Steel Lily(3)
Author:Megan Curd


    Students bustled between rooms, yelling out directions to one another as they carried cogs and beakers. The smell of formaldehyde stung my nose as I passed a room full of hissing Bunsen burners. A mangy stray cat darted between people, nearly tripping an older man who had his nose buried in a wrinkled, water-stained papers. Life in Wutherford Tower was loud and busy.

    As I neared my classroom at the end of the hallway, I saw Erin standing outside the room, arms crossed and still wearing a look like there was a pile of dung under her nose. I sighed, and in that instant decided Histories of America was not on my to-do list today.

    The tide of people pushed against my back, surging toward their destinations without pause. I pressed myself against the cold concrete wall and went against the traffic until I reached the stairwell.

    Ten flights of stairs stood between extreme stupidity and me.

    The Polatzi swarmed down on the main roads, like hawks circling weaker prey. They rarely bothered Elites, but Traditionals were fair game. I dug in my satchel for the crocheted beanie Alice made me a couple weeks prior. It would be perfect to hide my flaming red hair — a dead giveaway for me, since I hadn’t met anyone with a head of locks like mine.

    Well, except for my mom.

    And she was gone.

    Each step I took reverberated off the steel steps, no matter how lightly I treaded. I waited for someone to ask me where I was going, why I was using the stairway when airbuses ran around the clock, but no one stopped me. I took it as an indication that fate was on my side for this little endeavor.

    With my mask back in place, I put my beanie on and hoped there weren’t any Polatzi close to recognize me. If I could get into a crowd, I could disappear into the masses.

    Probably.

    Hopefully.

    The seal on the door hissed when I pushed against it, and then the harsh light bombarded me.

    Rebellion. Sweet, adrenaline-inducing rebellion.

    Freedom surged through me as I stepped outside. The pathway out of Wutherford Tower and into the Traditional area of the Dome was worn to mud from the humidity and sweat of everyday life. It was real. It was gritty.

    It was life for everyone but a select few.

    Twenty minutes later I passed under the Welcome to Detroit, the Motor City sign. It creaked as it swayed back and forth, barely hanging onto the thick wire holding it aloft. I scanned the surging crowd for the sweeping capes of the Polatzi, who would be more than happy to cart me back to “approved” grounds, but saw none.

    I was safe…

    For now.

    I pulled my beanie a bit further down and kept my head down. It wouldn’t take the Polatzi long to figure out it was me if they saw a stray lock, or saw my Elite mask.

    To the right of the market was government housing. Wooden boards covered broken windows and hid the inhabitants from the outside world. Candlelight flickered through the boards of one house, as the family turned in for the evening. Even the bravest souls made sure to be off the streets when darkness fell.

    There was little mercy for those out past curfew.

    I’d take the risk today.

    With one last glance around, I headed into the crowded marketplace building and stuffed my mask back in my bag. One less identifying trait to worry about.

    People milled about, murmuring, their faces tinged with resolve. There was no joy in this place. Only a dogged determination to survive.

    Most of the lights overhead were broken and hung by their thin wiring. A few flickered as they clung to life, casting everything in a sickly yellow glow. Steam hung in the air like a corporeal being and made me feel like the market wouldn’t be out of place in the underworld.

    I gazed around the hazy market as people brushed past me, not bothering to apologize or excuse themselves. Signs for booths and “Today Only!” sales bombarded me from either side. The constant stream of people made it almost impossible to see down the long row of wooden ramshackled booths.

    “Hey, shorty,” called the familiar, slow drawl of a southern woman who used to know me all too well.

    The wooden cart to my left was laden with overripe fruit. The woman behind the table leaned toward me, her ample bosom spilling out of her ragged dress. She placed a hand on her chest and smiled broadly. “My lands, if it ain’t baby girl comin’ down from her throne! I haven’t seen you since your mamma and daddy got snatched. Now look at you, all grown up.”

    Heat rushed to my face. Memories of my mother and I coming to visit the market flooded back. The warmth of her hand and the assurance of her stride as she navigated the throngs of people. The Red Vines she bought me each time we came.

    I hadn’t eaten Red Vines since Mom and Dad disappeared.

    I forced a smile. She meant nothing by it. “Hey, Dana.”

    “Heard good things about you, little miss. I’m proud of you! Always knew you were special, what with the way trouble followed you around like it was gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe. Glad to see you’re makin’ something of yourself.” She glanced around, then returned her gaze to me. “You ain’t come out here in ages, and I know you ain’t supposed to be here now. What’s got you out of your shiny home at the top of Wutherford Tower?”

    I shook my head and tried to look nonchalant. After the mention of my parents, inside it felt like I was barely keeping my head above water. My throat tightened as I remembered the day Alice and I returned to find my front door hanging off the hinges, Polatzi swarming the place. I fought back the tears and smiled. “What, I can’t come visit you?”

    She leaned back and put her arms behind her head. “Child, you ain’t never come here before now, so don’t you go trying to tell me you’re here to see me. Land’s sakes. I know you ain’t gonna risk coming down to LaFayette for me, and I ain’t expecting you to. Your parents would be madder than hornets if they knew you was bein’ reckless. You got it good up there. Don’t be messing it up by fooling around in these parts. I know the Guv keeps a hawk’s eye on you Elementalists,” she narrowed her eyes, but the crow’s feet at the corners gave away her happiness. “Tell me what ol’ Dana can get you, then get yourself outta here before you find trouble.”

    “I’m looking for a birthday gift for Alice.”

    Dana leaned under her booth and pulled out a box of trinkets. “I’ve got a few knick-knacks she might like if she’s still workin’ at the old seamstress shop down on East Jefferson.” She brandished a box of brand new sewing needles. “She’ll be needin’ some new needles, won’t she? Last I saw, the ones she was usin’ were rusted.”

    I smiled at the suggestion. Alice had wanted new needles forever. “What do you want for these?”

    Dana winked. “Take ‘em. You know I ain’t gonna ask you for nuthin’.”

    “Do you need steam for your generator at home? I know you’re still nannying for kids around here. You want to keep that oxygen purifier going for them.”

    Dana nodded thoughtfully. “I ain’t asking you for nuthin’, sweet girl. We make it out here just fine.”

    I placed my hand on hers as I took the needles. “I’ll be back next week. We can fill your generator with steam to last you a week or so. Sound good?”

    Her white teeth shone in a wide smile. “Your parents would be proud, I know that much, Miss Pike. You’ve grown into a fine young woman. You took a bad situation—what with losing your parents and everything else—and turned it into something good for yourself and the rest of us. You’ve made what a lot of people would think was a curse into a blessing. Who needs fossil fuel when we’ve got Elementalists like you?” She smiled and waved me away. “Now get before the Polatzi start sniffing around. They give me the willies as it is, and I don’t need to be worrying about you! And stay away from those steam cisterns — I know there are extra Polatzi roaming down that way, what with steam shortage.”

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