Saturday, 6 March 2021

[Glory Brats 22] Chickens, and a theft.

The next day Sparrow was the last to wake up. She heard Caris banging on the ceiling with the broom and ran downstairs. Zed was sitting up in the bed in the front room. 

"You're awake!" Sparrow said joyfully. "Do you feel better?"

"A bit..." Zed sipped from a cup. "I've been coughing a lot though. You should go through to the kitchen now - Caris is impatient."

Caris looked up as she entered the kitchen, but didn't say anything. Everyone else was eating toast and eggs for breakfast, washed down with more tea, but a different tea from last night. This one was less floral, with a sharper taste that verged on bitter. Caris and Jem talked to themselves, but the children ate in silence, applying themselves to the food until it was all gone. They would eat well while staying with Caris, thought Sparrow.

"Right." Caris said, clapping her hands together to get their attention. "The two little ones can come with me and get washed, the boy can clear the table, and the two girls can wash and dry the dishes."

"Good luck washing Rat..." Dee muttered and snorted into his tea.

"Don't you remember our names?" Sparrow asked, "I'm Sparrow, and that's..."

"Nope." Caris interrupted her, stalking towards Tekla and Rat. "Less talking, more working."

***

Sparrow and Bee had settled themselves into a rhythm of sorts with the dishes - Sparrow filled the basin with heated water from the stove and added soap flakes from a tub on the shelf. Bee dried the plates and cutlery as Sparrow handed them to her, and then set them on the table. Dee put them away. Shouts and splashes came from the washroom next door. Sparrow wondered if Rat had bitten Caris yet.

"Hey, what do you think this is for?" Dee asked, holding out a strange knife with a large square blade.

"Put it back!" Sparrow hissed as the door from the washroom creaked open.

"That's for chopping off the heads of nosy little chickens..." Caris said, pushing Tekla and Rat in front of her.

Dee's eyes widened and he shoved the knife back into the drawer and slammed it shut. 

"But not actual chickens, right?" Sparrow asked, "Not for killing actual chickens?"

"Yes, actual chickens!" Caris exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air, "What do you think you ate last night child?"

Sparrow felt sick. Never before in her whole life had she eaten something that had once been alive. Her stomach heaved and she pushed past Caris into the washroom as her breakfast came back up.

***

Sparrow wiped her mouth and got up from the floor. Caris came in carrying a kettleful of hot water. 

"You finished spewing yet?" She poured the water into the metal tub and placed a folded cloth on the side. "You might as well have a wash while you're in here. There's soap in the dish. Don't take too long now. The other girl is waiting." The door swung shut behind her.

Sparrow's clothes felt like they were stuck to her. The cuffs of her jumper were stiff with engrained mud that flaked off as she removed it. There was a tideline of dirt on her wrists, and the cracked mirror showed that there was a similar one around her neck where her shirt had been. She picked up the cloth and unfolded it. It was faded and patched in places, and darned over the patches, the stitches giving it a rough feel. She dipped it in the warm water and rubbed it on the thick block of soap in the dish on the side. The dirt came off her in layers, changing the water from clear to murky. She scrubbed so hard she thought that her skin might come off with the dirt.

There was a knock at the door. "It's Bee - hurry up!"

Sparrow wriggled back into her shirt and shorts, but left her jumper and mud-encrusted socks in a pile on the floor. The concrete was cold to her feet and she was glad to get back to the warmth of the kitchen. Caris had a mug of hot tea waiting for her, although she narrowed her eyes in scrutiny as she handed it over. "Did you clean underneath your nails?"

Sparrow extended a hand for inspection. It must have satisfied Caris because she took a large jumper from a box underneath the bed and passed it to Sparrow. "Don't want you getting ill too..." she muttered. "Now finish your tea and then go help Jem sort out the stuff you brought back. She's out in the front yard."

The jumper came down to just above Sparrow's knees and the sleeves flopped past her hands. She shoved the sleeves up her arms and clasped her hands around the mug for warmth. The tea had a touch of milk in it so it was cool enough to drink straight away. She put the empty mug in the washing basin and went out through the front room. Zed was asleep so she tiptoed past him and out into the yard. 

 Jem had tipped all the stuff out from the cart and laid it on the ground. Tekla and Rat were both outside too - Tekla putting chicken eggs into a basket, and Rat eating the vegetable scraps that were meant for the chickens. Sparrow looked at the chickens and felt guilty, remembering how much she'd enjoyed last night's meal.

"You going to help or you just gonna stand there gawping at the chickens?" Jem said. Sparrow hurried over to the cart.

"Scrap metal goes over there," Jem pointed to a small pile, "And electronics goes here...wood here..."

"What about books?" Sparrow asked, pulling one from the pile and flipping through it.

"Books go back in the cart - we're taking them to a guy I know later today. He'll pick out all the ones worth anything."

***

The bookseller lived on the other side of the settlement. Sparrow pushed the cart while Jem navigated the busy streets. Everyone seemed in a hurry to get somewhere, pushing and shoving, and Sparrow had a job keeping Jem in sight sometimes. Jem didn't slow down for her either, weaving in and out of the crowds with a practised air, leaving Sparrow to run behind with the cart.

Jem pulled up short in front of a ramshackle looking warehouse with a metal roof. A man sat outside smoking. He nodded his head at Jem.

"I see you finally got yourself a kid to help out."

"She threatened me with a knife and then asked me to dinner, how could I refuse?"

The man stood up and pushed the heavy door open. "Step on inside, the boss'll be pleased to see you're still alive, old lady."

"Hey, watch who you're calling old..." Jem retorted. 

The man gave a laugh and sat back down, as they trundled past him into the semi-darkness of the warehouse interior. As her eyes adjusted from the brightness outside, Sparrow could make out rows of shelving that filled the entire space. Books were crammed onto every shelf, and stacked in the spaces on top. Passing the seemingly endless rows of books, Sparrow began to wonder if their small collection would be worth anything. She'd never seen so many books before. Not even her school library had this many.

They emerged from the rows of books into a small open space in the centre of the warehouse. Here the roof was made up of clear panels, allowing the sunlight to spill through down to the floor. There was a large wooden table in the middle of the space, with a man sitting on one of the chairs around it. He turned his head at the sound of their arrival. 

"I heard you were back in town, Jem. And with a pack of kids too - you collecting them now, as well?"

Jem cackled and sat down heavily on one of the chairs. "They were a job lot, just my luck."

"So what have you got for me this time? Anything good?"

Jem gestured at the cart, "See for yourself - there's not so many good ones out there now..."

The man gestured at Sparrow to bring the cart over and he pulled out handfuls of books, spreading them on the table in front of him. They varied in size and shape, from slim paperbacks to larger books with hardboard covers. Some he shoved to the side immediately, and others he scanned through before discarding. One or two he placed in a pile to his right - a pile that grew only slightly by the time he'd finished.

"I'll take these ones," he said, laying his hand on top of the pile. 

Jem rubbed her fingers together, "What are they worth to you?"

Sparrow slipped off while they haggled over the price. She wandered through the rows of bookcases, trailing her fingers along the spines. Not all of them had titles, and some were merely a sheaf of papers held together by a few stitches. She wondered why these ones had been chosen. She pulled one of them out but it was just filled with calculations and diagrams that she couldn't understand.

At the end of the row there was a bookcase filled with books that looked different to the other ones. They were roughly bound, but newer looking, without the faded covers and brittle pages of most of the books. She took one of them out and flicked through it. The purple type was set slightly squint on the pages, but it seemed to be a book of directions. Bound in the middle of the book was a map. Sparrow stared at it.   

It was a map of the Cities, showing where they were and how they were connected. At least, the Cities were marked on it, but other things were marked on it too - roads and smaller settlements, scattered all over. There was even markings showing where fresh water could be found. She glanced over her shoulder, but no one was in sight. Carefully, she tore out the central page and stuffed it under her jumper.

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