The room is boisterous, filled with the sounds of raucous laughter and loud music. The men and women from the merchant caravan sit all around me, making merry and letting go of all the stress they had in the tunnels. It is like this every time a caravan rolls through Flatiron; the merchants will drown themselves in cheap bathtub liquor at the Flatiron Tavern, owned and operated by Henry Bates. These people and their guards drink our booze, flirt with our women, and listen to our musicians, until the time comes for them to continue their trip.
Candles flicker at every table; luckily, one of the merchants kept bees in a little farm in his home in one of the larger tunnel-cities. He'd brought pounds and pounds of beeswax candles for us to use. It was good he came through: we were starting to run low.
I lean back against the wall and listen to people as they talk. I've found that, when you're all alone in a crowd where you don't know anybody, listening can be the best way to figure things out.
"So, the guy at the bar offers me a bet: he says that he can cut a tunnel cig in half with a single bullet, even if the cigarette is thrown in the air. We bet a pack of smokes on it." says one of the merchants, who has a local woman in his lap and a glass of clear alcohol in his hand. "Of course, I took the bet and rolled him a cig. We taped the ends shut and marked them so we knew end from end."
"So, what happened?" asks one of the Flatiron locals.
"I threw the cig in the air. He shot three times, and the only thing he hit was a rat running on a pipe." Everyone at the table laughs.
"So what's it like?" The woman on the trader's lap moves her arms around the man's neck. "Going through the tunnels, I mean."
The mirth leaves the trader's face. "It's terrible, especially when you are making camp. There are things in the tunnels, and I don't mean rats. Bandits stalk and plan ambushes for people like us. And then there are…them."
"Who are 'them'?" the woman asked, her face filled with curiosity.
"Things affected by radiation; the atom bombs that drove us into these subway tunnels let off a whole hell of a lot of it. When enough radiation leaks into a body, it can alter it on a genetic level. The appearance of the afflicted won't be changed," explains the trader. "But the offspring will be. Animals left on the surface were bad; the offspring were even worse. On the way here we were set on by mutated dogs. Its fur was as black as sin, and its eyes, oh those eyes…red pupils glowing with hatred. I will never forget the snarling noise they made as they tore out the throat of one of our guards…"
The group grows solemn and quiet. Something nuzzles against my leg beneath the table, furry and wet. I nearly jump out of my skin as I reach for my father's nine-millimeter pistol that is tucked into my jeans. I look under the table and see a pair of intelligent black eyes looking up at me.
I rub my hand between the dog's ears and rustle up her fur.
"You scared me, girl," I say, before inviting her up into the booth with me. She hops up on the chair and lays her head down across my lap. Ghost is really the only companion I have left, since Mom died. Mom said that she was a 'Siberian Husky', some dog from a place she called 'Russia'. After Mom died, Ghost helped to keep me alive. She would bring rodents for us to eat. She was my saving grace for 3 years while I mourned and suffered in my depression.
All around me I can hear the bar's patrons sharing bawdy jokes and drinking heavily from the cup of mirth. I reach into my pocket, pulling a little metal container from its depths. I undo the lid and let a tunnel cig (or tunnel cigarette, as we call them) fall into my hand. I take out a silver cigarette lighter, a pre-war relic, and flick the switch. The flint strikes, and catches the butane alight, creating a small blue flame. I use this flame to light the end of my cigarette and breathe in the nicotine.
"Using a butane lighter to light a tunnel cig is an expensive habit, boy," says a gruff voice, coming from the tall, imposing figure standing next to my table. He stands over six feet tall, with dark, ebony-colored skin and dark hair hanging like curtains around his face. A long machete hangs from his belt, next to a revolver in a holster. A large quiver rests on his back, held on by thin rope around his muscular chest. In the quiver rest arrows made with glass arrowheads and a homemade longbow.
I had been so intent on my listening that I hadn't heard him approach me. I jump up and reach for my pistol. Suddenly, the tall man laughs.
"Sit down, boy," says the stranger, but I don't obey. He laughs again. "Fine. May I sit down? I'll buy you something to drink."
He doesn't wait my answer; instead he takes the seat across from where I was sitting and waves over one of Bates's waitresses. His hand falls to his pocket, which makes mine shoot down to where my faithful pistol sits.
"Relax, boy," says the man, his voice deep and commanding. "I am just getting some smokes to pay for this."
"Before you order, I want you to put your gun on the table, barrel facing towards you," I tell him in the most menacing voice I can muster. Ghost growls under the table, and I think that helps. Until he laughs.
"You're smarter than I thought, boy," he says. Slowly, he pulls the long-barreled revolver and lays it on the table, facing towards his chest. And then he takes a cigarette pack from his jacket pocket, and lays four Camel cigarettes on the table. "Gin for me."
The waitress looks at me expectantly. "Vodka," I say. That is my drink, for when I have the spare smokes to purchase a shot. That almost never happens.
The man looks at me, sizing me up. "What's your name, boy?"
"Robert." No use telling him my full name.
"You any good with that gun you got tucked in your jeans?" I look down at the pistol; it was hidden, how did he see it? "People carry themselves differently when they have a gun, be they men, or boys like you."
"You telling me I'm too young to be carrying a gun?" I don't take kindly to criticism from people I've never met before, especially those armed to the teeth.
"Hell no, boy," the man says. "You were smart to bring something in here to protect yourself. I very easily could have waited for you to go outside before sticking a knife in your belly and taking everything you got."
I think of the silver cross hanging from my neck, the only thing I truly have left that was my mother's.
"Besides," he continues as the waitress sits two glasses on the table. "What if one of them got in? You'd need more than just your good intentions to make sure you didn't end up being some hell-spawn's dinner."
"What do you know about the mutants?" I ask, trying to sound casual.
Despite living in Flatiron, which had big steel gates in addition to the concrete walls that always surrounded us, my life had been dramatically affected. When I was 10 years old, the city was attacked. Mutants had rushed the gate when it had been opened to allow a caravan to pass through. Twenty people had been killed, including my mother, Katrina. I still remember the screams as those monsters used their freakish claws to rip the flesh from people's bodies. Those same claws were what ripped my family apart. One came for me, and I had just been grazed across the face when Ghost came to my rescue, ripping out the creature's gullet in a mess of blackened blood. I still had the scar above my eye where the creature knocked me to the ground.
"Not much, boy," says the man. He takes a heavy pull from his drink and slams it back on the table. "I know that a bullet ends their lives. That's enough for me."
I look at him searchingly, before taking a drag from my cig. "What's your name?"
He looks back at me. "My associates call me Hawkeye. Got the name from some old superhero that used a bow and arrows."
I nod. "So you're one of the guards?"
"My group and I are. They're off picking up supplies now. The caravan is supposed to set out in a couple of days, and we don't want to leave without spare filters for our gas masks or a few extra cans of Spam."
It isn't a surprise that he would need gas masks. There are places in the tunnels where the poisoned air from above has crept down and filled the place. People who breathe the air for only a few seconds are afflicted with severe diarrhea and vomiting for several hours or even tomorrow. Those that didn't get their masks on die within 48 hours; it never varies. A local doctor who was a scientist before the war called it 'Oppenheimer's Flu'.
But it isn't the filters that pique my interest. "Is your group hiring?"
Hawkeye gives a deep, hearty laugh. "You're too young, boy. Get yourself a few years on you, and some experience, and maybe you can go with us sometime."
"I know how to cook," I explain. "And shoot, as well. I am a good fist fighter, and I'd bring Ghost with me. She can tear anything apart."
"No, boy," says Hawkeye. He stands up, taking the revolver off the table and replacing it with a couple of smokes. "Go get yourself something nice from one of the traders, boy, and go home to your father. Tell him you got to talk to a true-blue caravan guard."
A sudden jolt of rage runs through me, the statement making my blood boil. I jump up out of my booth and look up into Hawkeye's dark pupils. "My father's dead. He was a water merchant from the surface."
"Go home to your mother and tell her, then."
The last word barely comes out of his mouth before I lash out with my fist, bringing it crashing into his jaw. Instant pain runs through my knuckles as I watch Hawkeye fall to the ground. He's up like a shot, though, and takes his own swing at me. I duck under his fist and slam my own into his gut. He grunts as I take away his air. Hawkeye looks at me with a look of pure fury as he grabs me by my throat, slamming me against the wall, turning the table over.
The entire bar stares at us; Ghost stands on the ground, barking loudly. Hawkeye gasps for breath even as he holds me up.
"If you ever take a swing at me again," Hawkeye growls in my face amid his gasps. "I will kill you. Understand, boy?"
I nod and he lets me down. I rub my throat where his fingers had wrapped around my throat. "If you ever talk about my mother again, I'll kill you."
All of a sudden, people start laughing. I look over and see a group of armed, mismatched people standing at the door.
"We leave you alone for five minutes, John," says one of the men. "And here you are beating on a local. What are we going to do with you?"
Hawkeye looks over at them and stands. "Sonuvabitch started throwing fists, what was I supposed to do?"
"If he's got the guts to pick a fight with someone four times his size, offer him a job," says the shortest man in the bunch, a pale man who wears a hat with a red cross painted across the top.
Hawkeye gives me a dirty look. "I wouldn't give him a glass of water if he were dying of thirst."
The man walks off, not looking back. I reach down to pick up two cigarettes off the floor, the ones that he had given to me. I slip them into my coat pocket and look down at my other hand; already my knuckles are turning a blotchy purplish-blue from where I'd hit him. My hand is throbbing, and it burns like I dipped it in molten metal. Ghost gently licks the bruised skin, and rubs her nose against it.
"It's okay, girl," I say soothingly to her. "He won't hurt us any. We're safe."
Thankfully, the caravan is leaving in a couple days. But that raises another issue: what can Hawkeye do to me in a day?
Compared to the light of the tavern, Doc Martinez's office is dark and dingy. A single light hangs over the treatment room, casting a yellowish light over the bed. A generator hums in the background Henry donates grain alcohol to the doc, in exchange for free medical care. The homemade booze keeps the doctor's generator running and the Bates family in good health.
Peter Martinez is a kindly old man, with gray hair streaked with white. He always wears a lab coat, one of the few pieces of clothing around here that gets cleaned regularly. He and his wife have always treated me well; Mrs. Martinez even used to give me sweet rolls after Mom died.
The doctor sits on his wheeled stool, holding my left hand in both of his own, looking at my knuckles. He presses on my knuckles gingerly, each touch sending streaks of pain up through my hand. Ghost perks her ears up every time she sees me wince.
"No doubt about it, son," says the doctor, sitting my hand down gently. "It's broken. How did you do it?"
I cradle my now-officially broken hand in the other.
"I punched a caravan guard in the face," I say simply. Not going to hide it from him; I am surprised it hasn't become more common knowledge than it already is. Soon it'll be known all over Flatiron that I'm a tough guy. In a town like this, a tough-guy rep isn't the kind you want.
Martinez's eyes widen in surprise. "Jesus Christ, son," he exclaims. "I figured you got into a little scrap or something. But a caravan guard? You're lucky I'm not pulling lead out of you! Why did you punch him?"
I hang my head, my dark locks of hair falling to cover my face. "He said something about Mom. It pissed me off, so I hit him. Got him three times before finally he picked me up and slammed me against a wall."
"What did he say?"
"He said that I should go home to my mother and tell her I met a caravan guard." Now that I listen to what he said in my mind, it sounds so stupid.
"That's no reason to go and hit him!"
I shake my head. "I know."
Doctor Martinez lifts my head so that I look him in the eyes. His touch is gentle, but I can see the disappointment in his face, which hurts more than anything Hawkeye could have done to me. The doctor has always been the father I never had.
"You might want to keep that piece loaded and close," he says, nodding to my pistol, which lies on his desk. He refuses to evaluate anyone while they are carrying a weapon, and I'm certainly no exception. "You said he grabbed you by the throat?"
I nod. He takes the small flashlight from the breast pocket of his lab coat and turns it on, shining it on my neck. I can hear him mhmming under his breath as he examines me. "Got some bruises, but no permanent damage. It was stupid for you to haul off and hit him."
"Yes sir, I know. I didn't want some stranger talking about Mom, though. Disrespecting her memory." Even now, seven years after her death, the scars on my heart still ache from losing her. At times, I can almost hear her trying to comfort me. It happened most often right after she died: at the mass funeral they had for all the victims I could almost hear her sobbing beside me. She never would have wanted to leave me alone, especially not like that.
The aging man looks at me, almost like he's evaluating me, trying to read my thoughts. "Want to spend the night at my house? Sheila would love the company. You can sleep in our extra bed. You'll be safer than at home."
I seriously consider his offer. I could use a hot meal, a long, hot shower, and a good night sleep on a soft bed. "How much?"
The doctor thinks for a second. "You don't owe me anything. How about you make one of those rat-bone necklaces for Sheila, though? She loves those things."
Dr. Martinez spends the next twenty minutes working on my hand. He puts two pieces of wood on the top and bottom of it. He runs gauze around it before applying a type of putty that sticks the gauze together, making a hard surface around my thumb and leaving only my hand free. By the time he's done, all I can see are my fingertips and my thumb. I can barely move the fingers, but he says that's normal.
He only charges me three smokes for the fix-up job; I'm lucky if he's charging me cost if not taking a loss. At a doctor in one of the larger cities deeper into the tunnels, the same thing would have cost me an entire pack. He has to be breaking even on this deal, if not taking a loss.
We walk together with Ghost padding along close behind us down Flatiron's main street, a solid path of concrete and stone, with wood staircases going up at random intervals to the side. Buildings and stalls dominate the sides, vendors hawking goods and houses where people try to have normal lives. Dim, yellow lights hang over us, casting a dim light on the street that flickers often. The power we have is dodgy at best and erratic at worst. It isn't uncommon for power to go out for days, with the only electric lights being in Dr. Martinez's office, and even then only if he is with a patient. The lights in the tavern are candle lights, because candles last a long time before needing to be replaced, and nobody wants to drown their sorrows in the dark.
Soon we reach the platform of what had once been the main terminal. We climb the stairs, making small talk as we walk to the metal door of the Martinez household. The doctor opens the door, and we walk into one of (if not the) most richly decorated houses in Flatiron.
"You're home early, Peter!" says Mrs. Martinez. She stands with her back to us, over a stove. "I have chicken on frying."
"You're making fried chicken, Mrs. Martinez? I hope you have room for a third person at your table," I say jokingly. Sheila Martinez is famous in Flatiron for her chicken.
She spins around, taking a quick look at me. "Robert Hunter, it's been ages since you came to visit me!" Her eyes fall to the cast on my hand. "What happened to you?"
That isn't a story I want her to know about. "I-"
I flounder as I try to think of a story. I have always been a terrible liar. Dr. Martinez sees this, however, and quickly comes to my rescue. "He fell, Sheila. He fell, landed on his hand, and broke it. It'll be fine in a couple weeks."
"That's awful! At least it was your left hand, and not your right. Come on over and take a seat on the couch, sweetie. Prop your hand up and relax. Dinner will be on the table in fifteen minutes."
She guides me over to the couch and practically forces me to sit down. She puts a pillow behind my head, and I lean my head back against it. I fall asleep in minutes, without even a bite of dinner.