An older nurse told me that in her mother’s time Ishkin would’ve been given oxygen to breathe through a tube. She said oxygen is the part of the air our bodies need most. It’s interesting to know this, but no help to Ishkin, since it’s impossible for ordinary people to get metal tanks of oxygen.
I spent the morning reading to Ishkin and talking to him, although he can no longer speak. Around mid-day, Vince showed up with Sara, escorting her through the crowds that are still camped around the hospital. He brought with him some antibiotics that one of our people found among a cache of drugs the group stole during yesterday’s fighting. They’re a different type than what the hospital has been giving, and Sara said she would show them to one of the doctors and see if we can try them. I don’t think anything is going to help at this point, so certainly nothing will hurt.
Vince then asked if I could help with a small job. He seemed embarrassed and kept looking at Ishkin. “I know you probably don’t want to leave him, so don’t feel like you have to take this assignment.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I didn’t work yesterday, so if it’s not a big deal, like you say. . .”
“I had some of our guys hide some stuff yesterday, and it’s still in one of the burned-out neighborhoods. We were going to wait a few days before going back for it, but there’s a rumor El Duque is going to step up security as early as tonight.”
“It doesn’t have to be. I was thinking it would be just you and Ozone, pretending to be ordinary civilians going back to check on what’s left of your home or business.”
“How come not me and you?”
“I was thinking you should take your horses, and I can’t ride a horse worth shit.”
“I guess that’s not such an important skill to have around here,” I said.
“So you don’t mind doing it?
I looked at Ishkin. Sara was doing something with his drip bottle. “Go on, if you want to. He’s stable, and I’ll keep an eye on him.”
I went back to base, put on my dress, brushed out my hair and tried to fix myself up feminine and citified. On impulse, I put on one of the necklaces Vince had given me. When I went to join Ozone, he was dressed like a downtown shopkeeper in neat brown pants, a clean shirt and a jacket. He looked at me in my dress and got a funny smile on his face, but all he said was, “You’re going to get cold. Don’t you have a shawl or a nice coat?”
“If I had one, I’d be wearing it.”
“Maybe we could take one of Gitana’s.”
No way was I taking something of hers without asking, and I wouldn’t have asked, even if she was around. “Maybe I can fold up a blanket or something.”
“Let’s ask Vince. He stole a nice one yesterday.”
We went to the room Vince had appropriated for his new office, and while Ozone explained our dilemma, Vince looked at me the same way Ozone had. I think he saw that I was wearing one of his necklaces, but he didn’t say anything.
“Well?” Ozone asked.
I don’t think Vince had been listening, because he seemed surprised when Ozone took one of the blankets off his mattress in the corner. It was of some kind of dark, soft material, with a decorative trim and fringe. It was hardly a blanket at all, but it was warm, and when Ozone had folded it into a triangle and wrapped it around my shoulders, he said it would do.
We went to the stable, and the horses were excited to be getting an outing. Poor Flecha. I patted her neck and told her not to worry. “It won’t be long now, one way or the other, and we’ll be back in the country where we belong.”
The job went off without too much trouble. We had been advised that there were checkpoints into and out of the neighborhood, but they were few in number and poorly staffed. Ozone knew the area pretty well, and chose another way in so we could avoid questioning. We had some phony papers, but didn’t want to use them if we didn’t have to.
I had been curious to see the area where so much of the fighting had been, and it was both better and worse than I had expected. Many of the buildings had burned and the ones still standing all showed damage from bullets, bombs or shrapnel. Bodies lay in the streets, some decently covered, but most lying just as they had fallen. I had been prepared to see a lot of dead civilians, but no amount of forewarning gets you ready for that.
What was even more distressing was not the number of dead, but how they died. Some of the killings were obviously intentional—women and old men hung from streetlights, and children shot at point-blank range. I couldn’t imagine any reason for such savagery, and as we picked our way through streets full of trash and abandoned goods, I found myself growing angrier and angrier.
Ozone was grim and silent, far from his usual talkative self. Finally we came to a house that to me looked no different from any of the others, but that he swore was the one. We scoped the area, then I waited outside while he went in. He emerged several minutes later, pale and agitated. He was carrying some bags, which we rolled in the sturdy wool blankets we had brought and tied behind our saddles. When he mounted Ishkin’s horse and picked up the reins, I noticed his hands were shaking.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I don’t know. There’s some dead people in there. A whole family. They weren’t there yesterday when we hid the goods.”
“Maybe they saw you take the bags in and went to steal them after you'd gone.”
“No, they went in there to die.”
“Why do you say that?”
“The bullet holes. Murder-suicide. You know.”
“Jesus.” I didn’t know what else to say. Maybe they had been on the wrong side of the fighting, or maybe one of them just snapped. Years of chaos can do that to some people. You think you’ve seen the worst, and then something else happens, then another thing, and finally that one final thing goes wrong and you just can’t face the thought of rebuilding your life again. As we passed a church that seemed to be in good repair, I turned to Ozone. “Want to go inside and say a prayer for them? I’ll stay out here and guard our stuff.”
He shook his head. “I don't have any pull with God. They’ll have to make it to Heaven on their own. I’m sure the kids won’t have any trouble.”
I agreed. “God doesn’t punish little kids.”
We went on in silence, but when we tried to get out of the neighborhood the way we had gotten in, we found a checkpoint had been set up. We ducked onto another street without being seen, but soon saw another checkpoint in the distance.
“Looks like those stories about El Duque increasing security weren’t just rumor,” Ozone said.
“What should we do?”
“We’re going to have to use the papers. It shouldn’t be a problem, since we’re going out, not coming in, but if they give us any trouble, make a run for it. Split up, and we’ll meet back at the stables.”
I had stashed my phony papers in a pocket of my dress, so I had them ready when we got to the checkpoint. I handed them over and made sure to smile at the guards and hold their gaze as long as I could. After a cursory glance, they handed back my papers and waved me through.
Ozone didn’t have such good luck. When they said they wanted to search him and his goods, I took out my pistol, keeping it under the folds of my skirt and waiting. Ozone made like he was going to comply, but suddenly kicked his horse and sped through the checkpoint. One guard had already drawn a weapon, so I had to shoot him, but the other two were slower to react. I wheeled Flecha about, kicked her hard and we took off. We turned down the first street we came to, then lost ourselves in the grid of streets, turning and doubling back so many times that not only were we not likely to be followed, but I soon lost my bearings, too.
I pulled up in front of a deserted shopping center, and tried to figure out where I was. Well, heading toward the big mountain was always a good bet, so that’s what I did, Flecha trotting along and seeming pleased to be having an adventure of her own.
Ozone was waiting for me at the stable. “What took you so long? Did you get lost?” He helped me unload the bags and waited while I walked Flecha and then rubbed her down and fed her. When I was done, Ozone rented a bicycle rickshaw, which dropped us off a couple blocks from base. We walked rest of the way.
Vince was out when we arrived, but Gitana and a few others crowded around to explore the contents of the bags. A few of them already had a prior claim on one thing or another, but most of the loot would be distributed later, when everyone who went on yesterday’s mission was present and could agree on what was fair. There were batteries, coins, jewelry, a very nice pair of men’s shoes, a few silk scarves that Gitana obviously had her eye on, a few items of clothing, cigarettes, and some bags of white powder that from the way Speedball’s eyes lit up, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know about.
By now it was time for Ishkin’s supper, so I went to the hospital, not bothering to change out of my dress, since I didn’t want to argue with the kitchen staff if I was late picking up my tray.
Ishkin looked worse and his fever was up. Sara said she had administered some of the antibiotics Vince had found, but the doctor didn’t expect them to help. “I don’t think he has much time left.”
I nodded and sat by his side. He couldn’t eat. He was fighting just to keep breathing, and the time it would take to swallow was too much time spent on something other than struggling for the air he needed in order to live. I took his thin, cold hand in mine and I think I must have dozed off, because the next thing I knew it was late, and Sara was shaking my shoulder.
“You might as well go,” she said.
I stood up. “Are you going home? I should probably go with you.”
I walked Sara to her door, then went back to base. Other than one person on guard duty, everyone seemed to be gone. I didn’t know what to make of it, and figured I would return Vince’s blanket, then go ask the guard what was going on. To my surprise, Vince was in his room, drinking Scotch whiskey and writing something in a book by the light of an oil lamp.
“I didn’t know you were here,” I told him. “Everyone else is gone, and you didn’t come for Sara.”
“I knew you’d take of her. Everyone else decided to go spend their money at a bar, since we don’t have a job tonight. Someone besides the guard had to stay here.”
I handed him the blanket, neatly folded. “I came to return this.”
“No other reason?”
“I didn’t know you were here.”
“And if you had known?”
That went without saying.
I came back to my bed a couple hours later. The others aren’t back yet, and might not be back until morning, but neither of us wanted to take a chance. Still, I miss sleeping with a man. Having sex with Will felt like incest, but I loved having him next to me in bed, and now that I have someone I can enjoy making love to, I don’t get to actually sleep with him.
I don’t know why it’s so hard to get everything you want. I’m pretty sure Auntie would tell me this is part of growing up, but I don’t like it.
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