Walter waited in the back corner of the cafe. Although the constant staring and whispering from relative strangers had subsided, it was still simpler for him not to invite more attention by sitting out in the open.
It had been 6 months now since the Towers had crumbled and it was becoming easier to deal with the sadness that period brought him. He felt for those who died for him. And those who died for William Unston. He thought about Lucy a lot. Every day he remembered her in her brightest light. He had forgotten her imperfections, her missteps and ultimately her betrayal. She was the Lucy Blues he always wanted. The one girl he would always remember and she was gone.
The bell attached to the door of the cafe sung out and a man leaning heavily on a walking stick slowly entered. Nothing brought more sadness and guilt to Walter than the sight of Stevie. The man who sacrificed so much just for Walter’s wellbeing was left crippled and broken. Walter had spent the majority of those first three months waiting in the hospital for Stevie to wake up. He paid for all the medical expenses including the physiotherapy and the carers. He even spent a month caring for Stevie out of the hospital but it was agonising work.
The man had lost his hope in the world. He had learnt to walk again not through positive reinforcement and support, instead through embracing his anger to the world. More than once he had blamed Walter for everything that happened; asked him what it was all for. What good has come of it?
He would apologise afterwards, but he was right. What had Walter achieved? Why was he here?
Walter stood and smiled, shaking Stevie’s hand. Stevie looked warm and welcoming as he rested his walking stick beside the table. “Walter, what did I tell you about giving me that look?”
“Sorry,” Walter said, smiling. “How have you been?”
“Holding up. Every day is another day.” Stevie slowly lowered himself down to his seat. Walter made to support him but Stevie waved him away.”Yourself?”
“I’m OK.” Walter stated.
“You could never play poker, Walter,” Stevie said.
Walter smiled awkwardly, he felt awkward about it. “How’s your...” he trailed.
“Physio is going well. Not so painful like it was before.”
“Any chance you will be able to...you know, walk without...” Walter felt like a moron but he had nothing else to say.
“You mean without the stick? Can’t say, but it is the goal.” The waitress, Meagan came over and Stevie ordered a coffee. “Can you make sure it is organic. Same with the milk.”
“Of course. We try make sure all our food is EE safe.”
“Ah but you can never be sure can you?” Phil seemed to have snuck up from out of nowhere – he was less recognisable without his dreadlocks and tattered clothing. He pulled up a chair and sat between Walter and Stevie. “I’ll grab a water and a best endeavours vegan salad.”
“No worries.” Meagan, said. “Anything else for you, Walt?”
“No I’ll be fine, thanks.” Walter replied vacantly. Meagan nodded and left with a courteous smile.
“Boys,” Phil said with a grin. “Did anyone notice the waitress wants to bone the fuck out of Walter?” Stevie smirked and Walter dismissed the comment. “Nothing? Maybe I’m just imagining it. Who wants to sit outside? Some depressing shit being here with so much Sun shining.”
“Prefer to keep a low profile,” Walter mumbled.
“Low profile? Come on, Walt, you can’t let them control you like that. They want to say hi you just say hi back and tell them about your latest book until they get bored.”
Walter appreciated the humour even if he couldn’t quite laugh at it. “Sometimes it’s not just ‘Hi’.”
“What else do they say? ‘Fuck me, Walty, fuck me’ like the waitress over there?” Phil gestured aimlessly over his shoulder. “I mean sure she isn’t ‘A number 1’, but she has that glasses thing going for her; how many girls you banged with glasses? One too few, I say.”
Lucy had glasses. Walter wanted to say it like it proved a point but he knew Phil was just trying to disarm his negativity. He knew it and he was unconsciously defending it. Defending his sadness like it needed a champion. It was a sickening feeling. “It’s not that. It’s...” he hated his indecision, his inability to show some assertiveness.
“It’s not all ‘Hi’s’ and smiles, I think Walter is trying to say.” Stevie interjected.
“You mean the haters?” Phil asked, apparently only to himself as he went on to answer, “Dude, I’ve always told you to just come out and tell it like it is. I know back with Channel 8 you were screwed pretty bad, but there are different channels to communicate. Let me get you some screen time where you can be comfortable.”
Walter shook his head. “I don’t want to go back to that world.” It was Walter’s determination to conduct a media blackout. He had refused to give any statements or comments ever since the Towers fell. The media didn’t take kindly to his position and quickly spun a negative appraisal of the events and his involvement, but it allowed him to shut the gates on his errors and cap off his guilt at the current level. “I’m not fit to solve anyone’s problems – not til I solve my own.”
“I’m not telling you to get up and preach about happiness; I’m telling you as a friend. You need to extol all that shit you got brooding away up there.”
Walter sighed. Maybe Phil was right, but he didn’t want him to be. Even if he went on TV and told his story he would probably crack under the pressure. He would stir up the world again, like a snow globe being shaken after all the snow had settled. They would remember how badly he let them down and he would lose six months of attempted anonymity.
There was a moment’s silence as Walter decidedly remained quiet to avoid the discussion. Phil leaned back, “So I guess we’re staying inside then.”
Stevie spoke, changing the subject for Walter, “So you see much of Forest and The Strays?”
“Yeah we keep in touch, though most of them claim I sold out. It’s hard to get past the image thing. Sad really.”
“Funny that these kids criticise the world for being so judgemental and then you cut your dreads and you’re suddenly a suit.”
“Would you think the same 12 months ago?”
“Yeah...yeah I probably would.” Phil leaned in again. Walter prepared for another tirade about faceless string-pullers. He did his best not to roll his eyes. “That’s the thing though, I want to educate and inspire change amongst people who may not have sought the truth, but I find this constant drag from the people who I thought were already on my side. Like this EE Safe movement, it should be all over the news, but we are struggling to even keep up discussion on the blogs. People just don’t seem to care. I mean how many people must be addicted and they still deny it?”
Stevie shifted a little. Walter knew Stevie was still addicted to the liquid. It was the biggest source of guilt from the fallout of those treacherous few months. Stevie had nothing but good intentions when he entered the Towers to rescue Walter and his reward was spinal damage and an irreversible addiction to Walter’s state of happiness. Phil knew - he had used Stevie early on the raise awareness of the issue - but Stevie hid the addiction from Phil. Walter could not gauge if it was out of shame or pride but either way he understood. He understood people’s worries in a way he had never been able to before.
Phil continued. “You know they don’t even deny it anymore, Citadel, they say they include EE in their products. I mean they might as well since we lobbied hard enough just to get them to register it as an additive substance. But I’m saying people hear this and still don’t care.”
Stevie pushed out his chair, “I’m going to have a smoke.” He struggled to his feet and headed outside.
Phil turned his focus back to Walter. “They say in small enough doses it isn’t addictive or harmful but we got a ton of cases with people hooked to dependency. Doctors are refusing to prescribe it even though the Citadel Pharmaceuticals have it featured in every second medical journal published, promoting how wonderful it is. It’s fucked up.”
Meagan brought the food the food over. “You look hungry, Walt, how about I do you a sandwich?” Walter shook his head politely. “Avocado with chilli egg mayonnaise – my specialty; if you don’t like it I’ll have to quit right here and sit down and finish it for you. What do you say?”
“No really, I-”
“He says yes, and for both our sakes I hope it tastes not nearly as good as it sounds and you’ll be forced to sit with us for the rest of the afternoon.”
Meagan smiled warmly at Phil, but she kept looking at Walter. Walter nodded, “OK, you’re right I am a bit hungry.”
“Great!” Meagan spun on her heel and headed out the back.
“Great!” Phil said, zeroing in on Walter. “Dude, if you don’t fuck that tonight it better be because you’ve got some 4 date minimum or some shit because I’m gonna wack off to the image of her sitting on your cock for the whole of next week - get me a photo and I’ll make it a month.”
Walter laughed, going red. He had suspected Meagan was smiling a little often but maybe he needed Phil to spell it out for him.
“Well she does seem to smile a lot. But she is a waitress. She ought to smile.”
“Not like that they don’t. She smiles to me. She smiles for you. She’s trying to make you smile. I’m getting a hard on just thinking about this.”
Walter laughed. Phil could be too much sometimes but he was always entertaining. “I don’t know how they let you on TV.”
“I know, right? But the people love me, and the execs can deal with a dick joke every now and then. Just don’t say a pussy joke.”
“So they have managed to change you. First the hair; now you can’t talk about your favourite thing in the whole world.”
“You’re mistaken, Walt. Firstly, I do love the vag and its many interpretations of the classic triangle, but my favourite thing in the world always has and always will be my cock. Secondly, I only cleaned up because the only girls willing to bone me were ones that smelled worse than me.” Phil dug into his salad. “Plus,” he said with half a grin and a full mouth, “they were so hairy I could have been fucking a rhombus for all I knew.”
Walter snorted with laughter. A flash of humour struck him and a grin crossed his face.
“What? Say it, Walt, don’t hold out on me.”
Walter shook his head but he decided to take a risk, “I was just thinking you could have turned her round and gotten a clean circle.”
“Oh!” Phil stood up in excitement. “Walter, you dirty boy, I’m gonna tell-” he leaned in closer with a whisper, “I’m gonna tell your sexy waitress you want to fuck her brown from downtown.”
Walter grinned. Phil sat down shaking his head.
“Tell me, Walt, you gone and started writing like I told you to?”
Walter sighed a little. “I’ve been thinking about it but I don’t really know what I should do. I don’t want to preach like I got something to say.”
“It’s not about preaching though. You don’t understand, nobody reads the shit on the net. I had to get shot just to get a look in with BullCit. I’m telling you to put up some false name – you could put Walter Wallace anyway because there are about 1000 blogs pretending to be you – and just tell a story. Your story, my story, fuck even Sam and Lucy’s story – I’m sorry to bring her up but you find your own meaning and you will get this shit off your chest.”
“Yeah, you may be right. I don’t really have much to do anymore. Sometimes I wish I could go back to CitaRail and clean the bathrooms again.”
Walter thought Phil would scoff like he always did with Citadel, but he nodded, understanding. “Well I mean you gotta do what you gotta do. Obviously I would say get off the Citadel payroll, there’s plenty of other shit to scrape in this world. But just give it some thought with the writing. I won’t lie, I hope you build up to the point where you want to talk so I can push my own agenda, but I also just want you to start enjoying life like you used to.”
Walter nodded. He admired Phil’s ability to talk. It was no surprise he had built the following he had. Walter had to admit that the one positive to come from the whole situation was Phil – he was an advocate for a lot of important change and a relentless campaigner. Walter resented him sometimes when he preached but he was proud.
“Dude, let’s go outside.” Phil said, standing up. “What’s your girl’s name?”
“Meagan?” Walter replied, unsure.
“Meagan,” Phil called, looking for her over the counter, “Can we get some beers outside? Cheers.”
Walter stood and followed and they found Stevie outside, sitting in the Sun with a cigarette in his hand and three more stubbed out in his ashtray. They joined him and Meagan brought out three bottles.
“Cheers,” Walter said, his voice escaping much louder than he thought.
“Cheers,” Meagan said with a nod and a surprised look. She went back inside. In his embarrassment Walter was keen to misinterpret her smile as her laughing at him, but he thought better of it and kept his hopes high.
Phil cracked up as soon as she was out of earshot, Stevie smiled too and raised his bottle. Phil and Walter did likewise. “It’s been a pretty shit year; we lost some pretty close friends; but we made some pretty good ones too.”
“Here, here,” Phil saluted and the clashed their bottles and drank.
The afternoon was spent drinking to the setting Sun. Walter was surprised that most people who passed by didn’t give a shit who he was – he also found that the more he drank the less wrapped up he became in what he said.
“Do you guys ever find yourselves bogged down?” he asked. “I just feel no motivation anymore, like everything needs a reason and nobody can be trusted.”
“You’re becoming one of us.” Stevie said. “You kind of get used to it after a while, but you also never do.”
“That is the motivation,” Phil said in his best impression of himself, “To find the motivation to keep going.”
They talked about Stevie’s chances at getting back into the frontline of the police force and his plans to use his psychology background to help traumatised officers. Phil explained his ambition to overturn the media landscape, but he admitted that it was sucking the life out of him, he sometimes wished he could be the freeloading stoner of yesteryear.
They relived some of the crazy moments, Phil and Stevie recounting some unbelievable run-ins with Citadel agents.
They paid tribute to those they lost. Mark Tanenworth, Whisky, The Holdsworths, the giant and Boss Citadel.
They even remembered Sam Tank – or Bill Unston – who, in all his evil, still managed to honour the “message stick” legacy of Phil’s blog BullCit by passing on the password after he had called for a mass protest that resulted in thusands of deaths. The website had been updated by over 100 posts all by different people and was regarded as a highlight of internet culture, a living breathing insight into human diversity.
But as Walter walked home in the twilight before 7pm what remembered most was just laughing and enjoying quality time with his friends. He had given them both a hug as they left and even managed a sneaky hug off Meagan after Phil insisted.
He walked home with his mind buzzing, but with the sensation slowly fading. He had to accept wholeheartedly that he was a changed man forever. He could never articulate his happiness when it existed, and since the day the Towers fell he had spent countless hours trying to find it again. Was he looking for something that could not be found? Maybe Sam had truly broken him but maybe that was for the best. If they ran the machine again he would not win. He would feel sad not just for himself but also for whoever took his throne. It was not an enviable position.
He took a turn at the end of the street, extending his trip home. He had given up the old stud apartment and moved into a fancy place in the fancy part of town but he was amazed that he found no extra enjoyment from being in his new home compared to his old one. Though if he moved back to the stud he imagined he would find it rather unbearable. How silly all this was. Maybe that could be what he should write about in his first blog. Just try it - don’t even tell Phil – just try it and see what happens.
He walked home thinking of the different ways he could present his article and by the time he got home he rushed over to his computer and tried to squeeze it all out. He found it tough to articulate the ideas and he took to scribbling on a piece of paper.
After 30 minutes he had a fairly legible chunk of words. He was proud. He saw the article up on the website and generating unprecedented interest. He imagined five other ideas which would all go the same way. After a month he would have a fanbase, unaware they were reading the work of Walter Wallace. He might even get offered a chance to write on BullCit one day. Maybe he could-
He snapped out of his dream. It had surfaced and enveloped him before he could have known better. He looked back at his page and smiled. It was still just a chunk of words and he was still just Walter Wallace, once the happiest man in the world.