After The Rain
By
Lewis Smith


Click here to see the story illustration for After The Rain



www.gunmetalblack.com


Saeko woke up slowly, her mind barely registering the din outside. Last night had been hard. All she wanted to do was sleep. She took a deep breath, wrapped tight in her stained sheets, feeling some soreness in her back from last night.

She hated when they used the belt on her. Scars on her back would hurt her salability. And being nineteen, already she was on borrowed time.

The noise became louder. Or maybe she was registering it more. Saeko reached over and took her lavender satin robe off one of the posts on her rusty iron bed, bringing herself up to a sitting position. She looked at the clock on her nightstand.

10:15 in the morning. Too early to be open, she thought. What is going on?

She willed herself to focus on the noise. After a time, she could pick out a phrase or two through the fog in her mind.

"She's already dead."

"Nothing they could do for her."

"Overdose. I bet it was an overdose. Looks like Rush, coupled with whiskey."

"Has anyone talked to Sauvage?"

Saeko stood upright, walking with one hand over her stomach since the sash for her robe was long gone. She threw the door to her shabby room open and stepped out into the hall, nearly throwing up at the smell.

It was more than the usual reek of sweat and body oil and wine – the conglomerate stench of base lusts and animal desire Saeko had been smelling for so many years, so long she wasn't aware of it anymore. This was a different smell. Dank, smothered.

Dead.

Saeko padded down the hall towards the knot of girls standing in front of a door at the end of the hall. Some of the shorter ones stood on tiptoe to see over the taller girls. The older ones hung back; they had seen it before.

Inside the room were two paramedics and Gao, the man who owned the place. He was balancing himself on a cane, his face impassive, nodding as the paramedics talked to him about the cause and time of death. He had seen this before. Many times.

Saeko tried to squeeze in between the girls. She could see the woman on the bed, skin blue from lack of oxygen, but she couldn’t see her face. Saeko couldn't keep track of everyone who lived here – four floors, as many as twenty girls on each floor, and on a busy night, she never left her room.

She tilted her head to the side, catching a glimpse of the dead girl's face, matted over with wet blonde hair. The paramedic closed the girl’s eyes, logging the time of death on his data clipboard. She looked to Saeko like she was sleeping. Almost peaceful.

The paramedics moved away. One started to put his equipment away while the other led Gao to another corner of the room to talk about funeral arrangements and body disposal. All very routine, all very clinical. After all, she was dead. No reason to pretend what was lying on the bed had ever been a human being.

Saeko looked at the woman's throat. Around it was a silver chain, holding a small coin bearing two Chinese characters.

Saeko backed away slow, bumping against the other girls on the way out. She felt a lump rise in her throat. Shock, fear, revulsion – all grasping her chest in an iron death grip. Squeezing out her air.

She knew this woman. Not personally. Only from afar.

Saeko rushed back to her room and dressed quickly. Rarely did any of Gao's ladies go out. Even on Hantu Street, there were few people more looked down upon than…

Saeko swallowed. A whore, she thought. The least I can do is be honest with myself.

She buttoned her denims and put on a purple shirt. She rifled through the drawers of her nightstand for something while putting on her shoes with her free hand. Her fingernail scraped against it on the bottom of her top drawer: a small white card with a number written on one side.

Saeko sighed and turned the card around in her fingers, sitting on the side of the bed, wanting to be somewhere else. For a small card, it felt incredibly heavy. She would call the number. She had done it before. Heard him breathing softly into the receiver as she relayed the latest bad news about the now-dead girl.

She idly rubbed her shoulder, still feeling the sting of last night’s belt straps. She thought of the man on the other end of the line, the way he sighed. Every bit of bad news, another hard whack against him. Deeper than physical pain. True sorrow.

Saeko stood up slowly and walked to her dresser, sweeping the money on top of the dresser and flipping through it, pocketing her share. She held Gao's cut in her hand as she stepped through the door, closed and locked it. The crowd around the dead girl’s room had thinned out a bit, but there were still a few stragglers.

Saeko made her way down the stairs, the weathered wood squeaking under the stained red carpet. She stopped by Gao's office, put his take in an envelope and wrote "Saeko, room 209" on it, sliding it under his door. She then turned on her heel and walked out into the streets of Kuran.

A block away was a phone kiosk. She walked to it briskly, dodging thick knots of street vendors and customers on the way. Saeko stood before it, taking out the white card and a small coin. The screen on the front of the phone had the weather forecast today. Always 100% correct.

Rain period scheduled for today, Saeko thought idly, punching in the number.



"I didn’t think you'd call," the blonde woman said, smiling shyly. She idly wrapped the cord around her finger. "You seemed, I don't know … preoccupied … at the party last night."

"I'm ashamed to admit this, but at the time, I was looking for the bathroom," Kienan Ademetria replied. "I meant to try and speak to you again, but I felt like I’d made such a terrible impression, I decided to leave."

"You didn't." His voice, it was like being caressed by callused hands, the woman mused. "Honestly, I haven’t quit thinking about you."

"You didn’t know I'd forgotten your name."

"You did?"

"Yes," Kienan replied. "For all of two seconds. Then I looked at the card. Quite a name you've got, Jayla Kyren."

"It's no, Kienan Ademetria – for sure," Jayla said with a smile. "Do you get paid by the syllable?"

Kienan chuckled. Jayla laughed nervously. "So, uhm . . ."

Kienan breathed.

Jayla bit her lower lip. "Look, do you want to go out with me or not?"

Kienan's surprise was audible. "I . . . uhm, well, I wasn't expecting that."

"The direct approach?" Jayla clarified. "Well, I was tired of waiting for you to ask. Keep up the wait-and-see attitude, and you'll end up alone for the rest of your life, Kienan."

"I'd . . . heard that somewhere," Kienan said, exhaling softly. He seemed so shy and awkward. How could someone so calm and collected be so naïve, Jayla wondered? "How about if I pick you up at eight?"

"Better pick me up at seven," Jayla replied, grinning. "I hate waiting. In case you hadn’t noticed."



Saeko sat on the park bench, looking at her shoes to avoid the harsh judgments in the eyes of the people who walked by her. Even here, in Isis Park, far from Gao's Place and the men and women who knew what she was, people just seemed to know somehow. Every now and again, she would glance up to see them glaring at her. She could hear their words in their mind, as though they were transmitted when their eyes met.

Slut. Whore. Trash.

Short, sharp shocks. Like the belt, but scars only on the soul. It hurt all the same.

All this agony because it wasn't enough to tell him over the phone. Saeko had suggested they meet and talk. And he agreed. The most words the guy had ever said to her.

She stared at the neatly paved walkway and the lush green grass that surrounded it. It seemed so different from her part of Kuran. Could places really be this nice?

Illusion, she reminded herself. It's all illusion. It looks like paradise but it's a trap, a prison. You can never escape.

A fat manila envelope was tossed into her lap with an audible thump. Saeko reached for it, her fingernails still wearing the remnants of the nail polish from last night

"That's for you." His voice came from right behind Saeko. She jumped; she hadn’t heard him coming.

Kienan Ademetria loomed over her, his chestnut braid caught in the light breeze of late afternoon. Saeko had seen him only twice before. The first was her second day in Gao's Place. He was with the woman she had been charged to watch. He’d gone wild, nearly shooting up the place and giving Gao the wound that caused him to need the cane.

The second time had been even more terrifying. She had awakened in the night with him standing at the foot of the bed. Even in the darkness, his eyes seemed to shine like a tiger's.

"Watch her," he said with quiet clarity, tossing her the white card and an envelope full of cash. The man sleeping next to Saeko hadn't even heard Kienan come and go.

"I don’t usually get this much," Saeko murmured. "At least not for talking."

"It's over for you now," Kienan said, his voice cold and clinical. "Inside is a passport and enough cash for you to leave this place far behind."

"I didn’t know her, mister," Saeko retorted.

Kienan's face darkened.

"I'm not eaten alive with grief about her dying. You paid me to keep an eye on her and that's what I did. I appreciate the good deed, but why give me this?"

"Seemed like the right thing to do," he said, fumbling for a cigarette.

"And what if I don’t want to go?"

Kienan closed his eyes, exasperated. "Then you’re an idiot."

"Nice." Saeko looked at him. His emerald eyes were dark. Just as she had seen scorn in the eyes of the people who walked by her, she could see sadness in him. Deep black waters of sadness.

"Look, I know you’re sad about what happened, but rescuing me . . . well, don’t act like you're doing it for my sake," Saeko said quietly, taking her usual pay and laying the envelope on her lap.

"Just trying to help," Kienan replied, sounding wounded.

"You can't bring her back by some act of charity."

"I know that," Kienan snapped. "She was lost to me a long time ago. There was nothing I could do to save her."

"It was the life she chose."

"Like the one you chose?"

Saeko looked down. "I know what I am. I live with it every day. Do you?"

"Always," Kienan said coolly, flicking the cigarette at a sign that said "NO LITTERING." It spanged off the sign and into the grass.

"Have you accepted it?

Kienan looked down for a split second. "Yes."

There was a rumble. The skies began to darken. High above, machinery was moving into place. Saeko stood up and regarded Kienan one last time.

He was beautiful, and he looked strong enough to kill her at any second. She could remember being afraid when he waved a gun at everyone that night. She remembered being even more scared of him when he woke her up two nights later.

But right now, he looked pitiful.

"You can still take the money and the passport," Kienan spoke under his breath. "It's selfish as acts of kindness go, but my offer's genuine."

"Can't." Saeko looked up at the sky and frowned. "You can't rescue every wounded bird who comes along. Some just don’t want to be rescued.”

She glanced at Kienan. “The rain's coming. You should go. They say it's going to be an hour-long period."

"I'll stay," Kienan said. "I don’t mind the rain."

"Suit yourself." Saeko looked down and sighed. "Look . . . if you ever decide to, uhm . . . come by … I'll make it worth your while."

"That's the last thing on my mind right now."

"Then come over anyway," Saeko said, a faint smile on her lips. "I'll sing you a song."

She walked away.

Kienan leaned forward, his braid sliding down and over his left shoulder. The skies went dark and the rain came, hard rain that pooled on the pavement within minutes. It soaked through Kienan's clothes and hair, but he didn’t seem to notice.

He stared at his shoes: black leather with water beading on them. The rain felt almost pleasant. It made him feel secure.

After all, who would notice a few teardrops in a rainstorm?



"The very top," Kienan said. "You can see every city from here."

"It's beautiful," Jayla breathed, pushing back and resting her head against his chest. "How'd you manage to pay someone enough to get us a spot here, all to ourselves?"

"Let's just say I have some pull with the transit authority," Kienan said, grimacing. He kept his face in the shadows and away from her eyes when she asked questions like that.

It wasn't that they annoyed him. It was, as he reminded himself for the ninetieth time, better she didn’t know. After all, he knew what happened last time.

Silhouette. Sometimes when he and Jayla were together, he thought of her and felt guilty for it. He’d found her, rescued her and made her like him. It was terrifying and exhilarating in the most awful and wonderful way.

He had loved her. But not enough. So he killed her, and the part of himself she had nurtured.

Jayla's eyes were closed. Kienan idly ran his fingers through her soft blonde hair. He thought about what he was doing. It had been two months now, since that first nervous date with her. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> The smart thing to do would have been to not get too involved. The life of a professional killer was not one designed for personal relationships.

But that fact hadn’t stopped him. Or maybe he hadn’t been able to stop himself

Two months of ducking and evading questions. He’d only been caught by her a couple of times. Sometimes she would get angry and demand that he open up, but he wouldn't.

Jayla's eyes half-opened and looked at him. "Hey," she said. "What's wrong? I know that look."

"Look?"

Jayla reached up and touched his face. "In your eyes, silly. Your eyes go this very dark green and you look down a lot. What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

"Sure," Jayla retorted. "Kienan, why can’t you be straight with me? Why is every single detail like pulling teeth?"

"Maybe my life's not that interesting."

"I wouldn’t know, would I?" Jayla leaned forward and looked out at the city as she sighed. "Are you seeing other women? Are you married?"

"Am I married?" Kienan repeated, emphasizing the improbability of it. "No, Jayla, I'm not. I promise I'm not seeing any other women, and I'm definitely not married."

"Well, that's two possible guesses out of the way," Jayla said with annoyance. "Why won’t you talk to me?"

"Some things are hard for me to say."

"Kienan, everything's hard for you to say."

Kienan mulled that one over. "I guess … so." He struggled with words for a way out. "I guess … I'm intimidated by you."

Jayla turned to him. It was her turn to be shocked. "Intimidated? What the hell for?"

"You’re so confident. So certain."

Jayla laughed. The longer she did, the less happy she sounded. "Confident. Certain. Kienan, if you believe that, you know even less about me than I know about you. Until this moment, I didn’t even think that was possible."

Kienan looked away, guilty at his feeling of relief. Hurting her had gotten him off the hook. That was all that was important, right? And he could make it up to her in other ways, right?

"Kienan, I'm a mess. I have been since I was thirteen years old. I hated my family, and I made them pay for it every way I could think of."

"Why?"

"Because they didn't love me, Kienan,” Jayla muttered. “Only what they thought I should be. I couldn't live with the hurt of disappointing them, and I couldn’t be what they want … ” She glanced at Kienan. “I wanted to be so . . . dirty . . . that no one would ever think of me as their princess."

Kienan put his hands on her shoulders, but she pulled away. "I look, and I don’t even know who I am."

Kienan tried again and she pulled away again. "Jayla, I'm sorry. I didn’t know."

"No." Jayla squeezed her eyes shut. Her fingers rubbed the necklace Kienan had given her. The tears came anyway. "No you didn't, and you never thought to ask. I hate you sometimes."

Kienan blinked. He couldn’t blame her. "Jayla, if I can help you . . . I . . ."

"NO!" Jayla snapped, glaring at him. "Aren’t you listening to me? Didn't you hear what I said? I’m not a princess and I’m not your victim. I want you to love me for me, Kienan."

"Jayla," Kienan said, taking her in his arms. "I do.'

As he held her that night, he resolved to save her from herself. There had been no one to stop Kienan down the road he was on, not until it was too late.

But maybe, just maybe, if he saved Jayla, some metaphysical scale would be balanced.



"He's all alone."

Kienan turned those words over in his head as the rain poured down. At the time, they were the first words he'd heard in months.

He had been drifting, alone in a cold metal pod, freezing under a blanket, almost starved to death and half-mad. He'd escaped from hell. Or so he'd thought. In his heart he was never far away, and neither were the things he'd left behind on his birth world. There were monsters, writhing, clawed monsters that he still carried inside him, that always threatened to drag him down.

Kienan put his hands over his face and leaned against the back of the park bench. The rain had caused his clothes to stick to his body, leaving a cold dampness in his shoes.

Now more than ever, he was alone.

He didn’t have to be. He knew that. He had friends, but he couldn't will himself to go see them. Some fearful thing was in his heart.

Sadness, fear, and pain. And more than anything, loneliness.

He sighed. He needed to get away. Not only from the rain, but everything. He rose from the bench, eyes downcast, Saeko's words in his mind, mocking him like a long shadow.

"You can't rescue every wounded bird who comes along. Some just don’t want to be rescued."

Over and over in his mind. An unfading echo in the hollow of his heart.

Kienan looked at his hands. No gloves today. He wasn't working. He wore red gloves when he was: the color of blood to symbolize those he had lost.

He looked up at the clouds, as if appealing to a God. But there was no God in the sky. And Kienan had his answer, despite trying to run. He could no more escape it than he could his own shadow. All that remained was to keep running or accept it.

Kienan closed his eyes, the rain dripping down his face. He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked in the rain.



Kienan,

I'm gone.

– Jayla


Kienan crumpled the piece of paper in his hand, sitting on the edge of the bed. The apartment they had shared was empty, though not of Jayla's things. They were still there in the same disarray. But the place might as well have been empty.

This was what had come from trying to save her.

It felt good to admit it. Didn’t seem so much like failure that way. More like a dream that didn’t come true. Those he was used to.

"He's all alone."

Echoes from years before. The refrain of his favorite song.

Had he ever been otherwise?

So many questions. No answers. Kienan held the note in his hand, his knuckles white as he crushed it. He felt tight as a drum, the tension in him rising in a white heat, like a supernova.

Kienan screamed, throwing the note against the wall as hard as he could. He stood up from the bed and kicked the mattress off the box spring, tearing the sheets from the bed and finding Jayla's drug injector tangled in them.

His green eyes blazed with fury as he smashed it against the dresser, not feeling the pierce of the silver needles in his hands. Plastic and delicate metal and glass tubes flew as he pounded the injector against the dresser, again and again. He threw the injector across the room, balancing himself on the wall and leaving streaks of his blood. He kicked in the dresser, spilling the drawers onto the floor and throwing them one by one against the walls. They exploded, punching through the outer paneling as they fell apart on impact. Kienan tipped over the remains of the dresser and kicked through it.

He wheeled around, nothing but rage. His eyes fell on the mirror. Her mirror. How many times had he stood behind her, gently brushing her hair, admiring her elegance. Confident that not only could she be saved, he was the man to do it.

Kienan reached behind him, drawing his pistol from the waistband of his jeans. He fired at the mirror, the blast hitting his reflection in his chest. He held the pistol in his hand and stared at his reflection, chest heaving as he regarded the hole in the mirror.

Still holding the gun, he sank to the floor, the storm of anger gone and with it, any energy he had.

He was dazed. He couldn’t remember destroying the room. His throat was raw. He had been screaming the whole time, and never realized it.

Kienan ran his hands through his hair. His braid had come undone. He exhaled slowly and smoothed it out with his left hand, still sitting in the center of the demolished room, looking for all the world like a man who was having trouble keeping himself together.



The orange-suited paramedics made their way up the stairs, wasting no time staring at the girls. When the fat Chinese man was at the top of the stairs beckoning them to the room at the end of the hall, they weren't listening. They knew the way. They squeezed past him and made their way down the hall to room 209.

Bright daylight streamed in through the windows, adorned by gauzy threadbare curtains. On one post of the wrought-iron bed hung a lavender satin robe.

The junior paramedic fished out his data clipboard and loaded the form for a death certificate. He was only twenty-two, new on the job. This was the kind of day he dreaded.

The senior paramedic pulled back the sheet. Beneath it was a young woman lying on her back, her eyes wide open and looking at the ceiling. She wasn't asleep or unconscious. She was dead.

"Damn," the junior paramedic gasped. "She can’t be more than nineteen."

"It's nothing unusual." The senior paramedic looked her over and undid a length of lavender satin from around her neck. He held it in his hands and looked over his shoulder at the robe on the bedpost.

Behind them, Gao balanced his rotund form on his cane, his eyes impassive, nodding as the senior paramedic ran through the familiar series of questions. There was a dull routine to it, an impersonal air that seemed to cheapen the life of the dead girl. Life and death, love and hate, all reduced to plain banality.

Just another day in the big city.

The junior paramedic filled out the clipboard. He was getting a lot of practice this week. "Cause of death seems to be sexual strangulation,” he mused to himself. “Traces of fluid on her body back it up, so we don’t need the police involved … do we? Looks like death by misadventure."

The senior paramedic was busy arranging terms of body disposal with Gao. Burial was out of the question -- no room for cemeteries on Kuran.

"She'll have to be cremated," Gao sighed. "She had no friends or no family that I know of, so a funeral won’t be necessary either." He turned to leave.

"Wait!" the junior paramedic called, waving his clipboard at Gao. "I forgot to ask her name. I need it before I can complete the death certificate."

Gao walked over and checked the clipboard hanging from the wall. So many girls. It was hard to know them all by name. His eyes went down the list until he found the room number. He held the clipboard in his hands as he walked back to the open doorway.

"Saeko. Her name was Saeko." Gao looked down at the clipboard. Fishing in his pockets, he pulled out a pen and drew a line through her name.

"Right. Logged it.” The junior paramedic turned to his senior. “The paperwork's done. I'm going to go downstairs and get the bag."

Outside, it was a beautiful day, the kind of day when the sun shines and fills the heart with such joy at the mere fact of being alive. No sign of yesterday’s rain that had poured from the sky like the sorrow of angels.

The senior paramedic felt a pang of sorrow for the girl lying naked and dead in the bed.

He said a silent prayer for her and closed her eyes.