“Man, this old school gives me the creeps...remember how everyone thought there was a ghost in the girls’ toilets?” Aliyah’s voice echoes down the hall of the old primary school.
“Yeah, until you finally quit making creepy noises while people were in there. Seriously, Allie...” Cala retorts in annoyance.
Around them, the ancient rundown building creaks and moans its old age. The dusty hallway into which dozens of non-descript classrooms open still bears the marks of the hundreds of children that made the building their daytime home throughout the years. Here and there, broken windows let in the dim, sluggish light of one of Three Rats’ many alleys, barely washing the gloom away, making the shadows grow in every corner, defining the limits of the wall-mounted lockers, their rotting doors ajar. The women’s steps echo off of the wooden floors, their voices filling the grubby air.
“Oh come on!” Aliyah argues. “It was funny! Remember when Susana Nunes-Patel ran screaming out of the toilet? Hahahahaaa!” Her laughter echoes, startling them both. “Whoa...was that just my voice echoing?”
“It didn’t sound like it was just you, Ya Allah!” Cala says, quickly glancing up in pleading.
A voice rings out of the shadows, “You two were always so easy to scare…”
As both women freeze and stare at the darkness, trying to identify the voice’s point of origin, Saira appears out of the shadows, a mocking smirk on her lips.
Aliyah stares at her, speechless for a long moment. “Saira,” she says in almost a whisper. “Saira? OH SAIRA!” she calls out and runs over to her, arms ready to hug her old friend.
Saira stands still and merely stretches an arm in front of her, her body shaking slightly as if fighting an impulse to let Aliyah have her way. “You can stop right there, Allie,” she warns. “We’re not here to bond over lost days.”
Aliyah skids to a halt, her face dismayed. “Saira...it’s me! A-and Callie too, look!”
“Yes, I noticed,” Saira states, her voice dry and cold. “Hello, Cala.”
“Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un,” Cala mutters. “I am seeing the dead in front of me, Saira. You could have at least told Allie here that you were still alive. She was hurt badly over the news of your departure from the living.”
Standing between them, Aliyah looks from one to the other, confused. “Guys...what the heck?” she asks in her confusion. “Come on! We’re back together again! What’s with the icy voices?”
“Oh, I’m sorry Allie. I was just using the voice I usually use when talking to traitors!” Saira snaps.
“I did not betray you, Saira, and you know it!” Cala hisses. “I wanted to get you both out of that life! Look at what it did to you! Where’s the Saira we used to know?!”
“What are you guys talking about?” Aliyah cries aghast.
“You didn’t even have the guts to tell her, did you?” Saira demands of Cala, her tone of voice cold and accusing.
“There is nothing to tell,” Cala insists. “You broke the law, you got caught. Well, Allie got caught. You just ran away like all the other rats in that gang of yours!”
“We would have never been caught if you hadn’t ratted on us!” Saira yells, her finger pointed directly at Cala.
“Before or after Allie let it slip to Sergeant Machado’s sister-in-law’s second cousin?” Cala yells back.
“Wait what??” Aliyah freezes as her mind spins. “Oh no...no WAY! Seriously? It was my fault?”
“I found out years later,” Cala explains. “She runs that grocery store we used to get our ‘low-price, five-fingers and a whistle’ candy from.”
“Lourdes Silva is Machado’s sister-in-law’s second cousin? Aw man…” Aliyah says, looking sincerely ashamed. “Saira...I’m so sorry...I just let it slip about that job we were pulling that night. I-I was so scared, so nervous...you know, I wasn’t cut out to be in a gang. I’m sorry.”
Saira holds silence for a long time, staring at Aliyah, then suddenly bursts out laughing, a note of bitterness bringing an edge to each laugh.
“You were always a kind-hearted fool, Allie. And that happened too long ago…” her voice trails off. “Worse things have happened since then. And it’s time we talk about the present.”
“You do have the Pearl, don’t you Saira?” Cala asks.
“Why do you wanna know?” Saira asks back.
“Saira...we need to return it to the Oracle,” Aliyah pleads. “Something’s contaminated all the water in Three Rats, and only the Oracle can fix it. Only she’s sick too…”
“And why should I care? She’s a goddess, let her fix herself,” Saira muses, shrugging.
“She can’t, Saira, not without the Pearl. Please, give it back,” Cala requests patiently.
“Saira, please,”Aliyah begs, her eyes suddenly growing big and pleading.
“Stop that, Allie!” Saira admonishes her, raising her voice in anger. “You’re not some puppy asking for a toy! Yes, I do have the Pearl and I’ve seen what’s going on. But I risked my ass to take it from the Dukaines and I’m not giving it to you just because you’re asking nicely!”
Aliyah takes a moment to process Saira’s words, her thoughts taking her in a direction that makes her eyes narrow, her muscles tense in sudden anger. “You...you want money for it? Saira!” she nearly stutters in her anger. “Saira, people are sick! Kids are sick!” the tall young woman shouts, taking a step toward Saira in threat.
In the blink of an eye, Saira’s crossbow is out of its holster across her back and pointed straight and firmly, not at the immediate threat of Aliyah’s muscular body but at Cala’s immobile form. “Don’t, Aliyah!” Saira hisses in warning. “I know you’d come at me anyway if it was your life on the line, but take one more step and you’ll be regretting it for a lifetime.” Aliyah stops, stunned and speechless.
“You really are beyond help, aren’t you Saira?” Cala asks, sadness and disappointment tinging her words.
“I don’t need your help. And I don’t want it either,” Saira replies, deadpan. “This is not about redemption – it’s about revenge. What I want is to take down the Dukaines and since I can’t do that with the Pearl, then at least I can screw up their plans and have them foaming at the mouth for a bit. Let them know who they’re messing with.”
“So what are you going to do?” Aliyah grates out, furious and miserable all at once, each word sounding like a spoken tear. “Destroy it? Bury it in concrete? Go to the edge of the Chaos and throw it in? And just leave everyone in Three Rats sick and dying?”
Saira’s eyes narrow as she snaps, “And what do you think will happen if I just return it to the two of you?! You’ll get mugged at the first corner you turn and the Dukaines will have the Pearl again! You don’t know these guys! But I do. Oh, do I know them! And I won’t risk my vengeance by trusting you two with the Pearl,” she states, uncocking the crossbow and returning it to its holster before turning away to leave.
“Then don’t trust us with it, Saira,” Cala suggests quickly as the chances of retrieving the Pearl dim down with Saira’s impending departure. “Things are different now. We have Dei working at the Station now. Let us bring you one of them.”
“Yeah! Yeah, that’ll work!” Aliyah agrees excitedly.
“Gods…” Saira sneers as she stops, almost spitting out the word. “Like they care if a few mortals fall ill. How many of our prayers went unanswered, Callie? And still you pray every night, and call your god’s name as if it’ll make him heed your prayers.”
“My faith is my own,” Cala declares, her tone allowing no further discussion on that particular subject. “But these gods are not like the ones we pray to. They’re the kind we work with,” she adds. “And they’re going nuts looking for the Pearl and making sure there’s clean water to drink. They’re the good kind. If ever there was one.”
“Yeah, these guys, they’re all right,” Aliyah concedes. “They really care, Saira. Not like some people I used to know,” she adds in accusation.
Saira falls silent and remains so for a long moment, her eyes staring at the floor. “Very well, then,” she finally says, looking back at her childhood friends. “Bring me a god. I’ll decide what to do then.”
“There are three of them, Saira. Do you have any preference?” Cala queries.
“Bring me the one they call Alma,” Saira answers almost immediately. “Tell her to meet me where I first got hold of the Pearl.”
Hope dawns on Aliyah’s face. “You’re gonna give it to her? Really? Oh Saira, that’s great!”
“I’m gonna talk to her, Aliyah. See how much she really cares,” Saira explains, again turning away.
“Why Alma?” Cala asks in afterthought.
“Easy, Cala, easy,” Saira answers as she again disappears into the shadows. “I know where her kids live.”