Chapter One - Rain
Squaring my shoulders, I whirled around to face her. "Miss Becky, hi." I put on my saddest, sweetest face, tucking the croissants firmly behind my back.
"Rain Collins. Of course." Miss Becky bent down, bringing her eyes level with mine. "Do you have something of mine?"
I backed up a few inches so that I couldn't smell her breath, which stunk of just about everything but mint. "No, Miss Becky. I don't have anything of anybody's."
Her hand shot out too quickly for me to react. She seized my arm, pulling it and the croissants from behind my back. "And you paid for these?" She sneered as she wrapped the soft pastries in a cloth napkin and stuck the bundle into her apron pocket. "What are you even doing here, Rain? You can’t be running around like this all the time. You should be in school. Don’t sleep if no one's making you."
I was about to sneer back and tell her exactly why I wasn't in school when I realized that Miss Becky and her husband bought their eggs from my father, who still had no idea that I’d dropped out of school a month earlier. If he found out that his perfect little girl was roaming the streets and pilfering pastries like some sort of urchin, there would be hell to pay.
“Gosh,” I said, looking at the sun, high overhead. "Look at that, Miss Becky. You're right. I must be late for home economics by now. I’m a mess before I get my breakfast." I pulled my last coin from my pocket and gave it to her, along with a syrupy smile. "I’m so sorry about the misunderstanding. I'll be on my way. Send sweet dreams to Mister Will. And the girls."
As I walked away, she called after me, "I'll be talking to your father this afternoon, Miss Rain. You can count on that."
Grimacing, I beat the pavement hard on the way over to The Red Dragon, one of two bars in town and the only bar open during the day. Decades ago, this city was a metropolis where hurried men in business suits and glamorous women with powerhouse personalities ruled. After our near-apocalypse happening and decades of disuse, the buildings stood nearly as tall and pristine as they did back then, but the men and women were few, their personalities bleak.
The Greymen didn't destroy our countries or our monuments or our homes. Just our people and our minds.
The Red Dragon ran out of what used to be the home of an unnecessarily elaborate and ostentatious collector. It had been named for the hulking statue of a red dragon that sat in the center of its cramped courtyard, surrounded by closely planted flower beds and a too tall iron fence.
The building itself was a simple box, one of the few suburban houses that hadn’t been cleared to make way for my father’s farms. Decades ago, the original owner had put up blackout curtains and decorated the entire interior with bits of memorabilia from obscure books and movies and comics and myths and legends and, apparently, just about anywhere else. It made a fine bar.
I stepped in, letting my eyes adjust to the dark and dreary interior. In the corner of the bar, sitting at a table for two with its candle snuffed out, sat my somewhat androgynous and extremely clever best friend, Kayle. As usual, she was dressed from head-to-toe in black, her short, white hair tucked into a black hat.
"Hey." I frowned as I settled down on a chair next to her. “Miss Becky must have gotten her hands on some coffee this morning. I lost our breakfast. Sorry.”
Kayle's face split into a wide grin. From beneath her seat she produced a large black duffel bag and dumped the contents on the table. Out scattered coin purses, wallets, pocketbooks, money clips, and more.
"Damn, Kayle!" I smiled back, Miss Becky and the croissants forgotten. “You’ve been busy.”
“In a town where everyone’s always talking about having wakeful minds and being present in every moment, they sure do a lot of sleeping on their feet around here.” She held up one finger and called to the kitchen, "Bartender."
Perry, the squat middle-aged proprietor of The Red Dragon approached our table a moment later, notepad in hand and pencil poised. “Can I take your order?” he said, bowing slightly as he spoke.
“You know it, Per,” Kayle said, picking up a particularly fat wallet and opening it to produce a wad of bills. “The usual. And keep ‘em coming till 3.”
"The usual till the usual. On it." Without a glance at the pile of obviously stolen goods, Perry took the cash from Kayle’s hand and hurried back into the kitchen, returning moments later with two glasses and two plates.
Kayle and I drank and ate, talked and gossiped all morning and into the afternoon. Finally, it was the end of the school day, the end of my daily ruse, and time for me to go home.
“Have a coffee, first,” Kayle said, her words slurring a bit.
My head felt heavy on my neck as I nodded. “Good idea,” I said, waving Perry over.
“Another, Miss Rain?” he said, shaking his head. “You might want to call it a day.”
I shook my head, making myself dizzy. “Just a coffee, Per.”
He pursed his lips. “It’s gone up again.”
“It’s hard to get up here.” He shrugged. “The world isn’t expanding like it used to. I think I have a bit of cocaine in the back though, if you want that instead. It’s not cheaper but it might go farther--”
“How much for a cup?”
“We don’t serve the cocaine in cups.”
“For a cup of coffee, Perry.”
“Oh. Oh, of course. Fifteen dollars.”
He shrugged again.
"Make it two." Kayle stuck her hand in her pile of procurements and pulled out a couple still-full wallets. She thrust them at Perry without opening them. He took the wallets, smiled at their weight, then disappeared into the kitchen to fetch our coffees.
“I wonder how much it is to get cream and sugar,” Kayle said.
I laughed. “Probably more than the cocaine.” Cream hadn’t been available in our city even before the Big Sleep--there was just no room to feed and breed livestock anymore--and sugar only grew in far away places, just like coffee. Adding that to a cup would probably more than double its already obscene price tag, if the request could even be filled.
“You think cocaine makes a good sugar substitute?”
“It is a white powder.”
“I don’t think sugar’s really a powder.”
I shrugged. “I’ve never seen any.”
Perry brought us our coffees and I downed mine in a few quick, burning gulps, then said my goodbye to Kayle before I set off down the city streets and side roads to the family farm.
The Collins Farm made up a unique part of the city, covering nearly a quarter of its land. Before the Big Sleep, the city had sprawled endlessly outwards. Unwilling to compromise on their space, the suburbanites had taken over the fields and the pastures, even the forests and the marshes.
Instead of hunting for virtually non-existent arable land untouched by the past, my father and his crew of farmhands had spent an entire decade tilling the soil in former backyards, tearing down the small houses of suburbs, moving out the trash, planting the right crops in the right formations.
Our acres of crops spread across the east side of the city and our house was situated directly in the center of the sprawling crops, a three-story Victorian that was turned into a duplex long ago, then turned into a family farmhouse by my father.
I braced myself for the storm that my father was sure to unleash over the morning’s events and opened the door. All was quiet.
“Hello?” I called out into the hallway. “Anybody home?”
“Up here,” my sister, Beth, called from upstairs.
I heaved a breath of relief. If my father wasn’t home now, perhaps he hadn’t been home to get the call from Miss Becky.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked as I approached Beth’s bedroom.
“Dunno,” she said in her usual mindless fashion. “Miss Becky called.”
I froze. Beth already knew that I dropped out, but she thoroughly disapproved--perhaps I was still in for a tongue-lashing after all. Still, I’d take my little sister’s scolding over my father’s any day.
“And?” I said.
Beth looked up at me, her face furious. She opened her mouth as though she were about to roar. A giggle burst from her lips. “Why are you stealing croissants?”
I shrugged, laughing with her. “I was hungry.”
The front door opened and slammed, cutting us off mid-laughter.
“Rain!” My father’s voice echoed through the house. “Get down here.”
Next Week: Chapter Two (Available January 23, 2017)