“Git off with ye!” The fat shopkeeper shooed the girl away with a wave of his towel like he was brushing away a buzzing fly. “Not wantin’ yer kind around here.”
Ariana ducked her head in mute apology and and backed away from the market stall. Other patrons glanced at her, then gave her a wide berth to allow her a clear exit. Nobody wanted to touch her or be touched by her. Her deformity was obvious.
She slipped into an alleyway. The indifferent noises of the street faded behind her as she entered the moist, rotten world of spaces between buildings.
Light angled down in thin shards from where the morning sun found its way over rooftops, between chimneys or in reflections of rippled glass windows. Ariana walked around the splashes of light, preferring not to see her own shadow ahead of her.
The penny she had found weighed heavily in her pocket, but she wished for the weight of food instead. An apple, if the shopkeeper would have sold her one. Her mother would have been pleased with such a gift. She’d have to try again elsewhere.
“We can try again elsewhere.” Dee spoke as if she had read her mind. That happened a lot lately. No bigger than a man’s clenched fist, the tiny fairy rode on her shoulder with the practiced ease of familiarity, although she could quickly fly off if Ariana took a tumble. Or if she was pushed from behind or tripped, as some of the other kids enjoyed doing to her. Or cruel adults.
“Pay the shopkeeper no mind.” Doggo sat on her other shoulder, no larger than Dee, but a normal collie in every other way. Other than the fact that he spoke with a deep, comforting voice that she loved to listen to. “People fear what they do not understand, girl.”
“I don’t understand them either, Doggo.” She shook her head. “But I don’t fear them.” Still, she kept her eyes on the angles and intersections of the alleys she passed. People were always lurking. Most were harmless, but some were not.
Traveling via the back alleys was slow but much safer than the main streets, at least for someone like her. As long as she didn’t get cornered. She always tried to give herself a way out.
“I see someone ahead.” Dee flitted up from her shoulder for a better view, hovering in the air with a hand over her brow as she peered into the distance. “Some kids. I bet they’re stupid. Probably causing trouble. Hmph.”
“Best to avoid them.” Doggo’s ears twitched.
Ariana nodded, seeing them now. The alley was wide, filled with mounds of garbage and debris, and the kids were silhouetted in sunlight at the far end. They pushed and shoved at each other, laughing and raucous.
She wanted no part of that. Ducking her head lower than she normally did, she eyed a gap between two buildings. It was the only possible escape route other than turning around the way she had come, back towards the fat man’s market stall. She wasn’t going to go back there.
The space between the buildings was tight. Very tight. She would never fit.
Her only option was to become as invisible as possible.
Ariana squatted and made herself small, Doggo and Dee on her shoulders. She pulled her hood farther over her face, covering her eyes in shadow. She stared down at the dirty cobblestones. Just another homeless waif.
“Six. Five boys. One girl.” Doggo reported. ‘Half again your age, I believe.”
Almost adults then. Dangerous. But maybe more mindful of the outcome of bad decisions than her own peers. Still, she had been raised to make good decisions. It was doubtful these kids had the same luxury.
“Hello, what’s this?” A boy’s voice with dirty boots stopped in front of her, joined by several more pairs of feet covered in the muck of alley travel.
She didn’t look up.
“Ariannnaaaa….” Dee’s voice was nervous as she drew out the word. “They don’t look nice at all.”
The dirty boot voice squatted down and tried to tilt his head to look under the cowl of her cloak. “Hey. Talkin’ to you.” His limp hair dangled into her view. She didn’t move.
“Leave her be, Lonzo. She’s just some girl.” A female voice above thin legs with small feet in leather wrappings that twined around spattered boots.
“Nah. Back off, Calai. Let’s just see what we have, then we can move along. Just want to see. No big deal.”
A knife appeared in his hands, an ugly iron thing with an unadorned haft. With the tip of the blade he pulled back Ariana’s hood. The knife was an inch from her forehead, and she couldn’t help looking up at it as her hood slid back.
“Ugh,” someone said. “Look at her eyes.”
“And her hair. What a freak. What’s wrong with her?”
People always shrank away from her blue eyes and their halos of white. And if that didn’t put them off, her stark white hair did. Still, all of that was just weird, not disgusting. Until they noticed her deformity, that is.
“Leave me alone, please.” Always be polite and thankful, her mother would say, and people will want to be around you. Ariana wasn’t sure if this was the right time to have people around her, and these probably weren’t the right people.
“I don’t think I want you in my street. Freak.”
It was just a nasty old alley, but Ariana was not about to correct him.
“We should leave,” Doggo said from her left shoulder. The hair on his back had raised into a ridge.
“Definitely,” Dee added from her right. Her tiny hands bunched into fists.
“Where can we go? Should I run?” Ariana kept her voice low.
“Are you talking to yourself? So you’re a freak and you’re crazy, too?” Lonzo stood up. “Y’know, I don’t think I like you. Freak.”
Ariana blinked up at him. He was huge, a tree, a tower with splotchy beard stubble and greasy hair. His sapling friends all leaned in around him. Off to the side, Calai was a willow with hands clasped together.
Without warning, Lonzo swung his leg back and drove a booted foot at her.
She almost didn’t see it coming, but she had always been fast. Quick. She leapt up, away from his foot. The boot cracked into the brick wall with a solid thump. Lonzo yelped.
The boys formed a semi-circle around her, and there was no escape. Other than the narrow space behind her.
As Lonzo hopped and swore, she turned her body sideways and backed into the gap.
Maybe if it was too small for her it’d be too small for them too. But her deformed back made her hunch, and it was obvious all six of the skinny kids could fit into that gap much more easily than she could.
But she was trapped now, the leering face of Lonzo huge in the tall vertical view into the dirty alleyway.
“You hurt my foot, freak.” He grinned, showing yellow teeth. “Guess that means I have to hurt you. That’s how it works, right?” He looked over his shoulder for confirmation from his mates. But Calai was there instead, her long fingers settling on his shoulder.
“Let her go, Lonzo. She’s just a deformed little girl. She’s got nothing.” Her voice was calm. She glanced at Ariana briefly, then looked away as soon as their eyes met.
“She thinks we should leave now,” Doggo said, a growl in his throat. “I do agree.”
“I can’t fit through. I can’t get all the way.” Claustrophobia gripped her, bringing the brick walls on either side more tightly together, pressing into her flesh.
She could barely turn her head, and scraped her nose against the brick whenever she did. Her feet mashed against the slop on the ground. Garbage and mud and other dark things. What if she slipped now? Would she be wedged in here forever?
Panic rose in her, fresh and strong.
Lonzo laughed, but he wasn’t looking at Ariana. He had pushed Calai away. She had fallen down, and now he was showing off for his fellows, Ariana momentarily forgotten.
“See that? Calai is weak. I could finish her off if I wanted to. But I like her. So I won’t.” He had his dagger out again, twirling it in simple motions as if he was just a little afraid of sticking himself with it.
Calai glanced at Ariana between the gap in the buildings, and the younger girl was sure she saw white halos around the older girl’s eyes, dim and faded. Ariana felt a simple kinship for that reason alone.
“Lonzo, I’m warning you. Leave her be.”
Lonzo stood up straight then, looking around as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing.
“Usually, then, you follow that up with some sort of threat. Leave her be…or what?” He twirled his knife again, more aggressively this time. “Or what?”
“Or I won’t lie for you anymore.” Calai raised her chin, eyes flashing. She got to her feet as if demonstrating her conviction.
The boys around Lonzo booed and hissed, hanging off each other in laughter.
Ariana watched through the thin vertical gap of her vision between the buildings, struggling to move away. She didn’t know what lie Calai had been telling for Lonzo and why she was threatening to stop, but her words had an impact on him.
Lonzo’s face grew hard and cold as he stared at Calai. “See, boys? I helped her after she was cast out from her secret club of invisible friends, gave her a warm place to sleep, but she’s gonna betray me for some freak girl.”
Calai was sweating. She rubbed a forearm across her eyes, smearing her dark makeup into a blur. She caught Ariana’s eyes then and didn’t look away. The halos in her eyes were definitely there. Weak and muted, but there. What did that mean? Calai mouthed the word, “Go”.
But Ariana was transfixed, both physically and by Calai’s plight. She couldn’t move. Had Lonzo said invisible friends? Like hers? Calai didn’t have any friends she could see, invisible or otherwise.
Lonzo followed Calai’s eyes, glancing to the girl trapped between the buildings, then back to Calai.
“Conspiring? I see how it is now.” The boys behind him cursed and swore, jeering.
“Nothing like that, Lonzo!” Calai’s voice was plaintive now, soft. “Just don’t think we need to cause trouble now. I’d like some lunch. Maybe we could go for lunch?”
Lonzo stiffened, shaking his head. “Watch this,” he said to the other boys, gesturing to Calai with his knife. She backpedaled to get some distance. Her back pressed up against a wall, and she slid along it towards the gap where Ariana was wedged, out of Ariana’s vision for a moment.
Under his greasy mop of hair, Lonzo tracked Calai with his eyes. And his knife. His free hand played with his belt, fumbling with it, unbuckling.
Ariana saw the bloodlust then, the threat barely submerged. He wanted to do something bad.
And then Calai slid into view in front of her, the skinny girl’s back filling the gap between the buildings. She turned to her and whispered. “Get moving!”
“I can’t!” Ariana flailed again, her back wedged against the rough brick. She heard cloth tear, but she moved no further.
“Conspiring freaks, the lot of you.” Lonzo muttered. He lunged at Calai.
Calai’s mouth fell open. She stared at Lonzo as he backed away.
“You…bastard.” She looked down at something Ariana couldn’t see. She moved her arm, and there was a soft, wet sound as she pulled something from her body and held it up.
Red and dripping in her hands. The knife. She turned her head back to Ariana, her face much paler than before.
“I’m sorry.” She looked at the knife in her hands, then held it out to her. Ariana didn’t want to touch it. “Take it. You may need it. Hurry.” Her breath became short and halting.
Ariana did, reaching out with her free hand, briefly touching Calai’s cold skin. Their hands hung there momentarily as Calai made sure the other girl had a grip on the slick weapon.
Then Calai was pulled away, Lonzo gripping her by the collar. She hung limp in his strong fist. He tossed her aside like one might a weed in a garden.
He turned back to his true quarry with fresh energy, sliding in sideways between the two buildings, arm swiping at her. Ariana struggled to move farther away.
Her breath was quick and hot. Oh First Lord, save me from this madman. She struggled in place, holding the knife tightly while Calai’s blood cooled on her fingers.
“Ariana. Shh. Wait.” Doggo’s calm voice soothed her, and she calmed her panic even as Lonzo flailed for her. “Take a breath. Then another. Then let it all out and stand up as straight as you can. It’s going to hurt, but you can make it.”
“You can make it.” Dee’s voice was subdued, but she wanted to help.
Ariana took a breath, using it to help her straighten up, then held that position as she let the air go. Then another breath, which pulled her up further. Something in her back popped, but she felt taller than she had in years.
She let her air out to compress her chest, holding her height, standing tall, pawing in the sloppy mess under her to gain traction. After a moment she got the rhythm of it, and lurched her way towards the pillar of light at the end of the gap, and the brief glimpses of people that moved past like pictures in a flipbook.
“Should’ve taken off your cloak,” Dee chided her from her shoulder.
“I didn’t really have time, Dee.” She bit off the words as she clenched her teeth, trying not to think of the rips and tears in her favorite cloak. Her only cloak. Mother would be so angry.
But Mother wouldn’t be angry. Her mother was kind and gentle and fair, and would understand what had happened. She kept those thoughts in her head, trying not to take another breath.
Her body pressed up against the cold wall, and the coarse blocks dug into her back and her chest with every lunge forward. The curve of her hunch chewed against the edge of each brick, and each step forward became a misery of pain. She pressed her chest against the wall in front of her as much as possible to take the agony and pressure away from her back, but her soft flesh there cried out as well.
Lonzo’s hand touched her shoulder, right where Dee was. The little fairy growled with menace and tried to bite the fingertips, but of course the boy couldn’t see her or hear her or even feel her teeth.
“Almost got you, girl.” Lonzo hissed. “Then we’ll fix things up, fair and square. You stole my knife. Maybe you’ll take Calai’s place in my own secret club. Not so bad, yes?”
Ariana’s muscles stretched like the taffy she’d seen the candymen make, but the feeling was not as sweet as that. Her bones popped, and something tore with a ripping sound. Her flesh? Her imagination ran with that, and she thought maybe her hunchback would get torn off completely and she might leave it all behind with the skinny boy and his cheap knife in that dirty, muddy alley.
Oh, if only that were possible.
“Ariana…hurry.” Dee kicked at Lonzo’s reaching fingers as if her effort alone might deflect them.
With a final lunge and a fresh wave of pain, Ariana grasped the edge of the building’s corner and pulled herself free into the street. She tumbled out in the midst of traffic, rolling, and people scattered with curses. Ariana stumbled to her feet, blinking as she turned back to the gap between the buildings. Nobody followed.
“Git out of the way! Move it!” The clatter and footsteps all around her rushed into full volume in the bright sunlight. She backed away from it all and leaned against a wall on the opposite side of the street.
“That was scary.” Dee brushed mortar dust off Ariana’s cloak, but her hands didn’t affect the specks at all. “Super scary.”
Ariana’s breath came in quick gasps, eventually slowing. Then she realized she still had the knife in her hand, red blood and black iron intertwined. Her breath caught.
She didn’t want to wipe the blood off. The act would be disrespectful to the girl that had died to help her. Calai. Someone she didn’t even know, though they shared the same halos in their eyes. She would keep the knife to remind her of Calai’s sacrifice.
She ducked her head to hide unexpected tears. But nobody was looking. Except her imaginary friends.
“Ariana, that was poorly done. By all of us.” Doggo laid a paw on her collar. “We have to be more careful. You’re special. Nobody knows it yet, but I do.”
“I do too!” Dee squeaked as if she was afraid of being left out.
“We do.” Doggo amended. “We should have advised you to go back. A fat man’s words and a few extra steps out of your way is a small price to pay to avoid all of this.” Doggo glanced at Ariana’s back. If a dog could wince, Doggo did just that. “Are you in pain?”
Ariana held back her tears, trying to be strong in front of her friends. They were always so strong for her. They tried to help her, and all she could do was make stupid decisions. She didn’t feel special at all.
“I’m ok.” Ariana swallowed hard. “I’m fine. But my back hurts. Does it look bad?”
Dee and Doggo shared a look.
“It’s a bit…dirty. But nothing a bath can’t clean up.” Doggo nodded. “A really long bath.”
“Yes. With soap. Quite a lot of soap. That’ll make it all better.” Dee pushed out her lower lip, pressing a finger to it, contemplating. “Probably.”