PRETTY PENNY by Kate Lowe
“It’s just a dead body,” I tell her. “It’s not going to hurt you.”
But Penny recoils from the bloated, stinking, putrefied cadaver, as anyone would’ve in the days before the Scourge, and trips on the upturned corner of a bloodstained rug. She lands with a thud, but the carpet has muffled it enough that I don’t need to worry about drawing the attention of the wrong kinds of people.
So Penny is clumsy—I make a note to watch for that. She’s also fourteen, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and, until yesterday, alone in the world.
I found her in the ruins of a burnt-out pile in the suburbs. I don’t normally scavenge so far from the city, but most of what’s left is already picked over, what’s valuable taken, and the rest either burned or decayed beyond use.
All of Penny’s family are dead, so she tells me. I don’t know what she did with the bodies—didn’t ask—just told her I could take her somewhere safe.
I wrestle the watch from the wrist of the dead woman’s hand and pocket the timepiece, which is gold, but that isn’t why I take it. The price of things post-Scourge isn’t measured by the calibre of metal or the cut of the jewel or the value of the notes and the coins in your pocket. Worth is a fluid thing, determined by supply and demand, and the Hawkers set the prices accordingly. I don’t know if they’ll trade me for the watch, but that’s okay; I have other wares to sell them.
I loot the cadaver for the buttons of her shirt, which I pick from the fabric with a penknife. Penny’s blue eyes regard the knife as she stands, and I know that she’s looking at the rust-coloured stains on the blade, forming theories. “Dog pelts,” I tell her, nipping buttons—plink-plink. “Fetch a haul in the city. You can stitch them together, make a blanket. A lot of folk died from the cold last winter. A lot of folk planning on surviving the next one.”
“You mean you skinned a dog?”
“Dogs,” I correct her. “The big ones, anyhow. Sheep are good too, if you can find them. Most already dead, though. Butchered for the meat.”
Penny’s nose wrinkles and she looks towards the door. “Can we go now? I’m hungry. You said that there was food in the city, right?”
I grunt, and she nods, and that’s the end of it. There is food in the city, but maybe not the kind of food that Penny’s used to eating.
Back on the road she gets chatty, telling me how life was for her before it happened. She talks about boarding school and ponies and lacrosse, and I nod as though I understand, wondering if her tears are born of loss, or the smoke from the corpse pyres burning out west.
She’s wiping at her eyes when she catches her foot on a tree root erupting through the tarmac. I reach out to catch her too late. She falls, and I curse myself for not paying closer attention to the girl in a world she wasn’t made for.
She shows me her palms, which are grazed. Holds them out like a toddler to a parent.
“It’s nothing,” I tell her. “You’re fine. Get up.”
She stands, eyes glistening. “But I think I cut my knee.”
She pulls at the tear in her leggings, thin cotton, insubstantial. I stoop to inspect it and yes, there’s a graze to her knee, beads of gravel still embedded in the wound. “It’s fine,” I say again.
Which it is. Just a knee, superficial and unlikely to scar.
Thank God she didn’t land on her face.
“Are there doctors in the city?” Penny asks me.
I frown at her. “You don’t need a doctor.”
“I know but… are there? And schools?”
I shrug. “There’s education if you want it, same as there are doctors. I don’t think there’s lacrosse though.”
She nods, and we pass the next mile or two in silence.
“You haven’t said very much about yourself,” Penny offers.
“No,” I say, and hope she leaves it there.
Which she doesn’t.
“Why’d you take the buttons from that lady back there? I mean, I get the watch—it must be worth something—but a handful of buttons?”
I wish she hadn’t asked that. I don’t want to spook her. “All things have a price in the city,” I tell her.
The sign for the city looms ahead. Flanking us, the carcasses of what were once houses with families stand silent and seemingly empty. Penny is heedless, trusting in me to keep her safe, which is why she doesn’t hear the subtle click of weapons readied, or notice how the shadows shift beyond the glassless windows. I think about the hands that are holding those weapons, the eyes behind the sights and the men that are watching the city’s new arrival.
“Penny,” I say, although I don’t know what I’m doing. I point out the laces in her trainers, grubby grey. “Can I have those?”
She glares at me, affronted. I choose not to mention I could take them if I wanted and tell her that I only want to borrow them.
I hold out a hand and say, “Trust me.”
Penny must decide that she does, or at least that she doesn’t have a choice, and stoops and draws the laces from her trainers. I take them and tie them together, but she watches, inquisitive, perhaps a little wary, so I point up ahead and say, “See? The city gates.”
Whilst she isn’t looking, I finish what I’m doing and hand the laces back to her, screwed into a ball so she won’t know what I’ve done. “Here,” I say. “But hide them. Somewhere safe.”
And this time, for the first time, but certainly not the last for her, I think she finally gets it. “All things have a price in the city,” she tells me.
I nod and watch her tuck the knotted laces in her sock. As hiding places go it’s not the best, and I almost point this out to her, but then I hear the claxon and we both stop and stare as the storey-high gates to the city swing open.
A Hawker makes a gesture with his gun: come on in. He smiles at me with yellowed teeth, turns that smile on Penny, who falters. I nudge her in the back: go ahead, go on in. She looks at me, hesitant. “It’s fine,” I say, “go on.”
We step into the city and the Hawkers close the gates. It’s muddy underfoot and the air stinks of too many people lodged in too small a space: wood smoke and corpse smoke and excrement and rot. Curious gazes on dirt-streaked faces eye Penny like a toy in a shop, and Penny eyes them back, and I can see that she’s afraid now.
I point towards a door with a mesh panel screen across the grime-crusted glass and tell Penny to go in. The sign above the door reads ‘Pawn Shop’ but somebody half-painted over it, and now it reads ‘Arrivals’.
Which is pretty much the same thing these days.
“Go on,” I say. “I’ll meet you back out here.”
“I don’t want to,” Penny says, but she doesn’t have a choice now. All Penny has is a price, which I go to collect from the hatch around the back.
But I’m stopped by a Hawker before I can make it. “Hey kid. You find her?”
I dig out the harvested buttons and offer them up to him. He takes them and throws them in a jar by the door. It’s a big jar. Holds a lot of buttons.
“You teach her a lesson for running away, kid?”
I shake my head no. “She was already dead. Self-inflicted.”
I nod, and he snorts. “Ah well. Saved you a job.”
I don’t bother answering. Go around back to the hatch, where I wait.
Eventually it opens. A Hawker peers down at me, leering a smile I don’t return. “Any more?” In the background, I hear a girl sobbing.
I take out the watch and hand it over. He inspects it. Grunts. Throws it in a basket full of obsolete trinkets, then hands me a hessian sack of cured meat. I can tell by the weight that she fetched a good price. I can tell by the large letter ‘H’ on the sack it wasn’t quite good enough to afford me the mutton that the Hawkers get to eat.
Well, no matter. It’s food, and my hunger doesn’t care for specifics.
I’m leaving with my dues when the Hawker from Arrivals shouts over. “Hey, kid!”
I turn around to find that he’s standing in the doorway, holding up the noose that I made from Penny’s laces. “Nice try, kid. Do something like this again, we’ll find another use for you.”
I scowl at him and say, “I’m not a kid.”
But he laughs and says, “What are you? Like, twelve?”
Not even. But I’m tall for my age so I don’t put him straight. Like Penny, boys my age have a use here.
Because all things have a price in the city.