Steel Lily(4)
Author:Megan Curd

    “Thanks, Dana. Stay safe.”

    I waved one last time before losing sight of her in the crowd on my way out. The roar of steam hissed below me as it erupted through the metal grates in a fresh bloom of humidity, one of two daily releases required to keep our soil producing food. I picked up the pace.

    The lower east side was nothing more than run-down brick homes and a handful of places still clinging to their former shape. Dilapidated houses lined the road, laid out in grids like some perverse game of battleship. Right behind them and outside the dome was the now-radiated Detroit River. In the distance, the once magnificent skyscrapers loomed. The tops of them were now rebar and caving in on themselves.

    The sun hung low in the sky, but I still had time. Outside the market, it felt ten degrees cooler as I entered the alleyway. Rats scurried under my feet as though they were escaping a sinking ship.

    I wished I could escape.

    Each night the Polatzi ensured that everyone was in their government-sanctioned housing at curfew. Some nights, they’d do surprise raids in this end of town—the condemned housing where no one was permitted to live. They claimed they were trying to protect the ones who might be exposed to radiation by being on the outskirts of the dome. Maybe at one point they had noble intentions, but not anymore. Now they were little more than modern day pirates, plundering anything they found under the pretense of the law.

    “Pike!” someone yelled.

    I jumped as a tall, lanky frame bolted upright from behind the dumpster ahead. Even with the red handkerchief covering his nose and mouth, I could see the mischievous smile hidden beneath by the glint in the boy’s eyes. “Really, Legs?”

    He smiled and shrugged, his spiked hair waving as he shook his head. “I was just stopping by to say hi to Alice. I figured you were at home, you know, after last week’s little adventure.”

    I shuddered as I remembered being huddled behind the dumpster to avoid being caught out by the Polatzi. The little black legs of cockroaches had scuttled across my legs and covered me in writhing black bodies. It took everything in me not to scream. Legs had drawn the Polatzi the other direction at the last moment by causing a commotion. I was lucky he’d been there. “I’d rather not get comfortable with the cockroaches again anytime soon, and you don’t need to have any more run-ins with the Polatzi. You better have something good to trade. I’m in a hurry. There’s not much time before curfew, and I need to see Alice.”

    His nickname was true to his form. Legs was my age—fifteen—and supporting his little sister while his father drank his way into oblivion. Legs’s pants were too short and his clothes were tattered. Everything he owned was in need of repair; the patches on his shirt needed re-patching. I’d never seen his entire face. He always wore something over his nose and mouth, even on days when the oxygen levels were good and we didn’t need to wear oxygen masks.

    His shoulders slumped. “I hate to admit this, but I’m hungry.”

    “Everyone’s hungry,” I said, digging into my satchel. “Is business down?”

    He nodded. “No one’s looking for specialty items any more. Only bare necessities, and LaFayette Market is thick with traders for that stuff.”

    I dug deep in my bag, pushing personal items out of the way. At the bottom were a couple cogs. The cold brass slid across my fingertips as I pulled them from the satchel. “Here,” I dropped three cogs into his palm. “That’s all I’ve got. Can you trade these to get what you need? I don’t have any cash.”

    Legs nodded and glanced back toward the market. “Yeah. Thanks, Pike. Sorry I had to ask.”

    The humidity bore down on us like a thick blanket, and sweat wound down his forehead when he leaned into me. “I heard the Polatzi are running another sweep tonight. Be careful, you hear? Check on Alice to make sure she’s set, but then go home.”

    “Sure thing,” I said, knowing that was impossible. Wutherford Tower Estates wasn’t my home. I hadn’t been home in years. “What about you? Do you need a place to hide? You know the military doesn’t take lightly to people straying out.”

    Legs waved away my offer and shrugged. “I’m laying low in the foyer of the house next door to Alice. A couple other sellers are squatting there, and they said it’s safe. The past couple sweeps, the Polatzi breezed right past.” He tugged on a stray hair that had escaped from under my beanie. “You’re the one that should be worried. If your hair was any redder, it could be a neon sign.”

    “I wear hats,” I joked, slapping his hand away. “Take care of yourself, Legs.”

    He laughed and turned to leave. “Thanks for caring, but you definitely still owe me.”

    “Yeah, yeah, I know I’ll never get out from under the oppression of your debt.”

    He waved before he crossed the street and disappeared into the bustling sea of vendors. I knew he would end up trading the cogs for food for his sister, and go hungry himself. His determination to take care of his family made me proud.

    I pushed around the dumpster. The gritty smell of overripe fruit and mold hung heavy in the air, and not even my shirt over my nose blocked out the scent. I ran my hand along the ground-level window ledge, slipped through, and into the dark, damp basement.

    My fingers fumbled with the gas lamp. Sallow light cast long shadows across the small room, throwing hodge-podge of boxes and broken furniture into sharp relief. Alice and I constantly tossed old junk down here. Anyone who looked would assume this place was a dumpsite. So far it had worked. No one suspected anyone lived on the main floor.

    I avoided the sixth wooden stair, which creaked with age. Excitement had me taking the remaining steps two at a time until I reached the landing. I didn’t even bother to knock before unlocking the door. It grated against the tile floor, and I tried to shut it as fast as I could. The rubber hosing wiggled in protest as I fought with it, sealing the door back. All of the windows were fashioned the same way; it was necessary to keep out the bad air on days that the Dome turned off the oxygen purifiers and made us wear masks.

    I tossed my things on the countertop and smiled when I caught sight of Alice in the living room, peeking over the far end of the couch. Her face was leaner; her bright eyes now duller than when we’d first met as children playing in each other’s yards. But all the same, she was still my vivacious Alice. Still the one person I could count on through thick and thin.

    She was as close to family as I had.

    “Avery!” she said with a nervous laugh as she stood up. “You scared me to death.”

    I grinned. “Sorry. Did you really think I’d miss your birthday?” I handed her the box of needles. “Happy birthday. I know it’s not much but—“

    She squealed with delight and wrapped me in a bear hug. “But nothing! They’re amazing!”

    She took a new needle out, threaded it, and returned to her latest sewing project with a satisfied sigh. The needle wove in and out of the fabric, leaving no trace of human error. Her craftsmanship was better than any sewing machine I’d ever seen. “What are you making now?”

    “Well,” she said, her eyes never leaving the pins that marked her way like a roadmap, “I was trying to make Legs a pair of pants that actually fit him. Last week he brought me bread when I ran out of money.” She glanced over the fabric. “I could make you a nice dress if you’d let me, you know.”

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