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Rohan ignored the voice, keeping his eyes on the red light.
“There’re no cars, dude,” called one of the girls. “Just cross the damn street.”
There were three of them tonight, two women in short skirts and high boots, and a blond guy in jeans and a black hoodie. Rohan wasn’t sure about the girls, but he had seen the guy before. This kind of crowd rarely appeared on such small side streets, yet sometimes they did show up, chased away from their usual spots by the police patrols. From his window, Rohan had sometimes seen cars pull over to pick up one or another of them.
It puzzled Rohan that anyone even wanted them. The girls seemed ugly to him, with their loud voices and exaggerated sexuality, and the dudes weren’t all that better. This blond guy was perhaps the only one he could have called handsome.
The light turned green, and Rohan started walking. It was late, and cold, and the last thing he wanted was to be outside, harassed by the city’s low life. Walking the streets made him feel dirty. He wanted to be at home, in the shower, his happiest place on Earth, to scrub it all off, then drink some tea and relax before bed.
He was out of tea, which was why he was outside now. Ordering online would take too much time, and he needed his tea now. He strolled past the trio and into the shop, knowing even without looking that they were watching him, grinning. He kept his eyes on the chipped slabs of concrete under his feet.
“Come on,” called the guy. “Talk to us. You’re a student, no? I offer discounts to students.”
The girls giggled, but Rohan was already inside, where they couldn’t follow him. Quinnell, the shop’s owner, didn’t approve of this kind of crowd. He tolerated their presence outside, but they knew better than to cross the threshold.
“It’s cold tonight,” Quinnell said, passing the barcode reader over the tea pack that Rohan had picked out. Knowing Rohan’s sensibilities, he made sure not to touch it. The item was still unclean, but Rohan appreciated the thoughtfulness all the same.
“Yes,” Rohan said. “It is.”
“My nephew is looking for a new place. Are there apartments for rent in your building? I barely see any lights in the windows anymore.”
“Most people move out of this part of town,” Rohan said, putting his tea pack into a plastic bag. “Not in.”
“Sad but true,” Quinnell said with a nod.
“It’s not the best place to live.”
“Why do you stay, then?”
“I’m a man of habits.” Rohan picked his bag up, and then the floor shifted under his feet.
For a moment, it seemed like the shop came alive. Items jumped on the shelves, and a few of them slid off. Packets of chips fell with a rustling noise, while heavier items hit the floor with thuds. Lights blinked above Rohan’s head.
He grabbed the counter to steady himself. The surface was probably full of germs, but it was still cleaner than the floor, so he had to stay upright.
“Whoa!” Quinnell cried, holding on to the counter from the other side, his eyes wide with panic.
There was another tremor, sending a few more items flying off the shelves, and then everything stopped. Rohan looked around, feeling dizzy.
“Whoa,” Quinnell repeated, slowly letting go of the counter. “These quakes have been happening far too often lately.”
“Yeah,” Rohan said. He briefly considered offering to help Quinnell put the fallen items back in place, but the thought of picking them off the dirty floor made him queasy. “I’ll be going then. Good night.”
“Night,” Quinnell said distractedly, looking around. “Take care.”
Outside, the snow had begun to fall, as if the earthquake had opened something in the sky. With luck, by morning, the street would be white, the snow concealing all its imperfections. It looked desolate now, with only the odd car passing by. The two girls and the guy in a black hoodie were gone. Perhaps the earthquake had scared them away, or they had decided to move to the main street again. Rohan wondered briefly if they were okay, if the quake hadn’t hurt them.
Then he banished the thought and hurried across the street towards the safe haven of his apartment.
It was close to midnight when Rohan finally closed his laptop. He stretched, getting up from his desk. He considered showering again, but he felt too cozy in his pajamas and robe, so he settled for just washing his hands and face, scrubbing them with soap and hot water until the skin was red.
He stepped out of the bathroom and clicked the switch with his elbow. The room plunged into a comfortable semi-darkness, the only light coming from the window that faced Quinnell’s shop.
Rohan slipped out of his robe and carefully folded it on the armchair by the window, then paused, looking outside. The street was empty, and the snow continued to fall. There was still not enough of it to properly cover the ground, but there were already patches of white here and there.
He was about to turn away when the car came. It whooshed past his building and came to a halt with a screeching of brakes. One of its back doors opened, and a man rolled out onto the sidewalk, apparently having been pushed out. The door slammed closed, and the car took off, its engine roaring as it rapidly picked up speed.
Rohan stepped closer to the window. Feeling the cold emanating from the glass, he looked down again. The man on the sidewalk lay on his side, his face turned away. Rohan strained his eyes, half expecting to see a pool of blood spreading underneath the body, something the crime dramas he’d been watching had taught him to expect.
If there was blood, he couldn’t see it from here.
The man’s hoodie was black, and his hair was longish and blond. Even without seeing his face, Rohan felt reasonably sure that this was the young guy who had tried to chat him up earlier. Perhaps someone had picked him up while Rohan had been in the shop and had now returned him to the same place. Maybe they hadn’t liked him? There must have been at least two people in the car—the one who’d kicked him out, and the one who was driving. What had they done? Had they hurt him?
Had they killed him?
Rohan glanced at Quinnell’s shop, hoping to see its owner coming out to help the man, but nothing moved inside it. Even if Quinnell had seen what had happened, he wouldn’t bother inquiring about the wellbeing of one of the streetwalkers he so disliked.
Rohan looked around for his phone. Should he call the police? An ambulance? Given this guy’s line of work, he probably wouldn’t appreciate the attention of authorities. On the other hand, what if he really was hurt and needed help?
Shouldn’t Rohan check on him before calling anyone?
He winced. He had already showered and changed into his pajamas. Getting dressed and going outside meant he would have to go through the whole cleaning ritual again, and it was already late. On the other hand, could he just go to bed when someone lay on the pavement downstairs, likely hurt, possibly dying?
With a sigh, Rohan walked to his wardrobe. He hated this. Going to bed would have been great, but he knew it was the wrong thing to do.
He would go and check, and then call an ambulance if necessary.
Cold air bit at his cheeks as he stepped outside. The street was still empty, save for the man on the sidewalk. To Rohan’s relief, he was no longer lying still, but was sitting with his back to the wall. Rohan began to turn around to go back home, but the man looked up at him, making leaving without a word feel rude.
“Hi,” Rohan said awkwardly. “Are you okay?”
The guy looked about Rohan’s age, in his early twenties. It was the same guy he’d seen earlier, as well as a few times before. Rohan had tried not to look, but the handsome face framed by the blond—and clearly unwashed—locks had caught his attention. The guy had called him ‘student’ and offered things Rohan considered mind-blowingly unhygienic.
He could see the recognition flicker on the guy’s face as well. He didn’t wear his usual cheeky expression, but looked tired and apathetic, and Rohan wondered if he had been hurt after all. He couldn’t see any visible wounds or blood, but one didn’t need to bleed to hurt.
“Student,” said the guy on the ground. “Get lost.”
Rohan nodded. He was more than fine with that.
“Just wanted to make sure you were okay,” he said, beginning to back away. “Saw you sitting on the ground. It’s a cold night to be outside.”
“You don’t say,” said the guy.
“I think…” Rohan paused. “I don’t think anyone is going to… pick you up tonight, right? Not this late, with the weather like this. You… better go home, okay?”
“If I had a home,” the guy said slowly, as if inviting Rohan to finish the sentence, “would I be here?”
“Oh,” Rohan said. The idea that the guy could be homeless hadn’t occurred to him. The thought of someone living on the streets made him shudder. He wouldn’t survive a day without a hot shower.
“There’re places,” Rohan said. “Shelters. No? You could go there.”
The guy shrugged. “They’re packed this time of year—and even if you manage to get in, they suck.”
“Still, it’s better than staying outside. You could freeze to death on a night like this.”
“What makes you think I care?” His tone was dismissive. “Go home, student.”
Rohan hesitated. He wanted nothing more than to go back to the safety of home, yet leaving this guy here was wrong. Letting someone freeze to death was unacceptable, no matter who they were. He couldn’t invite him to his own apartment—that was a germ-free zone, and this guy was literally sitting on the pavement right now. He could give him money, perhaps, to rent a room in a hotel. Or perhaps…
“Look,” Rohan said. “There’s an apartment next to mine, which is currently unoccupied. I’ve got the keys. It’s empty, there’s no furniture, but I could give you a blanket and you could sleep on the floor. It’s still warmer than out here. Would that help?”
The guy looked up, and something akin to interest flickered in his listless gaze. He contemplated Rohan for a moment, and then slowly bowed his head.
“Yes,” he said, “it would.”