“Little Boxes” 1.1

In Ardica City’s Lower West district, there’s a market. The area is supposed to be a city green, like in the other three outer districts, but they haven’t nicknamed Lower West’s market to “Lowest Market” for nothing. The streets run as straight and evenly-spaced as the rest of the city, but they’re shabbier, lost in the shadows far below the shimmering solar panels and terraced vertical gardens of West and South Towers.

Low West’s market has none of the niceties of the real shops of the city–no alarm tags, no door sensors, no watchful security cameras. The sea is little more than a hint of salt in the air, faint as whispering ghosts, and the sky’s a trace of blue barely visible through the tangled green of the gardens hanging overhead. But the market’s shadows hide things you’d rather not see or have seen.

There will be no
making a run for
it. The only choice
is to not get caught.

A couple of days ago, I lent a hand to one of the vendors after the runners on her produce cart locked up. It wasn’t anything more than a loose wire in the converter, easier to fix than most of the equipment malfunctions I handled back on the farmstead. She paid me with two peaches, small and shriveled, probably grown on a stunted tree crammed into a too-small patch of side-dirt on a lower terrace where sun and rain are as scarce as credits.

“Have a care, little sister,” the vendor said when she handed me those peaches. The words reminded me of Serena, even if the woman’s worn face and ragged voice did not. I smiled at her anyhow. Peaches are peaches. They tasted like sweet leather when we ate them, but they kept us fed for one more day.

That particular produce vendor isn’t around today. I’m all right with that. I haven’t completely gotten over the feeling-guilty part of what I’m about to do. The people I bump elbows with are as shadowed as the market itself, eyes largely downcast as we all studiously ignore that we’re dressed in secondhand synths or farmsteader naturals and smell like old sweat and underground instead of fresh air and sunshine. Really, they’re not much better off than I am.

It can’t be helped. Anyplace else in the city, this wouldn’t work.

As I move through the market, I keep my hands in my pockets. When your stomach is near empty and the air is filled with the earthy scent of fruits and vegetables and the tortuously powerful aroma of freshly-baked bread, it’s awfully tempting to just wrap your fingers around some bit of food and make a run for it. My gaze strays to the nearest cross street as I pass it by, specifically to the pair of Protectors at the entrance to the people-mover conveyor, clad in gray enamel vests and bearing energy rifles.

There will be no making a run for it. The only choice is to not get caught.

I walk a little further and stop under one of the omnipresent display screens hanging from poles over the market. I tip my head back like I’m watching the talking heads on the screen, but I’m not really–in between daily programming like “In The Towers Tonight” and the daily Oracle, the same headlines pretty much repeat throughout the day, until something happens that’s deemed newsworthy enough to provoke an update. I’m not wired, either, so I can’t hear anything.

That’s all right. That’s not why I’m here.

The vendor’s stand at the periphery of my vision sports plexi display cases that have seen better days. A crack mars the front face, petrified beads of glue trailing along its outer edges.

I turn my head that direction. Just one simple glance, as if the display of fist-sized melons behind the yellowed plexi only just now caught my attention. Then I lift my gaze to the vendor himself.

He’s turned a little away from me, talking to someone on the far side of the stand, where bushel baskets hold wizened apples that had to have spent the winter in storage. If I had to guess, I’d say someone up in the towers threw them out to make room for better crops.

“I don’t think you understand.” The vendor’s around thirty, maybe, but the lines around his eyes claim he’s older. He grips the edge of his counter with both hands as he speaks to the someone on the other side of the stand. “The apples are for sale, not for barter. I need credits, not that junk you’re trying to sell me.”

I sidle closer, hands still in my pockets, empty carry-pack bumping my hip.

The vendor must catch sight of me from the corner of his eye, because he angles his body a little my direction, like he’s warning me that he’s watching me. I puff myself up a little, trying to look indignant.

On the vendor’s other side, a black-eyed boy with slicked-back platinum-blond hair stark against his dusky complexion holds a seriously outdated palm pad with both hands, flipped around like he was showing it to the vendor. The boy flashes a grin at me. I smile.

As he draws back the old palm pad and lowers it toward his pocket, the boy gives his chin a little lift in my direction. “Hey.”

“Hey,” I say back.

The vendor glances between the two of us, brow furrowing.

All things considered, I don’t look any more trustworthy than the boy across the vendor stall from me. My shirt is a tattered and malfunctioning chameleon-cloth tee that’s been stuck on khaki-green for years. Worse, the faded denim and worn wool of my pants and jacket are a dead giveaway that I’m fresh from the stead. Probably don’t have a cred to my name.

Still, I’m a girl. Not particularly pretty–that was Serena’s gig–but a girl. And for some reason, they always think the girl’s the one you can turn your back on. I give the vendor a little encouragement to think otherwise by taking one hand out of my pocket and settling it oh-so-casually on the display case.

The vendor does another little back-and-forth look between me and the boy before he decides which of us he most wants to keep an eye on. He turns to face me. “And what can I do for you?”

The black-eyed boy’s hands move. They dart forward, snatch apples from an open bin–one, two, three–and vanish into the pockets of his battered poly jacket.

The vendor is frowning at me. He glances over his shoulder at the boy and then back at me again. The expression on the vendor’s face is a familiar one–chin lifted, peering through narrowed eyes, nose wrinkled ever so slightly.

It’s the look you get just for being a refugee. Never mind that the vendor probably lives down on one of the same sub-levels I do, in a sleeping box no bigger or nicer than mine. He is a lifelong citizen of Ardica City, and I am one of those flea-bitten steaders who managed to land a lousy month of free rent just by virtue of allowing my home to be overrun by the Manzazu. The nerve.

Everywhere I look, I see that face. I am so tired of it. I force a smile for the vendor anyhow.

“I was just admiring the melons.” I pat the plexi and then let my hand fall away. “It’s amazing what you’re able to do with so little arable soil here on the main level.”

His sneer wavers, as if he’d like to believe me. For a split second, I feel a little sorry for him–he lives in a sleeping box just like mine, after all. My smile becomes a little sadder, a little more genuine.

“But I don’t have any credits to spare.” I shrug.

On the other side of the vendor’s cart, the black-eyed boy takes a step backward into the crowd and slips away. Without really meaning to, I sigh.

The vendor looks behind him, at where the boy had been, and then whips his attention back to me again. His eyes narrow even more.

My heart thuds, but I carefully shrug again. My voice wavers not one bit when I say, “He was kind of cute. Oh well.”

I ease away from the stall, back into the slow dance of people trudging through the market. I take my time, peering into other carts and stalls as I walk. Asparagus and beans and peas, none of it in any better condition than the apples or the melons. Spindly corn. Plenty of zuchinni, even though it’s only May–that’s one crop you have to work hard to fail at growing.

I make it roughly a third of the way around the market, out of sight of the vendor and the Protectors closest to him, where the produce stalls begin to give way to secondhand clothing and last year’s tech. The breeze swirls, carrying the stink of the fish-sellers on the far side of the square.

“Either you grew some really shitty melons on your stead,” a voice at my shoulder says, “or you were lying your ass off to that vendor.”

I grin and glance to the left, straight into Ric’s amazing black eyes. A platinum-blond strand has fallen into his eyes.

I shrug with one shoulder. “Pretty sure he didn’t know which it was, either.”

Ric leans his head down close to mine and puts his hand under my elbow. My breath gives the same funny little hitch it always does when he touches me.

“You’re getting very good at this, Daria,” he says, right next to my ear. “It’s a nice thing, having a partner in petty crime.”

My smile falters. “My family needs to eat.”

Ric takes his hand off my elbow and falls into step beside me. I feel him looking at me. When he speaks again, his voice is soft. “You’re only doing what you have to. We both are.”

I summon my smile again and turn it up at him. His fingers find mine and intertwine.

For the space of a few heartbeats, Low West’s market feels less drab, more like the park it was planned to be, back when Ardica City was intended to be a luxury city-ship for elite residents and instead of what it is–one of humanity’s last refuges. I let my eyes drift toward the scrap of blue overhead, framed by skyscrapers on all sides. I try to imagine what it’s like up in one of the four super-towers that anchor the city, so far above the ground that this market is no more than a brown smudge. Maybe you can’t even see here at all from that high, not through the lush green growing up the sides of the towers.

Up there, people don’t steal last year’s apples from men who can probably barely feed their own families. Up there, they stroll along observation promenades, listening to songbirds and the hush of conditioned air as they look out over the Atlantic. Probably there are fountains like on the main thoroughfares, musical spills of crystal blue water instead of the rasp of desperate voices and trampled sere grass of the market.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

This second voice also comes from just behind my shoulder. It’s loud and it’s stern, and it brings my feet to an abrupt involuntary stop.

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9 thoughts on ““Little Boxes” 1.1

    • Thanks! That was exactly my goal, so I’m glad to hear I accomplished it. (Things going right is always a happy thing.) Glad to hear you’re enjoying, and congrats to you on having a fellow “debut” listing over at Tuesday Serial. (Readers, if you’re looking for something to tide you over until season 2 on Monday, there you go!)

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