When Tariq’s legs went bad, he sometimes wished his brain went with them. That instead of just rotting away the gold of his limbs, it would eat away at the wood of his mind. The unapologetic looks from strangers, the soft sound of his mother’s tsks ringing in his ear like church bells. But the infection remained in his lower half, burning hot like wild fire until his skin was the color of ash. Removing them was the only solution, and despite the anesthesia, Tariq had wept for the horrible pain of loss he felt. When looking down he’d stare at how his body just ended, sudden as ripped fabric.
In the end, it was a maid who had revealed his self-loathing. In her run ins with the young master she had always expressed a one-sided openness, and in his current quiet state, she had found it in herself to mock him. She hadn’t meant for him to be hurt, finding amusement when her foot jammed the wheels of the chair, projecting Tariq forward with only mild force.
“Forgive me,” she had said as she helped him up, but her eyes, staring back down at him, reflected the humiliation he felt. The crown he once fawned over, sparkled at him every morning, had turned to wood just as his mind had, burnable and easy to carve. He allowed her to help him back into his chair but said nothing more the rest of the night.
Tariq decided that there is a cruelty in his own self-awareness.
If he had never learned the worth of his legs, he would not feel such morbid fascination with the loss of them. He considered this memory a curse and that the third-floor balcony could easily rectify it. Not high enough to kill himself, but enough to make him forgetful. No one was assuming, no one’s eyes gave followed him as he moved across the halls, as if to view him would be to engage and that was much too painful without a proper state of preparation. His mother, as he passed her bedroom, barely glanced up from her book, the only acknowledgement a quiet chiding noise, as if to bid him farewell. Sometimes, when Tariq replays that scene, he wonders if things would have been different if their eyes met, if some connection formed between mother and son that made him hesitate. But they didn’t and there wasn’t so Tariq made his way to the balcony above the garden as if his life depended on it. In some way, it did.
It took him a while to figure out how the railing would work with his body’s momentum but with maximum effort, he sat high above the discoloration of the garden. From that height, the flowers looked chaotic. The tulips planted with the roses, the lilies peeking out in the middle with a scatter of sunflowers that had no business mingling with the others. It was as if a child had their way with a coloring book and demanded to switch colors every couple of lines. In that moment, he envisioned the fury on his mother’s face, with a laugh bursting out in near hysteria.
“Does it look that bad?”
A voice cut into the night from beneath him, the culprit standing tall with a ragged looking sunflower in his hand. He looked young.
“Yes,” Tariq had called out. “It’s hideous.”
“Well, fuck you,” the stranger replied, tossing the offending flower in his hand to the dirt. “Are you gonna jump or what?”
The whole scene seemed odd, a surreal mosaic of emotions Tariq was supposed to feel. Anger at his loss, desperation for his old life, but in that moment, he had just felt relief. “No, I don’t think so.”
“There goes the most exciting thing this evening, good on you.”
Tariq didn’t reply, watching the man pull off his apron and it joined the ruined flowerbed. “I guess I’m fired.”
“I saw it coming from a mile away.” Judging by the color palette of the lawn, Tariq doubted the stranger saw much of anything coming, really. “Wanna get drunk?”
“Okay,” the stranger brushed the dirt off himself, ridding himself of the gardening gloves as well. “I’ll meet you in the front?”
“Awfully agreeable, huh?”
As Tariq maneuvered himself from the balcony, pulling his wheelchair close, he was confronted with the knowledge that the stranger, moving away from his view, was barefoot. Gold, he had thought, looking lost in thought for a brief moment before hurrying to the entrance. He had gold for—
“What are you zoning out about?” Oscar’s voice is jarring, the clinking of silverware against a porcelain plate. The man is watching him closely over his breakfast, staring particularly at Tariq’s barely touched food.
“Nothing.” Tariq shrugs, noncommittal before taking a sip of his coffee. “Just thinking about how we met.”
Oscar groans. “Don’t fuckin’ remind me. I don’t even know what I was doing in that job.”
“You probably thought you could make a quick buck.”
“That backfired, seein’ as they let me work there for three weeks before you came along, lookin’ like a martyr.”
Tariq raises an eyebrow but continues to drink from the mug, watching the waiter come by and refill Oscar’s drink.
It takes them a while to finish their food, a snail paced ingrained in Tariq from his finer years and Oscar’s insatiable desire for more, clashing. When they do though, getting up to pay for the service, Oscar kicks at the metal of the prosthetics. The sound makes a hollow echo that gets them a few looks, but even those are more interesting than the glares from home.
“Don’t forget, I gotta tune this before we leave town, or you’re gonna be hatin’ me later when it falls apart.”
He nods, but Tariq doubts he could ever hate Oscar.
“We’ll do it,” Tariq begins, unlocking Cain from its place in front of the dingy restaurant. “After we scavenge the titan.”
Oscar’s face immediately lights up. “We scored big. That baby had nearly everything intact. And it was deserted. We’ll be the first to get all the good bits.”
“Don’t jinx us.”
“We’re the only ones who know where it is.”
They’re in Cain and exiting Yula in no time, taking the desert wasteland in stride as they make straight for the collapsed site. That’s what Oscar liked to call them, which Tariq supposes is better than graveyard.
It’s hard, with the sand whipping about, but Tariq casts his gaze at the man beside him. Oscar’s eyes are trained on the road but even behind the scarf, Tariq can see his lips moving. He’s probably talking to Cain right now; a voice Tariq will never be able to hear.
Oscar used to say Cain was a burden that fell upon him due to unlucky circumstances.
Tariq thinks Cain’s attention makes Oscar feel important.
The hulking mass of metal grows from a speck in the distance to a landmark as they approach. Its body laying still, vaguely humanoid. Even now, it looked as if it were sleeping, rather than dead. Patiently waiting for some shift in the tides to activate once more and unleash havoc.
As they come close, Tariq’s stomach drops.
“No,” Oscar whispers behind the cloth, his voice growing frantic as they nearly reach their destination. “No, no no no!”
The titan, in the few hours they had spent resting in Yula, had been scavenged and cleaned out, barely scrapes of its frame remaining. The city landscape that once stood imposing in Tariq’s mind in their panic to shut it down, is now rubble. Oscar brings Cain to a screeching halt and hops out.
“This whole situation is fucked, what the fuck? How did this fucking happen?”
Tariq lets him rant, leaning back into his seat and staring blankly at what’s left of the titan. This isn’t the first time this has happened, though it certainly is the fastest. Titan metals are valuable, great conductors, and the cities themselves tend to have their usefulness as well.
“We’re not the only garbage men, you know? I am sure someone was traveling by when they heard it go down.”
“And one rat invites the whole colony?” Oscar whines, dropping to his knees in the sand. His face falls into his hands. “This isn’t fair.”
Tariq supposes he’s right.
“You jinxed us, it seems.”
“Fuck off, Tariq.”
The two of them remain that way for a while, the sun beating down on the tops of their heads. His mind wanders once more, as Oscar laments their loss.
It was nearly a year ago that Oscar convinced him to leave Syla and travel the wasteland as scavengers. Nearly a year since the operation. Tariq glances down at his knees, following the metal down to the heels. He didn’t get the chance to buy new boots in Yula.
There’s a lot of scratches on the metal, the clamps look dulled and well used. For a moment, Tariq nearly reaches out to rub it like a sore muscle.
“We have to go back to Yula.”
Oscar snaps back into focus.
“We’re gonna have to work. Do an odd job or two, so we can at least get enough gas money to take us to the next stop.”
“You have a terrible history with jobs.”
“Okay, so. You work until we have enough gas money.”
Oscar returns to his seat atop Cain, and rubs the small GPS fondly before turning it on. “Maybe I can be a delivery boy. I have great aim for newspapers.”
“Yula does not seem like the type to have a free paper.”
They turn the bike away from the scraps of the corpse, facing back the way they came. Tariq watches Oscar drive again, the tension slowly leaving his body the further away they get He finds himself stopping from asking what he always wants to ask whenever a titan dies.
Why are we doing this?
It’s an echo of a fear that festers at the tips of Tariq’s fingers whenever they graze against the scarring on his thighs. But the unspoken answer terrifies him, so instead, Tariq remains quiet, eyes thoughtfully tracing the way Oscar’s lips move silently.
Cain must know the answer, but Tariq doubts he’ll ever hear it.
“You look like a strong fella! And I’m definitely looking for some extra hands to help me with new shipments.”
“Yeah,” Oscar says, on Tariq’s behalf. “He’s perfect for manual labor.”
The old woman before them smiles, nodding to herself.
They’re standing outside a small hole in the wall convenience store, its sign constantly flickering OPEN whether the woman seems to be in or not. It’s hidden in the heart of Yula, surrounded by the small colorful markets and restaurants. It’s more local than where they’re staying. Tariq had spotted the Help Wanted sign first.
“Well, you’re hired, young man.
Tariq nods in approval.
“Great,” Oscar says. “He’ll start today.”
“Perfect...I just got a new shipment and the boxes are quite heavy.”
“I’ll leave you to it,” Oscar directs at him, feigning a salute. Tariq catches the way his dog tags clatter against his chest, the way his dimple dips, the way the flickering OPEN sign shines a red that makes his eyes glitter. “See you back at the motel tonight.”
“Okay,” Tariq says, instead of Can’t wait. Don’t stray too far. “Don’t cause any commotion.”
“What do you take me for? An idiot?”
Oscar frowns, but it’s temporary as his expression softens. “I’ll be looking for some parts to act as temporary repairs. You know, before your stilts fall apart.”
Tariq nods, again.
Cain’s lights flicker and with a wave of his hand, Oscar returns to the bike and drives off, barely sparing a glance back as the woman returns to Tariq, apron in hand.
Tariq spends the majority of his time on a ladder, shelving units of produce in cans. The older woman’s name is Maria and she’s owned the small shop for nearly thirty years. She’d inherited it from her father, when he died of cancer,from the train smog.
“I grew up in here,” she says, placing another box at the end of the aisle for Tariq to rummage through. “I always knew I was going to own it. It’s a duty, or something.”
Tariq understands the importance of legacy.
He’s been working for nearly five hours when someone comes into the mart, the bell chiming loudly. It’s a man, nearly as tall as Tariq, dressed in a pristine jacket that’s nearly too colorful to have been from Yula. Tariq watches him from his place high on the ladder.
The man pays him nearly no mind, walking straight to the register towards Maria. There’s a resigned look on her face, as if she’s been waiting for them.
“Good evening,” the man says. Tariq quietly slides down the ladder, the only noise are the small clang of the bare prosthetics hitting the tiled floor.
“Good evening,” replies Maria, reaching down from behind the counter and pulling out a small money box. She unlocks it quickly, pulling out a single black card. The man takes it in a gloved hand and brings it to some portable device, scans it and patiently waits. Maria’s fingers are tapping against the counter, her eyes never connecting with Tariq’s.
The man’s shoes are white. Spotless.
There’s a ding, one Tariq quickly associates with cash being transferred, and a small hum.
“Is everything in order?” Maria asks, nervous.
“Everything is in order,” the man replies, handing her back the card, which she quickly locks away.
Tariq has reached the end of the aisle, hardly realizing how close he’s gotten.
The man tucks the machine back into his jacket and gives Maria a nod as she sighs. He turns to exit and finally glances at him. Tariq’s breath stops, attempting not to stare at the massive scars that line the stranger’s face.
“I see you’ve found someone to do the heavy lifting, Maria.”
“Yes,” Maria says, tentative, as the stranger sizes Tariq up. “I’m getting old.”
The stranger makes no further comment, giving him a polite nod before expertly moving around him and exiting the store, the soft chime noting his passing. As he walks, Tariq feels more than hears a cane tap against the metal ankles. As if in warning.
Maria is silent, an awkward shift from her verbosity just mere moments ago. When the tension finally seems to bleed away, Tariq opens his mouth for what feels like the first time since he’s started working here. “What was that?”
“That,” Maria sighs. “...That was business.”
“He took money. Do you owe him?”
“Suddenly, you’re awfully chatty.”
“Sorry,” Tariq apologizes, but he doesn’t back down, approaching the counter where she’s crumbled against. “I am curious. I’m not from here.”
“I knew immediately, ya know? From those...fancy things down there.”
Maria looks unsure. “Yeah, your legs. Not too common around here.”
Tariq continues to stare, hardly taking the conversational bait. He’s had practice with that strategy, Oscar always ducking away from any unwelcome discussion.
She seems to realize this, her shoulders dropping even further. “I’ll make us some tea. We can talk about it. Can you lock the front?”
Tariq returns to the motel late.
It takes a while for him to figure out the key to the door, the scanner seemingly fickle as he swipes his keycard over and over again. When he does eventually enter, he spots Oscar already asleep on his bed, still fully dressed, as if he collapsed the second he entered the room.
Tariq’s envious of him. It’s easy for Oscar, to fall asleep in unfamiliar places.
His night routine takes time, unfortunately. First he has to remove the heavy gloves from his fingers, then the boots.
Next is his pants, the prosthetics impossible to disconnect with them on. When he’s stripped to just a tank and his boxers, he then gets to work.
Sleeping with prosthetics on is impossible, the way his are built anyway. There’s a column of metal networking that starts from the top of his neck and leads all the way down to his tailbone, constantly firing to keep the legs active. If he has them on, he’ll never sleep and the next morning, his body will feel as if he’d been running all night.
He starts with the right, tracing the metal until he gets to a familiar latch. His arms strain as he pulls it up, hearing the satisfying click as the piece unhooks itself and drops off his thigh to the ground beside his bed. He repeats the motion with his left.
This process always hurts, like he’s feeling the amputation all over again. He’s lied to Oscar about the process, said it’s gotten easier with how often he does it. But it doesn’t and it won’t, even as he stops himself from swearing aloud when the left leg joins the right on the floor with a dull thud. Sweat has built on his brow. He can feel his spine hum at the shift in connection before falling into a gentle pulse. Tariq can barely stomach the look of his lower half, so instead he hoists himself further up the bed with his arms, maneuvering to pull the blanket from under him and covering himself.
The walls shake from the train above, rattling loose picture frames and tipping over books on the shelves. It moves in time with the sensations throbbing along his spine. And when Tariq closes his eyes, he tries to imagine what Cain’s voice sounds like.
Instead, all he can hear is Oscar.