Project Walkabout


pines_icon.gif squeaks_icon.gif

Scene Title Project Walkabout
Synopsis Squeaks visits WSZR in search of one friend and makes another.
Date November 15, 2018

WSZR Building

Sometimes when you need information you go straight to the source, even if the reason is meant to be a surprise.

That’s what Squeaks decided after lunch when she still hadn’t gotten around to asking Gillian about Lene. It would maybe be better coming from her, and it could be asked somehow so why she’s curious is kept secret. She’s already known for having more questions about everything than anyone in the universe, so she’s got that going for her too. The only problem is finding Lene is like seeing a shooting star. It happens, but not nearly as much as anyone would like.

Waiting at home at first seemed like the best option. But what if this were a really late night? Or strange hours where Lene’s in for just long enough to grab a container of supper before leaving again. The young teenager also decided against the college. It was too big with too many people and, even though she can find literally anything, echolocation doesn’t work on things like names.

That left only one other place she knew she could go to look…

She isn’t sure if it’s one of the days that Jolene is doing radio work, but she figures she has a better chance there than anywhere else. And anyway, the old mill that’s been turned into the home of WSZR isn’t that far of a walk. It’s a journey that’s easily made, bundled in her jacket, with her hoodie and jeans, quiet and uneventful.

She takes a minute to stare up at the building when she finally finds herself in its shadow — it’s one of those places she’s passed a million times but never really explored into the property. Squeaks gives her head a single tiny shake. Maybe she can do that another time. Turning her attention to the entrance, she closes that distance quickly enough and lets herself inside. Hopefully it won’t be very hard to figure out where to go, or someone to tell her where to look.

It’s quiet in the WSZR building this morning, a scheduled period where there’s no DJs working the radio and the station serves as a repeater for WRAY out of Manhattan, Kansas. The offices also aren’t what Squeaks might have expected. It’s just an open, brick-walled and wood-floored mill building, with high wooden beams and tall windows allowing in a great deal of light. The only furniture here is a folding table with two metal chairs around it, and a ratty sofa beside a tall antique lamp.

“Post office is two doors down,” comes the voice of an old man on that sofa, wire-thin and dressed in a heavy flannel and denim jacket. He has this morning’s Safe Zone Siren folded in his lap, a steaming thermos in the other. His tone is gentle, soft-spoken and yet clear, and when he looks from the newspaper over to Squeaks, the thin old man’s bushy brows furrow. “Oh,” he seems to think something different once he sees Squeaks. “If you’re looking for Jolene or Lance, they’re not working right now, but if you’d like to stay and wait for them I’ve got some chicken soup in the microwave and some warm blankets.” It is cold in here. The building may not even have heat.

The sparse furnishings are looked at curiously as she enters the building — to be fair, everything is looked at curiously — but Squeaks keeps herself from being too nosy. She isn’t sure where to go from here, and she doesn’t wander far from the entry. Another glance goes to the couch, and the man sleeping on it, but she contents herself to just let her eyes do the exploring while she thinks. In fact, she’s actually looking the other direction when the stranger speaks up.

She startles, just a little, when he speaks. And at first he gets a squinty look, vaguely suspicious in spite of his tone, which eases back into curiosity when he actually looks at her. “Just Jolene,” Squeaks explains, sounding a teeny bit disappointed. She hoped to find the young woman here. “Is she going to be here soon?”

“Oh, she isn’t due for another couple of hours…” the old man says, slowly levering himself up to stand straight from the sofa. “But it’s all the same, you’re welcome to a hot meal and a place to wait.” The old man is clearly intent on making his way, slowly, over to Squeaks. He has a gentle pace about him, a grandfatherly and patient demeanor.

“I’m Martin, by the by. Martin Pines.” He smiles, genuinely, and stops right about at the folding table and drums his fingers on the top. “I reckon I’ve seen you around before,” he says with a momentarily assessing look. “Up by the old Hawthorne Books, coming and going from the sewer drain. That was a couple years back, mind…” He motions to Squeaks. “Can’t forget that hair, now can I?”

A couple of hours sounds like it’s probably going to cut too close to when she should be home. The girl’s face scrunches a little bit and, even though she’s heard the offer about staying, she looks over her shoulder at the door. Her head swivels around again when she hears the man moving, and she watches him with a touch of practiced suspicion at first.

“Usually people call me Squeaks,” she replies carefully. He doesn’t seem like a bad person, more like the helper types of people she remembers from before.

Her curiosity returns and, at mention of her hair, she rolls her eyes up so she can maybe see the very red hair on her head. “I used to live in the Underneath,” Squeaks explains. Her goes back to Martin, head tilting some to one side. “But I don’t now. It’s dangerous. You sometimes help Jolene? You bring her home.” She thinks she’s seen him stop in front of the brownstone house to drop Lene off once or twice.

“When I can,” Pines notes with a bit of a smile, pulling out a folding chair at the table to sit. “She’s a good kid, fought and was wounded serving her country.” He refers to her like a veteran. “Tried to get her to come to the meetings, but she’s stubborn like that. Doesn’t think she ‘fits in’,” he says with a worried crease of his brows. “Us types need t’stick together. Learned that a good long time ago.”

Reaching inside of his jacket, Pines fishes out a pack of gum and pulls out one foil-wrapped stick, then offers the pack out to Squeaks in the event that she’s interested. The wrapped is bright yellow with a purple dinosaur on it breathing lime green fire and reads Lemon-Melon Monstrous in block print.

“I don’t think she likes when people feel bad for her.” Squeaks looks at the stick of gum offered then up at Pines again. She carefully leans forward to take it, and examines the wrapper before looking up at the old man again. Gum is a very real treat, and she offers a quick, shy grin for thanks. “She told me a little bit, how she stopped the bad guys from making gas. And that’s how she got hurt. I told her thank you.” The last is added after a short pause, like she was deciding if it should be included or not.

The stick of gum is unwrapped slowly, and she watches with her head tucked down. “I was hoping I could find her here and maybe ask more. Like about the building where the gas was made.” The teen’s head lifts slightly and she shrugs a little bit. “I thought if I knew more maybe… maybe I could do something that makes it more like normal for her again.”

“Oh, she told me that story once…” The way Pines says it makes it sound as though it’s something lost to the fog of memory. He seems disinclined to comment on her stubbornness or pride. But as he twists just so to get a good look at Squeaks, the venerable old man’s expression turns into a gentle smile. “It was September 9th, just last year. She’d come in from the rain looking like a stray puppy,” he says with a slow shake of his head. “She told me all about the war that day, while we were fixing the wiring in here… back before this old girl was working again.”

Pines looks up to the ceiling, then back to Squeaks. “Not much I forget,” Pines admits, tapping the side of his head with two fingers. “Some people like our Jolene, they get the flashy whiz bang powers. People like me? Well, we just get nice and long memories.” Pines glances down to the floor for a moment. “Never a detail lost, even when the loss is detailed.” That much, though, maybe a quote from a book or a poem, sounds bittersweet.

“She told you how she got hurt?” Squeaks watches Pines, head tilting to one side. Her eyebrows get kind of bunchy, like she might be thinking about asking more questions, the same she’d probably be asking Jolene instead. After a second she looks away, eyes finding the door and then lifting to look up at the ceiling.

“I don’t know very much about her,” she goes on, her head still tilted back so she’s looking up. That seems strange, as she says it. They live in the same house, but the teenager has respected Lene’s privacy way more than anyone else’s. “She… she did something really big and it cost her lots.” Her words hang for a little bit, like there’s more she wants to say but can’t decide if or how to say it. She tips her head forward enough so she’s looking at the old man instead of the ceiling, and lifts her shoulders in a teeny shrug.

“Could I tell you something,” Squeaks asks. “It’s kind of a secret project thing.” And maybe explaining will help.

“I made a career of keeping good secrets once,” Pines admits with a fond smile to Squeaks, folding his newspaper to lay in his lap to show that she has his undivided attention. “So, I'll keep your confidence. Between me, you,” and he points up, “and the big guy.” Another smile, this one a little sadder than the last, though turning wistful at the end.

Letting her eyes roll up again, Squeaks gives the ceiling another look. This one is opening curious though, and maybe a little puzzled, as she wonders about what big guy could be living up there — on the roof? “I work at Raytech, and I got this idea,” she explains, still partly distracted by what could be up above. “I got the idea because of Lene, because she has a hard time with normal things.”

She looks at Pines again, eyebrows scrunching a little. “But she doesn’t want to be stuck always needing help, like even just with getting a glass of water, so I asked Richard — he’s the boss — about making a thing for her so she can do the normal things almost like normal again. And he said he’d definitely help if I knew what’s wrong. Like for reals diagnosises types.”

Nodding slowly, Pines makes a soft Ah sound in the back of his throat and sets his newspaper aside entirely. Leaning forward, he drapes his forearms over his knees and folds his hands together. “In my experience, the people who need help the most ain’t always the ones who want it the most. Easy wishin’, hard doin’, though.” Looking at the floor, Pines seems lost in thought for a moment, then shakes away whatever intruded on his train of thought, looking back up to the young girl he’s talking to.

“Jolene told he she fought in the civil war. Said she got hurt during an attack on what she thought was a command bunker out in Georgia.” Pines looks away again, his eyes taking on that distant and dreamy quality. “Turns out it was a chemical weapons development plant. The soldiers, they turned the weapons the scientists had been making on the plant. A gas. Like that yellow gas that strips your powers for a time,” he looks down at his right hand, as if seeing it for the first time. “But it was worse. It burned her from the inside out. She said she doesn’t remember being rescued… said she spent nine months recovering in a hospital in Toronto, Ontario.”

Pines’ eyes focus again, square on Squeaks. “Nobody else survived.”

Not wanting help that’s needed is something she kind of understands. She never liked the sad faces that grown-ups gave and the hovering-‘helping’ that never made anything better. “She got mad,” Squeaks says, remembering that first time she actually really met Lene. “Because she couldn’t do something by herself, then more mad because I asked to help. I didn’t know…”

But she does now.

As Pines goes on, talking about what happened, the girl looks down and then sits criss-cross on the floor. She watches the old man, and sorrow as she listens makes her eyebrows push toward each other. Some of the story she’s heard before, but it’s still hard to understand it all. “She stopped the bad people.” She knows it’s lots more than just that, but she says it’s simply.

“I wish… I wish I could bring her friends back.” Squeaks looks down at her hands, which have folded snugly in her lap. “I wish she could be happy too. I thought… I thought maybe if she… If she got something — robot legs or… I don’t know, it’s Raytech. Then maybe… maybe she could feel like she can take care of herself. And then it doesn’t matter that people don’t understand or know what to say.”

Sighing softly, Pines gets up from the sofa with a slowness brought on by old age. “Happy people cry too,” he says with a softness to his voice. “I’ve seen people who’re unhappy with their lives, truly. Jolene… she’s troubled. She hasn’t come to terms with herself, the consequences of her choices, or understood what it is she can do with what she’s got.” Pines moves over to Squeaks, fishing around in the pocket of his flannel shirt before withdrawing a plastic-wrapped chocolate, offering it out to her with a somewhat helpless smile.

“I’ve invited her to come to group, talk with the other vets, but she doesn’t want to.” Pines admits with a sag of his shoulders. “I didn’t press it.” But then, looking to the side and toward the radio room, he grows thoughtful. “Do you think robot legs would make her happier?”

“I think… I don’t know. Maybe.” Squeaks frowns down at her hands and pulls them apart. “I just thought… Raytech makes all kinds of things that they could maybe make something to help her feel normal again. So she could do more like before, and I think that would maybe help some.” But she’s really not as sure now. “But what you say, it might make her mad again.”

Tilting her head, the girl looks up. “Maybe I could convince her to go to your group too.” Even though that sounds like a dangerous path too, but she doesn’t understand the war the way the people who were in it do. “But I don’t know.”

“Jolene is the only one who can make her happy.” Pines says, regarding the untaken chocolate with a too-thoughtful look for it to really be his focus. “As friends,” Pines indicates with a gesture of his free hand between himself and Squeaks, “all we can do is try and give her the tools she needs to find that happiness. It isn’t to say she’s wrong for being mad about her lot…” Pines says as he tucks the chocolate back into his shirt pocket, “but one day you have to set anger aside, unless you’re going to let it be your whole darn life.”

Walking past Squeaks, Pines makes a slow but shuffling pace across the floor. “Being healed, sure, that one way of fixing it. But in my experience, folks with those kinds of abilities are the rarest. Only ever known one, personally, and he was mighty selective with who he helped. Because otherwise, he’d have to heal the whole world and…” Pines looks distant again. “Anyway, I don’t know what’s best for her. Nobody but she does. But that you’re tryin’…” he smiles again, “makes you a good friend.”

“So… so maybe keep trying like I am.” It’s a decision, but Squeaks’ tone makes it sound more like a question. She isn’t so sure like she was before, but she might understand Jolene a little bit better. Her head turns so she can watch Pines, and as he walks away she stands again. “But being healed isn’t what I mean, she isn’t sick or bleeding…” And she doesn’t know anyone who could heal anyway, or that anyone ever could.

Shrugging, the teen looks at the door and then back to Pines. It’s probably time to go home soon. “I don’t think she’s broken or can’t do things. She’s primal, and she can do all kinds of things. I just… I think maybe she’d like it if sometimes things were easier.”

Nodding slowly, Pines tucks his hands into the pockets of his flannel shirt and slowly turns to look back at Squeaks. “I think you’re on a right course, then.” Smile spreading a bit, Pines glances back at the radio room door, then back to Squeaks. “I wish I could be more help, but sometimes an old man’s stories are as much help as can be had.” Thoughtfully, he looks to the floor, mulling something over, then looks back up to Squeaks.

“Would you like to run the radio station for a little bit?” Pines asks with a crook of one side of his mouth into a sly smile. “Play whatever you like.” It feels like, at least right now, Pines could use the company.

“You told me things,” Squeaks points out, watching Pines. “You helped lots and I like stories. Thank you, Martin.” It’s maybe not so much as if a doctor had told her, but it’s still lots more than she knew before, and maybe there’s enough to get started. She starts to pull her hood up, and casts another look at the door.

But the offer pulls her back, and she looks up with wide eyes, cautiously excited. “For reals? I could choose the music that the whole Safe Zone hears?” The girl’s cheeks push up with a grin and she lets her hood fall. “Yes. Yes, I’d like to.”

Pines watches Squeaks with clear and simple joy in his eyes the moment her expression lights up. With an earnest smile and a slow motion of his head behind himself, Pines slowly pushes open the door to the broadcast room, revealing a large panel of switches and lights, a turntable, and a tall, oblong microphone beside a pair of large, padded headphones. “That’s right,” he says softly, “the whole Safe Zone.”

“Let’s pick out your first record.”

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