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Common Muck

by Randall Windle about a year ago in fiction
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Blood, dust and treasure.

Dust was kicked up from the pavement with each of her steps. It lingered sun-streaked in the air for a quarter of a millisecond then settled back, only to be stepped on by the heels of old gold and white sneakers. Mara Gemme, for all she was worth, didn’t notice. Despite the Chicago sun, many sour feelings from the day were still on her mind. She grimaced in the heat.

After fifteen years of cheap emotional comfort and a stable household, part of her (that part being something she’d never see eye to eye with) relished the pain her family was enduring. Eight medical bills had piled up like cockroaches in the winter season, and things were set to get even worse.

Whether the nation turned red or blue was none of her concern, but in the Gemme family, she was the outlier with that opinion. Whenever politics were dragged into the conversation, Mara shrank into awkwardness. Those tense moments shaped her into a combination of brittle rage and stern silence. But at least there had been something else to talk about at dinner recently. An aunt dying was an effective icebreaker.

That’s why she was going home. The notion made Mara tighten the grip on her backpack.

Not home exactly. Her former home was a better way to phrase it. Mara ducked under a tree that sat on the corner of Maple Street, a hallmark of her early years.

Yes this is the right way, she thought.

Around her, normal people shunted into dented cars as hot as ovens. The vehicles were licked around the edges with dirt and scratches, but the metal still gleamed.

Her choice of clothes was nothing but a reflection of influence. As her mother called it, “common muck.”

Mara, formerly a devotee of makeup and half-priced lipstick, was now plain faced, and clad head to toe in well-worn denim, as blue as the sea in Spain. Her cousins blamed dumb action movies for the way she dressed, but Mara thanked them.

Hours had swept by during her walk, and now that dusk was rearing its head, cars on the street were becoming less and less common. The only remnant of society being a lone truck across the way. Mara paused for just a moment as it chugged and heaved its way along, then left her sight.

Mara surprised herself by shivering.

The old house, an ugly lump of bricks and wood, was only just coming out of a legal wormhole full of buyers who went from interested to disinterested on the turn of a dime. In her estimation it wasn't worth half the trouble.

While climbing up a lamppost that was older than her, she went along her checklist, the words echoed.

“Doors? Nope. Roof is too risky. Hmm.”

She was right, the front doors and lower windows had been forced shut with a steel mesh since she’d last been there. Underneath that was layers of tough immovable wood. The roof was composed of tiles too loose for walking on, even by her standards.

Over the last few weeks, she’d been dropping by the place. Having managed to find some trinkets that when sent through the right people, earned her more than a little money. Enough for the rent at least. Mara shimmied up the rest of the lamppost, and propelled herself upward, now she was hanging by her arms from the top horizontal section.

She forced her momentum into action, swinging back and forth. To her sides, worn-down buildings and spindly trees became blurs in her vision.

“One. Two. Three.”

On the third swing forward Mara let go.

Dirt from the window stung the parts of her skin that were sliced open when she crashed through it. Cobwebs and cracked beer bottles surrounded her. Now she was down on the floorboards, half her face awash with filth and hair tangled like dead roots. Mara pushed herself up.

“All for you mom.” She bleated out with a forced smile.

Mara had arrived through the upper window. Painted butterflies on the walls were flaking away to the point they appeared to be fluttering off the plaster. She put a hand to her chest and felt her heart, it was beating fast. Maybe this was what she did it for. The thrill of injury and arrest seemed to dial her in mentally. Not much external stress with this happening near-on every week. Pure and concentrated focus. Better than any drug.

Mara stifled a hiss of pain as she checked her right leg. Glass had torn right through the jean fabric, cuts dotted the flesh like spikes on a pineapple.

She laughed.

With as much of her usual stride as she could manage, Mara walked over to the door on the far wall. It was still ornate and hopelessly precious. The crude crayon drawing she’d scrawled on it around the age of six, was still there.

It depicted a vibrant orange squid, diving off a boat too small for it. In one tentacle it held a treasure chest brimming with gems, in another, a compass. Mara didn’t pay any notice to the fact it was more squiggle than art, but to just how sad the stick figure sailors looked on the boat. She shook the feeling off then kicked the door open.

Her old room was empty.

“Bastards.” She mouthed. Any goodies that had been there before were gone. The place was rinsed clean. No doubt too much attention had been attracted.

Mara took three steps into the room, flitted her eyes around at the mulchy crayons and rotting teddy bears, then turned back on herself. That was when her foot went through the floor.

At first it was just her foot, but the shock made Mara drive the whole leg further down. She braced with a sharp hiss. Prepared to fall all the way, and end up nursing some broken bones later in the night.

Instead, her foot hit something solid. Both relieved and angry, Mara pulled her leg back up. Splinters were streaked along her calf, Mara ripped them off with a wince, letting the pain flow unrestricted.

Reaching down, she retrieved a wooden box. Her eyes narrowed and an eyebrow was raised. There were no distinguishing features on it whatsoever. Unless faded reddish paint and a squashed dead spider counted. No lock either, so it opened easily.

Inside was a small black book. It was a flip one rather than standard left to right pages. A snug fit for her palm.

The back of Mara’s head started to feel fuzzy.

Standing was easy, walking less so. The most she made it was out past the door, but upon shutting it her legs made their thoughts clear and gave way. Both legs screamed and she thumped them out of frustration, which was not much help.

Looking at each of the pages was such a freak-out experience that Mara yelped. Without fail, drawn on every page was her, or to be more specific, her memories. Being fed mashed potato while begrudgingly fastened into a highchair. Burning her prom dress in favour of ripped trousers and an oversized hoodie bearing the name of a lazy rock group.

Mara scoffed. "Unreal."

She skipped over to the final page.

This one was straight from how she’d seen it with her own two eyes. Clasped in her hands were her aunt’s hands. Frail, smaller than they’d ever been, the pulse fainter than a whisper. The start of death. Scents of over-sanitized floors and walls from the past attacked her nose. Scrubbed footsteps and squeals of mobile beds did the same to her ears.

Her sadness was creeping in, so Mara glared at the book and ripped the page out. With a harsh crumple it was thrown to the floor. But when it landed, after an unnatural noise, it transformed into many creased hundred-dollar bills. Ben Franklin peered at her where old Aunt Tabby’s face had been.

Mara smacked herself on the cheekbone, then for good measure punched one of her legs again. The pain zapped like electricity.

“Okay…so I’m not asleep.”

Tentatively, Mara crawled to the money. After some rifling, it was more than solid in both her mind and hands, that it was real. All legal tender with the markings of true currency. She looked back to the book, akin to checking over her shoulder in anticipation of a wild predator.

It hadn’t moved. No magical words or glowing runes on the cover, everything was devoid of mumbo-jumbo. The box was the same. Neither had changed.

After more flipping of pages, Mara decided on a small test. With no hesitation, she half-tore at the page that depicted her eating the mushy remains of potato.

Sure enough the section of page Mara removed, while small enough to fit half of her hand, was suddenly full-grown money. But altogether worth measly hundreds compared to the thousands from the first, wholly ruined page.

Mara, with all her pain and sudden gain, frowned, a deep coldness behind the expression. The memories attached to the destroyed drawings, while far from forgotten, seemed distant from her feelings. It reminded her of summer leaves frozen in place with frost. Half-living things stuck in stasis.

Mara threw caution to hell and let loose, ripping every page into indiscernible scraps, and one by one they added up. All that was left before her were bookends of a notebook, and what totalled to twenty thousand dollars. Green and full of life.

Sudden anticipation of opportunity overpowered her. All care for her decomposing aunt, miserable mother, and stressed cousins, fell to the wayside.

The local train station was less than ten miles away by foot. This was the chance for a fresh start. Dopamine surged around her brain like a wild animal.

Walking was now easier, and she counted the money once more. It was all there. The notes were forced into the original box, then stuffed in her bag, as if it would disappear if she took her time like a sensible person. Mara crept out the broken window, managing to leap back onto the lamppost. She was standing down on the concrete before she knew it, the movements so deeply bred into her muscles that it was done in an instant.

The ground was cold enough that Mara felt it in her shoes and socks. She did not look behind her, neither with eyes nor thoughts. Mara Gemme walked down the chilled moonlit streets, into the unknown life that was waiting for her.

fiction

About the author

Randall Windle

UK Based Author, sci fi and fantasy with a dash of horror.

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