I had spent the morning at the hospital with Ishkin, feeding him, talking to him and trying not to let him see how worried I was about his lungs. When I left, I headed toward the communications place to see if there was a message for me yet. I was walking along the sidewalk, picking my way around the trash, street urchins, dogs, and uneven chunks of concrete, when I heard a motor pull up beside and a little behind me. By now I was getting used to hearing occasional car and motorbike engines, so I did my best imitation of a city girl and ignored it.
The sound grew louder. I ignored it some more. Then someone yelled at me.
I turned around, and there was Vince on a shiny black motorcycle, looking at me with those ridiculously blue eyes of his. I walked over. “Where’d you get the bike? It’s gorgeous.”
He leaned toward me and lowered his voice. “I stole it. Want to go for a ride?”
“You did what?”
“Just get on.”
I had always been a little scared of motorcycles, but I climbed on behind Vince, wrapped my arms around him, and we took off with a roar of the engine and the sharp gray smell of gasoline. “Where are we going?” I shouted over the wind.
“I don’t know. I was thinking maybe the freeway.”
“You know—the elevated roads. They’re called freeways, Rústica.”
Some of these “freeways,” as he called them, went up really high and all of them showed cracks and signs of shrapnel and disrepair. I didn’t have time to question his judgment because he slowed down to turn the corner, shouting at me to lean with the motorcycle and quit fighting it. It defied all reason why we didn’t tip over, but I held my breath and did as he said, and soon we were upright again, speeding toward a mass of roads that curved and twisted in all directions.
The roads above looked impossibly high as we started up the ramp, but once we were out onto one of them it hardly seemed like we were in the sky at all. “Is this safe?” I shouted.
“Hell no, it isn’t safe.”
“Then why are we doing it?”
“Because we can.”
He did something with the handlebar, the engine roared louder, and we went faster and faster. There was something magical about having the whole city below us while we sped through the air like birds. It tickled my stomach and I could’ve screamed with the joy of it.
Vince navigated us onto a road that sloped gently downward, crossing the river and putting us back on the ground near the great hulk of a mountain that loomed over the city. Here the freeway became just another dust-covered road, and we headed away from the rings of burnt and crumbling houses, out into open country. I tipped my head back and took a deep full breath of the clean country air, wishing I could carve a slice out of the cloudless sky and eat it in great big gulps.
Then for no reason I could see, we started slowing down. Vince leaned over the dials and display things on the bike, cursing and pounding on them with his fist. He twisted the handlebar, but instead of roaring back to life, the engine gave a little sputter and fell silent. We glided a little farther in silence, slowing rapidly now, until we tipped over into a mound of earth, gently, like in a dream.
We lay there for a moment, both of us too surprised to speak. Then we started laughing. I don’t know why. Maybe it had been too long since anything seemed funny to me, but I laughed until my stomach hurt and I could scarcely breathe. Each time Vince looked at me, everything got funnier, until I threw myself face-down into the dirt so I wouldn’t have to see him and I could maybe get a grip on myself. I had almost gotten my breathing under control, when Vince patted my shoulder. He tipped my face toward his and began wiping the tears and streaks of mud off my cheeks.
And then he kissed me.
That stopped my giggles quick. I jumped to my feet and began brushing myself off. “You shouldn’t do that.”
I couldn’t think of a really good reason, so I gave him the first that came to mind. “I’m married.”
“Where’s your husband?”
“I don’t know.”
“He left a pretty girl like you?”
“I’m not pretty. And no, he didn’t leave me. I left him.”
“Then it shouldn’t matter if-”
“It’s complicated. Please don’t ask me to explain.” I looked at the motorcycle, silent and still in the dust. “Why did we fall over?”
Vince got to his feet. “Out of gas. I guess I should’ve stolen one that had a working fuel gauge.”
“What do we do now?”
“Walk, until we come up with a better idea.”
We walked in uncomfortable silence for awhile. Finally Vince said, “I saw you reading a book last night.”
“It’s called The Last of the Mohicans.”
“What’s it about?”
“Indians and war, kind of like here, except that the girls in the book are annoying and helpless.”
“What do you like best about the book?”
“The water. It's got rivers and lakes and waterfalls. . .”
“Water falls? Like in a shower?”
“More like when the river runs over rocks. Lots of water. It sounds like enough to grow food for everyone in this entire region. Wouldn’t that be great?”
“You really think something like that is possible?”
“Why not? It’s fun to think about, isn’t it?”
“I just like the idea of water falls.”
“There’s also whirlpools, but I’m not quite sure what they look like. It’s hard to imagine.”
Vince laughed. “You really want to see a whirlpool? I can show you one.”
“No, you can’t.”
“I can, too.”
We argued about this, and finally agreed that he’ll show me a whirlpool tomorrow if no new work comes along. By this point we were back in the suburbs, and Vince found someone to sell the motorcycle to. With the money he got, we hired a bicycle rickshaw. Since it was almost time for Ishkin’s supper, Vince dropped me off at the hospital.
“Do I get another kiss?”
“No, you’re my boss.”
“We’re a street gang, not a military unit, Rustiquita. We don’t have rules.”
I gave him a fast peck on the cheek, right on his tattoo. “I’ll see you in about an hour."
“Right. Be on time, okay?” He seemed annoyed.
I got back to base just in time for the strategy meeting, nervous that something in my behavior or his would alert Gitana. I shouldn’t have worried. She was settled into a chair beside him as if she was his wife or something, and when Vince gave me my assignment for the evening, it was as if the whole golden afternoon had been some crazy dream.
Tonight’s assignment should be no big deal, although I know I’ve said that before. This time we’re providing extra manpower to one of the local mafias. It’s supposed to be strictly guard duty, to free up their own people for something else they have going on. I don't usually like standing around and waiting for something to happen, but it’s just the right assignment for me tonight. This was a strange day, and I have a lot on my mind.
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