Brandon Calvinson struggled into the over-sized shirt, pushed the sleeves up, and fumbled with the long line of buttons. His fingers, long and almost skeletal, were hopeless at doing the top up properly. He had liberated the worn shirt from a bottom-of-the-barrel shopkeeper the day before and already hated it. With a sigh, he looked out of the one-room apartment and at the marketplace below.
Earlier that morning, he had watched people set up their stores. Some were little more than a blanket on the ground, others were carts stacked high with merchandise. Soon a white-noise of human voices filled Brandon’s room from floor to ceiling; haggling, shouts of petty thievery, and swearing whenever one of the many animals decided it was time for lunch were only a fraction of what he was forced to grow used to. Sudden noise on the stairway made him begin another routine – escaping yet another of his ignorant landlords.
He grabbed his backpack and squeezed out the window, nearly getting stuck, hit the ground on all fours, and lost himself in the crowd. It was the same in every city. The key was to walk, not run. No swaggering, give random shoppers a casual wave every now and then as if he knew them, and project an air of normalcy.
Under the pretense, Brandon stopped to lounge against a wall streaked with a blaze of graffiti and watched as many people as he could, looking for his uncle. The man had to be here somewhere; it wasn’t like him to be late. A glance at the sun and then a shopper’s watch assured Brandon that he at least was on time and in the right spot. His guardian had made the tag himself before they had been forced to separate two days ago. Brandon fought to keep up his mask as he thought of how his overseas trip had almost gone up in smoke when they had first arrived. Literally.
Both he and Dusty had been prepared for a rough trip; the elder had even suggested that Brandon might have been better off staying home and preparing for the university. Stubbornly, Brandon had pleaded and wheedled his way into going on his uncle’s annual summer road trip. On the train ride over, he had thought that all he would have to do was follow his uncle to a hotel and finally relax. Instead, they had landed in the middle of a firefight that had included teargas and smoke-bombs.
Dusty had pulled him out of danger and into what Brandon had thought was a wide alleyway. It had been there that his uncle had given him the advice that had kept Brandon alive for the past few days . . .
Watch what other people do. Imitate them as best you can. Keep your head down. Find shelter if ya can; if ya can’t, then huddle up on the edge of a crowd. Remember how we exchanged our bills for the local equivalent? Use your half to buy juicy food and bottled water if you can find any. Check for leaks as I taught you. Don’t drink anything else. I’ll return to here two days hence.
It was only now that Brandon remembered how his uncle had always mixed-up his words when he was furious . . . or worried. That was wrong. Uncle Dusty didn’t worry; he got mad. The young man tried to blend further into the crowd, to become just another face.
I could’ve been doing something simple this summer like flipping burgers, collecting cans . . . ostrich wrangling. But no, I wanted to see the world and gain new experiences. Curse my need to make something of myself. He thought darkly.
His eyes flickered from one stall to another, the skin under his left twitching slightly as he stared at the middle one. There was Dusty now, moving through the crowd as though he had been born in the marketplace. With a smile and a bob of his head he started towards his nephew.
“Finally! Let’s get out of here,” Brandon hissed. “Where the hell have you been, anyway? Do you know what I’ve had to do to keep my skin?”
“Of course I do.” Dusty smiled, then became stern. “I’ve been making sure you haven’t gotten killed, drugged, or kidnapped. Especially when you stole that shirt; your skill at the five-finger discount is horrible. You know, Brandon, you really should think about taking a desk job. Much better for you.”
Brandon bristled. “I was --”
“Nearly killed three times over.” Dusty shook his head. “I blame myself. Gave you too many books when my brother handed you over to me and never let you scrap with anyone. Ah, well, let’s go.”
“Go?” Brandon held back a sigh of relief and followed Dusty. “Best plan I’ve heard from you yet. First thing I’m going to do at the hotel is grab a shower. And I was fine; I never saw anyone near me.”
“Exactly,” Dusty muttered. “You never see the one that gets you.”