Friday, December 22, 2006

On the Way to a Smile :: Episode 1-1

In the past, the world of Midgar was spilt into two. The upper city, build on foundations of steel known as plates, was buttressed by support pillars high up above the ground. And on the land underneath where the light of the sun couldn't reach were the Slums, chaotic but full of life. People thought it would be that way forever, the light of prosperity above, and the dark shadow of poverty below.

Four years ago, when the Lifestream flooded out from the depths of the Planet, most people believed that was the end for Midgar. Grabbing whatever belongings they could carry, the citizens fled from the city. But they couldn't leave behind their city of steel. Maybe they thought that if they were close to it, near that monument of prosperity, they might recapture it once again. Soon after, the city of Edge was built adjacent to Midgar.

***

Starting at the outskirts of Sector 3 and Sector 4, Edge's main road ran out straight to the east. The city formed along this main road and expanded out to the northwest. It was an impressive sight when seen from afar. However, most of the buildings were made up of scrap excavated from the ruins of Midgar. The scents of iron and rust filled the city.

Johnny ran a café along the main road. It was a humble establishment, a couple of tables and chairs and a stall for making simple meals set in an empty lot. Johnny's Heaven. That was the name. Johnny took it from "Seventh Heaven", a diner that once stood in Midgar's 7th sector, in the hope his business might enjoy a similar success. Johnny was in love with Tifa, the bar hostess (and main attraction) of Seventh Heaven.

Several months after the original was destroyed in the fall of the Sector 7 plate, Tifa opened the new Seventh Heaven in Edge. Back then, Johnny was lost amidst the swarms of people who couldn't decide what direction they should take with their lives. But he was moved seeing the inspiring way of life Tifa had. Once the object of his unrequited affections, Tifa soon became a role model, someone for him to look up to and learn from.

I'm going to live my life like Tifa. So then, how should I go about it? That's it! I'll start a business. Give hope to those guys who've lost their way. That marked the beginnings of his project, Johnny's Heaven. The clientele often heard the tale of "Johnny’s Rebirth" when they stopped in for a drink or two. Intrigued by his stories, his customers visited the new Seventh Heaven in hopes of catching a glimpse of the illustrious Tifa. Many soon became regulars. And before he knew it, Johnny spent most days waiting for someone to show up and listen to his tales of love and hope.

A customer's here, he thought. And a child at that. Not very often you get a kid in here alone. Ooh, that's Denzel, isn't it? Denzel held a special place in Johnny's heart. He was part of his idol Tifa's family. He always got the best service; Johnny made sure to pull out all the stops for him.

"Good day, Denzel." Johnny lowered his head and bowed deeply. But Denzel merely glanced at him for a moment before making his way to the furthest table from the main stall. "Come on, take one of the tables over here!"

"No. I'm meeting someone."

Meeting someone? Is a little kid like this on a date? Oh well, don't fret about it. He glanced at the kid. Johnny will keep an eye out for you. All part of the service. The full works for a very special customer.

"Just get me coffee," Denzel said, turning away from him.

Is he ignoring me? Oh, I get it. He must just be feeling shy. "If you get stuck thinking of what to talk about, just give me a yell. I know plenty of interesting things you can talk about; I can tell you a few stories later. Or I can tell you a couple now if you'd—"

Suddenly, Denzel rose from his seat. Did I make him mad? Johnny looked at him again. The boy's gaze was fixed on the café entrance.

A man in a plain suit was standing there.

"Welcome," Johnny said, looking away as he greeted the man. Reeve, he thought. One of the heads of the old Shin-ra Company. Now head of the W.R.O. This is the first time I've seen him around these parts. What do the regulars say nowadays? "Wherever he goes the stench of death isn’t far off." What business does a guy like that have in my shop?

As he walked, Reeve looked around cautiously, but somehow he seemed accustomed to it, like it was a force of habit. He reached Denzel's table and took a seat. In that moment Johnny realized it: This is scouting for the W.R.O. Reeve's trying to lure poor Denzel into the army. Gotta put a stop to this. If I let something like this happens in my café, Tifa's never even going to look at me again.

He threw a steely glare at Reeve, and then the calm expression returned turned to his face.

"Could I get a coffee?" Reeve asked. Such dignity.

"Yes, coming right up, sir." Johnny stood straight at attention, then trotted back to his cooking stall. This guy's a pretty formidable opponent.

***

Denzel stood there, unable to even offer a greeting to the man who had come to see him. He was surprised that Reeve himself, top man of the W.R.O., would come personally for his interview.

"You can sit down."

The sound of his voice snapped Denzel back to reality, and he clamored to return to his chair.

"Alright then, Denzel. I don't have much time, so we'll get straight to the point." He lowered his voice. "I should warn you, we've changed now. The times when we would welcome any new recruits are over. If you want to volunteer to help with the restoration effort, then you need to contact the district leader. The W.R.O. is army now."

"I know, sir. I'm aware of the dangers."

"Is that so...? Alright then, let's get started. First, what's your background?"

"My background? But—sir, I'm only ten."

"I know. But you still have ten years worth of background, don't you?"

Denzel was the only child of Abel, a worker in the Shin-Ra Company's 3rd Business Division, and Chloe, a sociable woman who ran her household well. The three of them lived in the Shin-Ra Company's employee residential area on the Sector 7 plate. Abel had been born and raised in a poor local village, so he was satisfied to have a family living in the upper levels of Midgar. But Abel believed that you always needed a goal in life, something to aim for. So Abel's new goal became to live in the Sector 5 residential area, reserved for managers and executives. Shortly before Denzel's 7th birthday, Abel was promoted to head of section. This earned him and his family the right to life in a company house in Sector 5. Upon hearing the news, Chloe and Denzel began preparing a party. The man of the house was greeted by a banquet of luxurious food and childlike decorations upon his return. It was a pleasant dinner. Denzel listened as his father talked about his life and slipped in the odd joke every now and again.

"You should be glad you’re my son and you were born here, Denzel. If you were born in the Slums, you'd have to eat rat instead of chicken."

"Don't they have chickens?"

"Sure they do, but everyone is so poor no one can afford to buy any. But that's life. So what would you do instead? Spear yourself a rat for dinner, that’s what. A filthy grey rat."

"Eww, gross...."

"Well... how does it taste?" Abel said, winking at Chloe.

"Well, Denzel?" asked Chloe as she pointed at Denzel.s plate. Denzel grew nervous, look back and forth between his plate and his parent's faces. His father was looking down, trying his best to restrain a smile. It reminded Denzel of what his mother always said. "There’s no point living if don’t you smile." They.re just trying to scare me again, he thought.

"See!" he said. "This is why I never trust you!"

***

"That was pretty mean," Reeve said.

"They just liked to joke around. It didn't really bother me when they teased me," Denzel replied.

"I should tell you that as far as I'm aware, they didn't really eat rats in the Slums. If they were used for food then the rats in the Slums back then..."

"I know, sir. I know about it well."

"I see. Did something happen?"

"...It’s a long story, sir."

***

Denzel was watching the house when the phone rang. It was Abel. "Is your mother there?" he asked.

"She's gone out shopping."

"Tell her to call me the minute she gets back. No. Forget it. I'll take care of it myself." He hung up. Jeez, he sounded distressed. It made him feel uneasy. There was nothing he could do about it, though, so he watched TV and waited for his mother to get back. They were showing images of the #1 Mako Reactor that had been bombed by a terrorist group called AVALANCHE. That's why dad’s been so busy lately, Denzel thought. That's why he's been so irritated. It’s not mine or mum's fault.

Around an hour later, someone returned home. It wasn't Chloe, but Abel. "Where's your mother?" he asked.

"She still hasn't got back yet."

"Damn! I've got to go look for her." Abel hadn't even finished speaking before he was out of the door, Denzel swiftly in pursuit. They headed for the shopping district and soon found Chloe chatting with the butcher, a smile on her face. Ordering Denzel to wait, Abel drew towards the butcher's shop. Without calling out to her first, he grabbed hold of his wife's wrist and dragged her back to where Denzel was waiting.

Denzel felt his heart thump hearing his mother's protests. "Get off me! Let go! What are you doing, Abel?"

Abel looked around the area cautiously, and lowered his voice. "Sector Seven is going to be destroyed. We've got to hurry and evacuate to Sector Five. There's a new company house for us there."

"Destroyed?"

"It's the ones who bombed the Number One Mako Reactor. They're going after Sector 7 next."

Denzel took a good look at parents' faces. They weren't trying to hold back any smiles this time. "Are you serious?" Denzel gasped. He grabbed hold of his parents' hands. "Then let's go!"

But they didn't move. "We can't just run away all by ourselves," Chloe began. "We've got to tell our neighbors, our friends—"

"There's no time for that, Chloe. And this information is a company secret. I'm breaking the rules telling just you about it. And after getting promoted to head of section—"

His mother shook her head, turned to Denzel.

"Go with your father. I'll be right behind you. Don’t worry." She squeezed Denzel's hand tightly before running off.

"Chloe!" Abel followed a few steps after his wife, but soon came to a halt. Seeing his father's pained expression filled Denzel with fear. As much as he wanted to run after his mother, he knew he'd just get in the way.

"Denzel, let's get to Sector Five."

"No! We've got to follow her!"

"Mum's going to be fine. She's the heart of this family, after all." Suddenly he looked past Denzel, to the outskirts of Sector 6 and Sector 7. A tall man was walking along there, dragging a heavy looking suitcase behind him. Abel called out to him. The man rushed towards them when he heard.

"Sir, you're still here?" said the man. "The Turks have already on the job. They're just about finished setting the explosives. It looks like my colleagues have sorted out transportation."

Having listened to his father talk about it since he was young, Denzel knew quite a bit about the organizational structure in the Shin-Ra Company. All the dirty jobs were done by the Turks. What did he mean, they'd finished setting the explosives? Were they AVALANCHE? Focusing on the ground trying to decipher what they meant, Denzel noticed his father looking at him. He lifted his head to face him.

"Could you take my son to Sector Five?" Abel said. "I'll make it up to you." His gaze stayed on his son.

"No!" shouted Denzel.

"I'm going to go bring Mum back. You go with Arkham."

"Come on, I'll go with you," the man said.

"Sure this is okay, Arkham?"

"Of course, sir."

"It's house number thirty-eight in the Sector Five residential area. Here's the key, I'll give it to my son." He took a key out of a pocket inside his suit and forced it into Denzel's hand.

"Dad..."

"I've bought us a brand new TV for our new home, a big screen one. Watch that and wait for us. We'll be fine."

Giving Denzel's hair a rough pat, Abel gently pushed him towards Arkham and started running towards Sector 7. Denzel stumbled and lost his balance, but Arkham caught him. "Well, let's get going. I'm Arkham, I work for your father. Nice to meet you, Denzel."

Denzel turned and tried to make a run for it, but Arkham stopped him.

"I understand how you're feeling. But if your father orders it, I've got to do as he says. Let'’s get to Sector Five. After that, whatever you do is up to you. Okay?"

The residential area was filled with lines of identical houses. The inside of the new house was completely empty except for a box which contained the TV. Arkham unpacked the TV from box, connected all the cables and switched it on. The pair sat watching the news. Images of the bombed reactor were still being shown. Denzel wondered if Arkham was going to leave soon. His stomach growled.

"I’m hungry."

"Alright. I'll go out and buy you something."

Just then, the whole house shook. There was a creaking sound coming from everywhere and nowhere in particular, the sound of the very earth splitting. Arkham opened the door, and the shriek of metal grinding together echoed through the house, girder on girder, steel meters thick tearing like paper, wires big around as he was snapping, all loud as the furious voice of God Himself—

Denzel yelled, no match for the noise. The ground shook again. And stopped.

"Wait here," said Arkham, and left the house. Denzel was about to follow him, when he heard a voice coming from the TV.

"Some urgent news just in." A city falling was shown on the screen. It took him a few seconds to realize that it was Sector 7, where they had just been a few hours before. "This is Sector Seven as it stands now," the announcer said as the scene changed. There was nothing. Sector 7 was gone.

Denzel rushed out of the house. The whole city was in a panic. Denzel ran, making his way through the sea of people trying to get away, some screaming that Sector 5 would be next. How far had he run? Out of breath, he arrived at the edge of Sector 6. Some troops had put up a protective barrier. He got as close as he could to the hastily built fence to try to catch sight of Sector 7. There was nothing there. It was as if it had always been like this, that there had always been a gaping void here instead of solid ground, houses, and people. Straining his eyes he could make out Sector 8 in the distance. The Sector 7 plate and connection sections were visible in the ruins.

"Oi, you there!" A soldier was calling out to him. "Where do you

live?"

Denzel pointed out into the empty void in front of him.

"Oh... sorry, kid," the soldier spoke softly. "Where are your

parents?"

Denzel pointed once again to the space that once been Sector 7. The soldier let out a heavy sigh.

"AVALANCHE did all this. Don’t forget that, kid. Hey, when you grow up, you can get your revenge," he said, trying to encourage him. "Go along now, kid." The soldier spun Denzel around and gave him a quick push towards Sector 6.

Denzel wandered through the crowds, his mind devoid of any coherent thought, his body numb. He gave no attention to the voices of the surrounding onlookers and people taking shelter. He couldn't. Where do I go next? he thought. Dad! Is it safe here? Mother! Damn AVALANCHE, I won't forgive you for this! What is Shin-Ra doing? Dad! Mum, where are you?

As he walked away from them, the crowds and the noise and the panic, but the piteous voice of one child didn't fade. He stopped in his tracks, tears running down his face, and he realized it was his own.

On the Way to a Smile :: Episode 1-2

"Did Shin-Ra do it?"

"Yeah." Reeve took his gaze away from Denzel, seeming as if he were determined not to show any emotion. "If you hate them for it, then you can do with me as you wish."

Denzel shook his head.

**

The next day when he came to, Denzel was back in his new house in Sector 5. He was sleeping on a mattress that wasn't there the day before. At the side there was a note and a bun.

"I'm at work. I'll stop by to check up on you from time to time. And don't go too far. Everyone's in a pretty foul mood, so it's dangerous out. But more importantly, it's a pain to find you and you're a heavy little bugger. PS: I borrowed that mattress from next door, so be sure to take it back. Arkham"

Videos of Sector 7 falling played over and over on the television. The Shin-Ra Company also announced over and over that Midgar was safe now. He couldn't understand how they could say it was safe, when his parents might be dead. I wonder if everyone can live happily, now that it's safe, he thought. I wonder if that'll include me. Denzel tried to eat the bun, but soon as it passed his lips, he wanted to spit it out again. Suddenly angry, he threw the bun at the TV with all his might and rushed out of the house.

It was quiet outside. As he walked, he could see the Shin-Ra Building towering up in the centre of Midgar, and a spark of hope started burning inside him. Maybe dad's alive and he went with mum there. It's too busy with everything going on right now and nobody can leave. This place is Shin-Ra's residential area, so maybe there's someone who knows dad. He wasn’t good at talking to adults he didn’t know, but he decided to try his best and ask.

First he went to the house next door to the right, and rung the doorbell. No answer. He tried to open the door, which turned out not be locked. "Hello?" He waited a bit, but there was no still reply. It looked like Arkham had borrowed the mattress from this house. Isn't borrowing without permission just stealing? Is that the only way to live now, doing whatever it takes, even stealing?

The house on the left. The across the street. The house at the back. No one’s home. He even went to check the house a little further away. On the doors of most of the houses (as their owners had only evacuated temporarily) was a paper with a contact address.

There's no one here. My parents can't be in the office. If there were then they would have definitely come here. Even if dad couldn't, mum would have.

While walking around entertaining a dying hope, he noticed that he was completely lost. He couldn't remember how far he'd walked or where he'd gone. His tears started up again, but they were more out of anger than sadness. Anger at AVALANCHE and this world of abandonment. He stopped and sat down on the road, but hit something before he reached the ground. It was a small model of a Shin-Ra airship. Some kid somewhere must have dropped it. Anger flaring inside of him, Denzel picked it up and threw it with all his might.

"I hate everything!"

The sound of breaking glass echoed in the residential area. A woman's voice soon followed: "Alright! Who did that!?"

At first he wasn't sure where the voice was coming from, but then an elderly woman exited from the house in front of him. She wasn't really an 'old woman', but Denzel couldn't guess the ages of women very well.

"Did you do this!?" The old woman said, waving the airship model around.

Denzel nodded.

"Why did...." The old woman stopped in the middle of her sentence. "Are you crying?"

Denzel shook his head to deny it, but he couldn't hide the tears.

"Where's your home?"

He tried to answer, realized he had no idea, and began to cry more.

The woman's face softened. "Just get inside."

The inside of Levy's house had a homey atmosphere completely different from Denzel's house. The walls were papered with a floral print, and cushions and a sofa patterned with the same. Even though it was decorated with artificial flowers, the room had warmth, gentleness to it. Denzel sat on the sofa and watched Levy, who was grappling with a vinyl bag trying to cover the broken glass.

"I'll get my son to fix this up properly when he gets back. This'll be fine for now."

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Levy...."

"If it were any other time but now, I'd have grabbed you by the scuff of your neck and stormed over to your parents."

"My mum and dad are...."

"Don't tell me! They just left you and ran away?"

"They were in Sector Seven."

Stopping her work, Levy sat on the sofa, turned around, and hugged Denzel.

When Denzel had calmed down, Levy said, "Let's look for your house then." They walked holding each other's hands. When he turned six, Denzel had stopped holding his parents' hands when he walked with them. It looked lame. But now he didn't want to let go at all.

The Shin-Ra officials among the residents had stayed over at HQ to get the situation under control. Their families were all evacuated to Junon or Costa Del Sol. Levy said the reason she stayed was because wherever she went, she'd be alone. She might as well stay here in her own home. Finally the pair found Denzel's house.

"Thank you, Mrs. Levy. And I'm sorry... about the window."

Levy nodded silently. Denzel went to the doorway and peeked inside.

"What are you planning to do, living in an empty house like this?" Levy asked. "Come to my house. I don't mind."

So Denzel began living with Levy.

Following the bombing of the first Mako reactor, Levy believed things would take a turn for the worst. She had stocked up on food supplies, filling a storeroom in the back yard with cans of preserved and prepackaged food. "You know what they say: 'Prepare for the worst, and you'll have no regrets.'"

Levy's days were busy. Cleaning inside the house, cleaning around the neighborhood, preparing meals, sewing. Denzel helped out with all these, except for the sewing. Before bed they would read books. Levy read thick, difficult-looking ones, and when Denzel asked if they were interesting she would reply, "Not at all." She said they were her son's books. Thinking that she might be able to understand her son's work by reading them, she carried on reading for more than five years. "It's something to read that helps you sleep," she laughed.

Levy lent Denzel an illustrated monster book, telling him to read it because it'd come in handy. That book was also her son's, which he read when he was around Denzel's age. There were color illustrations and explanatory notes about monsters inside. The same warning was written many of the pages: "If you encounter a monster, run away immediately and alert an adult." If I ran into a monster now, I guess I should tell Mrs. Levy, Denzel thought. But Mrs. Levy doesn't look like she can fight. I wonder if I'll have to do it. I wonder if I could. I wonder if I'd win. Hm. I don't think I am any use to anyone. That's why my parents left me behind and went away.

**

The sunlight grew brighter and Denzel broke into a sweat.

"Jeez...hot out today, isn't it?" Reeve said to Johnny. "Could we get some water?"

Denzel pulled out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his brow.

"That's quite a nice pattern," said Reeve. "Looks rather feminine, though."

"I guess it does," he answered, studying the handkerchief.

**

One morning, when he woke up, Levy showed him a collared shirt. "Put this on. I made it for you, but this is the only fabric pattern I had." The shirt was white with a lot of tiny pink flowers scattered all over it, as if blown by the wind. Normally, he would absolutely refuse to wear something like this, but Denzel changed into it gladly.

"I have some left over fabric, so I made these. Take them." She presented him with a handkerchief with the same pattern. She must have had a lot left over, because she had made several more. Denzel only took one, folding it up and putting it into the back pocket of his trousers.

"Now then...." The smile disappeared from Levy's face. "How should I put this...?”

Denzel braced himself for what she was going to say, in his head watching her say the two words that he feared the most: Get out. She's not going to say that is she? he wondered as his body shuddered with tension.

"Shall we go outside?" she asked. Levy went out into the back garden through the kitchen door. Denzel wavered, but soon followed after her. He stepped across the thickly laid soil and stood next to Levy, who stood there looking up towards the sky. Denzel followed her gaze and saw a large black stain in the sky. So ominous, the way it contrasted with the blue and white of the daytime sky. This must be why everything’s so gloomy and anxious.

"I don't know anything about it either," Levy said. "It's called 'Meteor', apparently. They say it's going to collide with the planet and that'll be the end for everything." She took two cans from the storeroom and gave one to Denzel. "How in heaven’s name are you supposed to defend against a thing like that…?"

That day Levy didn't clean or sew. She sat on the sofa, thinking.

At once, she looked like she'd gotten an idea and called someone on the phone. From the looks of things, the other person didn't answer. Thinking she was calling her son, Denzel cleaned the inside and outside of the house. He couldn't imagine what would happen when Meteor struck. And even more than that, there was something Denzel wanted to ask Levy. But he couldn't get the words out.

When the day grew dark, Levy, as if she had come back to reality, started cleaning. "Denzel, you're doing it all wrong. Who have you been watching up until now?" Yes, the usual Levy was back.

At night, they sat next to each other and read books. With her eyes staying on the book, Levy spoke. "Denzel. I'm going to wait for the end here. If the planet is going to be destroyed, it doesn't matter where you are. The end will be the same. But what are you going to do? If you want to go somewhere, I don't mind if you take the food in the house. You're only a child, but you should decide where you want to be at the end."

Denzel thought hard about what Levy had said. And he asked the question he had wanted to ask all day: "Could I stay here?"

Levy lifted her head from her book, looked at Denzel, and smiled.

After that, Levy passed her time as usual. Except she didn't clear outside anymore. Cleaning outside the house became Denzel's job. He could see construction work begin at the Shin-Ra Building. And just like that, a massive cannon was installed there.

"The Shin-Ra company is going to get rid of Meteor," he told Levy.

"There's always been something not quite right about that company," Levy said, sadly shaking her head.

In the end, the cannon was fired only once and collapsed upon itself. Then the Shin-Ra Building was attacked and destroyed by a monster. Denzel wondered what kind it was. He couldn't imagine a monster capable of destroying a building, but he didn't ask Levy about it. Meteor still loomed in the sky, inexorably bearing down on the Planet. Other regions were in an uproar, but Denzel's days were quite.

There were times when he couldn't hold back his desire to see his parents, and he would start to cry and call out for them, but Levy would hold him and calm him down. When he was asleep in Levy's bed, he didn’t mind if the end came. But the thing that ended Denzel's days of peace wasn't Meteor, but a dreadful white torrent. The Lifestream was a good power which destroyed Meteor, but that shining energy of life also brought destruction to humanity.

That fateful day, Denzel and Levy were in bed trying to sleep. Outside it sounded like a gale was starting up, but it was too strong, too loud to be just wind. Before long the whole house started shaking and rattling on its frame. This was it. The end. Denzel hoped it would be over soon, but as time went on, the shaking became more violent. The sound would quite down at times, then change to a thunderous roar as if a train were careening past the side of the house. Denzel tried to block it out, closing his eyes as Levy held him, but after five minutes he couldn't take it anymore. "Mrs. Levy, I'm scared!"

At the same time that Levy got out of bed to turn on a light, the closed floral patterned curtains turned pure white, casting strange, flowery shadows on the walls. Light poured in through the windows, like the house had been dropped inside a sea of it and had sprung fatal leaks.

"Hide under the blanket!" Levy left the bedroom. The vibration rose to an earth-shattering level, stronger even than the vibration that the falling plate had made so long ago, and the artificial flowers on top of the chest of drawers fell to the floor. Denzel jumped from the bed and followed Levy.

Levy was looking at the living room window. The window Denzel had broken, now covered only by vinyl. The vinyl was swelling up as if it was about to burst and spilt. Levy ran over to the window and held the vinyl down with both hands.

"Denzel, go back!"

Denzel was trembling. He couldn't move, like the soles of his feet were glued to the floor. I was the one who broke the glass. It's my fault this is happening. Levy dashed over to him and shoved him back into the bedroom as he tried to cling to her. At that instant, the vinyl was torn open and dazzling streams of light began to pour into the room. Levy closed the door to the bedroom as she let out a scream.

"Mrs. Levy!" Denzel pulled at the handle and tried to open the door.

"Denzel, stop it!"

"But—!" Denzel pulled the handle again.

Levy stood with her back to the door, legs and arms spread against the frame to keep him from coming out. "Close the door, Denzel!"

He could see several streams of light go through Levy's body, dancing and ricocheting off the walls, glowing snakes running riot in the room. This wasn't in the monster book. Have to run away and tell an adult. No…I'm the one who has to fight.

"Mrs. Levy!" As soon as he shouted, the light struck her. She groaned and the light shifted into a slender rope-like form that forced its way into the bedroom through the gap between Levy and the wall. He got a glimpse of her collapsing to the ground an instant before he was thrown back by the light and passed out.

On the Way to a Smile :: Episode 1-3

"I'm not sure how long I was unconscious. When I came to, the inside of the house was a mess. Mrs. Levy was collapsed on the floor. I called her name and she opened her eyes a little, murmuring that she was glad I was safe. Then she told me to give her my hand. I reached out and Mrs. Levy gripped my hand, but her grasp was weak. She said her son's hands had gotten too big for her to hold now. She asked me what it was like outside. It was morning; outside was a mess just like inside the house."

Denzel continued talking with his head down, and Reeve listened with his eyes closed.

**

After going outside, Denzel turned back and looked at Levy's house. There was no glass left in the window frames. When he looked around, he saw the windows of the other houses were broken too. There were houses missing roofs and houses with holes in the walls as well. Everything turned out the same after all. It would have been the same even if I hadn't broken the window, he thought. But with that thought he grew angry with himself again. Levy tried to protect me and though those horrible things happened to her, I'm trying to pretend it has nothing to do with me.

He went back inside the house, and Levy was as she left her. Her face was calm and she seemed to only be asleep. He grew uneasy and tried shaking her shoulder.

"Mrs. Levy...."

But she showed no sign of waking up.

"Mrs. Levy!" he said, shaking her harder this time.

A trickle of black fluid started streaming from the corner of Levy's mouth. Thinking this was an omen of death he hastily wiped it off. Then the black liquid started pouring out from her hair. He'd never seen anything like this before and it made him sick, seeing something like this malignant black blood coming from a human who was alive not long ago. Fear ripped at his heart and he ran from the house.

"Dad! Mum! Help me!" he shouted. He went on like that for a while, calling out every name he knew, and when he finally wore out the last of his voice, he sat down and started to cry.

"Chin up, kid," someone said from beside him. A large hand took his chin roughly and lifted his face upwards. A man with a jet-black moustache was standing there. Behind him there was a small truck with around ten people sitting in the back. "So what're you doing here? Didn't the TV say to evacuate to the Slums?"

"I didn't watch TV," Denzel said.

"Oh, bloody hell! Same as this lot. 'Oh, I didn't know' or 'I thought I'd be safe,' they said!"

The men and women in the truck shuffled around embarrassedly.

"So, where's your family?"

"Mrs. Levy is inside."

**

"His name was Gaskin," he told Reeve. "He buried Mrs. Levy in her own backyard. The people in the truck helped too. She was buried with her sewing things and her son's books. Everyone was surprised at how deep the soil was. They said you'd normally hit the Plate at the rate they dug."

"Perhaps she was planning on growing vegetables or something. A lot of the old folks from rural parts did that."

"...I think she wanted flowers," Denzel answered as he stared at the flower pattern on the handkerchief. "Her house was decorated with all sorts of fake flowers and floral patterns. But I think that really, she wanted real ones. She lived in Midgar since her son worked for Shin-Ra, but she'd collected enough soil and was going to...oh, sorry. I'm rambling a bit."

Reeve nodded as he listened.

**

The truck soon stopped at the station where the train bound for the Slums used to leave.

"The train's not running, and there's not a chance it's going to get repaired. But luckily the tracks still lead down to the ground. If we walk, we can get reach the Slums," Gaskin said.

"Is Midgar safe?" someone asked.

"That, my friend, I don't know. But for now, it's probably safer on the surface, don't you think?" He turned to Denzel. "Don't slip. No one's got any time to spare to help. You'll just have to look out for yourself."

The truck made a U-turn and drove away. There was a crowd of people gathered at the station. The destruction of the white light had affected the whole of Midgar. People whose homes were destroyed and others who thought the city might fall had come to escape; many of them were hesitant about walking the tracks all the way to the surface. But everyone was downcast and grim. There were no cheers celebrating the destruction of Meteor, just complaints about the nearly nonexistent evacuation instructions. I'm glad dad's not here, thought Denzel. Pushing his way through the drove, Denzel headed for the platform and jumped down onto the tracks. He didn't know what was waiting for him beyond here, but since Gaskin was the only one showing people the way, he thought it was obvious that he should follow his command.

He could see all the way down to the surface below through the spaces between the rails laid on top of the iron support pillars. At this height he wouldn't have a chance of being saved if he fell, so he walked down warily, spiraling downwards around the outer circumference of Midgar. The track was drearily long but he was too focused on not slipping to notice how far he'd walked.

Ahead of him, a group of several people who were also taking this route came to a stop. It looked there was some hold-up in front. Elbowing through the crowd to the front, Denzel could see a boy of around three years old sitting amidst a web of rails in a hole in the track, his legs locked around them to keep from falling. Denzel wondered why nobody just walked around him. He could hardly call that a roadblock.

"Where's your mummy?" someone asked the boy.

The child suddenly screamed "Mummy!" then looked down. He lost his balance and waved his arms to keep himself from falling. At once Denzel ran over to him and grabbed one flailing arm. Then everyone behind him started talking.

"Watch it, that kid's infected!" one of them said.

"Don't touch him! You'll catch it too!"

"Wh-what do you mean?" Denzel said. The kid looked scared, but other than that, nothing seemed wrong.

"Come on, get outta the way!" someone yelled.

Denzel wanted to say something back, but he couldn't tell whose voice it was and decided against it. He wrapped his arms around the boy's waist and dragged him to the top of one of the iron panels used to fix the rails to the support pillar. Why didn't anyone help him? he wondered, and looked down to see that the boy's back was soaked through with some dark fluid. He jerked his hand away. It's that same stuff... that came out of Levy.

The path had cleared and the people started walking again. The boy kept crying and whimpered, "It hurts. Mommy..."

Denzel remembered what one of the adults had said: "You'll catch it too." He wanted to cry. He was angry at the boy. But suddenly he remembered Levy. How he had felt sick at the sight of the black liquid coming from her, the one who had been so kind to him. How he had fled in fear. A sense of guilt filled him. Maybe if were nice to this kid he could make amends. He wanted Levy to forgive him. So he crouched down beside the boy.

"Where does it hurt?" he asked

"On my back."

"Up here?"

"Yeah."

He gently placed his hand on the boy's back. Whenever his stomach hurt, his mother would rub it and the pain would disappear. The same when he bumped into something. Maybe I can use some of mum's magic, too. Denzel started to rub, trying to ignore the sticky black liquid coating his hands. At first the boy grimaced with pain, but eventually he fell asleep.

Three hours. Perhaps a little longer. Denzel continued to tend to the boy, occasionally taking a break. The people ignored Denzel and the boy and went on down the track.

"He's already dead."

Denzel looked up to see a woman with a tired face standing there.

She had a baby strapped to her chest with cord, and was holding hands with a girl around Denzel's age.

"That's a girly shirt. He's weird. Mummy, can we go now?" the girl said.

The woman she called mummy took off of her daughter's blue jacket, gave it to Denzel, and said, "Put this over him."

Her daughter, having had been made to wear three layers of clothing, looked relived.

"Take it. It's my older sister, so it'll be big enough" the girl said.

Denzel looked at the boy curled up sleeping beside him. He couldn't hear him breathing anymore and the strength left his body. The girl took the jacket from her mother and quickly covered the boy.

"He's with her now," the girl said.

"Thank you," was all he could manage to say. The mother had already started walking away, and the girl followed, sliding her hand into her mother's. Like his own, their hands were stained pitch-black.

As Denzel stared at the chocobo bag the girl was wearing, he though to himself, Are we going to die, crying in pain with this black sticky stuff bleeding out of our bodies? Are we going to get sick and die?

**

"Back then, we didn't know anything about Geostigma. Those who were exposed to the Lifestream have black pus leak from their bodies and die. There were some who said it was spread by physical contact. In actuality, it was the will of Jenova mixed with the Lifestream that...no, forget it. Even if we did know that, it wouldn't have changed the situation."

"Especially for the children."

"Yeah."

"I thought about it while I was on the track. I wished I was an adult soon. I was hoping that then there might be just a few less things that I didn't understand."

**

Denzel watched the people who had come to the Slum train station to escape walk past him, seeming preoccupied with something. One after another people came down from the upper plate, walking onwards as if they thought they'd die if they stopped. He thought he should do the same, but it might be worth staying here to see if he could find someone he knew. It was unbearable hunger that shifted Denzel out of his half-hearted state.

He walked around the station looking for food when he saw a large pile of luggage a small distance from where he stood. He could see several men further up ahead working on something. It looked like they were digging a hole. The scent of decay was on the wind. A man carrying a young woman arrived, and softly lowered the woman into the hole. A temporary graveyard. He turned and tried to leave, not wanting to see this, when he noticed a familiar bag in the pile of luggage. There was a Chocobo printed on it. Driven by some unfathomable impulse, he seized the bag and looked inside. There were cookies and chocolate. Denzel thought about the girl who used to own the bag. She's gone now too.

"Eat them," a voice called. It was Gaskin.

Denzel looked up, glad to see him again.

"Worried about getting sick? It's just a rumor. Maybe it is true, but for now it's just what people are saying. Besides, you'll die anyway if you don't eat anything. If you're going to die, might as well be on a full stomach, yeah?" Gaskin reached into the bag, helping himself to a cookie. "They're good. Still edible. They'll go bad if you don't eat them. And that'd just be a waste. So eat up."

Denzel ate a cookie. It was delicious.

"Thank you," said Denzel focusing on the bag.

Gaskin ruffled Denzel's hair roughly. Even though he was a completely different type of person from his father, Gaskin reminded Denzel of him when he did that.

Denzel lived there for about a year. His first job was looking for food from inside the luggage. He soon made some friends as well. They were all children who had lost their parents. Gaskin also got more colleagues. Gaskin called them a bunch of idiots, dead from the head up and not content unless they were moving around. In the beginning, the group spent their time burying the dead. Now and again Denzel noticed himself smiling. He felt like he was back to his old self. However, in about two weeks the number of people evacuating Midgar had decreased, and the people recuperating at the station left too. Gaskin and his group's work was coming to an end. Denzel had many sleepless nights, anxious about the future.

A man was walking around one day, as if he were looking for something. Soon the man approached Denzel and his friends.

"I need some iron pipes. The more the better."

The children looked for the iron pipes. They were able to find a lot in the ruins of Sector 7. The man said his thanks and left. Afterwards the man returned several times. After the third visit he started bringing some colleagues who were also searching for things. They said they were starting construction on a new city on the east side of Midgar, and were looking for materials to use. In return for delivering the items they asked for, the children received food.

Denzel and his friends called themselves the 'Sector 7 Expedition'. They had a lot of job requests. They were proud of themselves for working and living like adults, and enjoyed their work everyday. There were nights when they would remember their parents and cry, but they would cheer each other up afterwards. 'Share the fate'. That was their favorite saying. However, fate wasn't as reassuringly connected to everyone as Denzel and his friends had thought.

One morning, Gaskin gathered together all of his colleagues, namely the children and adults of the Expedition, and suggested that they all move and help with the construction of the new city. After everyone had agreed to do what Gaskin suggested, one of the children had noticed that Gaskin rubbing his chest as he was speaking.

"Mr. Gaskin, are you feeling okay?"

"Not quite," Gaskin said as he unfastened the button on his coat. A familiar sick feeling coiled in Denzel's chest. His shirt was soaked through pitch black.

**

"Mr. Gaskin died a month later. Everyone helped bury him in a special spot. The good people always die, don't they?"

Reeve nodded in agreement. Denzel brought his cup to his mouth and took a sip of coffee. It was very bitter. He hated coffee, but he wanted to grow to like it soon. That's what the adults did.

On the Way to a Smile :: Episode 1-4

The adults had left, but around twenty children stayed behind as part of the Sector 7 Search Team.

They heard that the new city was called Edge, and its construction was going well. They also heard that they had set up facilities for orphans there. Still, they were living without depending on adults for help and helping with the construction at the same time. If they went there, the adults would just call them orphans and try to look after them. How embarrassing, adults looking after kids who could take perfect care of themselves! But that attitude didn't last long. The workers in Edge had machines that could surpass their efforts many times over. In the time it took Denzel and his friends to transport one small steel frame, a large scale crane could lift and transport a whole house in one go. Slowly but surely, the number of members on the Team dwindled. One night, Denzel counted and found there were only six of them left, including himself. Sure he wanted to stop them, but he couldn't blame them. They were all hungry and had no real place to go. Not long later, the last girl left, saying she was leaving for Edge.

**

Denzel suddenly began laughing.

"What's so funny?" Reeve said, looking curious.

"I didn't like that girl. All the men said stuff like, 'women will just be dead weight.' But they still wanted to be in the group that a girl was in. The work got harder when we got below ten people. And when she left, too."

Reeve laughed as well.

"But I understand now. In those days, I was able to worry or get angry about such...normal things, I guess."

"You should be grateful to her, then."

"She isn't around anymore."

**

When he woke up, he realized the only two left in the Search Team were him and a young boy called Ricks.

"The way things are going, screws and light bulbs will be the best we can find," Denzel laughed.

"Won't make very much off those," Ricks replied with a grin.

"I'll go buy breakfast. See if there's any work while I'm there."

"Wait a sec, then." Ricks went to where their safe was hidden and opened the lid.

"Hey, Denzel! We've been robbed!"

There wasn't even enough money left in the safe to buy a single slice of bread. They sat in silence for a while. Rick spoke first.

"Guess we'll have to go live in Edge now. They say you get free food there."

"We've lost."

"Yeah. But I'd rather live with adults treating us like babies than starve to death."

Suddenly Denzel remembered what his father had said to him. "We could catch rats and eat those?"

"Rats?"

"Yeah. My dad told me that in the Slums everyone was so poor they had to eat rats. Filthy grey rats. This is the Slums, and we're poor...."

"You serious?"

"Yeah, I'm going to eat a rat. I'll be just like a real kid from the Slums."

Ricks slowly stood up dusted down his shirt and pants. Denzel stood up too and looked around the area.

"We need a lance."

"You need a lance, and you can do this yourself," Ricks scowled. "I've been a 'kid from the Slums' since the day I was born. And I've never eaten a rat."

Denzel realized his mistake and tried to correct it. "...I didn't know."

"And what would you have done if you had? Not be my friend?"

"No, nothing like that!"

"You don't get it, do you? You're just some stuck up brat from the Plate. Rats! Is that what you think of us?"

"Ricks...."

"Remember this. All the rats here are crawling with horrible germs, because of the sewage you dumped down here. There's no one dumb enough to eat something like that," Ricks said as he left.

**

Denzel let out a sigh.

"I didn't follow him. I didn't think he'd forgive me, so..."

"Why not?"

"I was just a kid from the Plate. I was fine around the station and Sector 7 because I was used to them, but I didn't want to go to the other Slums. I wanted to go to Edge, but I thought it was just like the Slums. A poor, dirty place."

"What about Ricks?"

"He's fine. He won't speak to me, though."

"That's good. At least you still have a chance to make up with him."

**

Alone again like he had been so many times before, Denzel took a stick he had sharpened at one end looked for rats. He planned on catching and eating one. Dad, he thought. The people in the Slums don't eat rats after all. But I will. Because I've got no money or a job, and this place is lower than the Slums. I'm a Sector Seven kid from the upper world. I can't grow up in a place like this.

The isolation sapped Denzel's will to live. It was the same situation as when Sector 7 was destroyed, but this time his parents, Arkham, Levy, Gaskin, the Search Team, hell, all the people he'd ever met who had supported him were gone now. Forever.

He felt that he couldn't smile anymore. What did his mother say? There's no point in living if you don't smile. That's right, mum, he thought. A filthy rat covered in horrible germs should save me.

**

"Whoawhoawhoa!!" Johnny had been listening in at the side, unnoticed until he started bellowing, causing Denzel to jump.

"Hey, I USED to think like that back then," Denzel said. "But I was wrong. That's why I'm here now."

"Meh, I guess you're right."

"Because I met the best person you ever could."

"In the worst situation you could be in, though," said Johnny.

**

There were no rats around. He arrived at Sector 5 after wandering and hunting for hours and came to a rundown church. A bike was parked in front of the door. He hadn't seen a model like that before. But what caught his eye more was the cell phone hanging on the handle.

A smile came to Denzel's face. I'll just borrow it for a bit. I hope I can get through to someone. He drew towards the bike and took the cell phone. He imagined a phone ringing in the rubble of Sector 7 as he dialed his home number. Someone would find him, surely someone—

"All services in Sector 7 are currently unavailable."

Denzel had looked for his parents during his work with the Search Team but he couldn't find them. They're crushed under all that rubble, he thought. There’s no way they lived through that.

"All services in Sector 7 are currently unavailable."

Denzel looked up as he pressed the phone to his ear. He could see the east part of the Sector 5 plate. He realized that Levy was laid to rest up on top of that plate. This place is under her grave, he thought. That's why it's so lonely.

"All services in Sector 7 are currently unavailable."

He hung up the phone, fighting the urge to throw it to the ground and smash it to bits. But he didn't and tried one more time. He tried to remember Levy's number, but he never knew it in the first place. Instead, he looked at the phone's received call history and decided to dial the top most number. A ring. Then someone answered.

"Cloud, it's rare for you to call up. Is something wrong?"

Denzel listened to the woman's voice in silence.

"Cloud?" the woman said with suspicion in her voice.

"... No, I'm not."

"... Who is this? This is Cloud's phone, isn't it?"

"I don't know..."

"Who is this?"

"I don't know... I don't know what I should do." His voice trembled while he spoke.

"... Are you crying?"

He felt tears flowing down his face. He tried to wipe them away and closed his eyes when a lance of pain sliced across his forehead. His body stiffened in shock and he dropped the phone, falling to the ground, grasping his forehead. Sticky. It was sticky and wet. No, no, I don't want to die! he wanted to shout to the Planet or God or whoever else might listen and take pity on him. But the pain would not allow it, and he prayed in his heart with all his might. Please don't be black. Please don't be black. Sick with dread, he took his hand away and looked at it.

Pitch black.

**

"I don't what remember what happened afterwards. When I came around I was in a bed. Tifa and Marlene were looking at me. After that... you know the rest, right?"

"Pretty much."

"I'm alive thanks to a lot of people. My parents, Mrs. Levy, Mr. Gaskin, everyone from the Search Team. People who are still around today, people who aren't. Tifa, Cloud, Marlene, and..."

Reeve nodded.

"I want to be a person like that for someone. Next time, it's my turn to protect people."

Reeve was silent.

"Please let me in," Denzel said, leaning forward.

"No! NO, NO, NO!" said Johnny.

"You be quiet!" Denzel said.

"You're still just a kid!"

"That's got nothing to do with it!"

"No," Reeve said. "Actually... the W.R.O. doesn't accept children."

Johnny grinned. "Hah! See!!"

"What! Then why didn't you just say no at the start?"

"I just decided it now. While I was listening to you. Children have things that only children can do. And I want you to do one of those things for me."

"... What do you mean?"

"Call up strength in us adults."

Denzel waited for him to go on. But Reeve stood up as if he had finished speaking.

"Oh, and also...."

Denzel looked at Reeve, his eyes filled with hope that he'd changed his mind.

"Thank you, for looking after my mother."

Reeve took a handkerchief from his back pocket and showed it to Denzel. It was white and floral patterned. No way....

**

After Reeve left, Johnny started clearing up the table. Denzel looked at his handkerchief in silence.

"Hey," Johnny said, stopping his work. "If you wanna fight or something, you can do that any time, can't ya? It's not like you need to join the W.R.O., right? Why are you so worked up on it?"

"Cloud..."

"What about him?"

"He used to be in an army ages ago. That's what made him strong. I want to be strong."

"Time's are changing now, I reckon."

"How?"

"It's the guys who can ease someone else's pain, not the ones running around with guns and swords that are important. In this age it's those guys who'll be admired."

"It's not that I want to be admired or anything," Denzel answered. There were so many people who had supported him. Men and woman, adults and children. All of them inspirations in their own way. "I guess I want to...repay my debt to all of them."

Case of Denzel - fin


No comments: