Charlie and Taylor move through the West Sector market. Charlie trades some of his winnings for supplies and chats with the vendors. The sun is halfway up the sky and the street warm by the time they arrive at Gamblers Square, the largest intersection in the West Sector, surrounded by the skeletons of burnt-out old buildings. Few of the buildings have exterior brick that the rains have yet to eat away. Acid rain, slow on buildings, fast on skin. Old benches decorate the broken sidewalks, constantly in need of repair. Sunlight seeps in through the broken buildings casting strange shadows.
Taylor hangs her scrawny legs through the rusted bars of the fire escape, one story above the crowd, in the old brick building. She wonders what the buildings look like in Eden, tries to focus as Charlie moves the three tin cans around. One conceals the dark blue rubber ball. She turns to the crowd, at least two dozen, their eyes zigzag back and forth in an attempt to track the ball beneath Charlie’s hands.
Charlie’s fingernails are always clean. Taylor wonders how he keeps them so manicured. She’d bet two bottles of water the people in Eden had clean nails. The cans stop. Charlie’s hands lift. His chapped lips grin before opening. “Your choice?”
The man sitting across from Charlie plays catch-up, his eyes dart from can to can. He shifts on his cardboard seat atop the broken asphalt. He opens his dark bearded mouth and closes it without a word.
“I don’t have all day,” Charlie says.
The man ignores Charlie, shoves a gnawed-on thumbnail into his mouth and chews. Blood seeps into the spaces between his teeth. “The middle one,” the man says. Charlie reaches for it.
“Wait!” Charlie’s hand hovers over the can. “The one on the right, my right, that one.” The man points.
“You’re certain this time?” Charlie asks. “You’re about as indecisive as a woman in the market.” The crowd laughs. Someone snorts.
The man’s cheek twitches and he glares at Charlie. “I’m sure.”
Charlie lifts the can. Bare pavement.
The man slumps in defeat. His eyes stay on the ground under the can.
Thirteen-year-old Taylor watches from her seat. She has seen the man before. He trades for shelter. The emptiness in his eyes says he has nothing left to trade. No place left to go. A woman or a young boy can trade their body, but not him. He’s old. Taylor’s father told her once that the government used to shelter people before the rains. You could even sleep outside under the stars at night.
Charlie picks up the box holding his winnings. “Who’s next?”
Several other men await, bets in hand.
Still the man sits, fixed on the cans. “You’re a cheat,” he says.
Charlie raises a dark eyebrow. “Is that so?” Charlie lifts the middle can; the blue ball rolls to the man as if Charlie willed it to.
The man picks it up in his dirty fingers and turns it over before tightening his grip around it.
“Shoulda went with your gut,” Charlie says. “First instinct’s usually the best.”
The man sits a few feet from Charlie, but whips the ball as hard as his malnourished body allows.
Charlie snaps it from the air like a frog snagging a fly. “Thanks.” Charlie glares at him. Charlie’s friends step closer.
The man takes the hint.
Charlie loses the next two games—Taylor assumes on purpose—but wins a dozen more before the day is done. Taylor studies his every move, makes mental notes. One day she hopes to be just like him, but Charlie won’t let her deal until she’s ‘older’. The colors of the sky change, greys and purples emerge, followed by fluorescent pink, revealing the shadows of the evening. The remaining gamblers place their last bets. Charlie gathers his supplies as Taylor approaches.
“Learn anything?” he asks.
“Always trust your gut?” Taylor searches for validation in Charlie’s dark eyes and worn face.
“Did you learn the trick?”
“Your hands are too fast.” Taylor shuffles her feet and traces circles in the dirt with her oversized sneakers.
“Your eyes are too slow.” Charlie continues packing his bag.
Taylor stands there like a lost dog waiting to be let in. Should she help or leave?
“Watch the ball. Not my hands,” he says, tossing her the bag. “Cards need painting and my socks have holes.”
She jumps in and starts arranging his gear. Each day she waits for the invite. That’s how it’s been for the past three months. Taylor fixes things for Charlie so she can crash with him. Better than what some girls do for shelter. Charlie never asks her to do those kinds of jobs.
Return toHome Page
Literary Fiction, Noir, Pulp Fiction, Short Stories