A young girl struggles with whether manufactured hope is as good as the real thing while she helps her family survive in a landscape marred by fallout. [19 min]
I saw her at the market every weekend, her basket full of them.
She looked close to my age and wore a brightly colored kerchief around her head to lend her wares a gypsy air. But I knew better—it was to hide the hair loss.
By the end of the day, her basket would be empty, the pouch tied to her waist heavier than when she started out. Not today though. She was absent from her spot in front of the iodine station. Then I remembered the last time I saw her. She was pale, coughed into a gray hanky when she thought no one was looking. But I was, and saw that it came away speckled with red.
I knew what I had to do.
I traced my steps back through the stalls, through the press of bodies bartering for food and supplements. My steps in time with the static-y clack-clack-clack of the Geiger counters the trade officials wielded to ensure goods were decontaminated. Not that that prevented contaminated ones from being sold. But even after the fallout, appearances still mattered.
Elian grinned at me from behind his parents’ counter. They sold candy. Elian never told me how his family got a hold of the sugar, but there was always a crush of people, mostly children, in front of their stall, their hands and noses pressed against the plastic that separated them from the gumdrops, taffies, and truffles. He would sometimes sneak me a piece or two, and watch my face as I enjoyed each morsel. Sometimes I wished he wouldn’t—it made the supplements harder to bear during the week.
As I passed by, I gave Elian a quick wave, but didn’t stop. Not this time.
Dad was waiting for me at the exit to the cramped warehouse, still teeming with activity even though the sun had lost its fight with the toxic clouds for the day.
“Any jobs?” he asked me as soon as I reached his side.
I shook my head. No one had need of a handyman. Or, if they did, they would do without Dad’s skills for now. Winter was coming, and with it a new chill on the wind.
I pulled up the collar of my jacket as we started the long walk home. At least it wasn’t raining, not like last weekend. The drops burned whenever they found skin.