This is a continuation of Nowheresville.

 

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II. The Scarlet Letter

By: Nate Susvilla

 

At the counter checking out, Joshua turned with his elbow still on the desk, to survey the lobby.

A teen in auburn hair biting her nails teary-eyed while being berated on the phone; a couple locked in each other’s arms, gazed into each other’s eyes whispering sweet words; a stiff man in suit standing erect tapping his left foot, slowly swaying his suitcase while thumb-pounding his old Blackberry; a group of tourists babbling in tongues; a highly-maintained sexy blonde enumerating the following day’s itinerary (in an accent that’s just suggestive of a woman having sexual pleasure) to his statuesque and just as blonde beau; no sight of the gentleman, to Joshua’s relief.

“Why so soon, Mr. Ward?” the smartly-dressed hotel staff inquired.

“An unfortunate turn of events. Death in the family,” Joshua who’s rather calm lied. “I’m sorry to hear that,” the staff expressed her shock choreographed by her palm pressed to her breasts, widened eyes and a slightly-dropped jaw.

“My condolences, Mr. Ward. I can only imagine how that feels. I’ve never lost a family yet,” she added knocking on her marble desk before turning to her computer.

“That’s not wood by the way,” Joshua uttered almost to himself.

“I’m sorry?” the staff inquired but canned it right away making sense of what Mr. Ward just uttered. “Oh my God,” the staff, as if taking fright, said as she quickly scanned her domain; knocked the wooden cabinet and turned hastily to the computer to carry on. Meek. Grateful.

“So, Mr. Ward, I’m sorry to tell you that we cannot cancel your booking,” the staff said with her brows forming a pyramid, lips slightly stretched. “Well…we can…but we’ve to charge you the full amount anyway. Cancellation policy. Sorry,” a heart-felt apology it seemed.

“I thought so too. Well, that’s it then?” Joshua signaled to leave. With her brows again arched inwards and lips pouted but the lower a little sucked in, the hotel staff nodded.

“And oh Mr. Ward,” the staff stopped the fleeing Joshua, “somebody left you a message.”

The staff slid a folded post-it. Joshua spread it open to reveal a handwritten message that read,  “You have the Scarlet Letter tattooed.”

Joshua watched his fingers slide through the fold to close the note anew, looking distracted, trying to make sense of the words. He folded it again, and again, before finally pocketing it.

He emerged from the hotel calling to mind a family man coming out of a not so secluded whore house. He sped to a parked taxi and hopped in the back seat. “Where to?” the cab driver asked.

“Train station,” Joshua coldly replied distracted by the likelihood of having left his wallet somewhere.

“Central?” the cab man clarified.

“What?” Joshua bellowed, not fully engaged. “Main train station?” the driver verified.

“Is there any other?” Joshua asked, now immersed in the conversation, having finally felt the bulge of his wallet on his chest. No reply from the driver. Then a click that locked the doors.

And so the wheels began to roll. Joshua was in deep thought about where he was headed now that there’s nothing to go back to while blankly gaping at the night lights of Prague. And since the words in the note hardly made any sense, he figured he’d leave it all behind him, move on and go as far away as possible.

Minutes into the drive, Joshua began to suspect where the driver’s actually taking him. “You know I meant Central Station, right?” Joshua began to inquire.

“We’re going somewhere else, Joshua Ward,” said the cab driver leaning back, obstinate. The driver turned out to be the gentleman he’d been running away from. The very familiar sight hit Joshua like a gong being bonged—the shock reverberated to every cell of his body causing his blood to flow a lot more rapidly. In terror, he quickly moved to open the car door—locked apparently.

He scanned the car for any possible exit. “W-where are you taking me?” Joshua, authoritative but unable to hide his distress.

“Everything will be explained to you when we get there,” the gentleman answered, detached.

There where!?” Joshua shouted. The gentleman wasn’t up for a conversation. He rather shifted gears as the car swerved right to take the road lining the Vltava. The car zoomed away and quickly slowed down—the red light is on just across Charles Bridge. Joshua heavily tapped the glass window crying out hoping one of the crossing pedestrians would take notice. The tinted, thick glass proved uncooperative.

As the cab started to jet off de novo, Joshua in a fit of desperation quickly strangled the cab driver with his messenger bag’s strap, pulling as heavily as he could and planting his feet behind the driver’s seat anticipating a collision. The cab driver pulled loose the strap to ease the clench while his right attempted to steady the swaying car while navigating traffic. Their struggle exposed a gun tucked into the driver’s waistband, which Joshua instantly snatched.

“Stop the car!” Joshua demanded, the tip of the gun shakily pointed in the general direction of the cab man’s head. The unlikely kidnapper clearly wasn’t much of a talker and seemed unfazed by the tip of the gun kissing the back of his head. “I said, stop the fuckin’ car!” Joshua furiously yelled, this time more forcefully jamming the gun into the man’s head.

The man, in a calculated move, pressed a button that raised the partition that separated the driver and the back seat. The glass noiselessly and abruptly slid into place separating the captor and captive by a mere inch of clear glass.

Joshua was momentarily stunned by the turn of events and considered what to do next. But only for a fraction of time as he turned to the window on his right, shot it three times, kicked the tinted glass loose busting it off after three tries and squeezed through the sufficient opening. The cab driver half-focused on straightening the car’s already swerving track quickly lowered the partition and attempted to grab a handful of his captive’s trousers but failed to clutch a handful. The maneuver slowed down the car and allowed Joshua to make a quick getaway by rolling onto the sidewalk and quickly getting up and limply galloping to blend into the stunned crowd.

Joshua held his left elbow bruised by the fall as he continued to flee, occasionally looking back to check on the car which had crashed into the Jewish Quarter causing a traffic snarl.

Joshua quickly disappeared into the crowd swarming the cobble stone roads and alleys that form a maze that was The Old Town. He ran off with a Prague hat from a stall to the disapproving gapes of the onlookers and wore it in an attempt to camouflage himself.

His current situation made him overlook what he’d otherwise be amazed by—an old city preserved teeming with character and oozing a bohemian vibe undaunted by the busy bustle. He asked directions from anyone hoping he could get out of the labyrinth fast. He got out of it quickly, hardly. But he made it to the train station with no apparent sight of the gentleman to his relief.

He hopped in the earliest-leaving train, went past the nearly empty 1st class cart and settled in the peopled 2nd class. He chose a vacant seat fronting a full-lipped, attractive woman donning some cleric gown, a veil and a crucifix—the pendant of which was nestled between voluptuous breasts hardly concealed even by the loose clothing. They gestured “hello’s” in a nod coupled with a smile—indifferent on the woman’s side.

Joshua, a little hurt by the fall, was sunk in thought while the woman was curling her hair while eyeing him. “He’ll do. I’ll do him,” she joked inside. It’s something that Joshua, for some reason, heard audibly spoken but was clueless who from. He looked around; to his right across the aisle, a middle-aged woman, saddled by an infant that’s almost lifeless, was seated next to refuse store bags fronting her likely husband whose looks were distant. Facing Joshua, swaying repeatedly her crossed leg, the woman gazed at him running her pointing finger through her lower lip. “He’s kinda hot. I’ll have sex with him.” the woman screamed in thought—audibly heard yet again by Joshua as if uttered.

“Say what?” Joshua confronted her.

Stunned, the woman replied, “What?”

“Was that you? You wanna have sex?” Joshua asked to confirm. The woman, startled, replied, “Are you always this tactful? And for Chrissake I’m a nun!” the woman turned combative in an effort to conceal her slight embarrassment while the couple across the aisle looked on.

An announcement interrupted them informing of an indefinite delay due to the doors not closing properly. Joshua breathed out a sigh of disappointment and was quickly alerted by the sighting of the gentleman looking around at the adjacent platform. Joshua pressed his back onto the seat with his head sinking down, like a turtle retreating into his shell, in an effort to hide from his aggressor. The nun, cutting her eyes at Joshua, witnessed the intriguing scene unfolding with curiosity.

Finally the train started to leave. “Whew!” he sighed in relief. Now turning to the woman, trying to appear casual. “I’m sorry…I just thought I really heard somebody say those words.”

“Ugh! My lips had been zipped till you spooked me,” flabbergasted anew, the woman pricked an angry stare and looked away.

Joshua ignored what he allegedly heard and tried not to sound confrontational. He was hoping he could engage the woman in a little talk. “A nun, huh?”

“No. Just playing dress-up,” the nun said, wearing a smirk, “Ugh, why am I even talking to you?” she continued, almost to herself, and looked away again.

“For a nun, you’re a little irreverent. But sarcasm is a turn-on,” Joshua said. He was about to wink but held back and felt sorry for saying it quick acknowledging she’s a nun and should be spared sexual insinuation of any kind.

“For a stranger, you’re a little unassuming. But I love arrogance. Who doesn’t?” Anne was quick to say, rolling her eyes.

“Nuns nowadays,” Joshua replied, spontaneous, playfully dismissing the veneration being a nun would necessitate.

Ex nun,” she was quick to say. Then a mocking sigh.

“Those heels you’re wearing! A lil too much for a nun, don’tcha think?” Joshua sneered noticing the five-inch heels the nun had on.

“For a supposed straight guy, you’ve kinda queer eyes,” the nun said.

“Just so unbecoming of a nun. That’s all.”

“Hence the ex prefix, duh!”

“Relieved, huh?”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business,” the nun said raising her voice, widening her eyes.

“Okay,” Joshua said. Acknowledging the woman’s right to solitude and recognizing the fact that people around had been disturbed by this tripe, he held his hands together as if praying and said, “Sorry for being a lil intrusive.”

“And so you notice.”

“I’ll let you be,” Joshua apologized. Joshua tucked in his feet and leaned back, closed his eyes and began to doze off.

He quickly awoke from it from a light nap popping, “I’m sorry, where is this train headed again?”

“Who gets in a train bound to nowhere? Either you’re getting away from someone or you’re just playing dumb…a tourist lost, hoping to start a conversation. Lame.”

“To be honest I dunno where I’m going. I just hopped in the earliest-leaving train in an attempt to elude someone who’s after me.”

“Ah, a fugitive of love I reckon!” Asshole extraordinaire.

“Really?” Joshua bolted. “Asshole extraordinaire?”

The nun’s jaw dropped. Speechless for a second, the nun finally asked in excitement, her tone this time showing no clues of scorn, “How did you do that? Oh my God!” The nun sounded and looked really pleasantly surprised. “You actually could read my mind?” she asked, almost in a whisper.

Joshua, just as shocked, slightly raised his shoulders, stretched his lips downwards and flipped his hands to show his palms, “Uh…I…I dunno. I’m as surprised myself.” Shit I can read minds?

“Oh my God,” the nun excited, clapped her fingers then offered her hand, “I’m Ann by the way. With no E.”

“Joshua. Pleased to meet you.”

“Pleasure’s mine,” Ann winked, paused to dart a distant look at the fleeting street lights slightly extending her lips to the side and returned to Joshua, “Okay this train’s bound to Bratislava but I’m getting off at Brno. And oh, uhm, pardon my invasiveness, but who are you running away from? I saw you receding in your seat dodging some raiding eyes…You’re not from around here, are you?”

Joshua gathered his bag, got up and beckoned for Ann to follow him. Ann trailed him past packed carts to settle in the empty first class. “Okay hidden behind that sneering shell of yours is a person I feel I can trust…” Joshua confessed.

Like you have a choice.

“I definitely have a choice!” Joshua blurted widening his eyes giving a look similar to that of a teacher telling off a student but softened quickly.

He began telling Ann, almost as detailed as a tell-all memoir, everything—from the extraordinary healing ability he incomprehensibly acquired and lost so prematurely; how he ended the life of an innocent lady from whom he forcibly collected a huge sum; to how he escaped from being abducted by the peculiar gentleman.

“You know what, I’ll be honest. There’s something in you that tells me I could trust you. But part of me tells you’re some asshole who perfected the craft of getting women spread their legs so quickly,” Ann said with a flirty smile. “But your story is pretty convincing,” she continued now looking serious. “I dunno exactly what part in this misadventure of yours I should play…And dunno if I should even be in it…” Ann said embracing herself, tapping her fingers, heavily blinking to later look straight into Joshua’s eyes.

“A bed perhaps?” Joshua asked, softening his face, inner brows raised.  “To get me through this chilly night?”

You know what, I promised myself the moment I get out of that insane asylum…that convent…that I’d go out on an adventure, a crazy one.”

“And get fucked?” Joshua teased.

“Hell I’ve been untouched for two long years.”

“Since you swore celibacy, huh?”

“That was five years ago.”

“Ah! You had a priest already penetrate you then, eh? Not to be direct or somethin’.”

“Pleasuring myself would actually have been more gratifying. The lucky man was this gardener, a young man,” she said winking. “I’m kidding. Anyway, I was saying I can’t ask for a more exciting adventure than you keeping me company.”

“And you wanna have sex with me,” Joshua, amused, remembered.

“I didn’t say that.”

“Oh yes you did.”

“You read my mind. So that shouldn’t count. And the operative word is did. I don’t anymore. You see, I don’t fuck friends. Not that I’ve fucked friends already let alone fucked around.”

“So you’re saying we’re now friends? I mean I’m cool with it.”

“Why not? You seem harmless really. You’re giving off that vibe. I see you need someone right now, a place. Heaven sent,” she said, pointing at herself, grinning.

“And oh, what actually softened my heart…you see, my uncle…he’s kinda like you! He immediately came to mind the moment I knew you could read my mind. His hands, they produce fire. He told us it’s some magic trick. But I believed otherwise. He’d perform his magic in front of us then one day he told us not to tell anyone about it and from then we never saw him doing it again.”

The train stopped. “I think we need to move back to second class,” Anne was worried about a conductor chancing this ride. “It’s okay, I’ve a little cash to burn,” Joshua said winking.

“So tell me about you. What’s with the ex prefix?” Joshua eagerly inquired.

“Well, where do I begin…” taking off her veil and combing back her colored, dark, full, wavy hair. “My uncle, when I was 12, sent me for orphan care. With those nuns. To my strong opposition. He said I wasn’t safe around him. I felt abandoned. You see he never visited, not once. But well with all the positivity surrounding me growing up, I kinda learned to understand him. He’s a little recluse and needed to be alone, that’s how I tried to view him as. Besides I was allowed to visit home sometimes. And that’s where I’m going now.”

“Would be glad to meet him. And back to my question…”

“Ah, that…well, I decided it wasn’t for me. I’m really sick with all the niceties and hypocrisy. I mean I love most of them there it’s just that…staying there is like being robbed of something, of life. I felt caged and restricted. Limited with all the things I could do or say. I want to be able to say what I wanna say. And a girl with shapely boobs and as big as mine needs attention, appreciation,” she said winking. “An herd of sheep doesn’t make a fox in it one. That’s like me right there. One day I thought I wanted be an actress, another day a performing artist, I wasn’t sure. But I knew I wanted an audience. And it wasn’t the life really that I wanted for myself. Now I’m being firm and courageous declaring which direction my life should take.  I don’t wanna have lived a life that was safe…don’t wanna miss out on the amazing feeling of loving and being loved… perhaps experience how aching it is to be dumped, heart-broken, crushed. I wanna meet my own Romeo.  I wanna dream, do, fail, learn from it, try again and prosper!”

Joshua just listened intently, charmed by the infectious vehemence this girl possessed, swayed by the sparkle in her eyes, amused by the naiveté of her youth. “Life is a gift and should be lived! I guess our lives will all be judged based on how much we followed our hearts and how passionate we are about the things we love and care about. We all have our callings. And mine isn’t that. I’ve long felt that. And I’m just glad I finally decided to leave.”

Amen to that.”

Just before the train could come to a full stop, Ann motioned, “This is us.” Joshua, upon stepping out of the train, zipped his jacket as he started to feel the cold breeze that quickly worsened to a violent freezing rustle. A bus station was just nearby and a ruggedly-dressed aged man warmed by a faded leather trench coat, with a hardly full, long hair bowed in different directions reminiscent of a field of grass ruffled by a chopper taking off.

The old man sucked in his last smoke before dropping the cigarette butt and stepping on it, pressing it flat. He imperceptibly waved hinting a suppressed enthusiasm, gave a poised smile, which he quickly withdrew as he second-guessed the unexpected company. The close proximity and the illumined waiting shed just across exposed his resumed smile that shifted his facial lines.

“My, my, good to see you. Of course,” the old man kissed Ann. “You know how I feel about seeing you.”

The old man aimed one quick look at the guest but quickly returned to Ann. “Oh, this is Joshua. A friend,” Ann did the introduction. “Joshua, this is my Uncle Bart.”

Joshua offered his hand to the deterring old man that rather signaled for Ann to follow him. A short walk and an old Beetle door was opened for Ann. Joshua opened the backdoor. Jammed. He tried again forcing it. The old man shooed him aside, sneaked in his hand through the window opening and opened the door from the inside. Joshua settled and was going to roll up the window hoping it could get warmer.  The old man murmured and Ann faced about telling Joshua, “Jammed,” winking.

The car moved and in a quarter of an hour, they were in front of a detached house that seemed to have borne witness to the two world wars. A dilapidated house with wooden interior, hardly well-kept, nor tidied up. Stacks of books everywhere. Burnt, used up candles here and there. The old man rushed to the kitchen to boil water, took out trays from the oven and signaled for Ann to set the table.

The old man sipped his green tea, crossed his legs away from the table. Ann and Joshua were seated on opposite sides, silent, enjoying their chicken schnitzel and lavishly-spiced roast potato. Joshua, side-eyeing the old man, was hoping he could hear what the old man would say from within. The old man’s thoughts were blank to Joshua’s disappointment. Ann on the other hand was saying, “He’s a nice man…just lacks social skills.”  Both their eyes met, communicating. They nodded, resumed emptying their plates. “Very tasty,” Joshua addressed the rather cold accidental host who was looking unperturbed.

Suddenly, “Guess he’s here!,” Joshua, alarmed, stopped chewing, stock-still. He sealed a stare against Ann’s  questioning mien. “He followed you here?” Ann, sounding alarmed herself, asked darting a terrified look at her uncle and back to Joshua. “I knew he was trouble!” the old man banged his mug on the table looking at Ann, got up to get more hot water and joined them o’er, as calm as the misty sea.

Joshua got up. “Think I should go…d-don’t wanna put you two in danger,” he said as he brought his plate to the kitchen.

“Sit down,” the old man commanded. “You’ve already dragged us into this.”

“That man…” Joshua started You’re better off not around me.”

Then a knock on the door. The old man emerged from his chair hardly erect and went for the door. Ann, colorless, heart pounding heavily, just followed the development with her eyes. The gentleman, it was. “I mean you no harm, sir. I am here for Mr. Joshua Ward,” the stiff gentleman greeted. The old man turned to Joshua, “Do you happen to be Joshua Ward?”

Joshua, pale, couldn’t say a word. “You would have to follow me, Mr. Ward,” the man gently said addressing Joshua. “Have you an arrest warrant?” Joshua asked, refusing to succumb.

“Mister, what is this about?” the old man inquired addressing the gentleman. “This is between me and Mr. Ward I’m sorry to tell you, sir. Mr. Ward is well aware what this is all about. I advise that Mr. Ward agrees to follow me before anyone else gets hurt. That’s not my intention.”

“Okay, I don’t need to know exactly what it is you want with this guy but at least show us a warrant,” the old man said.

The gentleman just turned his stare onto Joshua talking with his eyes.

“I should leave. This is my trouble. I should leave you out of this,” Joshua said getting up, yielding.

“Sit down!” old Bart commanded, imposing. He quickly turned to the uninvited visitor. “I’m sorry mister but no warrant, no Mr. Ward. This is a private property now if you excuse us, we have a meal to finish,” the old man said coming to the rescue, shutting the door behind the gentleman. He turned the key fixed on the door to lock it.

Then some hand pierced a punch through the door. And again. And again. A kick finally broke the door open. The old man, having stepped back a few in surprise, turned to both Ann and Joshua, “To the backdoor!”

“Not so fast, Mr. Ward,” the gentleman, whose hulking almost silhouetted structure was framed by the bare door, declared. He heavily pushed the Uncle Bart aside and went after Joshua—whose fleeing effort was stalled by him having to fetch Ann. The gentleman was quick. He gripped Joshua’s arm trying to hold him still as he reached for the other arm.

Some swoosh was heard and something quickly struck onto the gentleman’s back. It distracted him that he lost clasp of Joshua’s arm. He turned to the old man, fisted his hands, about to launch a crashing attack.

Joshua delayed his escape mindful of the Uncle Bart. With the gentleman now inching closer, the old man raised fire on his hands and shot at the gentleman; the gentleman was unfazed. The old man bred fire anew but didn’t fire even as the gentleman gripped hard his neck to choke him. Joshua, lifting the wooden dining chair, thought he should to come to the rescue before it was too late. He smashed the chair broken onto the gentleman’s back making the gentleman slacken his grip of the old man’s neck, letting go of the Uncle Bart eventually. He turned to Joshua, quickly grabbing him and swinging him heavily to the wall leaving Joshua moaning in pain. Joshua struggled to get up and was about to raise his hands in surrender in an effort to stop this losing battle when the gentleman grabbed him in the shoulder and crotch and  slammed him onto the dining table—knocking Joshua unconscious.

The old man, still burning and growing the intensifying fire on his hands, shouted, “Out here, you…!” challenging the gentleman. As the gentleman came to launch yet another attack, the old man turned his palms to face each other and started remotely molding a fire ball, which he fired quickly onto the man’s chest, making the gentleman step back and bow to look at a crater on his chest. It didn’t pierce through but broke through the ribs and hit the gentleman’s internals that he started to malfunction.

“What happened?” Joshua waking up from a lifeless state, inquired. He saw himself laid by the sofa. Ann was sitting across, elbows to her knees, hands together, thumb between her teeth. The old man was walking to and fro.

“Why are they after you?”

“You know who he is? Them?”

“Answer the damn question!” raising his flaming hands, the old man stood to shoot him.

“I dunno! This guy! He-he showed up outta nowhere informing me of my healing ability expiring soon and advising me to use it well. And I got this strange package at home. It contained a note… that, that had letters just cropping up forming a phrase that said the same.”

“A healing ability… you can heal people? Yourself or what?” the old man lowered his arms, flame dying out.

“I could heal people in a matter of seconds. Bring a dead man to life even… But I can’t anymore. They took it back. And it seems they’ve given me mind-reading this time.”

“I can attest to that,” Ann joined in.

“What do you mean they took it back? And they who?”

“Them!” pointing to the location of the dead gentleman.

“Who are they?”

“You mean what? And I’m just as clueless as you are.”

The old man gathered his arms, embraced his body and caressed his chin while walking to and fro. Joshua arose from catalepsy, sat with hands on his forehead and elbows on knees, motioned Ann for water but got up to get it himself. As Ann rummaged through the fridge for bottled water, Joshua fetched water with the glass Ann took out for him. Ann planted a questioning stare at the large bottled water she’s holding as Joshua gulped empty the glass of tap water as if in a beer drinking contest.

“You possess something that is of great value to them,” the old man declared, hands on his waist, standing firm almost erect despite his droopy frame.

“Other than the comic book abilities that just manifested through me, I dunno what it is I have that warrants a chase. And these abilities, I just want for them to take them back…didn’t ask for ‘em in the first place. I think they wanna hold me accountable for something I did. They delegated me with this healing ability. I was asked to use it well. I did otherwise. And they’ve been stalking me since…since I killed that lady…t’was never my intention…all I wanted was her money.”

“Nobody gave you those healing powers. They want you it’s apparent because of your extraordinary ability. It’s a question of who this man here represents.” A cloud of cluelessness filled the air.

“We have to get outta here,” Ann filled the dead air.

“But where? Wherever I go, I’m followed and easily located at that. I’m sorry to put both your lives in danger. You don’t deserve this. I should go…alone,” Joshua said, hopeless of his situation and mindful of the two’s safety.

“I am coming with you!” Ann insisted, stark, imposing. “I am coming with you!” Ann repeated even before Joshua could utter a word.

“Wait here,” the old man said showing no hints of opposition to Ann’s imposition. He left for his room and returned with a pile of clothes—tossing them onto Joshua. “Try them. Some tracking device could be giving away your exact location.”

As Joshua fitted the unexpected and not necessarily welcome come-up, a pair of castoff boots were slammed in front of him. “That’s all I have. And you might need undies too, there’s a few hanging in the bathroom, grab one that’s dry.”

Just like an obedient child silently carrying out demands of an overbearing parent, Joshua put on grandpa fashion to Ann’s mocking agreement.

“Take him to Ljubljana,” the Uncle Bart told Ann. “From there he can decide where to go.”

Now donning a loose dark corduroy trousers and a shapeless brown on top of a white long-sleeves, Joshua together with Ann was standing at Brno’s main square hoping accommodation-hunting would be just a breeze.  The square was a deadbeat and hardly had any activity save for the tram occasionally slowly slicing the square into equal two, a few people trafficking through the food establishments’ doors and a few random people just transiting through. A food stand selling local cheese and sausage attracted a couple that found dinner in grilled sausage and hot wine.

Joshua motioned Ann to make way for the tent/stall. “What do you want?” Joshua asked Ann. “I’ll have a beer and one of those…looks delicious,” Joshua added referring to the couple’s dinner. “I’m not hungry…just water for me,” Ann said, uninterested.

“Do you know of any cheap accommodations around here?” Joshua asked the lady as he patiently watched his order being readied for him. In a standoffish way, the lady with a tied yet disheveled hair answered, “Take that road, turn right—the first right, at the end of the road to your left…there’s a hostel there. Cheap.” Then, lifeless, eyes droopy, vacant, she handed Joshua his order, “Sixty-five crowns.”

With the hostel reception unmanned during the night, Joshua and Ann had a Brazilian tourist to thank who came to check in very late. They were shepherded to what is otherwise a dark room if not for the illumination of the moonlight and streetlight the large glass windows ushered in.  A little opening allowed the chilly breeze in, only to be overwhelmed by the heating. The bunk beds, ten or so, looked all occupied with backpacks flung on the bed; towels, undies and other garments draped through the head boards, bed rails and guards—marked the settlers’ territories.  No one was inside save for a blonde girl already asleep just right next to the common table. Joshua settled on the bed near the window and Ann, next to him. Ann narrowed the window opening, rummaged through her luggage for a toothbrush and went for the washroom. Joshua followed shortly.

A group having fun evident by the disruptive jeers and cheers reverberating through from the common area was tempting but didn’t hold Ann and Joshua from hitting the sack right away. It was quick for both to nod off.

Deep into the night, Ann awoke to a choir of snores by an apparently male-dominated strange crowd. The standout perfectly mimicked the sound of a cement ground drilling, only louder. Ann turned to Joshua, who was laid to his back, hands clenched together on his belly—reminiscent of a corpse comfortable in his casket. He wasn’t snoring to Ann’s delight.

Ann watched Joshua, whose face was slightly lit, as he breathed in and out peacefully. Then a murmur that intensified so hastily. Ann got up in trifling panic. Crisp words were uttered in a jarring, alarmed voice, forming: “What do you want?” The intensity weakened as Joshua mumbled words this time. A defeated cry for mercy, then an antagonistic uproar that quickly cowed to again sound overpowered forced Ann to shake Joshua awake from an apparent nightmare.

“He’s here!” Joshua uttered.

“What do you mean he’s here? ” Ann said piercing Joshua a look before benching on her bed curling her arms together. “He’s dead!”

“We’ve to get outta here…now!”

“We just got settled! And no train leaves this early,” Ann exclaimed, aggressive but almost hushed.

Ann and Joshua tiptoed their way out, walked past the amply lit hallway to the reception. A young man was comfortably seated in his pajamas tinkering with the reception’s computer.  “We’re checking out,” Ann said. “So?” the reception replied. “Oh, you don’t work here,” Ann was quick to figure out. “Last time I checked I was so pissed with this hostel lacking a very vital facility…a workstation for those who love travelling light and don’t bring their computers like myself obviously …so I gummed the camera and hacked my way into checking out the results of tonight’s football match. But I forgive the mistake. Oh, there’s the door,” pointing to the door then quickly to the fridge, ”And you might wanna get yourselves some beer before you leave!” And winking, “ On the house!” Christian said pointing at the gummed camera. “And your keys, here.”

Ann shot a grin and rolled her eyes as she placed hers and Joshua’s keys onto the desk; Joshua got himself a bottle of beer. “Ugh, this early?” Ann to Joshua as she scooped his arm to resume the exit.

“They can still track you?” Ann asked Joshua almost in a whisper. “Apparently,” Joshua said as he opened the door. “Who’s tracking who?” the young man at the reception interrupted them. “Hacking and eavesdropping. What else do they teach in schools nowadays?” Ann, with her usual sarcasm. “What are they not? No really, if you are being tracked, I’m your man. Wait here,” the young man said and left. “Can we afford to be slowed down by this douchebag?” Ann flared.

“I am Christian, by the way,” the young man said as he emerged back shaking their hands. “A bit of enthusiasm would have been appreciated…a firm handshake at least?” Christian said as he let go of Ann’s lifeless hand. “You just aren’t an eye for sore eyes.” Ann said making no effort of hiding her irritability.

“Did you just tell me I’m an eye sore? Anyway, this thing here, it detects GPS chips. Hah! What’s not sold on eBay these days?! Never thought I’d ever get to use this. So okay, here’s the drill, imma scan you from head to toe. You can leave your clothes on although I wouldn’t mind this lady here doing otherwise.”

“Dream on, virgin.”

“Goodness, you are such a bitch!”

“Look who’s talking,” Ann said widening her eyes.

“Why do I get that a lot?!”

“And you sound surprised! I would take it as a compliment if I were you,” Ann, rolling her eyes.

“I would much prefer asshole, lady.”

A beep hindered Ann from answering back. “Look what we have here.”

“I’ll save you time, that’s my cellphone.”

“Procedures, honey. Surrender the goods.” He later said, “Okay you’re clean.”

“Your turn, leading man,” Christian said as he held the reader in front of Joshua’s face slowly sliding it down to Joshua’s waist. A little down and the reader screamed like a triggered burglar alert. “Man, you are loaded!” “What?” Joshua was clueless.  Joshua emptied his pockets. The same almost scandalous sound. “C’mon, show this kid a bit of skin,” Ann to Joshua.

“Okay, apparently not these grandpa trousers nor these sagging grandpa CKs.”

“Woh, are we looking at something implanted?” Christian exclaimed almost teasing.

“C’mon that sorta thing only happens in movies!” Ann cried dismissing Christian’s insinuation.

“Apparently not,” Christian said with a glint of mockery to his eyes.

“What do you mean?” Joshua verifying Christian’s idea.

“Something injected, implanted?” Christian said starting to be convinced about the likelihood of such a thing to be really happening.

“I do not recall any incident involving whatever injection.”

“Maybe in your sleep?”

“And where, down there? I sure would be up if somebody was crawling down trying to stick in me something.”

“They must have first drugged your food. Or drink?” Christian suggested.

“But how? When?”

“Do you have your food delivered to your house? I do that a lot.”

“Once or twice. But not recently,” Joshua said. “And just why does it have to be me?” A short moment of silence, which Joshua broke. “And it’s down there,” he said looking down. “Of all places.

“Yeah your crotch apparently,” Christian responded followed by a sudden and quick burst of entertained and sardonic laugh.

“How do we take it out?”

As the two pairs of eyes zeroed in on him, Christian raised his hands and said, “Woh! Frogs, that’s as far as I can get with dissecting. Human balls, no way!” As Joshua and Ann talked with their eyes beckoning each other to leave, Christian said, “Okay, let’s pretend I have not met any of you. Go! Shoo!”

“Ugh!” Ann, who had her hands to her chin and mouth all this time, fussed and turned around in revulsion.

“You are welcome,” Christian addressed the ingrate Ann without looking.

“Ayt. Thanks for everything, man. We’ll leave. But can you at least tell us if you know of any hospital around here.”

“Since when did I become yellow pages?” Christian said yet proceeded with Googling it. “There’s one…quarter of an hour walk.” Then a buzz from downstairs. Nobody answered.

Pricked by a sudden and concentrated dose of fear, Ann’s eyes broadened. Joshua, in an effort to calm Ann down, rubbed Ann’s back and went to peek from the balcony. Yet another smartly-dressed gentleman. Two gentlemen. They kept on buzzing.

After many attempts, one of the two gentlemen finally decided to pick the lock. They got in quick, climbed up the stairs and got to 4th level to the hostel door in no time. Third knock, Christian swung the door open, “Don’t you have a key?”

“We are looking for Joshua Ward. Has he checked in here?” one of the similar-looking gentlemen inquired.

“No idea. I don’t work here.”

The gentleman snuck a look over Christian’s shoulder to check out the counter. His eyes ran through the lounge and the kitchen to his right. “I need to speak with somebody who works here.”

“Unmanned at night…I figured. Beer?”

The gentleman proceeded to the common area. Nobody was around. The other went on to knock at a room behind the reception. A Chinese rubbing his eyes opened the door. The gentleman took a peek inside and faced about to the adjacent room. The door’s partially open. He let himself in, switched the lights on to disapproving moans, and slowly surveyed the room. The other followed. But no sign of Joshua.

One finally took some device out that beeped continuously, with one second interval. He made adjustments and walked around the hostel, his eyes locked on the reader’s monitor while the other explored with his eyes every possible hidey-hole. As the one with the device neared the toilet, the beep hastened. As he thumped the toilet door open, his apparatus’ ding went ballistic. He easily found a chip, the size of a grain of rice, wrapped by blood-filled tissue. Both their eyes met, agreeing.

“They were here. Tell me something or you suffer,” the man with the reader demanded.

“Woh! Is that a threat?” Christian said, contentious. “And tell you what exactly?” Christian demanded.

“A man, late 30s, early 40s, possibly with a young woman, leaving. How long ago? Did you get to talk to them? Where are they headed?”

“Hold it!” Christian interrupted. “Which should I answer first? Well I saw only two people leaving ‘bout 10 minutes ago. The guy looked like he’s in his 30s, mid 30s, late 30s, couldn’t really tell…and the girl’s still young kinda, 20s. Guy looked like he got his balls smashed, asked me where the hospital is. They had me Google it, minutes walk from here. That’s prolly where they’re headed. Not sure though.”

The train whistled signaling its arrival. Joshua darted stares at the mobile passengers, a swarm of expressionless souls—not one looking as excited as a madman about to plunge into his freedom. Despite that, Joshua would trade lives with any of them. A life where the only pointless worry is the uncertainty of the future and not some impending, crippling, inevitable consequence to some action; not a life tailed by retribution that’s faceless he could only imagine how mighty. If only he could hit a reset button so he could have a fresh start. Now he wore the scarlet letter…and even dragged two innocent souls with him.