I was happy to see her out of bed, out of that dingy little room, let alone showing some interest in doing something.
She left me sitting with the thing while she went to take a shower. She hadn’t had a shower for days.
I mean, I wasn’t complaining or anything. It wasn’t like I was a pillar of good habits when it came to that kind of thing. But this was Beth. As far as I could tell she used to have a shower daily, twice a day even.
The change was what worried me. Anything that showed through a little more of her old self gave me some hope that she was feeling a little better.
But it left me with little to do but wait. It was a little relief to have some time to myself that wasn’t, if I’m honest, with her. Alone. Not with Danni and Mike’s sarcastic conversation, or the inevitable awkwardness that seemed to exist between me and Beth.
I shifted through the clothes I had for the newest, cleanest t-shirt I could find. Sure I should probably have a shower of my own, but Beth was in the way. I took great pains to avoid meeting anyone before, during or after a shower – I’d taken to using it late at night, and bringing the clothes I was going to wear after and changing into them behind the shower curtain. Sticky, damp, but sure as hell beat having to walk around in a towel or someone walking into the far-too open shower room that was shared between me, Beth and Danni.
I’d rather just… not. Besides, I’d had one yesterday. I found a decent one and quickly stripped off my old one and threw it on, before taking the lighter stab-vest. I’d kept it for going outside, but not going out. Protection, but something you could hide under a hoodie or jacket.
I was ready to go when Beth returned, her slick still-wet hair leaving her t-shirt, my t-shirt blooming with damp patches.
“This is far too big for me. I don’t know how you can wear stuff like this,” she said, tugging at the edge, well below the hips of her borrowed jeans.
It did look rather odd on her. She looked so out of place in my… well, now I saw her wearing them – dull, too-baggy clothes. I didn’t do colour. I certainly didn’t do close-fitting, stylish cuts or damn well anything Beth went for in her wardrobe.
“Where do you even buy clothes around here?”
A shopping trip.
But this was a tiny window of Before Beth. I’d be damned if I didn’t run with it.
“Everywhere, pretty much. There’s always someone selling something.” I’d seen plenty of people selling clothes on the streets. Not everyone on the Island had such indifference to fashion as myself.
I’d sure seen people wearing stuff far more wild than you’d see on the mainland.
“Alright.” She pulled her hair back into a low ponytail. It was odd, seeing so much of the sides of her face. I’d never seen her with it back before. It was barely long enough, a few tendrils of black escaped, and she brushed them out of her eyes with a frown.
Her cheeks were still a little too sunken since the hospital, her eyes deeper-set. It gave her a more severe air. I tried to get her to eat more but if I didn’t bring her anything, if I didn’t make an effort, she had the tendency to just sleep through any reasonable times to eat. It had meant I’d eaten better than I ever had before, trying to force her into a sensible routine.
She’d done that for me, after all.
“Come on,” I wanted to get her out of this place, before there was a chance she could slip back into the depression that had plagued her. “Let’s go.”
* * *
I picked my direction, destination in mind. It wasn’t busy. I checked my phone for the date, and time, something I was getting increasingly used to needing to do, without having a regular routine of school.
Wednesday, sixteen twenty.
There wasn’t particularly a working week on the Island, but there was always a sense that Wednesday was a day to stay at home and not bother going out. Four O’clock, well before the evening surge of party-goers and people seeking a little food. Only catching the tail end of people finishing up their routine business. Shops open, but not busy.
“There are more people than I remember.” Maybe still too many for Beth. She moved close to me, her hand clutched my arm. It would have hurt if she held me any harder.
“Remember?” The odd thing was… I wasn’t bothered her so close, clutching at me like that. I couldn’t easily forget her being so close to me, but a week or so ago we’d kissed, her being so close didn’t seem to cause my body to go so haywire.
“When we used to walk to school, from your place.”
Oh, it was easier than I would have thought to forget she’d spent a few days living with me. “That was further out. A lot more people live near here.” I indicated to the towering flats. Concrete honeycombs built by the government in attempt to house the over-population of the Island ghettoes before they quite fell off the map. Over time they’d been modified, extended. Balconies bulged outwards, supported by steel wires meshed between the towering flats. “We can go inside sometime, I’ll show you the markets. If you want to buy something, someone in there will want to sell you it.”
I’d been in before, and it was a sight worth seeing, but I didn’t like to frequent the places. To get the real experience you had to travel upwards, and by far the tallest buildings in the area, they lacked the accessibility of the walkways usually criss-crossing buildings. I wasn’t comfortable with the lack of escape routes. They represented a vertical alley to me.
Besides, there were plenty of sellers in the spaces between.
“Look, clothes!” I nodded to a store showing various items of fabric cut into vague human shapes. Could such items tempt Beth? The weather was dry enough that people had their goods in the streets.
One reason I took this path.
“Hmm.” I tried to assess the meaning behind her tone as my detour came to an end in front of a rack of colourful garments.
She picked up the hem of a skirt, then flicked through a few items.
“This isn’t bad.” She pulled out a grey dress of some kind. “It’s… kind of last year a little, but I liked the style.”
“Hello ladies,” I jumped at the slimy drawl, even though I should have been expecting it at any moment. “Interested?”
Short guy, slicked back hair, too-large coat. Though maybe not for standing around all day in a Montreal winter. He had it the item Beth had been talking about off the rack, off its hanger and in her hands before she could close them.
“This your big sister, little girl?” I felt myself giving him a dangerous look. Whatever his sales-spiel was he was hitting all the wrong buttons with me. Besides, Beth and I looked nothing alike.
“She’s my girlfriend.” Beth said sharply.
He blinked, but changed his pitch without faltering, meanwhile my cheeks burned. “Buying your date something nice then?” He grabbed both of Beth’s hands, still clutching the dress, and pulled them up so the clothing fell against her figure. I felt myself tense, my hand twitched to my belt where I had one of my hidden knives. “Looks perfect to me. I’ll let you have it for three hundred.”
I laughed. It wasn’t funny, it was exactly what I expected. But I could always force out a laugh at the first price. It was good practice. Even with my nervousness of his proximity to me and his manhandling of Beth… I could still laugh.
I scanned the corner of my eye for anyone else showing interest in us. But, however much his actions set my teeth on edge, it was exactly what I would expect. He seemed relaxed, focused on us as customers. I didn’t pick up on any hint of malice.
“Come on, let’s go.” I grabbed Beth’s hands. Tactic two of bargaining, after showing your amusement at his joke of an offer, show your disinterest in his product.
I pulled her away, but he kept hold. My knuckles tightened on the handle of the knife, but I wasn’t expecting him to give up that easily. I did manage to manoeuvre us so our back was against a wall, I didn’t want anyone getting behind me. I’d rather that than the increased ability to get out of the situation.
“Come on, you were just saying how nice it was.”
“She was.” I grabbed the edge and tugged at it. “Seems cheap to me. Thin too, not much good for winter.”
“Might be good for other things though, eh?” Silence. “No? Uh… Well, you could wear something under it real easy, I’ve got a bunch of stuff. Here, let me…”
“Nope.” I pulled at Beth again.
“Two hundred. Do I know you?”
I looked him right in the eye.
“No. And I’m not interested.” Beth blinked, as she looked from him to me, and back. I squeezed her hand in my own, the one not squeezing the hell out of the grip on a blade. “We’re not shopping for junk like this.”
With that, Beth let go of the thing, leaving it dangling from his hands. His control relinquished, we started to move away.
“I can go as low as a hundred and twenty!” He was following us now.
“I told you-”
“Come on, a hundred.”
I stopped, gave Beth a sly grin, and turned to him.
“Look, I’ve got to make a living here, there’s no way I can sell you it for that! I have kids to feed.” He was almost shouting. “Eighty.”
I shrugged. “Your kids, your problem. Shouldn’t have had ‘em. Seventy five.”
“Fine,” He held out his hand for me to shake, but I left it hanging. I wasn’t one to shake a stranger’s hand. I plucked out a few battered bills Mike had given me and held them out to him. “You’re trying to starve me you know.”
He handed me the bundle of grey fabric, and ambled back to his store to try catch someone else showing interest.
“Here,” I passed the thing to Beth.
“That was… different.” She unslung the backpack off her shoulder and pushed her new prize into it, zipping it shut. “And that’s really cheap.”
“Those shops you took me to,” I said, “those are the weird ones. Prices on everything, fixed, no bargaining. And damn expensive.”
“But… that was so much work, just for one thing.”
I shrugged. “More work when you’re buying, less work earning money. There’s a price for everything.”
“It’s just so different. And I’ve never seen you… like that before.”