Aleea Davidson’s Picture Choice: Two
Title: Wither Part 3
Sour yellow light from the few remaining working street lights cast distorted shadows in the puddles as Mara headed downtown. Rain fell in a relentless drizzle and recently fallen leaves clung wetly to her shoes. She hunched her shoulders in her damp jacket, feeling abject in her misery. As a young girl she’d loved rain. Playing outside with friends, splashing and spinning till the skirts of their school uniforms flared out and their knee-high socks were soaked through. These days the rain felt like a personal insult. One more reason she couldn’t feel the sun on her skin.
She sighed. It was hard to believe only a couple of days ago she’d sat in the park with Glen and thought her life was looking up.
She supposed it was in some ways. She felt like she’d made a tentative kind of friend, and he’d given her more of the vitamin D tablets. A two month’s supply this time—more than she’d dared wish for. His generosity unnerved her at first, until he shared that the supplements were purchased before the remaining pharmaceutical company began capitalizing on suffering for obscene profit. Leftovers from the treatment of his UV Intolerant wife and son, he said, those stunning blue eyes of his sad yet steady as he held out the bottle in offering.
She took them of course. She wasn’t in a position to refuse kindness. Still, crushing them into powder each morning to add to Teddy and Jeremy’s watered-down juice brought with it a strange set of conflicting emotions. Gratefulness rose to the top, while underneath she couldn’t miss the niggling unease that came with knowing she benefitted from Glen’s tragic loss.
He showed her a picture after they sat in the grass under a tree for a while, talking about nothing of importance. By some silent yet mutual agreement, they veered far from serious topics, searching for trust and common ground. He talked about his newly acquired photography hobby, and she told him a bit about Teddy and Jeremy, sticking to lighthearted tales of the mischief they got up to. That’s when he removed the photo from his wallet. Battered around the edges, it was clear he’d carried it with him for a long time.
Mara stared at the images of the pretty brunette and the boy who looked like a miniaturized Glen. She wanted to feel sadness on his behalf, anger perhaps that he had lost so much. Instead, she felt only a deep apathy that left her oddly weary. She’d managed a weak smile, unable to formulate comforting or sympathetic words appropriate to the situation. Then she’d chewed on the inside of her cheek, a nervous habit she’d carried with her from childhood, and they’d fallen into silence.
Strangely, it hadn’t been the least bit uncomfortable.
Pulling her hood up to shroud her face and hide the evidence the sun had recently kissed her skin, Mara entered the town square. The value of money had plummeted steadily with the growing crisis, forcing trade to crop up as the new currency. Makeshift stands cluttered her path, offering a variety of goods in exchange for valued items. An older woman stood under an umbrella, the cart beside her piled high with overripe cabbages and turnips. A handwritten sign, its ink bleeding in dark rivulets from the moisture dotting its surface, read - Trade Only. Batteries, candles, lighter fluid, propane, matches, tinned meat, milk, eggs…
Mara stopped reading, looking away quickly when she made the mistake of glancing up and meeting the woman’s pleading expression. She was asking too much for too little, and she no doubt knew it.
Clutching the bag she carried tightly, Mara worried the raw, bitten inside of her cheek with her tongue. She had several dozen precious batteries stashed under the jars of strawberry preserves she was hoping to trade for some powdered milk or eggs. She could offer a few and make a soup with the cabbage and turnips, something warm and nutritious for the boys. Her stomach growled softly at the thought, but she moved on. The batteries were the most valuable item she had at the moment, and there was rumoured to be a butcher bartering venison the next block over. If she had any chance at procuring fresh meat, she couldn’t afford to let pity dwindle her small cache.
Mara hurried on her way, trying not to think of the spark of hope that had grown in the woman’s eyes when she’d paused.
Ahead, a restless crowd of people clustered near a rickety stall stocked with apples. The sweet smell spawned a wave of nostalgia, filling her thoughts with memories of crisp fall days before UV light became the enemy for so many.
A burly man stepped back, almost trampling her feet, and the memories burst like a fragile soap bubble. He cursed at the man beside him, shaking an angry fist. Someone in the group pushed someone else, and the vendor yelled as one of the barrels tipped, spilling apples onto the ground. Mara barely escaped the crush of people scurrying to grab for the rolling fruit. A woman shrieked as another woman clawed at her, fighting for a battered apple in the gutter.
Mara turned from the sudden chaos that threatened to turn violent. The large man, who nearly stomped on her toes, loomed in front of her. With nowhere to go, she was trapped as he reached out and wrapped a big, dirty hand around the strap of her bag. She’d looped it across her body to prevent anyone from easily stealing it from her, but as he yanked hard she found herself pitching forward, practically careening into his wall-like chest.
She cried out when the man let go abruptly and grabbed her arm instead.
“Give it here, girlie,” he said, his demand a gruff mix of gravelly consonants and slurry vowels.
Attempting to retreat, her heels hit the curb, and she started to trip. Her arms pin-wheeled, and the man lost his hold. As Mara regained her balance, his hood dropped to the back of his head, making her flinch involuntarily as she saw his face clearly for the first time. Familiar blisters dotted his cheeks and jaw, raw and weeping, denoting his UV Intolerant status and recent exposure to the sun. His eyes were yellowed, indicating the rapid speed of the illness, his liver toxic, kidneys failing. He took another step toward her, and she noticed the bloodiness of his gums as his sour breath sawed in and out of his open mouth.
She managed to get back up the curb, but the crowd was in full riot mode, battling for the apples and preventing her from going farther. Someone crashed into her back, making her lose the ground she’d gained. The sick man caught her by her upper arms as she stumbled once more into his grasp. He shook her, a humourless grin cracking the skin of his dry lips.
“Pretty little thing, ain’t you? Give me the bag, sweetheart, and I won’t take you into that alley over there and have my wicked way with you.” He leered and jerked her closer, his meaty fingers glomming onto her right breast. Her jacket was thin, and she felt the heat of him radiating through the material. He was burning with a fever that would only compel him to be more dangerous.
Pushing her hands against his chest proved to be as futile as the yell for help she choked out in her panic. She couldn’t budge him an inch, and the sound of her distress was swallowed up by the growing melee surrounding her.
Mara twisted and strove to raise her knee, hoping to connect with the man’s groin. He evaded her easily, ridiculously strong and agile given how sick he was.
“Let me go. I don’t have anything you want,” she lied. Her voice quavered, and she hated herself in that moment for her inferior strength and fear. She wondered why it never occurred to her that she should be carrying some kind of weapon—a bottle of pepper spray, a knife, something. Desperate times created desperate people.
Tears blurred her vision as the man gave her breast one more vicious squeeze before he latched onto her bag again, snapping her entire body forward with a jarring tug. He tried to lift it over her head, but his angle was awkward and his clasp slipped.
A part of her knew she should let him have it then run before he decided to make his sickening threat a reality. Another part of her rebelled, thinking of the items she couldn’t afford to part with. The batteries and preserves were the only things she had with her that might garner needed protein for the boys.
The boys... Thank God she didn’t bring them with her tonight.
Reaching down, Mara grabbed the bottom of the bag where her hands found the outline of several jars. Adrenaline and terror made her feel clumsy and hyper-focused in equal measures. As her fingers sought purchase on the damp hemp fabric, her eyes zeroed in on the man’s face. Every oozing blister and the sticky scruff of whiskers on his chin stood out in stark relief against his sweaty, pale skin. She got a good grip and hefted the weight. She was going to bash it into his ugly mug as hard and as repetitively as she could—smash his nose into a flat mess, splinter his teeth out of his bleeding gums. The blood-thirsty urge rippled through her, decimating her fear. Renewed energy coursed into previously limp muscles, and she managed to wrench the bag upward, intent on her goal. Her first try connected weakly with the fleshy underside of his chin, startling him and causing his neck to arch. Mara took advantage and slammed the bag into his exposed throat, the gagging noise he emitted satisfying something dark inside her. She wanted more.
Before she could get her chance, he clumsily struck out at her, his fist glancing off her left shoulder. She miraculously kept her grip on the bag, but as she lifted it again he stepped out of range, spitting a glob of blood at her shoes.
“Bitch, you’re going to pay for that,” he said wetly.
Mara quickly tugged the strap free of her body and swung the sack and its contents in a fluid arc. The man attempted to duck, grunting with the effort and too slow. She heard glass crack as it thudded into the side of his head.
Mara swung a second time, putting all her power into the action. Unfortunately, he wasn’t as stunned from the first blow as she’d hoped. He blocked the impact with his forearm, and one of the straps, weakened by the forced game of tug of war, broke. The sudden redistribution of weight threw Mara’s aim off, and she stumbled again. The man took advantage, reaching out and catching her hair in his fist.
The pain was brilliant. A starburst of colours exploded in her head as her jaw clenched against the agony. He gave a brutal pull, and she came forward so fast it brought her to her knees. The bite of the drenched road laid teeth made of asphalt and tiny stones through her pants and into her flesh.
She lost her grip on the bag.
Helplessly she watched him pick it up, and the fight went out of her. All she had left was the hope he’d take it and walk away.
As she lifted her head, ignoring the white-hot pain in her scalp where he still fisted her hair, hope died a quick death. He sneered as he rose to his feet, taking her with him.
“Oh, I’m going to enjoy making you hurt, girlie. I’m going to enjoy it a lot.”
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Aleea lives in her imagination most of the time. It's an interesting place to be... Occasionally she can be coaxed out to chat on Twitter, though she finds it akin to torture to stick to that absurd 140 character limit. (@Aleeab4u)