I step onto the ground floor of the defunct apartment complex. The wind whistles through the cracks of the cobbled walls. Our footsteps echo lightly in the confined space, tapping against the shattered granite that has long lost its luster.
The sky is a bright overcast gray, as if threatening snow but not quite willing to act upon it. The sun’s outline is barely above the horizon. Its weak beams lightly illuminate the otherwise drab interior of the lobby.
Although the building was abandoned more than a decade ago, it had clearly started falling apart much earlier than that. Dangerous lead paint and withering wallpaper has done more to make the place haunting than the disrepair of the floorboards and infrastructure.
“That’s sort of what I was thinking, too,” I say, running my index finger along the dusty top of the lobby desk. “If the cops don’t evict us within a month, we’ll be moving anyway. The last thing I want is to die from lead poisoning or the ceiling collapsing in on me. Wouldn’t even be a fun way to go.”
Freckles gives me a discerning look. I sigh and scoop him up in my arms, letting him climb onto my shoulder and around my neck like an uncomfortable scarf. Certainly the laziest robot cat I’ve ever seen.
We step out of the building, and my arms are immediately covered in goosebumps. This year’s been abnormally warm, but it’s a matter of time until the temperatures drop. Too bad I lost my jacket in the last move. I’ll have to find one that I can “borrow” soon.
“Trust me, I would if I could. Unfortunately, that costs money, and all of my ideas are illegal, which, if I remember correctly, you don’t like those kinds of ideas.”
“I’m not arguing with you again today.”
Our walk to the scrapyard is a bit longer than twenty minutes. With every step, his cold metal body presses against my neck, and I can feel the vibrations of his mechanical parts.
He’s a one-of-a-kind steambot, built by some super-smart engineer called the Gearmaster. The dude’s apparently built almost a hundred creatures like the brass tabby, but they’ve lost a lot of their spark in the public eye.
At least, compared to the Clockwork. Some kid named Orion saved all of Carmsborough with the Clockwork by his side, and now they’re heroes.
All I’m saying is, put Freckles and I in their position, and we would’ve done it, too. Maybe even better.
“What, you don’t think we could’ve done better? I’ve witnessed you in action, Freckles. No Syndra punk could get past you and me. I mean, he gets the rest of his life handed to him while we slave away at the scrapyard. And that’s why I’m morally justified when I steal.”
The phrase, much like the sting of December, hangs in the air.
It’s hard to remember a time before I had to resort to stealing.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I remember the begging phase, too. Begging for food, money, a bed to sleep on, and to be accepted by an orphanage.
That was all I could do after Mom died. The landlord kicked me out of our apartment when I couldn’t afford rent. I’d go to busy streets and churches, hoping someone would be generous and help me, but it never got me anywhere. Sprinkle in a little racism from the head honchos at the orphanage, and I was back to square one. So, I switched to stealing.
Is it moral?
Is forcing a kid to live on the street for her entire teenage life because her only living parent dies moral? Is going to church to listen to a sermon about helping the poor sinner, but ignoring the starving child on the front steps moral? Is making a teenager work fifty-hour workweeks for just pennies a day moral?
I didn’t think so.
Freckles calls it a double standard. I call it returning the favor. Everything’s been stolen from me. Why shouldn’t I give them the same treatment?
I shake the thought away. This is a conversation we have daily, and yet we get nowhere. No point in ruining my mood. Besides, we’ve gotta get moving if we want to get to work on time. I don’t have a watch, but I can tell we’re cutting it close.
“Ready for another fun day at Cheapskate Chad’s?”
Freckles tilts his mechanical head, as if acknowledging he doesn’t have much of a choice.
Freckles and I reach the scrapyard entrance, where everyone’s lined up for attendance. We go to the spot at the end of the line and wait for Chad to write us in.
“Good morning, Luna,” he says, finally reaching me.
“Yeah, it might be. We’ll find out soon.”
“Today’s eight hours instead of ten. We’re closing shop a few days for Christmas, and we’ll start again the twenty-seventh.”
“Maybe it really will be a good day. Christmas again? I swear we had one of those last year, too.”
“Funny how that works, huh?” He writes something on his clipboard and moves to the person behind me. “Keep your cat out of trouble today, please.”
“You always say that, and yet nothing ever happens.”
“Nothing happens because I say it.”
“Sounds like flawed logic to me.”
“Meow,” Freckles interrupts.
“Are you gonna patronize me all day, Freckles? I recognize flawed logic when I see it.”
We cut a path across the scrapyard to our usual spot, avoiding sharp metal fragments along the way. Basins full of metal and plastic scraps as deep as I am tall are scattered throughout the scrapyard, contained entirely by one dinky iron fence. The pathways between them are rarely walkable without playing hopscotch.
Basin thirteen is our home. We spend hours each day sorting loose material into bins and hauling it to basins six and seven, and today was going to be no different. Metals to six, plastics to seven. Fill a bin, wheel it to its new home, and repeat. If we meet the quota, we get a small bonus.
Freckles and I always meet the quota. I think Foreman Chad would be against our little team-up if it wasn’t beneficial for him. He gets double the labor for the price of one, and we get an extra quarter. A dollar a day hardly gets you anywhere, but it builds up eventually.
And with a few more months, I’ll have saved up enough to get myself some respectable clothing and a job that actually pays. After that, an apartment, and home-cooked meals, and on and on.
We’ve had a few setbacks. I lost twelve dollars in a pair of pants that was left behind, and here and there I’ve had to buy food or a new button for my overalls. Nevertheless, we’re closer than ever to freedom.
And then I’ll be done stealing. As soon as I turn eighteen.
I glance at Freckles to see if he has any wise remarks, but he’s busy staring at one of the scrap pieces in our basin. It has a red light that flashes in sync with a soft beeping noise it’s emitting.
Freckles grabs it from the pile, carries it to me in his metal mouth, and drops it in my hand. The surprisingly heavy black cube looks like it plugs into something on one end.
And might be worth a lot.
“I wonder if our friend in the Commerce District would be interested in this,” I say, putting it in my overalls’ side pocket. “Might boost us to where we need to be for that new set of clothes.”
“I know, wishful thinking. Sometimes you’ve gotta have a little positivity, Freckles. You’re such a downer all the time.”
One of the SH Intranational Transportation trucks that delivers raw materials reverses and parks next to our basin, and the two of us clear some space. The man driving it, Jeremy, locks eyes with me in his rear-view mirror, sticks his thumb up, and tips his cargo hold back.
It’s a good thing we grabbed this cube when we did. I mean, we’d have found it at some point, but if something’s not at the top of the pile, it can take months to be dug out. It’s possible the cube was already there for that long.
Jeremy finishes dumping a new batch of plastics and drives away, leaving us with a literal mountain of things to sort for the day.
By the time the shift ends, nothing else interesting has happened, so we snag our dollar from the foreman and head to the man at the docks. Fortunately for us, the Industrial District is adjacent to the Commerce District, so the walk isn’t unbearably long.
We weave along the streets for an hour and reach the first set of docks in the district. Half of them sit at sea level, and half hover thirty feet in the air, supported by dangerously thin wooden beams. Carmsborough docks are unique in that way, or so I’m told. I’ve never left the country.
A loud whistle sounds off to our right. A cloudship in one of the upper docks is preparing to set sail. Its balloon is massive and tight, like it would pop with the slightest touch.
Once upon a time, I wanted to fly in a cloudship. They’re a strange Carmsborough invention that can sail both the seas and the skies, but have such a limited range that they’re hardly worth anything commercially. Most only make it as far as London without a refuel. Still, to feel the breeze in your hair like that…
Maybe someday. For now, there’s a beeping gadget to pawn off.
“Is that Luna I see?”
A haggled man a few years older than me is staring from across the cobbled street, sitting on a bench, wearing an overcoat that is definitely too big.
“Well, if it isn’t the man of the hour,” I say, making my way to him. “I’ve got something I think you’ll be interested in, Shane.” I’ve got a nickname for him, too, but it’s not exactly a good idea to call your business partner shady.
“Let’s have a gander at it, then.” He smiles at me, revealing a couple of missing teeth and… dirt? Cavities? I’m not sure. He’s been on the streets longer than me. Whenever his last proper teeth cleaning was is anyone’s guess.
“Remember, no running off with what I show you. Freckles is swifter than both of us, and heavier than you’d expect.”
“Yes, yes, I remember.”
I reveal the noisy object in my hand and offer it to him. He examines it for a solid ten seconds before his eyes go wide. The item falls out of his hand and drops to the ground as he bolts up from the bench.
“Are you trying to get us in trouble, kid?”
“What? No? What is it?”
“That belongs to a mob boss. See that ‘B’ on the side of it? He marks all his important mob boss stuff with it. Where’d you get this?”
“At the scrapyard. Are you sure it belongs to a mob boss?”
“Oh God, what if that beeping is a tracker? What if you’ve led him straight to us?”
“Calm down, Shane. Who’s the mob boss?”
“Get away from me, Luna, and stay away until you’ve gotten rid of that thing.”
Shane glances one last time at me, Freckles, and the machine, and dramatically darts away.
I walked an hour to the Commerce District for this?
I pick the item up and return it to my pocket. There’s no way what Shane is saying is true. Probably another one of his schizophrenic rants. He’ll be back in an hour, apologizing for the outburst.
That said, he’s never acted like that when I’ve brought him something. Could it really belong to a mob boss? And, second question, could I give it to said mob boss for a small chunk of change?
Both are excellent questions for when he apologizes to me. In the meantime, I might as well hunt for dinner or something else to scavenge. Maybe even a new coat.
With Freckles still beside me, I work my way through the buildings between the Commerce and Industrial districts, on the lookout for anything that catches my eye.
A few blocks from the spot we met Shady Shane, the smell of warm bread wafts into my nose. It’s heaven. I make a beeline straight for the source and find myself face-to-face with Thatch’s Bakery.
It’s been about three months since I’ve had fresh bread. I can usually loot a trash can next to some sort of restaurant where it’s at least a day old, but by that point it’s stale and a little harder to tolerate. Beggars can’t be choosers, but my begging days are long gone.
Freckles and I walk to the back and spot a dumpster. I lift the lid, and… jackpot.
It’s filled with bread. They must’ve just cleaned inventory. If I’d planned to be scavenging in the Commerce District today, I would’ve grabbed a bag or two to take stuff in this morning. I guess I’ll have to settle with whatever I can fit in my arms.
It’s not stealing if they didn’t want it anyway, I don’t think. I’m sure a lawyer wouldn’t agree with me, but if it’s in the dumpster, what more are you going to do with it? You’re obviously not gonna sell it, that’s for sure.
“You plannin’ on sharin’?” someone asks behind me. My hand isn’t even all the way in yet. “That’s my stake your arm’s in.”
Freckles lets out a metallic growl. I turn to see who it is, but I don’t recognize the guy.
Of course the place with a dumpster full of bread is gonna have claims staked. You’ve outdone yourself this time on the critical thinking test, Luna.
“Yes, sir, I certainly am planning on sharing,” I say, sneaking away from the dumpster. “I wasn’t sure if this was claimed or not, but I’m desperately hungry. You wouldn’t have a problem with a little girl like me getting some food here, right?”
“Normally I wouldn’t,” he says, walking closer to me, “but said little girl has one blaring flaw that I simply can’t ignore.”
“Oh, don’t you dare say it. Let’s not be racist, now.”
He pulls a knife out of his sleeve and points it at me. “This little black girl is in the wrong part of the city.”
I was planning on going a full week without getting into a fight in some shady alley. Truly, I was.
After all, blood stains are awful hard to remove from my overalls.
Freckles and I both charge the guy at the same time, but Freckles connects first. The man receives a metal cat to the chest and smacks against the cobblestone wall of one of the alley buildings. In retaliation, he grabs onto Freckles and tosses him aside. The distraction lets me get in and kick at one of his legs.
He screams in pain and swings at me with his knife. I dodge away, lining Freckles up for the next shot. He jumps on the man’s back, sending them both stumbling towards me. My fist flies out and lands on his nose, creating an unpleasant cracking sound. It makes me queasy every time.
The man yells again, holding his nose with his free hand. “You broke my nose, you stupid b—”
In one last motion, I sweep his legs from under him, and he lands on his face. The knife clatters down at his side, which Freckles picks up with his mouth.
“Let’s move,” I say, wiping my bloody hand on my overalls and moving to the dumpster. I grab three or four loaves, hug them to my chest, and the two of us quickly leave the alley.
I’m not even sure where we’re going. That’s something I’ll have to figure out later.
We traverse a couple of alleys and emerge on a different street. I slow my pace and join the crowd flowing along the sidewalks. As far as they know, we didn’t do anything. We bought this bread with our hard-earned money and didn’t fight another homeless person for it.
“Look, I’m not proud of what happened either, Freckles, but he had it coming. Besides, we needed this bread.”
“Okay, I needed this bread. Obviously, you don’t eat, so there’s no reason you would—”
Freckles stops and tugs at the pocket of my overalls where the beeping cube is.
Beep beep. Beep beep.
It’s going faster.
Oh my God, maybe it is a tracker. Or a bomb. Or it’s leading us to something.
I pull it out. The red dot is flashing at the same rate as the beeping.
“You realize we have to test this, right?”
Freckles focuses on me with a blank stare. I’m gonna assume that means he agrees.
The two of us hurry back to the front of Thatch’s Bakery and listen to the beeping.
“It’s leading us to something!”
“Of course this is a good idea, Freckles. Where’s that bravado you had last year when we went to the old fishing dock? Hell, where’s that bravado you had when you jumped on that guy and forced him against the wall?”
“Well then, let’s go. Maybe it’ll lead us to treasure. Besides, we don’t work tomorrow, so we can afford to have an overnight hunt.”
We move to the spot Freckles first noticed the increased beeping speed at and make sure it still happens.
Beep beep. Beep beep.
There won’t be many alley shortcuts on this adventure. The rest of Carmsborough will have to watch me follow a beeping cube while clinging tightly onto bread.
Even though all of Carmsborough was sectioned into districts nearly a hundred years ago, the gray streets and the buildings that fit in between them are winding and pattern-less. Most buildings don’t even have alleyways, and the ones that do are usually rat infested or occupied by someone as unfortunate as me.
We cross the streets and navigate the cracked sidewalks of the Commerce District, avoiding cars and bikers whenever necessary.
Beep beep beep. Beep beep beep.
This is the furthest I’ve ever been in the Commerce District. The buildings are taller and more modern, with large, reflective windows and lots of metal. People wearing suits are coming in and out of fancy revolving doors.
I’ll bet if I robbed one of these suits, they’d be loaded with cash.
“I know, I know. Doesn’t stop me from daydreaming, though.”
I spot a wide alley up ahead, which opens to a second set of docks. Did we somehow already cross this entire section of the Commerce District? Either way, that alley is the perfect shortcut to end our treasure hunt sooner.
The sun is a lot lower in the sky, and hides behind most of the towers we pass. The alley is lit solely by the sunlight that can sneak past the two buildings that form it. The shoreline is not too far away. This cube better not be leading us into the ocean. I didn’t pack my swimsuit today. Not that I own one.
A man steps into the alley in front of me, wearing a suit that hardly fits his muscular frame. I stop dead in my tracks, and Freckles gets into a defensive position.
“Thank you so much for bringing me my tool,” a voice echoes from where we entered the alley. I turn to face a bald man with abnormally large hands.
Like, huge hands. Big enough that his shirts have to have stretched sleeve holes. I can’t wrap my head around how big they are, but he could easily wrap one around my head.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” I say, eyes glued to the pancakes attached to the ends of his arms. He’s pretty tall, too–maybe seven feet. This poor man and his awful proportions.
“That device in your hand belongs to me,” he says. “I would appreciate if you gave it back without causing too much trouble.”
I check behind me again. The muscular man at the other end of the alley is much closer now.
Something tells me there’s no easy way out of this.
- United States
- Michael Heckman
Michael has always had a love for writing that stems from writing a short story about turtles on his family computer in second grade. From there, he never stopped writing, and wrote his first ten-thousand-word book in the third grade, igniting his passion for storytelling.
Now, the only thing stopping Michael from writing more is his schedule. Ideas like LUNA ON THE RUN and THE GHOST OF THE HINDENBURG keep him up at night, plotting his creative path forward.