Chapter 6: Disembarkation
Joel didn’t notice when the man he’d held the train for stepped off. He was more interested in sleeping at that point. The metal bar alongside the train seat wasn’t the most comfortable pillow he’d ever used, but it wasn’t the most uncomfortable either. The mounting fatigue of the trip had finally overwhelmed him and he would have slept anywhere.
Lucky for him, the McAllister Park stop was the last, and the train operator woke him with a harsh clap on the shoulder and a shout, looking less than pleased. Joel smiled sheepishly and rubbed his eyes as he was pushed out onto the platform.
The sun was looming higher in the sky now, and it was beginning to warm up. His bare arms and legs felt quite comfortable as he twisted from side to side, stretching his stiff body. He drew in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and began walking towards the exit.
He considered briefly walking straight home. His apartment wasn’t far, and he was tired. But looking around him, he realized that days as beautiful as this one were in short supply here at this time of year, and he should make the best of it while he could. Besides, he could really use a bagel – he hadn’t had one while he’d been in Asia.
He had sampled much of the local cuisine – a variety of curried rice, countless vegetables, and fruits that few western mouths had tasted. But the simplicity of a bagel slathered with cream cheese was something he had missed greatly during his absence.
It took him a moment to get his bearings. Things hadn’t changed that much since his departure, but months of trekking through real jungle had left him unready to tackle the asphalt one.
He set off east the opposite of his apartment, heading towards the Dominick’s that serviced all of McAllister Park’s grocery needs. He’d suffered a little culture shock during his return flight, largely due to the wide array of various items that were made available in even the smallest airport convenience shop. Dominick’s was sure to shock him even more.
The streets appeared to him much cleaner than when he last saw them. It was certainly an observation colored by his experiences with much dirtier streets in Asia. Most any street would appear cleaner than those.
He soon settled into a now familiar stride, born of countless hours spent hiking in secluded mountain jungles and vast grassy valleys. The distance to the store was more than an average American would consider walkable, but then, Joel was no longer an average American, was he?
A few children passed by on bikes, sending inquisitive glances his direction as they sped by. They probably didn’t see too many young men walking along the streets of McAllister Park. It wasn’t known as the best neighborhood in the city. Joel had ended up here just because it was cheap, and he’d never had any real problems. Every once in awhile you’d hear of someone getting beat up, or a bike getting stolen, or something, but Joel just did his best to be careful and didn’t let himself get too worked up about it.
He had sublet his apartment to a young couple that were still in school relative close by. They were strapped for cash, and he didn’t really want to give up his lease because of the trip. They had agreed to be out of the apartment by a month before Joel’s scheduled return, so by now the place would probably require a thorough cleaning. The bed, though, would be clean enough for a good night’s rest – no need to concern himself with that now.
What he did need to concern himself with was getting food. His stomach’s complaints grew audible as he crossed the nearly abandoned parking lot of Dominick’s. He entered through the automatic doors and thought idly how lazy people had become.
The scent of fresh-baked bread beckoned his nose frantically upon entry to the store. It didn’t take him long to find the bakery section of the store, despite his unfamiliarity with the new configuration of the store. It was much different that when he last saw it, but he let his nose do the leading, and all was well.
He pulled a large plain white bagel from an oversized bin and smiled as he imagined the joy he was about to experience while consuming it. He considered briefly buying a few more items while he was there, but he he hadn’t had a chance to convert any of his larger foreign currency, and the change in his pocket was barely enough to cover his bagel.
The line at the register was much longer than he had anticipated given the deserted parking lot. A man with graying hair and a Dominick’s smock motioned at him as he walked past the registers. The man seemed a little weak on his legs, but he hobbled over and flipped the light on his register back on.
“Good morning, sir,” he said, smiling slightly and quickly typing in the code for bakery goods. “Will that be all for you?”
“Yes, I’m just a little hungry,” Joel replied, smiling back. “Just got off a long plane trip.”
“Ahh, I see. Was it a good trip?”
“Yes, I think so. I certainly learned a lot.”
“Good to hear, good to hear. Well, enjoy your bagel, and have a nice day.”
“You too…” Joel glanced at the man’s name tag. “…Ned. I’ll see you later.” They both smiled at each other again. Joel was grateful for the conversation. The man sounded tired, but he had made a concerted effort to be friendly and engage with Joel. It was a quality he hadn’t seen a lot of since his return, and it was something he knew he’d miss from his trip.
[Insert another Asia back story here.]
He exited the store and began making his way back towards his apartment. The bagel was heavenly delicious, and for a time he became so lost in its flavor that he didn’t pay attention to where he was going. When he finally realized he’d missed a turn and was headed down the wrong street, it had turned eerily quiet and deserted. The sudden lack of sound struck him as strange, and he peered around in a vain attempt to get his bearings.
It was not in Joel’s nature to get nervous, but something about the air made the hairs on the back of his neck stand at full attention. He felt for a moment like a lawman from the wild west, stepping out into the main street of a seemingly deserted town, expecting ambush, but not knowing from where it would come. A newspaper, floating lazily by on the breeze, so tumbleweed-like, did nothing to erase the image from his mind.
In the silence, the unexpected bang! from the east was startlingly stentorian. His mind stumbled for a moment – was it a shot, a firecracker, or what? Then he just started running, not really knowing why. Instead of running away from the sound, he ran towards it. It didn’t make much sense, he knew, but he felt that east was the only direction that made sense to run in. He couldn’t explain it, and the question of why he ran towards it instead of away would later plague him, but for now, he was running.
As he drew closer to the source of the sound, voices became clearer.
“Holy shit, man! Why’d you do that?”
“I wasn’t tryin’ to hit him! He jumped out of the way… I don’t know… Shit!”
“We’d better get the hell out of here, man.”
Joel emerged from an alley and saw what had transpired. Two men, the apparent sources of the screaming, were standing in the opposite corner of the alley, facing a dumpster, hands waving animatedly. One held a gun. Well, that answered his question about what caused the bang.
Joel froze in his tracks almost immediately, but the men noticed him quickly and he soon found himself eying the barrel of the pistol.
“Don’t move, man. Shit!”
“Come on Charlie, let’s get out of here!”
“No man, he’s seen us, he can ID us.”
“Just forget it, Charlie. Come on, let’s go. We’re already in deep shit man.”
“Yeah, and this’ll make it worse.”
Both men approached Joel slowly; Joel stood frozen.
“Don’t worry, guys… I won’t say a thing… I just took a wrong turn, you know. I just want to get home… Either one of you know where Western is from here?” He tried to steady the shaking in his voice. Who’d have thought having a gun pointed at you could reduce you to jelly so quickly?
“Yeah, I know where Western is,” replied the man with the gun. “But I think you’ll be needin’ more than directions to get there.”
Joel didn’t even hear the shot. He was suddenly on the ground, a sharp pain in his belly, nausea washing over him. He blinked and tried to focus as the men turned and ran, feet pounding hard on the asphalt.
“Shit! Charlie, you’re a fuckin’ idiot!”
Joel groaned. His head was swimming. What had happened? He looked down at his stomach and was surprised to see a hole that hadn’t been there before. Where did that come from? He tried to stand, but found any attempt to use his abdominal muscles sent wave after wave of pain coursing through his body.
He rolled over, and that’s when he noticed the crooked body beyond the dumpster. It wasn’t moving. Joel steeled himself against the pain and pushed upwards with one hand, using the other to hold his aching stomach. His mind still wasn’t entirely clear, but he knew he had to help the other guy crumpled there and get himself some help. He put his left arm under the man’s shoulder and lifted upward with all his might, keeping his right hand pressed against his abdomen.
The blood ran out over his fingers and dropped silently onto the asphalt as he dragged himself and his new companion out of the alley. He didn’t know where he was headed – he hoped the right direction. He made it about a block before an unexpected wave of lightheadedness hit him. He was suddenly falling towards a field of daffodils and butterflies, and then, nothing.