Life on the street is hard. Drug dealers, thieves, and even the security officers of the giant walking city of Manhatsten are up to no good. But somehow, Mimi’s done it for centuries. Of course, it helps that she is able to peak into other people’s minds and avoid trouble most of the time. Unfortunately, that same talent is about to get her into a whole other world of trouble. One that she never even knew existed.
Mimi surfaced and walked the street until she reached the entry to Orphan’s Alley. Passing through the mob of homeless, she took inventory of those she recognized and the ones she didn’t. They were islands, shackled and disheveled. Some clung to their cart full of possessions, others to the rags that draped their bodies and little else. For most of them, there was little to cling to, and so they clung tight.
Here, the homeless had no fear of the cold winter nights when they may meet endless sleep. They had no hesitation in the heat of the summer sun, needing to seek shade and water to survive the onslaught. They would not starve. They would not die of disease. The alcoves ended disease centuries ago. But some would be beaten; some would be recruited into the Runnercore. Some would be exploited in other ways, especially the women. All were disposable, like so much cast away paper, waiting for a time when their purpose, like so much else in the city, was recycled.
The city had various spaces where the homeless clustered, where they pressed their tired bodies up against ancient brick and mortar. There were only a few places that city security allowed them to live and so there was a limitation to where they could lay their tired heads. This one was called Orphan’s Alley. A name that the residents themselves had given it hundreds of years prior. Probably none here were alive to see the naming, but names, like ideas, can be passed on through the generations, and there wasn’t much else for the homeless of the city to pass on. Names were their empty legacy.
A single food dispenser had been installed at the end of Orphan’s Alley. It provided only the basics, a green algae nutrient-rich soup, once a day. It was enough to keep a person alive, but only just. If you could figure out a way to earn some credits you could get more, but panhandling was strictly forbidden in Manhatsten and so those who the city had cast aside, who it had made orphans, were left with only illegal means. After all, no one would hire you in the city if you did not have a place of residence somewhere. And illegal means usually meant that eventually you were caught and recruited.
Orphan’s Alley, a prime recruitment ground.
Mimi found who she was looking for. A man, standing slouched against a corner, thin brown rags covering his body in multicolored clumps held together by safety pins, staples, and in a few places, stitches. He was a tall man with short, dark, greasy hair, chopped off in places with a blade. Facial hair crowded the edges of the scars but did not dare cross it.
His voice was soft and deep. It was a welcoming tone like a snake’s slither. “Mimi, good to see you, you know I was just telling the boys you’d be back any day now.”
The redness was still there, just under the surface, and Mimi felt it threatening to break free. What part of her had she opened? It was a terrible, empty feeling. It was hungry, and she didn’t like it. It almost seemed to be whispering to her, telling her to release it.
Her eyes locked on the dealer. Mimi shrugged. “What else have I got to do to kill the time, Andrew?”
“Hmmm. True enough,” a ragged grin spread across his face, revealing several missing teeth. “Do you have credits? Or are you finally going to make some other arrangements?”
“I have credits.”
Andrew frowned, “You know, I am sure that if you would like to pay some other way than credits, we could arrange a more physical kind of payment.”
“No thanks.” She couldn’t help but skim his mind. She saw what she didn’t want to see. In his mind he was undressing her, peeling back the layers of her ragged clothes, unwrapping her like a little boy’s present.
Mimi felt her face flush. The redness rose in her. It spiraled upward. She could almost hear it beckoning her to unleash it on him. It was hungry for him, in the same way Andrew was hungry for her body.
She shook her head. “No.”
“Hmmm? What was that, Mimi? Let’s make a deal, one night with me for several months’ supply of Likatol.”
“No, Andrew.” She took a step back from him. The redness had died down now, but her normal anger was brewing and she didn’t want any more trouble today. Her heart was aching for her argument with Shannon, and she wasn’t sure if she could fix it.
“Tell you what, one night and I’ll give you a full year’s supply. Come on now, that’s more than generous, and I certainly won’t need an entire night, perhaps just a few hours.”
Why was he so insistent? Normally, Andrew knew how to take no for an answer. Mimi risked skimming his mind again for another moment and saw something she had never seen before. Something was pressing on him, putting pressure on him. It was almost like someone was encouraging him, egging him on.
What was happening lately? For so long, she thought she knew the rules, thought that she had everything about her abilities figured out, but first there was that strange silence by her favorite fishing hole, then the redness, and now this? It was almost too much. It was like someone, or something was changing all the rules, and she couldn’t act fast enough to figure out what they were.
Mimi shook her head. “No, Andrew.” She paused for a moment when his face twitched. Fear traced her spine, a cold finger. She could feel him growing impatient. But this was not the impatience of a man, rather of a stray dog hungry for meat.
She thought about walking away but then her anger released. She wasn’t going to be bullied by some low-life dealer. She wasn’t going to put up with any of his shit and she was going to make that clear.
She moved up closely to Andrew, leaning in almost as if she was going to kiss him. He leaned in close and then at the last moment, she dug her elbow right into his neck, pressing it into his windpipe. He choked and tried to step back but she had him pinned against the wall. His hands reached up to grasp for her arm but as he did, she pressed harder. His eyes bulged as his skin purpled and she felt satisfaction as she skimmed his mind and found terror.
“Do you really think that I would ever let you put your filthy hands on me, dealer? Do I look like some kind of whore to you?”
He was barely able to draw breath, but he still managed a guttural, gasping, “No.”
“Bet you thought I was just some weak little thing, didn’t you? You asshole, I’ve been on the streets longer than you’ve been alive, and if I even feel your eyes undressing me again, I’ll fucking pluck them out and feed them to you.”
Mimi thought that despite the dark shade of his face, he paled a bit at that statement, and a quick skim confirmed that not only did he believe her, but that he was thinking, “This bitch is crazy.”
“Yes Andrew, I am crazy, and I’m not afraid to maim your ass.”
His eyes were beginning to close. She skimmed his mind to wait ‘til just before he lost consciousness. She didn’t want him to pass out; something might be lost in the experience if he did. She wanted him to remember this day for a good, long while. It wasn’t the first time she had to put the hurt on a man like this, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Her best defense was a reputation and she had to maintain that. Long experience had given her every tool she needed to intimidate even the stronger men.
She pulled back her elbow and he fell forward, taking deep and wide breaths. On all fours, saliva dripped from his mouth as he coughed and sputtered.
Mimi said, “Act like a dog, get treated like one.”
There was a moment when his mind was blank, when she was sure he wasn’t going to say anything. It passed. At first, he seemed to be having trouble making words, as if he had forgotten language. Then he said, “Forget it, bitch.” He wheezed and coughed. “I’m done selling to you.”
Mimi shrugged, “Fine by me. I’ll take my business elsewhere. You’re not the only one ‘round here to sell Likatol, asshole. You’re just the dumbest and cheapest.”
In truth, Mimi hated to have to go looking for another reliable source of Likatol, but she was also tired of Andrew. In the old days, she might have done more than just choke him a little, she might have made sure he remembered the lesson for years to come. But lately, she was getting tired.
“Get the hell away from me, you bitch. I don’t ever want to see your face again.”
She headed back through the crowd and out of Orphan’s Alley. She only had a few days of supply left, so she would have to find someone else soon. She thought she might try one of the other city districts–she preferred staying around District 17 since it was so close to her hovel–but last time she checked, Districts 8 and 13 usually had a steady supply of Likatol.
She walked out past the threshold of the homeless territory, her mind at work on the problem at hand. She had, for the moment, forgotten about Shannon, knowing that the headaches would come soon, that the voices would grow so strong, that tears would come.
She rounded a corner and bumped into someone. The collision caught her by surprise, but a steady hand reached out and grabbed her and kept her from falling. It was Shannon.
Mimi froze. Here was another secret she was going to have to explain, and judging by the look on Shannon’s face, she probably had no idea why she could possibly want drugs. And to explain why she needed them, she would have to explain a whole hell of a lot more than her age.
“So, you’re a drug addict?” The wrinkles on her forehead creased. Her short blond hair never hid those wrinkles very well.
“No, I’m not.”
“So what were you doing talking to Andrew?”
Mimi breathed a heavy sigh. What could she say? That she needed small doses of Likatol to keep the entire city out of her head? That she would get terrible migraines without them because she could read people’s minds? Doubtful Shannon would believe her.
“Shannon, maybe it’s best if we don’t see each other anymore.”
Shannon’s face changed, from anger and frustration to shock and hurt.
“What? Wait, I don’t understand. I…”
“I like my privacy, Shannon. I understand you want to share your life with me, but there are certain things I am not sure I can share, not now anyway. I’m not a drug addict, in fact, what I need is Likatol, but I don’t think you would believe me if I told you why I need it.”
Strictly speaking, Likatol wasn’t a drug, it was a pill that someone could take before going on a drug binge. It would keep the user from losing all control and from becoming addicted, but it wouldn’t block the high. Likatol was a kind of drug buffer.
“Try me.” There was a note of desperation in her voice. “Please, Mimi, you said you loved me…”
Mimi shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. Anyone I have ever told has gotten hurt. It’s best if you stay away from me.”
Mimi began walking down the city streets. Shannon followed close behind. At first, she kept trying to stop Mimi, to get her to talk to her, but after a while, she just followed in silence. Mimi blocked her out, refused even to skim her. It was better this way. She would give up soon enough, she would go on with her life. Besides, it was better than Shannon leaving her, as some of them did.
After more than twenty blocks, Mimi began to hear sobs and sniffling directly behind her. She tried to ignore it, to let Shannon cry, but after a few more blocks she couldn’t take it. She loved her. There was something special about Shannon, something soft and warm. She made Mimi feel safe and warm and special. Shannon really cared about her. It was like, with Shannon, all the wounds from her life on the street didn’t ache so much.
She opened herself to Shannon’s mind. She dipped into it and there was comfort there. Comfort in knowing that this woman, more than anything, just wanted to feel Mimi in her arms, wanted to embrace her and never let her go. There was something powerful in knowing someone else’s thoughts, especially when those thoughts were of love and longing. People said a lot of shit, and their minds so often cast a shadow over the true meaning. But here, here was a woman who truly loved her and knew it.
Mimi could not stand against it. When love comes like that, all you can do is surrender, to lay down your arms and submit to the will of those who would love you. For in denying it, you face only regret. Mimi had been waiting for this a long time, she just hadn’t known it.
She stopped. As she turned, she realized that she too had been crying. She looked directly at Shannon, whose streams of tears had eroded the soot in streaks on her narrow face. Mimi reached up and touched her own face, running her finger along her cheeks, her tears had cleansed those parts they had touched.
Shannon stopped and looked at her. She took one step closer and hesitated. Mimi felt Shannon’s question press against her. All Shannon wanted was to hold her. Mimi moved closer to her, pulled her close and kissed her. Both minds blanked to the warmth of the embrace. Mimi could taste the salt from her tears on her lips. Then she pulled away slightly and hugged her hard.
“I’m so sorry, Shannon. I love you… I… Let’s go back to my place and I’ll tell you whatever you want.”
Shannon didn’t say anything, but skimming her mind told Mimi of the overwhelming relief she was feeling. Shannon’s smile was enough. The tears couldn’t darken it.
Perhaps it was time to take a chance. Perhaps this time would be for keeps. Maybe that was Mimi’s purpose, to love as deeply as she could.
A small voice pushed up in the back of Mimi’s mind. “This one won’t last long. It will be even shorter than Daniel. You will watch her suffer. It’s what happens every time someone gets close to you. Free her now or you will bring her nothing but misery.”
The voice almost sounded real, almost sounded external. Mimi felt a bit of a headache and took a few deep breaths.
She looked at Shannon again. She drank in her beautiful eyes and face and raised her right hand up to wipe away her tears. Her heart longed to be with her, to hold her close and feel her touch. She pulled Shannon in close and kissed her again, feeling the warmth of her body pressed against hers, the softness of her lips making her body tremble with joy.
She pulled away, grabbed Shannon’s hand and together, they walked home.