A couple of muffled voices coming from downstairs. Each line starts before the other finishes. Non-exhausting. Neverending. An excellent choir of growls.
I listen to it from the corner of my room. Head between my knees. Hands over ears. It is accompanied by the gentle breeze against my curtain that lets flashes of sunlight inside.
I can't remember when it started becoming more frequent, nor when I've gotten accustomed to it. I've even stopped caring what started it. I just want it to stop. I just want to go far away from it, and farther even.
Without any signs of slowing down, I stand and head towards my door. The clack of the knob deafens the noise. It stopped, but I know it's not for long. I walk down the stairs, not even trying to mask my footsteps. To get to the front door, I have to pass through the hallway that has a full view of the dining room where my parents stand quietly, awkwardly. Avoiding each other's gaze
"Meg..." Dad calls for me with a low, cracking voice.
"I'm going to play outside," I preemptively answer the question. I put on my sandals and head outside with no resistance from either of them. They'd rather have me gone so they can sing louder, longer.
Now, I'm joined by my close friends -- the wind and the summer sun. It's more refreshing walking around the neighborhood tirelessly, than sitting in my room. Our area is mostly populated by old people. Not a lot of kids my age. I remember Mom and Dad talking about how we chose the house because it was the best we could afford. Looking back, that was probably what their first long argument was about.
While I would love to have other kids to play with, I don't hate this place. It's better than our old one where I'm not even allowed to play outside. Twigs and stones would be enough to keep me entertained. I wander to the river that divides our city into two halves. Not only geographically, but also economically. Residents on our side range from the highest class, to the well-off, to those who work very hard to keep their place and not be relocated to the other side. My family is in that last category.
Savages. That's how Dad would describe the people across the river, completely ignoring the fact that his own parents are from there. Mom wouldn't have nicer words to describe them either. Going by the stories I'm told, it's a lawless land where the nastiest kinds of people fester. I'm yet to understand what that means.
From where I stand on the riverbank, I see people on the other side. Far, but I can make out that they are children playing. Around my age. This city only has a handful of bridges that connect its two halves. The one closest to me happens to be the smallest one. A small freight train bridge with a walkway under it. No one pays attention to it. No one would even see me walking on it. If my parents learned that I crossed to the other side, I would have had days of lectures from them. But the other side seems just far enough for me to be away from home.
I walk the long, narrow bridge to the other side, then head to where I saw the children playing. Through the littered unpaved road, vandalized concrete walls, cardboard houses, and stray cats. I get close enough to the kids to make out what they look like. A chubby boy, a slender sidekick, and a mean-looking damsel behind them.
They seem to be too busy juggling stones to notice me walking closer and closer to them. I look to the side and see a few old ladies at a distance against a wall where the houses end, chatting under a shade. Close enough to see them looking at me while they continue chatting, but too far to hear their conversation. I bring my eyes back to the three kids and see that the girl has just turned to me.
"What are you doing?" I playfully ask before the girl can alert the other two. All three look at me, then at each other, then back at me, then at my clothes, then back at me again.
"It's a noble," the slender kid whispers to the chubby kid. They probably noticed my clean white dress compared to their tattered shirts. But a noble? That's far from the truth. Though, I understand if that's how they see anyone from across the river.
"What are you doing here, noble? Go away," the chubby kid takes a few steps towards me, tossing up the rock he is holding a couple of times.
"I saw you three playing and I thought I could join."
"You want to play with us?"
The three look at each other again. The chubby kid grins and tosses me the stone he is holding. "Sure. Then it's your turn." He stands aside revealing another kid several meters away sitting on the ground, her back towards us. It's a girl much younger than us. "Aim for the head," he chuckles.
"I'm... I'm not throwing a rock at a kid," I reluctantly reply. The chubby kid's grin turns sour.
"You said you wanted to play with us."
"This is not playing. You're going to hurt her."
"She won't get hurt. She's not going to feel it. Are you going to play or not?"
"I'm telling someone."
He glares at me and then snatches the slender kid's smaller stone from his hand. "Then go home!" He throws it at me. Maybe toss is a better term. I was too slow to react and it lightly hit me on the thigh, but I barely felt it.
"Bedo!" we heard a yell as soon as I flinched. It came from the direction of the old ladies. When we look, one old lady is raging towards us with the eyes of a lioness. She gets to us holding her hand in the air.
It flies across the chubby kid's head making a loud thud, he almost loses his balance. The other two step back.
"You stupid boy!" the lady's voice trembles in anger then turns to me with a forced smile. "I am. So. So sorry about my kid. Were you hurt, miss?"
"No. I'm fine."
"I am really sorry." She grabs him by the head and pushes down on it. "Apologize!"
"Sorry," he mutters insincerely.
"It's fine. It didn't really-"
"I will make sure he learns his lesson, miss," the lady cuts me before I can finish my sentence. She pulls the kid by the shoulder and starts dragging him away. Her mouth is close to his ears murmuring something through her teeth with a subtle growl the entire time. The other two kids stare at me for a moment before following their friend.
I watch them all walk back to the shade with the other old ladies. That shade seems to be their main gathering area. Alone again, I start walking towards the little girl on the ground. As I get closer, I see an animal in front of her. A feeble stray kitten. It doesn't seem to be her pet with all the hisses. On the girl's hand is a small piece of bread that she is slowly offering to the kitten.
It doesn't look like the right time to announce my presence and introduce myself, so I stand behind her watching as she tries to feed the kitten who is untrusting of her. It keeps hissing at her until her hand is within reach, then it swipes at her hand causing her to drop the bread on the ground. The kitten takes the bread and bolts away. The girl giggles.
Panicked, I quickly come down beside her. "My goodness! Are you okay?" I pull her scratched hand. Thankfully, the cut isn't deep, but it is still quite the mark on a child's hand. I hear a giggle once again. This time, my eyes wander up to her face, revealing an innocent grin.
"Kitty got bread," she keeps giggling.
"Yes, yes. It took the bread. Are you hurt?" I pull at the end of my dress and wipe her hand clean.
"Thank you." Again, with a big smile on her face. She doesn't seem bothered by her wounds. Maybe she's much happier knowing that she has fed a hungry kitten. She is not able to pronounce her words clearly, but I understand them just fine.
"This should be good now." I let go of her hand and we end up just staring at each other. Her contagious smile makes the ends of my lips curl up. How could those kids try to hurt such a sweetheart? Does this happen often?
"I'm Meg," I introduce myself. "What's your name?"
She giggles again.