My mother called me to the front room, where she was sewing something. “I heard they’re going to give out food,” she said.
I peered at her through the near darkness. Though it was late morning, almost no light leaked past the iron sheets we’d used to barricade the windows. I wondered how she could see to sew. “Where?”
“The KC Market,” she said.
“The KC Market? That’s on the other side of the city. How do we even get there?”
“We don’t.” Her fingers went up and down, up and down, sewing, though I could feel her eyes on me. “I can’t walk that far. You know that.”
I didn’t have to look at the bulk of the white bandage wrapping her shin. My question had been idiotic. “By the time I get there they’ll have given it all out,” I objected.
“No,” she said. “I heard it’s only tomorrow that they’ll start the distribution. If you leave right now you’ll get there in plenty of time. Besides, it’s safer travelling at night.”
I stared at her. There was something wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. “How do you know this, anyway?” I asked. “Who told you about this?”
“Your Auntie Tub dropped in while you were out.” Tub was her friend from upstairs. “I don’t know where she heard it.”
“And who’s giving out this food? Who has food to give out?”
“Does it matter who it is as long as there’s food?”
This talk of food was making my stomach twist with hunger. “Does Auntie Tub plan to go as well?”
I felt rather than saw her look away. “No, she says she’ll keep me company while you go.”
My instincts were all screaming now. “Why don’t you tell me what this is really about?” I asked. "What's wrong?"
“Wrong? Nothing’s wrong, except that we don’t have any food. But you know that well enough.”
“We still have some parched rice and flour. Besides, it’s not as though anyone else has any food either. Those who are left, I mean.”
“That’s why I’m telling you to go, so that you can get more before we run out.” My Mother put down her sewing and rubbed her face, the familiar gesture suddenly strange and awkward. “I wish you’d learnt how to sew,” she said inconsequentially. “It’s not really all that hard, but you were never interested.”
“You can teach me if you want. After all there’s not that much to do otherwise, anyway.”
She sighed. “All right, we’ll see when you get back. You’d better get ready to start off.”
I stared at her, puzzled. Unfortunately, the room was too dark to make out her expression. “Will you be all right?” I asked.
“Yes, didn’t I tell you that Tub will be here with me? Now get ready, and make sure to dress warm.”
I stood there for a minute longer, but she didn’t say anything more, so I went to my room.
I was pulling on my jacket when I heard the thump of her walking stick on the floor and she appeared. “Don’t forget your cap and balaclava,” she said.
“Do it. You know why as well as I do.”
“Mum,” I repeated. “Are you sending me away? Is that it?”
She didn’t answer for a while. Then she slowly walked over to me and touched my cheek. “Your face is growing so thin,” she said. “I can see the bones. You’re starving slowly, and do you think I want to see you like this?”
“You’re starving too. And we haven’t starved yet, have we? We’ve managed so far.”
“So far, yes, but for how much longer? If only I hadn’t hurt my leg, like a stupid idiot, we could have left. But now I’m stuck here.”
“It wasn’t your fault.” I glanced down at the bandage. The window of my room was tiny, didn’t look out on the street, and so we hadn’t had to barricade it, so the light was a little better, and I could see that the bandage was stained with blood. “You’re bleeding again,” I said.
“It’s nothing. It’s stopped already.”
“I’ll change the bandage,” I said, kneeling.
“No, Tub can help me do it. Go quickly now.”
I tried one last time. “Mum. You know these people, whoever they are – even if they’re giving out food, they may not want to do it for free. They may want something in trade. And we have nothing.”
“Yes, I thought of that. That’s another reason you should go now, so you can keep a lookout for anything you find on the way, something you can trade.”
I laughed. It sounded bitter and dry as old dust in my own ears. “You know the city has been picked clean. What could I possibly find to trade?”
“You’ll find something,” she said. “Don’t worry about it for now. And don’t forget this.”
I stared at the object she was holding out. “Mum?”
“Take it, I said. You know as well as I do it’s not safe out there.”
I took it. The gun was long and crude, little more than a pipe with a piece of curved metal for a trigger fixed to a wooden stock, with a rope for a sling. It felt astonishingly heavy. “Where did you get this?”
“I had it, from before. It was left with me by...someone. Before all this started.” Her eyes were black pools of pain. “He never came back for it, obviously.”
I didn’t want to look at her, so I examined the gun. With a little experimentation I managed to open the breech. The inside was perfectly clean and smelt vaguely of oil. “Do we have bullets? It’s no good without bullets.”
“Here.” I took the packet she held out and emptied it on the bed. The blunt-tipped dull brass objects spilled over the frayed sheet. “So many of them!”
“Yes, there are seventeen. I’m told that bullets are precious these days. Maybe you could trade a few. I don’t think you ought to, though. You may well need them.”
I counted. There were seventeen, as she’d said. “Mum,” I said thickly. “You think I won’t come back, don’t you?”
“Of course you will.” But she wouldn’t look at me. “Don’t forget your cap, and take some water and a bit of food for your journey.”
“I’ll come back,” I said. “I’ll come back to you.”
“Of course you will. Didn’t I just say so?” She was getting increasingly impatient and disturbed. Whatever it was that was worrying her, I was a part of it. “Go now, quickly.”
With one last look at her, which she wouldn’t meet, I went.
The war had passed this locality by, which is why we were still here, but nothing had escaped the gangs that came afterwards, or their looting and violence. The few vehicles still left were gutted wrecks which had long since been stripped for everything that could be used or bartered. Every window was blocked up with metal sheets or sandbags, but I knew most of the houses behind them were empty. Anyone who could leave had left already. If mum had been able to walk, we’d have gone.
And now I was going.
I shook my head, telling myself that I would be back, but kept remembering how she wouldn’t meet my eyes. The weight of the gun slung over my back, was a reminder, too, that she thought I wouldn’t be coming back. A gun shouldn’t be necessary on a trip through the town. Or should it?
We’d heard rumours, back when there were enough people left for rumours to go round, that strange and terrible things were happening in the world outside. The tales varied so much that we never knew what to believe, and mum called them all nonsense anyway. Things were strange and terrible enough already without having to invent things to worry about, she said.
Obviously she’d changed her mind about that.
At the far end of our street, I stopped long enough for a quick look back. A small, squat figure was standing outside, watching – Aunt Tub from upstairs, making sure I was going. She was still staring after me as I turned the corner, perhaps for the last time.
The sky was heavily overcast, the day freezing cold. I came into sight of my old school, which was now a ruin. Back when I used to spend every day squeezed into one of the back benches of its dingy classrooms, I often daydreamed of burning it down. Now it was a roofless, charred wreck, and I averted my eyes as I passed.
Just beyond the school was the river and the bridge. When I was a very young child, before all this started, it had glittered with golden light in the summer sunshine and been swollen and brown after the rains. Now it was a thread of stagnant grey water, from which the rusting wreck of an overturned lorry still protruded. The bridge itself was crumbling and littered with debris.
I’d just reached the near end of the bridge when I heard the noise of engines, coming closer.
These days, there is nothing good associated with engines. When the war was washing back and forth over the city, engines meant soldiers and fighting, and you hid when you heard them. After the war had moved elsewhere, engines meant gangs on the lookout for loot and women, and you also hid when you heard them. I had heard none for several weeks.
Scrambling under the bridge, I crouched down among the weeds.
The engine noises came closer, rumbling overhead, the bridge vibrating. Then they stopped abruptly. I heard voices.
“I tell you I saw something,” someone said.
“Well, there’s nobody here now, so you must have been mistaken. Let’s get on – we’re wasting time.”
“Maybe under the bridge?”
My heart seemed to stop. Looking frantically round, I saw a tiny niche behind one of the pillars. It seemed hardly big enough for a doll, but it was dark. I crushed myself into it.
I heard footsteps, and an elongated shadow fell across the weeds and cracked concrete. I tried to press myself further back, but there was something in there already. Fear was metallic in my mouth and throat.
The shadow wavered and receded. “Nobody there,” the first voice said.
“Told you. Let’s get on, before they all know we’re coming and...”
The engines started again and I didn’t hear the rest.
It was only when the engines had faded in the distance that I found the strength to crawl out of the niche. Something, dislodged by my movements, fell out too, and rolled to my feet.
Without any particular surprise, I saw that it was a human skull.
I thought about the words I’d heard, as I climbed back on the bridge – “before they know we’re coming and...”
And what? Hide? Run away?
I had to run away, before they saw me.
So, crouching like a hunchback, I ran.
On the other side of the bridge, the city was different. The buildings lunged towards the sky, the streets like canyons between cliffs. Anyone could be up there looking down, and I wasn’t certain if this area was still controlled by gangs.
Over the last years, we’d all learnt to avoid gangs.
The rain finally began falling, heavy drops that looked as grey as the sky and the concrete around. A flash of lightning, jagged and searing white, snaked across the sky. Hopefully, it would keep anyone watching indoors. Stooping to keep the worst of the downpour off my face, I trudged on.
Long before nightfall, it was so dark that I was seeing my way by the lightning, and I was so cold and wet that I could no longer feel my feet. And though I needed to keep moving, just in case there really was going to be a food distribution, I couldn’t go much further without collapsing. I needed rest.
A particularly lurid lightning flash showed me an open doorway, a broken steel shutter curled beside it like crumpled paper. The thunder that followed was so loud that I felt as though I’d gone deaf. Automatically, like a hunted animal seeking shelter, I entered the building.
It was so dark that I had to feel my way, and I couldn’t go too far for fear of falling over something and injuring myself. I found a spot in the corner of a bare room, from where I could just see the entrance, and sat down, the wall to my back, and set about trying to rub the warmth back into my arms and legs.
The next thing I knew was that the thunder and lightning had stopped, along with the sound of rain. I was very stiff, so much so that I could barely move. There was the indescribable sensation of it being the middle of the night. I must have been asleep for hours.
I was about to get up and move on when I heard voices from the next room.
“She’s just a girl,” someone said. “She won’t fetch much.”
“Even a girl can work,” the reply came. It was a woman. “And, in any case, we can’t afford not to sell her. After they come back from across the river the price will go down.”
I froze, certain they were talking about me. But there was a scratching noise and I saw the dim yellow glow of an oil lamp reflected from the far wall. Whoever it was didn’t know I was there. I waited, listening.
“When will they be back? Not before tomorrow, right? So what’s the hurry?”
“You think we’ll get this kind of offer again?” There was a contemptuous tone in the woman’s voice. “Everyone knows that they’ve gone, so there will be slaves on the market. So...”
Realisation burst on me like one of the lightning flashes from earlier. Those engines I’d heard earlier hadn’t been soldiers, or a gang.
It had been a slave raid.
We’d heard that slaves were currency, now; they were bought and sold like cattle, though worth rather less because they weren’t food. We’d heard it, but we’d never thought it would affect us. The only ones left in the city were those too decrepit to leave, and they’d never make slaves.
But those of their families who stayed back to look after them would.
I had to get away before I was found.
Moving as silently as I could, I began to edge towards the beckoning black square of the entrance. It seemed infinitely far away, and I’d have to pass the band of light thrown by the oil lamp. For all I knew whoever was in the next room was looking in my direction and would see me at once.
And two slaves would sell for more than one, even if both were girls.
Slowly, trying not to breathe, I eased the gun off my shoulders and fumbled a bullet out of the pouch at my belt. The breech of the weapon, which I’d opened so easily earlier, was absurdly stiff, and seemed far too small for the thick brass shell. But somehow or other my frozen fingers managed to cram it into place.
I must have made some noise while loading the gun, because as I looked up from it the oil lamp suddenly shone in my face.
“Here!” The man was a bulky silhouette behind the lamp. “What are you doing here?”
Suddenly the gun was no longer heavy. It was at my shoulder, and the end of the barrel pointing right at the silhouetted head over the light of the lamp. I could feel my lips peel back from my teeth like a snarling dog.
“Back,” I said. “Slowly, to the other room.”
“Don’t shoot,” he said. I could hear real fear in his voice, and it sent a thrill through me. This man was afraid of me! “Don’t shoot. I’ll do as you say.”
“Libog?” the woman called from the other room. “What’s wrong? Is there...” She broke off abruptly as I followed the man round the door, and she saw the gun in my hands.
“Look, girl,” the man began. “I don’t know who you are, but I don’t mean you any harm.”
“Shut up and sit down,” I said. I never could have managed this tone of authority without the gun in my hands. Far in the back of my mind a part of me was watching as though someone else altogether was doing all these things, some young woman whom I’d never seen before. The man sat.
The room was quite large, so the lamp only lit the middle, and threw misshapen shadows on the walls. There was a worn table and a few chairs, and a bed over against the wall. I could only see two people, the man and woman I’d heard talking.
“What do you want from us?” the woman asked, beginning to rise. I, or rather this girl whom I was watching from inside her head, swung the gun towards her.
“Sit down, Langgam,” the man said. The woman was shaking, whether with fear or anger I couldn’t tell. “Sit down,” he said again.
“That’s right,” I said. “Sit down.”
They were both quite old. The man, Libog, must have been large once, but he was now emaciated and stooped, with a straggling white beard. The woman was small, thin, and very dark.
“If you’re planning to rob us,” Langgam said, finally sitting, “we don’t have anything, so it’s a waste of your time.”
“I’m not planning to rob you,” I said. “All I want you to do is stay right here and not move a muscle while I leave. If you try to stop me, or follow me, I’ll shoot.”
Langgam’s eyes glittered like a reptile’s. “You have no right to order us around.”
“I have every right to protect myself.” I began backing towards the door. “Remember, don’t try to follow me.”
“Wait,” a soft voice said, from the shadows at the back of the room. “Don’t go. Take me with you.”
Both Libog and Langgam turned together towards the corner. “Quiet!” the woman hissed. “Stay where you are.”
“Who’s there?” I demanded. “Come here.”
There was a brief rustling, and a small figure came into the lamp’s flickering light. It was a girl, about fourteen or fifteen years old. Her hair hung round her face and her arms were like sticks poking out of her faded sleeveless sweater.
“She’s ours,” Langgam snapped. “You can’t take her.”
I ignored her. “Who are you?” I asked the girl.
“I’m called Miri.” The girl was trembling as hard as Langgam, but with cold. The skin of her fingers was blue. “I don’t want to stay here with them. Take me with you.”
I stared at her and felt something close in my head, like a door. Everything shouted at me go, leave, get out now. But I remembered what they’d planned to do to her, and what they’d been talking about doing while she was right there in the room with them. I swallowed hard, feeling something like a stone roll down my throat.
“All right,” I said. “Come.”
Langgam came halfway out of her chair, and only Libog’s hand on her arm restrained her. “You can’t do this!”
“Look, young lady.” Libog’s voice was weary. “We can’t stop you, but this girl is literally all we have. If we lose her, we’ll starve.”
“So you’ll trade her for food, is that it?” I snorted. “And when that food is gone, what will you do?” I jerked my head at the girl. “Come quickly.”
I thought Langgam was about to make a grab for the girl, but she sagged back in her chair, looking old and defeated. “What will you do with her, make her your slave now? Is that it?”
“None of your concern,” I told them. “Remember, don’t follow me or I’ll shoot.”
We made it out of the house before I started shaking. The reaction was so sudden and overwhelming that for a minute I could not walk. Doubled over, I bit down on my own fingers to stop my teeth from chattering. I felt as though I was about to collapse in a jerking, twitching mass on the street.
It was the girl, Miri, who got me going. I felt her hand on my arm, pulling. “Miss,” she said, “come on, miss, please. They’ll start chasing us in a minute.”
I let her lead me, along streets I had never been down before. Little by little, I stopped shaking, and finally regained control of myself enough to stop and turn to the girl. “Where are we going?”
She looked up at me. “As far as we can from them, so they can’t find us. They’re horrible, both of them.”
“They’re scared of my gun,” I said. We began to walk on again. The streets were narrower here, filled with debris, and the buildings half-ruined. It must have seen heavy fighting during the war. “Who are you, anyway? A relative of theirs?”
The girl shook her head. “I was lost, trying to find my parents. We were separated, during the fighting. I got sick, and didn’t have anything to eat. They found me and took care of me, at first.” She made a sound halfway between a laugh and a sob. “Then when I could walk again they told me that I had to work to pay for the food and medicine they’d spent on me. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since...working.”
The mention of food reminded me that I hadn’t eaten all day, and suddenly I was very hungry. All I had was a small bag of parched rice, which suddenly seemed far too little for me, let alone for both of us. But Miri’s eyes glittered hungrily as I opened the pouch, and before I’d chewed my first mouthful, all I’d given her was gone.
“Is there any more?”she asked hopefully.
“We’ve got to keep it for later,” I said. “Try and chew slowly, to make it last.”
Once again I wondered why I’d brought her along, what had possessed me to do such an insane thing. But when I put away the remnants of the rice and reached for the bottle of water I’d filled from the rain barrel before leaving home, I found the girl’s thin shoulders shaking.
“Miri,” I asked. “Why are you crying? What’s wrong?”
She hugged me, her face crushed against my chest. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “I know I shouldn’t have asked you to bring me along. But I was scared.”
“You did the right thing,” I said, patting her inadequately. Her skin was freezing. I wish I had some clothes to give her, or that I’d taken some from Libog and Langgam. I didn’t dare to go back, or to look in any of the buildings around. “They’d have caught me, too, if I hadn’t had the gun. Let’s keep going.”
The clouds overhead had finally parted, and a half-moon sent down a little light, which was lucky. The streets were so clogged with debris and wrecked vehicles we couldn’t have passed through otherwise. “Do you have any idea where we are?” I asked.
She giggled suddenly. “No. But isn’t it nice to be free?”
“Yes, well...” I glanced at her. “I was rather hoping to find food to take back home to my mum.”
“Your mother? Where were you planning to go for food?”
“There’s supposed to be a distribution at KC Market.” Saying it now, I realised how silly it sounded. Who had food to distribute? And how long would it last? “You know where that is?”
“No. They talked about this KC Market place, Libog and Langgam, I mean. I think it was quite far away.”
“Let’s go and find it. We might get something.” We’d better find something if I were to feed myself and Miri, not to speak of taking something back home as well for my mother.
“Do you remember what it was like before the war?” Miri asked as we walked on.
“Yes. Why, don’t you?” She must be old enough to remember a little at least. The war hadn’t been going on that long.
“Not much. There were four of us – my parents, and my brother. My mum was a teacher, my father worked at an office someplace, and I didn’t like my brother much.” She threw that last bit in almost defiantly.
“Go on,” I said.
She pushed her straggly hair back from her face. “The night the fighting started, where we lived, I mean, my father was telling us a story. It was a silly story about a fairy who had lost her way in the human world and was too stupid to find her way back. My brother wouldn’t settle down to listen. Suddenly there was a huge loud noise, the walls shook, and the lights went out. My mother came running in from the front room, snatched up both of us and crawled under the bed.”
“And?” I asked absently. The mention of lights brought memories of electricity, of lamps turning on at the flick of a switch. It felt like another universe. “What happened then?”
“I don’t remember too clearly, but it became hot and I couldn’t breathe. I heard my father shouting that the house had caught fire and we had to get out. There was a big crowd outside, and people running everywhere, and my mother dragged my brother and me by the hand through it. But somewhere along they lost me. Maybe my mother just let me go.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“She never came back to look for me,” she said. “I kept running, screaming for her, but she never came back. Maybe she thought they had a better chance with one baby, not two.”
“She might have come back for you,” I said gently, “and missed you because you’d run away looking for her.”
She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter now anyway. At least I survived. If you call it surviving.”
I knew the rest, could picture it, the sick, starving girl stumbling through the gutted city. “I’ll take care of you,” I said, feeling stupid even as I said it. How could I take care of her? I couldn’t even take care of myself. But she merely nodded.
“You already did, saving me from them. I’ll...” She stopped abruptly. “What’s that?”
I looked up, and, for a moment, it was all I could do to fight down a scream.
I’d heard that it had happened a few times towards the end of the war – civilians who’d risen up against the soldiers, of which army it didn’t matter, and had taken summary revenge. I’d never believed it. How could even a determined and furious band of civilians take on trained soldiers armed with machine guns, and hope to win?
Once upon a time, before the war, this must have been a traffic signal post in the middle of a busy intersection. The lights were long gone, the signal a truncated metal tree growing out of a concrete stump set in the shattered ground. The soldier they’d crucified on it still had his uniform and helmet on, but he’d been dead so long that the cloth had fallen to rags and he was just bones and sinew, mummified flesh and teeth.
“Do you think he was still alive when they did that?” Miri asked. There was a strange note in her voice, almost like satisfaction. I wondered for a moment what else had happened during her wanderings, about which she wasn’t telling me.
“I don’t know and don’t care.” There was a banner of some kind hung from the skeleton, the letters faded almost to illegibility. I thought I could make out FUCK FREEDOM. “Let’s go.”
The next hours seemed to merge into each other. By the time the sky began lightening, I was so tired I was moving only because it was less exhausting to keep going than to stop. My eyes were blurry from tiredness, and though Miri was still stumbling on by my side, she’d already fallen a couple of times, and I didn’t think I’d have the strength to help her up if she fell again.
We’d managed to find our way out of the ruined section of town which we’d spent the night wandering, and had reached a main road I vaguely recognised. In the distance, rising like a broken tooth from a diseased gum, was the shattered cylindrical shape of the stadium. KC Market, or what was left of it, should be not far on the other side of that.
“Come on,” I urged her. “It’s not much further.”
She nodded. In the early morning light, she looked even thinner and weaker than before, and I thought she might be younger than I’d imagined, twelve or thirteen at most. Her clothes hung on her like rags from a scarecrow’s frame, bulging out at the waist where she’d tied an old rope in lieu of a belt.
“What will we do if there’s no food?” she asked.
“We still have a little bit of rice,” I said. “After that, I don’t know.”
The morning grew brighter. It was bitterly cold, but Miri didn’t seem to feel it so much anymore. Her grip on my arm was tighter than before, too. It was as though she’d found some inner source of strength and energy.
We were close enough to the stadium to see the shell holes in the cylindrical wall when she fumbled at the rope she used as a belt. “Wait, take this.”
I looked down at the thing she was holding out. “What’s in that packet?”
“Open it and see.”
I took a look. The packet was half full of small tablets, green and pink and blue. “Drugs?”
“Yes. It’s enough to buy food with. Maybe.”
“Where did you get drugs?”
“Where do you think? How do you suppose I endured those two people without drugs? They had lots, all kinds, once, but they mostly traded them away long ago. I’d hidden this one packet for myself.” She sighed. “I kept it under my clothes all the time. That was the only safe place, because I knew he wouldn’t touch me. She watched him like a hawk to make sure he didn’t.”
I opened my mouth but the words wouldn’t come.
“Not for my good, you understand,” she said. “It was only because she didn’t want him straying. Of course, if they’d sold me...I’d have taken them all together if you hadn’t brought me with you.”
“And that would have...” I suddenly realised why she’d seemed to have got stronger. “You took some this morning, didn’t you?”
“Just a couple of the green tablets. You can take one too. You need it.”
“No. But why are you giving me this?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Because you were good to me. Because we need food.”
I put the packet into my pocket. “Even if we can’t trade these for food, I’m not giving them back to you. You do realise that?”
She smiled. There was a cluster of cold sores at the corner of her lip. “Do as you want. They’re yours now.”
I nodded, and gave her the rest of the rice. “You can eat this instead.”
Quickly, as though I’d snatch the grain back from her hands, she did.
There was no food distribution at KC Market, exactly as I’d imagined.
Someone had been here recently, though. The rows of stalls were covered overhead with fresh plastic sheeting to keep off the weather, and the trash littering the ground hadn’t all rotted away. It looked as though it were only waiting for shopkeepers to set up their wares, and customers to arrive. We walked along the rows of stalls, searching for any food that someone might have left. Unsurprisingly, we found nothing.
I think we were both so engrossed in looking through the stalls that we must have missed the sound of engines. And so it was that we walked round a corner and almost into their arms.
There was a moment of total frozen shock as we stood staring at them and they back at us. There were three of them, clustered around a small lorry. All of them had guns at their belts or slung over their shoulders. One, in a black cap, was in the act of lowering the tailgate. He turned round, staring.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Just look at them,” the second one said. He was tall and had a wispy beard. “They’ll do.”
“Yes.” The young man in the black cap dropped the tailgate the rest of the way. “This might not be a total loss after all, then.”
The gun on my back was as far away as the moon, and against their weapons would have been no good anyway. I began to back slowly away. “Look, we don’t mean you any harm. Just let us go.”
“Let you go? I don’t think so.” The man in the black cap was younger than I’d thought at first, and bigger. “Things have been a total loss lately.”
“That’s right,” the tall bearded man nodded. He had a scar across his face. “There’s literally nothing but bedridden old men and senile women left. We thought we wouldn’t have a single thing to trade with.”
“We shouldn’t trade the older one though,” the black cap told him, pointing at me. “She’s old and pretty enough to have better uses.”
“As long as you don’t keep her to yourself.”
I let them talk. I’d been backing away all the while, and was almost at the turning. If we could get past it, and take off running through the stalls, they couldn’t follow in the lorry. They could chase us, but they were big and heavy, and we might be able to get away.
Of course, they could shoot at us, but if they did, they’d be risking spoiling their own merchandise, wouldn’t they?
Only another couple of steps, and I could run. But I couldn’t, because Miri hadn’t backed away with me. She was still standing right there, silent and staring.
“Miri,” I tried to whisper, as though it would do any good. “Come on, Miri.” But my whisper was stuck in my throat.
The man in the black cap reached out and took her arm. It was too late, I should run, but I couldn’t. My feet were suddenly too heavy to move.
“Wait.” It was the third man, who’d not spoken so far. He was only slightly older than me. The small flat black pistol in his hand was pointed in my general direction. “Take the older one, but let this one go.”
“What?” The black cap turned. “Why?”
“I mean it. We’ll take the older one, but we’ll let this one go.”
“No,” Miri said. “Both of us. We both go.”
There was a long silence, and then the youngest man nodded. “I see. All right then.”
“What’s going on?” the black cap said. He dropped Miri’s arm. “I don’t understand.”
“I’ll tell you later.” The youngest man gestured with his weapon at me. “Get out, both of you.”
We were back in the maze of the ruined city before I felt able to speak again. “Miri...”
“Look, I don’t want to talk about it, all right?” She kicked at a piece of rubble. “It was bad enough when my parents abandoned me and took him with them. And now he’s...you saw what he is.”
“He let us go, Miri.”
“Yes. After I didn’t leave him a choice.”
“Did you want to go with him? Just for a moment?”
“Why do you even need to ask that?” She turned to me. “Did I ask them to let you go and I’d stay with him? Did I?”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” The sky was clouding over. It would rain again soon. “We still don’t have any food.”
“We have the drugs,” she said. “They can do magic, drugs can, if you let them. Or we can sell them for food, if we can find anyone willing and able to buy.”
“There are plenty of unhappy people,” I said. “Plenty of desperate people. Plenty of people willing to sell all their food for a moment of happiness.”
“Yes, all we have to do is to find them.”
We passed the crucified soldier, and neither of us bothered to look up at him.
The rain began to fall.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017