How could such a good day go so bad? I still don’t understand it. Things started out so well. It was almost a normal day; breakfast with Shanna at Al’s Bagels, then hanging out with the rest of the Blazing Skulls at our main flop. When nine rolled around, I skipped out on bonding and went home long enough to change into my good clothes, which mainly consists of untorn jeans, tie, and jacket without the Skull’s emblem on the back. Then I went to a job interview.
Still sounds weird, don’t it? Trog street kid, applying for security guard – ‘scuse me, doorman – at a halfway decent apartment building. But Mr. Myers musta seen something he liked (still think it was the corp accent I picked up from Shanna), ‘cause he hired me. Even managed a slight advance on my pay.
I took advantage a’that. It was more money than I ever saw at one time in normal circumstances. So I headed down to the pawn shop and got back the only thing I ever had of my family; Momma’s ring. She gave it to me when I was young, making me promise not to lose it. She ODed on something the next night, leaving me to work my way into the Skulls. Anyway, she said it was her wedding ring. I meant to use it that way. Sure, I’m not twenty yet, and Shanna’s two years younger, but hell, we’ve known each other for ten years! I know some girls who are mothers at sixteen. With a permanent job as sec guard, I could manage for both of us, get us out of the streets and the gang. Sure, the gang was what brought us together, but I figured it wouldn’t last forever.
I don’t know much about love, and nothin’ about true love, but Shanna... she wasn’t just a friend, or a good friend, or even just another girl I want to lay. All right, that is part of it, but that ain’t all. It’s... I dunno. I seem to remember Dad sayin’ marriage was about findin’ someone ya wanted to grow old together with and goin’ through on that, but since he skipped out on Momma when I was three I don’t really trust that.
Anyway, I headed back to our turf, rehearsing what I wanted to say and where. Took me three cop cars to realize somethin’ was wrong. Pretty sloppy; ya gotta know when the Star’s after you and make sure they go after somebody else. After that I kept an eye out and realized a LOTTA Star vehicles were goin’ by, and all away from Skull turf.
That was bad. While we ain’t law-keepin’ vigilantes like the ‘Goyles down a few blocks into the barrens, we don’t shake down old ladies or nothin’ like that. Pretty soon I was jogging along, nearly running, then cut through to the back entrance to our flop.
I entered hell. Smoke was the main thing, for once not cut down by rain or drizzle; it was an actual god-be-damned-sunny day. It was unbelievable how evil things looked with the bright sunlight and the fire and smoke. I stumbled along, literally tripping over the body of Jax, our leader. He’d been beaten to death. I kept going, searching the bodies, finding chummers and members of rival gangs, even some civilians.
But not Shanna. Inna way it was a relief, it meant she might be ok, but it was beginnin’ ta get to me; what if she was in one of the burning buildings, what if she had walked away in another direction while wounded... what if I never found out....
I found her in the park, a sort of neutral area between the gangs. At first, all I saw was that copper hair of hers, tangled in a bush almost out of my sight. I raced around the bush and froze. That glimpse of hair was the only thing that could have identified her. She was lyin’ on her stomach, while blood soaked through her shirt and the ground around her. What was left of her shirt was a bloody mess, like someone took a dog an’ carved it up for thanksgiving dinner without cooking or even killing it first. I couldn’t breathe, didn’t dare move, just prayed that she wasn’t dead. A faint moan and the tiny, tortured movements of her back granted that.
I was suddenly on my knees next to her, ignoring the fact that I was ruining my only good clothes. I gently rolled her over to check for any other wounds.
God. Oh dear god. Her face.... Any skin left was peeled away, in a few places still dangling attached to the muscle and bone that I could see all too clearly, along with tiny wires from her data jack and VCR. Most of the blood actually came from what had been the most expressive, beautiful set of blue eyes that ever looked in my direction.
I... don’t know what happened after that. Doc says that I blocked it out, that in extreme shock a guy can go on automatic. Apparently I picked her up and brought her to the street doc that did my cyber, Jim Mercer, and swore an’ threatened until he promised to fix her up best he could. He talked to me again, when I was myself, and... hell, I know he’s a cyber doc, not a med, but I can’t take Shanna to a real doc. Not enough money, and as gangers and SINless, we wouldn’t make it more’n a few bandages and aspirin. Doc promised to put her up for as long as the nuyen keeps coming and she needs it. Money... don’t matter now. All that’s important is keepin’ her alive.
“Toby?” My head jerked up when Doc Mercer finally called my name. Guess I was too out of it ta hear him come in.
“Yeah? How is she? Will – ?”
He sighed and ran a hand over his hair. “I’ll be blunt. She made it through surgery somehow, against all odds. I doubt she’ll last the several weeks it’ll take for her recovery, but if she doesn’t go into a coma or shock, she’ll live out a normal lifespan.”
Thank you. Whatever god is there and listening, thank you.
“That’s the good news.” I gave him a panicked look. “I did all I could, but dammit, I told you, I do cyber, not meat. She’ll never walk again. Whoever went after her was thorough. The base of her spine, where we might put in cyber, is completely destroyed. I simply don’t have the abilities or tech to do anything for that. Her face... I did the best, but again, reconstructive and plastic surgery isn’t my area. I did the best I could. Her eyes might be recoverable, but I don’t have the skill to do it. Anything you might do would be incredibly expensive and of a level of craftsmanship you’ll only find in the corps. In a few years-” he shrugged- “the level of technology might reach what she’d need to be ‘normal’ again. Even then, it’ll take a few more for it to hit the streets.” He hesitated, then put a hand on my shoulder. “Toby, as your friend, not as your or her doctor, this is wrong. It’s cruel to keep her like this. She’ll be blind and crippled for the rest of her life. You can’t make that decision for her. Let her go.”
All I could do was shake my head. “I can’t,” I finally whispered. “I can’t lose her.”
“Ah. She’s... ?”
“Everything. She’s all I have left. She means the world to me.”
We sat together for several uncomfortable moments. “Can I see her?” I finally asked.
“I know, but – ”
He held up his hands in surrender. “You have ten minutes, don’t touch anything that’s bandaged. Understood?”
I nodded. He led me to one of his few recovery rooms, let me go in, and closed the door behind him.
Shanna looked so small. I mean, sure, she’s short and slim, but she always had a presence, personality that made up for it. Lying on the hospital bed, head and torso wrapped in gauze, skin paper white and hooked up to a dozen machines, she looked like I could sneeze and shatter her.
“Hoi,” I whispered, dragging the chair next to the bed and clumsily holding her hand, tryin’ desperately not ta stare at the tubes goin’ inta her arm. “I... just wanted ta make sure you was ok. But I guess this don’t ‘zactly count as ok, neh? I’m sorry. I shoulda been there. I dinnit even tell ya where I wuz goin’. I gotta job. Doorman atta apartment buildin’. I wuz gonna quit the gang an’ go there permanently. An’....” I wiped away sudden moisture in my eyes. Damn guttertalk. Always shows up when I get emotional. “I wanted you ta come with me. Figgered... figgered I’d take partial pay and rent a room. Permanent sec guard, sorta.” I was really crying now. “Please Shanna, don’t die on me. I need you too much. I don’t wanna lose you. I love you.” It was the first time I ever told her. And she might never know, she might never hear it. “Please don’t die.”
I spent the rest of my five minutes sobbing like a baby, holding her hand like it was an anchor to keeping her here.
I carefully put my uniform onto the hanger, then made sure it got into the closet. I’d been on the job for two weeks already and Mr. Myers likes it that I’m always neat, clean, and polite (even if it is a little hard at times, like with Mrs. Sullivan and that ankle biter she calls a dog), and hell, any chance at a raise is good. Even my visits to Shanna are after I put the clothes away. Ain’t being callous, just that... it’s all that’s keepin’ her fer recovery, givin’ her a chance to heal.
Anyway, another one’a the perks of havin’ the job is the Doc’s place – a former 2 story, 1 family house city hall prob’ly has down as condemned – is only ‘bout ten minutes slow walk away. When I got there, Doc flagged me down ‘fore I could head upstairs for my 20 minutes with Shanna. That worried me.
“Toby, I honestly didn’t think it was possible, but... I’ll be damned, she woke up this morning.”
For a minute, I just couldn’t process the thought. Then I hadta sit down. “She’s... gonna be ok?”
He hesitated. “The chances of survival just doubled. That’s all I can promise.”
I nodded. It’s all you can expect on the streets. “So, can I see her?”
“Yes, but remember what sort of damage – ”
“Look, I ain’t some sorta corp protected pansy, I can handle it!” Apparently the doc decided not to press the issue. I stalked upstairs and knocked gently on the door ‘fore openin’ it. Shanna was sitting up, and her bandaged head turned in my direction.
At first, I couldn’t believe the voice, which sounded more like it a ripsaw through steel then a human sound, came from her. “Hoi, Shanna, it’s me, Toby.”
“Hoi.” She hesitated, then sighed. “Tobe? I – everything hurts, chummer, ‘cept my legs... I can’t feel my legs. Doc won’t tell me drek. What happened?”
I never heard her talk that way, so scared and this close to freaking out, not since we first met. “To you, or just in general?”
“They’re already callin’ it th’ Blitz. One’a the Week Enders hit the wrong suit, so the Star came in an’... well, ya know they cain’t tell th’ difference ‘tween any’a th’ gangs. Took out mosta the people in the area, includin’ some civvies.”
“An’... an’ me?” When I couldn’t say anything, she shifted with a slight whimper. “I need to know. Toby, please!”
“Yer spine... ain’t good. Doc... Doc specializes in cyber, an’ he says he can’t do nothin’.”
“I’m crippled.” Pause. “And?” Another pause. “What else? Last thing I remember was this pig comin’ after me with a monowhip and – drek. My eyes?”
I had to swollow a suddenly large lump in my throat. “Nearly nuttin left.”
“Gods.” She leaned back, then laughed. “Ya know, when I said I wouldn’t go back to the Phillips even if I had to crawl, I didn’t expect to be taken literally.”
“Shanna, you don’t have to go back! Why would you?”
“Try the fact that I’m a blind cripple. Fragging lotta good that’ll be to the gang. I’ll be lucky if I could go back to get my stuff.”
“Shanna - ”
I told myself she’d had enough bad news today. The rest could wait.
Over the next three weeks, whenever I came to visit, there was always some excuse, some reason why I couldn’t see her. Part seemed legit, but most were just reasons to keep me from visiting. It bugged me, sure, but what could I do, knock the door down cause I had some flowers I wanted to hand deliver?
Shanna would have my hide for that.
Anyway, I was still coming every other day when the Doc pulled me aside. He was busier’n usual and looked pretty frazzled. “Toby, good, I’m glad you’re here. Look, the bandages came off earlier and your friend’s barricaded herself in her room.”
That was all I needed to hear.
When I managed to restrain myself to polite knocking on her door, all I got was “Go away,” in that ripsaw voice. But it’d take an idiot not to notice the teary pain in it.
Momma didn’t raise no idiot.
While my first instinct was to just shoot the door handle, that would get both of us booted out, so instead I just gripped the doorknob and shoved.
When it comes down to door versus troll – with this troll at least – the door cain’t win.
Shanna gasped and cowered away from the door as best as she could, considering she couldn’t move below her waist. “I said go the frag away!” she yelled, barely muffled by her hands.
“I can’t do that,” I told her.
God, how many times am I gonna look back at this and wonder what if? I shoulda said what I felt, what I meant, said that I loved her – but I didn’t. “Yer my best chummer. You’re all that I have left. You aren’t gonna get rid of me unless you really mean it.”
“How could I not? Get out.”
“No.” I couldn’t believe what I was doing, how hard I was pressing her. “Not until we talk.”
“Talk?” She sounded hysterical, talking with a thick voice, and was sniffing like one hell of an allergy attack. “I... I don’t want you to see me like this... not this way.”
I sat down in the chair next to the bed, in arm’s reach, but still not able to see her face behind her hands and hair which fell like a curtain, now that it was finally released from the bandages. “Shanna, please.” I dared to reach out and put my hand on her shoulder, hating myself for the way she flinched away and knowing I had to do something. “I don’t care. Yer gonna throw away ten years of friendship for what? A few scars? That don’t matter. You - ”
“A few scars?!?” she finally looked at me, prolly with rage, maybe just trying to shock me.
Her face was in better condition then it was when I brought her here. I couldn’t see bone or jack wires anymore. But... poor Shanna. It reminded me of when Momma tried to get me to eat prunes as a rugger, by dressing them up in food so they looked like little old men. It was the same principle, but it was scar tissue instead of wrinkles, some places stretched thin, hinting at the bone, shiny skin that wasn’t natural. The total result was hideous.
“You call this a few scars? I’m...” She paused, hands moving in circles while she looked for the word. I caught them and gave a reassuring squeeze.
“No. You said you couldn’t see, so how could you know?”
She laughed, a sharp bitter bark I hadn’t heard since the early days when she talked about her stepdad. “I’m blind, but I’m not deaf and I got hands. It feels so... evil. And the nurse... when they took off the bandages, one of the nurses nearly screamed and had to yarf. A nurse! Gods, what’s gonna happen to me?”
I took a chance an’ moved onto the bed, cradling her close and gently rockin’ back an’ forth. Physical contact with her’s always been an iffy and dangerous subject, but she just leaned against me, shoulders shaking. I dunno how long we were like that, before she pushed me away. “Thanks,” she whispered. “But... you better go. Jax hates it when ya spend too much time away.”
“I have a job.” She tilted her head to the side at that, looking in my direction like she could see me. “Doorman at an apartment buildin’.”
“Jax let you get away with that?” She sounded half amazed, half puzzled.
“Jax... is dead.”
Her shoulders slumped and she tilted her head towards the ceiling. “Drek. I’d thought I imagined that. How many others?”
I hated this part. “All.”
“They.... The Star wiped out mosta the gangers in the area. Pigs managed to get alla the Skulls ‘cept us. They tried ta burn the flop, but you know how Jax was about fire.” Scared drekless is the term that comes to mind. “An’... like I said, I gotta job, an’ it comes wit a small ‘partment, an’ I wuz hopin’ you’d come live there wit me.” I saw her hesitate. “The gang is family.”
She winced, huddling her shoulders. “And I know what family’s worth. Give me some time, please.”
“Well, ok, but... no more sulkin’ in here?”
She could still smile, although it was hard to tell if you didn’t know her well. “I won’t promise.”
I smiled back, not caring that she couldn’t see. I dared to give her shoulder another pat, then stood. “I gotta run. My shift starts soon. I’ll be back tomorrow, ‘kay?”
“Sure. Bye.” She waved and settled back in the pillows.
“Ya know, Doc is sain’ you need some exercise.”
“Yeah, I’m just getting ready to go and run a marathon,” Shanna snapped back at me. It was one of her bad days. Well, even so we’d made a lotta progress since last week.
“Well, actually I was thinkin’a somethin’ else, but you don’t seem up to it.”
She hesitated, then snorted. “Oh all right.”
“Great!” I didn’t even try to stop grinning when I picked her up and put her in the chair.
She crossed her arms and tried her best to glare up at me. “Very nice. I’m sitting up. Now what?” I just kept grinning and handed her the rigger connection. “What the frag?”
“You stick it in yer head,” I reminded her. “Right side.” Slowly, she fumbled the jack up and put it in her VCR. She’d gotten it and her datajack on a drunk bet awhile ago, but kept whining about using it.
She slotted it in and slumped back. “Whoa,” she breathed in that spaced out tone deckers and riggers get, “nice wheelchair.” The brakes let go and the chair moved forward to stop just short of the bed. She whistled. “Sensors so not to run into anything, speedometer, dog brain – sweet machine. Musta cost the Doc alotta nuyen.”
“Not a thing.” She jacked out and raised what was once an eyebrow. “It’s yours.”
Her mouth dropped open. “What? Toby, I couldn’t afford this, ‘specially not after my stay here. Even yer job-!”
“I... pulled the gang’s funds. We’re all that’s left, and well, you need somethin’ ta get around in.”
“Hang on, I’m not finished yet.” I placed the second gift in her lap.
“What is this, Christmas?” She carefully felt it over, head cocked to the side as she tried to figure it out. “It’s a deck,” she finally declared. “Does it have progs yet?”
“Yeah, I got some help from two deckers. They said they left a message for ya when you finally get around to usin’ it.”
“Huh. Frosty. Hang on a sec, I’ll just check-” Shanna broke off with a gasp when she jacked in.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. I couldn’t have anything happen now. I was ready to yank her out if she started doin’ anythin’ unusual, but she smiled.
“God,” she whispered in a shaky voice. “Oh God.”
“Tobe... I can see.” She laughed, not the hysterical shriek I expected, but an honest-to-gods-just-for-fun laugh, like I never heard from her before, or since. “I can see!” She leaned over and hugged me. “Thank you. I can’t ever repay you, but thank you.”
“Actually, there is a way you can.”
Marry me. “Well, I got a two-room apartment, and I need a roomie.”
She smiled. “Well, I suppose I could manage somehow. All right.”
When we got home, I put Momma’s ring in the back of my closet, hiding it in the corner of the shelf that’s above the hangers. Nobody can get to it without takin’ down the entire shelf or if they got long arms, like a troll. I don’t think I’ll be usin’ the ring any time soon. I still mean it for Shanna, but not now, not after... what happened. I know it’s not my fault, that if I was there it wouldn’t be any different, but.... I have to wonder, what if? She nearly got away on her own, I could’ve bought her some time –
I know it’s not my fault, but that don’t mean I don’t blame myself anyway. Maybe someday I’ll propose to her, maybe when I can get her the mods to let her walk, to see again.... Maybe then.
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