some older blokes.

We arranged them around the back of the bus, and all pushed on three. With a squeal, the wheels began to turn. The tykes giggled like mad, red-faced from pushing.

"Keep at it!" Krik said.

"Hang on," Caryn said, walking beside. "I'm not sure that's a good idea. There's a hill—it could crash into something."

"That's the idea," I said, laughing.

"Don't be stupid!" she said.

We broke into a trot, then a run. The bus took off. Everyone hooted as it steamed straight down the middle of the street.

"You think it'll reach the park?" I said.

"It might," Krik said.

It was flying by the time it reached the bottom of the hill. It jumped the curb, crashed through a wood and steel fence and into Butterfield Green, bounced across a weedy patch, and crashed into a pond with a tremendous splash.

Everyone cheered.

Down in the park, a handful of adults sitting on benches off to one side screamed. Some fled the park, others sat, hands covering their faces, wailing on and on.

I turned to find Caryn. She stood, hands on hips, half a block back. "Are you boys proud of yourselves? You've terrified those poor people."

"It was all in fun," I said. "No harm done. Wasn't it something, though?"

Caryn turned and walked away from us.

"Caryn!" I shouted. "It was just a laugh. Let's go find a party, why don't we?"

She kept walking.

"Ah, let her go," Krik said, slapping me on the back. "Girl's got a stick up her arse."

I shrugged. "But she's a pretty one."

"I don't think she's pretty. Not at all. She's a puke."

"Well, I think she's pretty," I said. It made me feel like trash that my best friend thought the girl I liked was a puke. Now I may have blown it anyway, if she'd fancied me in the first place.

"She's flat," Krik said. "What about Mimi? Mimi's got the tits."

Down the street, the band in the pub began to play a love song, about a girl who cooled the city with her smile, and I pictured Caryn smiling. I imagined taking her in my arms and kissing her. Lately I couldn't stop thinking about her. Her face floated in front of me all night long, and I imagined conversations we might have, sitting on a fire escape, or on a rooftop, looking out at the endless bamboo forests.

I didn't answer him about Mimi having the tits. Mimi was loud, and I didn't think she was pretty. Plus, Caryn and me shared a secret. I'd kept it all these months, since that day I found out and promised her I wouldn't tell.

"Let's go find a party," Krik said.

We headed down the hill. On Butterfield Green, adults sat on benches along the centre walk, under oil lamps, muttering to one another or themselves. They kept their heads down as we passed. Some of the women tucked their hands under their thighs, trying to hide the thick white pock scars, like we'd never seen them before. I kept my eyes forward.

"You boys proud of yourselves, eh?" called a small man with rusted eyeglasses that were crooked on his face. He was sitting alone, a weekly clutched in his lap.

"Ah, get over it, why don't you?"

He motioned to us. "You boys are old enough. I'll tell you the story, about the Worst Days. Sit." He patted the bench next to him, his shirt sleeve sliding up to show big, circular pockmarks.

"We've heard the story. A dozen times we've heard it," Krik said.

"You haven't heard mine, have you?" his voice cracked, and it looked as if he might cry. But then he calmed himself. "Sit. Listen to your father." He patted the seat again. I sat. He was an adult, after all. We owed him. Krik puffed all impatient, but finally sat. I gave Krik a look that said “This is all your fault, you know.”

"You kids don't know how good you have it," the adult said. "When I was your age, there was all sorts of awful things happening. Wars. Bombs. Plagues. One day you'd have a home, the next day the rat bamboo was tearing through the floor and you had to move out. Booby-trapped candy . . ."

I didn't know what booby-trapped meant, but it was best not to interrupt. It only made them go on longer if you showed interest. Sometimes they started over from the beginning.

"The Worst Days started out no different than most of the Bad Days. People started getting sick—another plague of some sort. Pain all over their bodies. Deep pain, starting in the guts and spreading a little each day. Pain that never let up—like there were hot wires growing in you."

He folded the weekly into a tube, twisted it tight, let it unroll.

"But this sickness was different. The doctors quarantined people who got it, but more people got it anyway, until everyone was sick. No one could figure out where it was coming from. There were days I was rolling on the floor, screaming with pain; I could hear a wall of screams through my open window. It sounded like everyone in the city was screaming. They probably were."

"Katy, my wife, and Leisle, my daughter, they got it earlier than me, so I saw what was coming. It was worse to get it later, I think.

"At first they looked like little welts, popping up here and there on their bodies. Then the skin broke over one of Katy's welts, and a worm started working its way out.

His lower lip was working. You could tell he was trying not to cry or scream.

"If you tried to cut them, or pull them out quicker, they would wriggle and tug. It just made the pain worse. You had to lie there while they worked their way out. Dozens of them."

He pulled up the front of his shirt with shaking old-man hands; there was a big scar where his navel should've been.

"We know, we see them all the time," Krik interrupted. I nudged him.

"You haven't seen mine!" the old man said. "Listen to your father."

Krik shut up. The man stared at the grass for a tick.

"Killing is always random," he said. "It may not seem that way sometimes. It may seem that the people who deserve to be killed are the ones dying. But it's always random in the end."

He pressed two fingers to the scar.

"It was big as a snake, left a hole in my gut that festered for weeks. I was sure I was dust. My Katy. Leisle. They didn't—" He broke down.

Krik motioned toward the trees. This was our chance. Usually I'd be happy to run for it, but this time I couldn't help thinking how I'd feel if I married Caryn, and worms came out of her, and she was screaming, and then she died.

I patted the old man's shoulder. He took my hand and held onto it, and he cried harder. He said "My Katy, my Leisle" over and over, and squeezed so tight my fingertips turned red.

Finally, he let go. He looked at me and nodded. "Thank you," he said. "Thank you for listening."

I gave him the okay sign as Krik pulled me away, the old man's sobs fading as we cut across the weeds.

"Cripes!" he said when we'd gone out of earshot, "Do they never get tired of telling those black stories? It was twenty years ago. None of us were even born!"

Usually adults didn't make it through the whole story, to the ending, but sometimes they did. It was in the water. The worm sickness came from the water. It killed most of the kids, and the adults who didn't die couldn't have kids no more.

"You know why they tell us that story?" I said as we headed down Brighton Road, toward a group of tykes playing Monkey Switch in the junkers lined up along the gutter.

"Why?"

"'Cause it's where we come from. If it wasn't for the Worst Days, they wouldn't have made all us crèche kids and set us loose, would they?"

"I suppose not," Krik said. He grunted.

The world had gotten so good at science that a few blokes could cook up something like those worms, and hide it in the water, nice and clever. Once an adult told me that the more civilized you get, the more things there are lying around that can kill a whole lot of people at once. And if those things are around, someone's going to use them to kill a whole lot of people. If it wasn't worms in the water, it was tiny bugs that ate your brains, maybe, or bombs.

A few older kids were sitting on a stoop, watching the tykes play Monkey Switch. I recognized one—Terra, one of Caryn's squat mates. I stopped to chat, asking her casual-like if she'd seen Caryn. I wanted to tell Caryn I was sorry.

"Why do you want to know where Caryn is?" she asked, with a sly smile.

"I was just wondering, 'cause you're usually together."

"How come you didn't ask where Mimi was, just Caryn? You fancy her!"

"As a friend, sure, I like her just fine," I said. My face was red, but I hoped she couldn't tell in the moonlight.

"Just friends? You sure? I could talk to her for you, find out if she fancies you . . ."

A bloke I didn't know came over and poked me in the rib. "You like Caryn?" He wasn't wearing a shirt, just a bolt of black cloth wrapped round his neck.

"I don't know. Maybe," I said.

"I just saw her," he said.

"Where?"

"With Mimi and Jelly and some little bloke, heading toward Amhurst."

"Why don't you go find her?" Terra said, making kissing noises at me.

I ignored her. Krik and me moved on. I steered us toward Amhurst. We used the streets until we got to the flooded part, then took to the rooftops.

Soon I heard splashing, a playful scream, and looked down into the black water.

Even wet, her hair shone yellow in the dim light. She was neck-deep in the water, hanging onto a fire escape ladder.

"Shhh," Krik said. "Let's give them a scare!"

I smiled and nodded. We clasped hands, stepped onto the ledge of the roof, and jumped.

It took a long time to fall five stories. My belly tingled as the wind screamed in my ears. I hit the water with a crash and sank deep, then paddled to the surface.

"Who's that?" the bloke said. He was a couple of years younger than us.

"It's the Mad Creche Robber," I said.

"And the Water Spewer," Krik piped in.

Caryn smirked. "What are you two criminals doing here?" She didn't sound too angry.

I wanted to say something clever, but couldn't think of much. When I was around Caryn I wanted everything I said to be clever, but mostly what came out was 'It's nice and cool here' or some such crap.

Mimi took a swig from a bottle she was holding out of the water.

"Ho, let us have a drink, eh?" Krik said.

Mimi curled her lip. "Why?"

"Where'd you get it?" Krik asked.

"From an adult. I did him a favor, and he did one for me," she said.

"No, you're joking," I said. She had to be joking. That was just too disgusting.

Caryn pushed off the brick wall and swam out to us. She swam up close to me, then splashed my face. I laughed and splashed her back.

"That was really stupid, you know," she said.

"Yeah, I know."

"Hey, we got enough people to play Blind Bug now!" the little bloke said.

"That's a kiddie game," Mimi said. She was still back at the wall, with a third girl I didn't know, with a horsey face and curly hair. Mimi passed her the bottle.

"Yeah, let's play Blind Bug," I said. It was a kiddie game, but it would give me a chance to be sexy with Caryn.

Caryn and Krik said okay, so Mimi and her friend gave in and we played. Caryn was 'carrier,' so she closed her eyes and started calling "Blind" and we all answered "Bug." After a couple of calls I swam up close to her, and when she called "Blind" I answered "Bug" real gentle in her ear. She lunged at me, but I ducked away.

"Whistle!" she said, laughing. "You criminal!"

She started calling 'blind' real fast so I had to answer real fast, and she came after me, backing me toward a building, until I was pressed up against it. I ducked under water to escape. There was a break in the wall just under the surface—a window or a door—and I swam inside, then surfaced inside a room.

The broken windows above let in enough moonlight that I could see this was a body room. Skulls and bones were piled against the back wall, nearly to the ceiling. I could hear Caryn, calling me a criminal and a cheat, and that gave me an idea. I swam over to the bones, and bent an arm till it snapped off at the elbow. Then I rejoined the game.

Caryn was still carrier. I swam up close to her and, nice and gentle, reached out with the skeleton arm and laid the fingers on her cheek, while everyone watched and giggled.

She shrieked and knocked it away, looking to see what had touched her. I hid it under water. Everyone laughed.

"You opened your eyes!" I said. "Cheater! Criminal!"

"What was that?" she asked.

I grinned and waved the arm.

Caryn laughed, splashed water at me. "Where'd you get that?"

I shrugged.

"Well, you're just full of surprises, aren't you?"

"Hey, let's play Toss the Bones," Krik said, grabbing the arm out of my hand.

"Yeah!" I said. I could've hugged Krik for the idea.

"Uh, uh!" Mimi said. "Not with you lot."

"Well, you didn't want to play a kiddie game," Caryn said. "Now you're afraid to play Toss the Bones? Maybe kiddie games suit you."

Mimi smirked. "I play games you wouldn't dream of."

Krik and me 'oooh'd' at that.

"What about Zach?" Mimi said. "He's too young."

"No, I'm not," Zach said.

"Yes, you are," Krik said. "You need to piss off now."

Zach whined that he didn't want to piss off, so I told him to do some jumps off the roof, and we'd watch him while we played. Caryn said he could have another drink from Mimi's bottle first. He wasn't so keen on kissing girls anyway, so he swam to the fire escape, took a long swig from the bottle, and started climbing the stairs.

The five of us climbed to the first landing on the fire escape and sat in a circle. Mimi passed the bottle round. Her t-shirt was clinging to her tits; she saw me staring and tugged it loose. I glanced at Caryn. Her t-shirt didn't have much to cling to. I didn't care. My heart thumped as Krik snapped off the finger bones, shook them in his cupped hands and tossed them clattering on the rusted steel floor, calling "Thumb."

The thumb was pointed at me, but none of the other fingers. "Whistle picks. Three tick count, no touch."

"Caryn," I said. I licked my lips; they'd gone dry as soon as the bones hit the floor. Caryn leaned in close and tilted her head. I kissed her.

Her lips were soft. It wasn't a randy Toss the Bones type kiss. It was gentle. I felt her hair brushing my shoulder, felt the tickle of her breath.

"Time!" Krik said. Caryn pulled back, but she looked at me and grinned.

"Oooh, Caryn's blushing," Mimi said. "I think she's got a little crush." Jelly, the horse-faced girl, sniggered.

"Watch me," Zach shouted. He'd made it to the roof. Krik shouted back that we were all watching, though really we weren't. Zach let out a yell, and a second later we heard a fat splash.

Mimi got to pick on the second toss, and she picked no one. We cried foul and said she had to pick, so she picked Zach, who had stopped for another drink on his way up for his next jump.

"Never mind. You pick no one," I said. I picked up the bones and shook them as the bottle came round to me again.

"I hope you get triple knuckle," Krik said to Mimi. "We'll pick the longest finger for you to swallow, and whole, no breaking it up first."

Mimi ignored him. Krik had better hope he didn't get triple knuckle either, after that remark.

Caryn got the pick, with two extra fingers pointing. A good one: ten ticks, with tongue. I looked at Caryn. The tips of my nose and fingers were tingling.

"Go ahead, Caryn. We all know who you're going to pick," Mimi said.

Caryn glared at her.

"Least she won't pick Zach," I said.

"Shut up!" Zach said, heading past us toward the ladder up.

"Piss off, squirt," I said. I stuck my foot out as he went by and he tripped over it with a clatter. Krik snickered as Zach got up, cursing me, and continued up the ladder. I was feeling the liquor get to my head now.

I looked over at Caryn. "So, you going to pick?" I waggled my eyebrows in a 'hint-hint' sort of way. Caryn gave me an odd sort of look.

"I pick Krik," she said.

I thought I must have heard wrong. She leaned toward Krik. Suddenly everything went in slow motion. Krik leaned forward, wrapped his arms round her, and their lips came together. And stayed together, sliding and grinding. Krik's hands moved up and down her back. I couldn't stand it; it felt like someone was tearing my insides out. I tried to keep my face blank, but my eyes gave me away.

"Watch me!" Zach shouted down. I stood, grateful for a reason to look away, and leaned out to watch him.

"Go on," I said.

He held his hands over his head like he was planning something fabulous, inched to the edge of the ledge.

His feet flew out from beneath him.

He glanced ass-first off the ledge, then fell, tumbling, too close to the building.

"Watch it, look out!" I shouted.

His leg caught the stone overhang of a windowsill; he spun violently, hit the water, and surfaced screaming.

"Murder, Zach, what've you done?" Mimi said.

"I got him," I said. I climbed down to water level, grabbed Zach's outstretched hand and hoisted him. He was screaming and screaming. As his feet came clear of the water, I saw why. His foot was twisted at a sick angle; splinters of white bone stuck out the side.

I hauled Zach screaming up the stairs, and lay him down.

"Bloody hell," Krik said, staring at Zach's foot. "He's ruined. Somebody get me a brick."

Zach stopped screaming. "No, come on fellas." His foot was shaking like mad.

"I got one," Mimi said, pulling half a brick out of a crumbling window ledge. She handed it to Krik.

"No, come on. Take me to the hospital? Please? Come on."

"We're not anywhere near a hospital," Krik said. "It'll be over in a tick. Close your eyes."

Zach held his hands up in front of his face to ward off the blow. "No! Please don't. I can walk! I'll walk to the hospital."

"Like hell." Krik looked around at the rest of us.

"I think it's best to put him down," the horse-faced girl said.

Zach started thrashing about. He screamed as Krik bent closer.

"Hang on," Caryn said. She squatted next to him, brushed a thicket of wet hair off his face. "Shhhh," she cooed, stroking his cheek. "Everything's chipper. We'll take care of you." She sounded just like a creche mum. Zach stopped fussing and tears rolled down his cheeks.

She put her hand over his eyes, ever so gently, then held out her other hand for the brick. Krik gave it to her.

"I'll take him," I said.

Caryn glared up at me.

"You're going to carry him on your back? All the way to hospital?" Krik said.

"Yeah, that's right," I snapped. Anything to get out of there.

"You're not doing him any favors, you know," Caryn said.

I ignored her. "Here, lift him on my back."

Zach squealed, but didn't scream, as Krik and Caryn lifted him. He was biting his lip to keep quiet, lest I change my mind and he get the brick after all.

I wrapped my wrists around his calves, trying not to look at the twisted foot, and humped him down the fire escape stairs until we were neck-deep in water. I pushed off. The hospital was three blocks of swimming out of the flooded area, then six more on land.

Behind me, I heard laughter as the game resumed. I almost shouted out Caryn's secret then, that she still played with dolls. Would have served her justice if I did.

What a laugh everyone would get. Grown-up Caryn, huddled in a corner of her squat, whispering in different doll voices, walking them around, dressing them for a party.

Her mouth had made a big 'O' when she turned and found me watching. I promised not to tell, and I hadn't, not even Krik. And this was my thanks.

I was completely knackered by the time I dumped Zach in the emergency room and wished him luck. Likely the medics would saw his foot off and strap on a phony. I didn't tell him that.

I limped down a long white hallway, which was so clean you'd think someone had licked the floor. It was a strange place. Most adult places were no cleaner than our squats; for most adults, getting out of bed in the morning was a feat.

"Hang on a tick!" A medic in a white coat, one of the ones who'd taken Zach, was hurrying down the hall. "You look like a strong boy," he said. "Come here and help your father for a few ticks?"

"Okay," I said.

What else did I have to do? Anyway, how could I say no to a medic in a hospital asking me to help out?

He led me down the hall, into a tiny room with a window that looked at a brick wall. There was a girl in the room, in a clean white nightgown, sitting beside a bed. She looked at me. She had a mask on, with a long tube that led to a big hissing machine that was accordioned in the center. It pumped up and down. When it pumped down, the girl's chest went out, and when it pumped up, her chest went in. It was breathing for her.

"What's wrong with her?" I asked.

"Syrell is a natural-born," the medic said. "Her nervous system didn't form perfectly, but she's doing very well." He lifted her arm by the wrist, and she just let it dangle there in his hand. She didn't look nervous. She was a bit older than me, maybe fifteen. Her skin was white, her hair all clean and combed like an adult's.

"See here," the medic said, pointing to a crank on the machine. "I need you to power this up to last the night. Two hundred turns should do it. Can you do two hundred?"

I laughed. "I done a thousand turns at the pub once, for a basket of chips." I rubbed my belly, to show how much I fancied chips. I started cranking. It was a fine, quiet crank. The medic gave me the okay sign and left. There wasn't many adults like him around, bright-eyed and talking about something that mattered. I guess that's why he was a medic.

The girl looked at me, her chest rising and falling.

"What's your name?" she said. Her voice was airy and muffled, like she was talking through her nose, because of the mask.

"Whistle," I said.

"Will you tell me," she paused right there in the middle, "about things you do?" I figured it out then, that she could only talk when her chest was falling.

"Things I do? You mean, just, what I do every day?"

She nodded. I guess she never got to do much of anything, if she had to stay hooked to a machine to breathe. Too sad. And she was pretty—a bit scrawny and twisted, but a pretty face—and she had all her teeth, straight and whole. Too sad.

So I told her about running with my mates, swimming, hunting the tunnels, the games we played. She listened hard. I could see it, in her face, how hard she was listening, like I was telling her where to find canned goods or something. It was nice, being listened to like that, and it took my mind off Caryn and Krik. I was way past two hundred cranks, but I kept on.

I told her about Toss the Bones, and she smiled. Air hissed out the edges of the mask.

"Yeah, it's fun. Makes it not such a big production, kissing. Makes it a game."

"Will you kiss me?" she said, then looked away.

It took me totally by surprise. "I'd want to," I said. "But I can't, because of the machine and all." I waved my free hand at the breathing machine. I'm not sure if I meant it or not; she was pretty, like I said, but the machine made her sort of freakish. Nice, but freakish. Plus, I wasn't sure I ever wanted to kiss a girl again.

"You could, though." Pause for the inbreath. "Kiss me."

"I don't see how."

"Take off the mask." Pause. "Kiss me and," pause, "slip it back on."

"Oh." I looked at her, not sure what to say. She smiled at me, a sweet smile, with no sexy in it. I didn't have much choice now; I couldn't very well say I wanted to, then say I didn't. It would be cruel, wouldn't it? "Um, okay, then." I got up, squatted next to her chair.

I reached for the mask, then stopped short. "How long can it stay off?" I asked.

She shrugged. "Ten ticks?"

I nodded, grasped the mask and pulled it over her head. I kissed her, with one hand around her shoulder, the other holding the mask. She barely moved her mouth, like she didn't know how to do it. Probably her very first kiss, I thought. She might remember it her whole life. I didn't imagine that would be too long, though. It felt nice, but strange; I was breathing heavy, but she wasn't breathing at all.

When I thought it'd been about seven ticks, I put the mask back on, and her chest puffed right out. She closed her eyes, looking dizzy. For a few outbreaths she stayed like that. Then she opened her eyes and looked at me.

"Again?" she said.

I nodded, took off her mask and kissed her again. This time she did better, she kissed me back.

When I pulled off and gave her the mask, there were tears coming down her cheeks, but I could see by her face it was happy crying. That was nice, that she was happy I was kissing her. If only Caryn had cried when I kissed her.

We went on for maybe ten minutes, and then I said I should go, because the medic might come in. She said "Once more," so we did one more. Then I squeezed her hand, but she didn't squeeze back.

It dawned on me then—she hadn't moved her hands or feet the entire time. I took her hand by the wrist, the way the medic had. It dangled.

"You can't move?"

She shook her head no.

"Not at all? Ever?"

She shook her head no.

Too sad. She was worse off than the adults. I kissed her cheek and got up.

"See you again?" she said as I opened the door.

"Yeah, sure." I gave her the okay sign and closed the door. Yeah, I'd come back. Maybe not to kiss, though. I couldn't see myself going with her steady. I didn't think she was looking for a steady, just some fun. Didn't appear she was having much fun. Maybe next time I'd bring round some of my mates.

I stepped outside and walked round the hospital, toward my squat. I'd collect my things and be out before Krik got back.

Just thinking of Krik made me ache. I played it back in my mind again, him kissing Caryn, and felt the sting of it all over again. I didn't want to think about it, but it was like picking after lice: I couldn't stop even though I knew it only stirred things up.

"Son? Hold up there son."

What in bloody hell did they want now? I turned toward an open door. The medic was there, and an adult woman, holding hands with a little tyke of a girl, maybe four years old. The medic said something to the woman, she nodded, and he left. She led the tyke across the pavement.

"This is Lala," the woman said. "She's ready to be on her own now, so would you be a good son and take care of her, till she gets settled and all?"

"What? Why me?"

"Because you're responsible," she said.

"Oh, come on! No one took care of me when I was ready."

The tyke's eyes were circles. She looked up at me, then hid her face in the woman's legs.

The adult sighed, like she was real tired, and put her pocked hand on the tyke's head. "There weren't too many older than you, were there? We took care of you till you were older than this one. We did our best. There are so many of you and most mothers and fathers are too sick to help."

Guilt and the Bad Times, it was all they knew. But I tried to imagine those adults in the park looking after a tyke.

"Here, give her to me," I said.

She put the tyke's hand in mine, and told me what a good son I was. The tyke started crying as soon as the door closed.

"There you go, tyke," I said. "You're okay. I'll take good care. What's your name again?"

She just went on crying, but came along when I led her off. Two blocks of me telling her all the fun things she would do and she quieted.

"Who's this? You have a new girlfriend?" I spun around. Caryn was crossing the street between two junkers. The only person I wanted to see less than Caryn was Krik. At least Krik wasn't with her, holding her hand.

"A creche mum gave her to me," I said. I turned to move on, like I had some place to get to.

Caryn studied my face, like I had a leech on it or something. "She gave her to you?"

"Yeah, that's right. She asked me to look after her." I put my fingertips on the tyke's head.

"What's your name?" Caryn asked, squatting.

"Lala," the tyke said.

"You have pretty hair, Lala," Caryn said, brushing her hair behind her ear.

Lala wiped her nose and nodded.

"Why you?" Caryn asked me.

I shrugged. "I was helping out at the hospital a bit. She said I was responsible."

Caryn nodded. She was looking at me peculiar again.

"Well, I need to get her settled," I said, taking a few steps down the sidewalk. My mind was replaying the kiss between Caryn and Krik again.

"Is something wrong?" she asked.

I shook my head. I didn't trust myself to answer. "We'll be fine," I finally managed. "Come on, Lala."

Caryn tagged along beside me. "You know, I only picked Krik because you were being such a child, not because I fancy him."

"You seemed to enjoy yourself plenty, even so," I said.

"Not so much, really, no," Caryn said. She walked so close to me that her elbow bumped mine, then her hand brushed past mine. "I was glad you picked me, though. That's when I enjoyed myself, even if it was only a three-tick no-hands."

"How was I being a child?" I asked. Had I been? It was all fuzzy now, except for the kiss.

"Besides tripping poor Zach? You acted like you expected I was going pick you, all cocky like."

"I guess I did. I'd had a bit too much to drink. Sorry."

She looked at me. "That's nice of you to say."

Her hand brushed mine again. This time I reached out for it. Caryn slipped her hand into mine. We laced our fingers together. All of a sudden, this was the best night of my life.

Raindrops began to patter the sidewalk. Caryn turned her head up and opened her mouth to catch drops. In the distance, the adults began to scream.

The End

Story Copyright © 2007 by William D. McIntosh. All rights reserved.
Illustration Copyright © 2007 by Marge Simon. All rights reserved.

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About the author

Will McIntosh has sold stories to Asimov's, Interzone, CHIZINE, Strange Horizons, and many other venues. His story "Soft Apocalypse" was a finalist for both the British Science Fiction Association and the British Fantasy Society awards for best short story of 2005.

He is currently working on a novel set in the Soft Apocalypse world.


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