Marise Shield pulled her decaying satchel close to her body, all too aware of each creak and snap of the threads holding it together. She adjusted her cap, pulling it down over her eyes. She’d come too close to violence tonight to feel at ease. She’d gone to that damn bar to sell her paintings, a last ditch effort to escape her current predicament. Now, her only goal was to get back to her alcove without incident.
She crossed through the gardens, trailing farther north where the foliage fell away to rusting pipes and abandoned factories. It’d been a long time since Sandhyanen had produced anything for itself, but that’s where the majority of squatters called home and, if she’d learned anything in the last few weeks, she was not safe in those holes.
If not for that fucking guy, Mr. Drunk-Enough-to-be-a-White-Knight. He’d only made things worse with his taunting. Marise could’ve handled it on her own, but then he’d walked up with his over-the-top theatrics and she couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Fuck. A few more minutes and she’d have her artwork up on the bar’s walls, with at least a chance to get a place to live.
She chastised herself. No, it was a long shot, by no means guaranteed. With the way she looked, she was surprised they’d even let her through the door, much less pitch them her art. She pulled on the strap in frustration, heard another seam break. She cursed, knowing full well she’d have to spend the majority of the night fixing the bag rather than her art.
Vents flushed and opened with a rush of steam. Hot enough to melt skin, the air sang to Marise, a beacon leading her home. She turned her head above to the tram line to the pipes and searched for her hole. As she approached her outpost, she slowed and scoped the scene. It was just about time for the dregs of society to pour out into the street. If she was found, well . . . she shuddered. The best outcome would be her being ousted by a city worker. Every other thought left her gripping the blade in her pocket, until her hand ached from the constant pressure.
She peered over her shoulder, found no one in sight. She shifted the bag’s strap across her chest and began to climb. Moonlight caressed her as she climbed, hand after hand wrapped around the beams. Faint conversation hit her ears. She paused, wedged between two pipes. Flashing neon from local bars flashed in her periphery. She shot quick glances to each side but saw no one.
She shifted her grip, yelped. Withdrawing her hand, she saw the jagged remains of a twisted bolt. She cursed herself for not paying attention, thankful it was her non-dominant hand. She tried to inspect the wound in the exuberant neons. She fought through the pain, clenching her hand. Blood flowed through fist. She wiped it on her bag.
A giggle came from street level as a couple emerged from between the beams of the landing. Marise tensed, instantly regretted it as her muscles screamed out in frustration. Her legs tightened and her back bore into the pipes, trying to keep herself from being discovered. Her clothing should blend in, but she hadn’t tested this theory out. There was no one to help her that wouldn’t instantly report a pesky homeless woman to the Officers.
She angled her head just so she could see the couple between the space between pipes. They strolled off together down the lanes toward the bars. How long had they been there? She watched their movements carefully, looking for some indication that she’d been found out, but they seemed too wrapped up in each other that it was unlikely they would even notice a mugger walking straight toward them. As they rounded a corner, she let out a pent-up breath. They hadn’t spotted her. She couldn’t deal with another do-gooder couple calling the Officers now.
She slipped into an alcove, then settled against the cold concrete. Without thinking, she steadied herself against the stone wall with her injured hand. Her elbow seized as tendrils of pain ripped down her arm. Her smeared handprint marked this as her territory. A forgotten maintenance bay, co-opted by a misfit artist. She smiled at the futility of this gesture.
She examined her hand in the meager light. It looked trashed, as if something had taken a bite out of it. She pulled the bag off her shoulder and dropped it at her feet, using her good hand to draw it open.
She grabbed a roll of bandages and, gripping it in her teeth, pulled out a long swath and began to wrap her injured hand. After a few minutes, she pulled out a knife, cut the gauze. As she wrapped her hand, she eyed her completed artwork, the symbol continuing to show up despite her best intentions. She’d begun to consider it a feature, but even at the best of times, she had to fight to tone it down, cover it up in her art. She eyed the old pages, the jerky lines, the amateurish result, struggling to recall the image. It wasn’t good enough.
Wiping sweat from her forehead, she pulled off the hat and tucked it next to her bag. Lights filled the horizon, waving across the landscape. A long ray from the lighthouse swept across the docks. From this vantage point, she saw every flicker of life, every odd tick most overlooked. A spectator and nothing more, she hung out here to record the sights of the forgotten metropolis.
Amidst the grime, she could let go. Better, she could sleep. The pressurized air, along with the settling water from the tramlines, calmed her. With enough disappointment to highlight the next few days, she wedged herself into a corner, drew her legs to her chest and watched the city.
Rising fog obscured the lower levels of the city, creeping its way up to her. A tram shot past, pulling the mist with it as it shook the alcove. She used her bandaged hand to steady herself against the tremors, ignoring the pain quaking through her arm. As the tram sped past, she nestled into the alcove and let the singing pipes drag her to sleep.