Humans have always sold their bodies when times got tough, only now we sell tissue or bone marrow or body parts to make rent instead of sex, teeth and hair. But the real question is, are you an owl or a squirrel?
If a story isn't happy, is it worth telling? If it doesn't contain triumphs over adversity or true love or virtue signalling or something else trendy and memorable, does it mean it shouldn't exist? Most people in this world aren't protagonists. They come. They suffer. If they're lucky they smile sincerely a few times. And then they are gone. Ashes to ashes, back to the elements of the stars from which we were all born.
I remember the spring when I was five. There was an owl nest in the town park. People travelled from far and wide to photograph the barn owls. Perfect pictures for picture perfect Instagrams. The traffic got to be so heavy, the town put up a sign to protect the owls while they nested.
You know what else nests in spring? The food the owls eat.
Can you imagine being the squirrel?
Being barred from backyard buffets because you aren't a bird? Knowing that people sometimes speed up just to hit you as you cross the street? Living a life where you are systematically exterminated, poked fun at, hated—simply for being born a squirrel. And then the supreme beings of the planet find a new way to push you down by protecting the creatures who feast upon you and your young.
Do we tell the stories of the squirrels?
Do they make it into legends or mythology?
Rarely and certainly not memorably.
It's an owl's world. Always has been. Always will be.
Most people on the planet are squirrels. We scramble for food, we nurse and cradle our young, and if we're lucky we have a summer day where, for one short moment, our bellies are full enough to sit back and rest for a few hours.
And we're told to savour that. Count our blessings. Be humble.
All the while, the owls roam the skies, doing as they please and enjoying the privilege of humans putting up signs to protect their nests.
Hadn't considered it that way, had you? Yeah. That's the thing. It's too depressing to tell the stories of the "squirrels" of this world.
But they're there. I'm here.
Lila put down her journal and cast her gaze to where the window used to be, momentarily forgetting it had long since been bricked over. Living in the ever-bright city of Las Vegas, she wouldn't have been able to see the stars anyway, but she liked knowing they were still up there, the only constants left in an unpredictable world.
With a long yawn, Lila turned away and picked at a hangnail on her thumb.
Although, like everything else of late, one day the stars would burn out, too, she thought. Unfortunately or fortunately— depending on the amount of food in your belly—humanity was unlikely to be around when they did.
She turned her music on: Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream", and stretched out on her couch. Macky, her cat, made use of the opportunity for a cuddle.
"You'd eat the squirrels and the owls, wouldn't you, boy?"
He was the only normal thing left from her old life. Sometimes, it was hard to believe just how much the world had changed—and how quickly—between the time her Mamma was alive until now.
It had started slowly at first. Too hot here. Too cold there. Forest fires. Then the freshwater wars. When inflation skyrocketed, crime filled dystopias where people struggled to survive went from sitcom to reality in the blink of an eye. Then TV stopped altogether. Living on the brink of murder, with a side of hunger and disease, trashy entertainment drops off your list of priorities without any sense of loss. Owls and squirrels were both extinct now.
Fantine's song reached her crescendo and Lila sighed.
Music is all that endures.
A hard, rapping knock sounded on the apartment door, shattering Lila's reverie like a hammer to a mirror. Assuming it was her annoyed-at-life-itself-neighbour, coming to complain again about the barely turned on music, she cranked up the volume.
The knock sounded again. Louder. Desperate. Followed by a familiar voice that shouted her name over the eight-decades-old show tune and the steady patter of late June acid-rain.
"Lila, you idiot! It's me, Gina! I forgot my key! Open up!"
Only half-reluctantly, Lila turned down the music, got up and let Gina in, firmly bolting the thick iron door behind her with a sonorous CLANG! It had been a nice building once, but apartments that looked and sounded like prisons were the norm now.
Gina peeled off her wet coat, hat, and boots, shook out her long black hair and thrust a paper bag of groceries into Lila's arms.
"Happy 20th!" she chimed.
Birthdays weren't Lila's thing. Gina knew it, of course, but insisted on celebrating. An eternal optimist, Gina always tried her hardest to make things brighter, all the way back to the days when they had lived together as kids in their foster home—especially in those days.
Lila peered into the bag. "You didn't need to bring me groceries. I'm doing just fine."
Gina rolled her eyes. "I got ingredients for a cake!"
Lila stopped perusing and glanced up, examining Gina's eager expression warily.
"Boxed cake mix? How the hell did you manage to afford that?!"
Gina lowered her gaze and kissed Lila's cheek.
"Oh, don't worry about it."
Macky had shuffled over while they were talking and was now winding his way around Gina's ankles. She bent down to pet him, and her shirt shifted. The gaping neckline exposed the fresh bandage on her breasts near her heart, the undried blood peaking through the gauze, like a gruesome checkerboard.
Lila recoiled in horror.
For a moment, she was so disgusted she almost tossed the groceries aside. Then she considered what Gina had gone through to get them and thought better of it.
Humans have always sold their bodies when times got tough; the modern equivalents of 'les misérables' of the 19th Century are no less miserable three centuries later. The old and wealthy will never stop lusting after the young and poor, only now we sell tissue or bone marrow or body parts to make rent instead of sex, teeth and hair.
Thanks to science for profit, the previously unattainable mechanism for eternal youth had materialized into a grim reality. Health had become an affordable luxury for the few, and selling it a dire necessity for the many.
The only thing that's changed is how they harvest us.
Lila couldn't think about that now. The young woman's shoulders slumped, and she frowned.
Gina smiled sincerely up at Lila, still petting Macky, unaware that Lila had seen the bandage, her jet-black eyes staring lovingly into her girlfriend's. They resembled two of the most perfect pieces of obsidian ever formed, and Lila felt the air catch in her throat.
The sincere smile. The moment on a warm day with bellies full.
Owls and squirrels.
It's the little things, like boxed cake mix, that make life worth living; when it comes to giving to those we love, the fight goes on.
But, all acts of rebellion cost blood.
There is always a ransom to be paid.
"Don't frown on your birthday, Lila; that's dark—even for you."
Gina's voice snapped Lila's mind back to the present as briskly as if she had been thrown into ice water. Lila faked a smile as best she could manage, but it didn't reach her eyes, and she hoped Gina wouldn't notice. For Gina, Lila would pretend the sky was still blue if it made her look at her like that. With a sigh, Lila turned off the speakers. Then she took the ingredients into the kitchen and turned on the oven. A short time later, she and Gina sat down to taste test.
"Wait! Make a wish first!" Gina prompted.
"There aren't any candles."
"Do it anyways, please?"
Lila glanced at Macky, smirked, and made her wish.
They ended up eating the entire cake, bite by expensive bite. Why not, right? At the rate they were selling, who knew how much longer they would have tongues.
Unless the wish came true. Unless Lila became the cat.
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Published by Call Me Les on Vocal Media January 25, 2022. Entered into the Return of the Night Owl Challenge.