The Moon Festival has come to the riverfront slums: a time when ghosts and shadows walk the streets, returning to visit their loved ones. Some visitors are more welcome than others.
This is the third installment of a three-part series. New to the story? Start here!
Nonya woke to the foggy gray light of morning seeping through her bedroom window. Her right leg was encased in a heavy cast from the knee down and propped up on a pillow. A glass of water and a plate of grilled fish sat on the bedside table.
It was undoubtably one of the muddy little swimmers from the river bottom, but the flesh was sweet and flaky as if freshly caught, and the seasoned breading covered the taste of heavy water pollution.
Nonya’s eyes watered; it reminded her of her son’s cooking, and his knack for catching the sneaky fish that lurked in the river’s depths. With her leg broken, she would probably have to call at least one of her children home to help her run the shop. To remain closed would mean bankruptcy. Starvation would soon follow.
Downstairs, dishes clinked in the kitchen. The old woman scowled up at the cracked gray plaster, wondering who was in her house. Were the slum rats already helping themselves?
Keys rattled in the front door, and something crashed to the floor in the kitchen.
“I’m up here!” Nonya shouted back.
A moment later her daughter sprinted up the rickety old stairs.
“I’m so glad you’re alright!” She knelt by the bed and hugged Nonya. “Bertha sent her cousin’s kid up to the Institute this morning to tell me you had an accident.”
“It wasn’t an accident. It was that river-cursed Revenue Officer!”
“She said the old cabinet by the back door collapsed on you.”
“She doesn’t know what happened, which is probably better for all of us.” Nonya sighed. “What did she tell you?”
“They heard screaming, and then something came wailing and pounding on doors like a possessed thing. She took one of the iron pry bars from their shop and came to check out the noise. Bertha and her cousin found a trail of blood leading from your porch toward the river. The back door was open, and you were inside with your leg trapped under the cabinet, out cold.”
The old woman frowned. If the Revenue Officer had lived, he’d be back. And if he hadn’t… well, she didn’t want to think about that. Corporate Investigators were cruel, pitiless creatures, and involvement in the murder of an employee of the Corporation was a crime punishable by death.
“Don’t worry,” Anya said, patting her mother’s hand. “I’ll help you with the shop until your leg heals. It’ll be alright.”
“What about your grades, though? And where’s Ivan? You two should take turns so neither of you falls too far behind.”
Anya looked away. “It’s going to be just me.”
A sudden fear gripped Nonya’s heart. “Where’s Ivan?” She hadn’t heard from her son in months, but that wasn’t unusual. Technical Institute was demanding and the children sometimes lost track of time.
“He’s– he’s– They have him,” Anya said softly, staring at her hands. “I haven’t seen him in nearly a month.”
“What do mean, they have him?!”
“He fell behind in his classes. His counselor offered him a brochure that said he could enroll to make up some of his grades. It was some kind of testing, a medical trial I think. They told him it was perfectly safe.”
“Why didn’t he tell me?” Nonya demanded, anguished. “Why didn’t you tell me? I trusted you to look after him!”
“It wasn’t my fault! He’s an adult now, and he enrolled against my advice. What was I supposed to do?”
“You could have told me!”
“So you could yell at me for not looking out for him? I did all I could!”
“You didn’t do anything, and now he’s gone!” She flung the first thing that came to hand as Anya scrambled for cover. The plate shattered, splattering the wall with the last of the fish.
Anya fled down the stairs, and a few moments later the front door slammed with a thunderous crash. Nonya’s eyes misted with tears. She’ll be back, she told herself.
Hours passed. The furtive rustlings and creakings returned to the lower floor of the shop, and Nonya limped out of bed on the homemade crutches someone had left by the night stand.
The sounds ceased as she made her way down the stairs. In the kitchen, the sink was still full of soapy water but someone had washed all of the dishes. By the back door, the remains of the cabinet and its contents had been carefully sorted into stacks based on salvageability and purpose. And out in the front of the shop, someone had painstakingly retrieved all of the fallen fruit, dusted it off, and restacked it for sale.
“Hello?” Nonya called softly. “It anyone there?” Only silence answered her.
Shaking her head, the old woman hobbled over to the front door and turned the closed sign over to open.
The hours slid past and the shadows grew darker in the narrow streets of the slum. Sunset approached. In the lulls between customers, errant creaks and clinks drifted down from above the little shop. Bertha came by, her round face smudged with soot and grease from her repair shop, and staunchly denied cooking fish or cleaning anything.
“You know me,” she said with a grin. “I don’t cook or clean. That’s more Cousin Sanny’s thing.”
“Well tell your cousin thank you for me, then.”
“I’d love to, but it wasn’t her either. Maybe it was Anya? We sent a message to her this morning.”
As the last of the light faded from the slums, Nonya locked up the shop for the night and hobbled into the kitchen to make herself dinner. There was still no sign of Anya, but the broken plate lay on the kitchen table atop an old towel. Someone had washed the pieces and carefully glued them back together.
Nonya limped over to the stove and made herself a cup of tea. The plate reminded her of shy, quiet Ivan, who hated fights and loud noises. Ivan, who hated to leave things broken, whether they were dishes or toys or friendships. Crying quietly into her tea, she almost missed the angular shadow creeping down the stairs.
The stairwell was to her left and a little bit behind the kitchen table, and the light had burned out some time before. She’d never gotten around to replacing it. Now the gloom concealed an ungainly figure dressed in the ill-fitting uniform of a Corporate security officer. The dark fabric was dirty and stiff with dried blood. The creature’s eyes reflected the light of the single dim kitchen bulb like pools of black river water.
Nonya gasped in horror and fumbled after her crutches.
“Get out! Get out, you awful creature!”
The figure cowered away from her outrage, covering its scarred face with bony hands. It scrambled toward the unlocked back door and squeezed through the gap with such force that a few of the uniform’s buttons popped off and bounced across the floor. A pail of mop water remained where Nonya had caught it, balanced on the last step of the stairs.
Wheezing in horror, the old woman hobbled over to the back door, slammed it shut, and threw the bolt. The thought of that thing hiding in her house all day, creeping around in the shadows as she tended shop and mourned her son, was almost enough to stop her heart.
Eventually, fortified with enough tea and good vodka, she overcame the pain in her leg and made dinner. Fingers crossed that the river creature wouldn’t be waiting outside to eat her, Nonya cracked open the back door and slid a bowl out onto the porch for the Moon Children. Then she shuffled up the stairs and off to bed.
In the predawn darkness, the house lay silent. No secretive creakings or shufflings disturbed her domain. Nonya breathed a sigh of relief, then sobbed softly as she remembered that her children were gone too. Before she had held the knowledge that they would be back. Now that sole consolation was gone, snuffing the light in her heart and the last of her hope.
She lay in bed, not particularly wanting to go on living, until as the light grew outside the shutters and sounds began to rise from the narrow street outside. A faint rattling rose from the back of the shop, intensifying as she continued to ignore it.
Nonya threw back the covers, put on clothes, and limped down the stairs on her crutches. She flung the back door open with a crash and let out a string of curses.
A pitiful sodden heap of dirty clothes huddled on the porch, her good white porcelain bowl clutched its bony hands. The noseless creature stared up at her, its dark eyes glistening.
“Get off my porch, you awful thing! This is your fault!” Nonya swung at the creature with one of her crutches. “You miserable, thieving, misshapen river spawn! You ate my offerings and caused the Moon Children to curse my house. I’ve lost my son because of you!”
Instead of retreating, the creature extended the bowl toward her. It seemed to be filled with lumps of mud. Nonya paid the contents little attention, instead noticing the creature lacked ears as well as a nose. Its skin was so pocked with scars that it was impossible to tell if it had once had them.
“Go die!” Nonya wailed, sending the bowl flying.
The next blow sent the creature sprawling with a shriek of pain. It scrambled out of reach and climbed straight up the wall of the house on the far side of the alley, its claws leaving deep gouges in the stained plaster.
“And stay gone, you freak!”
Nonya bent and gathered her bowl, muttering curses under her breath. To her surprise, the lumpy objects were mud-encrusted coins of the currency ubiquitous to the technologically backward slums of the city. While many of the residents bartered among themselves for goods, taxes and bills owed outside the slum were paid in coin, as few here had the ability to access the Corporation’s electronic banking institutions.
Her curses trailed to a stop as she rubbed away the dirt and found coins of all denominations, some quite large. They seemed to have resided in the mud, perhaps at the bottom of the river, for some time. And there, trodden into the alley filth by the creature’s retreat, was a pale scrap of plastic: a laminated card.
Nonya wiped it off on her sleeve and held it up to growing light of dawn. Her son’s smiling face stared back at her, his dark hair combed back, his brown eyes full of hope.
She wept as she remembered the first time she’d seen the ID card and how proud he’d been of it. He’d showed her how to hold it so the holographic threads under the image activated, proving it was the real thing. He’d told her excitedly how it granted him access to wonderful things: public transit and libraries and washaterias and places to buy food.
The card proved him a legally registered Corporate Citizen. He had to carry it everywhere until he finished his studies and earned enough money to be implanted with a permanent citizenship chip. Nonya knew that nothing in the world could have forced him to part with it. Unless…
Gulls cried in the distance, greeting the smoggy sunrise. Nonya thought of furtive movement and grilled fish. She remembered the broken plate, so painstakingly glued back together, and the bucket of water on the stairs. The fish splatters had been gone when she’d gone up to bed.
“Ivan?” she called softly. “Ivan, is that you?” Nothing but the cry of the gulls replied.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series! While it’s possible I’ll return to the world of the riverfront slums, this is it for this chapter. If you enjoy my flash fiction, you can get more of my writing by picking up a copy of Necrotic City from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, or Kobo.