Chapter 2

Pinas.

Noun.

One of two main types of traditional Malaysian sailing vessels. Most commonly built with Chengal wood, which is known for being especially hard, thick, and durable.


“Was it worth it?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

She stuck out her tongue, apparently not impressed by my lack of vocal enthusiasm. I had been the one to wake her up early so that we could make a little detour to see it before the meeting, which I realized too late was a mistake. Hallie was a late sleeper, and she hadn’t been the type to care about statues even before losing the ability to appreciate them, so waking us both up at seven to see one probably hadn’t been the best course of action in terms of not getting her riled up.

Her annoyance with me was obvious, but she’d mostly been keeping quiet about it, which was her usual M.O. whenever I managed to drag her along to whatever my choice was. While traveling, the unspoken system between us was that she got to pick all the places that we went to or ate at, but we’d stop at one small historical attraction at my behest. She always hated it, but she went along with it to keep me happy, knowing that I did the reverse much more frequently for her.

In a place like New York City, it was sort of a waste to have gone with a humble public statue as my selection, but I’d always wanted to see it in person. Compared to fifteen years of anticipation, it couldn’t have possibly lived up to the hype, but I was still glad to have came and taken a look at it.

“You said there’s not much to look at, but does it say anything, at least?”

“Yeah, there’s an inscription at the base. Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice across treacherous waters through arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925. Endurance. Fidelity. Intelligence.”

“That’s a fucking mouthful. You could shorten that up a lot. Balto ran fast, healed many. There, five words. Perfect.”

“It would make more sense to at least keep the ‘sled dogs’ part, instead of only mentioning Balto. That’s a big point people bring up when talking about The Serum Run. He got all the fame and credit, but he wasn’t the most important dog on the relay system; he was just the leader of the team that finished the last leg of it. Another dog named Togo led much longer and more dangerous segments of the trip, but he’s not nearly as well known.”

She rested her head against my shoulder, yawning. I could get her to take interest in whatever we were learning about by finding some way to relate it back to sex or violence, but there wasn’t that much of either relating to Balto (discounting frostbite, diphtheria, and a few brief instances of accidental dogfighting). I thought there was a small chance of getting her curious about the media’s handling of the event, but seeing how grumpy and unawake she still was, I saw that it was a lost cause and gave up.

I didn’t take the loss that hard. The Great Race of Mercy wasn’t a topic that I was still very passionate about. If not for the fact that it had gotten me interested in history in the first place, I likely wouldn’t have cared at all. After reading a chapter book about it in elementary and hearing about the statue, I swore to myself that I’d find a way to see it in person someday, avoiding any pictures as to not spoil myself in the meanwhile.

Little Led probably would’ve found it cooler than I did, but underwhelming as it was, there was something satisfying about having fulfilled such an old promise to a friend.

Not much to look at, though. Just a sculpture of a dog.

“I’m ready to go.”

“…You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m good. Besides, she said we should show up early.”

Smiling for the first time that morning, she nodded, and I slowly turned around and started to walk us in the direction of the building April had texted me. According to my phone, it was super close to the area of Central Park we were in, but if we wanted to squeeze in breakfast without having to rush, we needed to go.

As we walked, she continued to hold on to my upper arm, which was our normal operating procedure when moving together in an unfamiliar area. At first, she had been uncomfortable with it, but with the speed that her condition had progressed it became a practical necessity. When at home, she could get around without too much trouble, but it was still going to be more time before she’d feel confident enough moving by herself in environments she wasn’t 100% familiar with.

Hallie had gotten better about it, but it still visibly embarrassed her, which I felt a little bad about. My first style of reassurance had been to point out that it wasn’t really any different from a couple holding hands in public; her response was to remind me that she hated doing that just as much. After a while, I realized that it was less of an issue of perceived lack of independence and more her just not being a fan of public displays of affection. (For me, that was much better, since it meant that I could tease her about it. Relentlessly.)

After a few steps, I came to a slow stop, recalling something.

“Oh.”

“Why’d you stop?”

“…I forgot to pet him. Part of it was that I would pet him.”

She sighed.

“Just a second, I promise.”

I walked her over to the smooth rock Balto was perched on, letting her rest against it before splitting up.

“You sure about this, Led? Togo won’t like it, if he’s watching.”

She hadn’t been totally ignoring me, which was nice.

“He’ll get over it.”

I quickly climbed around the rock, reaching Balto. The metal fur around his head and back had been burnished into a brilliant yellow, the aftereffect of over one-hundred years of young children rubbing him down in the same way I was about to. It was irresistible, in a way.

“Good boy.”

“You need help.”

The building we’d been told to go to was a hotel, slightly fancier than the one we’d stayed at the night prior. After our arrival, a concierge standing in front of the main entrance spotted and directed us to follow him to the elevator, having been given orders to guide us to our mysterious would-be benefactor.

We rode up to the sixteenth floor out of twenty, where he lead us to a room seemingly no different than any other in the hall. He knocked for us and began to make his way back before anyone answered, bowing. Hallie put on her smile, sweet and gentle and fake as hell.

Just as he disappeared back into the elevator, the door opened, a woman stepping out. She was in her mid-forties, white, with her black hair wrapped back into a tight black bun. She smiled at the two of us, reaching to shake my hand. She spoke with a weak accent, which I immediately recognized as French.

“Doreen Thomas. Fantastic to meet you two. It’s an honor.”

We exchanged greetings and went inside, sitting together around a table in the living room. I saw her sneaking glances at my forehead, in awe of The Brow.

Good genes on the part of Mami and Papi along with a well adhered-to workout plan had blessed me with conventional attractiveness, with my only major defect coming in the form of the massive pair of caterpillars resting above my eyeballs. It had started to come in when I was ten, growing at rates that pushed most people’s ability to believe. The stubble around my beard and neck had always grown in slowly enough to where I could get away with shaving every three days or so, but The Brow required me to monitor the bridge daily, lest it connect and form a monobrow. I was a monster.

“…Pardon me, but did you say… Swallow, back there?”

It was weird for us to be introducing ourselves by our real names, but April had told us that we didn’t need to worry about it. With the article already having come out that morning, it made sense that we could say that much.

“S-U-A-L-O. Half the people in my family pronounce it like that as a joke, but we never totally settled on it, so go with whichever you prefer. Swallow, Sue-Allo, whatever works.”

“And that’s…”

“I’m Puerto Rican, but the name doesn’t have any real origin as far as we know. The family legend is that my great grandfather stole a turkey from a witch, so she cursed him into forgetting his real surname, somehow forcing him to make one up from scratch.”

Doreen smiled.

“Not too bad, as far as family curses go. I hear it’s the pigs that you really need to stay away from…”

The second part to the family curse was that all Sualo men would at some point be rendered impotent, but that wasn’t as polite to bring up in polite conversation. It was three for three at the moment, with two early cases of testicular cancer and a horrible encounter with a snapping turtle taking revenge on the last three of our patriarchs, but I was hoping for a bit more luck in that arena. Abuelita, who’d forgotten some of the nuances regarding social conventions with old age, would sometimes point at my crotch after greeting me, reminding me how important it was that I “keep it safe”.

Fun stuff, family.

Hallie laughed. It wasn’t the way she actually laughed, which was much less restrained. Doreen stared at her for a short moment, thinking.

“…By the way, if you wouldn’t mind me asking, how much did April tell you about me?”

“Pretty close to nothing, to be honest.”

“That’s April. Leave it to everyone else to explain the tough stuff…”

She grinned.

“Well, to put it simply, I’m April’s best friend. The two of us have known each other for many, many years. We dated for a year while in college, but we decided that we were better off friends. And I owe her a lot. Without getting into it, it’s not an exaggeration to say that she saved my life, at a certain point.”

“I don’t have any trouble believing that,” said Hallie, lying. “She’s always been the type to want to help others.”

Doreen smirked.

“Best friends, you know, they end up sharing a lot with each other, especially when they speak as often as the two of us do. When you know that the person you’re talking to feels like they owe you their life, you feel comfortable talking to them, telling them things. Things that you didn’t think you’d ever tell anyone. Things that, just maybe, you had sworn to keep a secret for the sake of your clients.”

Hallie dropped the smile.

“Fucking bitch. She’s fired. She’s fucking fired.”

“Please don’t get mad with her, Hallie. I stressed our history because I want to make our relationship very, very clear. We’ve had a three hour phone call with each other everyday for the last thirty years; it’s only natural that she would have brought you up at some point. We know everything about each other, and everything we say — everything, I want to highlight — is kept in complete, total confidence. I would rather die than betray her trust. That isn’t hyperbole, when I say that. And she only spilled the beans because she knew that I wouldn’t. That I couldn’t.”

“What, so that’s it? You brought me out here to brag to me about how you and my manager are such fucking pals? I don’t give a shit. She lied to me. Fired, fired, fired. Fired.”

She stood up.

“Either of you say one fucking word about me, I’ll sue for slander. Or libel. Whichever is which, I don’t care. I’ll run you both into the fucking ground. Let’s go, Led.”

“Hallie, this isn’t blackmail, if that’s your impression. I’m here to make you an offer. You’ll like it. It’s work.”

“I don’t give a shit.”

She slid a piece of folded paper across the table.

“Led, could you read the number on that check to Hallie? I think she’d be interested in it, if she heard.”

Hallie balled up her fists.

“Fuck you.”

I picked it up, unfolding it. There was a number.

Zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero.

A sound escaped my throat. I read it again, making sure not to get it wrong.

A number that wasn’t a zero, followed by two numbers that were. A comma, three more zeroes, another comma, another three zeroes.

Again, for clarity. Eight zeroes, all preceded by a number that was not a zero.

No secret decimals. All of those zeroes were referring to dollars, not cents. The check was real, dated for yesterday. Payable to the order of Hallie Nordhoff.

“Huhhmp.”

“…Led?”

It was enough. More than enough, for what I promised myself I’d get them. Numbers that I was expecting us to need to work for another thirty years to get up to. Crazy bullshit dream numbers, magical fix everything numbers.

The absurdity of a single person being able to grant us that much didn’t seem to matter. Whoever Doreen was, whatever she stood for or represented, even if she was lying, it didn’t mean anything. All that existed was us and the number, the nine digits that could set me free forever.

I read the number out loud. Hallie looked in my direction, incredulous.

“What?”

I repeated myself.

She sunk back into her seat, turning her head back towards Doreen, who continued to smile at us.

“That’s a real check. I mean, you can’t just go and deposit that at an ATM — you need to officiate something that large, sign some important contracts, talk to scary bank people — but what it represents, well. That’s real, Hallie. For nine months of work, that’s what I’m offering. More precisely, that’s what my company is offering.”

“You’re lying… obviously. I’m not stupid… pulling numbers out like that, of course you’re lying. There’s nobody on the planet who could throw around money like that. Nobody.”

Hallie was saying that, but she had also sat back down. Logically, I didn’t believe it either, but I wasn’t pointing it out, only sitting and listening. That was all I could do, in the face of those zeroes, as fake as they were. Part of my brain kept screaming for me to call BS and leave, but other parts told me to stay, to shut up, to do anything that would end with us taking possession of all those beautiful, beautiful zeroes. Even if there was only the tiniest sliver of a chance of Doreen not trying to pull one over on us, it made sense to stay, to at least check. There were no other options, with a number like that. Hallie was thinking the same thing.

“…What do you need from her? What company would pay that much, for a violinist? What could you possibly want her to do?”

“Play, of course.”

She turned her head to the side, pointing to the wall. I hadn’t paid it any attention when walking in, but there was a poster of a ship.

“Play for the damned.”

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