Highline to the Hills :: Part #1 Storms Anthology
Mustering courage, Anna took a brisk intake of breath, then grabbed her late father’s phone and ran outside into torrential rain, headed from her stilted shack towards the shoreline. Nearly slipping on the boardwalk, she stopped abruptly upon reaching the spot at which reception was usually strongest. Stabbing her fingers at the phone’s keypad, Anna dialled not the emergency services, for there were none, but one of the few remaining medics left in the district. Clasping the phone against her ear she heard a no dial tone. There was no signal. Not a single bar. Indistinguishable from the raindrops, tears were streaming down her face, as towards the heavens she yelled, “Don’t take him! Please don’t take him!”
Anna’s ramshackled ocean top abode was one of thousands that, made from the debris of a now destroyed city, had informally assembled along the shoreline of Los Angeles a quarter-century ago. When, in 2035, the “Big One” finally struck it was bad. The city had looked every bit as apocalyptical as in the scenes of the Hollywood blockbusters of old. But, that was just the beginning. Next came the several storm surges, “perfect storm” surges. Many millions had moved inland and upward, to the “High Ground”. Yet, for others the prospect of cohabitating with the now frequent infernos that engulfed California’s wildlands was just too daunting. In a world of elemental extremes, while some lived with fire, others lived a life semiaquatic.
Soaked to the skin, Anna was breathless and shaking as she returned to her shack. Near catatonic, her younger brother appeared barely conscious of her presence. Clasping his hands, she kissed him on the forehead, whispering “stay with me, stay with me Joe”. Both were emancipated. Seaweed and Moon jellyfish having stood between them and starvation, neither they, nor their neighbours had seen a square meal in a great many months. Her fragile damp frame draped over Joe’s, Anna searched her mind for a course of action. Glancing towards a makeshift blood stained bandage on Joe’s painfully thin, cold and bluish foot her heart sank at the knowledge that all known medical supplies for miles had been exhausted. ‘He is five, just five’, she thought. Despondence looming large, by the light of a flickering storm lamp, Anna recalled images that, like a showreel, streamed through her memory. How she wished her thoughts could conjure her parents from their eternal slumber. If only they could be here, they would know what to do. Could they not give her a sign? Anna looked to a faintly glimmering gold necklace that was hanging on a rusting nail embedded into the corrugated sheeting that was protecting her and Joe from the worst of the ferocious weather. Gently swaying in the gusts that slipped through the many gaps in the shack’s assemblage, the oscillating motion of the necklace’s locket mimicked that of the pendulum on a grandfather clock. Minutes seemed not momentary now.
None but adrenalin keeping her awake, Anna’s senses were unceremoniously sharpened by the sound of hail hammering down on the tin roof above. Beneath, an inch or so of seawater flowed to and fro across the floor in synchronisation with the wave sets. Behind her, a wafer thin wooden door of which the hinge was a length of fishing wire was banging, relentlessly, in the howling wind. But, despite the din, Anna’s attention was wholly focused on Joe. Casting her eyes to his chest, she noticed his breathing had quickened. She couldn’t bear to lose yet another loved one. “Haven’t we suffered enough?” she asked.
“Anna! Joe! Anna! Joe! Come on, we need to go!” called out a figure from the doorway. But, such was the hullabaloo about her that Anna could not hear him. Cloaked in a long waxed coat and a cowboy hat and boots, the man strode into the shack, continuing to call out to Anna and to her now very sick younger brother as he did so. Finally hearing him, she turned, startled, but relieved. “How did you know to come?” she asked, to which he responded, “We’ll get to that later. I’ll carry Joe”. Reaching over and grabbing the necklace from the nail, Anna mouthed, “thank you, you heard me”, as she placed it over her head. Taking Joe in his arms, the man, Anna’s cousin Charlie, took care to shelter his living cargo under his huge coat, as hunched together for support, he and Anna headed out into the storm.
The distance to the shoreline was no more than two hundred yards, but as winds battered the trio too and fro, it felt much longer. Above their heads swung a string of fairy lights intermittently flashing a blue light, as if the tiny biolumiscent creatures encased in its baubles were issuing an evacuation warning. Clinging to Charlie with one hand and to a rope that extended the length of the boardwalk with the other, Anna kept her eyes firmly on her feet, counting her steps by means of focusing her attention away from the chaos unfolding all about them. Only when she caught sight of the now eroded remnants of LA’s past strewn some several feet below their path did she dare look up. A short distance away, a wiry young man was sat in a rickshaw, which part sheltered by the remains of a heavily-graffitied wall, was anchored by means of ropes tied to cement blocks adjacent to its wheels.
Looking up from under a stream of water running off the tip of his cowboy hat, Charlie gave a look of gratitude to the young man, who immediately jumped down from his seat and came to assist Anna into the back of his vehicle. Having placed Joe in Anna’s arms, Charlie then untied the rickshaw’s improvised anchors, as its driver did likewise on the other side. Spotting an abandoned bicycle resting against the wall, Charlie mounted it, shouting, “Ready when you are” to the rickshaw driver, who, turning to his passengers, introduced himself. “Hanoi Hank, proud descendant of a Vietnamese ma and a Texan pa at your service. Buckle in, it’s gonna’ be one bumpy ride”, said the driver, as illuminated by the light from his peddle-powered headlamps, they hastily set off.
Watching Hank navigate his vehicle through alleyways so awash with fast flowing detritus as to constitute the urban equivalent of white water rapids, Anna was reminded of the stories her late father had told of her grandparents’ many trips to Yosemite in their youth. “Another era”, she said wistfully to herself, as beads of sweat falling from his forehead, Hank briefly paused his pedalling to give way to a large rat that was swimming perpendicular to the rickshaw. Proceeding upon its passing, Hank steered Anna and Joe slowly, but surely, towards their destination.
Built aloft the path once traced by Route 66, the “LA High Line” was an improvised arterial road, which constructed of materials that had been stripped from abandoned buildings, linked “Tardigrades”, as Anna’s district was dubbed, to the far end of the city. In decades long past, the stretch from Malibu to Santa Monica had housed the rich and famous. Fleetingly floodlit by a flash of lightening, a scene of fallen buildings and souls, it was now a place that they in self-appointed power had wiped from both their conscience and the map. Arriving at the beginning of the High Line, Charlie dismounted his aluminium steed and, having parked it against some railings, walked over to a small booth above which a sign read ‘One-way LA$5: Return LA$7’. Sliding open a glass panel, a stern looking woman in a boiler suit stubbed out a roll-up and put out her hand for the obligatory toll. Judging by the look on her face, clearly there were places she would rather be. Having placed a very damp five Los Angeles dollar note in the toll-keeper’s palm, Charlie looked towards the bicycle and said, “Consider it a tip”. “It’ll be gone by daybreak” she replied, as she closed the panel on her booth.
Emerging from the doorway of a disused building, Hank, who had taken less than a ‘comfort’able break rushed to the rickshaw, as Charlie checked on how Joe was doing. Spotting the tears welling in Anna’s eyes, Hank realised Joe was very ill. “What’s wrong with him?” he enquired. Her voice faltering as she did so, she replied, “I think, I think it is sepsis”. “We’re taking a detour”, said Hank, who then climbed into his driving seat. “Where to?” asked Charlie. “A&E” Hank responded. Gesturing that he would run along side the rickshaw, Charlie placed his hat on Anna’s head, then looking at Joe said, “Hang in there Little Man.”
By day, the High Line bustled with peoples and goods headed to and from the many slums of the Tardigrades district. But, by night, none but the fearless would dare tread its boards, for a notoriously ruthless gang dubbed The Highwayman Patrol had claimed it as their turf. By means of cloaking their course, prior to taking a leak, Hank had disconnected the rickshaw’s headlights. Nonetheless, his eyes darted warily from side to side as he pedalled his passengers onwards. Counting down the seconds between lightening and thunder, Anna reached zero. Looking to the heavens she wondered, ‘was the storm their saviour?’ for had it been a dry and clear night, scant were the odds that they would have made it this far without an unwanted intervention by the “Patrol”.
Upon spotting the words “Rodeo Drive” biologically glowing from a signpost several feet before them, Hank slammed on the rickshaw’s brakes. Veering the vehicle off the High Line and in the direction that the sign was pointing, he checked his rear-view mirror. While looking at the man whose reflection was energetically bobbing up and down before him, he shouted, “Our escort is having no trouble keeping pace”, to which Anna replied, “Chief Petty Officer, U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team 1, until they were disbanded in 2055”. “That’s reassuring to know”, shouted Hank, as sparks cascaded over the rickshaw upon a lightening bolt striking uncomfortably close.
Steering into a narrow side street, relieved that their interim destination was now but meters away, Hank picked up the pedalling pace. Its silhouette outlined by a red aurora that was emanating from genetically-modified variants of the bioluminescent Dinoflagellates that had lit the boardwalk, the rickshaw made its way past a series of mostly empty shop fronts. Briefly averting her gaze from Joe, Anna’s eyes met those of a girl staring blankly back at her from deeply sunken sockets. Standing naked, but for a pair of towering stilettoes, the girl’s motionless demeanour evidenced her unfortunate disposition. ‘Splice’ was the street-name of a virus, which transmitted through bodily fluids, created affects that, their permanency aside, were akin to they of A-class narcotics. Mid-century, the former having perceived of its potentialities in warfare, the latter in the black-market, Splice’s discovery had ignited interest on the part of DARPA and crime syndicates alike. However, the market for sex robots having peaked in the late 2040s, it was traffickers that largely took command of the considerably less than ethical ‘commercial opportunities’ the virus had presented, and before long they began deliberately exposing their captives to Splice. Initially, the illicit trade in “living dolls” was huge and vast fortunes were made by they too morally bankrupt to care where their wealth came from. But, when news had broken that the virus was spreading from sex workers to clients, in a nod to Homer’s Odyssey, ‘dolls’ were instead dubbed “Splice Sirens”, and, the bottom fast-falling from a previously booming market, traffickers redistributed their ‘assets’. The girl shivering in the shop front was not for sale. She was window dressing.
Having slowed the rickshaw to a standstill, Hank helped Anna onto the street, as Charlie, who despite having run for several miles had yet to break a sweat, took Joe in a fireman’s lift. “Follow me”, said Hank as he descended down a dimly lit side-alley. Stopping aside an inconspicuous looking archway, which illuminated by an old Chinese lantern led to a large ornately engraved wooden door, Hank pulled three times on a rope that was descending from a window three stories above. Standing ankle-deep in water, Anna surveyed her distinctly unfamiliar surroundings, which, though now a scene of degeneration and decay, still spoke to a bygone age of decadence. Alert to her curiosity, Hank pointed to the engraving on the door and said, “The five tigers. Five elements. Five guardians. Of the five directions.” But, before he had time to elaborate, the door had opened and a middle-aged man dressed in a starched beige shirt and crisply pleated trousers bowed, thereon beckoned them in. By means of a hand signal the man then invited the party to follow him as he ascended some stairs to the rear of the hallway. Upon their reaching the third floor, he opened a door, before again employing his hands to indicate their course of direction, then bowed and disappeared back down the stairs.
Walking through a waft of incense as they went, the group entered the room beyond the stairwell. The abode of an illegal oriental alcohol merchant, its walls were fitted from top to bottom with shelving atop of which rested an array of exotic beverages that were brewed both on-site and by various specialist vendors about the city. An elegantly assembled woman wearing an áo dài appeared from the backroom. Upon seeing Hank her face lit up in delight. “My beloved nephew”, she exclaimed, as she opened her arms to greet him, to then stop in her tracks as she registered the forlornity of the expression on his face. “Aunty Trần, the boy is sick. Please help him”, urged Hank. “Come, come”, said the woman calmly, as she ushered her unexpected guests into the room from where she had come.
Its clinical white walls the backdrop to a microbrewery come medical research lab the backroom was the yin to its disheveled exterior yang. As Hank’s aunt peered through the glass-door of a large refrigerator of which the shelves were filled with pots and petri dishes containing pills, potions, and plant preparations of myriad kind, under the fluorescent-like glare of a high-velocity chemiluminescent ceiling light, Anna inspected Joe’s condition. Thinking it pertinent to impart his aunt’s career credentials to Anna and Charlie, Hank proceeded to do so. “She gained her PhD in Virology from Harvard, supervised by the virologist that first discovered the Apopraeterra virus, ‘Splice’, Professor Park. He had led a joint U.S.-Russian research programme of which the purpose was to establish the threat-level posed by pathogens that were being released as permafrost melted across the Artic Tundra. Dr. Trần,” Hank then looked to his aunt, “played a pivotal role in the gene sequencing of Splice”.
Upon finding what she had been looking for, Dr. Trần plucked a gloop-filled pot from the refrigerator, and placing it upon a desktop, pulled a form from a file and began filling it out. Meanwhile, Hank continued his précis of his aunt’s professional achievements. “When the States un-United research funding collapsed, as did science policy”. “That’s when we got creative”, interjected Dr. Trần. Hank continued, “Prohibition presented potentialities”. “This”, said Dr. Trần, as she gestured to an array of apparatus for distilling alcohol, “pays for this”, she expanded, as she took the pot from the desktop and, holding it aloft, shook its contents in the air, before reinstating it to its former position on the desk. Returning to the form she placed both it and a pen on a clipboard, then handed it to Anna to complete. “Hands”, said Hank as he dispensed the contents of a container of disinfectant gel. Lifting Joe’s light frame from Anna’s lap, Dr. Trần paused to observe the bluish tint to his leg. “Hank, rear-cupboard, top shelf, left side, blue label. Refrigerator, top shelf, left side, red label”, said Dr. Trần, before carefully laying Joe atop a trolley that was directly below the chemiluminescent light.
Its viscous innards activated by its shaking of moments earlier, Dr. Trần picked up the pot from the desk and having removed the top looked inside, nodding her head in approval upon seeing the anticipated sight. She then cut away the bloodied bandage from Joe’s foot and gently smeared the pot’s contents over the wound beneath, then stepped back and watched as the microbial substance changed in colour and texture. “Thank you”, she said to Hank, who was by now stood at the end of the trolley with a catheter in one hand, and an IV bag in the other. Dr. Trần then walked over to a sink, where she washed and dried her hands before inspecting the form that Anna had just completed. “No known allergies?” she asked. “None” replied Anna. Dr. Trần then swiftly filed the form away, before pulling on a pair of pristine rubber gloves, taking the catheter and inserting it into Joe’s arm, as Hank wheeled an IV pump, which had been tucked away in a corner, to his aunt’s side. While Dr. Trần assembled the various intravenous parts, Charlie, who had been quietly observing the proceedings from several feet away, noticed Anna was nervously pulling at the pendant on the chain around her neck. “He’s in good hands”, he said with an air of assurance. Dr. Trần, who was by now checking Joe’s vital signs, smiled and responded, “we do our best here at the ‘Hope’ital’… I’m confident we got this patient just in time”. Having once again thanked Hank for his assistance Dr. Trần gestured to him to pull upon a rope that was hanging aside the doorway. Obliging her wishes Hank gave the rope three tugs.
A short while later, the starched and pleated gentleman who had greeted Hank and his entourage upon their arrival appeared. “Mr. Chi”, said Dr. Trần, “prepare the guest rooms, please”, adding “and Cha ca La Vong and Chi Chi special tea too, Thank you”. Bowing, as he exited, Mr. Chi briskly departed to fulfill her request. Turning to Anna, Dr. Trần, beckoned her forward, before peering about her face and asking, “How long is it since you’ve eaten?” to which Anna replied, “a few days”. “We’re headed to the hills, to the Angeles forest” interjected Charlie, “to Haramokngna, then on”. Dr. Trần nodded approvingly, for she knew there were still supplies at ‘The Gathering Place’. Having paused, momentarily, to reflect upon the hardship that was being faced by so very many of they living in a once-affluent city, and in turn continent, Dr. Trần then resumed her assessment of Anna’s state of health. Returning to the refrigerator from which she’d taken the gloop filled pot, Dr. Trần took out and shook another. Having renewed her gloves she then opened the container and dipped an index finger inside, using it as a scoop to extract a dollop of its honey-like contents to place on Anna’s face. While watching the clear gel turn red with flecks of blue Dr. Trần delivered her prognosis, “you have a severe iron and zinc deficiency. I will print you a 60-day supply of pills. One a day.” Anna nodded in expression of her compliance.
Reverting her attention to Joe, Dr. Trần once again inspected his foot. The wound now protected by a film that had formed atop the gloopy biological substance and home-lab grown antibiotics circulating in his blood stream, she was confident he would pull through. “Hank, please take the IV pump, I’ll roll the trolley”, she said, as, with Anna and Charlie following, she and Hank headed towards the door. Inhaling another waft of incense as they re-entered the illicit liquor store, Anna, who was by now exhausted, felt briefly invigorated by its scent. While skillfully maneuvering the trolley through a doorway above which a sign marked “private” hung, Dr. Trần invited Charlie to take a bottle of whiskey from the store’s many shelves. “You sure?” he asked, to which she replied, “Consider yourself ‘quality control’. I’ve been experimenting with some new brewing techniques. Your feedback would be much appreciated”. Taking Dr. Trần up on her offer, “Thank you Ma’am, Much appreciated”, said Charlie.
Having passed through the doorway and into her living room, Dr. Trần pushed the trolley towards a chaise longues, to which she then decamped Joe, as Hank arranged the various parts of the IV assemblage, before turning to Anna and Charlie and inviting them to take a seat. Its walls covered in lotus print wallpaper and an exquisite assortment of carved wooden dragon, kỳ lân, tortoise, and phoenix ornaments, the room was unlike anything Anna had ever seen before. While many of Los Angeles’ objects d’art and other antiquities had survived the 2035 quake and its many aftershocks, thereafter, be they in private or public collections large or small, most had been stolen, illicitly-traded, or destroyed during one of the several storm surges. Hence, though dowdy and downtrodden the ‘Sirens’ district had generally become, Dr. Trần’s home harbored an artistic treasure-trove the likes of which few of Anna’s generation had ever witnessed.
His attention now turned to lighting candles, Hank was as accustomed to caring for others as was his aunt, and in the tradition of their Confucian forebears, he, as did she, felt it a privilege not a chore to help they in need. Their flames flickering in a draft as it crept through a broken window seal, the candles choreographed shadows cast by the carvings of the four most-sacred symbols of Vietnamese mythology. Picking up where he had left off at the doorstep, Hank began narrating stories against the backdrop of the dancing analogue animal animes. Old enough to remember the ‘Digital Age’ and its now distant visual wizardry, Charlie much admired Hank’s capacity to create pictures not with pixels, but words. Looking to Anna he smiled, for he could see that for a fleeting, but nonetheless much-needed moment, her mind had been transported to a trouble-free place.
As Hank drew his artful interpretation of the legend of the First Kingdom to a close, Mr. Chi arrived in the doorway with a hostess trolley, and, having bowed towards Dr. Trần, entered the room. Its upper shelf laden with bowls of Cha ca La Vong, various steaming accompaniments, and a pot of his special medicinal tea, its lower shelf comprised a careful arrangement of chopsticks, serviettes in the shape of lotus flowers, and finger bowls, the trolley was a testament to Mr. Chi’s commitment to bringing order amidst an era of seemingly perpetual chaos. As he artfully arranged the items from his trolley on a vintage teak coffee table, there was a ceremonious quality to the act. The table laid, Dr. Trần thanked Mr. Chi, who then swiftly left the room, bowing, again, as he exited. Stepping in where Mr. Chi had left off, Hank began serving supper, as Dr. Trần poured the tea. Conscious that, since the moment Anna, Joe, and himself had arrived their hosts had ceaselessly imparted acts of generosity, Charlie offered his assistance. Carefully taking one of the many bowls in both hands, he felt humbled by the circumstances: that such civility had survived the inhumanity of decades recent was a wonder more extra-ordinary than any ancient monument.
Her small and exhausted frame sunk into the couch, Anna felt comforted, but overwhelmed by her surroundings. Unlike her ocean-top stilted shack, the room was warm, dry, and, no matter the extremities of the storm, comparatively quiet. Putting her hand to her face she noticed that whereas her skin usually felt gritty with sea spray it now felt smooth: in an age of severe water scarcity rainstorms were akin to power showers. Like most Tardigradians her facial features had been prematurely aged by a combination of ever-extreme elements and relentlessly hard living. While usually oblivious to her appearance, the sight of Dr. Trần’s flawless skin glowing in the candle light made her feel self-conscious. As Anna traced a finger over the wrinkles already forming around her still young eyes, the ever-observant Dr. Trần imparted reassurance, “An ancient recipe, Chi Chi tea has many special properties. Generations of Chis have sworn by it. I will give you some to take with you. Drink 2-3 cups a day, and before long you will look luminous with good health”. Anna was touched by the kindness of someone she felt to be no longer a stranger. Casting her eyes to a framed photograph, which surrounded by silk lotus flowers and illuminated by candles was placed in a shrine atop a plinth to the rear of the room, she noticed a striking resemblance between its subject and Dr. Trần. No older than she, but with radiant pearl-like skin and waist-length silky hair, the girl had eyes that expressed a kind heart and a loving soul. Anna realized that Dr. Trần was no stranger to heartache.
The Cha ca La Vong, Chi Chi tea and assorted accompaniments consumed, Dr. Trần asked Hank to show Anna and Charlie to their rooms for the night and then walked over to an Ottoman from which she pulled a quilt. “I will check on Joe throughout the night. You both need to get some rest”. As Charlie helped Hank to clear crockery from the coffee table, Anna took a moment to gently kiss her now peacefully sleeping brother on the cheek and then whispered the bedtime rhyme that they sang together every night. Willing Joe well for the morning, she took his hand in hers, reassuringly squeezed it, and then followed Hank as he led both her and Charlie to the guest quarters on the floor above. Walking through another waft of incense on the way, it occurred to her that its use was not merely spiritual. Supplies of soap in short supply it must surely help to cover the various, at times unpleasant, body odors of they that frequented the liquor store more than the shower, she mused.
An ocean of calm in the eye of the storm that was still raging outside, Anna’s guest room was a simple, but spotless affair. Comprised barely more than a futon bed laid with white silk sheets, atop of which a pair of crisp white oriental-style pajamas, white towels, and an origami paper lotus flower had been carefully placed, it could be no more inviting. Although in the heart of the metropolis that was now known as the ‘City of Fallen Angels’, its Vietnamese vernacular style and bamboo aroma, made Anna feel a very many miles away. “The ensuite is through the slide door”, said Hank, then, having registered Anna’s quizzical expression added, “the bathroom… the bathroom is through the slide door”. “Thank you, thank you for everything”, she replied before bidding both him and Charlie a goodnight. Hearing the sound of the bedroom door close and Hank and Charlie’s footsteps trail up the hallway and into another room, Anna realized this would be the first time she had slept alone and anywhere but her ocean-top shack. Reflecting on the intensity of the still raging storm, ‘was it still there?’ she wondered. Whilst only a few miles away, Tardigrades now felt another world to Anna, and though she knew not where she and Joe were headed, she knew that to their former home they would not return. Catching sight of her appearance in a mirror on the wall before her she noticed that her white shirt was in fact grey. Looking to the white sheets, pajamas, and towels she realized she must wash, both herself and the clothes she stood up in, for they were all she had. Having pulled back the screen and entered the ensuite Anna filled the sink and the bath, the former to wash her clothes, the latter her. Accustomed to bathing in cold water, she was pleasantly surprised that not only was there a hot, as well as a cold tap, but with that, both worked. ‘One day’, she thought, ‘one day, Joe and I will have a home as comfortable as this’. Stepping out of the bath and into the warmth of the cotton towels Anna sensed though their future was uncertain it might be secure. Having once again inhaled the room’s earthy bamboo aroma, Anna stepped into the silk pajamas and then into the bed. Too tired to linger on the many unexpected events of the day she then fell into a slumber far deeper than she had had in a considerable while.
Some several hours later Anna was awoken by the sensation of sunlight on her face. But for the sound of birdsong from outside, the room was silent. The storm had passed. Her adrenalin abated by sleep, care and nourishment, she felt ready to take on a new day and so, having completed her morning ablutions and checked on her still drying clothes, made her way to ‘the ward’ in pajamas and a turban made from a towel.
Upon entering the living room, Anna found Dr. Trần was checking Joe’s vital signs. However, her brother was no longer unconscious, but wide-eyed and very much awake. Tears began tumbling down her face, but unlike they of the previous day they were tears not of sorrow but of joy. Her feelings elated, Anna rushed over to Joe and embraced him in her arms. “He’s responded well to the treatment. Remarkably well”, Dr. Trần said to Anna, adding “he’s out of the woods, with a little TLC he’ll be firing on all cylinders before the week is out”. “I don’t know how to thank you Dr. Trần”, said Anna, as behind her Hank entered the room. “Your gratitude is thanks enough. I consider it an honor that I can put my skills and training to good use. All I ask is that whereupon another needs help that is within your capacity to give you do so”. “I will, I will Dr. Trần!” said Anna, adding “But, don’t you need money? For the medicine, the food, the everything?” to which she replied, “We are a charity. Our work is funded by the profits from the liquor sales, and by the good will of many compassionate souls across the city and beyond.” Unable to contain her gratitude, Anna hugged Dr. Trần and then reached behind her neck to unlock the clasp on the gold chain around her neck. Having noticed that Anna had clutched its locket throughout much of the evening before, Dr. Trần re-affixed the clasp, saying, “Keep it my child, for it is dear to you” as she did so.
Hearing Charlie enter the room, Anna turned to tell him the good news. Smiling from ear to ear he walked over to shake Dr. Trần’s hand, “You’re an incredible woman. I can’t thank you enough. If ever there is anything I can do to help, know nothing would be too much to ask, and as for you”, he said as he patted Hank on the back, “you sure run one hell of a rickshaw service!” to which Hank responded “Thank you. And on that note, aunty, is the patient fit to travel?” to which Dr. Trần replied, “With care, he is. Anna, I will give you 12 pouches. They contain a fusion of antibiotics and nutrients. Joe is to consume one four times a day. Evenly spaced. Once I have removed his catheter he is good to go”.
A short while later, Anna and her now exceedingly clean and well-fed entourage were stood, once more, in the liquor room as they readied to depart. Emerging from her brewery come laboratory, Dr. Trần handed Anna a large brown paper bag. “Joe’s pouches, your supplements, tea, some extra samples for Charlie, and a little something to remember us by”, she said. Peering inside the bag Anna noticed something glinting. Upon plucking the object out she gasped at its beauty. “It belonged to my daughter”, said Dr. Trần, “I gave it to her on her 17th birthday. We lost her to the virus. But she remains with us in spirit, and in our hearts. Always”. “I cannot accept it”, said Anna as she attempted to hand the item back. “It would give me joy to know that another as spirited as was Hoa is wearing it. Please”, said Dr. Trần as she affixed the gold bracelet to Anna’s wrist, her eyes welling as she did so. “Ah, and one last thing” said Dr. Trần as Hank handed her a pile of her late daughter’s clothes, which she then handed on to Anna, saying “Better on you than collecting dust in a draw. Wear them well.” Having made their tearful goodbyes, Anna, Joe, and Charlie then followed Hank as he led them down the stairs to the front door, which Mr. Chi was holding open. Expressing thanks to the silent soul who had so helped to make their stay as memorable as it was comfortable, the party made their way back to the rickshaw. Upon exiting the alleyway and entering the street they found it strewn with ad hoc items that had been displayed by the storm. Taking to his seat, as Charlie helped Anna and Joe into the back of the rickshaw, Hank expressed relief that the pedaling conditions would be rather less challenging than those of the previous evening. “I’ll run along aside”, said Charlie. “I’ve got your back on this one, get aboard Sir”, said Hank, as together they hastily set off.
Ten or so minutes later they reached the High Line, which bustling with people evidenced the human capacity to adapt to wide-ranging resource challenges. While, remarkably, many of Tardigrades’ stilted homes still stood, the shoreline was several inches deep in plastic pollution washed inland by the storm, and which copious quantities of beachcombers had been collecting since dawn. Conspicuous by the large sacks on their backs, horses, mules, carts, and assorted other modes of manual transportation, the beachcombers were making their way from the bay to the city’s many micro-recycling plants, most of which were located at the foot of “The Hills”. Relieved to be going with not against the flow, Hank steered the rickshaw into the fast-moving crowd. Holding Joe in one hand, and the brown paper bag and clothes in the other, Anna was careful to cover both the gold necklace and the bracelet from others’ view. Pickpockets were aplenty on the High Line, and indeed in all places where people gathered, as was vice more generally. Anna had learnt the hard way that it paid to be streetwise.
Spotting a sign marked “The Ranches” Hank steered his rickshaw off the High Line and down a junction, before pulling up aside a roadside-stable at which several dozen horses-for-hire were tethered. Upon realizing the onward journey was in the saddle Anna exclaimed, “But I haven’t ridden before!” to which Charlie replied, “Consider this your first lesson”. Stepping out of his rickshaw and onto the road, both in word and LA dollars, Charlie thanked Hank for his trouble. Having counted the notes Hank said, “But Sir, this is $5,000 more than the fare! I can’t accept it”. “Then think of me not as your customer, but as a Hope’ital patron” said Charlie. As Hank stuffed the notes into a money-belt that was concealed beneath his shirt, with the help of the stable-owner, the onward entourage mounted their steeds, with Joe sat before Charlie on one horse and Anna on another. Having paid for their ride, the purchase of three water canteens, and cowboy hats for Anna and Joe, the trio set off. “At a steady-pace we should reach the foothills by high noon. The Haramokngna Elders are sending a scouting party to meet us”, said Charlie, as behind him Hank waved a fond farewell. Looking ahead, Anna knew there was no turning back, as, the soon to be burning “Hills” beckoning, together they passed from one elemental extreme towards another.