A short story set in a dystopian future from the point of view of a young, orphaned girl. I had the original idea when I was a teenager after listening to Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, a concept album by My Chemical Romance. I thought it was appropriate to pop in a couple of references as a tribute, the title being one of them of course.
Plastic gun in hand, the girl soiled her lace dress as she crawled across the ground. The matching tights didn’t stay white long as dirt stained brown circles on the knees. Once upon a time the dress was pink but it had been long since been punished by playtime – it was dusty, grubby and torn.
She stabbed at the cracked skin of the earth with a stick, trying to get to the softer flesh underneath. The stick snapped quickly so she put her plastic blue gun on the floor and used her hands to push the dirt into a makeshift wall, not caring that her fingernails turned a darker brown. It didn’t occur to the little girl that princesses didn’t usually carry guns. She was a different kind of princess.
Music drifted across to her from a lonely structure perching in the sunlight. Despite the setting sun, it’s foil walls reflected the light off in blinding waves, making the building shine like a small lonely star.
The girl could stare at the building. She wasn’t scared of the sun. She was used to the heat and the temporary blindness and the sensation of skin crisping from too much exposure. Not too much though, just those few minutes before you’re supposed to, when the sun dips toward the horizon.
Soon, a structure was formed out of dirt, twigs, crumbling bricks, newspapers and litter, all piled high into a miniature castle. It was a good little fortress and would protect her well from invading armies and trolls and monsters and scarecrows but it certainly didn’t look like a home for a princess.
She squinted behind her at the people-sized building again and made out white little ribbons decorating the blacked out windows. She stood and followed her shadow as it stretched out into the endless yellow of the world. Yellow dirt, yellow sun, yellow sky. Even she felt yellow, all other colour leeched from her body until she felt no different from the grainy sky or her dirt castle.
A bright banner congratulating Mattheo and Eliza on their union hung limply above the door. Flowers wilted in the sun. Laughter floated out from the bolted door to join the soft bubble of music. The girl sighed, the ‘Crows were taking so long.
Almost as soon as the breath had left her lips, she heard a glass smash beyond the door. Quickly, she dropped to the floor in the sudden silence that followed. She loved the silence. You could feel the tension growing like a coiled jack-in-the-box, one that was desperate to jump out of its prison and into the world. The ‘Crows loved twisting that handle too, not letting their audience know when the chaos would begin.
She waited. Time ticked by. A trickle of sweat escaped down the back of her neck. Her feet were clammy in her shoes and her tights stuck unpleasantly to her skin but still she waited in the sticky air, squatting in the dirt as the sun beat down at her savagely. She shifted her feet slightly and stared up at the silent building. The girl always won staring contests.
Then it began. A short scream split the silence and sparked a crescendo of yelling, screeching and begging. Gunshots joined the symphony, spitting out a deep rhythm of bangs, booms and splats. In the girl’s mind she could see families scrambling over tables, pushing, hitting and pulling at each other in desperation. Glasses shattered and a wedding cake exploded in a cloud of sticky marzipan, covering the wedding party as one by one they all fell with their own little pops.
The shimmering building let no one out. The girl’s lips twitched into a grim smile.
Then it was over. Silence drifted back over the scene, a contented silence of a job well done. She stood and a sudden breeze grabbed her hair. Instantly, she tilted her head back and held out her hands, sucking in the wind. She knew the ‘Crows would be jealous at missing this brief joy. Framed against the endless yellow sky, the bright ribbons danced mournfully.
The breeze dropped as suddenly as it had appeared and the ribbons flopped back against the tinfoil house. Reaching up on her tiptoes, she pulled one down and with it clasped gently in her hand, she turned away from the building, her interest in it lost.
She was standing over her fortress when she heard a door slam open behind her. Bending down, she tied the ribbon to a twig sticking out from one of the walls. The bow hung optimistically, a little splash of white against the baron earth. It was definitely a fortress fit for a princess now.
The girl gave a little smile and skipped towards the car. She wouldn’t have to wait much longer.
The girl was drawing. She sat in the garage surrounded by blunt crayons and home-made charcoal. It was a makeshift garage bolted together with walls of corrugated iron and scrap metal. She crouched in the dirt by the open wall but didn’t see the woman until she was standing next to her. A shadow covered her drawing and she squinted up at a young woman with bright pink hair and bubblegum blue lipstick that stood out starkly against the tissue paper whiteness of her skin. She wore large dark sunglasses even though the sun had set hours ago.
“Hi,” the woman greeted, “what’s your name?”
The girl looked over her shoulder before she answered, though she already knew Zero would be watching them carefully. He didn’t catch her gaze but kept his eyes on the stranger at the door. She turned back and ran her eyes up the woman swaying before her in battered flip-flops.
“Girl? That’s not a name,” she laughed, “my name is Ivy. It’s a plant.”
She pulled her glasses off and captured one of the arms between her teeth. The effect was to show off the silver Irises she wore. The brand name glittered and shifted with every twitch and movement of her eyes. She must be rich, but girl didn’t like them. They reminded her of a startled mountain lion at night, when the headlights of the car reflected back two piercing orbs of light in the darkness.
“I like your dress,” the woman continued in what she clearly thought was a friendly way, “It’s very pretty. Like a princess.”
Today, girl was a fairy. She scowled but Ivy didn’t notice. Her metallic gaze drifted across to Zero and she sucked on the arm of her glasses.
“Is that your Dad?”
“I need to speak to him.”
Girl wondered why Ivy thought she would care but she picked up her drawings anyway and followed the woman staggering her way to Zero. Girl scrambled up onto the battered bonnet of the car to watch. Zero always let her listen in. His eyes followed the woman while his hands continued scraping his butterfly blade against the whetstone slab. Whenever the girl would think about Zero, it was always at his workbench lovingly taking care of his weapons, his livelihood. He was going to show her how to help him, now that she was big enough to reach the bench.
“Name’s Ivy. You’re Zero right?” She leaned against his immaculate worktop carelessly, running her glasses slowly over her perfect white teeth. Zero continued to watch her as she swayed to and fro, rather like he might watch a mountain lion caught in his headlights.
“What do you want?” he replied.
“A conversation,” she shifted her gaze to glance at the girl who stared back boldly. “What’s with the kid?”
Zero picked up the knife carefully, caressing the blade with his thumb to test its sharpness.
“She your sister or something?” She continued, not bothered by the taciturn Zero.
The woman smiled around her sunglasses, “So what’s the deal?”
“I found her.”
“And named her right? You could of done better.”
She giggled. Her voice was high pitched and distant.
“And I guess that explains why she looks like she just fell out of a toy box too.”
“You got business here? We don’t like to be disturbed.” He blew along the blade lovingly and whipped it closed.
Girl grinned, it was her favourite of all the weapons and Zero knew she longed for the day she would be given one of her own. He’d already found one for her, a beautiful thing of black and silver with etches down the handle. He must have looted it as there was no way he had the money to buy one that sleek and elegant. She pretended she didn’t know it was hidden in a small tin in his toolbox, and he pretended she didn’t glance at it in breathless excitement when he left her alone.
“I heard that this was the part of town where you could get some cheap X.”
Her expensive eyes danced around his face, unable to keep them under control.
“You heard right,” he replied, this time picking up a gun from the workbench, “’cept I don’t sell it.”
The woman give a shrill laugh and bent over the bench, “Come on, seriously. I won’t tell, the hoods never come round here do they?”
“I don’t sell it.” He repeated, not attempting to mask the boredom in his voice.
He clicked the magazine out of the gun and rested it on the table. Every other part followed, carefully blown on to get rid of the dust before being placed side by side on the table. Laid out on the bench like that, it looked as though the parts couldn’t possibly go back together, as if they were puzzle pieces from different boxes. Like the car, the house, girl’s clothes, the gun was a piece of patchwork – lovingly made but looked as though it could never work. It did though, girl had seen it.
“Okay then. So where do you buy it round here?” She pressed.
Ivy barked out her laughter before noticing that Zero didn’t join her, “No way.”
Her sunglasses finally fell away from her teeth as she stared at the two of them open mouthed, “You can’t seriously use Kobra? You must’ve heard the stories – they’ve made them on the outskirts like zombies.”
“They’re not stories,” Zero replied, “And we don’t use anything.”
Ivy stared at Zero in disbelief and sucked her lip, thick blue lipstick smearing onto her teeth. She looked at the girl again and for a brief moment her vacant expression almost drifted into something like concern.
“But the sun. The radiation. She won’t live passed thirty. You gotta be dying too.”
“Maybe,” he shrugged, “what’s it to you?”
“Nothing,” she replied, her expression returning to normal, “I just figure the kid won’t last a day on the street when you drop.”
“She’ll be alright.”
Zero didn’t look at her, but girl glowed from the compliment. She grinned at Ivy who stared at her like she was crazy.
“But you gotta miss the calm, the tingles?”
“What do you want City girl?” Zero snapped, finally looking up from the bench, “There are only certain types that come looking for me. And unless you got a job for me I’m done talking.”
Before he’d finished the threat, Zero had danced around the bench to slam Ivy against the wall. Corrugated iron rattled dramatically around the room and girl bounced in time with it with excitement. Ivy didn’t seem alarmed at her sudden change of position, nor at the butterfly blade that rested against her throat. The sunglasses drifted back up to her face, her lips capturing the arm with a smile again.
“Some guy I know asked me to come see you. Told me to give you this since I was coming down to find a new dealer.”
She ran her hand slowly up his chest, dragging a data coin across his black t-shirt and up his neck. Zero didn’t speak as she pushed it towards his mouth but he captured it between his teeth and his grip on the knife relaxed slightly. Her fingers fluttered across his face.
“See you around dead man,” she pulled herself from his grip and winked at girl as she walked passed, “kid.”
Zero kept his eyes on her as she brushed passed him and stumbled into the moonlight.
The car was sticky.
Another piece of patchwork, girl didn’t have the same fondness for it as she did the rest of their possessions. Little of the original car remained. If it wasn’t for the layers of grime and dust it would have been a jumble of colours as each door, wheel and seat had been salvaged from other scrapped vehicles. The windows were darkened with thick black paint, blocking out the violent sun but doing nothing to keep the heat out.
She shifted uncomfortably against the seat and her skin squeaked painfully against the plastic as the car bounced over another pothole. Every bump and dip made the girl squeeze her hands against her knees tightly. One day the hard earth and crumbling tarmac would be too much for the homemade car and it would shudder to a stop, abandoning its inhabitants to the deathly mercy of the desert. They would not last long under the sun’s radiation.
For now, the car bounced along stubbornly. The girl was not the only one who despised these journeys. Once one of the ‘Crows had dragged her out of the car, trying to claim the prized front seat for himself. Zero had watched in silence as she had kicked, scratched and bitten the larger man who finally dropped her when her teeth sunk deep into his forearm, piercing skin and drawing blood. He’d thrown her on the floor in disgust and forced his huge bulk into the back seat with the other two men whose laughter boomed around the tiny vehicle. Yet none of them challenged her again and from then on they always let her crawl into her proper place beside Zero.
She was a pirate today. Dressed in her brightest clothes, she’d even made a cardboard eye-patch and had taken her bandanna away from her mouth to tie it over her hair. She wore the yellow trousers that they’d taken from the wedding the previous week. They were silk and expensive and the gang wanted to sell them with everything else they had stripped from the shattered hall but Zero let her keep them. They were her part of the loot. She smiled at the memory.
Zero always let her come with them. One day they would let her help and she would become a proper Scarecrow like them. For now, she would settle with being a pirate. Shifting in her chair impatiently, she tried to ignore the nausea bubbling up her throat by practising her “arr” in her head.
She swallowed hard and squeezed her eyes shut as the car ran out of road and shuddered across the bumpy wasteland.
The City towered above them. She’d never been this close before. To her, it had only been a tiny shining spec in the distance, and on the hottest days you couldn’t even see that much as it disappeared into the shimmering blur of heat rising from the horizon.
Zero’s usually stoic face uglied with a scowl as he looked up at the walls stretching further into the sky than girl thought possible. She was convinced that if the tower behind it rose any further it would puncture the sky itself and the stars would collapsed in on them.
Zero may not like it here but the girl was enjoying herself. The tall City meant one thing: plenty of shade. She wouldn’t have to wait in the car today. Her body savoured the feeling of solid ground beneath her feet and she could almost pretend that there was a breeze ruffling her hair.
Zero didn’t respond when she asked if they were going to see the gleaming houses in the sky but he pulled a bag out of the boot and geared up. The others followed suit in silence. The whole journey had been silent. No one wanted to be here.
In the precious shade, a shanty town squatted. Hundreds of tiny huts and homemade shelters clung to the city walls like insects. Buildings clambered on top of each other, gripping to one another precariously, sharing protection against the sun. They stopped abruptly in a line where the shade ended and the burnt earth began.
They were forced to park the car here and scramble through the nest on foot, climbing over, under and through the makeshift shelters. Skeletal, haggard humans barely glanced at them as they climbed through their homes. There were no streets here.
The gang’s colourful clothes stood out dramatically against the silent figures who stared at them with wide, dull eyes. The girl regretted not keeping her bandanna over her mouth like the others to block out the smell of surrender and decay.
One room was so crammed with people, they had to pick their way through a sea of sweaty limbs. Girl was pretty sure one of the bodies was dead but no one seemed to notice. She followed the others in silence, staying close to Zero when they crossed a flimsy bridge where a man with no teeth tried to sell them Kobra and leered at her hungrily.
Above all, the city reared.
It was at its base that they stopped to wait. They sat with their legs swinging over the side of a metal walkway and leaned back onto the great wall with perplexed expressions on their faces. It wasn’t every day they were able to touch even this much of a life they’d never know. Looking up, they saw no sky, just wall and shanty town climbing high above them.
The girl was below on the raised earth where the wall began, battling sea creatures and privateers with an invisible cutlass when she realised she was being watched. Muddy skin blended into the dark earth and it was only the slight white of their eyes that gave them away. She jumped when her eyes finally distinguished five bodies that crouched against the earth surrounding her. Who knew how long they had been there.
Zero glanced down at her from above and lazily followed her eye line to the muddy brown figures crouching in the darkness. The second he realised what he was looking at, he swung himself over to drop by girl’s side. Now that the strangers knew they had been spotted, one man rose and beckoned towards Zero. Against the white of the walls the man stood out like a silhouette and girl had to admit how impressed she was that she’d not noticed them earlier.
She heard the others drop down behind her and together they walked up the slope. It was then that the smell hit them. Trying not to gag at the sickly waft that assaulted her every time the man moved, she took her position reluctantly beside Zero. Now she knew exactly how they were to get into the City.
Sewage flowed sluggishly from a pipe just smaller than Zero was tall and flowed down the hill into the shanty town below. The residents had simply built their homes over the foul smelling stream.
“In here.” The muddy man instructed.
He was missing a number of teeth and the girl could barely recognise any of his features, covered as they were with brown muck. Zero looked into the tunnel with disgust. His bright clothing would not last long in the foul-smelling darkness.
“Don’t worry boy,” said the muddy man, “there’s pools on the other side for rich boys like you to clean up.”
Zero scowled in response but the girl noticed his eyes spark with excitement at the prospect of seeing enough water to fill a pool. He simply nodded at the other man and the gang made towards the tunnel.
A filthy hand grabbed the girl and she would have bitten it, if it were not for the thought of what it would taste like so she snarled and tried to shake it off.
Zero had no qualms though. He grabbed the man by the neck and ripped him away from her.
“Calm down boy. She’s too small to wade through. You’d have to carry her.”
Girl was certain he would though Zero looked once more into the black and made his decision.
“Go back to the car.”
Girl growled again, this time at Zero but he didn’t waste the time to look at her. Lifting his gun above his head, he disappeared into the darkness. The others squelched after him.
Before he followed, the muddy man grinned at her.
“Don’t get lost sweetheart.”
He melted into the filth easily and then she was alone.
Sometimes Zero let her watch. But even when he told her to wait outside she would sneak in anyway. He would pretend not to notice as she ducked inside and scrambled under a table. Her sharp eyes caught the flight of every bullet that shattered bone and ripped flesh. One day this would be her work after all.
Zero wouldn’t speak, even as she crawled out from under the table to help scavenge amongst the remains of a family dinner or squelch through red confetti. She always found the best stuff. They all said she had a talent for finding the secret hiding places or treasure boxes filled with weapons, money and X.
Today, she imagined all the things they would find in the City without her. Then she imagined all the things they wouldn’t find because they’d left her behind. She’d never been in a City before. No one had, Zero said, unless you were born there.
She was angry. She stomped her way back in the direction of the car. Maybe she would drive it into nowhere and let the sun rust it into desert. Zero would be stuck with everyone else in the sewers and waste away into a hollow eyed skeleton like the rest of them.
She knew she would get bored dying alone in the desert, but the anger made her stomp faster anyway, kicking trash and causing little flurries of dust to twist around her calves and dirty her silk trousers even more. Though nearly impossible, she did her best to keep out of sight. For no particular reason of course. She wasn’t afraid to be on her own. She used to be on her own. Before Zero.
When she couldn’t crawl under the makeshift bridges or squeeze between the iron sheets that served as walls, she had no choice but to scuttle through the emptier shacks. She was squirming through one tiny room where even she couldn’t stand fully upright when the light disappeared.
A man crouched in the doorway opposite. In the darkness, she couldn’t see his toothless leer but knew instantly that she was in trouble. As soon as the man appeared, the girl twisted herself around and dived back towards the entrance.
She almost made it. The room was just too small, the man’s legs hadn’t even entered the other side but he’d managed to grab her foot. The rest of her body fell through the entrance and her head slammed into the ladder she’d just climbed up.
“Well look at this,” he leered at her as she hung upside down, “I’ve caught me a little Scarecrow.”
The girl screeched.
Swinging like a pendulum, she kicked with her one free leg over and over, splitting his lip and blackening his eye, twisting and bucking so quickly that his slow and clumsy hand couldn’t grab her other leg. Her head slammed into the hot metal again as he gave up trying to pull her up while she was conscious. She protected her head with her hands and screamed louder.
Eventually the noise was too much for his cloudy brain, or maybe she’d kicked something important because then she was falling. Her arms slammed into the floor first, then her shoulder but she was free now and running.
There was blood in one eye but her other one worked fine. She scrambled up walls, twisted left, right, under, through, a maze of tin houses and fragile towers, not caring anymore about keeping out of sight. Up one wall, into another room, scramble over bodies that hissed at her through vomit stained lips but she didn’t care as it became apparent very quickly that there wasn’t just one man after her, but many.
Her footsteps echoed loudly as she scuttled across the roof of one shack and leapt across to another. The metal bowed beneath her tiny body. Sometimes they weren’t even attached and she would slide across the roofs without control.
She could hear them closing in on her from all directions. They weren’t as nimble as her but they were quicker and the knew the maze well. She could hear their heavy feet pounding behind her as they crashed through metal and flesh.
Still she ran and leaped and twisted but soon there was nowhere to go. She could see the desert stretch endlessly before her, vast and constant like the ocean she had never seen and there, sitting patiently in the early morning sun, was the car.
With a triumphant grin she dived across to the last roof but the world shifted beneath her. But it wasn’t the world that had given up on her. It was metal and rusted nails groaning in defeat and she was falling again through crumbling homes and bewildered screams. Wreckage crashed in around her, debris slicing her skin and blackening the sky.
She didn’t scream.
Moving only to cover her head, she waited out the roar of screeching metal as the makeshift home rushed in on her. Iron, wood, bodies slammed into her chest, crushing her, stealing her breath. Eventually the deluge turned into a stream, then a trickle as rubble began to settle into its new position.
Quiet after the crescendo. She didn’t move.
Voices. A man was shouting to another, the words indistinguishable under so much metal but the answer he received was clearly disinterested, clearly thought her dead.
Dull thuds as feet hit rubble. A piece of plywood pressed even further into her chest, forcing out the remains of the last breath she had taken.
Don’t even breathe.
The footsteps came closer, more conversation and she remained still though her lungs were burning and she could feel her pulse pounding within her. Above, she imagined the toothless man crouching into the debris, sniffing at the ruined shack for a whiff of fear or a whimper.
She didn’t move.
The footsteps started to move away.
And in the space of one desperate gasp as her body betrayed her, the girl thought of Zero and how she would never be angry at him again.
Light returned with a tear of metal and thick arms that dragged her into the dusty air as the toothless mouth gaped wide with glee. She had no breath left to scream.
The girl hated the car. She hated the shift and drop of the horizon as it bounced across ancient motorways and dirt tracks, all holes and rubble.
She had never hated it more than she did now. Now that the horizon had been stolen away from her and she couldn’t prepare for each bounce, each sudden turn or skid of the wheels. Crammed in the darkness next to the spare tire, bolts and engine parts, heavy tools pressing into her back and the constant glug of oil in a container by her feet. She felt every slam and thud with sickening force, unable to prepare for them or protect herself with her hands and feet bound tightly at her back.
She had thought they would eat her. Instead they took her.
“We want a larger cut.”
“Because of one girl? Don’t be ridiculous.”
“She’s a savage. Look what she did to my face.”
“Yeah, it’s really ruined your looks.”
Light flooded the boot without warning and girl screamed. The car had been parked for hours and she had waited alone in the darkness, breathing shallowly and trying not to think about how stuffy the air was becoming or how quickly she would fry in her own little oven if they parked her in the sun. They’d set out before sunrise. It must be gone midday already.
“Listen to her! I told you, she’s wild!”
“Christ! Shut her up!”
Material was shoved down her throat suddenly, cutting off her scream.
The world was all whiteness and heat but gradually it began settling into shapes. A bright pink blob swam before her eyes.
Ivy swore and pushed herself up from the boot.
“Your share stays the same. Bring it up again and it will be generously donated to the others, if your idiot brain can comprehend that.”
Toothless scowled at Ivy and girl was pleased when his features became clear to her. Purple, blue and bloody, one of his cheeks was so swollen that it had forced his eye closed. She would have laughed if it weren’t for the scrap of cloth shoved down her throat. She couldn’t stop her body from gagging in an attempt to spit it out. It was then that she recognise the taste of oil and threw up.
Her body convulsed violently as Ivy quickly whipped out the greasy rag before the girl drowned on her breakfast. She continued to heave into the trunk, spluttering on the bile as her lungs unhelpfully tried to suck in more oxygen.
“See what I told you?” Toothless sneered in disgust.
“Alright!” Ivy snapped as she grabbed the back of girl’s shirt and yanked her upright so she could lean out of the car to finish retching, “I’ll deal with her if you’re too freaked out by a damn street rat.”
“You should just leave her in there. Better yet, set the damn car on fire.”
Girl stared at the cracked earth below her, trying to take deep breaths despite the pain in her stomach, all torn muscles and acid.
“We need her,” Ivy continued, “Zero ain’t talking.”
“Coz he’s already a dead man,” Toothless scoffed, “You should have done it my way.”
“It’s pretty clear that wouldn’t have worked either. This will. He cares about the kid.”
“Zero don’t care. No one in this stinking place cares about crap.”
The girl’s breath became a shudder when she heard Zero’s name but she could do nothing but rest her cheek on the car’s bumper and suck in air. She needed to fight her way out of here but her body was nothing but pain and exhaustion and bound limbs.
“Question me again and I’ll put you out there with him!”
The girl shifted her gaze towards Ivy. No longer swaying and stupid like the last time she had seen her, the woman was all coiled up with tension, like an animal backed into a corner realising that flight was no longer an option.
She couldn’t be more different from Zero.
“You’ll need help,” Toothless sighed.
“I, unlike some idiots, can handle one child. Go!”
Despite the pain it caused her, the girl smiled into the battered plastic beneath her cheek.
Ivy dragged her out of the car and shoved her onto the workbench that Zero had been working at only the day before. Toothless gave the girl one last look of disgust before pulling a heavy blanket over his head and darting into the sunlight. She heard another vehicle growl into life. The light from the entrance was too bright to look at so she kept her vision inside the darkened garage.
It was definitely midday.
Ivy considered her for a while before cutting through the rope at her wrists and ankles with a penknife. Girl didn’t attempt to bite or scratch her way out. She knew she wouldn’t get far if she ran so she simply sat on the bench and ran her eyes over the room.
They’d been looted. Shelves had been ripped from the walls, boxes turned over, chairs smashed and everywhere the overwhelming stench of gasoline. They were going to burn her home, the question was whether they would do so with her in it. By the wall to her left, the contents of Zero’s toolbox lay scattered across the floor.
“Don’t take it personally, kid. I actually kind of like you.”
Obediently, she turned her head back towards Ivy. The woman was calmer now that toothless had left. She stood with arms folded and grinned at the younger girl. Her metallic eyes shimmered in the soft light of the garage. She tried to return the gaze but it was hard to focus when the other person didn’t have pupils.
“What did you do to Zero?”
“Like I said, don’t take it personal. The ‘Crows were good at what they did but, let’s face it, they weren’t very entrepreneurial. It was time for someone else to take over and, in this business, there’s only one way to do that.”
“Why didn’t you just kill us?”
“The others are dead, but I really want Zero’s address book. It would make my life easier, you understand. You don’t happen to know where it is, do you?”
The girl shook her head slowly.
Ivy shrugged, “No matter. I’m sure he’ll give it up when I bring you to him. It would help me out if you encouraged him to tell us where it is. I really don’t want to hurt you.”
Girl couldn’t prevent her lip from turning up into a sneer.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Ivy laughed, “you’re far too cute. If you behave, once it’s done you can hang around with us. You’d like that wouldn’t you? I’ll buy you nice things to wear, not this ridiculous stuff he puts you in. You’d have a lot more fun with a girl around, instead of all those smelly men.”
Girl tilted her head away without responding and slowly scanned the floor again.
“I’d even give you a name!”
Ivy was irritated now and tapped her foot on the floor, nudging a little metal box that had fallen under the bench, “An actual name so you can be more than some creepy man’s pet. How about something like Holly? We could be plants together, Holly and Ivy? Or you could be a flower!”
Girl brought her gaze back up to Ivy’s,“I don’t have a name. I don’t want one.”
“Fine,” Ivy snapped, “be like that.”
She smacked the girl so hard that she flew off the bench and slammed into the floor. Leaping forward, Ivy grabbed the back of her hair and brought her face so close to her cheek that girl could smell the sickly sweet waft of X on the woman’s breath.
“You know,” Ivy continued, “You’re lucky I don’t leave you here.”
She dropped girl’s head back onto the ground and stood up, reaching into her pocket to pull out a box of matches. With her eyes on that match, girl inched towards the bench.
“No,” Ivy commanded, stepping onto girl’s outstretched wrist and igniting the flame.
Ivy flicked the match carelessly onto the fuel-soaked bench and it erupted in flames before darting down the little rivers of gasoline left for it on the floor. There were no tears in girl’s eyes as her home began to burn but she moved, quickly.
Snatching her hand out from under Ivy’s foot, she twisted around, upsetting the woman’s balance and kicking her hard in the back of her knee. Ivy slammed back into the car and swore. Girl wasted no time and dived behind the flaming workbench before Ivy could grab her again.
“Oh, come on, kid!” She yelled, dropping onto her hands and knees and trying to look for her through the bench and the flames caressing it, “You want to burn in here!?”
Girl saw the tin at the same time Ivy saw her.
Ivy grinned in triumph, “Got you!”
Not even considering the pain, girl thrust her hand into the fire to grab the box. Flames danced up her arms and leapt onto her shirt. As the flames raced to ignite her, she felt Ivy grab hold of her waist and pull her back out of the fire.
“You are insane!” Ivy spat as she quickly ripped the flaming arm from her shirt and threw it away before the rest of it erupted as well. She clamped her knees around girl’s bucking hips and grabbed her shoulders, “Let’s GO!”
She didn’t have a chance to throw the small girl over her shoulder though, as girl’s singed fingers had already unclasped the tin and grabbed the precious item inside. Whipping the blade open the way she had watched Zero do hundreds of times before, she pressed her back into the floor, grabbed hold of Ivy’s jacket with her other hand and slammed the butterfly knife deep into a shimmering eye.
Ivy screeched out a sound that not even girl had made before. Blood surged from the wound and drenched girl’s face but she didn’t stop stabbing at the woman’s face again, again, again while the room glowed around them with orange fury.
She didn’t stop until Ivy slid back off girl’s legs and into the bench, her bright pink hair falling gently into the pillow of fire.
Girl didn’t stay to watch.
Smearing as much blood as she could from her eyes, she pushed herself up from the floor and darted towards the sunlight.
The sun on her skin was as savage as the flames that had attacked her hands, it seared her bare arm and the light consumed her vision. She cried out at the shock of it and threw herself into the shade of the shack opposite, knowing it was there without being able to see it.
When the shade slipped over her skin, it was like slipping into a pool of water. She crouched low to the ground and pressed her face into the earth so that the dirt clung to her sticky forehead and the blood that was already congealing in her hair. Her shoulders shuddered but no tears left her eyes.
The street was silent. No one came out during the day, not even to watch a building burn in the summer sun or see its patchwork colours singe to black. Not even girl watched. She breathed in the dust and loved it.
Eventually, she opened her eyes to see her her bloody hand resting on the lifeless ground with her fingers still gripped around her butterfly knife. The sleek one, with the silver and black handle and the engravings which she realised now helped her to grip despite the slick blood coating it. Her precious present from Zero who was going to give it to her when she was ready.
Beyond the knife and her shaking hand she looked down the rough track that served as a street and the other shacks and brick buildings that still stood from another lifetime. Beyond the quiet street was the desert, the sky, and what may have been a brief glint of silver on the horizon of a City with high walls that kept people like her out.
Once she was sure she wasn’t blind, the girl sat up slowly. It was silent except for a crackling that seemed far too gentle a sound considering it was consuming her home and the life she had known. Still not turning to watch, she spat on her knife and carefully wiped the blood off it onto her silk yellow trousers. Once it was as clean as she could manage, she slipped it into her pocket, relieved as she did so to find the bulk of her goggles there.
She stood and, with goggles finally protecting her eyes, stared down the dirt track nervously. They said they’d left Zero. She knew what that meant. She knew the way people liked to scare others into accepting change or servitude. She had to get there, quickly. It might not be too late.
With a sharp intake of breath for courage, the girl shot into the sunlight. She darted from shadow to shadow as quickly as she could, but there simply wasn’t enough shade and she knew her skin was already red, the back of her neck cracking. She danced down the empty street, keeping her bare arm close to her chest to protect it from the searing rays. She sprinted faster than she ever had in her life, faster even than when toothless had hunted her in the shanty town. If she had only ran faster then, she could have hidden from them, could have found her way back to the wall and into the City, could have warned Zero before all this had happened.
Her boots hit the hard ground with dull thuds and she could barely breathe but she was almost there. She dived from the shadow of one building to the next, then another, a longer run this time and now the blisters were bubbling across her bare shoulder.
She could see the square now, a wide open space with no shade except one abandoned apartment building with too many windows, but it was too far away from the figure in the centre, the shade didn’t reach far enough.
She reached the apartment and then there was no other shade to run to, nowhere to protect her from the sun’s rays but it didn’t matter. It would hurt but she had to, had to get to him, just this last patch of safety and then it was nothing but sun and pain and yellow and…
And she did.
The word was no more than a whisper but it held more power over her than a scream. She froze at the precipice where shade met sun and panted with her hands by her side and her eyes on Zero.
She could barely recognise that it was him. His command had been uttered through blistered lips and it must have caused him more pain to say that one word than her entire sprint to get here.
He sagged against the post he was tied to, his arms bound behind his back. Skin red, blistered, open sores reflecting the sunlight that burned through his flesh. His shirt had been torn off and the welts covered every inch of his chest, his back, shoulders, face, hands, feet. His dark hair fell forward over his eyes and it was probably this one tiny bit of shade that had stopped him from going blind already.
There might as well have been an ocean in the sixty feet between them.
His body hung defeated, but his blue eyes were as sharp and as cool as ever. He caught her gaze and she didn’t look away. His eyes told her everything she needed to know but he shook his head anyway to make sure.
Don’t come any closer. Don’t burn yourself any more. It’s too late for me. Stay safe.
She wanted to run to him but her body betrayed her. It knew he was a dead man so trapped her in the safety of the shade. He smiled at her, just once, before the pain forced it from his face. His eyes stayed the same though, piercing, locked onto hers. She wanted to say something deep, meaningful, but they didn’t really do that sort of thing.
She kept her eyes locked onto his as the sun continued to shine. She kept them locked as the seconds turned to minutes and turned to hours. She didn’t look away when the rising of his chest become shorter, sharper. When she shuffled forward with the shade, millimetre by millimetre, she didn’t stop looking while the sun took its stubbornly slow march across the sky.
She ended up sitting on the floor when she could stand no longer, her body finally giving out from the pain and exhaustion, but she kept his gaze. Even as Zero’s own eyes became hazier, started looking in her direction instead of in her eyes, she didn’t look away, not once in the hours in took to crawl across the chapped earth until his breathing was as clear to her as her own, until their breaths were the only sound to be heard in the empty afternoon. She kept her eyes on his until she could count the blisters on his skin, until she was close enough to reach out and stroke his cheek if it weren’t for the invisible barrier between them.
So she knelt as the sun dipped further behind the apartment building until finally she could stretch forward and slice through the rope binding his feet, then his hands. Then he sunk into the floor and she knelt again, resting his head on her lap while he stretched out against the earth. He looked back into her eyes but she knew he could not see her anymore. Gently, she stroked his hair, the only part of him that was free of blisters though she didn’t think he even felt the pain any more.
They sat there together with his shallow breaths counting down each minute. She didn’t notice that there were tears on her face or that the sun had almost set, but she noticed the slight change in the sounds he made and knew instinctively that these breaths were his last. She pulled the goggles from her face and forced herself to watch.
Afterwards, she sat there until her yellow world turned into another patchwork; this time a patchwork of light, of gold, crimson, violet, turquoise, pink, until the sun finally dipped below the horizon and the blanket of colour became the stars. She sat there until her tears had washed away the blood and soot from her cheeks. Until human sounds came back into the world, murmurs of conversations, doors banging open, wisps of music floating across the square.
She pulled the bandanna from her head with disgust, it wasn’t easy as the blood had dried it into her hair. With the gentlest of touches, she untied Zero’s from around his neck. They’d not bothered to take it when they removed his shirt and now it had left a bright white band against the red, like his throat had been slit in reverse. It was then that she realised his body barely resembled him now, except the eyes that still stared upwards.
She left them open. They’d stay open and facing the stars until she had scavenged gasoline and finished burning his body from the Earth. Slowly, she pulled Zero’s bandanna up to cover her nose and mouth and tied it behind her head.
After carefully resting Zero’s head onto the ground, a girl stood alone in a wide open square, beside a stake in the ground and a body on the floor. No longer a princess, pirate or child, the last Scarecrow stood calmly and waited for the voices to reach her.