The air was heavy with the scent of burning things. I found that fear trapped me, hidden in the closet where Auntie had set me and told me to stay. Fear had made me motionless, but now heat was making me move. The shouts and thundering of hooves had long since faded away. All I could hear now was the crackling of fire.
“Auntie Margaret?” I untangled myself slowly from the clothes I had burrowed into on the floor. There was no answer. I called a little louder. Nothing. “Auntie! I’m scared.” My voice warbled and tears spilled down my cheeks, cold against the heat on my skin. I was still too small, my fingers couldn’t reach the door knob, but when I pushed, the door swung open. It hadn’t been shut all the way. Black dust stuck to the bottoms of my feet as I wandered out into the living room. “Auntie? I — ” My voice trailed off as something bumped gently into the back of my head. My hands came up and closed around the object, suspended at the level of my nose . I turned around. Uncle Barry’s boots were hanging from the rafters, dangling in a way that suggested they were attached to something. My heel traced a tentative step backward. Slowly, I lifted my gaze …
I was upright and tense at the perceived threat before I could even register what was going on. Reality came swiftly, like a plunge through cold water; my unconscious mind had abandoned the dream before it could travel my memory’s path any further.
That day wasn’t something I wanted to relive — the day the only family I had ever known died. Auntie Margaret and Uncle Barry weren’t really my aunt and uncle, those titles were only terms of endearment, but they were the people who had found me and taken me in when I had been abandoned by my parents as a baby.
For a moment, the memory of fire warmed me, but as my body adjusted, the cold crept in. Somewhere in the back of my mind I noted that there wasn’t much difference between heat and cold. The burning sensation worn into the sides of my arms and the tops of my thighs was the same, and I could see my breath coming in puffs which reminded me hauntingly of smoke. The smell of smoke lingered, but it wasn’t from the air around me.
For as long as I could remember, the dreams had been there, waiting just outside of consciousness and ready to ensnare. They were always the same, as real and solid as the world around me — so similar in fact that at times I had difficulty telling the difference. Most of the time, I couldn’t make sense of them. They were chaos, shadows and screaming, bits of thoughts and memories that didn’t seem to be my own. But sometimes my dreams were coherent, and that was always the worst. On those nights, I relived my worst memories; the day Auntie Margaret and Uncle Barry died, my first night on the streets, days of hunger and cold, infected wounds, and fear — I forced the dreams out of my mind. It wouldn’t do to dwell on them now. I pulled my knees into my chest and pushed away a scrap of garbage which I had used to hide myself from unfriendly eyes. A rough cobblestone had braised my cheek in my sleep and I pressed it against a shoulder to numb the pain. After a moment of wiggling my toes to move the blood back into them, I stood. The most important thing now was food.
Out on the corner, at the edge of the town buildings and near the King’s Park, I lifted my eyes to the sky. The midmorning fog made it difficult to see, but my eyes soon found what they were looking for. A raven’s silhouette, dark body blending perfectly with the clouds above, circled lazy loops overhead. I pursed my lips and let out a low whistle. The spiral descended and he landed, dropping a crust of bread at my feet. I opened my mind, and let in his thoughts.
“Thank you, Hookbeak.” Crouching, I gathered the crust in a hand. It was hardly bigger than my palm, but it would be enough for now. I pulled my cold, cracked lips into a smile. “This helps me more then you know.”
“Don’t worry about it … sorry I couldn’t get more … not much out there … not much at all.” He examined me with an intelligent eye, but there was a fuzziness to the edge of his thoughts — like a child speaking burble — that I could barely make out. With a sharp nod he took off and disappeared again into the clouds. I let out a long slow breath, and lifted the crust towards my lips.
The crunch of gravel to my left made me freeze. Someone was behind me. “Hey Carrot!” A voice called out. The hairs on the back of my neck rose. I knew that voice.
I turned slowly, balling the crust into a hand and guarding it behind my back. It wouldn’t be safe to eat it here, not with him standing right in front of me. He would probably see it as an act of defiance and an excuse to pick a fight. Already, he wore a calculating smile. He glanced to his right and his left. Two other boys appeared from the shadows of the nearest building. They came like hyenas, their gaunt faces stretched bone tight, their hands as starved as mine.
“What’s that you have, bird-girl?” The middle one said. I set my face so they couldn’t see my fear, and ignored the shudder that ran down my spine.
“How about you hand it over?” Said the boy to his left.
“We promise it won’t hurt … for long.” Their voices were like echoes of the night. Joe-Boy, Sammuel, and McAllen. Joe-Boy, the biggest, was their leader. His blonde hair grew in patches and an ugly scar ate up the right side of his face. Sammuel, to his left, was his brother — or so they claimed — and was only a little smaller. He looked the way Joe-Boy might if his hair had grown in and his face were smooth. On Joe-Boy’s right was McAllen, the newest member of the group. He was small and walked with an awkward slump that suggested his bones hadn’t grown quite right. Poor nutrition, probably. All three of them were kids, forced to live on the streets for lack of family, or a home. Just like me. But unlike myself, they stole to get their fill. I backed up slowly. I didn’t stand a chance fighting them — it would be a battle I could not afford. They were older than I. Larger. Stronger. But they had forgotten one crucial ingredient. I was faster.
“Girl … ” Joe-Boy’s voice was threatening. I quivered as he stepped closer still. And then, I ran. I ran across the street, splashing through muddy puddles. Leaping over cobblestone holes. I didn’t glance back to see if they’d followed. My only goal, my only thought, was to get away and have a crust of my own. One crust could mean the difference between living, and starving in the night.
I turned right at Court Street, bumping through pedestrians and sidestepping a horse and cart. A woman selling flowers from a basket on the corner had to jump out of my way, leaving roses crushed and soggy on the wet street. I didn’t stop to apologize. I could hear them behind me. Faster. I had to go faster. Up ahead was an old alley way, partially hidden by rubble and a couple trees. I weaved into the merchants surrounding it and used the crowd as cover. Squeezing past a hawker’s cart, I threw myself into the alley way and paused, letting my breath catch up with me. Running footsteps pounded closer, and then faded away. I was safe.
I turned around, pressing my back against the dingy wall and sliding exhausted into the dirt. Then I unclenched my fist, and glanced down at the crust in my palm. It was slightly smashed, but still edible. My eyes found the street. It was clear. Still, I didn’t know how long it would take them to find me. It would be best to eat now, and slip through the alley the back way. Maybe I could find somewhere warm to hide and spend the next few hours conserving energy. I glanced to the road again, and then over my shoulder into the alley. My eyes came to a halt at a shape hidden several feet from me behind a pile of junk. A pair of large eyes blinked at me, just barely shining in the low light. Tucked against the wall was a woman. A baby lay wrapped in her arms. Her shoulders quivered in a way which suggested she was afraid of me. A feeling grew in the pit of my stomach and I glanced at the crust in my fist. She needed it more than I did. I held out my hand, crust still firmly clenched in my fingertips. The woman shook her head. Her eyes found the ground. “Please take it … ?” Before she could refuse, I forced the crust into her palm and walked away.
I found a dry niche under the eave of a deserted storefront and curled myself under it. I would have to find more food soon, but here I could wait out the rain. The pinch of hunger gradually faded and I welcomed the relief. When the rain was gone and I no longer ran the risk of wetness bringing on a cold, I would venture out and begin again. The ravens wouldn’t have anymore food today but if I could last until the rain stopped, I still had a chance.
* * *
“Hey Carrot!” The voice belonged to Joe-Boy, I recognized it without turning around. I was sitting in a sun patch on the west side of town, a grey woolen hat pulled over my ears and a yard of moth eaten linen draped over my shoulders like a cloak. “Did you enjoy your crust?” It was hard to ignore him when his words carried such a sting. Disgruntled, I tucked my red hair up under my hat and out of his sight. I hated being called “Carrot”, or any other term that referenced my hair. The mention of my red hair was an insult — it marked me as belonging to the lower class — and Joe-Boy never failed to remind me of that fact. “Look what I have! It’s a beauty isn’t it?”
Crouching just behind me, he waved a loaf of bread near my face. I winced when a slight breeze brought the scent across my nose. It was warm still. I could feel the heat coming off of it. My eyes flickered shut. I could almost taste the crumbs. A low breath shuddered through my chest and my parched throat convulsed. “Please go away.” My voice was strained, but I kept the tone flat. I couldn’t let him see weakness. This was a game to him and I refused to play it. I turned my back and hoped he would leave. He didn’t.
“Where’d you get this little treasure?” Suddenly my shoulders ached with cold. He had taken my scrap of cloth. I could see him out of the corner of my eye, running it through his hands and then tossing it up over his shoulder. The upper portion of my back tensed, and I buried my fingers into my skirt. I didn’t answer him. “It doesn’t matter, it’s mine now.” I didn’t need to see the smirk on his face to visualize it.
Only my pride kept me from shivering. I stood and ignored him, walking away and wrapping my arms around my narrow shoulders when I knew he was out of sight. He didn’t follow.
The street was shiny from rain and I padded across it, avoiding the puddles that pooled between the cobblestones. My bare feet were nearly numb. I couldn’t feel the roughness of the road, but my steps were cautious anyways.
I rounded the outskirts of the city, following the road which I knew would lead me to its center. For a moment I paused, watching the mist which clung to the trees. It would be winter soon. The ice in the air and the colors on the trees made me sure of it. Winter was the worst time of year, for obvious reasons. The cold air smelled of death.
The world around me changed as I walked. It seemed almost as if the poverty that filled the streets could somehow remind the people that life wasn’t as cheery as they tried to pretend. So they erased it. The waste piled by the buildings disappeared. So did the dirt. The grime. There was food here. Food and paint. Paint which decorated walls and faces, hiding the tight emptiness from view.
An old, toothless man sat on the elevated edge of a storefront, a bandage over his eyes and a crutch lying on the stone steps. He was like me, a pile of rags and dirt who was desperate enough to sit at a street corner where he did not belong. The stone beneath him was recently swept. Dust fell off his sleeves and dirtied the ground. He rattled his can at me, blind hands searching. “I’m sorry,” I whispered and continued to walk. “I have nothing to give.”
I skirted Main Street, walking down a back alley until I found a street that wasn’t as crowded. Once I found a suitable corner, I pressed myself into a painted wall, well out of the way of the carriages which jostled down the street. Those carriages never watched where they were going; no one would notice if one ran me over.
It was a long time before I was noticed by anyone. Most simply went around me, not looking up from the ground as they walked. Others carefully held their eyes away as if I were a disease that could be caught just by looking. A few noticed me, and crossed to the other side of the street. I hunched my shoulders, trying to look as inconspicuous and, simultaneously, pitiful as possible. A large woman stood by me, carefully looking over my head and into the shop windows that lay behind. After a moment of hesitation, I approached her.
“Excuse me?” She looked the other way like she could not hear. “M’lady?” Unlike Joe-Boy and his gang, I would never steal. But, in desperate times, I could be driven to beg. “M’lady … please — ” I dropped my eyes to stare at her sturdy boots and reached out to touch the edge of her ruffled hem. She looked down at me then. I could feel my cheeks heat under her stare. I peeked up to view her face.
The way her eyes caught mine made me realize I would win nothing from the woman. She drew herself to her full height — several heads taller than myself — and her face became very red. She looked like she wanted to slap me, but seemed to be hesitating. To react would be to admit she had noticed. To react, would mean she had let scum distract her from her day. Her gloved hands groped for her heavy skirts and, lifting them, she moved past me. I had to stumble backwards to keep out of her way. My foot slid on an uneven stone, and I fell into the street.
“Hey you! Get out of the way!” I could barely hear the coachman’s voice over the grind of carriage wheels, slicing air next to my ear. Mud splashed from the spokes, showering my back. I rolled onto my side, and out of the way. For a moment, all I could hear was the sound of my panting, and the quick flutter of my heart. Then my head cleared, and I forced myself to my knees. The sound of footsteps punctuated the air, and I slowly raised my gaze. A pair of feet had stopped in front of me. I didn’t quite trust what would happen if I looked, but my eyes darted upwards before I could stop myself. A hand was extended above me. For a long moment, all I could do was stare.
“Take it child,” a voice prodded, coming from a long way up. I cringed back from the voice, but I took the hand.
End of Chapter One
© 2016 Erin Rebar