Low chicago, p.41
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       Low Chicago, p.41

         Part #25 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  He’d heard that some of those who drew the card were born different. That others went to sleep one night and woke up changed. Ali? Ali had seen it happen to his own body before his eyes, like watching a horror movie while he lived it. His hands had stretched and warped until they looked like slabs of raw meat the size of car batteries. Patches of pink sinew spread on his chest. Fishhooks popped in and out of his skin as he breathed.

  And then the meat covered his left hand completely, and a ten-inch iron hook had burst out of the raw red mass.

  He’d raged and screamed and torn his parents’ living room to shreds in his anger. The police came to his house, as they had more than once before. But this time men with stretchers took his parents and his sister away. When Ali saw the cops’ looks of pity, it took all of his strength not to throttle them.

  Days passed and nights passed and Ali had no idea how to get home, or even start looking for a way home. He tried to retrace his steps and find the exact spot where he’d first woken up, but it was no use. Most of his time was spent trying to feed himself. With practice he found he could catch fish from the streams in his big hands, but eating them raw nearly made him vomit, and they were mostly bones anyway. Ali tried to start a fire a hundred times by rubbing sticks and striking rocks, but he wasn’t a goddamned Boy Scout. He discovered that the biggest pinecones—the ones the size of a normal man’s fist—had edible nuts in them, and this saved his life. There was an endless supply of them, and their taste reminded him of Lebanese food, and of home.

  He had counted eight or nine nights of sleep when the smell came to him.

  The smell brought him back to childhood barbecues, his father surrounded by other Arab men laughing and arguing as shish kebab sizzled on the grill.

  Cooking meat. Ali had been hungry before. Days holed up in some room watching a mark. Times in prison where the vindictive guards decided for whatever bullshit reason that he didn’t get to eat that day. But he’d never felt hunger like this. And when the smell of meat on a fire hit Ali’s nostrils, he growled like an animal. Almost without thinking, he stood up and scrambled toward the scent.

  Cooking means people, he realized. What sort of people? Whoever dumped him here? Big white cavemen with clubs? Ali was so hungry and, if he was being honest with himself, so lonely, that it almost didn’t matter.

  Following his nose in a forest proved harder than Ali thought. The smell of food was so overwhelming that it seemed to be everywhere, and it was intertwined with the omnipresent plant and animal scents that he had grown used to over the past few days. Then Ali saw the smoke.

  He followed the smoke to a clearing at the foot of a hill. Ali stayed in the trees and watched. A hundred yards or so across the clearing, a cave of sorts, a little makeshift shelter, was carved out of the side of the hill. Near this entrance was a big pit with a crackling fire. Some sort of animal was cooking on a spit, but what interested Ali were the figures milling around the fire, talking.

  People. They were actual people. And not hulking white men with gorilla foreheads and clubs, either, but human fucking beings. There were eight or nine of them, brown-skinned and tough-looking, dressed in furs and armed with long, sharp sticks.

  Hungry, lonely, and desperate, Ali burst out of the woods without thinking. He shouted, “Hey!” Then all hell broke loose.

  As one, the men looked up and started shouting. They exchanged a few words and then charged him. Ali threw his hands up defensively—these were the first people he’d seen in this place, maybe the only people he’d ever see here. He didn’t want to kill them if he could help it.

  One spear flew at him and he batted it away. Another two came flying and he blocked them with his hands, the points sinking into the meat. He yanked them out and tossed them to the ground and then the hunters surrounded him. Nine of them, all with stone-tipped spears. Ali could see now that some of them were young, barely old enough to have hair on their balls. Ali tried, with word and gesture, to make clear that he wasn’t a threat, but it didn’t work. He understood. How many times had he himself beat the shit out of some poor chump, only to learn later that it had been the wrong guy?

  The smallest boy—he couldn’t have been more than thirteen—lunged and tried to stab Ali. Ali grabbed the spear by its sharp end, the point digging painlessly into his meaty palm. He yanked his hand back and the kid, still holding the spear, was thrown to the ground. “You can try to kill me, you little shit,” he said, “but you’re not gonna like how that ends up.” It felt damn good to talk to another person, even if that person was a teenager who was trying to kill him and couldn’t understand a fucking word he said. He pulled the spear out and snapped it in two.

  This, apparently, was all the hunters could take. The circle broke, the men and boys fleeing screaming into the woods. Ali tried to calm them, tried to follow them, but it was no use. They were fast and they knew the woods well. Before long Ali was alone again.

  He felt his soul sink as he walked. “Why are you doing this to me?” he asked God aloud. God didn’t answer.

  Ali looked back to the cook-fire and the hunters’ shelter. Well, at least he now had a roof to sleep under at night. And some real food to eat.

  About as much—or as little—as he had back home, truth be told.

  Some people said everything changed after your card turned. And yeah, things were different for Ali after that night. His cronies avoided him. People on the street made faces. He moved into a flophouse for jokers on the east side of Detroit. He had to learn to use his hands all over again. But mostly Ali felt like he’d become on the outside what he was on the inside. Stronger than the rest. Scarier. Uglier.

  Before too long, Ali came to see the advantages of having his card turn. He was strong enough to flip a car with one hand now, and he could take a hell of a lot more punches than he could before. The hamhocks he now called hands felt no pain, which was handy for breaking windows and faces. When Ali got angry, the patches of raw meat spread across his body and sprouted metal hooks of all sizes—from the fishing barbs that coated his chest like a sort of mail to the huge meathook that burst forth from his left hand. When he was really mad the meat-and-metal grew thick enough to stop bullets, and Ali could lift a bus and tear a car in half with a swing of his hook-fist.

  But Wafa was gone and his buddies had abandoned him, even if they were too chickenshit to say why to his face. When a local drug dealer who’d seen Ali handle a gang of four guys at once offered Ali a job doing “security” in Toledo, Ali jumped on the chance to get out of town.

  He spent the next dozen years moving from city to city finding work as Meathooks, a tough-as-nails enforcer smart enough to make a plan go right but dumb enough to take his measly pay without asking for more. Meathooks worked as a bodyguard, collector, street soldier, and beat-down man in Chicago, Indianapolis, and half a dozen other rust belt cities.

  He killed some people, too. And though he never went to prison for it, when he finally did go to prison—for a crime he didn’t commit—he thought often about the men he had murdered.

  The hunters’ shelter was not, as Ali had first thought, simply a hole dug in the side of the hill. Inside, animal skins covered much of the packed earth and tools of stone and bone and fire-hardened wood lay strewn about, though Ali had no idea what most of them were for. There was also a store of nuts and little raisin-like things and wooden bowls for drawing water from the nearby stream. “Al’Hamd’Allah,” he said out loud. Thank God.

  It was only then, as he stood staring, that Ali realized the dirt walls of the little cave were carved—intricately, and all over. Mostly it was patterns and borders and strange symbols that he didn’t recognize. But here and there were little pictures—trees, rivers, birds, animals.

  He ate his fill of the huge deer that was still cooking on the spit outside and warmed himself by the fire. Ali realized he should try to keep the fire going, but he had no idea how in the hell to do that. So he went back into his new temporary home, wrapped himself in
animal skins that smelled horrible, and, fairly certain that the hunters were too frightened to return, fell asleep staring at tiny earthen images of eagles and stars.

  For a few days—three? four?—Ali spent his daylight hours scouting the area around the shelter. He walked along the stream and explored the woods, always careful not to go far enough to get lost. The dead deer began to stink, so Ali dragged it away from the shelter and, with a loud heave, threw it into the woods. The fire died and he couldn’t bring it back.

  He managed to rip and tie enough fur together to fashion himself a sort of skirt that at least kept his dick and buttcheeks from hanging out. And he began familiarizing himself with the various tools in the shelter, or trying to. There was a long stone knife, remarkably sharp for a rock. That could come in handy. But what was the wooden paddle for? Or the lidded stone bowl with holes in the top?

  He’d figure it out. Ali had learned how to use a smartphone with hamhock hands. He’d learned how to sail a boat for that Lake Michigan job back in the day. He’d taught himself Spanish. He’d figure it out. Then he’d figure out how to get the fuck out of here and back home. Or at least back to his own time. He didn’t have anything that counted as a home these days.

  A number of days—nine? ten?—after he had seen the hunters, Ali awoke to the smell of cooking meat. He lay there for a moment, his stomach rumbling, before he was awake enough to wonder what was going on. Then he leapt to his feet and ran outside.

  The firepit was going again, and another deer was roasting on a spit. In the clearing, a hundred yards from the shelter entrance, a dozen men and women stood in a line. Their spears were at their feet and their arms were extended, palms up. They all chanted softly.

  As Ali emerged from the shelter, they stopped their chanting and pointed at him, speaking excitedly. Ali, not wanting to frighten them again, raised his huge hands in as non-threatening a manner as he could. A stout old woman, her long black-and-gray hair threaded with beads and shells, strode forward alone. She stopped halfway toward Ali, as if waiting for something. Ali took a chance and walked slowly toward the woman, smiling at her reassuringly, his hands still out and open before him. Unlike the others, this woman didn’t look afraid. Ali stopped a few feet in front of her and they stood there for a long moment, sizing each other up. Ali saw that she had three small vertical scars on her forehead, a mark he’d seen on some of the hunters as well.

  “Uh, hi,” Ali began. As soon as he spoke the woman’s people started chattering, agitated. “Look, lady, I didn’t mean—”

  The woman held up her hand, and Ali fell silent. She took a deep breath, then started speaking words Ali couldn’t understand in a loud, deep voice. She gestured toward the deer on the fire, and at bowls of berries and nuts and beads and shells that Ali hadn’t seen before. She was speaking but she wasn’t talking to him, Ali realized. It sounded more like a formal speech. Or a prayer.

  When she finished, she pulled out the small pouch tied around her neck and stuck her thumb into it. She pulled her thumb out, and it was covered in some sort of purple dye. She stepped close to Ali and, before he knew what she was doing, pressed her wet thumb hard against his bare chest. When she pulled it away a small indigo oval stained his skin.

  “What the fuck?” Ali had no idea what this all meant, but he figured it was good. Most times, someone giving you food was better than someone trying to kill you. The old woman backed away slowly for a dozen paces, then turned and ran. Only then did Ali realize just how afraid she’d actually been.

  Before he thought to stop them, the people melted back into the woods, leaving Ali alone again.

  As Meathooks, Ali had done dark things that he could never make right. Punched a hole in a man who owed another man money. Threw a police van full of informants off of a cliff. There were screams he would hear his whole life, and perhaps in the world that comes after this one. But for some reason he couldn’t name, Ali’s mind returned most often to the shakedown job where he’d met a wild card called the Dope Man.

  Once a white junkie from the suburbs, the Dope Man was now a shambling mound of drugs, a half man sprouting weed and crack rocks from his skin, with heroin seeping from his open sores. The Dope Man wasn’t going to make anyone rich—he grew the stuff like a sheep grows wool, and once he’d been sheared it took time to grow more—but he was a figure of legend among Detroit’s drug fiends and small-time users.

  Ali learned the Dope Man was real when he found the poor son-of-a-bitch chained up in some meth heads’ basement. He looked as if he’d been shaved in some places and flayed in others. The man had looked at Ali in terror. They were around the same age.

  “Hehl,” the Dope Man had croaked.


  “Are … are you here to help me?”

  Ali had unshackled the man from the radiator. “No. You’re coming with me.” The meth heads he’d just killed had had a dog. Ali hadn’t wanted to shoot it, but it just. Kept. Yapping. Anyway, a dog meant a leash.

  He could remember the sound of the Dope Man pleading as Ali led him out of there like an animal. Ali had sold the man for five thousand dollars. About what a good used car cost at the time.

  In prison, when Ali would kneel to his prayers, the look in the man’s eyes would return to haunt him.

  The old woman didn’t visit Ali again. But every few days new offerings would appear. No more deer—Ali supposed meat was pretty rare for these people—but bowls of nuts and fruits and shiny stones. Ali never saw those who left the gifts, if that’s what they were. They seemed to visit only when he was away from the shelter. Or sleeping.

  Ali decided to wait for them, and to follow them the next time they came.

  For a week he lay down before sunset, pretending to fall quickly asleep. Each night no one came. He thought the waiting might make him crazy. Finally, one early evening, from the recesses of the shelter where he feigned sleep, he could see two big young men approaching with baskets brimming with little corn ears. They were clearly scared shitless but trying to look tough for each other. They left the baskets near the cook-fire, then started trotting back toward the woods.

  Ali followed.

  He gave them as much of a lead as he dared, then got moving. Ali was big and stuck out like a sore thumb. Even so, in a city he knew, he could follow a man like a motherfucking shadow. Here in the woods, not so much. Branches and leaves snapped underfoot as he plodded along, and birds and animals chittered and squawked at him. The hunters had to know they were being followed, but they very pointedly did not look behind them, instead clutching the bone necklaces they wore and mumbling words Ali couldn’t hear. They reminded him of his mother muttering Arabic prayers, trying to ward off the evil eye.

  They walked for a long time, and he followed. A part of Ali worried that he would lose his way and be unable to return to his shelter. But they were following the course of the stream here almost exactly. And it was worth the risk.

  The hunters finally stopped at a cluster of pine trees that stood hard against the stream. Ali stopped farther back into the trees and watched as a mixed group of women, men, and children met the hunters. They had baskets full of the large pine nuts that had sustained Ali when he’d first arrived in this place.

  Ali found himself staring at the women’s lips and breasts and asses. Over the decades, between his deformity, his line of work, and prison, he’d learned to live without love. Without being touched. He’d gone years at a time without getting laid. But his body was calling to him now. He shook it off and tried to think. He had to talk to these people. But how in the fuck was he supposed to? He didn’t know their language, they didn’t know his.…

  The hunters kept stealing nervous glances over their shoulders. They knew Ali was there, even if they couldn’t see him. He had to at least try to make himself understood. He took a deep breath and stepped forward.

  As soon as he moved, something came charging out of the woods at the group. A bear, bigger than Ali thought bears could be, a fuckin
g mountain of fur and claws growling loud enough to make a grown man shit his pants. And it was pissed about something. The people screamed and scattered. A few of the hunters fumbled for their spears. One of the smaller children was directly in the bear’s path.

  With a bloodcurdling shout of his own, the meat-and-metal spreading across his skin, Ali charged the beast. It slammed a claw into him and tried to grab him in a crushing hug, but yelped and whined like a dog as the barbs and hooks that had sprouted all over Ali dug into its skin.

  Ali punched the bear once, his fist sinking halfway into the animal. It thrashed and fell still. He pulled his bloody meathook from its body, sending a spray of blood and guts everywhere. Only then did Ali realize that the hunters and the others hadn’t fled. They were standing there, watching him with awe.

  I just saved a kid’s life, Ali realized. Then, to his utter shock, he noticed that some of the people were actually smiling at him now.

  It had been a long, long time since another human being had smiled at him, and it felt so fucking good that Ali thought he might cry.

  Ali’s criminal career had ended with the death of an eight-year-old boy. It happened when he was back in Detroit, on a job with a local old-school mobster’s twerpy little grandson named Jason. A hospital complex. Ali had been in one building, Jason in another. The job went wrong on the twerp’s end. It wasn’t Ali’s fault the job went wrong, but he paid the price.

  Ali had done some shit things in his years in the business, but he’d never hurt kids. He could say that at least when God judged him.

  Jason the Twerp had panicked and shot an eight-year-old kid. Ali wasn’t even in the same building, but the next day dirty cops picked him up, claiming the boy had been found bludgeoned and hacked to death with meathooks.

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