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Decoy and Retrofit: Chapter 5

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #049 back issue and Hazel + Bell’s Patreon.

The road to Nelson was blocked by three things: a river, a bridge, and a toll booth.

“Park the car,” Griffin said as they approached the booth. “Preferably somewhere hidden.”

Noel gave Griffin the longest look. “You want to hide the ice cream truck?” he asked, gesturing wildly to the crushed passenger side door, the broken windows, the alien wardog in the front seat. From here he couldn’t put emphasis on the neon colors and heavily damaged exterior, but he figured Griffin knew he was referring to the whole package. “You want to just hide the most obvious car in the world that multiple gangs are chasing after?”

Griffin, sitting with as much space as he could manage between himself and Tiny without climbing out the truck window, just gave him a look. “I’ll hook the C-4 back onto it if that makes you feel better.”

It did not make Noel feel better. Griffin rolled his eyes.

“Do you want to get into Nelson or not?”

***

The blockade had probably once been a mundane bridge toll booth, now built up with barbed wire and reinforced with concrete. A metal gate stretched over the road before the bridge, blocking any foot or vehicle access. A sign, welded in rusty iron, was stuck on top of the booth: CHECKPOINT NELSON.

Noel bit his lip. The last time he’d been through here, Manifest Legacy had a contract with its city council. But he had nothing now, no residency papers or job permits. No way they would let him, an unregistered retrofit, into a city as protected as Nelson. Why hadn’t he thought of that before now?

Griffin didn’t seem bothered by this. He hadn’t missed a step as he crunched down the gravel road to the toll booth. Noel watched as he jabbed a button under a metal slot that dripped with dry spray paint. Please ring for service, it said, politely.

The button rang a jingle like a doorbell, and the metal slot slid open to reveal a tired-looking woman with shaggy hair sitting in the booth, staring them down from behind a sheet of bulletproof glass.

“Identification,” she crackled over a speaker.

Noel watched as Griffin flipped a card out of his coat and pinned it against the glass with his palm. The woman gave him a long, bored look before her eyes slid over to lock on to Noel.

“Identification, sir,” she said thinly.

“Uh…” Noel rifled through his pockets, looking for the ID card that he knew wasn’t there. “Uh, I swear I had it-”

I’m a resident,” Griffin sighed, jamming his finger toward the card pressed against the reinforced glass. “I pay taxes. Let us in.”

“Your residence card doesn’t cover you and all your friends, sir,” the booth lady said. “Ma’am.”

“Sir,” Griffin bit out. Then, he nodded back at Noel, standing there with his pockets untucked from his coat. “He’s from Kelowna, he has amnesia. I’m here to get him residence.”

The lady raised an eyebrow. “Applications for residency to the city after Kelowna expired two year–”

Chrissakes, I’m sponsoring him.”

There was a degree of vitriol to his speech that Noel hadn’t expected. A sense of urgency. A familiarity with bureaucracy.

“You can only sponsor family members, sir,” the booth lady said with a frown.

“He’s my brother,” Griffin said with no hesitation whatsoever.

The lady stared at Noel, then slid her eyes back to Griffin, and every bit of Noel knew that was a stupid route to go. They didn’t look related in the slightest, and they both knew it. Noel wasn’t even the same ethnicity as Griffin.

Griffin seemed to sense that, and rounded back on the lady. “Oh, you’re going to make calls about what my family’s supposed to look like?”

“Your brother is already a registered resident.”

“Yeah, I have two.” Griffin growled. “He’s my adopted brother.”

Noel felt his stomach drop, just a little, as the lie got a bit too close to the truth.

The booth lady tapped a pen on her teeth; it made a clicking noise that distortedly echoed through the speaker over their heads. Her tired eyes flicked between the two of them: Noel, silent and bewildered, Griffin, silent and fuming. She looked like she wanted to be anywhere else, and Noel couldn’t blame her.

She finally let out a bellowing groan. “All right, sir.” She beckoned Noel closer with her hand. “I ask that you approach the booth and remove your gloves.”

The brief expression that flickered across Griffin’s face faded away in a second as he whipped back around to face her. “Why the fuck should he take his gloves off?”

“It’s fine, Griff.”

“Noel-”

Noel ignored him and peeled his gloves off. He flexed his black fingers, blue veins shining out from his damp, leathery skin as he exposed it to sunlight.

The lady behind the counter remained impassive as he stretched his hand out under open air.

“Not many of you left,” she said in a clipped tone, typing away on a keyboard with the pen she’d been rapping on her teeth. The sound echoed over the speakers in rhythmic tics. “Many communities don’t allow retrofits to pass through these days.”

Noel stared at her as she continued in her leveled speech, her gray eyes sliding over to lock onto his.

“You have a tendency to make people mad,” she said calmly.

The mechanical noise of printing echoed out in a squeaky churn. Noel stared between Griffin, bristling and confrontational, to the lady, cool and indifferent as she slipped a receipt through the grate in the window.

Noel picked it up.

“Refugee application,” she explained. “And a week pass, sponsored by Mr. Wells here.” She nodded at him. “He gets into any trouble, and you’re the one who comes under fire.”

Noel was very grateful that Griffin had nothing to say to that. He slipped the receipt into his coat pocket.

“I understand,” Griffin sighed.

“No vehicles,” she rattled off. “No animals. No weapons. If the police catch you with so much as a steak knife, you’re going to get blacklisted even before you start your application.”

“I understand,” Noel said solemnly, as Griffin tapped his foot impatiently on the gravel.

Somewhere, Noel felt a bit of softness in her expression as her eyes flicked back down to his arm. “Step through the metal detector,” she said. “Walk down the stairs, and you’ll be on the bridge.”

Noel watched as the metal gate next to the toll booth clunked and rolled away, screeching as it cleared the footpath down the slope.

“Welcome to Nelson, kids.”

***

Noel stopped when he realized Griffin wasn’t following him.

He was standing a few paces back, leaning against the bridge railing. Noel watched him for a moment as the wind whipped his hair away from his face, the way his palms pressed against his cheek as he leaned on his hands. Noel followed his gaze, taking in the lake below them. It stretched to the horizon, scouring the foot of the mountainside that rose from its shores.

Noel reached out, pressing his palm against the sun-warmed metal of the bridge railing. Griffin glanced over at him, looking down at his hand, and then turned back to the water.

They didn’t say anything for a long moment as wind roared in their ears, blowing Noel’s blue hair across his eyes and obscuring Griffin from his line of sight.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been back,” Griffin said at last.

Noel swallowed. “Did you live here after…everything?” he asked.

Griffin grunted. “Gotta live somewhere.”

He took another moment to stare at the horizon before, finally, pushing himself off the railing. Griffin cracked something in his neck and walked over to Noel’s side. “You’re okay with leaving the truck for a few hours, right? It’ll be fine.”

Even now, Noel could feel Tiny’s presence in his head. The weight of the Tourist council on the back of his mind.

“I’ll know if it isn’t,” Noel said stiffly.

Griffin let out a huff, pushing past Noel and heading down the bridge. “Well, whatever,” he sighed. “Let’s go.”

Noel followed him. They had a long way to go across the lake; the tall bridge stretched well beyond them, its orange iron scaffolding criss-crossing across the blue sky over their heads. Griffin walked ahead, his boots scuffing against the cracked concrete. His back looked narrower without a rifle slung across it.

Noel ran his hand rough down his face, and held his palm over his mouth.

Forget the ice cream truck. Buy a car in Nelson. Drive until you run out of gas.

He needs to atone. Don’t rob him of that. Stay the course.

Run away.

Stay.

Protect him.

Stay.

“What time is the appointment on your receipt?”

Noel shook his head, and clawed into his jacket pocket for the paper the lady had given him. It rippled in the wind as he squinted at it. “Six o’clock.”

“Oh, that’s late,” said Griffin. “We have some time before then. Do you wanna go somewhere?

Noel hastily stuffed the receipt back into his coat pocket. “What do you mean?” he asked.

Griffin glanced over his shoulder, his mouth perking up in a cheeky grin.

“You owe me pants, remember?”

***

The marketplace on Main Street was bustling. Women with children moved through the throngs with beat-up backpacks strapped to their shoulders, stopping to haggle over the price of vegetables from Alberta. Men in old fatigues with faded army tattoos smoked rolled cigarettes on street corners, flicking through job flyers. Vendors lined the streets in dusty stalls, selling racks of beat-up sneakers and old DVDs, cracked flashlights and rolls of tensor bandages.

It was a city, a real city, with a functioning economy and a system of government and a semblance of order that wasn’t just a tower of cards.

It made Noel nervous. And not for himself, either. With his gloves on and sleeves rolled down, he didn’t get a second glance in the crowd. He was more concerned about the guy next to him, wandering around in a local school skirt.

“Stay close, okay?” he muttered, crowding close to Griffin, leaning into his shoulder. “Don’t get separated.”

Griffin rolled his eyes, but he moved close to Noel’s side, letting Noel’s arm wrap around his shoulders as a group of ironworkers pushed passed them.

“Dude, I’m not a girl,” Griffin hissed the second they passed.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Even if I was a girl, I wouldn’t find this chivalrous of you.”

Noel let out a humourless laugh. “Good thing I’m not worried about you, then,” he said. “I just don’t want some poor sod to end up in hospital if he takes the exposure of your knees as an invitation.”

Griffin snorted, but when Noel glanced over at him, he was grinning.

The market opened up the farther they pushed through it, the variety of the stalls shifting from food to items, prewar knickknacks and things looted from abandoned houses. Clothing styles suspended in time. Noel wasn’t sure if it was his own feet or Griffin’s wandering steps that took them into a clothing stall, but soon they had wandered into the tent.

Noel stared up at the displays around them, crowded on all sides by faded graphic tees and university hoodies, and decided to start looking for pants.

He began with the racks, pushing aside lines of clothing that screamed their weight along their metal hangers. They were all cheap, but nothing looked suitable for outdoor wear. Too much cotton and denim, which did a horrible job at drying out. Branded outdoor clothing was usually kept behind a counter and cost an arm and a leg to purchase. And Noel was low on one of those things.

“Hey, check this out,” called Griffin.

Noel glanced up. He hadn’t even noticed that Griffin had left his side, but there he was, standing way down at the back of the tent. He had picked up a small, obnoxiously shiny children’s backpack, shaped in the face of an alien. Or maybe it was for teenagers on an edgy fashion kick; Noel wasn’t sure. All he knew was that it was highly reflective and distinctive and probably not a good idea for someone on the run from multiple road gangs.

Griffin held the backpack up to his own head and grinned mischievously.

“It’s you.”

“Put that back.”

Griffin ignored him. He was unzipping the main pocket, rifling through the inside of the backpack. “Oh sweet, McDonalds Halloween coupons,” he said, flashing them at Noel like a fistful of hundred-dollar bills. It wasn’t a far-off comparison, because the listed items technically had the same value nowadays. “Do you want the ice cream cone or the small fries?”

Noel shook his head, walking through the tent to Griffin. “I thought we were here for pants.”

“We can multitask,” Griffin said very seriously, holding the backpack up by the straps. “How do you think it would look?”

Noel squinted at Griffin, not sure how seriously he was supposed to be taking him. “I thought you already went through your emo phase.”

“Excuse you, I was midway through it before the apocalypse decided to happen,” Griffin huffed out.

“You’ll look like a twelve-year-old.”

“Nothing new, then.”

Noel rolled his eyes and pulled another pair of pants off the rack. “Here,” he said, dumping them into Griffin’s arms. “Try these on.”

“These are not stylish in the slightest.”

“Yeah, but you’ll stay dry.”

Griffin let out a sigh that seemed to surface directly from his gut. “Okay, FINE.”

He slouched into the back, where a curtain was dragged up in the corner to form a makeshift dressing room. With a flourish, he pulled the curtain shut, leaving Noel on his own.

Noel took the opportunity to wander through the tent, pushing past moms with babies strapped to their chests and a couple of kids flicking through a carton of old comic books. There were more knickknacks on this side of the tent, odds and accessories all labelled with yellow stickers. Noel’s eyes traveled over them as he passed through. They were like relics at a museum, things that no longer had a purpose, removed from their context. Dusty vacuum cleaners, toaster ovens, Playstations. Battery-operated toys and antique lamps. So much stuff that didn’t work well in the economy of electric conservation. Stuff with roles that had died with the end of an era.

He glanced toward the ceiling, adorned with light strings and framed posters, and something caught his eye.

It was an acoustic guitar, hanging by its neck from the tent pole.

Two strings were broken and the pick guard was scratched to the wood, but it was intact. Noel stood tall, tilting his head back, and placed his hand against the warm wood. A Fender, like the one he and Apollo had learned on; they’d taken turns practicing on it before they saved up their summer work money for an amp and moved to electric.

Griffin had learned on a guitar like this, too, back when he’d still played guitar.

Noel picked it up, weighing it in his hands, and looked at the price. It was nothing. Cheap as a dime.

***

Proceed to Chapter 5, page 2–>

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