Semi-Sweet

Chapter 2

"Whats'a matter, Ken?"

Kenichi fiddled his fingers on a few petals of a rose plant he was trimming. The greenhouse was sticky, humid, and hot sweat trickled on his brow.

"My uncle's coming for a visit."

"Well, how is that bad?"

"It's not."

"So what's your deal?" His boss was busy putting prices on some of his prized plants and seeds. He was a short man with a bushy white beard, and was Kenichi's best friend.

"My apartment isn't as good as I've described it on the phone. I'm afraid he'll see it and then force me to come back to Japan with him."

"Well that's not so bad. I thought you wanted to go back to Japan."

"I do..."

"Ken, you're losing me..."

"...but my destiny is here. There are just too many memories. I could never leave. Goodness, look at the sky."

His boss stopped what he was doing and looked up at the sky through the glass ceiling of the greenhouse.

"It's all the smoke from the factories. You know what that's called?"

"What?"

" I said do you know what it's called?"

"Yeah, I know, what's it called? Pollution?"

"Wrong! Wait, did you say pollution?"

"Yes."

"Yeah, it's pollution."

"So we're gonna have more acid rain. I tell ya, the weather is ungodly. It's almost like the time of judgment. First it's sunny, then it's cloudy. I bech'ya anything it'll get sunny again in the afternoon. Absolutely ungodly. I keep expecting the ground to break in two and..."

"Ken, take the rest of the day off."

"Really?"

"Nobody ain't gonna come today. I can take care o' things."

Kenichi threw his gardening apron on the counter and gave his boss a hug. He grabbed his jacket and ran out into the numbness.

aaa

If humans were like animals then they would surely be penguins. The way they bundle themselves up so their body is straight and stiff, the way they waddle through the streets in herds, one after another, all looking in the same direction. It was funny, and yet it was sad. Sad because Kenichi knew he was part of the mass, that he was a fraction of the mob. God forbid people try to talk to one another in this weather; God forbid they acknowledge their own kind.

Kenichi had no idea where he was going, but he knew he had to keep moving. He thought of some places he enjoyed spending his time. There was the community pool in the upper recesses of Zone 1, but that wouldn't open again for another five months. There was the market in Zone 1, the Asian market that is. He enjoyed looking at the yakitori stalls serving fresh balls of chicken and ox back. He loved to watch the children spend their allowance on the fizzy peach juice the juice man made daily. But he had no appetite today, and no desire to watch people buy the meat and fish they would be cooking for dinner that night.

What he was really in the mood for, and it surprised even him, was the park. Not the beautiful park in Top Gate, no. It was too cold for that, and he never really felt comfortable walking amid people he knew who had far greater sums of cash than he had. No, where he wanted to go was the dome park in Zone 1. He hadn't been there in a long time, but he was hankering for a good walk.

There were some interesting things about the dome park. For one thing, it was in Zone 1, which is strange in itself, considering it's underground. But the people wanted a park, a safe place for their children to go, but above all, a place to see the sun. The people had cut a hole in the metal sky of the underground world, and put a dome over it. It's the only place in Zone 1 that the sun shines through, and the inhabitants are very happy for this. The dome juts out on Top Gate in the shopping plaza near Greenwhich station. It's a popular attraction there as well. The more well off citizens take their children or dates there to peer into the dome, at the people underground who aren't as cash sufficient as they are. Every now and then, you might find a family from Top Gate walking in the park. It's starting to get more popular with the rich people, they say it gives them a chance to connect with the average folk and the history of Metropolis. But Kenichi knew it was a fad, soon the park would be just another old memory pushed in a corner for the people of the top half.

He began walking to the train station. He would be going to one in the north section because it was closest, but he still had over a mile to go. The north section had three stations, so did the south, the east, and the west. Metropolis was big. Oh, so disgustingly big.

As he walked he looked through the windows of clothing stores and boutiques. He loved the new designs of clothes, all the retro fashions and cooky electronic devices. But he liked the ones in Zone 1 better, not to mention all of the antique shops and old school video arcades. There was even a place in Zone 1 that had an old Atari gaming system, and Space Invaders the game from the early 1980s! Such antiques were so hard to find, but Kenichi cherished them, and it was a welcome treat to spend his leftover money fighting aliens.

After some walking, he finally got to the train station, herds of bustling people going in and out of the swinging doors. He walked in, happy at the warm feeling that hit his bones, and began walking to the other end near the escalators. He passed shops, McDonalds and Chinese food stalls, and even a vendor who tried to sell him a pair of sunglasses. But he had a clear idea where he was headed, and didn't stop for any of the temptations. He went down the escalator to the bottom floor, hundreds of people squishing him against the railing as he counted the minutes it took. In actuality, the escalator split into three parts, because there were three different levels. Some people got off at the first split, which were the trains headed for the west section, some at the second, which were the trains headed for the south. But Kenichi stayed on until the third split. When he got off, only electricians and plumbing supervisors were left on going to the basement, a load of subway trains waiting to take them to Zone 2. Kenichi thought he saw a few Marduks along with them.

He got off at the split were the trains were waiting to go to the east section. It wasn't surprising that this is where most of the people got off, considering it was only at the third split that had yet another escalator heading towards the trains that would take people to Zone 1. Kenichi was used to the large amounts of people, hundreds of them on the escalator at a time, going to Zone 1. Some were rich kids going there because it was the "cool" place to hang out, plus there were quite a few places you could purchase alcohol without an ID. If you knew where to look. Then some were regular people going to work, coming back from work, or just going there to do shopping, considering the vast amounts of stores with much cheaper prices on food, clothing, and other living necessities.

The ride was long, and Kenichi was glad that they were in the process of building more ticket vendors where he was headed. They only had 12 down by the Zone 1 trains, and that may seem a lot to someone who had never been to Metropolis, but Kenichi had been there long enough to know it wasn't.

When he finally stepped off the escalator, he again saw stalls for food, souvenirs, and accessories. He walked to the end of the floor where there were three sets of stair cases, each one going down to trains headed to a different section of Zone 1. He had to scratch his head for a moment and remember where the park was located.

Lazarus Avenue.

Which means he would have to take the middle staircase, get on the train, and then switch trains three more times. None of them go directly to Lazarus Ave., just to different stations. He walked briskly down the stairs, sick of the stuffy air already, and anticipating looking at fake flowers. At the bottom of the stairs, more people rushing past him, he saw the twelve ticket booths. He quickly scooted into the shortest line, but it still took fifteen minutes. He supposed people were lucky that train tickets to Zone 1 were so cheap, only about 50 cents. Even though it was just one way.

Determined not to wait for the next train, he bolted through one of the many turnstiles and rushed down to where the trains approached, dodging mothers with babys, teenagers, and older men. He squeezed on right before the doors closed, and positioned himself between a young man in a battered suit reading a newspaper, and a mother holding the hand of her four year old daughter.

When the train started to move, Kenichi stuck with his old alibi: look out the windows into darkness. It probably made time go slower, but he knew, and others could vouch for him, that there were more crazy people on trains going into Zone 1 than anywhere else in Metropolis. Most of them stayed on the trains all day, riding them everywhere they went, if only because sleeping in a booth was much warmer than sleeping outside. Already, Kenchi saw out of the corner of his eye an old skinny man with a beard almost floor length, looking directly at his face, and laughing. The only thing that distracted him from this aggravating scenario was a loud splat! and a barely audible "oops." He looked down and noticed that the four year old had dropped an ice cream she was holding, something Kenichi must have overlooked when he first saw her. She looked up at him. He looked back, and smiled, but she buried her face in her mother's jacket. All the while the old man's laughing heard in the background.

And still three more stops to go.

aaa

Kenichi had to squint his eyes when he finally made it to the park. The glass dome surrounding the greenery let in all the light from the upstairs world, and it reflected and seeped into everything it touched. It was nice, though. It was a good change from the steel ceiling over Zone 1, the ceiling that kept the shadows and smoke thriving. Being able to feel a little sun was a good thing.

His feet began moving on their own. He didn't think much of it, but rather enjoyed the scenery that met his eyes. A woman with her herd of children, a man walking his dog, a couple taking a jog together. However, as he continued walking, the people became less and less. The only person he now saw in the distance was a man sprawled out on a bench. He didn't need to squint his eyes, and he didn't need to stop in his tracks to contemplate anything. He already knew who it was.

The man's fingers were spread across his face, with enough space between each one so the sun could hit his glasses and create a blinding glint. Kenichi kept his pace slow and quiet, but he was pretty sure the man couldn't hear him. Even in a park the noises from Zone 1 were deafening.

Kenichi's eyes began to water, but he convinced himself that it was only the sun. He shielded his eyes to make the farce more believable, as he walked forward to, what he believed, was his destiny.

"Sleeping on a bench like that, people will think you're homeless..."

Rock turned his head toward Kenichi and lowered his shades so that his eyes were visible. He lifted a quizzical brow at the perplexed Japanese boy. Kenichi shrugged, "or just crazy," he said, scratching the back of his neck and looking out over the distance. Rock let out an uncomfortable moan and rolled over so that his back was toward the young man.

"Does that mean you want me to leave?"

Rock lifted his hand, looking almost like he would wave, but decided against it and ended up flipping Kenichi the bird.

The boy breathed out heavy through his nose, a little bit hurt and aggravated by the cold shoulder, and flopped down on the bench in the small amount of space left next to the older man's feet. He was pretty sure it wasn't just coincidence that brought him here to this very park on this very day, and he wasn't about to leave without a fight. Or at least without a decent conversation that didn't end with Rock pissing all over his metaphorical shoe.

Next to him, Rock very slowly and uncomfortably began to sit up. He placed his feet on the ground and continued to make gross noises, from gurgling to bones cracking. Kenichi turned his head barely enough to see Rock out of the corner of his eye, but what met his gaze was not a very attractive sight. Rock sat very still, staring at the artificial grass. He looked almost as though he were waiting for something, and Kenichi's worst fear and estimate about the whole situation was finally put to rest when Rock vomited all over the ground.

Kenichi pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes for a while. When he opened them he saw Rock walking- swaying, rather- over to a pipe coming out of the earth. He turned the top and water began to spurt out, which he then used to wash out his mouth and his face. Then, he did something very predictable: he began to walk back the way he came.

A woman who saw the whole fiasco stood toward the side of the path, watching Rock pass with an undefinable look of horror on her face. Kenichi stood up, quick and confused, and made a dash to catch up to the older man.

"Rock, you can't just- I mean - you gotta clean it up..."

"It's nature, Kenichi. It'll... disintegrate."

Kenichi was surprised the thought never crossed his mind before, but it did at that moment. Rock was still drunk.

It wasn't until they had made it back out through the entrance to the park that Kenichi realized he was still trotting next to Rock. He didn't seem to object, either that or he didn't notice, but either way, Kenichi came to the conclusion that it was better than trotting alone.