The Moon Festival has come to the riverfront slums. Spirits –Moon Children– walk the streets, returning to visit their loved ones. Little do the residents know, more than just spirits are drawn to the bowls of food left out for the Children.
This is the second installment of a three-part series. Haven’t read part one yet? Check it out here.
First one of the Corporation’s GM experiments escaped, throwing the city into a panic. Then the Corporate goons searched the slums with destructive thoroughness, throwing everyone’s lives and livelihoods into disorder.
Nonya sighed as she hurried to prepare her shop for opening. Outside the locked shutters, the muddy streets of the slum were still full of shadows. With luck, the festival would provide enough profit to make up for the damage the patrolmen had done. She already had the money set aside for her children’s next month at Technical Institute.
Her neighbors had laughed at her, a little old lady sending her grown children off to school rather than putting them to work in her store. She’d be the one laughing when Anya and Ivan earned their programming degrees and became high-paid geeks for the Corporation. No one in her family would need the store then.
The sound of someone hammering on the front door jarred her out of her thoughts.
“Who is it?” Nonya yelled, dreading the answer.
“Office of Revenue!”
“I paid my fees,” Nonya said stiffly as the tax man and his thugs spilled into the narrow confines of her shop. Their boots left dark smudges on the worn tile, and their stiff dark uniforms seemed to soak up the light.
“You did, what little they were,” the officer sneered, eying her trays of fresh fruit and vegetables. “But you are overdue for an assessment.”
A cold hand wrapped around the old woman’s heart. Assessments were fickle things; sometimes they didn’t happen for years. Sometimes, when the Corporation was seeking new revenue or an individual had earned someone’s ire, they happened every month. Only one thing was certain about an assessment: they only went one way. Survivors of the Great Flood saw their taxes rise 300% as soon as the water receded, despite the mud and drifts of refuse left behind.
The Revenue Officer smiled, a grim contortion of pasty flesh that held more threat than humor. “As of the last revenue period, your fees have doubled. You have until the fifteenth of the month to pay your remaining balance due.”
Life moved on like the whispering river. Each night Nonya put out half her own dinner and begged the Moon Children to bring her enough customers to satisfy the Revenue Officer, and each day the customers seemed to be fewer. In all her years, Nonya had never seen such a silent festival. The slums were dying.
As she washed the last of dinner’s dishes one night, a soft creak came from the back of the house. It was followed by the chime of two dishes striking each other. Nonya scowled and crept toward the back door. Spirit Children visited on silent feet; or, she sometimes suspected, paws. What unruly neighborhood child was eating her offerings?
The old woman quietly lifted the latch and inched the door open. Something dark and angular rocked back on its haunches, its head lifting toward the minuscule movement. Its face was flat and alien, and there was a ragged hole where its nose should have been. Wide eyes, seemingly all pupil, reflected the dim glow of the old porch lamp as twin pinpricks of light. Before Nonya could shut the door, the creature dropped the white porcelain bowl clutched in its bony hands and bolted into the night.
The old woman slammed the door and locked it, shaking from head to toe. It was dangerous to live so close to the river; one never knew what might come creeping up from the water after dark.
On the fifteenth day of the month, just as Nonya sat down to eat dinner, the Revenue men returned.
“Where is your payment?” the Officer mocked, casually overturning a tray of delicate fruit. Pears bounced across the tile and rolled under the tables. “You had two weeks! Where is your payment?”
“Just a little longer. I’ve been making small payments; in a few days I can pay the rest.”
“You had two weeks!”
“Look at this,” one of the patrol thugs called from the back of the house. “She can’t pay her fees, but she can afford to waste food!”
Nonya hurried to the back door just in time to see one of the men casually kick her bowl of offerings off the porch. Rage flared in her chest, but she kept her voice even.
“I leave the Children part of my own dinner. I wouldn’t be able to pay any more if I left no offerings.”
“If you can eat less for your ghosts, you can eat less for the Corporation that paves your streets!” The irony was that none of the streets in the Old Market slum had been paved since before the Great Flood.
Nonya was about to reply when a dark, wiry limb coated with fine black fur extended from somewhere above the door and snatched one of the patrolmen’s helmets. He yelped in shock and his partner shrieked, eyes bulging in terror.
The thing from the river fell on them, a blur of snapping teeth and angular black limbs tipped with wickedly curved claws. Flesh and fabric tore, and the air was full of screams. The Revenue Officer shoved Nonya against a heavy cabinet and ran for his life.
The cabinet totted, unbalanced, and fell on the old woman with a thunderous crash. Outside, the patrolmen’s screams had ceased. They were replaced by the sound of tearing flesh and crunching bone, as if the slum’s feral dogs had found the remains.
As Nonya faded into unconsciousness, something passed between her and the dim ceiling light. Claws scrabbled on wood and the heavy cabinet shifted. Then there was only darkness.
The next installment of this story will be available Friday, February 8, 2019. 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.