The street was littered and unkempt, and my heart thundered as walked down it quickly, my eyes darting back and forth, taking note of every face.
It took me a moment to spot him, a wiry man with curly dark hair in a threadbare brown jacket, patched at the elbows. There in his buttonhole was the blue paper flower that marked his profession. He wasn’t my usual—my usual was captured, or killed maybe, by now, though I pushed the thought away. I hated going up to strangers. No one liked it nowadays. But there was no choice in it for me today.
As I got nearer the man, I made the sign that I wanted to make a transaction—I took my hat off and rolled it in my hands. I only ever wore a hat to take it off as a symbol.
The man crossed my path, casually. “So, you’re a new one, are you?”
I ducked my head. “Johnny sent me.”
“Johnny’s sent a right too many of you this way, if you ask me.” He beckoned with his hand and said, “Alright, let’s have it, what’re you after?”
“The usual,” I say, without missing a beat. I’ve been doing this long enough to know the code. Dealers fix their own prices on most products, but “the usual” is a standard price throughout, if you know how to ask for it.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, with hooded eyes. He looked as if he were struggling between disappointed and pleased that I knew the lingo. Disappointed because it meant he had to sell to me at the lower price, but pleased because that way we wouldn’t be overheard and understood. At least, not by anyone who would report us.
I handed over an envelope with credits in it, and he snatched it, replacing it with a tiny bag in my hand.
I remember when “the usual”—more commonly known as Health, the supplement that resolved any and all ailments for a short time, was available legally to the commonwealth. Now it’s the right of the rich only. Well, the rich and the black market.
“Anything else?” he snapped, impatient. I could understand. Standing here too long in my once-nice knee-length corduroy jacket was probably going to draw attention from somebody.
It took me a moment to build up my courage for the next part, though. “I want some… I want some of the other, as well.”
His surprise showed on his face. “The other?” He shook his head, looking me up and down. “That’s not for girls like you.”
“Just this once,” I said. I stopped myself just before I added a “please” on to the end of that. Johnny had been very clear about not sounding desperate.
His dark eyes narrowed. “Alright. How much more do you have?”
He looked out across the street, still looking casual, although I could see that he was scanning for suspicious characters. As if he wasn’t the most suspicious character on this street.
“Alright. That’ll get you three days’ worth.”
I felt like I’d been hit in the stomach with a ramming post. “That’s not enough. I was told it would get me a week at least.”
“You can’t start on that much at once. And you can’t stop if you do start. I’m being right gentlemanly warning you, missy.”
I almost laughed. He was looking at me scoldingly, like an older brother.
But then I saw Johnny’s bright blue eyes in my mind. The way they burned—which burned my heart. I looked away before my eyes got watery or red. “I’ll take three days’ worth.” I said, gruffly.
“It’s not worth it,” he said, even as he took my credits and handed me another small bag, this one with small yellow pills.
I turned away from him before he could say anything more, clutching the small bag in my palm. The Health would go to my mother, as it always did. It would keep her well enough to take care of my brother for another week as I worked.
The other was for me. They called it lots of things. Well-being. Carelessness.
Johnny hadn’t wanted me to do it. But Johnny was gone. And I was still here. I had to make my own choices, even if I knew they were bad ones.