This story is by J. D. Edwin and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Leaning against the rusty balcony railing, Helene fans herself with a ragged straw fan. The heat is heavy, oppressive, like damp hands pushing against the body, prying into its crevices uninvited. Helene can’t decide whether it’s worse inside or out, but at least out here, she could pretend to be getting some fresh air, not that much is to be had under the thick bodies of pitch-black smog that endlessly permeate the sky above.
“I don’t get how you stand those long sleeves, mama.”
Helene turns to the paint-chipped door leading into the second floor, where Sandy stands smoking what’s left of a filterless cigarette. She’s wearing a short, sheer robe – once white, now a tired shade of yellow – over her ripped lace bra. The matching panties are nowhere to be seen – she had just sent off her latest customer.
“I prefer to be covered,” Helene responds, continuing to fan herself. “Call it a whim. Did you collect?”
Sandy grins, showing the space where two of her front teeth used to be. A factory worker had gotten a little too excited with the hair pulling and smacked her face against the metal bed post, mouth first. He was apologetic, but Helene still made sure he paid double the usual rate. Factory workers are lumbering, senseless brutes, and Helene would rather not have them around her girls if it weren’t for the fact that they made up for most of the clientele in this shitty industrial city, where sunlight rarely breaks through the layers of smoke and soot.
“Made him pay before he stuck it,” Sandy says, and blows a smoke ring. She is twenty-two. By thirty, she will look forty-five. “He was an apprentice. All wide-eyed and grateful. Not many of those in the summer. Was a nice change.” She reaches into her bra, removes a wad of wrinkled bills stained with black grime and engine grease, and hands it to Helene.
“Good girl.” Helene tucks the money into her own bosom. Sandy takes another long drag, coughs, and smiles dreamily up at the filthy sky.
“What a nice day,” she says without a hint of sarcasm. “You know, mama, some days I just sit and think, life is beautiful.”
“It certainly is, sweetheart.” Helene peers over the balcony as a gaggle of dirty children run by in the streets below. The young of the city, urchins born to factory workers and women like Sandy, are unhealthy, impoverished things with sallow eyes and skin pale. Still, they find their fun in the neglected corners of the industrial sector, crawling through abandoned pipes and digging through piles of concrete and metal waste left from the erection of the newest plant. Following them with her eye, Helene spots the half dozen haphazard market stalls around the street corner.
“Joy market’s open,” she says, pulling out one of the dirty bills to hand back to Sandy. “Go get yourself something.”
“Oh, yes!” Sandy bounces excitedly. She leans over the railing and peers in the same direction. The cigarette falls out of her mouth to the streets below. One of the street urchins will find and smoke it. “I ought to. They might have pictures this time. The jewelry and vases are nice and all, but I do love the pictures. Last time I found one with two baby girls on it. Twins. Can you believe it? It was the cutest thing I ever did see.”
Helene shakes her head. “You shouldn’t waste your money on those things. Creepy is what they are.”
Sandy giggles. “Oh, they’re just pictures, mama.”
Helene contemplates this, though not for long as her thought is interrupted by a commotion from the innards of the brothel.
“Mama!” someone screams. “Mama, come quick! Betsy is stricken!”
Muttering curses, Helene gets to her feet and hurries inside, Sandy close at her heels.
By the time she arrives on the first floor, the other girls have laid Betsy down and are taking turns pressing a blood-soaked rag to her chest. Every time they let up a little, more blood spurted out of the deep, neat slit. Helene wrinkles her nose at the smell of blood.
“Where is it?” she seethes. The girls not tending to Betsy scramble under the bed and retrieve a silver ring. Helene snatches it from a trembling hand and holds it up to the light of the flickering bulb on the ceiling. It’s a cheap little thing, thin and fragile. On the Joy market, it probably wouldn’t fetch more than enough for half a meal.
“She had it taped under her bed, mama,” says a shaky girl. She’s one of the new ones, young and still mostly unblemished. Messy streaks of blood stain her bare small breasts. “She was fingering it when she got stricken.”
Helene furrows her brow at the bleeding girl, who’s drifting in and out of consciousness. “Get the Joy.”
“No, mama,” Betsy moans. Her painted eyelids flutter. She reaches out weakly to no one in particular. “Please. No Joy. I’ll be good.”
“Yes, you will,” Helene says. “You will have your Joy like a good girl today, and tomorrow if you’re still alive. And you will never think about that worthless man again if you want to keep living.” She tosses the ring to Sandy, who catches it out of the air. “Go swap this for some pretty pictures.”
“No!” Betsy wails. She flails and tries to sit up but the other girls push her down. “Please, mama!”
“Where’s that Joy?” Helene barks.
The young girl hurries to a chest of chipped drawers by the window. Prying it open, she rummages and comes away with an orange pill bottle, from which she dumps out a handful of little yellow pills and returns to the bed.
“Hold her down.”
The other girls grab Betsy – bleeding, crying, and struggling – and hold her down. Helene takes the pills, pinches Betsy’s face with a firm hand, and stuffs them into her mouth.
Tears flow down the girl’s dusty cheeks and land in her matted black hair. Helene holds her hand in place until she feels the muscles in Betsy’s throat work. Then, she holds a moment longer. Slowly, Betsy calms. Then, she smiles.
“I feel much better, mama,” she mutters, and closes her eyes with a sigh. “Thank you. Life is beautiful.”
“It certainly is, dear.” Helene straightens. “Phone the doctor. And fetch me the med kit. I’ll have to stitch her up myself if that useless drunk doesn’t get here fast enough.”
Thankfully the doctor makes it. This time. They tip him extra, though Betsy will be out of commission for weeks, so that he would write them two more Joy prescriptions.
Sitting by the window, with Betsy sleeping peacefully under a threadbare blanket, Helene lights a cigarette and looks out into the night. At least when the sun is down, she can pretend the lights of the factories are stars against the seamless layer of smog above.
No one can say when the Grief started, though they all admit that nothing else breeds faster under the black, smoke-filled sky. One day a sad thought led to a slit on the skin. Then a grieving widower is found dead in his home, covered in cuts down to the bone, holding a photo of his late wife. Before you know it, the “Grief-stricken” are lined up in hospitals and clinics, bleeding like stuck pigs. Grief no longer kills only the heart. It kills the body, too.
Thankfully a solution was found quickly – when there’s money to be made, solutions are never far behind. Joy in a bottle, the adverts claimed. Three a day and the pain of body and soul will evaporate. Joy is a blessing. Joy is freedom. Joy allows the people of the city to look up at the dark skies and smile in gratitude, and to walk the little markets dotting the streets, trading away the things that once made them so sad.
Joy is life.
Helene sighs. Betsy will make it. The other girls will ensure she stays on her pills this time, and Sandy has already traded away the offending ring at the Joy market. She rises and returns to her room upstairs, where she locks the door and opens the box she hides in the back of her dresser, away from prying eyes.
She opens it and runs her fingers over the soft pink baby shoes inside. New. Never worn. She winces as a fresh cut appears – on her forearm, underneath her long sleeve. She closes the box, shoves it back, and goes to tend her wound. It will scar, like the others.
One day that wound will be over her heart, and she will keel over like poor Bets, or it will be somewhere her clothes can’t cover, and all the girls will know there is no Joy in Mama Helene. But not today.
She takes a drag of her cigarette.