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Here's "Chapter 5: Unveiled".
B. gets to rest for a while.
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Sneaking down the fire escape, B. avoided any unsolicited attention from the holo receptionist. He measured every step, terrified, experiencing in his mind, over and over, the moment when the SB, which were undoubtedly waiting for him in the hall of the Tower by now, would have apprehended and dragged him back up to the thirteenth floor to do the Thing. To become an adult. To become like Tanner. Like Zazee.
‘Zazee…’ the boy let himself fall prey to the despair, once more ‘…you were right: it’s a Wednesday, after all.’ And as he looked around, scanning for the best route to put some distance between himself and the Tower, his hand reached for Erica’s medallion: a gesture he always went back to when he was distressed and he needed something to fidget with.
‘Answers. I need answers. I’ll find Erica and she’ll tell me what I need to know. But it’s got to be at night. At night is better. I need a place to hide, a place to spend the morning…’ A sudden, long, loud growl startled him. But it was coming from his own empty stomach.
‘I know a place!’ B. continued, encircling his abdomen in a warm hug.
Five minutes later, he was running through the Food district, whose high level of automation promised a bland guarantee against undesirable encounters, prepared to cut at the right time for the Amenities district. His final destination was Mr. Hollow’s sandwich shop.
‘It’s a Wednesday, Zazee, and I feel real even though you aren’t anymore.’ his resolve was once again unwavering. For now.
Running all the way to Mr. Hollow’s had seemed a good plan of action at the beginning, but now B.’s lungs were screaming for help, and his legs were demanding a break. He had reached the narrow back road which cut the edge of the Food district ending straight into SouthWest Main Street. On the opposite side of the street, the corresponding alley of the Amenities district led right to the back of Mr. Hollow’s Triple-P Sandwich Shop.
He leaned back against the wall of the outermost spice processing factory, struggling to catch his breath, his chest expanding and contracting in slow, broad, pulsations, his mouth open, his eyes scanning up and down the way he had to go through, in the open, to reach his safe place.
A puff of air from the factory presented B.’s nostrils with the aroma of freshly ground cinnamon.
“You and your AIdamned Pumpkin Spice Latte.” He whispered to the wind, as he backed from the wall “Let’s go!” He cracked his fingers and ankles and launched himself into a desperate run to the other side of the street, amidst a parade of surprised adults on public transports which stopped, or ever so slightly slowed down, in a synchronized effort to avoid the dear boy.
‘I’m going to get you back, Zazee. Watch me!’
Once on the opposite side of the street, B. quickly dove into the alley. After another minute of frantic walking, he was right at the back door of the sandwich shop.
“Hello, dear boy, I’m closed right now.” The alarm system had a predilection for acting as if it was the actual shop, walls, doors, kitchen, and all the rest, the one who was talking to the unfortunate visitor.
“I know, Alan” B. had christened Alan The Alarm with its nickname on his first day as an intern at Mr. Hollow’s Triple-P Sandwich Shop. “But you got to let me in. Mr. Hollow asked me to come in early today.”
“Oh! If that’s the case, please hang on just for a minute, dear boy, while I contact Mr. Hollow to get confirmation.” Alan zealously replied.
“While you…” B.’s smile was the smile of a magical teleporting cat relaxing on a tree “No, dear Alan, Mr. Hollow is enjoying his monthly wellness path at the Last Lantern!”.
That much, at least, was true.
“You can’t trouble him, right now. Let me in, so I can sort out the stuff he asked me to, and tonight you’ll get all the confirmation you need. Deal?” Again the smile of a striped magical feline.
“Alright. Benji. I’m unlocking the doors.” Alan had grown dearly fond of B. over the three years of his internship. So fond he had forgotten to ask the boy how come he was clocking in on the day he was supposed to do the Thing.
“Don’t call me that, Alan. My name is Baldo.” B. giggled, opening the door.
“Don’t call me that, dear boy. My name is Aldobrandt!” the alarm promptly replied.
B. burst into a sincere, liberating laugh. He closed the door with a heel and sighed, grateful for that much-needed moment of playful banter.
“I’m deactivating now. Have a nice afternoon, B.” Aldobrandt The Alarm concluded.
B. had finally reached his shelter. He was safe, as far as he could tell. For a while, at least.
‘I’m in. What now?’ he thought, looking around in search of inspiration about his next move.
‘Mr. Hollow will be here in… what time is it?’ B. raised his head toward the wall clock that was mounted on the wall right in front of him ‘almost noon, four hours. Heh… since I didn’t do the Thing, they also didn’t give me my first Commo…’ A Commo, short for Commo-Commo, was a multi-purpose communicator with an integrated personal assistant and a holo display. Among other things, it could tell the time. ‘… the Thing. Zazee, I swear… the skit!’
The wall clock was mounted right above B.’s locker. ‘I can take the skit to go searching for a better place to hide and decide what to do next! With any luck, Mr. Hollow won’t change the combination of the locker until AI will reassign a new adult to delivery duty… I wonder if it will be the same lady I took over for, back when I started my… there, it’s open!’
He took the skit out of the locker, but he didn’t get in: “AIdammit!” he let go, much louder than he had intended. `No delivery! The skit won’t work without something to deliver!’
B. slapped himself with both hands “Think think think!” his gaze landed once again on the wall clock. “Wednesday!” he shouted, only to regret it immediately. What if the SB had already dispatched drones around the shop?
‘Wednesday!’ he thought, a hand dramatically over his mouth, to help him remind not to talk aloud, or talk altogether ‘I can… let’s see if…’
He turned the Delivery Buddy on. It was a single-purpose computer-assisted planning tool specifically developed for helping the establishments of the Amenities district with organizing their deliveries.
“Good morning, Mr. Hollow.” the holo display read “First things first, any recurring orders you’d like to edit?”.
B. attentively scrolled the list of dozens of Triple-P aficionados, until he found it.
‘Carlsen. Mr. and Mrs. Carlsen are good people. They will let me spend the night. I’ll figure out my next steps, and I’ll be on my way at the first light of dawn.’ he determined as he was editing their weekly order. He changed it from a dinner to a lunch order.
‘And hopefully, this won’t trigger any watchdog the SB might have displaced by now.’
The sandwiches were to be delivered at 2 pm, right in the middle of the lunch hour shift – another precaution B. had taken to avoid being sniffed out by the SB – and it was now a few minutes past noon.
‘It takes me half an hour to get to the Carlsens with the skit, but I’d better count some accidents in. Let’s say one full hour.’ B. quickly calculated. That gave him a few minutes shy of one hour to relax, recover, and eat something.
“Oof!” he let out ‘I’m starving!’ he then thought, as he started walking toward the little kitchen where all the ingredients were already waiting for the next batch of sandwiches. Mr. Hollow was an authentic professional.
Once at the counter, B. picked a bun from the basket on his left, and Mr. Hollow’s favorite knife from the holder on his right. The blade made a satisfying “crunch” when it pierced the crust, and the sound of the knife cutting its way into the bread until it was split into two almost perfect halves, made the boy start salivating.
B. was now oh-so-ready for his sandwich. He reached for the peanut butter jar, avidly snatching it from the shelf just above the counter, scooped up a big chunky ball with a spoon, and proceeded to spread it all over the bottom half of the bun with the care of a lover who spreads massage oil over their partner’s body.
“And now…” B. had never understood how people could match pork with peanut butter. It didn’t feel right to him, no matter how hard he tried.
No, there was one thing and one thing only that in his heart B. was convinced AI had created to go with peanut butter. He stretched his right arm again toward the shelf and touched the jelly jar with his index and middle finger. He swallowed, with anticipation.
Then he moved the jelly to the side, clearing his way to the jar of pineapple slices. He grabbed the jar, opened it, picked a pineapple wheel, and splatted it on the peanut butter.
But then he stopped. Took a step back. He was having second thoughts.
‘No. No, this is wrong’ he thought, as he shook his head.
He moved back closer to the counter and to his prize, picked another pineapple wheel, and splatted it on top of the first one.
“Now we are talking!” he whispered, triumphant. He never closed his mouth after proclaiming his satisfaction, and he took a big bite out of the sandwich instead.
‘Hmm… Perfection!’ B. thought, as he grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge. He took a couple of sips, burped without restraint, automatically said “Sorry!” to no one, then he took great care in slowly and attentively enjoying every little crumb of what was left of his meal.
There was no telling when his next one would have been. If ever.
By the time B. got to the last bite of the sandwich, it was past 1 pm.
“Time to go, then.” the boy said to himself, clapping his hands a single time to summon what little courage he had left.
In the note he wrote for Mr. Hollow, B. thanked him for those final few hours of help, informed him of the new nickname of Aldobrandt The Alarm, and asked his former boss to let the poor semi-sentient system off the hook for having opened the door.
Then he brought the exoskeleton out of the locker, and with slow, deliberate, movements he got in, opened the door to the alley, asked the alarm to lock it behind him, transitioned the skit from the custom dark purple with fluo green inserts to its default yellow livery and his own clothes to an all-black athleisure outfit, crouched to start the motors, and sprinted away without looking back. Destination: the Carlsens’ in the Southern Housing District.
Going through the rest of the Amenities and Education districts was easy and uneventful. When he reached the edge of the Education district, B. cut across SouthEast Main Street like a lightning bolt surfing on a gust of wind, and in a moment he was already sprinting, spinning, and leaping through the first buildings of the Housing District.
He was five minutes from his destination when the harrowing roar of an airhorn made buildings and bodies vibrate in resonance, saturating the atmosphere of the City.
‘AI! The fog!’ B. thought, alarmed, struggling to get out of the skit as fast as he could. The few citizens who were out and about that early in the afternoon took shelter inside the surrounding buildings.
When the blinding grayish blanket invaded the area, the boy had just managed to take cover behind a pile of trash containers waiting to be picked up by the Trash Pandas – the name children used to call the black-striped gray bots that kept the Housing Districts clean.
A few steps from where he was, the skit was completely frozen, like anything else with a motor or electronics, as it always happened with the fog. It might as well have been a heap of scrap metal.
B. couldn’t see his own hands. The world was a milky ocean, where ghosts roamed free. The usual subterranean roar was feeble, and fading toward the East Wall.
Images of Zazee began to haunt him. She was walking away, stone cold, changed in everything but her appearance. Her echoing ectoplasm was repeating the words that had shocked his soul earlier that morning, “I don’t… feel… so…”, over and over, and when it finally got to the closing “good.” it wasn’t adult-Zazee who pronounced it, but a bulky, immobile beast, with a grotesque mask where the face should’ve been.
B. covered his eyes, desperate, but the images persisted in his mind. Then a soft, aspirated, sound caught his attention. He opened a chink between his fingers and peered out. The fog was being sucked into the sewer grates at the edge of the sidewalk. The ghosts waned. And the monster with a mask for a face became B.’s skit. A cat was sitting on top of it, looking at him.
The skit had turned dark gray. B. had been trained about what to do in the event of being caught outside in the fog while he was wearing the skit, but nobody had mentioned it completely losing its livery and this was the first time in three years that it had actually happened to him. He was still too shaken to make anything of it, though. He just made it yellow again, and set off for the last stretch of his special delivery.
“Who’s there?” A few minutes later, B. was at the Carlsens’.
“It’s B. with your sandwiches!” The boy replied, eyes unrested, ears wide open, heart fighting for his full attention. He was out in the open. He wasn’t moving. He was a sitting duck.
“Who’s there?” Fred Carlsen asked again, from behind the door, his voice as warm and kind as ever.
“It’s B., Mr. Carlsen!” The boy replied, worried, not sure how loud he was being, so prominent his own heartbeat had become in his ears by then.
“Good afternoon, dear boy. Why didn’t you answer the first time? You don’t do that.” When did Mr. Carlsen open the door? B. didn’t hear the question. He could barely see anything. His knees had started to wiggle. The ghost who had haunted him in the fog was still with him, after all.
“Good AI, Fred, let the dear boy in!” Charlotte Carlsen had showed up from behind her husband. An impressive feat, given that at four point six feet, she was even shorter than he was. “Can’t you see he’s distressed? Come in, honey” she continued, now talking to B. “let’s get you out of your metal thing and on the couch.”
B. managed to mutter a “Thank you”, then the world started spinning, and getting darker. He caught glimpses of the two surprisingly strong octogenarians helping his considerably bigger, and heavier self, get inside the cozy house. He saw them smiling while they followed his weak gestures to get him out of the skit. He had flashes of Mr. Carlsen guiding him to the couch, and of Mrs. Carlsen standing beside him, gently shaking her head, with furrowed brows and a sad smile, a hand on B.’s chest, the other one on his forehead. And then he fainted.
The scent of green tea and of something else, something sweet, woke him up.
“How long…” B. asked, with a groggy voice.
“Oh, no longer than ten minutes, dear boy.” Mr. Carlsen started, from the armchair on B.’s right “You had me worried for a second there,” he was so small, and the armchair was so big, that at first, the boy thought he was dreaming of a talking doll “but my Lotte said she was going to put you back on your feet with a cup of tea and a special jam tart!” He continued, pointing at a small table.
B. sat up and reached for one of the fuming cups. The smell of green tea invaded his grateful nostrils and had him fully awake even before the first sip. He helped himself to a tart as well. The aroma was sweet and intense, and B. recognized the cinnamon in it. The taste was even better, with a nip of salt to make it irresistible. Before he could question his own manners, the boy had wolfed down three more square tarts.
“Mrs. Carlsen, these are magnificent! What’s in it? Cinnamon, and plum maybe?” B. asked, after a couple more tarts and the rest of his tea had vanished.
“Cinnamon, yes.” Mrs. Carlsen replied “And plum, too. Good catch, dear boy!” she clapped softly and quickly, giggling “I’m glad you like my special jam!”.
“It was very nice of you to come visit, dear boy…” Mr. Carlsen offered.
“Ah… I’m so sorry… I didn’t mean to intrude… I just need a safe place to spend a few hours. Come night, I’ll be on my way. I…” B. tried to explain. Looking down at his feet, he hid his face in his hands, making them slide until they reached the top of his head, where he clasped them. “I think I might find myself in a dangerous…”
“Say no more, dear boy!” Mrs. Carlsen interjected. “You can stay here for as long as you need.” She added, looking at her husband, who was nodding solemnly, his eyes closed.
“Of course, you can!” Mr. Carlsen said. “We even have a spare room you can use, dear boy. I don’t know if I ever told you…”
“Oh, I’m sure you didn’t, my dear.” Mrs. Carlsen said, sitting down on the second armchair, even tinier than her husband, her arms resting on her lap. Her feet didn’t touch the floor.
“You’re sure I…” Mr. Carlsen continued “Anyway, as I was saying, I don’t know if I ever told you about the day I did the Thing. I was just leaving the Tower and on my way to the Logistics…”
B. couldn’t help but yawn.
“Fred, honey, let the dear boy be!” Mrs. Carlsen said. “Don’t you see he’s exhausted?”
Mr. Carlsen mumbled something, then took one last sip of his tea.
“Come, dear boy,” Mrs. Carlsen said to B., starting to move toward the short hallway opposite the main entrance door, “let’s get you to the spare room. You need to rest more.”
The boy followed her, grateful and obedient, to the room. He sat on the bouncy old bed, thanked Mrs. Carlsen once more, removed his shoes, transitioned his athleisure outfit into soft and fresh pajamas with a drawing of The Lightning in action, then finally lay down with a sigh.
He fell asleep almost immediately.
The ghosts in the fog didn’t take long to come to visit B. in his dreams. This time, he was well aware of the cat who sat atop his frozen skit. He could hear it meowing, almost like it was asking him a question he couldn’t understand. B. got closer, convinced he had caught half a word amidst the pet’s nonsensical chanting. Without a warning sign, the cat emitted an excruciating, unnatural, loud scream with his full mouth open, right in front of B.’s face.
That was enough to wake him up.
The house was dark. Silent. ‘I overslept!’ B. thought ‘It’s already night out there!’.
He turned the light on, put on his shoes, transitioned back to the all-black outfit, and went straight to the small toilet across the hallway. He urinated, washed his hands, and splashed cold water on his face.
As he was hanging a soft towel back on the exquisite cast iron rack near the sink, he heard the main door closing, followed by footsteps.
“Mr. Carlsen?” B. asked.
“Yes! Yes, dear boy!” Mr. Carlsen replied, from the living room “We have just returned from an errand!”
“Are you feeling better?” Mrs. Carlsen added from somewhere below the floor of the living room. “I’m going to make preparations for my special jam! Come take a look if you’re curious!”
B. walked down the short dark hallway and reached the living room, where he noticed that the small table near the couch and armchairs had been moved aside to reveal a trapdoor. The lid was open, and he arrived just in time to catch a glimpse of Mr. Carlsen’s back vanishing as he was going down the steps.
“Ok, I’m coming down…” the boy said, as he put his right foot onto the first step.
The smell of cinnamon and plums grew stronger as he went down the wooden stair into the warm light of the basement.
‘There’s something else…’ B. thought ‘Something I…’
“Welcome to our humble laboratory, dear boy!” Mrs. Carlsen greeted him, with a warm, joyful smile.
And blood all over her kitchen apron. And things, furry things, encrusted on the broad blade of her grotesquely big cleaver.
B. was petrified.
“Give me a hand, here, dear boy?” Mr. Carlsen was struggling with keeping something inside a burlap sack. Something who, apparently, wasn’t ready to die.
B. didn’t move. His eyes were pools of broken glass. His legs fighting to take control and flee.
“Is there something wrong, dear boy?” Mrs. Carlsen asked, cleaning the cleaver with a cloth. “We just returned from our weekly harvest. Cats are so sweet during this season! You bring them some treats and they’ll just come to you!”
“Of course, you can’t always bring them all home with you.” Mr. Carlsen continued, still struggling with the cat in the sack. “There’s always the one who’s going to fight. This. One. Here.” he continued, smashing the sack on the floor with unsuspected strength at the rhythm of his own words “For example, it’s nothing. There. Already gone, dear boy. But the one we caught last week. Ha!”
“I swear that one was a lion!” Mrs. Carlsen continued. “My dear Fred had to resort to extreme measures!” she said, the cleaver still in her hand “He gave it a good smack to calm it a tad, but it didn’t work. So we used our hammers to smash his little furry head. At that point we had to punish him, so we kept hitting his dead body until it split into a few nice big chunks. We put some in the sack to bring home for my jam, and the rest we threw under a transport that was passing by.”
“You should have seen the transport bumping, dear boy, ha!” Mr. Carlsen was now at Mrs. Carlsen’s side. They were hugging. They were smiling. And then they started kissing.
B. threw up.
He started going backward up the steps. He didn’t say a word. Back up in the living room, he threw up again.
“Are you ok, dear boy?” Mr. Carlsen was coming up after him. In his voice, sincere concern.
Before the old man had reached the top of the stair, B. closed the lid, moved the table back on top of it, wiped his mouth on the couch, opened the door, and started running.
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