“Karim healed the cripple!” Fat Pete shouted suddenly. “With a magic stone!”
The joke didn’t land. After the last hit, Luca fell from the wheelchair and lay for quite some time in the puddle. They’d decided that he might have died and were about to run away before a guard appeared. Unlikely as that was. But the cripple rose!
Unable to believe their eyes, the boys continued to gawk at Luca. He himself wasted no time. Whether his recovery was real or not, he had no idea when it might end. The boy wiped his face with his sleeve, climbed out of the puddle, chose a couple of likely stones nearby and, waving his arm inexpertly, threw one.
The stone flew three feet and splashed straight into the puddle. The hooligans were shocked, then broke into laughter.
Without delay, Luca threw the second, and it fell into the mud nearby. Angry with himself, Luca kept picking up and throwing stones at the boys, who continued to mock him even now that he had control over his body, but he couldn’t throw a stone even to the middle of the puddle. The ruffians stood on the opposite side, dying of laughter.
Karim even started choking, grabbing at his stomach, and the other boys laughed with him. Fat Pete, Karim’s right-hand man, laughed louder than anyone. He supported his leader with subservience in all his endeavors; the innkeeper’s son generously shared any uneaten leftovers from customers’ plates with him and the other boys, and in this district of the capital, food was the most valuable resource.
Luca had dreamed so many times of being able to pick up and return a stone thrown at him! And here he finally was... But he’d spent his whole life bedridden, he’d never learned to throw stones. If only his father were here... Or at least Kora, she could have taught him easily! But his sister was somewhere in a city watch jail cell while his mother saved up for her bail.
Luca looked around, but there were no more stones nearby.
“Hey, cripple!” Catch!” Fat Pete shouted, throwing another stone at him.
Out of habit, Luca watched motionlessly as the stone flew. But then he suddenly heard thoughts in his head. As if his own, but also... not. Move! Sorry, but I can’t just sit here and watch! Then his body began to move by itself, turned and leaned, dodging. The stone flew past him, nearly hitting him.
“Wow! Come on guys, let’s make him dance!”
The target was moving now, and that provoked the bullies. They got to work grabbing whatever was to hand and throwing it at Luca. But the boy even found a certain pleasure in not letting them hit him. Moving only as much as he needed to, he easily dodged all that came his way.
I’m bored, Luca-Esk thought. It’s my turn now. With confident, accurate throws, he put Natus out of action, the son of a fish merchant, then Jamal, a grubby halfwit without so much as a single glimmer of intellect. Then it was Fat Pete’s turn — the stone hit him right in his jelly-like belly, knocking all the air out of his lungs. Pete doubled over and fell face-first into the puddle.
Luca tossed another stone in his hand, considering which part of Karim’s body to throw it at. Karim hesitated, not knowing whether to run or to help his friends. In the end, he hid behind Fat Pete, pulling him out of the water like a hippo out of a swamp.
Luca aimed. Karim’s shoulder stuck out from behind Fat Pete’s back, so Luca aimed at it. The stone was small, around the size of a quail egg, but that just made the throw even more accurate. The cocky and bold-faced seventeen-year-old innkeeper’s son wailed like a girl. His crew groaned at the sight, exchanged glances and... ran off!
“Wait for me!” Karim wailed before staggering after the others.
He turned as he fled and shouted in faltering tones:
“You’re dead, cripple! You’re dead!”
Luca watched as he went. He felt an unfamiliar feeling in his chest. It was satisfaction. He liked how well his body responded, how quickly the blood flowed through his veins, liked the crackle of his pent-up anger finally bursting forth. Before, he could only cry himself to sleep in silence so as not to wake his mother and sister, or grind his teeth and roll his eyes. He never allowed himself to express it, not wanting to appear weaker than he was, so his anger built and built, long since reaching the point of no return.
Now he’d let his feelings loose, and a quiet, peaceful satisfaction replaced his all-encompassing anger. The incident amused Esk, but he also felt the same as Luca.
They shared the same body, after all.
A body which now began to hurt terribly. Its atrophied muscles had apparently gone into shock from such excessive use. Luca’s legs bent, but he managed not to fall. Staggering, the boy reached his wheelchair, stood it upright and fought through the pain to pull it out of the puddle. No sooner had he done this than he fell into the seat, got into a comfortable position and rolled toward the house.
He walked into the hovel on his own two feet. His mother didn’t notice him coming in and kept scrubbing some laundry on her washboard. Sweat fell off her in streams, but she kept furiously scrubbing the clothes as if her children’s lives depended on it. And they did.
Horvac take me, where am I? Esk thought, and the same thought appeared in Luca’s mind. The boy looked at the place where he’d lived for the last few years with fresh eyes. And from a new height, to put it plainly — his height.
One room for everyone. One half of the poorly lit room housed all the beds, a small dining table, a chest full of old junk. The other half was the laundry area, strewn with clothes and sheets, with an ironing board and an old black iron sheltering by the wall. His mother scrubbed in the corner opposite. The washing water in the basin and buckets was already black from dirt, and soon his mother would have to venture across the neighborhood to the local well. There were no lakes, rivers or other natural bodies of water in the capital, and for the residents of the slums, the only source of clean water was the community well.
She squeezed the water out of the sheet she was scrubbing, put away the basin and stood up. Luca began to hobble toward her.
Prisca raised her head, saw her son standing before her and fainted, started to fall, but Luca rushed toward her and held her up.
No strength at all, Esk noticed as he failed to hold his mother up and fell to the wet floor.
Gently holding the woman, he sat down and stroked her head. Prisca had been very beautiful when she married his father, but recent years had been far from kind to her. Her face had become lean, bags swelled under her eyes, her hair had thinned, her breasts had hung low since Kora’s birth. But she was still attractive, even if it was hard to notice right away.
“Mom, mom...” Luca whispered quietly. “Mom, wake up!”
He touched his lips to her forehead. Prisca opened her eyes. Luca stood himself up and helped his mother stand.
“It’s not a dream! It’s not a dream!” His mother’s eyes filled with tears. “Luca! My son!”
“But how?!” the woman cried.
Luca told her everything, leaving out only the fact that he’d thrown stones back. In his version of the events, the hooligans ran off as soon as he stood up.
“It’s a miracle! A miracle!” Prisca kept repeating, kissing and hugging her son.
Tears fell from her eyes, she was wet from the washing and sweat, and Luca had only just climbed out of a puddle. They stood in embrace for a long time. Luca held his mother to his chest and looked down on her from above for the first time. Now he saw how many grey hairs she had.
“Mom, I’m going to go get water. Rest in the meantime.”
“Are you sure you can?” Prisca looked her son up and down sceptically.
“I’ll try. I’ll carry just one bucket at a time, don’t worry. Rest, mom.”
Luca led her to the bed and sat her down, then grabbed a full bucket. Gritting his teeth and taking tiny steps, he carried it out of the house to pour the dirty water into the gutter and bring back clean water.
Watching this, Esk thought the boy would break in half from the strain.
Time to spin the Wheel.
Alex (Aleksei) Bobl is a literary agent and a science fiction writer, author of 13 novels. An ex-paratrooper, he used his military knowledge and experience to write his debut novels for S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a bestselling science fiction action adventure series set in a post-apocalyptic Chernobyl.
This account is publishing texts written by authors of Magic Dome Books.
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