“Candy, it’s ok, take a deep breath,” said the voice on the other end of the commcall. The voice was deep and soothing, responding to the sniffles and sobs Candy couldn’t hold in anymore. There had been too much death and pain, and Candy had been holding in too much for too long. “It’s good you called. Just start at the beginning and tell me everything. I’m here to give you what you need, Candy baby, and right now, you need a friend.”
“Ok.” Candy was sitting on her bedroll in her econapartment, its walls thick with poorly overlapping AR overlays of beautiful, exotic places cut and pasted from travel brochures and virtual mags. Her legs were drawn up to her chest, and she was surrounded by an army of used tissues, battle-stained blue and back from makeup and nanopaste. She was glad she left the vid feed off the call because, she thought to herself, she must look like a royal mess. She took that deep breath.
“It all started when I met this boy Grinder. He was running with a gang called the Red Rats, but it was kind of obvious he was a rich kid gone ghetto. He was sweet, though, y’know, and when he visited the strip he would ask for me. Paid extra, too, so we could just hang out during the workday. Miss Elijah, you know, the House lady, knew what was going on and was nice enough to charge him a lot less than she would for the usual ‘pillow talk’ service. I think she thought he was a nice kid.
“The Rats got in trouble, though, and a bigger gang from a few blocks down, the Iron Sharks, raided the Rats and killed them all except him. He was with me when the raid happened, and he found out too late that his mates were in trouble. He cried, and he was so mad his face turned red and purple, and he would have stormed out of here and got himself killed if it weren’t for Miss E. She took him aside and said something to him. I don’t know what she said, but she scared him something good cause he called his dad.” Candy dried an errant tear with a bit of tissue and continued.
“Grinder and his dad didn’t exactly get on. Something about his dead mom, I don’t know, but I knew that calling his dad was the last thing he wanted to do. Anyway, he called him and was askin’ to meet him at some shitty diner called The Willy when someone poked their head in and told us a couple Sharks were cruising the strip with Grinder’s mughsot. Someone must have snitched in him, but a lot of the girls here don’t take kindly to hunting on our street, so nobody minded much when I took them out.
“You took on a couple Iron Sharks for him?”
“Not exactly. I shot them with the rifle got from Friday’s the week before. It was a big gun and I never shot one before, but Grinder had showed me how to hold it and… it was easy, actually. It was kinda a little too easy.” Candy stopped talking for a minute, remembering those guys in the blue and white windbreakers falling down like puppets whose strings had been cut. Strings she cut.
“It’s okay,” said the sweet voice on the commcall, “take your time. If you need to call me back…”
“No,” Candy said, interrupting the man on the other end. “I gotta tell this to someone, and I gotta tell the whole thing. Please, just listen.”
“So Grinder was scared now cuz he thought they knew where he was. I told him they didn’t know for sure but he didn’t listen, he just kept saying he had to get out lay low somewhere else. He told me he was going to see Jeff, his bong-buddy who cleaned the Stuffer Shack, about hiding somewhere in the store. That was the last I heard from him, but not the last I heard of him.
“See, things got kinda weird then, cause Miss Elijah brought a lady to see me about Grinder. She looked tough, not like gang tough but, I don’t know, different tough. Anyway, Miss E told me to tell her everything so I did. Said she was helping his dad to find him before the Sharks. Something happened that I don’t really get, but I guess Brook, one of the commsex girls upstairs, Brook, happened to pick up the tough lady’s commcall while Brook trying to eavesdrop on a someone else’s sex chat. She told me later they were ‘runners of some kind working for Grinder’s dad, which is awesome and all, but I guess Miss E knew the Sharks were probably scanning the commlines, too, and she stormed in and told the lady they might already be too late.”
“Jesus. Was he ok?” The voice asked, full of genuine concern.
“Just shut up, Dave, and listen to me. Those runners made it over to the Shack before the Sharks did, but you remember that Halloweener raid that nearly leveled a neighborhood last week?”
“Yea, that was all over the news. Said there were dead bodies everywhere and someone set off a whole lot of fireworks before the cops broke it up.”
“You ain’t that stupid, Davie, you know full well the cops didn’t do shit. We’re still picking up the bodies, though.”
“Oh shit.” There was a heavy silence as the reality of what Candy was about to describe occurred to him.
“So one of those runners was the one to first see the raiding party coming and got the word out to a couple locals, so when the Sharks got to the Shack they weren’t too worried about Grinder anymore. They set up defensive-like in the Shack but they weren’t alone, though, and I know those runners were there cause someone brought fucking Doberman drones, and someone said there was even some kind of poison lady hidden in the back protecting something. Nobody ever figured out what.
“Only reason we even know any of this is because the Sharks took the encryption off their commlines and pretty much let everyone tap in when the drek hit the fan. They might have been a bunch of assholes but everybody here is local, you know? Anyway, when the raid hit, they hit nearly everything in Boxcutter Row at once, but when they saw the Sharks holed up in the Shack, they hit up that place with everything they had. I’ve heard so many things about what happened that day, but I was scared and… I hid.
“I gave Grinder my rifle before he left in case he got caught, so I hid upstairs with a bunch of other girls. We could hear the gunfire and screaming and fires out in the streets. The Halloweeners, see, they like fire a lot for some reason, so the air was full of gas fumes cuz they were dousing cars outside and setting them on fire. This is the turf of a smaller gang called the Blue Angels, too, and I know they came out and stood up to the Halloweeners best as they could. I think they came out ok, they had some decent guns at least, but I know we got so many injured girls here that business has been in the pits lately.”
“Oh my god, Candy, that’s horrible. I’m so sorry.”
“So the place is a little more burnt down, but you know what? This place sucked so hard before you’d never even know the raid happened. We got a few more burnt down buildings and the Sharks are all dead. No big loss, I guess, unless they were your family. Couple of the girls here been out since the hit doing funeral stuff. There isn’t a Stuffer Shack anymore, though, because one of the Halloweeners blew the whole place sky high with some kind of insane bomb. The rubble from the explosion even just kinda blends in with the rest of the trash, though.
“I survived, and life goes on, and I get all that fuzzy you’ll-be-ok drek. But I got an email from that lady who said Grinder was safe, and she gave me a drop location to send him a message. I dropped him one I got printed out at the next nearest Stuffer Shack, like a twenty minute fucking bus ride away, but I don’t know if he got it. I mean, god damn it, the Sharks are dead, if he was alive, he’d send me a message, right? Unless he didn’t really care and he was just another asshole I fell for. I don’t care, though, even if he decided to turn into a god damn corp kid again, I love him, Davie, and he can’t even fucking call me.
“I only got that lady’s word he’s even alive, an she’s the one that might’ve told the Sharks where to find him, an I just couldn’t lie here sucking cock for grocery credits and wondering if the man I love was in that store when it fucking vaporized, and I just needed to talk to someone.” She started quietly sobbing again. “I just needed to tell someone, Davie, I just needed someone I could tell everything to before Miss E skins me alive for running out on a John today, and I didn’t know where to go or who to call, I just needed to hear a voice that wasn’t some fucking automated system…” Her face screwed up in despair and she started crying again. The voice let her get it all out, for a good five minutes, before it responded.
“Now you listen to me, Candy, and listen good. You don’t know me, but I’ve been working the sex commcall business for a long time, longer than I like to admit sometimes, but I know what I’m talking about when I tell you to take the day off, get your shit together, and go see Miss E first thing tomorrow. You got lucky today cause it just so happens I know a lady here who helps your Miss E part-time with her accounting, so I’m gonna tell her you called, tell her what happened, and everything is going to be ok. You gotta trust me, kiddo. As for needing someone to talk to, honey, you call Davie the Babe anytime. In fact, this call’s on me. I lost someone once, too, but that’s another story for another time. You call me sometime later and ask me about it, ok?” Candy sniffled and blew her nose.
“Ok. Thank you, Davie.”
“Goodbye, Candy, and take care of yourself.”
The line went dead as he ended the call, and Davie the Babie’s gorgeous profile picture disappeared from the commcall ARO, which now simply displayed the elapsed call time and amount of nuyen he transferred back to her account. The econapartment was silent, full of gentle AR oceans and wheat fields that failed to catch Candy’s eye. She sat there for another hour, wiping her nose and just trying to make it as quiet in her head as it was outside.
Then she heard the jingly tone of an incoming transmission. A little ARO popped up that simply said “Incoming Call from: Grinder. Do you accept? Yes / No.”