Considering the fact that I was spending the night in a total stranger’s house, I guess I’d slept too much. Maz woke me up and drew the curtains, I looked around blearily, partly blinded by sunlight. He lay down a tray on the table, right in front of me, before retreating to another room.
I looked around, completely bewildered. I searched for my bag and there it was, right at my feet. It was buckled, locked and strapped, all exactly as I’d left it.
Maz seemed to have noticed. “Calm down,” he suggested, “I haven’t touched anything.” I turned around and looked at his steamed glasses, barely catching a word he’d said. I took out my toothbrush from the top-most zip and got out of the couch, teetering out of the room.
“I’ve made breakfast,” said Maz, as I entered the room. I stared.
“You made all this?” Words almost failed me as I eyed the bread and chicken ribs.
“It took some time, but yes.” He pulled open a lid and jerked his head away from the onslaught of hot steam. “It’s not much, just a bit more than I usually make. There’s chicken if you don’t mind that and coffee too if you like.”
“This is a feast,” I announced, thoroughly impressed. “Even I don’t do this much work at home!”
The boy grinned. “I don’t usually have guests, so this is quite a rare occasion.” He piled a few slices of bread and lifted a few chicken fillets on to his plate. “Did I go a bit overboard?”
I didn’t know how to answer. I helped myself with a small serving of chicken.
“D’you live alone?” I asked him. Maz nodded, reaching for a mug that smelt unmistakably of coffee.
“I hope you don’t mind black coffee,” said Maz, “I ran out of milk a few days ago.”
I shook my head. In my head, I was trying to understand my host. Maybe it was because I was in the company of a teenager who showed responsibility like a full-grown adult, or perhaps it was because he’d helped me earlier — and so I wanted to know him better. Did he always live here? Always lived alone? Where were his parents? How old was he, anyway?
“Fifteen,” said Maz. I looked up; my last thought had clearly not remained just a small doubt in my head. “But that’s not important, right?” I shook my head absent-mindedly.
Silence. Maz had just put down his now empty mug and proceeded to remove his fogged glasses.
He’s really just a kid, I thought, secretly smiling to myself. I couldn’t help but notice something that had been masked away by the glasses — something I hadn’t seen earlier.
The boy’s eyes were puffy, going pink along the edges. He was slowly developing grey circles around his eyes — it was clear that –
“Have you been awake all night?”
“Hmm? N–Yeah, kind of,” replied Maz. “It’s a habit of mine, I rarely sleep when I’m supposed to — studying a bit, other work — I found a spare bracelet you could use,” he placed a long, thin metal strip on the table. “I figured you’d want to see what it’s like, living underground.”
Living — underground? Oh yeah, this was Phoenix Town, that was the complete normal here. I guess an almost normal morning routine like this makes you forget some important information.
I bent the metal around my arm and bent it further, closing it tightly. I couldn’t help but think to myself; moments like these really made Maz seem like a bloody full-grown adult. But then, as if to spite me, he’d do something either really stupid from an adult’s perspective or completely normal from a kid’s perspective that made him seem like a perfectly normal fifteen-year-old.
“That’s good,” he said. “Now you should be free to go around while I’m at school. And anyway,” he added, “In the unlikely situation that someone does ask who you are, say that you’re Maz’s cousin.”
“Your cousin?” I echoed, raising an eyebrow.
“Just to stay safe,” insisted Maz, nodding fervently. He picked up his plate and walked out of the room, as I drank from the remaining coffee mug in silence.
“Say, are you going to stay here again, tonight?” he asked suddenly, reappearing at the corridor. “Just asking,” he added quickly.
“Sure,” I said. “Don’t cook too much; you don’t have to overwork yourself.” He looked at me with a questioning glance.
“You can’t eat out or takeaway, that’s no fun,” he complained.
Well, I couldn’t argue. Not after he’d fed me at his own expense. I relented.
Phoenix Town was without a doubt the strangest place I’d ever seen. But to its defence, the town slowly digressed to a half-normal townscape toward the centre. You could compare the houses in the suburbs to various hobbit-holes dug out from a hollow of a hill which was Phoenix Town itself.
But towards the centre of town, this was where the ceiling or the hill itself was highest from the ground, here houses had more than two storeys with minimalistic roofs. Everything was drained by a long, wide road; Maz’s description as an underground extension of Amberville was surprisingly accurate.
There were large vent-like structures on the walls of the hill. Circulation of air, I guess?
All the same, there were things that I’d never seen before; right at the centre of town, there was an immense orb of light, hanging from the underside of the hill. Even though it was the first thing I noticed as I stepped out of Maz’s — hobbit hole, I guess? — it was quite impossible not to keep my eyes away from that thing. And so I opted for sunglasses.
The ‘sun’ of Phoenix Town would, as I was soon to find out, continually change its intensity, finally dimming out to match the outside’s night. But here there were no stars, nothing — here, it was practicality first. Only the sun was important.
“So that no one follows a thirty-hour day,” was the explanation I’d received.
As I walked along the wide road, I tried my hardest not to devour everything with my eyes. Tried my hardest not to show my awe. So, with a lot of coaxing, I forced my mind on a different track; and the first thing that came to mind was what I’d seen last night.
Lisa Hooper. Here in Phoenix Town. How about that? It had to be her — the way she walked, no, there was no doubt.
Or so I’d thought then. Now it all seemed too strange; why would she be here? And was it really her?
I’d reached the turning to the bylane where Lisa’d been, only yesterday. I looked around, hoping that she was outside.
Speak of the devil. It was her; the same woman (to avoid an embarrassing situation where I’d be wrong to think it were Lisa) whom I’d seen yesterday. There she was, wearing that same black outfit, walking on the main road, on the opposite pavement. I had been lucky again; she hadn’t seen me. Or if she did, she didn’t show it.
I followed slowly, as I mingled into a crowd in front of a bustling store. I slid past all the shoving and incessant screaming and walked along. We were approaching a large town square; the road was slowly tapering off to an end.
A large Christmas tree stood at the centre, and I remembered that it was only a few days (five, I think) before the festival. But I quickly found Lisa (or the woman, whatever), walking out of a florist’s, carrying a bouquet of orange tulips. She was walking down the road sprouting from the right of the large square. I picked up my pace and trotted until I was around ten feet away from her; at this point, all my scruples were forgotten.
Lisa turned into the open gates of a large, fenced building; there was a large sign which read: Red Blaze Hospital and Laboratories. Slightly unsure though I was, I followed the same path.
From the outside, the building may have been a prison. But all my doubts were ruled out the instant I walked inside; I quickly found myself gagging at the putrid smell of disinfectant that clung to the air.
I looked around; Lisa — and it was really Lisa after all — was headed for the wards. She turned out of sight, right above a sign that read Lester Ward.
I scuttled down the empty corridor, wondering whether I’d made a wrong turn. But I couldn’t have; I’d definitely seen her turning here — so that meant she had to be in one of the rooms. I guess I had to wait until she’d come outside before I could confront her.
There were footsteps coming from down the corridor, and I heard the squeaking of wheels against the marble floor. A patient, being taken — somewhere, and by the sound of things, very urgently.
Hushed voices spoke to each other as the sounds were getting louder and nearer; “What do we do?” came a voice. “It’s a clear violation of the rule 34-37-B — do we lobotomize him?”
“Come on, now,” snapped another; this was a woman’s voice. “It’s not a serious violation, he’s just told someone about Phoenix Town — we’ll have to find out who, then a standard rewrite, right?”
“Shut up, both of you,” suggested a third. “You know we discuss procedures only in the OR.”
And then as a stretcher, and three figures in gowns appeared from around the corner, they all stopped. And, if I wasn’t wrong, the man on the right drove his boot into another’s shin, and mouthed: I told you so.
Then they were moving again, pushing the stretcher along with them; the man at the centre now shifted to the right, with a clearly pained expression. However, a third man stayed back, looking straight at me.
I didn’t meet his eyes immediately. I was looking at the empty-looking face of the patient being tugged away — lobotomizing; that meant, well, something I didn’t want to think about. But the face intrigued me. And I realized that I knew who the patient was; the face was familiar, exceeding familiar if not for a beard, which must’ve been shaven off.
I tried not to seem shocked. I looked at the masked man to my right and trying my hardest to sound normal, I asked him: “Is everything alright?”
“Don’t you know that loitering is not allowed?” came his serious voice. “If you’re visiting somebody, then you should be in a room, not here. Best not to stay here for too long.”
“Well, I was headed to a room,” I said, though I was squirming inside; I knew what he was going to ask next, and if I just had to guess, then…
At that point, a door opened a few feet away. I looked briefly, and without thinking, I read out: “47-B.”
I cursed myself; the door that had opened was indeed 47-B; my lie was rapidly falling apart and I didn’t like one bit; what to do? Run?
And Lisa walked out of the open door into the corridor. She looked at me for an instant, then turned toward the man and said: “She’s visiting my dad, did you forget the number?” she added, looking at me with a half-amused, half-irritated, mostly questioning look.
“She was loitering,” accused the man. Lisa frowned.
“In that case, so are you,” she snapped. “Move along, then.”
The man looked abashed. But I could still feel his doubtful glance at me. So, without a moment’s thinking, I rolled up my sleeve to reveal the bracelet Maz’d given me. Silently smiling to myself, I walked towards the open door, when instantly my smile was wiped away.
Lisa shut the door and her glance might’ve just killed me right there.
“Why the hell are you here?”