Rajiana grew up in Midnight city, poor and hungry. Can she get out?
I sat on the front steps of my building waiting for Ryuki. A tourist man walked by, his face dirty and his eyes still glazed over from smoking salt the night before. He looked at me, and I looked away- the way my mom told me to when the tourist men gave me attention. He hovered over me, making the hairs on my neck stand on end and heard my mother's words in the back of my head, 'when a man stares at you, it's a sign that you need to go to temple more.' His shadow continued moving down the street and I breathed a sigh of relief.
"Dango! Dango!" A tourist woman called out frantically, distracting me from my thoughts of leering men and my opinionated mother.
The tourist woman's hair was pale white, but her features youthful and exotic. I wondered what planet she was from. I could see her face twisted with worry as she ran her hands over one another nervously.
"Dango!" her voice cracked pathetically. "Where are you?"
Some hapless quality about her stirred sympathy in my gut, and for the first time I could recall, I ventured to speak to a tourist.
"Do you need help?" I asked, getting to my feet and looking up at the woman- she was so tall.
The woman seemed taken aback by being approached, but quickly found her words.
"Yes, I'm looking for my son. He was just here a minute ago, and now I can't find him."
"What does he look like?" I asked.
"He has hair the same color as mine," the woman tugged at a lock of pure, white hair. He's wearing a green shirt and blue pants."
I looked up at the fire escape, where one of my neighbors was lounging in the hot afternoon sun.
"Hey, Mrs. Hokar, we're looking for a little boy. He's got the same hair color as this lady."
"What's that?" the older woman called down.
"I say," I spoke louder. "This lady lost her son. A little boy. He's got the same hair color as her."
"Oh, I don't know if I've seen anyone like that," she scratched her chin. "Hey Demarco!" Mrs. Hokar yelled to an old man two windows down who was watering a few dying plants on his balcony.
"What?" he called back, annoyed.
"Hey, you seen a little boy? This lady lost her son. Got the same hair color as her."
"I haven't seen anything. I'm trying to water my plants."
"Well, could you look? Besides those things have been dead for a week."
The tourist woman wrung her hands nervously as we watched the two communicate.
"Is that him, over there?" Demarco called out. "The kid with his head in a trash bin?"
Mrs. Hokar, the tourist woman, and I looked to the direction he was pointing. The woman and I had to step around a tourist bus to see. There was a little boy, standing on his tip-toes to see inside a garbage can.
"Dango!" the mother cried. "That's him! That's him! Thank you so much."
Mrs. Hokar smiled kindly, and Demarco just swatted toward the woman, as if batting away an annoying fly.
She ran to her son, gently took him by the hand and led him away from the garbage can. I watched, waiting for her to hit him and scream at the boy. Instead she knelt down to him, kissed him a dozen times, hugged him tightly, and then picked him up in her arms.
Tourists are weird, I thought to myself, but also wondered what it would be like for my own mother to hold me that way. To kiss my cheek and nose and forehead like that.
"Thank you so much," she cried, walking back to me. "Can you say thank you, Dango? Can you say thank you to this nice, young lady?"
The little boy just looked at me with a face of frustration, as if I were to blame for taking away the mysteries of the garbage can.
I then realized that in all the years I'd seen tourists going by, I'd never actually spoken to one. I felt the opportunity for new knowledge slipping away and decided to communicate.
"Can I ask you something?" I asked.
"Yes, of course," the woman nodded her head vigorously, the little boy still tightly in her arms.
"Why do you come here? Is it because your home planet isn't as nice?"
"Oh," the woman chuckled. "No, no, my home planet is Jinu. My city is Gertrain. It's a beautiful city. We have one of the largest forests in the whole protectorate. And mountains. And binary suns- one yellow and one blue. It gives us the most incredible sunsets you'll ever see."
"So why do you come here if your planet is nice?" I struggled to understand her rationale.
"Oh, my husband needs a modded liver. Back home it would cost 30,000 credits for the operation. But here it's like 1,200. If you factor in the cost of the port-ray to get us here, and the hotel, we're saving almost 20,000 credits by getting the procedure done here."
I had never heard credits mentioned in such high numbers before. The only frames of reference I had were eighty credits for my family's rent. Four credits for the family's dinner at the market. Seventy five cred-cents for a new pack of pens. Were there people who actually had thousands of credits?
"Can I get you something?" the woman asked, looking to my bare feet and yellow dress with too many holes. "I so appreciate what you did. Can I buy you a meal or something?"
This opportunity had never presented itself before and I wasn't sure what to do. I considered just letting the matter go, happy to help the woman without asking for a fee. But some greedy, self-interested part of me ignited and I thought about the thing that I wanted most in the world.
"Could you get me a book?" my voice tip-toed.
"Uh, sure," the woman shrugged. "Why not. Where's the book shop?"
There's a store over there. A block and a half that way."
"Ok, let's go."
I led the women down the street, stopping at an intersection.
"You have to be careful when you cross the street," I said, taking hold of the woman's arm in a motherly fashion. "Cars don't stop. Is this your first time in Midnight City?"
"Yes, it is, actually. How did you know?"
"Well, I never see lady tourists here by themselves. I figured you didn't know any better."
I led her across the large intersection, moving inbetween cars as they passed.
"Why don't women come here?" she asked when we were halfway across the street, and standing on a small island as traffic whizzed by us.
"It's not really safe. See, over there?" I pointed to a bar.
"Mr. Jones used to own that bar. He got robbed last month and put up a fight. The robbers killed him. And over there," I pointed to another bar. "I saw a tourist die outside of that bar. He did too many drugs. And over there, Big Dog O'hare almost killed one of his girls on the street in front of everybody. He stomped her head until she was all bloody."
I pulled the woman's arm and led her into the street as the flow of traffic slowed and we were able to maneuver in between the passing cars.
"That's horrible," the woman held her son tighter. "I see why people don't come here."
"No. People still come here. Just the men. They smoke salt, and shoot blue, and drink alcohol. Then they have sex with all the night walkers. It's just the women tourists that don't come here so much."
I led the woman across the street and looked up to her face to see that she appeared visibly ill.
"Say, are you feeling alright?" I asked.
"Oh, I'm... yes, I'm fine. Is this the shop?"
"Yea, this is it."
A few signs sat in the store's front window, and were faded by time. 'Men's socks: 1.5 credits.' 'Half off all back to school supplies.' 'Tourist maps sold here.'
"Let's go get a book for the nice girl," the woman said to her son, as she hugged him tightly.
The little boy didn't seem to appreciate the hug- his face was sour and perturbed.
"Here's twenty credits," the woman said, offering me two 10-credit bills as we stood in front of the store.
I reached out for the money carefully, but was hesitant.
"Go on," the woman said. "Buy whatever you can with it."
"All this... is for me?" I asked.
"Yeah, go nuts. I mean, how much is a book? Do you need more? I'll go in with you in case you need more."
"Thank you..." I gasped as I took the money.
I had never held twenty credits before. I looked at the intricate detail of each bill- there was an image of Dauntless in the center, with faces of three famous ministers from the early days of the protectorate. I didn't know their names.
With money in hand, I entered the store and tore into their twin book shelves like a quiet hurricane- opening books, inspecting descriptions on the rear covers, flipping through the pictures of old text books, smelling the pages of used books. There were fewer than a hundred books in the entire store, and some of them had been misplaced among the cleaning supplies and bottles of alcohol. I looked in the back of the store and found a stack of books that was used to prop up one corner of an empty shelf.
I returned to the front counter with eleven large books in my hands, struggling to stay up right under their weight.
"Oh, sweetheart," the woman said, "I don't know if twenty credits will pay for all of these."
The cashier at the counter grabbed the stack without a word, and one by one, checked the label on the back. He pulled out a pen and paper to add up the cost. I felt my smile grow with each check of the book, and the woman looked nervously between the large stack and the cashier tallying the cost.
"That'll be 19.67," the man said sleepily.
"You mean for each book," the woman asked, confused.
The cashier looked back at her, not sure what to say.
I could see wheels spinning behind the man's head- an opportunity to scam an unwitting tourist. I acted quickly and slammed the twenty credits down on the counter, then pulled the books toward me. The cashier gave the change for the sale, and I pushed it toward the lady.
"Oh, you keep it," the woman said, her eyes filling with tears for some reason. "You'll get more out of it than I will."
I slid the books off the counter and used all my strength to carry them to the door. The woman watched me walk outside and onto the sidewalk. I tried to wave at the woman, but my hands were full. Instead I just smiled and wiggled my head.
I walked back toward my apartment, a block and a half away, feeling my smile as wide as Dauntless. Eleven books. Eleven new worlds to unlock. I couldn't wait to get home and devour them. I crossed the street, carefully moving inbetween the cars as I went.
I saw Itrim and Venir standing on the corner, looking bored. I avoided eye contact and quickly walked past them. I held my breath and promised myself I would go to temple every day this week if it would just let me get past those two boys without being bothered.
"What you got there?" a voice came from behind me, and I felt a hand on my shoulder.
I turned around to see Itrim and Venir. They lived in the building across the street. Itrim was tall and skinny, with a black eye and bruises on his knuckles. Everyone knew that his old man hit him- it left him permanently bruised, and always in a bad mood. Venir was the same height, but more muscular, and had a broken front tooth; when I looked at him it was the only thing my eyes could focus on. Itrim grabbed the book on top of the pile and opened it.
"What is this," he squinted to read the cover. "Micro...bio...logy of the cosmos. You can't read this. You're too stupid to know about this."
"I like to read," I said meekly. "Can I please have it back?"
"No one likes a girl who tries to read," Venir said as he read the cover of a book and then grabbed it. "Geo...graph...y of Dauntless. Well, we're gonna help you get a boyfriend- no one will date you with all these books."
Venir ripped out two pages and the horrible sound of tortured paper filled the air. I felt myself scream out loud; I reached out to save the punished book, and in the process dropped all the books in my arms. They sliced through open air, and with their combined weight, landed on Venir's bare foot.
"Ow, gods damn it!" Venir yelled. "You Varus bitch. You did that on purpose!"
"I didn't..." I said meekly as I took a step backward. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to."
The two glared at me as they moved forward maliciously. Itrim reached out to grab me, but I jumped back.
"Come here!" Venir grabbed me by my arm- his hands were so strong.
I leaned forward and bit his wrist as powerfully as I could.
"Ow!" Venir shouted as he pulled his hand away. "You stupid little goddess, you're gonna pay for that!"
As soon as I was free I turned and ran, the two boys right behind me. I bolted across the street, weaving through cars, and narrowly avoided being hit by a city bus. A long string of honks and yells came out.
"Watch it, you idiot goddess!" A driver yelled as he spit on the ground.
"Get out of the way, Varus!" another driver yelled.
I looked back over my shoulder to see the boys in hot pursuit. They were running on the opposite side of the street, not brave enough to venture into the fast-moving traffic.
I ducked into Chen's restaurant and hid under an empty table.
"Hey, what you doing?" Chen called out as he stepped out from behind the counter.
I held my finger up to my lips, begging him to be quiet as I gently shook my head. Just then the door was pushed open and I heard the boys breathing heavily.
"Hey, I no want trouble," Chen called out, approaching the boys.
A tear ran down my cheek as I watched the boys' feet from under my table.
"Hey, relax, we're just looking for a friend," Itrim said nicely.
"You two boy is trouble. I no want trouble. You need go."
I couldn't see what was happening; I could only see their feet. I saw a little bit of blood on Venir's big toe, where the books had hit. I hoped it had hurt.
A lob of spit hit the floor at Chen's feet, and the boys turned to leave, chuckling to each other. I looked through the glass door and watched them go. I counted the seconds after they'd exited the restaurant. When I counted to fifteen, I carefully peaked out my head.
"I'm sorry Mr. Chen," I said.
I quickly grabbed a napkin from a table and wiped up the pile of spittle the boys had left.
"Those are bad boy," Chen said. "You need be careful around they."
"I know. I'll be careful."
"If they keep bother you, you come tell me. I speak their mother and father."
"Thank you, Mr. Chen."
"Hey, you eat today?" he asked.
"I had some bread this morning," I spoke into my chest.
"Here, you come eat. My cook make too many noodle. Not enough customer. You eat."
Chen ducked into the kitchen, and came out with a small bowl, so full of long, fat noodles, that it was overflowing. He lathered on an oily, red sauce and set it down before me. I looked at it hungrily, then turned back to Chen.
"This is all the money I have," I held out the 33 cred-cents the woman had left me.
"No problem," Chen held up his hands. "Is free."
"Thank you so much," I smiled widely.
Chen nodded approvingly and I dug into the noodles, scooping them to into my mouth, as Chen tended to other customers. I finished the noodles quickly. I had been full when I'd eaten about two thirds of the meal, but didn't know when I'd have another feast like this. I ate every noodle, and then licked the bowl clean. I picked up the bowl and brought it back to the kitchen. I washed the bowl in the sink, and then set it on the drying rack. The cook watched me, but didn't say anything.
"The noodles were very good," I said softly.
"Thank you," the cook responded, his face erupting with a grin.
I returned to the front door, and looked left then right before opening it. There was no sign of Itrim or Venir. I poked out my head. Still no sign of them. I waited for traffic to slow and carefully crossed the street, moving in between cars as I went. I looked over my shoulder and waited for a surprise fist to hit my jaw, or a foot to kick my back.
I reached the sidewalk and then went back to where I'd left my books. Three of the books had been disemboweled, their pages spilled out across the sidewalk.
My soul screamed at seeing the carnage, but I didn't cry. What's done is done, I thought. I'll just have to fix it. Even if it takes all day to put the pages back in order.
Only three books had been attacked, and only a handful of the pages were truly damaged beyond repair. I figured that Itrim and Venir only had the attention span to rip the books for a minute or two. I tenderly picked up the mangled things, and walked around the side walk, grabbing one loose page after another.
"You need some help?" Ryuki asked sheepishly as he stepped toward me.
"Where were you before?" I asked, wondering how much of the encounter he had seen.
He said nothing and only looked down to the ground ashamed.
"You could've helped me out earlier," I said with a scowl on my face.
"I'm sorry..." he muttered.
"Your friends are bad people," I snapped in a mean voice as I continued to pick up the shreds of paper.
Ryuki said nothing as he bent down and helped me retrieve papers. I let him help. Soon we'd picked up every fragment, every sliver of paper that had been damaged. I would sort them all out when I got home.
Ryuki walked up the stairs with me, as if he intended to go up to the apartment. I stopped and then turned to him.
"What do you think you're doing?" I asked.
"Uh..." Ryuki mumbled. "I thought that..."
"You go play with your real friends. Leave me alone."
"Come on, stop being such a Varus. I said I was sorry."
His words hit me and my gut burned hot. I wanted to hurt him; I wanted to thrash him and leave him in pieces, so I thought of the worst thing I could possibly say.
"I hope you fail the inspection," the words left my lips cruelly and bitter. "I hope they take you away."
He looked back at me with wide, pathetic eyes, and a jaw that hung stupidly. I immediately felt a sting of guilt, and the urge to console Ryuki filled me. I opened my mouth to sooth his pain, but I had a sudden image of my mom, with a black eye, telling my father that it wasn't his fault. I closed my mouth, glared at Ryuki as if he were my father, and then climbed the stairs to my apartment.
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