“À gauche, Mitchel!”
“Ah— tu connais que je ne joue pas bien.”
While ignoring the fact that his world was slowly crumpling around him, Mitchel focused on the words he traded back and forth with Christine. He convinced himself that his thoughts could be melodramatic solely because he was still a teenager and that was what teenagers did. Simultaneously, he kept up a well-rehearsed smile because he was practically an adult and that was what he imagined adults doing.
Each staccato of their conversation was accented by the kick of an improvised soccer ball as they walked down the street. Slightly deflated, it only rolled a few feet before Christine had to pass it to the left for Mitchel to receive. She brought her leg back like a pendulum, her patchwork dress rippling, and revealed her strong legs. On top of her dark brown skin, small bruises served as a nod to her superiority in the sport. As the ball sailed through the air, a great white smile split across her face and her hazel eyes looked like honey once they caught the sunlight.
“Chut,” she hushed and pushed his shoulder lightly. “Puis pratique.”
“Practice then, she says,” Mitchel huffed. “As if it were that easy. I’m being outclassed by a twelve-year-old.”
As Mitchel missed her pass, the blue ball rolled over the pavement and ended up in someone’s yard. Like the rest of the stretch of houses, the family unit number was painted in white, right where the ball ended up.
“286?” Christine translated the foreign script, her words slow and uncertain.
“Smart,” Mitchel hummed in affirmation as he kicked the ball away from the home. The blue ball disturbed the cracked earth of the front yard and filled Mitchel’s nostrils with dust.
Without holding back, Mitchel sneezed. His already messy black hair wobbled from the force. To his dismay the dirt cloud that had entered his lungs had also stuck to his clothes. Light brown peppered his once blue shirt that had faded from years of drying it in the sun.
“À tes souhaits,” Christine chuckled.
On cool days like this, the fading evening was filled with people chattering on their doorsteps, some banging on tin to make crude music full of slurs, children running around hitting deflated balls in every direction. From the open windows, families were sitting together and eating bland meals with smiles on their faces.
“Thanks Mitch,” Christine said suddenly.
Mitchel quirked an eyebrow. “For what?”
“For getting me out of the house.”
Mitchel waved his hand through the air as if to physically dismiss the comment and rustled her short corkscrew curls. She waved away his hand like she were swatting at one of the pesky mosquito that were buzzing about.
Mitchel suddenly stopped at the house before them, surprised.
“We’re already here,” he announced.
While Christine bent down to pick up her soccer ball, Mitchel turned and walked up the front lawn of dirt and dying weeds. Like every other house, the family unit number was written in Rwequekian script on the street in front of it: 298. A large red X painted onto the door distinguished the house from the rest as a haggle shop.
Mitchel walked up to the door first, knocking softly, before moving out of the way for Christine.
“After you,” he said and bowed his head in embellished courtesy.
Christine tried to hold back her smile and opened the door with her free hand. Mitchel slipped in beside her before the door swung closed behind him.
Down the middle of the house, strips of fabric had been sewn together to create a curtain of privacy and block the owner’s family life from the dealings of the haggle shop. Some of the fabric didn’t reach the floor, though, and bare feet could be seen scampering around. Children were playing.
A long table had been constructed of sheet metal, just sturdy enough to get its job done. On it was everything that would be shoved into a hallway closet: a pair of old boots, a small pile of faded clothing, pieces of paper already written on, plastic cups and bowls, needles with no thread, a wiry pair of glasses, and a few worn down bags. Near the curtain, a boy who was leaning on a counter perked at the sight of Mitchel and Christine.
“Welcome,” he greeted, giving a small wave.
At the sight of a newcomer, Christine leaned into Mitchel’s side, but Mitchel relaxed. It was not the normal haggler who had a stern upper lip and would refuse to budge with prices. The boy looked at least two or three years younger than Mitchel. A homemade name card rested on the counter that read: Ayo. A family member then, who took over at night while the older one was resting. No wonder the boy was unfamiliar to Mitchel, as he did not normally leave the house this late.
Mitchel waved back before patting Christine’s shoulder.
“You can go check out what they have,” he encouraged softly.
Christine perked up, leaving Mitchel’s side to rummage through the hidden treasures.
On the counter, two piles of paper lay parallel to each other. One was faced towards the haggler with a long list of names who had done business with him. The pile facing Mitchel only had one sentence on it:
Send your payment to D.1298.117.
The line was short and to the point, yet each letter was riddled with the heavy pull of debt.
“Need anything in particular?” Ayo asked.
Mitchel’s eyes flickered over to the pile of empty soup cans filled with various curiosities too small to be left out on the table. Pins, buttons, and spools of thread could be useful, but seemingly insignificant items like key chains were left to entice the curious onlooker.
“You got any pain medication?” Mitchel asked as he inspected a small metal keychain.
Someone had written their name on the back of the keychain in red Sharpie.
“Are you sure? That’s going to cost you,” Ayo warned with a frown. Dropping into a squat, he checked a hidden storage container behind the counter.
“I’m aware,” Mitchel hummed. The keychain was from Vancouver. Mitchel had never been there before.
Ayo stood back up with a bottle in his hand. Mitchel winced at the sound of the pills jingling against the walls of the container.
“How much?” Mitchel smiled.
The keychain clanked as it slipped from Mitchel’s fingers.
“Medicine’s scarce,” Ayo explained with an apologetic smile. “And with winter coming around, everyone’s stalking up.”
I make 6 units a day.
If I work hard, I can manage 8.
Ten days of overtime?
Mitchel blew out a breath of air before settling into an uneven smile.
“No problem,” he assured.
Ayo looked perceptively unconvinced, but shrugged and handed the bottle over to Mitchel.
“ID?” Ayo asked as he plucked a pen from one of the soup cans and poised it over the pile of papers.
“D.3256.117,” Mitchel mumbled. Needing something to fidget with, he swiped a “Send your payment to…” leaflet. Taking the paper was unnecessary as he already had the haggle shop’s contact memorized by now, but Mitchel would not pass up the opportunity for free paper. The backside was completely blank.
“I’ve got to make sure one of our requests is in,” Ayo said suddenly, as if just remembering. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
Ayo disappeared behind the curtain.
Mitchel mumbled a thank you as he quickly deposited the pill bottle into his sagging pants pocket.
“Mitch!” Christine said. “C’est Gabriella!”
Mitchel turned to see another member of his family slip through the front door.
“Gabbi!” Mitchel called out, a grin split across his face. “What’re you doing here?”
Gabriella startled at his loud voice, but relaxed as she came up to his side.
“Hey,” Christine greeted shakily. Gabriella gave her a small smile.
The two girls looked nothing like each other, but they were from the same family unit 256. Gabriella wore moon-shaped glasses that sat at the bridge of her nose, Christine’s soft brown eyes were twenty-twenty. Gabriella’s hair ran straight all the way down to her waist, while Christine’s was curly and barely reached her shoulders. As Gabriella drew her attention back to Mitchel, her pale skin became blotched light pink. When Christine blushed, her dark skin would seem to glow.
“I may have put a hold on some scissors,” Gabriella drew out.
Mitchel raised an eyebrow at her casualness.
“Did you ask Winston first?” he asked.
Gabriella scoffed jokingly and waved him off, “I haven’t asked yet.”
Christine’s eyes widened. She bit her lower lip to suppress a smile.
“Must be pretty important,” Mitchel said. “If you didn’t ask him.”
Gabriella shrugged, embarrassment coating her cheeks. “I’ve got some projects I’m working on.”
“Oh! You have to tell me,” Mitchel grinned and leaned back against the counter.
“It’s rude to pry.”
“Then you know I’ll keep prying.”
Gabriella huffed and adjusted her glasses.
Box in hand, Ayo reentered the shop.
“Hey Gabriella,” Ayo smiled brightly. “You’re just in time, I got your scissors for you.”
Mitchel and Christine exchanged looks.
They know each other by name?
Despite Mitchel and Christine’s gawking, Gabriella walked past them to the counter with a firm upper lip.
“Thanks Ayo,” she said as the scissors were passed into her hands.
“Not tonight?” Ayo asked lightly.
Gabriella’s face went a brilliant red.
“Not tonight,” she said in a clipped voice. She nodded her head as if to convince herself, spun on her heels, and rushed to the door.
Mitchel got a good look of the younger man one more time. He was darker than Christine but had the same soft eyes, and for some reason, that was enough to make the flutter of anxiety in Mitchel’s stomach settle.
“Thank you!” Mitchel called as he followed her out the door.
A lone lamppost glowed over the duo as they stepped out of the haggle shop. Its white light shone down the stretch of oblong houses before losing its strength and leading into a dark patch along the street.
Mitchel frowned and stared out into the darkness as they meet up with Gabriella. Absentmindedly, he scratched his thick black hair in an attempt to push past a tick of nerves. Though younger, Gabriella wasn’t naïve to it all, and she held the small brown sack containing her scissors closely to her chest. Youngest of the trio, Christine stuck diligently to Mitchel’s right side with her ball still in hand.
“I didn’t realize it was this late,” Gabriella murmured.
It was not long until curfew hit, and then the light from the lampposts would shift from manufactured white to an eerie orange glow. There were never enough lampposts to provide enough light for the long rows of houses, but they rather served as a warning to usher loitering children back into their homes.
As subtle as he could, Mitchel picked up his speed. The two girls soon matched his gait.
The pills in his pocket rattled back and forth as he walked, like chains. Mitchel’s stomach squirmed. The mood needed to change.
“So… Ayo, huh?”
“Shut up Mitch.”
“Where’d you meet?”
“Where do you think?”
Mitchel paused, a sly grin worming onto his face.
“You’ve been out shopping a lot?”
“No, no, he’s just been—” Gabriella wrinkled up her nose as she tried to come up with a word, “—helpful.”
“Helpful,” Mitchel deadpanned, and then leaned close to Christine. “How romantic.”
“I swear to God Mitch,” she huffed and raked her fingers through her hair. “For the bracelets. You know? He’s been helping me with the bracelets.”
A few braided bracelets hung from Gabriella’s wrist. They were fairly simple with a variation of one or two braids using scraps Gabriella had managed to pick up.
“You’ve really gotten into that lately, haven’t you?”
“It helps,” Gabriella shrugged, “A distraction from the kids, work… everything really.”
Mitchel took another look at her. Gabriella’s eyebrows were taut and her eyes were distant in a way Mitchel related with all too well. It was the expression of being stretched very, very thin. Mitchel frowned. Gabriella was three years younger than he was. A teenager did not need to worry so heavily.
“I think they’re pretty,” Christine added softly.
Gabriella crinkled her nose, making her glasses tilt.
“These ones are pretty crappy,” Gabriella scoffed back. “But I’ll get somewhere with our new scissors.”
Christine blushed and exited the conversation again to kick a stone across the path.
Mitchel’s laugh cracked through the silence of their surroundings. Each house they passed had their doors clipped closed and their curtains drawn. Balls that were kicked through the street were left abandoned on front lawns next to the family numbers that were painted in Rwequekian.
Mitchel quelled his laugh abruptly. As a shiver spider-crawled up his back, the lamppost above them bled orange.
Mitchel instinctively grabbed both the girls’ hands, sweat building on his exposed neck, and pulled them close. They did not need to be told to stay by his side.
Only twenty more houses, he thought.
He quickened his pace even faster.
“Mitch look,” Gabriella said in a tight whisper.
Beside him, Christine took a sharp intake of breath.
Halting in his tracks, Mitchel was the last to notice the dark figure outlined only by the orange light. From a distance, it looked like a silhouette of a human standing in the middle of the road. But it had noticed them, and had begun to approach. The far distance that separated them did not stop it from opening its mouth and shouting in its native language.
“It’s past curfew.”