The smell of deep fried food makes me feel sick while I watch the team gather around a makeshift table, covered in pastries and other kinds of junk food distributed around a camera shaped cake.
The "Happy Birthday!" banners, birthday hats and other party deco only make the atmosphere more depressing, that is, to me, 'cause the rest of the staff that consists of a group of anorexic models, my creepy boss Buck and other two assistants laugh out loud and talk excitedly around the table.
The tall brunette eats hot dog after hot dog, while the redhead is in her third piece of cake and I'm sure I'll be cleaning up vomit very soon. I realize I'm probably staring, because my boss is looking pointedly at me, and I guess it's time to get back to work.
My name's Jason, I work as a photographic assistant and share a tiny apartment with my girlfriend, Liza, whom I barely see, since I spend the entire day working my ass off at the studio running after equipment, setting up equipment, cleaning equipment, cleaning the boss's office, following his stupid orders and taking care of models.
Photographic assistant ? Fuck that, instead of actually helping in the photoshoots , I spend the day cleaning up vomit from sick people paid to maintain an absurd beauty standard.
I'm more like a janitor around here.
This is my job. I should be thankful for having one, since I never do things quick enough according to Buck, who delays his own work so he can remind me how useless and slow I am.
While I organize the studio, I notice that Mark, the photoshop guy and my "best friend", skipped work again due to a dentist appointment.
I wonder how many dentist appointments can someone have in a month.
Anyway, our "best friendship" consists of me smoothing things over with Buck for him, paying for his lunch since he seems to conveniently forget his wallet at the studio, and him flirting with my girlfriend.
Wanna know what's the saddest thing ?
I don't care.
I don't care about my stressful job, about my piece of shit boss, about my shitty best friend, about my distant relationship.
I haven't cared in a long time.
The only thing I care about is the fact that I don't care.
Later when my working hours are done, the streetlights are on and the sky is dark, which makes the heat of the day more bearable, one of the consequences of living on a tropical island.
Ironically the weather is often cloudy due to the pollution caused by industries that, along with the skyscrapers, metro lines and chaotic traffic, create the concrete jungle that is the South Island. I open my satchel and search inside it until I find a grocery list, my ugly handwriting in blue next to Liza's neat one in black.
When I see my phone deep inside the bag, my brother Riley comes to my mind. How is he ? Since I couldn't attend his pilot license ceremony because I was working we haven't talked much.
Actually, I haven't talked much to any of my friends considering I can't go out with them to dance, drink or simply hang out at Ollie's place playing videogames and eating pizza cause I'm always tired and stressed.
That's me, Jason Brody: assistant, boyfriend, brother and friend of the year.
The walk to the grocery store doesn't take longer than 10 minutes, and soon I'm standing in cereal aisle trying to decide which one I should take.
At the end of the aisle there's a woman with a little boy, who throws himself on the floor while crying because he wants a cereal that comes with a toy while the mother closes her eyes and takes a deep breath trying to be patient, an old lady arguing about the price of oatmeal with an employee, and a man with a buzzcut wearing a military jacket analyzes the back of a cereal box. His arms catch my eyes.
Tribal tattoos. Rakyat.
That's weird. Only a few natives usually come to the South Island, preferring to isolate themselves on the North Island.
I quickly avert my eyes when he looks up from the box, and I end up deciding on taking the Frosted Flakes. After picking up the stuff I needed from the hygiene and dairy aisles, I stop at the short checkout queue made of tired people coming back from work who only want to go home and sleep, like me.
It's my turn. I lean against the checkout counter, checking my emails on my phone while the cashier scans my items. The sound of glass breaking makes me turn to look at its direction, where an embarrassed woman accidentally dropped a jar of pickles. When I turn back, I almost drop my phone.
There's a guy leaning against my counter, observing me so close that I wonder how the hell I didn't notice his presence.
"Uh, sorry." I say, while looking at any other direction and drumming my fingers against the metal surface.
"You apologize too much, hermano."
He has a mohawk, a scar that goes from his eyebrow to the back of his head and wears a red vest, cargo pants, black boots and a holster. But what makes me more nervous isn't the fact that he's armed.
It's his eyes, so dark that I can't even see the pupils, fixated on me.
"Well, sorry about that." I reply with certain irritation. Who is this guy ?
"Your brothers were kidnapped last night, when they were leaving a club in Gaztown."
I almost drop my phone again. "...W-what ?"
That's impossible, If they had been kidnapped I would have known by now... right ?
He keeps looking at me with a small grin like he just made a comment about the weather, instead of telling me about my brothers being in danger.
I clench my fists. "Look, if this is some kind of joke-"
"The man who kidnapped them is behind you."
He said and pulled a pistol from his holster, firing one shot before grabbing me and throwing us both on ground, using the counter as cover.
Around us, all hell broke loose.
People screamed and ran abandoning grocery bags, some calling for the police, others crying.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck
Deep breaths, Jason.
Mohawk dude crouched beside me and snapped his fingers in front of my face.
"Hey! Hermano, stay with me! "
I can barely hear my own thoughts. Bullets hit our cover. The sound of shooting seems to have started outside too.
I can't breathe.
I think I'm gonna throw up.
When he turns to shoot back, I get up and run.
That was the most brave, or most stupid, decision of my life.
I hear a loud "FUCK!" followed by more gunshots. I run through the cereal aisle trying to get to the exit without being shot. As soon as the aisle ends, I'm facing a huge wall shelf filled with barbecue supplies and grills of different kinds: electric, gas and charcoal.
To my left, at the end of the corridor, there's the exit. To my right is the Rakyat man I saw earlier.
He has a gun on his hand.
He doesn't shoot me, but starts in my direction.
A single shot rings out and a gas canister explodes, creating a fire column in the middle of the corridor and effectively separating us.
I'm pretty sure I'm temporarily deaf in my right ear, and my heart feels like it's going to beat out of my chest, but I don't stop running until crossing the exit.
Outside there's another shootout in the middle of the parking lot: on one side men taking cover behind red jeeps, on the other men with tribal tattoos behind blue jeeps, while around them desperate people try to get away by car or on foot.
I run as fast as I can, trying to get away from the chaos. When I'm about 200 meters away, running in middle of the street, I hear a car approaching fast. The car speeds past, making a ninety degree turn in front of me and forcing me to stop. The smell of burning rubber from the tires fills the air, when the driver's door opens and I'm pulled inside, hitting my head in the process.
"WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOU FUCK! YOU FUCKING LOCO, AMIGO ?"
Mohawk guy again.
He speaks fast in Spanish while pushing me over to the passenger's seat and I have no idea of what he is saying, but I'm pretty sure he isn't complimenting me.
"You think running away like a little pussy is funny, huh ? Wanna see you try now, amigo." He slammed the door shut and moved the car back before speeding off down the street, making me bump my head against the headrest. Shit, my head hurts. I touch the place where I hit my head and let out a hiss of pain.
"Thought you could run ? Spotted you like a fucking hunter, like, uh, the huntsman going after Snow White, ya know ?" He begins to laugh.
What the fuck ?
This guy is fucking crazy.
"It's okay hermano, I'm gonna chill, I'm gonna relax." He continues laughing, but more quietly now.
Considering the speed at which he's driving, I'm glad I have my health insurance.
A few minutes of high speed, me crying and begging God to let me live and almost four crashes later, he starts to slow down, even stopping at a red light (which surprises me), when I see three red jeeps approaching through the rear view. I probably started trembling, since Mr. Need for Speed turns to me and says:
"Chill out, they're my guys." I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding and leaned back against the seat, rubbing my eyes.
After a few moments I hear the soft sound of a lighter being used, and soon the smell of weed fills my nostrils. He turns the radio on, low electronic music playing.
Now that imminent danger has passed, I can feel the adrenaline starting to fade and it gets harder to keep my eyes open. I try to fight the exhaustion, cause sleeping in a strange car with an armed man that I don't know is not one of the best ideas.
But the combination of weed, pain and stress is too much for me, luring me into closing my eyes and welcoming the darkness.