The decision to take some days off came back to haunt Wyatt when his boss called to tell him that he was fired. Wyatt reacted by calling Hector, just to passive-aggressively relay that info, after which he hung up. Then he ordered another pizza. Bags of groceries sat inside his fridge, but he didn’t feel like cooking, or even unpacking most of them. Besides, maybe if he fattened up on fast food, Hector would take one look at him and just walk away, finally leaving him alone. Normally he’d find that solution funny in a morbid way, but he just didn’t have it in him anymore.
He hadn’t been out of his apartment in almost a week. There was no reason for him to go anywhere anymore, not until Thanksgiving at least. He wondered how he would explain to his parents why he didn’t come to them in a car. Maybe he should rent a car for a few days, a fancier one, and say that it’s a new one he bought recently? He resolved to think about it in a week or two or three. In the meantime, out of sheer boredom, he considered picking up his abandoned hobby of writing a journal again, but just as there had been nothing legal that he could have written down there for the past months, now there was simply nothing to write about. He didn’t know anymore if keeping a journal even had a point. Had anything ever really been worth writing down? Was anything in life worth anything at all? He just didn’t know or care anymore, it just didn’t matter. Eventually, he opened the new geology books. He was surprised to find that all of them had bookmarks in them. But he didn’t ponder on it for too long.
Zack called him on the first Saturday of November. He said he just found out what happened and asked Wyatt if there was anything he could do to help him. There wasn’t, but Wyatt appreciated the gesture. Hunter dropped by again during the week, which resulted in more take-out packages and beer bottles piling up on the world’s shortest kitchen counter and the floor. At that point Ocher didn’t even care to change out of pajamas or to tell Hunter not to come over so often. So what if small time criminals and Hector Viteri were seen coming to his apartment interchangeably and on a regular basis, who cared? Two Bits told him to air the room, and he even opened the only window in the apartment in a gesture of friendship. He also tried to convince him to ‘go for a walk or something’, but gave up on that quickly, not sure himself how exactly it would help. After Hunter left, Ocher shut the window again and went back to sleep.
It was then that his phone rang.
Thinking it was probably Hector, he didn’t feel like picking up until a vaguely familiar voice claimed to be calling on behalf of his university, and started leaving a bizarre voice message.
“…that the books we forwarded made it to you, and we hope to see you return to us soon, Mr. Brooks.”
He stumbled out of bed and picked up the phone.
“Hello, Wyatt Brooks speaking. I-I… I’m not sure what you mean. I got the textbooks, but I didn’t realize they were from you…”
“Well, technically they were sponsored by Mr. Viteri, however the professors have bookmarked the current progress for you, so that you can join the group whenever you are ready. Of course the sooner, the better, Mr. Brooks, but please do take your time if you need to.”
Wyatt stared ahead in utter puzzlement. “Ah… I am very grateful, but I’m afraid it might take me… another year to assemble the funds that would allow me to enroll again and start over.”
“No, no, Mr. Brooks, you misunderstand. Your Bachelor and Master studies are already paid in full. You will be joining the final year of the Bachelor degree now.”
The representative of the university’s secretariat waited for a moment, but in the absence of a reply, promptly filled the silence with more relevant information. “Of course, since the term has already begun, tuitions will be arranged for you in order to assure that you catch up with the material.”
Then the assistant proceeded to arrange the first introductory welcome-back meeting, that would include a guided tour of some new facilities added to the university grounds in the last two years of Wyatt’s absence, as well as the first meeting with his professors. Hector had clearly bribed or threatened everyone in the university to get him this sort of treatment, and the perspective of even attending such a meeting was rather terrifying, but Wyatt didn’t dare say no. This was all he’d ever wanted. His life getting back on track. And at that moment, on the phone, he didn’t quite yet realize just at what cost.
He felt obliged to call Hector after that, and did his best to sound grateful for a change.
“I… I’m calling to thank you for reinstating me in my university. You really didn’t need to do that.”
“You were always so adamant about finishing your education, I thought I’d make arrangements. As for your gas station job, just forget about it, focus on your studies. Your student loan is paid. I will cover your rent and any other related expenses, like the sum you would normally send to your parents.”
Wyatt was lost for words. His debts were paid? He… he was free? The feeling of elation was intense but short-lived. No, he was not free. All his debt was merely moved from the bank to the Man. And now he would never, ever pay it off. He would never be free.
“Are you still there, darling?”
“Y-yes, I am, but it’s really too much. I can’t express how thankful I am for your generosity, but it just… just doesn’t feel right for you to pay for all that.”
“Don’t worry. When you finish your education and start working, you can pay me back if that makes you more comfortable. The city could always use more well-educated professionals, so consider this an investment in the betterment of society,” Hector said humorously.
“I-I don’t really know how to thank you.”
“Come over this weekend? We will be playing board games with the kids on Saturday. Both me and Zack miss you.”
Wyatt sighed. It’s been two weeks since he’d last visited them. Or left home in general. He guessed his plan of getting rid of Hector failed miserably. “Okay. What time?”
* * *
The board games had been scheduled for noon. It took all of his willpower to get out of bed, wash and dress on that day. He had refused to be picked up by the chauffeur, told Hector that he would take a bus and then walk the rest of the way. It was high time that he and fresh air got reacquainted.
While on the bus, Wyatt observed the people and the passing streets grimly. He was going to be indebted to Hector for the rest of his life. There was no escape from this anymore, no hope. He’d lost a friend, his thief gang, his job and any independence that he’d been deluding himself he still had. He knew that Hector had not really been behind everything that happened, but it still felt like he had. Like he’d been trying to monopolize his life and succeeded.
They started off with lunch, late one because he didn’t make it exactly on time, and then, fittingly, set up a game of Monopoly. Wyatt hadn’t played that since elementary school. Zack and Rose confessed to having last played the game about half a year ago, but it didn’t matter — Hector crushed them all. He got a hold of half the board and ended a multi-millionaire, overflowing in plastic real estate and colorful banknotes.
Wyatt had to pay up so often while visiting the Man’s hotels that by the end of the game, he felt like his debt to Hector was mostly paid off. The thought was actually amusing, and the kids were whining at grinning Hector so much; ‘How do you always do that, uncle?’ and ‘Come on, Dad? Again? Real life is not enough?’ that Wyatt couldn’t hold back a genuine smile. He actually had fun. In real life, he didn’t have a car, but in this game, he got to be one. He won the second prize in a beauty contest, received an income tax refund and even landed on the Free Parking a few times. Even after everything that happened, he still felt strangely at home here, and despite his best attempts at summoning the existential dread that he should have been feeling, it just wasn’t coming.
Rose lifted a finger in the air. “Just to clarify, I only went to jail five times because as a future maybe-policewoman, I was on a tour of the local prisons. Inspecting them, or something like that.” She clarified. The girl was considering some sort of law enforcement or department of justice career. From what he knew from Zack, Hector had tried to dissuade her from joining the police force and go for the military instead, while her parents didn’t like any of those options.
“You were taking people into custody and delivering them to jail. Common police procedure.” Hector nodded. “But it doesn’t quite reflect the mountains of paperwork one has to overcome daily doing police work. They are called police officers for a reason.” He winked at the girl.
Rose contemplated that for a while. “Hm, well, that must have been why it took me so long to get out each time.”
Everyone laughed at that. They wrapped up the game, and while Zack and Rose threw some rainbow money at each other and giggled, Hector nodded to Wyatt placatingly, clearly trying to re-establish the lost connection. Wyatt caved in and nodded back, which earned him a loving smile.
Hector didn’t try to keep him on that day. After dinner, he let Wyatt go home, and didn’t even insist on having anyone drive him back or ordering a cab for him. Wyatt was glad to have that freedom and independence at first but by the time he reached his apartment, he was tired and cold and it taught him not to turn down Hector’s offers next time.
That day had broken the two week long streak of self pity and near-isolation. On Sunday Wyatt cleaned his place, throwing out all the beer bottles and empty take-out boxes and pulling out an ancient barely working vacuum cleaner to battle the dust and crumbs. On Tuesday, he put on his best shirt, packed his documents and textbooks and went to the appointment at his university. The perspective of having to look his old professors in the eye was more frightening than meetings with Hector were these days.
It went way better than he had expected. He didn’t know how much money Hector had thrown at the university, but it was like he’d never dropped out. Like he had never begged these people not to fail him, like he’d never been told that he couldn’t go back to the year he dropped out of, and that the only way after such a long break was to start from the beginning. Now everything could suddenly be arranged, no, actually, it had been arranged already, and it seemed like the entire professorial body and university staff suddenly united in one single purpose — to make him succeed.
Wyatt returned to his flat in a state of mild shock, with sheaves of xeroxed and neatly bound notes of the faculty’s best students, the current class schedule and several pages of his own scribbles. He was invited to start attending the classes as soon as possible, why not tomorrow?
And really, why not? It wasn’t like he had anything better to do at this point. He had been reading textbooks to drown his sorrows for two weeks now anyway. He was as ready as he could ever be.
And so on Wednesday, he showed up for the classes. There were no familiar faces among the students — everyone who had been in his faculty had already graduated not just their Bachelor’s but also their Master’s too — but that just made him feel at ease somehow. There was nobody to ask him uncomfortable questions. For the other students, he was just a new face, joining their grade after a long absence caused by a mysterious mix of personal reasons and health issues. He looked approachable enough, so he got curiously asked about it a couple of times over the next few days, but he was so full of expert-level lies these days that it was a trifle to reply to such inquiries.
The professors were a different story. The way they acknowledged him whenever they spotted him in the auditorium and made sure that all his questions were answered and that he always had all the materials he needed, made him wonder if it had really been just Hector showering them with money, or if it was the Man kidnapping everyone’s loved ones and keeping them hostage until the day Wyatt Brooks graduated from his Master’s degree or maybe even until he defended his PhD thesis. But no, he was quite sure it was just the money. It would seem that it really could buy pretty much anything in the world.
Speaking of money, he received a lot of cash from Hector. There was also talk of adding him as an authorized user on one of Hector’s credit cards, but that would take a few weeks. Wyatt tried to object to all that, but the protests were pretty half-hearted. His life was turning around, finally resembling what he wanted it to be. How ironic that it was a crime lord who ended his criminal career, pushing him back on the right track.
He called the Rathi sisters that week and was invited for dinner, where he not only shared the good news about his university but also came out as Hector Viteri’s boyfriend. They would have found out from the newspapers sooner or later if they hadn’t already, he couldn’t exactly tell from their faces.
Hamsi was overjoyed and happy for him. Abhilasha looked as unimpressed as ever. But he didn’t take that to heart because there’d never been anything that could make him look good in her eyes anyway.
On the weekend, Hector invited him to the movies. It was the middle of November already, but they were still showing The Terminator, allegedly a great hit. Zack went with them, and so did Rose, though she made sure to clarify that even though they could see her, she was not actually there. Her parents didn’t want her to watch such violent movies and would never allow her to come along. Judging by Hector’s and Zack’s reactions, this kind of conspiracy was entirely normal. They all had fun and ate a lot of popcorn. The premise of the movie was pretty wild with its notion of time travel, but Wyatt felt strangely invested in the idea of containing the threat and stopping the Terminator. After the movie Hector took them to a nearby arcade, where they spent hours playing games, cheering and laughing at each other. It was a really fun family evening.
He still kept in touch with Hunter. They hung out in pubs, but avoided The Big Dipper. Neither of them could even think of that place without getting reminded and feeling depressed. Craig was dead, Kat had left the city, and it was just them now. Or not even that. Wyatt wasn’t a thief anymore, it was something both him and Hector had agreed was no longer needed. Suddenly Hunter and the box of keys under Wyatt’s bed were the only things that remained of his petty life of crime.
It had only been weeks since it all fell apart, but it felt like months. It looked like it’d been months too. Hunter seemed different, and not in a bad way. The older thief tidied up and looked like he’d acquired a purpose in life. Wyatt didn’t really ask him about it. He was guessing what it was and didn’t really want to know anything more about it. He was also afraid that should he ask, Hunter would proceed to share all the details with him and then feel even more welcome to ask him personal questions than he already did. But whatever it was, for the first time ever he saw Hunter clean shaven and in clothes that didn’t hang on him. Even his hair looked less mousy than usual. It seemed the older thief’s life was getting better, and Wyatt was happy for him. Things were looking up for both of them.
Barely three weeks after Craig’s death, Wyatt had already moved on. With his financial and educational situation under control and Hector’s remorseful and solemn promise of no unpleasant surprises coming his way ever again, he was building up more and more confidence. His life was more normal now than it had been in years.
Wyatt continued studying. His classes began at eight in the morning, but after two years of waking up for work before five that was nothing. He wished Hamsi was still there, it just wasn’t the same walking these halls without her. But at the same time he was happy that she graduated and already found an awesome job. And he was thankful that even now she still always found time for him. They started hanging out again, more than they had in years. They went to cafés, and parks, they chatted and joked. Hamsi helped him study. Thanks to her help and the private tuitions, he quickly caught up with the autumn term’s curriculum. But December was fast approaching, and the looming exams already had him worried. Suddenly he found himself more scared of failing geophysics again than he was of Hector.
Hector… Over the past months Wyatt had grown used to grading things that frightened him on a scale from zero to that man, but was he really that scared of him still? He knew he should be, especially after such a grim and recent reminder. But Hector had only been trying to protect him. Craig’s death was horrible, unfortunate and in every way appalling, and it left Wyatt scared for the lives of other people… but not for his own. And when Hector assured him that nothing like that would ever happen again, Wyatt… trusted him. He genuinely believed that Hector would never let it happen.
He felt like he knew Hector now. Really knew him. The good side and the bad side. Actually, he felt that he knew the bad side better, which was important, and meant he knew exactly what he was standing on. The limits of how far he could push his luck have turned out to be extremely flexible, in fact if there were some lines he could not cross, Wyatt still hadn’t found them. There didn’t seem to be a way to blow his cover without really trying to. After all he yelled at Hector a few weeks ago, and all that did was to make Hector feel guilty and try to make it up to him, which he’d been continuously attempting — and succeeding — to do ever since. Wyatt had feared being indebted to Hector, but now it looked like the Man felt it was the other way around. Hector kept double checking everything with him and making sure Wyatt was comfortable at all times.
All of this made Wyatt feel strangely relaxed and even optimistic about the future. Based on what he was observing, it didn’t seem to him like Hector was going to present him with a bill for all his generosity, not even when Wyatt would be quitting this relationship. Because he was going to be quitting it. In some time. The time he deemed right to quit. It shouldn’t be all that hard to do. For sure, he didn’t even doubt anymore that there was a way out, not with these kinds of reactions from Hector. The Man cared for him. He cared a whole lot.
The Viteri mansion quickly returned to being Wyatt’s second home and somehow, he did not even mind it. Without neither a job nor the pressure to make a living by thieving, he suddenly found himself with plenty of free time on his hands. He would call Hector and drop by after classes on certain weekdays, and on the weekend as well. They would watch a movie together, go out to a restaurant, or just stay at home. Hector did not pressure him into anything. He made a point of ensuring that Wyatt started feeling comfortable in their relationship again. Hector knew he had to study, and that he still needed time to recover, and he gave him that time.
Wyatt went home for Thanksgiving a bit apprehensive. At this point he really felt he was being more truthful with Hector than he was with his own parents. Especially now, that he not only could not tell them that he’d lost the job they never knew he had, or that he was back to the university they’d thought he already graduated from. That he finally stopped thieving. Or that he was in a relationship with the Man. Or with a man, in general. Was there anything he could tell them that wasn’t just lies?
Even the fancy car he was now driving back to his hometown was rented, and the plan when his parents would ask about it, was to pretend that it was his new car, which he’d bought simply because he could afford it thanks to his lucrative, ever progressing career. He guessed it was entirely hopeless. And yet he knew he would manage to keep up this charade for as long as he wanted to. Lying had always come easy to him and now after it landed him a kingpin boyfriend and a free education, he felt he’d mastered at least that one skill in life.
Feeling confident and as ready as ever to dispense misinformation to his family and all the old friends and neighbours that cared to ask him about anything, Wyatt turned on the radio. He remembered how he had to sell the one in his old car right after he’d sold the car itself. It was just several months ago, but it felt like it’s been years now. Hah, poverty could suck it.
Smiling, he drove on to the merry tune of Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”.
“This is getting out of hand! Where is your son? He would have been perfect for the job! A simple traffic accident, and we’d be done!” The doctor threw his hands up in frustration. “He wouldn’t even need to make it out alive himself, we all know dying never stopped him!”
The hero was dark like a stormcloud, he glared at the doctor, but did not lash out this time. Most of his anger was reserved for his offspring. “I am of the same opinion. But it is not easy to get a hold of him when he strays like this. He will be punished when I finally find him. I assume no one else has seen him?”
The others shook their heads. The temptress played with one of her rings.
The hero sighed and rubbed his temples. “In that case I believe the safest option would be to request a boon of you, my lady,” he said politely to the temptress. “Would you send your servant to deal with this for us? I’m sure she won’t have any trouble making a clean kill and framing it appropriately. It is highly unlikely that the Hindus had followed him out of town.”
“They haven’t,” the doctor confirmed. He nodded at the crone. “We’ve been keeping an eye on them.”
All of them turned to the temptress, waiting to hear her ruling.
“Hm, I’d personally love to give the order. But you know how busy my servant is everyday.” She looked at the woman beside her with concern, then turned to the others again. “What do you imagine, that Hector won’t be surprised when his secretary just walks out on him and drives to Michigan? Do you think that won’t compromise us as well?”
The doctor cleared his throat and very tentatively said, “It’s not unusual to request some time off around Thanksgiving.”
The temptress bit her lip, growing ponderous. “Well… if my sukkal thinks she can do it, then of course she can go with my permission.”
The doctor and the hero nodded, satisfied. The crone stared into the distance absently.
Only the heretic observed the temptress with an expression betraying that less agreeable thoughts were going through his head. But even though his mouth twitched, he kept his silence.
The temptress still noticed. She turned to him with a benevolent expression. “Oh, and Ninshubur, dear, when you go to ask for your time off, why don’t you put in a kind word for our friend over here. He’s been looking tired for months. He could use some vacation too. What would you say, Akhenaten? No cars, just you and the sun.”
The heretic didn’t say yes. But he did not say no either.
* * *
“Yes, Nina?” Hector rested the contract he was reading on his desk and looked at his secretary.
“I’d like to request a leave for Thanksgiving. I know it is on short notice-”
“Of course, Nina.” Hector smiled. “You’re way overdue for some days off. When do you think you will be back?”
“A week will suffice.”
“Thank you.” The secretary nodded. She paused in the doorway on her way. “Um, sir, Nathan hasn’t taken any time off this year either. You might want to remind him of that.”
“Good point.” Hector made a note in his planner. “Very good point, Nina. Nate’s been driving me around all year, it’s time to make the other guy earn his keep. But what will I do without you? I simply cannot imagine. I have several drivers but only one secretary.”
“I can stay until you find a replacement.”
“Nina…” Hector half-smiled. “You are irreplaceable, but what kind of monster would I be if I didn’t let a childhood friend take some time off? Go. Just go. And don’t worry, I’ll pass the news onto Nate. I’ll be my own secretary for now!”
“Do find a replacement, sir,” the woman said seriously.
Hector laughed and told her to go.
The next day Hector urgently called Sigmund Whalesong, asking if he maybe had a secretary he could lend, preferably two or three secretaries actually. Sigmund Whalesong smirked, and said he would see what he could do.
* * *
While Hector was coming to terms with the expanse of her essentiality, his secretary prepared for the trip, packed her things and got into her car. She thrust the key into the ignition.
“Where do you think you’re going, my dear sukkal?”
The servant turned around to see her mistress lounging on the backseat.
“I said you can go with my permission.” The temptress smiled, showing a flash of perfect teeth. “But you shall not have it. You will still drive, Nina. You will be gone for a week as planned. In that week, you’re going to lay low someplace nice and have some well deserved rest. Then you will report the issue dealt with and will continue claiming that it has been done for as long as you can. If they ask you to prove it, you will prove it. Once the truth comes out, you will be remorseful and say that your pride prevented you from admitting your incompetence earlier. You will apologize, and in the end, I will mercifully forgive you.”
“What about the old man’s pet?”
“Oh, don’t you worry, I will have some bird feed to keep her occupied.”
The servant nodded.
“Go now, Ninshubur. Do not forget the words I have commanded you.”
“Your wish is my command, my lady, I’ll do as I am told.”
“Hey, Skywalker! Let’s get this over with quickly, I’m freezing.”
“You wouldn’t be cold if you dressed for the weather. And good day to you too.”
Luke stared at the biker skeptically over the large cardboard box in his arms. It was quite heavy, but Penny had warned him the cargo inside was very delicate, so Luke did not dare put the box down onto the wet concrete under his feet. Their rendezvous point in a side alley made for a good spot for him to wait without attracting too many looks, but it also left him with no bench to set the box down on, like a park would have. Luke looked the shivering biker over and realized that he had not heard an engine before Yen walked into the alley.
“At least you did not bring your motorcycle.”
“You say it like it’s a good thing.”
“It is. How would you ride with this?” Luke nodded at the box. “This is something very fragile. Very valuable. I hope you intend to take a taxi with it.”
Yen stopped in front of him, looking utterly perplexed. “What is this? A fucking TV set?”
Luke rolled his eyes. “Why would it be a TV, Yen? Have I ever passed you electronics?”
“Maybe you passed me nothing but electronics, it’s not like you ever check! It’s the size of a TV. And if not a TV, what is it?” Yen came closer and inspected the cardboard box with growing suspicion. “Huh, why does it have holes on the sides?” He leaned in trying to peek into one of the holes. Unsatisfied, he stood straight again, then reached out and tore off the piece of tape that was barely holding the box closed.
“Yen, what are you doing?!” Luke protested and took a step back.
“Oh, come on. I wanna see what I’m dealing with before I start juggling this baby.”
“Why would you do that?!”
“It was a metaphor.” It was Yen’s turn to roll his eyes. “Chill out, Star Wars man, what’s the worst that could happen?”
Yen crossed the distance between them and before Luke could withdraw, he opened the box. He did not manage to peak inside, as the contents came gobbling out. The brightly-colored turkey fluttered up, landed some feet away and started running towards the mouth of the alley. There it stopped and looked to both sides. It gobbled again.
Luke and Yen stood thunderstruck, staring at it.
“Get it, Yen! Quickly! But gently!” Luke set the empty box down on the ground. There was a bit of straw inside, but he had almost expected to see El’s hat in there, the bird looked exactly the same.
Yen ran after the turkey, but he did not slow down when approaching it as Luke had assumed he would, and the frightened bird simply ran off to the right. Yen followed it.
“That’s not how you do it!” Luke chased after them.
When he ran out of the alley, Yen was already yards away, swerving between bewildered passersby as he ran cursing loudly and trying to catch the bird. For once Luke was grateful that Yen wore that horrible image of a half-skeletal golden face on his back, at least he was easy to spot in a crowd. Luke chased after the biker.
“Yen look out!” Luke cried.
The biker had been running half-crouched, trying to grab the bird that was always just a few feet ahead, and he failed to notice a hotdog trolley emerging from around the corner. The bird dove under it and gobbling ran out on the other side, but the biker headbutted the trolley and landed on his ass.
Luke caught up with him and helped him up.
Yen glared at the hotdog vendor. “Watch where you’re going!”
“Same to you, buddy!” the fat bearded man replied, as Yen rushed past him.
“There!” Yen pointed ahead and ran across the street.
He did not make it very far. Half-way across, with a loud honk and a screech of the brakes a car barely managed to stop, knocking the biker over onto the hood. Yen swore, slid off and kept running.
Luke saw the blond driver look after Yen in outrage, muttering to himself. His fancy car looked undamaged, and after a moment of budding road rage, the man drove off. Making sure the way was clear, Luke ran after Yen.
He caught up with the biker in a side street. Yen was standing in place, breathing heavily. The turkey was proudly strolling over a fire escape above him.
“Fuck you, you oversized, bedazzled chicken!” Yen flipped the bird at the bird, then bent over, panting. “It may be your holiday, but it doesn’t mean you can act like it…”
Luke stopped beside the biker, just as out of breath. He looked Yen over. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah. I’m made of tougher stuff than that kitty.”
“It was a Jaguar that hit me, wasn’t it? Hope I scratched it up with my pins and studs.”
“I don’t think you did.”
“Damn.” Yen straightened up, then arched his back and glared at the bird on the fire escape. “You’re not a bird, you’re a jackass.”
The turkey gobbled.
Yen looked around himself, picked up a pebble and swung to throw it.
“No!” Luke stood in front of him and lifted his arms to shield the turkey. “Please, don’t. We need this bird unharmed. It is special to El.” Or at least he assumed it was. It was so much like the one on El’s favorite hat, it had to be special.
Yen grimaced. “Oh, come on. It won’t kill it.”
“No.” Luke did not move from the spot.
“Ugh, have it your way. Boost me then.”
“Boost me.” Yen clasped his hands in front of himself and leaned forward, demonstrating. “Stand there and do this, hold tight. I’ll use your hands as a step. Fuck, I shouldn’t be explaining this, it’s middle school one-o-one.”
Luke did not argue and followed the instructions. Without further warning, Yen did a small running start and stepped into Luke’s clasped hands, launching himself up. He grabbed onto the ladder, pulled himself up and began to climb. Luke rubbed his hands, watching him from below with a feeling of anxiety, but also mild awe. He remembered how he had to earn his way onto the fire escape last time. And here Yen went and just jumped onto one.
Yen moved sideways around the ladder to climb onto the fire escape proper. The turkey looked at him, gobbled, then started running up the steps.
“Shit!” Yen moved back onto the ladder and climbed higher. He almost caught up with the turkey on the next level, but it ran further up the stairs. So Yen climbed on and followed it up the steps.
“Fucking bird. I’m gonna pluck your arse bare when I get my hands on you. Then I’ll glue all those feathers back on. Nobody will know what happened, except you and me, you glittery piece of shit.” Yen scrambled up the stairs, the colorful bird always just a few feet away, just out of reach.
Finally the two of them reached the roof.
The bird stood in the center of the flat roof and looked around, as if searching for an exit.
Yen spread his arms victoriously. “What’s the matter, Polly? Is this building too tall for you? Should have picked one of the lower buildings, asshole.” Yen laughed and began slowly walking towards the bird. It didn’t seem to be going anywhere. He had it.
He was maybe three feet away when the bird bolted, flapped its wings and… flew up. It kept flying higher. Yen froze. He stared at it in horror as the colorful turkey flew higher and higher, then began gliding down. Yen ran up to the edge of the building and watched it descend into another bystreet. There it stood still, turned to him, gobbled and began lazily strolling deeper into the alley.
Yen watched it, dumbfounded for a moment, then he ran to the side of the building he had come from. He leaned over the edge and yelled. “It flew off! It landed in an alley in the next street, it’s a corner with a pawnshop.”
“Got it!” Luke shouted from below and ran off. But not before he added “Be careful on the way down!”
“Bah.” Yen rolled his eyes. Then he headed down.
They continued much in the same manner for at least an hour. The bird led them through the town like it was sightseeing. It didn’t seem to be keen on escaping the city altogether, but it clearly did not want to be touched. The sky was beginning to grow dark.
“Maybe we should try something else? Try to lure it with food?” Luke wrung his hands anxiously as they slowly followed the bird through a litter-strewn back alley.
“Or maybe like a net?” Yen suggested. “I think there’s a volleyball place nearby, I could try to break in and-”
“We’re not breaking in anywhere.”
“We aren’t, but I could.”
Luke shook his head, then stopped suddenly, as the biker put an arm in front of him. “I said you’re not breaking into anywhere,” he protested again.
“Whatever, look!” Yen pointed ahead of them.
The turkey had stopped in front of the porch of a dilapidated building. It stood in place for a moment, then took a hesitant step towards the door. Then another. Then it disappeared inside.
Yen turned to Luke with a crazy grin. “We got it! It’s got nowhere to run indoors!”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.”
“Well, I for one welcome the perspective of taking this chase indoors one way or another.” Yen began sneaking forward, careful not to scare off their prey.
Luke followed. To their common relief the bird did not run out of the building before they got to the door. But there the good news ended. It was pitch black beyond the doorway.
“Well, fuck me sideways, that celebration was premature.” Yen stood straight and glared at the dark doorway. He rummaged through his pockets and produced a lighter. “Yeah that’s the best I have.”
Luke beheld their one potential source of light with a sour face. “We could really use a lamp. Or a flashlight.”
“Did I hear you fellas say ‘flashlight’?”
A guy in a suit with a briefcase held awkwardly in front of him all but jogged towards them. Yen stared at him incredulously as the man flipped open his briefcase, revealing rows upon rows of flashlights.
The biker eyed him up and down like he couldn’t quite believe the man actually existed.
“If you’re looking for a flashlight, you’re in luck, fellas, this is the newest in flashlight technology, the new halogen flashlight! It is three hundred percent brighter than your ordinary flashlight! Care for a demonstration?” The man took a flashlight from the case and looked at them with an overly eager grin. Combined with his thick mustache and wide open eyes, it looked almost manic.
Yen said nothing and just kept staring, as if his disbelief could make the man vanish like a mirage.
“Um, sure, please go ahead,” Luke said, seeing that he was the one left to do the talking.
“Fantastic! See, halogen is a light so bright, so white, it will be like nothing you’ve seen before!” The man praised his product, then proceeded to demonstrate it by shining the flashlight into the dark doorway. The hall was impressively lit with a cold white light. In the center of the circle of light, the turkey stood motionless, staring in the opposite direction. Its feathers shone beautifully. It gobbled and ran deeper into the building.
“We’ll take two,” Luke said eagerly. “Yen, please, pay the gentleman.”
“Two flashlights, coming right up! Fun fact — British folks call these ‘torches’. Say are you two brothers?”
Yen finally snapped out of his stupor and, staring the guy down, said in a deadpan voice. “Oh yeah, we’re twins.”
“I thought so, but didn’t want to assume,” the salesman said and smiling held out two flashlights to Luke.
Yen gaped at him.
“Do those have batteries?” Luke asked.
“Thank you. Yen, money?”
Yen handed the salesman a random assortment of banknotes.
“Thank you for your business! Have a bright night, fellas!” The man clutched his case and hurried away.
“That guy is the one that needs the flashlight the most,” Yen said, staring after him. “Was he like blind or something?”
“Quick, Yen, we should hurry.”
Armed with flashlights they ventured into the dark. It took them less than five minutes to figure out where the gobbling was coming from. The bird had walked through a hole in some rubble and was now gobbling to its heart’s content in the middle of a ruined corridor. They watched it for a while through the hole in the rubble.
“I could try to squeeze through,” Yen said hesitantly.
“No, it’s way too unsteady.” Luke shook his head.
“Ok, then you stay here and watch it, I’ll jog outside and see if it has anywhere else to go. It should get hungry eventually and just come out if it’s trapped.”
Luke nodded, and Yen hurried out.
He came back panting a few minutes later. “Ok, windows are boarded up, and I scoped out the rest of the place, the door we came through is the only exit. If this idiot chicken doesn’t kill itself, it is bound to come out through here, so maybe you can like pay a bum to watch the door and catch it, and we can just call it a day.”
Yen caught Luke glaring at him judgingly in the reflected light of the flashlight.
“Oh, right, you’re a bum. Eh, sorry.”
“No, that’s not the problem, Yen, I am not offended by that. But this is our job. We cannot entrust it to strangers.”
“I dunno, maybe we can? That flashlight guy was mighty convenient, don’t you think? The turkey could be trained or something. This could be another one of those farcical play-pretends these sham-anist types do.”
Luke shook his head.
“Anyway, I am not going to spend Thanksgiving in a condemned building, waiting on a fucking chicken.” Yen shrugged.
“I’m staying,” Luke said stubbornly.
“Well, your loss. I mean, thank you for your martyrdom, Saint Luke of the Chickens, may your name be clucked in glory till the end of days. Amen.” Yen turned his flashlight off and handed it to Luke. “Show me out, and I’ll get you a couple of hotdogs and a coffee before I leave.”
Luke sighed. This was probably the most thoughtful thing Yen could muster. “Thank you.”
“You know you really don’t have to do this either.”
Luke led the two of them back towards the front door, shining his new fancy flashlight on the stained litter-strewn floor. “Somebody has to do it. We cannot let the bird escape. And the people I live with don’t celebrate Thanksgiving anyway, so I’m not missing much.”
“That’s good. I guess.” Yen shrugged. He cast one last look as he walked outside. “You sure you wanna stay there in the dark all alone with a chicken?”
“Ok, I’ll go get you that hotdog. Wait here.”
Luke did. Yen was back within several minutes. He brought Luke not one or two, but three hotdogs, a bottle of soda, a coffee and a lot of napkins — in case the wait was that long, Yen waggled his eyebrows. Luke accepted the offered parting gifts with grudging gratitude, then watched the biker jog away while swearing at the cold.
This was going to be a long night.
⚞ ¥ ⚟
Yen came into Nana Riley’s house and kicked off his shoes. Finally, out of the cold. He wasn’t going to spend the holiday freezing to death. If Blaise needed to have the bird urgently, he had Nana’s number. Moreover, working more than eight hours a day simply wasn’t in their imaginary contract. It probably required extra pay and like all sorts of other benefits. Paid overtime. Yen nodded to himself and marched into the dining room. He was greeted by the sight of a mostly cleared dinner table. The main dishes were still there, but the plates were almost all gone, as it appeared most of the Pharaohs were done eating. Only Nakhti was still chewing lazily on some popovers, and beside him sat a tired, grouchy Sam.
“You’re late. Everything’s cold,” Sam said.
“Not as cold as I am. And I can’t microwave myself, so give me some meat.” Yen walked over to the table, grabbed a plate and started filling it with turkey.
“Where were you?” Sam kept glaring at him.
“Ok, you’re gonna love this one. Take this in. I was chasing a turkey.”
“I ask myself the same question. After all, here’s one, inert and ready for consumption.” Yen piled stuffing on top of the turkey, then poured a generous amount of gravy on the whole thing.
“I made lactose free mashed potatoes just for you,” Sam said in an accusatory tone.
“My bad. Here.” Yen added some mashed potatoes to his plate and hurried towards the kitchen.
“Cover it all with a lid before you microwave it, or the gravy will be all over the place!”
Yen came back stuffing his mouth with the reheated dinner as he walked across the room. “Don’t you think that having Josie and Tamika help Nana with the dishes is both sexist and racist?” Yen dropped into the chair opposite to Nakhti and gleefully observed that Sam looked even more cross with him than before.
”How dare you talk like that to your mother,” Nakhti said in his usual monotone.
”Seriously now.” The club leader scowled at him. “Sam spent twenty hours on this dinner. You could at least go help the others wash up when you’re done.”
“Why isn’t the rich kid there helping? Since we’re being so oppressive here anyway.” Yen snatched the popover Nakhti was reaching for and gobbled it up, looking the man defiantly in the eye.
“Zack has a family, unlike the rest of us. You know it. And you always make a big deal of it, Yen. Stop it, we are all in the same boat here. Why can’t you just be happy for him like we are? Are you really that immature?” Sam crossed his arms on his chest.
“Ugh, whatever, you guys are boring, I’ll go watch TV.” Yen left the table with his plate and went to the empty living room. There he switched the TV on and dropped on the couch.
The newsroom appeared on the screen with the presenter doing her usual funny story of the day look as she narrated.
“On this lovely Thanksgiving afternoon, an unusual bird was spotted in New Coalport Downtown. A local ornithologist who happened to be one of the witnesses recognised it as an ocellated turkey.” The image switched to a nerd with huge glasses on an equally big nose, who looked quite like a turkey himself. “Ocellated turkeys are native to Yucatan, they have stunning green and copper plumage, and an eye-pattern on their tales. The skin on their heads is blue with orange nodules. A most majestic species. Like jaguars, bats and serpents they were important to the Maya-”
Yen got up and switched the channel in annoyance. It was some heart-warming movie about a loving family saying lovey-dovey bullshit to each other. Yen groaned and switched again. Sports.
Yen switched off the TV and dropped onto the couch.
His appetite was slipping, but he continued to stuff himself with turkey out of sheer hatred for the species.
“Hey, Yen. You’re finally back.” Josie walked into the room and dropped into an armchair opposite to him. “What kept you?”
“I thought the car wash would close early.”
“Other business,” Yen grumbled.
Josie looked at him expectantly, but as he said nothing, she shrugged. “Anyway, you should leave some space for dessert, Sam totally outdid himself. You should be nicer to him.”
“Gah, please, everybody wants me to be nice to everybody today.”
“Yeah, that’s like a general expectation within a circle of friends.” Josie looked at him like he was stupid. Then her expression softened. “Hey, it’s Thanksgiving, man. Go thank Sam for the food at least.”
Yen glared at her for a moment, then got up and trudged to the dining room.
“Thanks for the food, Sam.”
“And?” Sam did not look back at him.
“And I’m sorry I was late.”
Sam shook his head. “Try again.”
Yen grimaced. “Oh come on… Ok, jeez, I’m sorry I’m a jackass, and I hurt your feelings or whatever.”
Sam looked at him with furrowed eyebrows and a wince. He sighed. “I guess that’s the best I’m going to get out of you. Beggars can’t be choosers. Apology accepted.”
Yen sat down at the table. Sam’s expression slowly cleared up. Then he got up and mumbled something about dessert.
“Thank public transit, Yen is finally home,” Nana Riley came back from the kitchen and sat down at the head of the table. “Why did you leave your bike behind, you traitor?”
“I had to move some cumbersome objects.”
“Then why didn’t you take Sammie’s truck?”
“Nana, I don’t have a driver’s license.”
“Like that would have stopped you.”
“Fair point. However, Nana, you forget that driving a cage would be far worse for my biker karma than carrying shit with my own two hands.”
”You don’t really look like you were carrying heavy things all day,” Nakhti remarked.
“Yeah, it didn’t quite work out as planned,” Yen admitted.
Sam reappeared bringing a huge tray with four massive cakes on it. Tamika followed with a swarm of butter tarts. Josie concluded that procession, bringing tea.
“Holy shit. I take my grudging words back, a big fucking thank you to you, Sam, this looks like something they would make me cook in Hell when I finally land there.” Yen gestured at the pies. “I would have fourth degree burns within five minutes.”
Sam smiled. Yen smiled back.
The bikers passed around the treats and filled their cups with tea. They cheered, and all thanked Sam and Nana Riley for the feast. Even Nakhti cracked a smile.