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Song Suggestion: Autumn Dolls by Brandon Fiechter
Gray knew he was dreaming. He’d had this nightmare so often over the years that it no longer felt like anything but a terrible memory and, each time, he faced it with resignation and sorrow. He’d felt for a long time that, if he could just change the way it ended, he would stop having it, but he could never do anything except go along, watching everything, changing nothing.
In the dream, he was holding an apple. In reality, it had been a measly thing, hardly big enough to fill his palm. But in this vision, it was exactly what an apple should be. It was plump and so red it nearly glowed. It cried out to his empty stomach, promising to be crisp and sweet. The apple seller was paying him no mind and he was ready to turn and run, as fast as his legs might carry him.
“Put it back.” He looked up at Jezzie. She was ten, then, two years older than him, and already painfully beautiful. Her deep, red hair was caught up in pins, but when it was loose, it rippled and danced around her in heavy curls. Her gray eyes had enough blue in them to make them look like slate. There was a smattering of tiny freckles across her nose, which reminded Gray too often of their mother, drug off screaming into the night. They’d heard nothing of her since and Jezzie said they were as good as orphaned.
She plucked the apple from his fingers and put it back with its fellows before taking his arm and marching him away. “The other children take apples,” he said, grumpy.
“We are not the other children,” she snapped, then turned to face him. “We are not thieves, Gray. Papa and Mama might be gone, but that does not mean we won’t honor what they taught us, understand?”
He nodded and, because he knew what was coming, he turned toward the alley. Jezzie was no longer with him; he was ten, now, and she had a job with the baker. Hot, tiresome work though it was, it kept them fed and kept the Enforcers from having a reason to come after them. They even had a room with a family and paid them a few coppers a week to keep themselves off the streets at night. Gray often ran the orders the baker had been given by the wealthier families up into the higher streets, where there were no orphans or starving men hiding in dark places, looking for someone to rob. He was never given the larger deliveries, for that, there was a horse and cart and a man that dressed in clean clothes. But, every morning, Gray took the small sacks of breakfast dainties and the baker always paid him more than he said he would because Gray was fast and no-one could catch him to take what he carried.
In the dream, though Jezzie should have been safe tending the baker’s ovens, it was always his sister stumbling out of the alley, skirts torn, blood running down her bruised legs, tears streaming down her pale cheeks. Her fingers grasped at what was left of her blouse. Her eyes were wide and terrified, full of some terribly knowledge he couldn’t understand. He could hear the Enforcers in the alley, laughing. In a minute, they’d come out and take her away, as they had taken his mother. That’s what always happened to the girls they drug into the alleyways.
Most of the people in the street pretended not to see this young, injured girl. But one old woman watched her with sharp, hateful eyes. “Whore,” she hissed with the venom of one who had never feared the weavers or their Enforcers. “Tramp.”
The girl wearing his sister’s face limped past him, eyes desperately seeking help. But there was no help here. Only folk who did not want to see her. Only a dream, he assured himself, but he could remember the way the real girl had looked. Mary, they had all called her, so often on her own, not even trusting the other orphans. Just as the image of his sister did now, she had made her way through the jostling, unseeing people, straight to the bridge.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up. Now Jezzie was beside him, her brilliant hair swept up in its usual, neat bun. Tiny curls had escaped and been glued to her skin with sweat; it was summer and the kitchen where Jezzie worked was a furnace that half-baked the dough long before it go put into the massive, red hot ovens.
“What is it?” she asked him. “What’s wrong, Gray?” He pointed to the girl. He could not speak; the horror of it all had robbed him of his voice.
In life, Jezzie had not been there at all. She’d come later, as he sat on the bridge, weeping. She had helped him fish the body out and they had carried it on a borrowed cart to the cemetery near the edge of the city. There was a man there who would burn the bodies of the poor and sow their ashes into his rose garden. He wasn’t a bad man and his roses were extraordinary. But Gray’s dream always brought Jezzie to him at this crucial moment, before Mary jumped. Jezzie ran forward, swift and light, catching Mary’s arm before the girl could tumble into the deep, cold water rushing below.
Sandy Wick, an offshoot of the Siradass, had undercurrents which would drag a strong man under. It was dark and cold and white foam swirled around on it’s surface. The fishermen had to use thick chains and massive anchors to keep their boats from being swept away and the Enforcers were forever fishing their bodies out of the dark waters, for it was easy to make a misstep on the narrow fishing skiffs. Once in the water, no-one ever escaped it; they were drug under before anyone could throw them a rope and the water did not let them come up again until they were dead.
“Let me go,” Mary whispered to Gray and yes, now the dream had twisted again to tell the truth of what had happened. He had hold of her arm. Just as he had that long ago day, he had one foot braced against the side of the bridge and his fingers, dug deep into her soft flesh, were slipping. “Let me go.”
“I can’t. You’ll die,” Gray said to her.
She looked sideways. The chilled updrafts off the rushing water made her hair billow in lovely, golden fans. She wasn’t beautiful. She wasn’t even pretty. She had thick bones and a crooked nose. But her hair made up for anything the rest of her lacked. It glimmered like spun silk. The Enforcers were leaving the alley, looking this way and that for their newest plaything. “Some things are worse than death,” she whispered. She looked up at him and smiled. “I will remember that you to the lady, when I see her.” Gray did not let go. She twisted free, plunging down into the rushing water without a sound. And when he looked at his hand, he was holding a long, wicked wedge of silvered glass. Jezzie was kneeling before him, older now, fourteen and more beautiful than even their mother had been.
“Some things are worse than death, Gray.” In the distance, he could hear the Enforcers coming. Coming for Jezzie. “Death can only kill your body. But there are things which will kill your soul.” She put her hands on his shoulders. “You must do this for me. If you love me, you must.” And remembering poor, broken Mary, he’d raised the glass to Jezzie’s throat. “Cut deep,” she whispered. “Cut fast.” And, as the glass bit his palm, he woke, gasping, knife already in hand. Every time he woke from this nightmare, his palm would tingle, though the scar was long healed and he was far past the twelve year old boy who had done the unthinkable to save his sister from a living hell.
“Still having nightmares,” Angelica said from the tree branch above him.
“Still sneaking up on sleeping people,” Gray shot back the nightmare making his temper flare.