Gwa-hah

And just 10 minutes before the end of the month, I complete the goal I set out for myself at the start of the month.  I now have 10…well, by the time I’m done typing this, more like 8…minutes to goof off like a motherfucker.  Then, back to work.

This is chapter 3, in which you meet the third of the three main characters.  Any my personal favorite character, though things won’t really get cool until she hooks up with the two other people she’s going to be spending most of her journey with.

Anyway, here ’tis.

BTW, this is now officially the third longest thing I’ve ever written, which scares me, but in a good way.


Chapter 3

Charlotte froze just two steps down the hallway.  Her right foot was touching the floor, but she hadn’t fully shifted her weight to if from her left, and for the moment didn’t dare to.  Just the slightest touch had caused the wood under her foot to creak, followed by a loud pop, and now she stood there frozen, ears straining, muscles tense and ready, listening to see if anyone else had heard the sudden noise.  And, more importantly, if anyone had woken up and decided to come investigate.

It was the dead of night, a few hours before sunrise, and everyone in the house should be asleep.  That was the whole point, after all, the reason she was here now, she could hardly do what she’d come here to do with everyone up and moving around in the daytime.  But all it would take is one dumb mistake, one person who was a light sleeper, or who’d been driven from their bed to use the bedpan, and her plans would be ruined, not just for tonight but for the next several nights.  That would mean going hungry, and scrambling for a way to find more food instead of a way to bunk down safely before the weather turned for good.

She listened intently, but her luck seemed to be holding:  the only sound in the house was her own shallow breathing.  She very slowly lifted her right foot up, anticipating another loud creak as it broke contact with the floor (which thankfully never came), and stood there, balancing easily on one leg, reviewing her options.

There was no sense in backing up and trying to find another way into the house.  The window she’d come in through, back at the start of the hallway, was the only one on the ground floor with a broken latch; everything else was shut tight, and the last thing she wanted to do was break a bit of glass or force one of the other locks open.  It’d be too easy for the people who lived her to spot it the next day, and once they did all of the other houses she’d planned to hit in the town would double-check their own windows and doors and be on higher alert, making tonight a success but the rest of her plans a bust.  She’d have to move on to a different town—not something she had time for, given how close the first winter storms were—or head out to the farms, which was a barely acceptable plan B, and not one she wanted to fall back on unless there was no other option.

So, forward down the hallway then.  The hallway was mostly empty, a generic landscape painting on the wall to her left, and a pair of cabinets on each side of the hallway, down at the other end.  Those would be a problem.  However, just over the one on the right side of the hallway there was a wall sconce right above it holding an unlit candle…that she might be able to use.

She stretched out her right leg and very, very slowly set her foot down along the edge of the floorboards, right where they met the wall.  Praying that her luck would hold, she shifted her weight to it, and offered up a silent thanks when there was no sound.  Bit by bit, keeping her feet moving along the very edge of the floorboards like a tightrope, she continued down the hallway.

When she got to the cabinets, she reached up with both hands and wedged them into the sconce, palms facing out, as though she were trying to force the edges wider.  She brought her right foot up, toes and ball bracing against the wall, and then—trying not to think about it too much, if she had to think about it this would never work—she jumped up off her left foot, swinging the leg towards the door, boosting herself higher with her right leg.

Her left foot found purchase in the tiny corner formed by the doorframe and the wall, and she caught herself there, supporting her weight above the cabinet with her stretched-out legs, using the pressure of her hands in the sconce to hold her balance and keep from falling backwards.

Now came the hard part.

She bounced her weight a few times on her right leg, and then, at the upswing of a bounce, pushed off, bending the leg in high to clear the cabinet, lunging with her hands for the top of the doorframe.  There was a small thud as her fingers found purchase and held on, but nothing loud enough to make her worry.  She hung there briefly, letting her pendulum swings reduce to stillness, and then brought her legs up and braced herself, one foot pushing against each side of the doorframe, taking most of the weight off of her fingers.  She surveyed the kitchen before her, trying to figure out her next move.

If the little-used hallway floor had been weak enough to creak under her slight weight, then the kitchen floor would be right out.  It would be a much higher-traffic area, and would have to support the weight of the oven, and cold box, and other heavy bits, and even though it would be more heavily reinforced, the odds of the floor loudly announcing her presence if she tried to walk across it were higher here than anywhere else.  Fortunately, there were plenty of other paths for her to take.

She swung her feet around, getting them up on to the nearest counter, and then rolled her weight off her fingers and onto her legs, ending up crouched neatly next to the washbasin.  A quick hop onto the prep table in the middle of the kitchen, and she was now only a few feet from her destination.  It started to rock a bit under her as she landed, and she easily rode it out, counterbalancing the wobble without thinking about it, causing only the slightest bit of noise as the short leg settled into place.  From there she made another short jump to the counter next to the pantry door, reached out to turn the doorknob, swinging the door open (bracing herself for the possible squeak as the door turned on its hinges, which thankfully never came), and then used the top of the door frame to swing herself from the counter into the pantry, alighting soundlessly inside.  She reached behind her, pulling the door shut, and allowed herself a deep breath:  the hard part was over.

She reached into one of her jacket pockets and pulled out a short length of wax-coated rope, one end still charred from the last time she’d used it.  From another pocket she drew a small metal box she’d picked up a few years ago, back when she’d been putting her skills to use preserving a different kind of survival:  meeting her quota rather than foraging for food for the winter.  She still remembered the job where she’d found it:  the workshop with gadgets, tools and machines that were so far beyond her understanding that they might as well have been magical relics.  She’d been working from a pre-determined list on that job, looking for rare refined metals and other raw materials that Victor could turn around and sell in other towns for a pretty ransom, but when she’d seen the small metal box sitting there, unadorned but just her size, she’d grabbed it and stashed it in her pocket.  It wasn’t until much later that she’d discovered what it could do, and instead of turning it in as part of her take—as she’d been ordered to, anything taken on a job must be turned in to Victor under penalty of death—she’d kept it, hiding it from Victor and the rest of the crew.  She’d risked her life in doing that, and looking back, it was clear that the decision to keep it for herself had been one of the first stages of the beginning of the end of her time with them.

Here, now, she opened the box, and laid the charred end of the wick in a small indentation at one end.  At the other end was a flint wheel, and she spun it with her thumb, needing only two tries to send a spark into the indentation, catching the wick alight.  The flame was tiny, more a glowing ember than an actual fire, but it created plenty of light for her to see by.  She reached up and hooked the unlit end of the wick around the top of one of the shelves’ bracing, put the box back away in her pocket, and took a look around at the inside of the pantry.

And smiled.  This was why she’d decided to stick to the houses in town, rather than hitting the farms in the wide spaces in between the settled areas.  When a family is well and truly on their own, with no help for miles around should something go wrong at the worst possible time, knowing they’ll only have themselves to rely upon, they tend to pay a lot more attention to the details.  They plan–as best they can–for the worst.

It’d have been much easier for her to hit an isolated farm:  no worries that she’d been seen making her approach, and endless routes of escape where she could disappear once the deed was done.  But they’d also have likely noticed their loss the next day, no matter how carefully she tried to camouflage the gaps she’d leave behind, and despite the distances, the word would have spread quickly.  The next farm she tried to hit (which would have been a few nights later…the distances in between would affect her too) would likely have been expecting her.  And she’d been through a scene like that before, with the scars still on her leg to remind her what a bad idea that was.

But here in a town–especially in this year of sudden relative plenty, after several years of drought and hunger–the people would tend to be a bit more careless.  They had short memories, and this year’s riches must seem endless to them.  Add in the central stores of the town that they could call upon in the worst of the winter just a few months hence, and there was almost no incentive for them to track every last potato, every single jar of pickled…whatever the hell those purple things were.  She could take as much as she could carry, and as long as she was careful about how she left things looking when she left, it’d be weeks before they noticed that someone had silently shared in their good fortune.  And in the meantime she’d help herself to another half dozen pantries in homes all along the two major streets in this town, and come away with enough food to last her through the winter months.

She unwrapped the cloth sack from where she’d tied it around her waist, and started to fill it.

It only took a few moments, and she was done; her sack was full enough that she had to lift it with both hands.  This family in particular was particularly disorganized, and she didn’t have to do much to hide what she’d taken.  She took a last look around to make sure everything looked the way she wanted it to, and smiled.  The bags of flour–which had been carelessly stacked in a pile towards the back wall–looked just as they had when she’d started.  It’d be hard to tell without pulling them out and counting them one by one that two of them were gone; she wasn’t bringing them with her, but she’d used them to fill in the center of the two barrels of potatoes, covering them with a few inches of the spuds, the remainder having gone into her own sack.  All the shelves still looked full; it’d be a while before they discovered that the line-up of jars only went two rows deep, the center completely empty.  She’d even take several links of sausage–meat, by god!–trusting that the entire chain of them had been so haphazardly wrapped around one of the shelf’s supports that the family wouldn’t notice that it was now a couple feet shorter than it had been.

Her work done, she took the wick down from where it’d been hanging, wet her fingers, and pinched out the lit end.  She took a moment in the darkness to gather herself, straining to listen to the rest of the house, glad that she heard the same silence that’d accompanied her the whole way so far, and then swung the pantry door open.  She lifted the sack carefully onto the counter next to the door, boosted herself up next to it, and closed the door gently behind her.

Her exit strategy was much simpler than her entrance had turned out:  there was a window in the kitchen, just to her left, that opened onto the back of the house.  It was latched, but she had a length of string with a loop at the end–and a well practiced skill which would latch the window behind her with a twist of the wrist, leaving no trace that it had ever been opened–and in just a hop, skip and jump she’d be free and clear, safely on her way.  And then, tomorrow night, repeat the process, and again the next night, until she’d either cleared out the entire town or filled the small cave she was planning to use to store her food for the winter, whichever came first.  And she’d be safe, no matter what this winter brought; she’d be able to make it through.  She’d done the cold and starving thing two of the past three winters–no way she was ever going to let that happen again.

She made her way to the window, silent as can be, and after opening it, carefully lowered the sack to the ground outside.  She was about to follow it when she heard a voice behind her, and froze.

“Is it time to go?”

Adrenaline flooded her limbs, prompting her to jump and run and get as far away from here as she could, never mind the noise, or that her plan was now blown…and then she didn’t.  Confusion and curiosity overrode her flight instinct, and she stayed frozen in place as her mind whirled.

For one thing, the voice wasn’t that of an adult…a kid, it sounded like, young, and female.  And what she’d said made no sense at all.

Charlotte very slowly pivoted on the balls of her feet until she was facing back into the kitchen, and saw, standing at the far end, a small girl, maybe six or seven years old.  She was dressed in a thin white nightgown, the edges fraying horribly–Charlotte thought it was likely years older than the girl wearing it, and had already done duty with this girl’s older sisters–and was rubbing her eyes.  And the weirdest part:  she didn’t look like she was surprised or upset by what she saw at all.  As though finding a thief crouching on a counter in her kitchen in the middle of the night was exactly what she’d climbed out of her bed to find.

The little girl spoke again.

“You’re Charlie, right?  Is it time?”

And now Charlotte started to shake a bit.  All the “normal” weirdness blew right out of her mind, as she tried to accept the notion that, in the midst of the “time to go” nonsense this little girl was repeating, she’d called Charlotte by a nick-name she hadn’t used–hadn’t had to use–in two years.

Charlotte felt her stomach give way, like the entire bottom of it had fallen out of her body.  She stopped breathing, which was okay, as she didn’t seem to need air just at the moment.  She started to say twenty-six different things all at the same time, and ended up just working her mouth soundlessly for a few seconds, the rest of her body still frozen in place.

Finally, the survival instincts that had kept her alive through a life more challenged than most kicked in, and she was able to shove every bit of weirdness that didn’t directly relate to her immediate goal–getting the hell out of here, as quickly as possible–to the side.  It didn’t matter how this girl knew her name…correction, her old name, the one she’d gladly left behind and had never wanted to hear again, this girl somehow knew it, but that didn’t matter; what mattered was getting her to go back to her bed and forget this had ever happened, it was just a dream.

She glanced around the kitchen dramatically, as though looking to see if anyone else was near enough to listen in (which wasn’t too far from the truth), and then waved for the girl to come closer to her, a gentle smile on her face, as though she was in on the secret too, and just wanted the girl at a friendly distance.

The little girl yawned, rubbed at her eyes again, and stumbled sleepily across the kitchen until she was standing right in front of Charlotte, close enough to reach out and touch her.

Charlotte leaned forward and whispered, “Not yet, sweetie.”  Best to just play along with whatever she was talking about.

The girl frowned, although there was a sizable amount of relief in her voice.  “It’s not?  Is it soon?”

Charlotte nodded–keeping that big smile on her face–and answered, “Yup, really soon.  But not tonight.  So what you need to do is go on back to bed go to sleep, okay?”

“And you’ll come back when it’s time to go?”

“Yup, I’ll come back when it’s time.  But it’s not tonight, so go on back to bed, okay?”

“‘mkay.”

And the girl turned and walked back across the kitchen, turning a corner, and was gone.  Charlotte’s heart broke a bit as she watched her go:  there had been so much trust in the girl’s voice as she’d accepted what Charlotte’d had to tell her…she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen such innocence.  This must be a good family, with as much love as anyone could hope for, if they were raising a girl like that.  There was no moment where Charlotte considered putting the food back–she’d hardened herself to what she was and what she did, and the ultimate consequences for the people she targeted, long ago–but she did spare a moment to wish that the world wasn’t such a place where she had to do what she did.

She sat there on the counter for a few more seconds, making sure that there were no other sounds in the house, no one else had been roused by the little girl’s nocturnal expedition, and then let herself out through the window to the ground.  She did her trick with the string, latching the window behind her, and then picked up the sack of food and headed west, for the small grove of trees that bordered the town on that side.  She made it, somehow, and as soon as she was sure she wasn’t visible from outside the grove–at least not at night–she set the sack down against a tree, let her legs go, landing hard on her butt, and finally let go, shaking so bad that she collapsed over on to her side.  She heard voices–none anywhere near as gentle as the little girl’s had been–echoing through her head, voices she’d never thought she’d hear again, had thought she’d finally driven away, and the sound of leather on flesh, and steel grating on bone, and then she was crying, and gone.

***

Almost an hour later, the sack hanging over her shoulder, tears dry on her face but eyes still red, she was heading north on the main road, hoping to make it to the foothills and her cave by dawn, so she could sleep a bit before coming back during the day to scout out her next target.

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