World of Radiation

Fetching Water

Continued from ‘Clara

Sleep doesn’t return the rest of the night. Rather I stand in front of the window the woman stood before earlier. My eyes watch the moon. It shines down brightly on the city, illuminating it in its white glow.

I still stand there when Arabella rounds the corner from the hallway. “You’re up early,” she comments, her voice full with sleep.

Glancing over my shoulder, the young woman rubs her eyes. I don’t respond to her. I still don’t know her, don’t know if I can trust her. She may be the older woman’s daughter, but there’s something different about her, too.

“Did you not sleep well?”

I duck my head, gazing at my toes as they curl against the metal floor.

“No, I suppose you wouldn’t have,” she comments quietly, more to herself than to me. “Well, since you’re up. Would you like to help me?”

Once more I look to her. “Help?”

A smile splits across Arabella’s face, lopsided from just waking. “You do speak!”

My cheeks flush. I fight the urge to look away.

Arabella crosses the tiny kitchen and opens one of the cupboards. “I will be going to the well to grab water. Would you like to join me? Perhaps see part of the city before it gets busy?”

I don’t want to. I’d rather stay here in the tiny house and pretend like it was my own, pretend like I was safe and my parents were just upstairs, but this house has no upstairs and my parents are dead. I told the woman who I’d try to help.

Slowly, I nod.

“Great. I could use the help,” Arabella says, her tone lightening as she wakes more. “It would seem you’re not the only stray Ma picked up last night.” Her words make it sound like we’re a burden, but her voice contradicts it. Even the smile on her face remains as she says it, as if amused by our presence.

Handing me a small bucket, she wanders towards the front door.

I hurry to follow.

We exit the small house into the early morning. Sometimes there used to be haze filling the spaces between houses, but here there’s none. Here, the streets are empty. The sun only barely lights the sky, having not even reached over the wall yet.

Arabella winds through the many, smooth-stoned houses, a bucket in each hand. She walks with determination. Her steps are quick and difficult to keep up with, but I do my best. I don’t want to get lost.

We round a corner. The buildings step back to offer a small clearing. In the middle is a well like the one my parents used to draw water from, but this one is far busier. Dozens of people crowd around it. They shove and push each other unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Nasty expressions claw their faces, scowling their lips down and furrowing their eyebrows in aggression.

I rush to Arabella’s side, clutching her pant leg with one tiny hand.

One hand raises the bucket away from my head as she turns over her shoulder to look down at me. “It’s okay,” she offers. “They’re not as scary as they look.” She offers me a smile before wandering towards the well.

Unsure of what to do, I follow.

“Arabella,” someone calls from the crowd.

Her head snaps up, tossing her brown hair over her shoulders. “Cly,” she greets, affection softening her gaze. She inches closer to the well. “How’s it going?”

A man steps towards Arabella, an empty bucket in hand. He elbows someone in the side. They shy away, making room for him, but he offers a hand out for Arabella to step forward. “Not good,” he offers, standing just off her shoulder.

Someone draws the bucket up from the well with a steady pull of the rope. They reach out. Fingers latch around the handle and relieve the rope of the heavy bucket, but a dozen other hands snatch for the hook.

The man named Cly snags it, his hands moving faster than anyone else’s. “Here, Arabella,” he offers. His fingers wrap around her bucket handle.

Maintaining eye contact with him, Arabella lets him take the bucket and hook it to the line before dropping it into the well.

“Yeah, well, things are only going to get worse,” Arabella responds, a scowl tugging on the corners of her lips. Both hands now hold the empty bucket while Cly raises the full one from the well.

“How do you mean?” Cly directs his hazel eyes at Arabella, a question knitting his brows.

Arabella glances to where I stand a few paces away from the crowd.

Cly follows. His attention settles on me.

Heat burns through my cheeks under their sudden gazes. My shoulders cave forward, but I keep my eyes on them, curious about their conversation.

Shock washes over his face, widening his eyes before snapping back to Arabella. “Is she-“

“An orphan,” Arabella interjects before he can finish. “Ma picked her up during the riot yesterday.”

Cly’s shoulders settle. He refocuses on tugging the rope steadily until he can retrieve the bucket for Arabella. “Where’d she come from?” He attaches the empty bucket and it plummets into the water.

Arabella glances back at me, her shoulders weighed down by the heavy bucket.

I duck my head and kick the ground, no longer able to meet her gaze.

“I don’t know.”

Next Installment: Safe

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