Goosebumps rise on my flesh at the sudden sound of a dumpster being overturned. My heart races as I look around for the noise. Just some rats, I tell myself. I pull my coat tighter around me and resist the urge to adjust my gasmask. It was almost too painful, but much better than the alternate. I can't catch the virus now. There are people depending on me, and I can't let them down.
The funeral home nearby vomits black smoke into the sky. It's nothing like the old ones, of course. Just a warehouse with an incerator for the dead. The gray sky acceptes the smoke with ease. Colleen and I talked about it overflowing to the point of exploding. It's so choked with gases, one match could probably set it alight. The only way to tell when night had fallen is when the Emperor's evening nnouncements came on. But mostly we measured time by the hunger in our stomachs. Traditional meal times were when they hurt the worst, but we got food when we can.
That is my mission tonight. I have to salvage enough food for the five of us without getting taken to auction. We like to think that fortune is in our favor, as street urchins don't sell for much anyway. What with the virus, the grime, and overall condition of the world, it's best to breed your meat instead of taking it from the filthy shadows of Empryean. But the risk remains, so we all take precautions. I navigate through the garbage that clutters the street, sticking close to the wall. Old, flimsy surgical masks blow in the cold breeze, stained with blood and dirt. It's weird to think about when the virus was weak enough that those would cut it. Something else crashes behind me and I jump, the hair on the back of my neck sticking up. I speed up as much as I can without making more sound. My footsteps are muffled by the alarms in the distance, but a few wrong steps can trip me right into the incinerator. Or worse, the auction. The first rules of survival are never trust strangers and never get caught.
We pride ourselves in our success at staying alive. Out of all of us, only one had died. That's an accomplishment in this day and age, especially when you're hiding from disease and the Auctioneer. Poor Tabitha. She got caught and bid on, and we never saw her again. Girls didn't last long when taken to their new homes.
As I approach the bakery, voices drift to my ears. I flatten myself agaisnt the bricks and strain to hear them. "I taught mine a new trick the other day," a male voice says gruffly through his mask. An amused chuckle accompanies him.
"Oh really? I wish I could stop the disobediance in mine. No matter how hard I hit, she still goes against my orders. Can you believe it? The other day, I even caught her trying to read. Needless to say she won't be reading anything again. I spared one eye, though. Gotta keep her useful until I have enough for another one."
The first voice laughs. "Women, huh?" Bile rises in my throat but I choke it down. Have to focus on the mission and get home. I climb onto the nearby dumpster, careful not to slip into the horrors below. I swat the flies away and pull myself into the window above. I am met by an eerie silence as I touch down on the floor. No matter. I hold my breath and go to the nearest bin. The lights were off in the next room, so the coast was clear. I lift the lid and set it aside. Tears rush to my eyes when I see the pieces of bread inside. There are three biscuits and one small loaf. This is half of yesterday's meal. A box of matches pokes out from nearby, nearly full. The others will be so happy. With this thought, I shove all but the matches into my bag and leave, making sure to replace the lid. I put the matches on my person, hiden away from the rest of the world. There's no way to know that I was here, which is excellent.
I climb back up to the window, but freeze before I can get down. A guard stands by the dumpster, talking softly to someone next to them. I can't see the second person, but I can hear her whimper. I squeeze my eyes shut and forget to breathe. But then something both miraculous and terrible happens. A siren blasts from blocks away. The guard and his pet scrambled to get away, and I am left alone. I slide down, my heart pounding once more. The siren is too close. Too close to be a coinidence. In my haste, my foot slides into the bin and I fall. The metal side digs into my ribs, but I don't slow in my escape. I look down to avoid falling again, my stomach rolling at the sight of the corpse at my feet. It's not like it's recent—it has been there for days, actually—but that doesn't mean I enjoy stepping on the bloated, oozing dead body. I get out of there as fast and quietly as I can and rush toward the siren.
My worst fears are confirmed as I approach our hideout. Colleen is on her knees in the street without a mask, a guard standing over her. Daisy is standing nearby, crying and coughing into her throat, also maskless. There's no sign of Hugo or Jolleen. There's no point in hiding any longer. I run to Colleen, shouting and trying to force the sobs back. The guard just laughs and grabs my arm. Try as I might, I fail to escape from his iron grip. He kicks Colleen aside and I scream louder, my throat on fire. The last thing I see is her brown eyes wide with fear and sadness as a needle stabs my arm and my mind fades into darkness.
I wake up looking at myself in the mirror. An old woman brushes my hair and shushes me cautiously. Girls are lined up in matching situations, staring blankly at their doomed reflections. My face itches and I realize that I am wearing makeup. I look pale and dead, like a corpse they prettied up for one of those old visitations. Colleen sits to my right and glances at me. Her hair is up in a fancy bun and her dark skin shows so sign of the abuse she had endured. Our eyes fill up and we look away.
We aren't able to talk to each other until they line us up in the hallway, single file. I step in behind her and brush our wrists to let her know it's me. Without looking, she responds with a straightforward answer to the question I had been mulling over. "It was Hugo," she whispers. "He and Jolleen ran off together. They turned us in for a bounty, and now we're..." She can't continue, and I don't blame her. Her own sister had run off without her, without any of us besides the stupid boy she was enamored with. This world is no place for love. Too many people get hurt. I say nothing but touch her shoulder before we are marched down the hall.
We turn down a series of corridors, but halt when our guard commands us to. We freeze and he goes to talk to someone else nearby, glancing over at us occasionally. Words like "cattle" and "fresh" float over to us on poisonous voices. A metal pipe runs across all of the walls, labeled simply as "Gas: Main Auction Hall." I step away from it. It was easily breakable, with the right amount of force. My skin prickles and I look away. The line is moving again, taking us to the auction stage. To get there we must go through a small door that leads behind the thick red curtain. Voices and laughter come from the other side as men wait to bid all their money. A microphone announces our arrival, and the first three girls are taken up front. The bidding begins.
I press against the wall as I wait for Colleen and I to die. The pipe presses into my back, and an idea blares inside my brain. The matches from early are still hidden away, a miracule I accept with open arms. Carefully, quietly, I elbow the pipe. It creaks, but doesn't break. I do it a few more times, watching the guard the entire time. He is too focussed on oggling at the girls up for sale. Finally, the pipe snaps. A faint whistling sound fills the air, but nobody notices. I lean over to Colleen and tell her to slip out the door when I go onstage. She is confused, but nods upon noticing my expression.
We sit in silence, save for the gas leaking into the room. I feel my head getting light and airy, but I keep my concentration. Finally, the guard grabs my arm and pulls me forward. I nod to Colleen and she closes her eyes as I and two other girls are pushed out of the curtain. Lights blind us and spectators whistle, calling out numbers for the first girl. I hear a click somewhere behind us, and I know Colleen is safe. I face the demons in front of me, a match clutched in my fist. I had slipped it there the moment I had the plan, so everything was in order.
"Here's an exotic, young woman," the auctioneer boasts of me. I smile and stare straight ahead. "Starting at one hundred! Two, is that a two?" A man in the back holds up a sign. Others join in. "Three! Four! Four fifty? Sold! To the gentleman over there!" I don't even look at the face of my master as I am led to the steps leading off the stage. The match pokes out as we get closer. The wall is brick. My plan is awful but effective.
This is it. My closing scene, my grand finale. I am a defective product, ready to explode when owned. There is no one in control of fate. Fate just is. I am leading my fate and staring this broken world in the eyes, letting it see the abyss they have created. I close my eyes and take a breath. I strike the match and the room erupts in flames instantaneously.
I am my own master.