Scooter tapped Rion on the shoulder. “Hey, let’s go have lunch.”
Rion looked up, startled. He had been lost in his own little world of tiny capsules that he didn’t see most of the other teens had left their tables, breaking for lunch. The doctor was dumping out sandwiches from three paper bags, with a scent of fried meat beckoning Rion.
“Dollar menu–a great thing,” the doctor said. “Do you want beef or chicken?”
“Um, beef, I guess.”
“I bet they’re all from the same animal anyway.” The doctor handed him a yellow-wrapped sandwich. “Listen, thanks again for helping us out with that distiller. Do you know a lot about machines?”
“Sort of. Mostly, I’m good at finding things.”
“Nice. I’m sure I’m going to have no trouble finding work for you.”
Rion smiled at him.
Scooter called out. “Rion, come on, let’s have lunch.” He was standing at a tall table with his red sandwich. Rion walked over to him and started ravaging his burger.
Scooter nodded, “Pretty nice of the doctor, eh? He buys us lunch every shop day.”
“He’s a really nice guy,” Rion nodded.
“And he likes you, I can tell. He knows how to pick ’em. It’s like being in some secret club.”
“Or like a family,” Rion said.
“Yeah. And everyone in the pharmy looks out for each other. If anyone ever tried to screw it up, I’d kick their ass.” Scooter swallowed his bite. “It’s a good thing you found us so early. New city. No friends. Gets dangerous here at night. Where were you staying before?”
“I found a hotel. I snuck in an empty room.”
“Jeez, you’re lucky. I’ve never heard of someone doing that. That’s a good move.”
“What?” Rion said. “I’m not homeless.”
“Dude,” Scooter cocked his head. “No need to bullshit me. A lot of us are.”
“No. No, I’m really not. I’m, um, just a little lost right now.”
“Dude, you can admit it. I’m not gonna rat you out or nothing. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“No, I’m telling the truth. I’m really not homeless.” I think, he added.
“But you don’t have anywhere to go, right? You don’t have a roof over your head?”
“Well, no, suppose not.”
“What about food? What’s the last time you ate something?”
Scooter clucked his tongue like a disappointed parent. “No wonder you scarfed that burger. Here, have some fries.” He rotated the box toward him. “How long have you been on the streets? A few days?”
“You even have any money?”
“I used to have some, but I… lost it.”
“Good, here’s a tip. Don’t spend it on food. If you stand outside a Beefy Queen or something, just ask people. They’ll buy it for you.”
Rion squirmed. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“What? Begging? Dude, you’ve got to lose your pride. I know a lot of kids who ended up going off with some pimp because they had too much pride to say no.”
“How long have you been… homeless?” Rion disliked using that word with a friend.
“Off and on. I haven’t been home for a year. It’s hard, it’s not dignified, but you can do it. I’ve done some weird shit for food.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to beg for food.” He’d rather eat from a dumpster before he asked someone. Maybe self-respect was something that couldn’t be erased.
“C’mon, you’re so skinny. Look, you can come with me, and I’ll show you-“
“I said I’m not going to beg for food!” Rion snapped like a mad dog. Scooter fell back.
Rion looked down at his french fry. “Sorry, I have… anger issues.”
“Look, I’m just trying to be your friend. If you got nothing else, you need your friends. I know it’s rough at first.”
Through gritted teeth, Rion said, “You cannot possibly understand what I’m going through.”
“You’re right. Everyone gets here a different way.”
Rion considered whether or not to tell him his secrets. Could he help? He seemed street-smart, but what resources did he have?
“Did you run away?” Scooter asked.
“I think so. I mean, yes.”
“Me too. I just didn’t want to be living at home anymore. It was crap. I couldn’t leave $5 on the table without one of my friends grifting it.”
“Maybe you needed some better friends.”
Scooter laughed. “Yeah, you’re probably right. We were always living paycheck to paycheck, and my mom was always fucking whoever she could to get a roof over her head. I had to steal from her to get any money for myself. One day my friends say they’re gonna take a van and skip town, and I said ‘well, hell, why am I even staying here and being miserable?’ So I did, and then I wound up here.”
“Would you do it again if you knew where you’d end up?” Rion asked.
“Oh yeah. I think,” Scooter answered. “I mean it’s not like I choose to be homeless, but it’s better than before. I’d change a few things, but yeah, I’m happy about it. I’m free now. What about you?”
Rion shrugged. “It wasn’t really my choice.”
A girl came up to them holding a tool. “Scooter, how does this thing go on the centrifuge?”
“I don’t know,” Scooter said, “I’m trying to have lunch.”
“Well, you were working it last.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t use that part.”
Rion said, “Can I see that?”
The girl shrugged and handed him the object. Rion examined it. “This part goes on top, then it aligns with the little slots. That guy with a lot of acne was using it last. You can ask him.”
“Oh, thanks.” She left.
“Nice,” Scooter said. “Say, you could go pretty far with skills like that. You know, if you want to earn some-“
Rion rubbed his nose. He had a dull ache at the back of his eyes–halfway to another migraine. By tomorrow, it would be raging.
“What, you okay?” Scooter asked.
“Again? Man, they are frequent. Why don’t you talk to the doctor while we’re on break.”
“Yeah, think I’ll do that. Were you going to ask me something.”
“Nah, go see the doctor first. I’ll hit you up later.”
Rion shook his head and went to find the doctor. He found him in a storage room full of boxes, filing cabinets, machines, and empty cartons. Most contained foil packs of capsules and tablets.
“What? Oh, Rion. Hi. How are you? Call me doc.” He was rifling through the boxes. “Hey, you’re good at finding things. You couldn’t find the lid for this jar, could you?” Doc said, half-joking. He held out a large white container.
Rion touched the rim, pretending to peer inside. “Is that it?” He pointed to the top of a filing cabinet where a purple jar lid rested.
“Ah, you are good,” Kinneburg laughed and picked it up. When he turned around, Rion was holding his temples. “Did you need something?”
“I just… I wanted to talk to you about my headaches. I was wondering if you could sell me some pills? Or I could work for them .”
“Sure, what do you want?”
“Do you have any pills that come in a red and yellow capsule?”
“What do you mean?” the doctor gave him a shady look. “The capsule is just a gelatin coating. We don’t use a specific capsule size or color for the drugs.”
“Oh, well, are there any that usually come in a red and yellow capsule?”
“Tons. Factory drugs all have their own standard shape. Do you have an example? I could find out.”
“No. What I was taking before, I lost it.” Rion cursed himself for being so stupid again. “What about the one I took before? Adravil?”
“Adravil? You sure you want that? It’s addicting.”
“I…” Rion grimaced at another wave of pain. “I just want some kind of painkiller for my headaches. And if I could get a fairly large supply, that would be good.”
“Do you have one now?” Rion nodded. “How much pain are you in? Do you get these headaches often?”
“Off and on. But it’s all right, I know what’s causing them.”
“You do? What?”
The doctor gave him another shady look. “What kind of stress? In your shoulders? Back of your neck?”
“No, it’s more inside my brain. And then it spreads.”
“Turn around. I want to check your head.” Rion turned around. The doctor placed his cool thin fingers on the back of his skull. He gently massaged the muscle. “Don’t think it’s muscle tension. Any pain in the back?”
“Are you on anything else? Anything illegal?”
“No. I don’t want anything addicting,” Rion said, hoping to appease the doctor’s suspicions. “But it needs to be pretty strong, I think.”
“You can be addicted to anything, drug or not. Addiction is about how the chemicals in the brain react to stimuli.”
“The last thing I had worked almost instantly.”
“Nothing works instantly. It’s got to take time to be absorbed into the bloodstream. What’s this scar from?”
“Scar? What scar?”
“You have a small scar here, right under your cranium. A few millimeters long. Didn’t heal well.”
Rion felt the back of his head and felt a small knot of gnarled flesh. “I… I don’t know. I’ve never noticed it before.” Where did he get this? Some kind of mind control chip? Childhood injury? Did it mean anything? Maybe there would be hospital records.
“Feels weird, like a sliver or something. It’s like it healed too fast.”
“I do heal fast.”
“Hmm,” he thought for a long time, “Well, let’s go over the stores.”
The doctor searched through his boxes as Rion felt the back of his head, trying to suss out his scar.
The doctor pulled out a plastic case meant for nails and screws. Now it held pills and capsules. “I think the strongest non-addicting painkiller I got, that I know is safe, is this–prozium.” He held up a gray pill that looked nothing like what Rion had been taking. “The problem is it’s expensive. Ten pills are twenty dollars.”
Rion took a heavy breath. His head felt like it was being fed through a meat grinder. “Okay, that’ll do.”
“You sure? You’ll have to work the rest of today and tomorrow to pay it off.”
“No, that’s fine. It’s worth it.”
The doctor put ten gray pills in a nearby bottle. “Since you’re already working with us, I’ll give you the short version of the spiel. You say something to the cops, we never do business again, obviously.” Rion nodded. “Take two per dose. Don’t take more than four in three hours. And if you have any side-effects–vomiting, fever, drowsiness, depression–let me know right away, and we can make an exchange.” He handed Rion the bottle.
“All right.” He shook out two out right away and dry-swallowed them in front of the doctor.
The doctor smirked. “Let me give you something in case you get some side-effects. It’s a one-time injectable. No charge.” He stepped around the boxes back to a desk drawer. “It’s new. Agalo-something. It’s on the market in West Virginia, right now.”
“Fingers crossed, it’ll counteract some of the nausea. Here we go.” The doctor found what he was looking for and came back around.
He held out a shiny silver gun, rounded in the grip and barrel, like a ray gun. Like Rion’s gun.