The Love Market: Chapter Nine

The map, showing what was left of connecting lines running through the states, was recent, printed just that year by some other factory likely closed indefinitely now, but was nonetheless out of date. From snippets of news Piper had gotten from those passing through looking for work, at least another quarter of the major cities the tracks united were underwater financially, collapsed by flight, or asunder in chaos. Yet, for all the graffiti that filled the train terminal, no one had seen fit to scrawl over the dead cities as a form of warning. All that marred the map was a crudely sketched posterior punctuated by the red ‘you are here’ star that had been painted, very carefully, an off-putting brown. All that mattered was the corner of the map she needed was still legible even in the failing light of the train station.

Harbor was not a coastal city but sat at the Strait of Mackinac, where two of the great lakes kissed. The town had been called something else once. The change had come with all the other transformation the Wilderness and war and Market created. Harbor, despite being a harbor, was more of a joke than anything else. It was the capital for harbored men and women brought in to be sold on the Market as well as those looking to flee to the Wilderness. It wasn’t that someone couldn’t walk out of the city in any given direction and join the endless procession of fools wandering into their death, but it was safer leaving from Harbor.

Making it to Harbor meant you had thought about your choice to flee society and the grips of both the Market and government. Whereas it took no money or brains to pick a direction and walk from your home to the wild lands. Those who reached Harbor had money and some wits. It was passed along that around Harbor, the packs of ravenous beasts and men and men turned beast was less, if not almost wholly absent. Piper had even heard talk that there were tribes, well constructed and capable of carrying out civil discourse, that had stationed themselves around the final city. But, for what it was worth, Piper thought the only reason anyone would choose to leave society by way of Harbor was that they could head north across the lakes and never see a city again.

If you escaped the cities, you clearly were not intending on relocating to another and trying your hand at work or the Market. Most likely, Piper admitted to herself that if you were trying for Wilderness, Harbor or not, you had a death wish. Were one to go by drowning, it would be easier done by such massive bodies of water. Exposure? The north still grew cold; if that chill didn’t kill you, the starvation would. And if you wanted to go swiftly by some crude monster’s even more barbaric club, well, the ring of strays surrounding Harbor would be the quickest way to that end. Those who went to Harbor were not expected to live long or well-off lives. Fatimah would undoubtedly be considered mad to take that route out of life.

If the talk of tribes lured anyone away, Piper would never know, but she had her certainties that even there, that far north, none one accepted a new member into their ranks without reasonable cause or proper offering. The nomads were said to be pragmatic in their own way, picking and choosing only those who could do for them what they asked to be done for themselves. If you were to be one of the wild folk, you had to be able to make it worth their while. Some of the strongest would be taken in as they could perform hard labor and fight for a place in these bands. The wise might prove they could work mechanisms abandoned by the world of yesterday that would permit the tribe an easier time at life. And those rare cast-offs from the Market who wouldn’t be bought by some private collector or heavily backed unacceptable would sometimes offer their lingering beauty to these packs of animals. It was all absurd, but as was showing someone so prime for the Love Market how she might just escape it in cowardice.

“So, which city is it?” Fatimah broke through Piper’s wall of concentration enough to get the question out.

She rubbed her temples, “Harbor, but I don’t think there is any train going there today.”

Kris stood behind the two, hardly concerned that he might know them, as he focused on the map.

Piper wanted to snap at him until she realized who it was that spoke, “What are you doing here, Kris?”

“Not shooting for Wilderness, that’s for sure. Got a draft notice. I’m not going to put someone else out just cause they want me to. Figured I go back home. I got connections there, at least. I can get a new I.D. and go from there. And you two are intent on Harbor?”

“No, well, not me,” Piper began, her thoughts not ready to be made word as she trailed off.

Fatimah took over, “Me, I’m going to Harbor. Which train gets me there?”

“The ’03 does Harbor, every time. I’ll walk you over; it’s next to mine,” Kris had half of a cigarette this time, his lighter almost completely out as it barely lit the stained tube.

Piper’s voice caught in her throat as Fatimah joined Kris. For his part, her former colleague grinned, not out of spite but that little joy of being able to help. Fatimah was absolutely without emotion, as though the aid was hardly received as such. Instead, she turned and gave Piper a simple look that said precisely what Piper felt it should. She needed the money for her ticket, and she’d be gone, set down in Harbor before the day was out, her bones picked clean by dawn of the next day, and the world deprived of her light, her beauty.

Numb, everything in the world may have pulsed with life, shivered with chill, and ached with pains unseen, but Piper was numb. Her fingers moved on their own accord as she drew her bank card from her pocket. She placed it in Fatimah’s outstretched hand and closed the digits around them, the indication apparent, she hoped. A final moment, the last look on the foreign woman’s face replaced the feeling of indignation brewing in Piper’s chest.

For just a few seconds, as though it were a mistake to have moved her face in such a manner, Fatimah had let slide a polite, thankful smile. It was a minor raising of the lips, a faint expression of her gratefulness. Piper didn’t expect a long farewell, and she wasn’t surprised to see not a single tear or passioned word pass either of them, but that smile was unexpected. Before she realized how brief the scene was, Kris and Fatimah had left Piper.

The legs that brought her up to surface level, the hands that manipulated doors and dials, and the face that stared blankly into the flurries and fatigued fog that hung over the world were not Piper’s. What was left of the woman, the girl really, that was Piper Shay was minimal. What she was, who she was, was crushed beneath the weight of the world, and there wasn’t a single soul who might help with that weight. Absentmindedly, she made her way through the city, ignoring gangs that could have fallen upon her, neglecting the last vestiges of human contact that mingled in the dying light of day, and forgetting what it was to hold out for a brighter tomorrow.

By the time Piper reached home, night was setting in, and there was no saying if she had been gone for an hour or a week. Posted on the front door of her apartment was the eviction notice. Pairing well with the dismissal of her lease was the train ticket in the mail. When drafted, the ticket was covered by the government. It made it harder for a new recruit to excuse their call to arms, but also came the day after the notice. Someone called upon and given the ticket right away might rip it up or use it to get as far away from home as possible. Piper regarded it, folded it, and put it in her pocket. The voucher was only good for a one-way ride, two days from then.

In the meantime, Piper thought she might starve or go stir-crazy. There was nothing left for her in the city. There wasn’t a dime or dollar she could draw on even to go out with a bang. Were she at all indulged by the Market in any of its offerings, she had no chance at it now. Gregor could come home that night, come to her home that night, and it wouldn’t matter. Everything was done. No job, no friends, and no love, not even money to buy love. The bottle under the sink looked all the more tempting for the lack of choice. But Piper, still holding as close and steadfast as she could to the belief the world might change, couldn’t allow that to come to pass. Somehow, someway, she knew things would have to get better. It might take war to bring better days about, and she was on the fast track to the battle lines. It wasn’t going to be pretty, but it was the only way she might come out the other side of this life sane.

The speakers rattled with static, and the trailing sound of the recording began to cut out. The sound of a struggle came in place of the recorded voice. Grunts and landed blows, the clatter of equipment being thrown and smashed into pieces filled the speakers. For all of a breath, a new voice came in, brusk and mature, “Kevin, I’m sorry. If you can hear me now, wherever you are, I’m sorry.”

The man’s voice disappeared into the ether just as soon as it had come. The commotion that had taken over the speakers died away, and the regular broadcasts continued. Not a single soul in earshot recognized the recording or the final moments as anything but chatter. A few citizens of the Market on the street looked to the speakers but forgot any notion of concern as the ad roll began again, “Double your pleasure with the Tanner twins.”

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