Surrogate Hearts


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Scene Title Surrogate Hearts
Synopsis Kain has a heart-to-heart talk, with the walking ghost of someone from his past.
Date November 7, 2018

Palisades Sill, Freedom of the Sea

They call it Freedom of the Sea.

The derelict cruise ship, long ago run around and dashed on the cliffs that formed the Palisades Sill, teems with seafront life. At the midday hour, small boats are anchored around the base of the cruise ship, visitors hauled up to deck level on rope and pulley winch lifts. Colorful canvas tarps snap and blow in the wind atop the shanties stacked along the cliff face, and the cry of gulls and terns joins the rumble of motorized boat engines.

Standing on the lashed wood plank platform of one of those pulley lifts, Kain Zarek blends in among the crowd of traders and survivalists looking to find a measure of relaxation in the abandoned ship. His beard is overgrown, once shear-short hair now tufted and ungainly as it grows in uneven. A backpack over his shoulder has survived from one timeline to the next, patched and sewn to retain its contents, the pink of its fabric long ago faded to a more grimy peach color from sun exposure and weathering.

Looking up to the lift’s destination, Kain squares his shoulders and carries the weight of the backpack like it was a cross.

Freedom of the Sea

Palisades Sill

November 7th

1:12 pm

When the lift reaches the deck, Kain disembarks with the other visitors. First-timers to the ship look lost and wide-eyed, immediately beset upon by scam artists in the guise of grubby, worried children who lost their parents. Kain insinuates himself past the grifters, moving through an open door into the wood-panel lined halls.

The establishment known as the Happy Dagger has a hand-carved wooden sign hanging above its entrance, curtained by white linen sheets. Incense and the scent of tobacco fill the air, along with music coming from hand-crank powered radios. As Kain steps inside the brothel, there’s a haunted look in his pale eyes, jaw set and one hand clutching the strap of his pack tightly. He’s here for just one person.

The once-lush interior is still more luxurious than most ships docked in the Palisades’ harbor can boast, though the deep reds have faded and the wood has lost its lustre. The same can be said for most of the ship’s residents and visitors. It’s certainly true for Valentine.

Still, it doesn’t take long to find her. Perched at the bar, the silken champagne robe that slips just so off one shoulder and the midnight-blue chemise beneath do little to obscure the porcelain skin and long, willowy limbs belonging to Peyton Whitney. Life on the coast has done nothing to weather her features — clearly she spends most of her time indoors, though she’s not quite so pale as the Peyton who hadn’t seen the sunlight for years. Valentine has a glass in one hand, the liquor here a higher quality than that sold on the Kraken, though it costs more credits than most can afford. So too does most of the “entertainment,” Valentine included. Still, that doesn’t keep her from making an appearance once in a while, living advertisement for the brothel.

Gazing out with that dimmed look in her eyes — a side effect, no doubt of one of the perks given by her employer — those colt-dark eyes fall on Kain, and she tips her head slightly, before taking a sip from her glass.

It takes a moment for Kain to make his feet move. He’s been glued in place since he met those dark eyes, just like he was a few days ago. With a shallow breath, he forces himself forward, boots clomping on the floor with each heavy, plodding step. Eventually, he reaches the bar and sets the pink backpack down on the stool to his far side from Valentine, then takes a seat next to her. In spite of his rough appearance, he mostly smells of salt water and oxidized metal, rather than the sweat and grime many residents of the Sill do.

Kain flashes Valentine a troubled look, then looks to the bartender and motions to the bottled beer brewed locally in the Sill. His attention shifts back to Valentine, and Kain manages a nervous smile. “So— Ya’ll come here… often?” He immediately closes his eyes, grimaces, and makes a face like he can’t believe he said that.

Dark eyes track his progress, a small, amused smile tipping her lips up at one corner. Her gaze drifts away for a moment, when he moves forward at last, as if she weren’t expecting him to come sit beside her, in case he chooses at the last moment to change his path. When he stays the course, Valentine glances at the faded backpack, looking amused by the color and size, before she turns her eyes on his face. She laughs at the tired line, as if he meant her to.

“Often enough,” she replies. “You look like you’ve gotten your land legs beneath you a bit, since the last time I saw you.” This is said almost gently, before she offers him a hand, palm downward like a lady would in a bygone era.

Her nails are painted a deep navy blue, no doubt found by someone on a salvage mission, sold here for credits. The same color that a certain Peyton favored in a different world.

“Valentine,” she offers, brows lifting in tacit query for his name.

“Kain,” he says back, though there's a crack in his voice when he does. Looking sheepish at his own reaction, Kain slants a look away from her down to the backpack, brows furrowed, then looks up slowly across the bar to view their reflections in the grimy mirror. “The ah,” he fumbles for words, “m’not great with the ocean. Yeah.” He awkwardly levels a look at her, no realizing how ridiculous that sounds in a world more inhabited on water than not.

“So,” Kain motions to her with his chin, “How mulch's it t’get a minute’f yer time? Uh— ” He grimaces, one hand scrubbing the back of his neck, “not literally a minute. It's— Ah’ just wanna talk. But Ah’ know girls like you…” he can't look her in the eye when he says that, “they're on the clock. Time’s money. Don't wanna cause you no trouble.”

Valentine lifts her drink to take a sip, dipping her head so she has to look up at him as he speaks, her dark eyes wide, the pupils dilated just a touch more than they should be, even in the dim setting. When he looks down at the backpack, she does too, head tipping again, and a another smile tugging her mouth upward.

Her brows arch upward when he asks to just talk to her. “You want to talk to me?” Valentine says, a little incredulously — not that it’s the strangest request, but clearly it’s not one she gets all that often. At least not up front.

She studies his face. “Tell you what, sugar. If it’s just talking, twenty-five credits for half an hour, fifty for an hour, and then we can renegotiate depending on where you want to go from there,” she says teasingly, one hand reaching out to brush an imaginary thread off of his shoulder. “Shall we go to my cabin, or are you afraid I’ll bite?”

Kain's awkward and uncomfortable laugh at that question pushes him off of his stool. He reaches into the front pouch of his backpack, withdrawing a handful of poker chips bought with two repaired ham radios and a bottle of tequila.

“I got enough for fifteen minutes,” Kain says with weariness in his voice, brows furrowed so deep he may never lose the crease they're making. With the credits sitting between them on the bar top, Kain picks up his backpack and slips it over one shoulder. “After you, darlin’.”

The chips are glanced at, another lift of her brow, before Valentine slides them off the bartop and tucks them into a little coin purse attached to a garter, revealing a length of leg to do so.

“Tell you what, sugar,” she says, finishing her drink and then rising from her stool to lead him to her room, “I’ll give you another 15 as a discount, because I like your voice. Just don’t go telling anybody or everyone’ll be trying to haggle.” This is said over her shoulder as she moves toward the door, finding her way to the corridor that will lead to the cabins of the Dagger’s employees.

The cabin itself is small but on the outside and on an upper deck — a tiny little balcony overlooks the “harbor” of the Sill and the ocean beyond. There’s little room for more than a bed and a tiny desk and chair, besides the miniscule bathroom beyond. What was probably once a fairly staid, neutral room has been bedecked in swaths of fabrics in reds, purples, and golds.

She gestures to the bed or the chair, choosing the former for herself — at least it’s made, which might make him feel slightly better. She plucks one of many throw pillows to hold on her lap as she sits near the foot, head tilting curiously as she watches him and his reactions. “Did you just want me to talk about anything or was there something specific you had in mind?” she asks, her voice soft, uncertain of just what he wants from her.

“Ah ain’t even sure,” Kain says with a slow shake of his head, lingering by the door in a long-awkward moment. He turns his attention to the chair after that, but only to set his backpack down in it. “Ah’m not even sure what Ah’m doin’ here… “ and he nearly reaches down for the backpack again. She recognizes that near-flight tension, she’s seen it plenty of times with skittish guests. But he doesn’t let it take control, and as he curls his fingers against his palm and looks across the length of the room to where she sits on the bed, there’s something in his eyes other than fear: grief.

Kain lifts a hand to scrub at his beard, then paces around the room at the foot of the bed. “Ain’t churches anymore,” seems like a weird thing to say. “Not like back home. With the tall closet, partition, stuffy old man patiently listenin’.” Kain looks up to Valentine. “This ain’t a confessional, but Ah’ need t’confess.”

Having paced a path all the way back to the chair, Kain has taken to wringing one hand over the overly-tanned back of his neck. “Long time ago…” he furrows his brows and chooses his wording carefully, “‘fore the flood, Ah’ was a shit person. Ah’ hurt people for a livin’. Worked for a man ten times worse’n me. Then th’ whole world went t’shit…” As he talks, Kain’s gaze goes distant and unfocused, meandering the room as if in search of something. “Then Ah’ thought Ah’d lost everything…” His eyes settle on Valentine. “Then Ah’ met— ” and his words hitch in his throat. “ — Someone. Someone who listened.”

She watches, her dark eyes following his pacing path. She’s careful not to make any quick movements, like he might bold like the trapped animal he seems. When he settles near the chair, but not on it, Valentine gets up slowly, moving to where the wall slides open to reveal a little wardrobe, from which she plucks a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. One of them has a chip on the rim. In each she pours some of the amber liquid, clear enough and gold enough that it probably wasn’t made in a bathtub, at least.

“You’re a survivor,” she says quietly. There’s a matter-of-factness to her voice; she loses a little of that low-and-slow tone she’s been using, and with the shift, she sounds more like Peyton. Payday. “We’ve all done bad things to be where we are today. You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t, and neither would I. In a perfect world, we could all be perfect people, but that’s not the world we were born in.”

Valentine crosses the small bit of room to offer him one of the glasses, keeping the chipped one for herself and setting the bottle of whiskey near his backpack. She settles this time on the edge of the desk instead of the bed — perhaps sensing that might make him more comfortable.

“I’ll listen,” she offers. “I’ll even give you some hail mary’s and a few lord’s prayers to do, if it’ll make you feel better.” The latter turns the cupid’s bow of her mouth up into a small smile. “I may even have a rosary around here someone gave me, if you’d like. I ain’t Catholic.”

“Same,” Kain admits with an awkward smile, taking the glass offered. “still got forced t’go for a little bit as a kid. ‘Fore the folks gave up.” He looks down into the amber liquid, sloshed around once around the glass. “Much appreciated, by the by,” he notes before taking a swallow of the whiskey. There’s a pause of expectation, then a flash of surprise as Kain’s brows raise. “Much appreciated.”

Kain sets the glass down beside the bottle, then paces the floor as he rakes one hand through his short hair. He struggles with how to start this conversation, where to begin, or how to even make it make any sense. When he circles back to where he’d started pacing, Kain looks over at Valentine with troubled eyes, then averts them to the floor.

“Ah’ ain’t never had much family growin’ up. Like Ah’ said, they gave up on me. Anyone blood’s dead.” Kain scrubs one hand across his gray-stubbled chin, then looks back up to Valentine. “People like us— me— ” he looks away, “we… make our own family. All the lost people, stray cats an’ dogs. Ah’ had that.” Family.

Drawing in a deep breath, Kain struggles to find his words again. When he finally sighs out the breath, he comes to lean against the wall, hands in his pockets. “Ah’ lost almost all’a them too…” is quieter than what he’d said before. Realizing he’s rambling, Kain closes his eyes and furrows his brows, trying to recenter the conversation.

“There was this girl,” is how most stories Valentine hears start. “Looked… exactly like you.” He looks up to her, the same haunted look as the first time he’d laid eyes on her. “She was like a sister t’me. Ain’t never had siblings. Ain’t never really felt like Ah’d… been anybody’s family ‘fore her.” Kain looks over at the backpack, brows creased in frustration. “She’s dead.”

Her eyes follow as he makes those pacing rounds of his, taking a sip from her glass, then setting the glass on the desk. She doesn’t look too surprised when he says she reminds him of someone. Everyone looks like someone, and her willowy brunette sort of beauty isn’t the rarest.

The word sister makes her smile — another she’s heard, though not quite in this fashion. There’s something about how he tells it, how he looks at her, that makes this different from every other moment in this room.

“I never had any sisters or brothers,” she says, at last. “Maybe if I did, things would be different.” She doesn’t sound as if she entirely believes it. “I’m sorry. She was lucky to have you as her big brother.” Valentine smiles, and it’s the genuine thing — like the Peyton he knew, the real smiles are a softer, sweeter thing than the fake ones. “What was her name?”

Kain closes his eyes and grimaces, then looks up to Valentine and away to his backpack. He can’t really settle his stare on her for too long. “Kaylee,” is a lie, but only in part. It’s a lie that will do for now, to avoid a more impossible conversation. “Ah’ dunno if she was lucky t’have me. Never said a lot’f stuff t’her that Ah’d meant to. Never…” he trails off, eyes shut and posture tense.

Moving away from the wall, Kain starts to pace again. “There was this big shit-storm that dusted up a few years back, bunch of us were forced t’run away from everything we had. Some nasty folks behind us.” Kain opens his eyes, reddened on the edges. He fights against the dryness in his throat at the tightness in his voice. “Ah’ never got t’say goodbye t’her. She died right n’front of me, an’ Ah’ never— ” He can’t anymore. He just stops. Closes his eyes, shakes his head, denies the pain.

She lets him talk, her dark eyes steady on his frame as he moves around the room. When he stops again, she studies him for a moment, then slowly pushes off from her perch on the small table. She moves to him tentatively, slowly, a step every couple of seconds — as if he were a caged animal that might be frightened by sudden movements. Cautiously, she takes both of his hands in hers, if he lets her.

“Closure — I had a shrink once. He used to talk about needing closure on things. I thought he was just talking out his ass, but there’s a lot of people I lost that I didn’t get to say goodbye to. I guess I get it now,” Valentine — Peyton — says quietly, before she speaks again.

“Tell me what you wanted to tell her. I know it can’t help her, but it might help you, and I’d like to be able to do that for you,” she says quietly. “Or I can just hug you.” She smiles, tipping her head to try to see into his eyes — there’s nothing flirty or coy about her body language or tone now she knows her role is that of surrogate kid sister.

The look in Kain’s eyes is a broken one, an expression of both grief and resentment. Here sits the person he wants more than nearly anything to apologize to, the person he wants to be alive, and yet she is neither of those things. He can’t look at her, so instead he stares at his feet, working his mouth open and closed in both attempts to speak and to find his breath. It’s only when he closes his eyes and tries to shut out the rest of this world that he’s able to regain a sense of equilibrium through denial.

Ah’m sorry,” Kain grumbles, at first under his breath and then again with more conviction. “Ah’m sorry… fer’ not protectin’ you. Ah’m sorry fer’ not bein’ better t’you when y’needed it. Ah’m sorry fer’ lettin’ mah own shit get between us, an’ Ah’m sorry fer’ keepin’ you at arm’s length.” When he finally opens his eyes, Kain is clearly on the verge of tears. “The only thing Ah’ve ever been good at, is gettin’ th’ people that matter t’me killed.”

Voice clenching, Kain’s neck muscles visibly tighten as he battles to maintain a semblance of composure. “Ah’ loved you, an’ Ah’ never told you how much y’helped me. How much a’cared about you.” Jaw trembling, Kain has barely a voice to add, “An’ Ah’ never will.”

Her hands squeeze his when he begins to talk, and Valentine looks down, too — perhaps afraid that eye contact might ruin whatever this brand of makeshift therapy is trying to do. When he whispers that last bit, she finally looks up, her solemn, near-black eyes shimmering with tears his confession and apology have evoked.

She’s quiet for a moment, gaze dropping to study his hand in hers, before she speaks again. “I can’t speak for her,” she begins. “But in my past, I’ve known men like you, I think, those who cared for me but were unable to say it. And I knew. They didn’t have to say it. They showed me in small ways — finding me something they thought I would like from time to time, teasing me. Hell, even arguing with me because at least it showed they cared about me, you know?” There’s a finality to those past-tense words. Whoever they were, they’re not here now.

Her smile turns wry, and she looks up at him again. “So I’m going to guess she knew how you felt. Even if you don’t think she did. Maybe she didn’t say how she felt either. Sometimes it’s like that, with friends, isn’t it?” She releases one of his hands to lift her own to lay on his cheek lightly. “You are more than your past. As long as we’re breathing, we have a chance to be better. And you have people who care about you. You’re one of the lucky ones.”

It takes all of Kain’s composure not to break down, but she can feel it in the subtle tremor in his jaw. Peyton can tell what she’s said resonates with him, but Kain turns his cheek away from her hand. He slips away from her, over to the dresser and hunches forward as if to steady himself, hands flat on the top. Anyone else might have missed Kain palming something out of his jacket pocket, placing it on top of the dresser and making sure it’s occluded by his silhouette. Usually people try and steal from her, not leave things behind.

Kain turns around, back to whatever it is he’d left there. Though he’s silent, the emotion in his eyes conveys a conflicting sense of gratitude and pain, of too many other things left unsaid to unravel all at once here. But she also sees fear in those eyes, and by his posture sees a man who doesn’t handle fear any better than an animal.

“Ah’m sorry,” is Kain’s response to everything Peyton’s said, hastily snatching up his backpack and moving for the door. “Ah’ ‘preciate you… sayn’ all them nice things. But, Ah’ve gotta— somebody’s— somebody’s waitin’ fer me.”

Left behind on the dresser is something like a necklace, maybe a small pendant on a chain. Old, tarnished.

When he turns away, Valentine steps back, giving him his space. Wiping She reaches for the bottle, pouring herself another splash of whiskey in that chipped glass, before tipping it back for a drink and watching over the rim of it with her brown eyes.

“Of course,” she says, studying his back as he moves to the door. “You can’t repeat the past, but you can learn from it, they say. Maybe we’ll both make better decisions, for having met.”

Her eyes settle on the table, catching sight of the necklace, and she turns to look at him again, brows drawing together in wonder. Most of her days blur together in a monotony of alcohol, sheets, and drugs. This one will stand out.

“Thank you for coming to see me.” It’s not an uncommon thing for her to say, but for once, she means it.

Kain lingers in the doorway at the that, looking down at the floor, then back up to Peyton. There’s a deeper sadness in his eyes, but something more wistful and hopeful that overcomes it. “Yeah,” Kain mumbles, drumming one hand on the door frame, “maybe we can, otherwise it’ll come back around…” he remarks of the bad choices in life. They aren’t the words Kain wanted to leave on, but the nervous energy in his body is too much, the twist of his stomach is too great.

He would be long gone from the boat by the time Peyton discovered the necklace — a locket — and saw the photographs inside. One of Peyton, young and smiling, and another of a tired looking man with graying brown hair, sadness in his smile. The lost smile of Albert Winslow.

Her father.

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