Only For A Bit

Only for a bit

Written July 12, 2018

Nothing but a pile of rubble remained. Madicella bent down slowly, kneeling in front of it. A sigh of a breeze drifted over her face. A slim trickle of wetness dribbled through the dust caking her olive skin. If she closed her eyes she could still see it. Five stories of hand formed bricks, carved oak leaf balustrades, bright white marble pillars, and wide doorways that let the afternoon breeze sweep through stone clad hallways decorated lovingly with ancient hangings depicting scenes no one in living memory had ever seen. Now it was burning wood, shattered and even powdered clay, threads torn asunder and all around, the land was black where it had been green, black where it had been red and yellow, black where the water had flowed blue.

Matia's roughened hands grasped her shoulders as he too knelt beside her and pulled her toward him. His wordless murmurings tried desperately to calm and comfort the woman who sobbed helplessly at the destruction of her whole life.

"Maria...Maria...we'll go. We'll go away from here. It will get better. I promise."

She dashed the tears from her deep blue eyes with the tortured anger flowing from them.

"How? How Mario? How can you promise that? Our world is dead! Nothing can get any better!"

Again he held her. Fervently. And his voice matched his almost painful grip.

"It won't be good at first. It will be bad. But only for a bit my love. Only for bit. We can learn to look further. Please believe me."

She had no choice but to believe him. A woman who had been here all her life. Knowing only this one place that had been completely eradicated. Nothing would grow here for a century. No one would prosper. She had to believe that Mario could take her somewhere that would be better. Better than this at least.

Leaving was both easier and more difficult than Madicella thought. Easier in that she literally had nothing to carry except the one delicate pearl decor clutchbag she had taken from the house that night. Harder in that they could not even stay long enough for the fires to burn down so she could bury her family. Her parents, the members of the house that were buried beneath the rubble. They heard the heavy strata engines of the military hoverships and their eyes sought each other. Matia swallowed and looked deep into her blue orbs.

"Trust me mija."

She nodded, stiff with terror. He reached out with trembling hands to untie the finely embroidered paneled covering of her garments, leaving her in her shift, then untied his own fine black felt coat and let them both slip away in the brisk wind toward the burning rubble. Left in the dust caked clothing that was left, they looked as nothing more than hired help.

As the heavy military vehicles crested the last hill, they turned and walked away into the ash of the forest.

A shuttle, no bigger than an automated drone. It was small enough to make them hyperventilate at the thought of sitting, cramped, for the four day journey to the nearest port. But what were they to do? It was the very last shuttle. If they did not take it, they would have to take the chance of sneaking onboard a military vessel. Madicella took Matias' hand and marched resolutely forward. At the gangway, she opened her clutchbag and stared inside. Removing a thin holophoto, she placed the whole thing into the pilots hand and walked in. No more discussion was necessary. For the four days, they could not even both stretch out at the same time. They alternated resting positions, and endured the stench of the small chemical toilet they had to share with the pilot.

Humanity proved itself a minority in the bustling atmosphere of the port. Neither of these shivering pieces of pink flesh could understand even a smidgeon of languages spoken here. After four days, they were starving, exhausted, and sore. Matias seized upon an opportunity when a grunting leatherback alien physically threw a dishwasher out of his stall for snitching food. Without hesitation he dashed in and loaded up a tray with plates. Before the grunting alien knew what had happened, he had already started the load and was frantically loading up the newly ejected clean platters onto his arm. He turned with a steady gaze and waited for the alien to tell him where to put them. A heavy arm flicked to the forward part of the stall and Matias gratefully slid the heavy pile into their place. Without turning his back on the heavy alien, he returned to the dishes.

Shocked, and quite abandoned, Madicella backed into the shelter of two faux stone pillars near the stall and slid to the ground. Her stomach clenched painfully the long hours that Matias was in the stall. When the burly leatherback had shut up the shop, he offered Matias port credits for his work, but Matias waved off the useless money, pointing instead to the leftovers sitting on the cooler.

A painful moment passed in which the bready, nutty aroma simply drifted around Matias. He dared not touch the  food unless it was clear that the leatherback wanted him to have it, yet in the quiet where no dishwashing chemicals were in the way the aroma was making him feel faint. His stomach suddenly made a loud, angry counterpoint to the aroma and he moaned a little. The leatherback lifted his snout and a snuffling honk signaled its vast amusement. Picking up the whole tray which was enough to feed six people, he shoved it into Matias' hands and pushed him out the door.

Within seconds Madicella had leaped to her feet and run to Matias, but came very close to crashing right into the bulk of the four and a half foot wide leatherback as he exited the stall. She slid to a stop, staring up at him, her face gone ashen white. With another good natured honk, the leatherback took ahold of her arm and pushed her toward Matias. He stumped away from the stall, leaving Matias and Madicella to shovel down the food.

Finally sated and almost comfortable, they retreated back behind the pillars where they were fairly well hidden.

"Tomorrow, I'll take the money" spoke Matias soft and quiet. "Tonight, we stay out of sight. You…"

At his hesitation, Madicella stopped trying to get comfortable.

"...yes? I what?"

He looked so uncomfortable. The silence stretched between them. Her hand reached out to touch him when it became plain he wasn't going to answer her.

"Matias. I intend to live. You may be used to, um, doing...things. You know, things to survive."

His voice was bitter for the first time, "Work Maria. The word you're looking for is work."

She swallowed, "Si. Work. But. I am not used to work. How do I.."

She waved a hand around. He sighed.

"How do you work? It's no different than doing your own chores at..."

"No!" Her voice, sharp, reprimanding. He fell silent immediately. "How do I get work?"

Matias bit his lip, "Well, let's see what you can do. Besides knitting and sewing."

"I can design clothing, I can organize a household, I can oversee…."

Matias blinked to himself. "Servants?"

She took a hold of his face and touched her forehead to his cheek.

"Mario, you are not my servant. You never were."

They pulled away and held hands gently, "I know mija."

Regaining their sense of balance, he took a deep breath and looked as far around the port as he could see.

"Well unless we can get you dressed decently no fashion house will have you, even if they exist here. Can you pour a drink?"

"I don't think this is the time for a drink Mario."

He haphazardly grinned back at her, "Haha. No look. Almost every other place around here is a bar. If you can charm your way into one of them you can earn decent money just pouring drinks."

"Ok." came her diffident response

"Just…"

"What?"

"Be careful."

Her eyes widened and his heart almost broke. He didn't want to tell her about the dangers a spaceport would have. He didn't want to her to know, but from now on, they probably wouldn't be exposed to LESS danger. So he told her. About the things she would be asked to do apart from pouring drinks, and about the literal human trafficking. By aliens. She was appalled into a deep silence. But after the rest phase, she was ready to go. Awake before him, she was calm and composed when Matias opened his eyes on her. She looked at him steadily.

"It's only for a bit, right?"

He took her hand and kissed her fingers, "Only for a bit. And I will do my best to see we get enough put by to get out of the port as soon as we can."

Six monatas of tireless work later found them staring at a pile of universal credits in a bag on the counter of the small foodstall the leatherback ran. His grunts, squeals, and squeaks were no longer mystifying, but language. In fact, the two had learned three languages in those long monatas. They had also hidden half a dozen times when the military came through looking for them. The military had found cold welcome though, many slamming their doors in their faces. The pair had become a part of the port community, and the port protected its own.

"Take it boy. You and her. Go to Cleo. My brother. Owns a bar. You run the bar. You buy the bar. You be happy. Not rich existence. Good existence."

Without hesitation he put down two tickets to a classed ship of the line for the week long journey to Cleo. Passenger quarters! The snuffle was vastly amused.

"Need moar space than last time. No good small space for woman-child."

My first memory is absolutely clear. The day I learned to walk. We lived right behind the kitchen of the bar, on Floor 500 in the Union district. Mama had settled me under the tall, wooden cooler box that held perishables after I was born while she worked. My first view was the painted mobile above my head. But it didn't last long. As soon as I could see further than my fist, I realized that in front of my face were people. The metal sheet topped bar was low. As I waved my chubby fists, a burly face came into view. His voice was breathy through the thick black moustache.

"Ahhhhahahaa, yer a yungun der aren't ya? Whatcha call it Maria?"

"My son! My son is Mario. Like his father."

And the beautiful face came closer as she lifted me into this man's arms. Nonplussed, I grabbed his moustache and yanked, intent on eating the long facial hair. He chuckled.

I rolled over soon after that and then there was no stopping me. On my knees rocking back and forth, I would wait for a customer to notice me and then squeal for attention. They would notice me. Or not. Many times they just drank. The days flowed, one into another. I was happy laying there, and did so for an inordinately long amount of time. Eventually I learned my feet were for standing. But  these were all fuzzy memories for me. My mother would tell me about them later.

The day I learned to walk I was hovering. I grabbed the top of the tall wooden cooler where the ice was stored because it was good and cold. Sometimes Mama gave me a piece of hoar frosted fruit to suck on if it got very hot. Mama was very busy trying to finish up glasses from the previous day so she could serve that day's customers. She never noticed I decided to be adventurous. The cabinets under the bar were fronted by stainless steel paneled doors. Stretching as far as I could, I could only reach halfway to them while holding onto the cooler.

The doors were shiny. Mama spent a long time polishing those doors, and then the bar itself. Holding onto the wooden leg of the cooler, I studied those doors carefully. I saw something in those doors. I wobbled, and retreated slightly. I didn't want to fall down on the hard floor.  My mother always told me I was a cautious child. Never wanted to be adventurous until that moment. Never crawled. And here I was, looking back and forth between my safe spot and those shiny doors just...out...of reach.

And then it happened. I was reaching and I let go. My slippered feet pattered forward until I could seize hold of that coveted stainless steel handle. The door was cool, and pretty and the reflection moved when I did. I laughed, and so did the reflection. Now I had a friend. This pleased me no end. Holding onto one shiny door after another, I moved all the way down the long bar from door to door to door and then back again.

And here was this normally incurious child, walking, babbling to himself. In a sweltering strip bar in between apartments on the 700th floor of a working class neighborhood. The windows behind the bar showed a rather uninspiring view of buildings with apartment windows, other strip bars, tiny grocery shops where hover cars pulled up, delivery joints, and Medso shops where engineers got stitched after their dangerous stints in the guts of these massive buildings. In this mass of humanity, I was learning to be human. And it was hard. But only for a bit.