“Visitors only came for a few reasons, and some might stay longer depending on what they came for. There were days I would be sad and cry until I was so exhausted I couldn’t stay awake, and there were visitors. When I received new toys, things that I didn’t understand but would have to use for work one day, there were visitors. When I was sick, and the doctor would come, when I was dirty, and the nurse would wash me, when I would act and do embarrassing and childish things, there were visitors. Sometimes, the visitors would bring their pets, who would be allowed into my room. At first, I didn’t know what they were. The animals were odd looking, but most of them were nice. They just wanted to be pet, like their owners had gotten them and never touched them once. I liked the dogs, with the warm fuzzy fur. Peter said once that if things went wrong while I was being cut, if the shots hadn’t worked, and they didn’t have anywhere for me in the House, I would get to live with the dogs and take care of them and pet them all day. But, they might also move me from the House to what Peter called a base.”
“Well, what’s your game? I think I have a right to know,” Fatimah asked for what felt like more than the fifth time that morning.
Looking over the washed-out and flavorless porridge she had fixed herself against the last of the imitation eggs Fathima had hardly touched, Piper shrugged, “I really don’t know. I just couldn’t leave you there.”
“You could have and should have. My husband received his papers just yesterday. He will go to war whether he likes it or not. I needed to be there for the children.”
She had seemed so precious and innocent in her sleep that Piper had almost forgotten that there might have been rhyme and reason for her being discarded. However, it was clear that there was more to it than just her husband’s needs. Fathima may have let slip, inadvertently or otherwise, that she was as good as a ticket for Aamir and his sons out of this country. But in truth, she could have easily been how the family remained in the country.
Piper wasn’t terribly interested in women, but she knew what looked desirable to the majority and what didn’t. She was a perfect example of what was unpleasing, misshapen, ginger, just too flabby to be thin or fit, and not large enough to be among the few but various plus-sized models. However, Fatimah was the picture-perfect frame and face. Perhaps some, usually of African descent, had trouble working the market against the majority, a hodgepodge of predominately white or those that had undergone whitening procedures, but her complexion brooked an exotic nature. Moreover, there wasn’t a great deal of foreign flesh on the local markets, if not the regionals.
The question lingered on Piper’s mind as Fatimah prodded her eggs more with her fork. Finally, she let her lips loosen and half-muttered the delicate issue, “Why don’t you just work the Market?”
“Don’t take it the wrong way, but I assumed you might have belonged to one of the closed system Markets. If you did, though, I think you would have mentioned it by now.”
“You people,” Fatimah shook her head, “You prize beauty so high even your men think they should be starlets. Did you ever think that beauty might not be for sale but could just exist?”
“I’m not trying to put you in an odd spot, but if you’ve got nowhere to go and no money… I mean, you could probably just record or interact one to one through a virtual set and make more in a day than I did last month.”
She slid her plate to the side, “I would rather freeze to death, be forced to shovel dung, or suffer any type of indignity before I sold my soul to those lechers. You don’t think Aamir tried to force me? You don’t think that was his plan? Why do you think he never touched my face?”
An hour crept by in silence after Fatimah had stated her stance, clear as crystal. Piper handled some odds and ends around the apartment before opening up the discarded paperback she kept her ledger in. Tabulating her paycheck, likely the last from Boldwin and Sons, Piper concluded what had stared her in the face the moment Dan had given her the news. Even in her ‘reasonably priced’ flat, there was no way she would afford to live without finding a job today and cutting back on any spending until she broke even.
The possibility of squatting loomed large in front of Piper. She had known some very successful squatters. But that was before the new laws went into effect, and squatters, along with too many other minor offenders, were enlisted when brought in by police. There were a lot of things she could do before she would let herself get shipped off to wherever the new battlegrounds were. She could offer her bedroom to Fatimah if she picked up a job. Then the sparse living room with the padded chair could be her bedroom or space for another tenant. If there was one thing she had, it was blankets, and she could easily tuck under the kitchen table for a few months until the looming recession vanished, the threat of war dissipated, and the winter became less mild. In the meantime, she had to find work.
Despite day not breaking and night holding fast, carrying with it a flurry of damp and heavy snow, Fatimah joined Piper. They walked three blocks up and over, past Boldwin’s and Silver Crown, her last employer. Silver Crown had closed only a month prior, but the building was already a husk with vagrants packed inside like sardines. She wondered if Boldwin’s was already being dismantled internally by the homeless. They would sell every scrap they could and set up shop inside until the winter grew too harsh or a gang ran them out. Without much of a second thought, Piper led Fatimah across the street and stood at the top of the incline.
The closed sign was flipped to face outward, the lights inside were entirely out, including the emergency beacons, and a bar lock, something like a tablet spread at the opening seam of the door before being screwed in place, shown no entry as of yet. There was a familiar copper-toned coat standing under the smoke break balcony. Piper recognized Kristoff but not quite what he was doing.
“Hey, I think we’ve closed up.”
The obese man with a beard that never had quite grown in fully swished around in a hurry, tense, his fingers more chapped than his cheeks and clutching wads of newly fallen snow. After a moment, recognition passed his features, and he offered a sheepish grin. Piper was almost happy he didn’t offer a broader smile. Kris had the type of face that made him look more malicious than anything when jovial. He tucked his hands in his coat pockets and drew out a lighter that battled not with the wind but a lack of fuel. Inevitably a pale flicker came from the end of the disposable.
The cigarette between his lips was stained around the filter and nearly finished as he started it, “Saw that. I was just taking a look at the place. You down here looking for work or a place to stay?”
“Work. And you?”
“Both, but no one is going to want to set up shop in Boldwin’s, not for a while.”
Sucking in air through his teeth, a cloud emerging from his nostrils, not quite smoke, not quite heat, Kris muttered, “Saul. I don’t know where you were, but when we were walking out, we heard the pop and… Look, I’ve seen some messes, but it was nothing anyone would wanna contend with.”
“I’m freezing out here. When are we getting to this factory?” Fatimah questioned as though Kris hadn’t just regarded another person’s termination.
Shaking a bit of snow off her cap, Piper gave her ex-co-worker a shrug, “Well, we’ve got to get something going, even if it’s only for a bit. You heard anything?”
“Dahl company. They didn’t want me after Star Foods closed, but they’re worth trying. Naomi and I, we looked into prospects and such last night. Dahl’s the last place in town. I was heading that way myself.”
Through the bleary, snowy streets, the three carried on, wishing like anything that cabs or buses still ran in the city. Most, if not all, had been scrapped for the war effort, and the shells that remained of the great street crawling blocks of cheese were now home to most of the gangs as they had been placed willy-nilly across the city. Kris drew a flask from his coat and took an oblivion-seeking gulp before offering a sip to Fatimah, who declined, and Piper, who took a moderate taste, nothing to put her in his debt. Even with that most minor of drinks, Piper could tell Kris’s desperation, as it may as just as well have been rubbing alcohol. Yet, it braced her against a northern wind blowing all the stronger as they came within the boundaries of Dahl’s parking lot, vacant of everything but people.