by Karen Goldrick
“You so lucky Ashley. You have such Pure skin.”
Ash shrugged, and tried not to feel self-conscious in her short shift. Everybody else in the SpeakEzy was well covered.
“Well, you look great too, Rina.”
“Yeah… but me looking great takes hours. I bet you just walk out the door of your fancy new apartment.” Rina signed, loud enough to hear over the thumping music. “So what do you feel like?”
“I’m not sure,” Ash replied.
“Right then, some mellow GABA it is,” and Rina ordered on the grimy keypad that was nailed to the table. Within seconds two bright blue shot glasses were deposited before them.
“My shout,” Rina shouted “but after this you pay.”
Rina threw her drink down, gasped, and choked back a cough. Ash laughed. She took only a small sip. Shots always tasted hideous, and she was wary of a rush.
Rina leaned over and whispered. “I swear there’s some 100-proof in these.”
“How would you know what alcohol even tasted like?” Ash whispered back, with a quick check to make certain no-one was listening.
“In my wild teens, with a boy, on a riverbank and an antique bottle of gin.”
“You knew a boy!”
“There’s much about my dark past you can’t even guess. But what about you? You’re marrying a boy! How did you even meet one, let alone persuade him to propose?”
Ash shifted. The iron stool was hard, and her synthetic shift thin. She was lucky. She had Pureskin, resistant to the toxic elements and unmarked. She could wear short skirts and bare hands. Rina covered her radiation scarred limbs with nylon stockingette, and wore long gloves to protect her hands, as almost all women did.
She was lucky…
She was marrying a boy. Miraculously also a Pureskin, whose dark eyes had mesmerised her from the day he walked over and introduced himself. They would have Perfect children, he had joked.
“Will you be my bridesmaid?” she asked Rina, chewing her lips.
“Would I what?” Rina slipped off her chair and did a small excited dance. She threw her arms around Ash and almost knocked her off the stool. “Do I get a dress?”
“All paid for by the Incumbant.”
Rina kept dancing. Ash thought she might lose her to the throng of covered girls on the dance floor.
“When?” Rina asked. “How soon? You see, I’ve also got news.” She sat down and picked up Ash’s bare hand in her soft gloved one.
“They need you to start a family.”
It wasn’t a question.
Ash nodded. “Soon as we can.”
Rina let her go. “I’ve signed up. They’ve found me a partner. She’s OK. We get on quite well, actually. She’ll work, and I’ll be the incubator.” She laughed.
“To have babies?”
“To have baby boys. Hopefully two. Don’t look so sad Ash. Now I get a new apartment, just like you.”
“So long as you have baby boys.”
“So long as I have boys, and they survive.”
Later Ash walked home. She preferred walking, to the uncertain wait for a taxi. The streets were deserted now. Homeless women who begged by day, would be huddled in vacant shops and buildings awaiting demolition. Those lucky enough to have homes would be sheltering out of the burning wind. She wished she’d worn a jacket. Even Pureskin, which resisted the toxic gale, smarted from the dust and debris. She wasn’t afraid though. None dared maim a Pureskin.
Their allotted apartment had a view, but the lift didn’t work, so she had to climb the stairs to the tenth floor. She paused at the door before going in, taking in the scratched red timber, and the message written by some-one long ago in black felt pen: “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted”.
Even now, after all these months, she found him strikingly beautiful. Sometimes she thought it might the only way a boy was able to survive, in utero, by having just some female genes to augment the weak male. He stood , lean and tall, brushing his long dark hair back over his eyes.
“I missed you,” he said.
Ash swallowed, hoping the burnt air outside would be enough to disguise the sweat, and syrupy taste of shots that clung to her clothes and lips. Declan didn’t approve of Speakeazies.
“Late,” she shrugged, “Work. You know.”
He regarded her for a little too long, then came over and wrapped her in a heavy embrace. He smelled of fresh herbs and soap, and she relaxed into him. Everything would be fine. She loved him. The rest would be OK.
“Six more weeks,” he said, “And you will be mine.”
“We’ll be each other’s.”
Declan pushed her fringe back and gently ran his finger along her smooth brow.
“What’s for dinner?.”
Declan didn’t like to prepare food, no matter how early he was home from work. There wasn’t much to it really, because there was never much fresh food anyway. But he preferred that Ash search the icebox and cupboard, and create something from whatever scraps she found.
“I’ll find something.” But there wasn’t much. “Umm… no meat. Just tinned beans, some old greens and rice,” she said.
“Really? You could’ve picked up some on the way home.”
“I don’t think we have any ration chips left.”
“We do. Enough for a couple of mutton chops. Why didn’t you go to the market after work? Or you could’ve asked me. Now we’ve no meat.”
His voice was quiet and gentle, but Ash felt fear clamp her chest. She hated that he made her feel this way. Why was it always her job to look after the food?
“I can go now.”
“It’s dark. I’d have to go with you.”
“OK. I’ll get some tomorrow.”
“So what do we eat tonight?” His voice rose, just a little, petulant.
Ash didn’t reply. Any response fled and she was left, mouth open, holding wilted greens. Behind Declan, the lights of those buildings with power dotted the darkening skyline. The wind howled around the corners of their building.
“Well?” he asked.
Ash shrugged, and shook her head. Their kitchen was so sparse there wasn’t even a bench she could move behind. Nothing to block his quiet anger.
“Either I go fetch mutton, or we have beans green and rice.” Ash stared at the tiles.“Your choice.”
Declan walked towards her, the rubber soles of his boots squeaking on the clean tiles. He kept shaking his head, his black eyes challenged her to defy him again. As if he relished the anger and the power it gave him.
“I don’t know where you’re at these days Ashley. The Incumbent has given us the opportunity to create something very special. The two of us. Our Purity. Male and female. We will have beautiful Pureskin children. But how can we do that if you forget to buy the meat protein. Especially once you’re pregnant.”
He reached over and clasped her arm, gently at first, then more firm, until she winced. Tomorrow she’d have to cover her Pureskin with long sleeves.
“Ouch,” she said.
He waited a moment more, then let go.
Ash felt something rush up from her toes, along her spine and through her ears. Perhaps she’d had too way many GABA shots after all. Because she definitely was not thinking straight when she swiped his smooth forehead with the wilted greens. And was it just a trick of her eyes that he was now marked by a thin pink line? And that small bright red beads welled and crept along his perfect pale skin.
He didn’t even react. How could he know that she had bound the greens with a small piece of copper wire to keep them tidy in the ice box. A gust of wind rattled the window.
She could go. She could go out there in the windstorm, and try to find shelter. Or she could stay…protected by the walls.
Ash couldn’t take her eyes off the blood, now a small rivulet trickling above his eye. He must feel it. Any time he would rub at the sting, and smear the blood with his long slender finger. Any time now he would realise he’d been maimed. He may even bear a tiny scar.
“Sorry,” she said, but she didn’t feel remorse.
Declan stared, frozen in time. As Ash collected her a scarf to keep out the worst of the dust, he remained motionless and silent.
“I’ll fetch the meat,” she said, and almost ran out the door. She’d left her bag. She had nothing, just a scarf, and whatever credits she could access.
She ran down the stairs as if her feet had grown wings. So fast she almost missed a step and had to hold the rail to calm herself. But it didn’t matter anymore if she scratched herself. She didn’t need to be Perfect anymore. She’d face the wind, and the darkness, and any repercussions.
Anything but those safe walls.