Authors: Thea Atkinson
Copyright 2013 Thea Atkinsoon
Published by Thea Atkinson
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Theda noticed him again, watching her from across the rubble of street, leaning against the graffiti of a building untouched by the warfare that had left most everything around her in ruins. No young teen, this one. Older than her, probably late-twenties. Longish hair the color of charcoal. He was tall, although he seemed to be doing his best to disguise the fact, all slouched into himself, one boot sole--cowboy boots no less--braced against the wall as though he belonged there when Theda knew damn well he didn't. He was too groomed, too...well, too damned clean to belong hereabouts.
He leveraged the other foot against the heat of the sidewalk bricks where at least some of them still looked like they had when they'd first been laid: nice and flat and patterned. Not so many of them anymore--too much damage from the holocaust for the cobblestones to look neat. Most now heaved up in places, tripping filthy vagrants and respectable survivors alike, not that the two of those things could be separated anymore either. The mere notion of survivors and vagrants paired up in ways that the sidewalk stones should have but didn't, at least not in Theda's part of the supercity.
Even in the shaded late afternoon light, even beneath the shadows of leafy treetops stretching leggy, malnourished branches to heaven, she could tell the guy was studying her. Looking through her, she thought, as she squatted next to her card table on her side of street, trying and failing to help a middle-aged client back to a doddering stand.
"You good, old man?" she asked the client and he gave a wavering sway before nodding.
"Smokin'," she said to him in response. "Now get the hell up."
As he struggled to stand, she peered beneath her lashes at the man across the street. His presence unnerved her in ways that made her make stupid mistakes, the latest one even now lying prone at her feet and struggling to open his eyes. She couldn't say she blamed the old guy for passing out--his specific trick had been filled with crusade massacres and his own horrible, impaled fate upon returning home to Turkey. Still, she couldn't afford his lolly-gagging.
"Come on," she said to the john, slapping his cheek. "Get your wiggle on and get the hell out of here. You got your ride."
He'd rightfully earned a grisly death back then, if she had any say, except she didn't, and besides, she couldn't say as much to an barely conscious john even if she did give a damn. She cared about two things: godspit and money in exactly that order unless she needed money for the godspit, and then the two were reversed. All she concerned herself with was getting paid--just like any professional woman of trade--and in this case, she might have worried about that, so grisly was her client's vision, except she'd long ago learned to get the money up front. This old fart was no different, except he couldn't find his feet to save his soul, no matter how much she yanked at his elbows. He kept stumbling back onto one knee.
"Fuck, man," she said. "You're going to be alright. Just get the hell up." She darted a look across the street at where here stalker had staked a claim to his spot the same as he'd done for the last four days, about ten minutes earlier, before she had a chance to coax said client from a faint on the sidewalk. He must have seen the exchange of money, watched as the codger had fallen, was watching still as she rapped the gent's cheeks. None of that could be called a mistake, not in separate actions; no. The mistake she'd made, that she'd been making for the last four days, was to ply her trade at all in the face of that unnerving stare from across the street.
Like the hookers that came and went around her, sometimes flashing splinters of smiles at her, sometimes trying to run her off, Theda settled into her chisel-coloured survival instinct the way any good magician did, or would, if said con found herself trying to live out of a cardboard box in the middle of summer, plying her trade from a card table with a bowed in middle and joints rusted nearly clean through.
She turned her tricks from it with the same sense of resolve as the prostitutes. It was a fair enough description, an easy enough way to describe what she did, except maybe that analogy of prostitution wasn't even right. Maybe she was more like the fortunetellers of old Earth: like Nostradamus or those famed kids from Fatima. Or like a ghost whisperer in some archaic, entertainment-based television series. Except, all those descriptions failed to nail it down just right because they were gone, and no one in his right mind in this new world would admit to believing anything remotely divine was left behind.
"Take it all away, Theda," her mom was fond of saying, back before the god had come and left the globe in devastated ruin. "Take it all away and all folks have left to hold onto is faith."
Well faith had come and gone and left nothing in its wake but a wasteland that needed to shake its way back to equilibrium. So much for faith; so much for the prophetess's wisdom. Nothing left hereabouts after the great holocaust but an eastern half of a super city in near ruin and a western end robust and teeming with plenty. Oh, and crime, of course. And hedonism. And hopelessness. Those things they had aplenty.
The holocaust, the apocalypse, the rapture as the chosen might have called it, left Theda peering at the bustling afternoon street from a derelict card table day upon day, calling to people as they passed by, in order to earn a living: "Hey," she'd coax. "Want a magic beyond any? I can do it for you. Give you some escape."
Magic. A foolish thing to ply when men wanted sex and debauchery, and she figured that out quickly enough, had to change her come-on, but that was fine; Theda was smart gal.
"I can give you a ride you'll never forget," she'd say, and that one would get them. A chance for some filthy old fart to roll over on a girl in her twenties. Old fools. She learned early to target the old men; the younger ones weren't so inclined to pay for sex, not when they could take it for free. There were a few, yes, but most of them didn't bother with hookers unless they had some left over sense of morals. And those became less frequent than in the early days of the holocaust. A girl didn't find fresh-faced young men like her first trick any more; they'd all become too jaded.
She'd offered to do that first trick for half a ten so long as he had the right paperwork. She knew he imagined an experience entirely different than what he got, but she didn't let it bother her. She merely took his hand as though she planned to lead him off somewhere--an unnecessarily modest notion in the ruins of the super city where hedonism reigned as equally as theft and assault.
It made her aware how foolish it would be to tell her mark what he was truly in store for; he might certainly change his mind and solicit another one of the girls that hung around the corner for what he really wanted. She couldn't have that. She needed the cash.
So she gripped his hand tightly as she'd drawn out her pin and stuck him deftly in the thumb like her mom had taught her. A bubble of blood rose on the pad of his skin and she fought the urge to smear it between her thumb and forefinger as she slipped his greasy digit into her mouth. She concentrated very hard, as hard as she'd ever done when she and her mother worked together in the last days, before they knew it was the last days, when Theda had begun her training. She drew hard on the flesh, pulling in even more of his fluid as she focused.
She got shifts of colours for a few seconds, then the unnerving sound of gunfire, the acrid stink of gas and mouldy earth. She presumed he felt the burning that came with the stink she caught.
something whispered to her psyche. So: the poor young fellow--a different young fellow at the time of the vision--had been in the First World War. Had died there right there, retching in his trench, taking a dozen other men with him.
She wasn't sure how much he'd understood, but she did know he got all of it: every detail, every nuance of sound, each smell and sight. He was there because she was there. And because she was there she knew things about him that he wouldn't want anyone to know--least of all himself. Poor soul had flattened right out on the remnants of sidewalk and she'd had to rummage through his pockets for the five-dollar bill.
Just like her old gent here, who was still swaying on his feet, enough that he stumbled and went to one knee again. She knelt down next to him.
"I said get the fuck out of here," she hissed in his ear.
It was often this way with the reincarnated. When their lives got telecasted to them in living, breathing, reeking colour, they felt the shames again as though they were fresh. Except most of them didn't quite understand that it was their own soul memories they were experiencing; they imagined it was a reaction to a vision she had somehow pressed into their consciousness, a roller coaster ride of hallucination. They weren't real sure how she did it, or even if it was something she actually did to them. They just knew they lived something in those moments and it was worth the price of admission. A short bit of exhilaration in a life filled with agony and despair.
Because there was no pleasure in New Earth, not since the god had come, no real joy in living, and so whether a little trick of the light, a trick of the hand, a trick of some sort of hallucination: didn't matter. It was a pretty trick she turned indeed. No one in New Earth cared about such trivial things as morals, ethics, even the old-fashioned notion of sin. It was back to the primeval concerns of eat, sleep, forage, fornicate, and if all that was taken care of, you moved it up a notch. Steal, kill, use, assault. Same things really, just on another playing level, like some kind of warped Dante's inferno high on a gob of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.
Now, not nearly eight months after the war, she actually made enough money to buy an egg salad sandwich each morning from the survivor's station, one that fortunately came with a smear of godspit taped to the bottom of the cellophane wrapper. The coffee she got free, left on the back step in a thermos by the manager of the station: Ami. A good man for a dealer, even if he was a bit intense for her tastes.
She wasn't sure why he was being so nice to her. Unless it was because of the trick she'd turned for him, the one he'd said changed his life.
His re-vision hadn't touched her any more than this old gent's or the fresh-faced college boy's; nothing touched her anymore. She was a conduit, only, it seemed, able to walk through the experiences unscathed and unafraid with her johns, giving her the odd sense of being in the world but yet strangely above it--hovering almost, not quite entered in. Limbo.
She wished she could say she was grateful for it; instead, the only thing she was grateful for was the money for the sandwich and the smear of bliss-inducing drug that Ami taped to the bottom.
Only the physical touched her: the sun baking her arms to a toast-colored brown, the rain making her card table even more dilapidated. Most times she didn't even feel sorry for the prostitutes who set up shop with a bruise or two on display. These last four days were the first time in nearly eight months that she felt some sort of anxiety past getting her next fix and she paid attention to that nervous energy. She'd be a fool not to.
All because of that unflinching stare from across the way. She'd need to find another spot, perhaps to peddle her wares. For now, she had her hands on her knees, studying this new arrival from beneath a hooded gaze, wondering what he thought of her particular brand of shenanigans. The re-vision she'd executed didn't bother her; what bothered her was what this man across the street must have been thinking as he watched her help a john to his feet. What she worried about was if he'd noticed the way the john gripped her hand as though she were a tether holding his body from falling off a very steep cliff.