“Don’t let me tell you a story.”
Reaching into the back pocket of her faded jeans, the woman sitting cross-legged on the dirty grey moquette smiled up at her companion who was lounging, lazy and long-legged on the tattered sofa in the middle of the room. That sofa was the only piece of movable furniture they had found in the apartment, so they had devised a rotational system whereby each one of them got to sleep on it once every three nights.
Campbell’s gaze dragged across the moquette as she allowed her head to shift slowly over the armrest that hadn’t been eaten by moths. She paused every so often to take in the yellow splotches marring the grey sea. The damned thing always reminded her of a smoker’s cough.
A small, quiet scratching sound caught her attention.
“Is that a? Where did you get those?”
With a smoky breath, Marlon blew out the angry flame engulfing the match she was holding and dropped it back into a small wet box that only seemed to have a few good matches left. Her other hand brought a slowly diminishing, slim white cylinder with a fiery top to her mouth where her bruised lips wrapped around its freckled orange bottom. She inhaled through it and exhaled around it as her lashes fluttered closed over her darkly coloured eyes.
“Off a dead guy.”
Puffs of smoke accentuated every word. Marlon’s eyes remained closed, a fact for which Campbell was at least partly thankful. Even as she sat up and waved away the smoke drifting in her general direction, the long-limbed girl couldn’t bring herself to be short with the smoker.
First, she took in the messily cropped ashen hair falling in a wayward pattern past Marlon’s hollow cheeks and onto her bony shoulders. It hadn’t been brushed in weeks, but it was still soft to the touch. The next breath of smoke escaped through the nostrils of a nose that had apparently been broken at least three times (only once in Campbell’s presence) and stood slightly crooked under the sharp cheekbones. But when Marlon’s lids snapped open again, that was when the decision to let out a whimper of protest as opposed to a coherent sentence was made. The irises in the downturned eyes were almost indistinguishable from the pupils and completely motionless as they stared down an increasingly fidgety Campbell.
“Are you alright?”
“Y-you said I shouldn’t let you tell me a story. Why is that?”
A deep, strangled chuckle skipped across the smoker’s vocal chords. She stood, with great difficulty, and stumbled over to the grimy window across the room, the thin fabric of her daisy adorned airy blouse catching on the sharper protrusions of her figure.
The smoke now escaping her mouth was rubbing up against the window pane, but still mercilessly clawing its way to Campbell.
“Because stories are distractions from what could be happening, not what is.”
Her suggestive cough earned her a smile from Marlon; one that stretched the woman’s lips enough to hide the purple marks for a while.
“Alright, alright,” Marlon murmured, pushing the half finished cigarette against the cold window until its fervour had died out. “What I was trying to say, was that…there’s no reason why we couldn’t live out any of our fantasies. I mean, the only limiting factor is the rest of the human race. There is no greater power or propose keeping us from doing exactly what we want to do. But instead we form these stupid ideals and rules about society that make everyone feel miserable about their situation and then proceed to wrap ourselves in well woven, pretty coloured denial for the rest of our natural lives.”
“So what you’re essentially saying is that, if we wish hard enough, we could live in a world populated by dragons?”
Marlon had been nodding steadily along to the sound of Campbell’s voice, her gaze lost in the world just outside their window, her mouth open ever so slightly, until the word dragons flew onto the scene. The smoker turned her head again, her jaw tightening around the palpable annoyance nestled in her mouth.
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
Campbell nodded, her eyes dropping back down to the ugly moquette beneath her feet.
“I mean that we used to tell each other stories about quests and greater purposes. About how much easier life would be if we could prove ourselves and climb the ladder of success three steps at a time by killing things and protecting people and just…being heroes. And here we are now; burning dead bodies so the things that go bump in the night won’t chase us down, squatting in mould ridden apartments and selling each other on the black market for a hard, stale piece of bread.”
Campbell turned to face the wall and began kicking it gently with the tip of her boot.
“Couldn’t we change anything about that? Couldn’t we hunt the things that go bump in the night? We’d just have to stop burning the bodies and they’d – “
Marlon grabbed onto the other woman’s shoulders and dug her nails into the bare flesh around the thin straps of the summer dress.
“I don’t want to hear it. What do you think we’ll receive if we even manage to come close to killing one of those things? A hero’s welcome in one of the military bunkers? You think we’ll be put in charge of some battalion and go on to fight for the liberation of the human race? No. No we won’t. We’ll be caught and we’ll be sold and we’ll die. And that’s if we’re lucky enough to make it through the first battle. Don’t let me tell you a story, but not because we could spend that time doing better things but because it pains me that I’ve been taught to do it. It’s the only thing I know how to do.”
The smoker absentmindedly reached into her pocket to grab another cigarette from the meagre pack. Campbell glanced towards the gesture in confusion then stretched out a hand to stop her, but Marlon flinched back with a savage look on her face.
“Don’t you dare!”
“We need to leave,” Codie walked in, slamming the door so hard behind him that is swung open immediately after it was shut. He ran back to it, closed it gently and locked it.
“You need to stop smoking!”
“And why is that?”
“Because I don’t want you dying of I don’t know what disease you might –”
“There’s really no time for this now,” Codie’s voice grew louder, regardless of the fact that it didn’t have to as he was now standing right next to the women.
Marlon continued to talk around him.
“Cancer, the word you’re looking for is cancer, or perhaps emphysema, but do you know what those two have in common? They’re chronic diseases, they kill you slowly and painfully and I really doubt life is going to give me the courtesy of dying like that given the way things stand. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you? You were conveniently born sixteen years ago, sixteen years that I have had to spend –”
“Not right now!”
This time Codie earnestly lodged himself between the women and stared Marlon down.
“Please,” he whispered, desperation flashing with an electric sheen through his tired brown eyes. “They’re coming for us. They’re very close. We need to move.”
“Is, is something the matter?”
Campbell peeked tentatively over Codie’s shoulder. Marlon avoided her gaze and directed a small, curt nod at the boy in front of her.
“Nothing’s the matter,” the boy replied, turning around and grabbing the sixteen-year-old’s hand. “We’re fine. We just need to leave. Now.”
Codie was weak, gullible, optimistic and barely twenty. Not to mention thin, but then they were all thin. Marlon couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten anything that filled her stomach. His dark stubble was awkward because this was the first time he’d grown any facial hair and Marlon, for all her thirty-five years of experience, had no tips to give him. He stormed to the sofa and grabbed at the two tattered duffle bags they’d stashed underneath, letting go of Campbell’s hand as he did so.
“Wait. We’re leaving? Does that mean? Does that mean they’re coming?”
The boy busied himself with zipping up the bags. He tossed one of them with considerable force at Marlon.
“It’s the dealers.”
Two pairs of eyes turned on Campbell’s stony complexion. Her fidgety movements had returned, and she appeared to be employing increased efforts to make herself as small as possible.
A knock on the door shattered the tension.
“Oh, good, they’re polite! That’s, that’s, that’s good to know.” Marlon dropped the bag and fumbled for a cigarette.
“Tell me a story.”
“This really isn’t the time Campbell. We need to leave. They’ve got a body bag with them; someone’s sold one of us off.”
Another knock on the door, louder this time just as Marlon struck a match against the side of the box. It failed to light. Codie continued to speak.
“I don’t know who it was, though. I mean, we haven’t been in contact with anyone for weeks. But they don’t usually take very long. This must have been a recent order but –”
“What story would you like to hear, sweetheart?”
This time she managed to light up her cigarette.
“Rapunzel,” Campbell took a deep breath, “Rapunzel, let down thy hair.”
She walked over to Marlon, gently took her hand and walked over to the sofa. They sat down as a third knock echoed through the room. Codie’s hands balled into fists at his sides.
“The princess said, hopeful, yearning to see her love’s face one more time. All she could think of was the last night they’d spent together, oh so many days ago. But as the glorious braid tumbled down, the princess felt a knot tighten in the pit of her stomach. Something wasn’t quite right.”
The dealers began to break down the door. It wouldn’t take them very long.
“She climbed anyway, gingerly, so as not to hurt the girl with magical hair waiting for her at the top. There was a whimper, soft and pained as the princess’s hands gripped onto the edge of the window.”
The door gave way with a groan. Campbell whimpered but kept her eyes fixed on Marlon’s.
“Rapunzel was standing in the darkness, what seemed like miles away from the princess, her face and cropped hair illuminated by the light streaming in from the window.”
“Marlon Michaels, female, thirty years old.”
Codie lunged himself at the merchant with a wild cry as his two companions (one carrying the body bag the boy had mentioned) made their way to Marlon. She pulled one more breath through her cigarette before pushing it down through the fabric of the sofa. The smoker stood, once more with great difficulty, but without looking away from the girl sitting before her. Campbell hunched over as one of the men pulled Marlon’s arms back and fit handcuffs to her wrists.
“The princess wanted to speak but there was nothing to say. From the corner of her eye, she noticed Gothel holding the braid. There was nothing to do either as Rapunzel lunged forwards and pushed her out the window.”
” ‘No,’ the princess thought. ‘I know I love her. And I know she loves me. And anything, anything that’s more important to her than that is something I’d be willing to trade my life for.’ “
Marlon briefly turned toward the merchant, who had successfully overpowered Codie and knocked him unconscious.
“You give her what you promised you’d give her, or so help me those things will be coming after you next.”
He avoided her gaze. She was a product, after all. Meat. A sacrifice to keep the creatures at bay.
Campbell stood up so quickly she almost fell onto the smoker.
“Whoa, easy there, child. What are you in such a hurry for?”
“Shut up…just shut. Up.”
“You know I can’t –”
The sixteen year old locked lips with the only person she had ever wanted to kiss in her entire meagre life and all she could taste was blood and tears and all she could feel were lips tendered by bruising.
“Tell them a story,” Campbell said, crossing her arms as Marlon was dragged away. “Maybe they’ll… Oh I don’t know!”
“Don’t worry. I’ll tell them all about you. All about us. They’ll be so moved, they’ll never eat another human being ever again.”
Marlon turned to the man dragging her out just as they made it to the door and murmured something to him. He reached into her back pocket and threw the pack of cigarettes at Campbell.
“They found us because I didn’t burn the body. I left a trail. I’ve known for a while, Campbell.”
The girl in the flowery dress looked up from the pack of cigarettes just in time to catch one last glimpse of Marlon’s face.
“This would be a good time to start up a new habit.”