I dropped the basket in my hands and ran to her. Several of the other nursery workers reached her before I did and helped to remove the bags of fertilizer. Dropping to my knees, I pulled Val up into a sitting position. Her auburn hair had fallen from her ponytail and hung loosely over her shoulders. “Val. Are you okay? What happened?”
“What’s this?” Boss Gage asked as he walked up to us. “What did you do now?”
“The fertilizer fell on her,” I replied. He bent down and not to gently grabbed Val’s ankle turning it side to side in his hand. She shrieked in pain. “Looks like you won’t be able to work.”
“No,” Val argued. “I can work. I can work.” Val grabbed my shoulder and tried to pull herself into a standing position. I helped her to her feet, but she couldn’t put pressure on her ankle.
“Oh well,” Gage replied. “You know what happens to people who can’t work.”
“No,” Val said as she tried to put pressure on her ankle again. This time she fell back to the floor. “I can work. I can work.”
“Get her out of here,” Gage said. “And report to the Consulate.” Two of the workers grabbed Val around the waist and pulled her back to her feet. She pushed against them screaming to let her go back to work. Boss Gage turned and started to walk away.
I don’t know what came over me. I don’t even remember reaching out to grab his arm. The only thoughts in my mind were of Val and Danny being cast from the city. They wouldn’t be able to survive outside the walls on their own.
“You bastard,” I yelled as my hand reached out and slapped his face. My fingers stung from the sudden violence. “She is hurt, not disabled.” He reached up and rubbed the spot on his cheek, the skin turning red from my slap.
“You dare hit me,” he said through gritted teeth as he raised his hand. I braced myself for his revenge, my eyes tightly shut. But his hand never hit my face. Instead, the nursery filled with his laughter.
“You’ve got balls, Phoebe. You’re not too smart, but you’ve got balls.” My fists clenched at my sides as boss Gage circled me, his eyes consuming my form. Behind their brown glass was a threat to my existence. I had slapped the man that holds my life and the life of my pappy in the palms of his hands. One word from him to the Consulate and pappy and I will be cast from the city.
With the help of the two workers, Val pulled herself back up on her feet. “I can work, boss.”
Gage stopped circling me and focused on Val. “I can work. Don’t report to the Consulate.”
Boss Gage folded his hands across his chest. “Walk to me,” he said to Val, a sinister smirk on his face. Val pulled away from the two workers helping to support her and took a step forward. She was able to put pressure on her foot for less than a minute before she reached out and grabbed the worker next to her for support. “You can’t even walk to me. How do you expect to work?”
“I can work,” Val pleaded. “I can work. Don’t report to the Consulate. I can work.”
“Take her away,” Gage said.
“No,” Val yelled in panic as the two workers holding her steady started towards the door. “I can work. I can work.”
“She just needs some time to heal,” I protested as Val pushed against one of the workers holding her and fell to the floor. I rushed to her side to help her. “You don’t have to report to the Consulate. She can work. She just needs a little time.”
Boss Gage stared down at me and the smirk on his face disappeared. A fire roared in his eyes at my challenge of his authority.
“A little time,” he replied. “Sure. When are her next relief days? Oh wait, she has already used her days this month.” He turned his back to us and started to walk away.
“She can take my days,” I yelled.
“What? No, Phoebe, you need your days.” Val argued.
“She can take my days,” I repeated as I stood to face Boss Gage.
“Take your days?” Gage moved closer until he and I were toe to toe. His brows furrow in the center of his forehead. “Fine. Let her have your days. But, from the looks of her ankle, it is going to take more than a few days before she is healed. What are you going to do after your days are up? If she can’t work and keep up with the Consulate’s demands, then I have no choice but to report her. Unless…”
“Unless?” I asked.
“Unless you are willing to do both her work and yours,” he replied. He knew the workload is more than one person can bear. But this is Val. I can’t let Gage report about her accident to the Consulate. If they find out that she can’t work, both her and Danny will be expelled from the city. I won’t let that happen.
“Fine,” I replied. “I will make sure the demands of the Consulate are met so long as you do not report this to them.” The sinister smirk returns to Gage’s face as he turned his attention to Val.
“Take her home,” he barked at the two workers by Val’s side. They nodded and pulled Val from the floor. Her eyes were wet with tears as they led her away. “And you,” Gage continued. “Finish up her work before you leave.” He pointed at the mess of fertilizer on the floor. “Clean up this mess while you are at it, too.”
The last bell sounded, and all the workers rushed to finish and leave for the day.
Only I am left. The nursery was eerily quiet after I finished spreading the fertilizer along the row of tomatoes. Clouds blocked out the light of the moon and rain had started falling leaving the streets of the city dark and ominous. Maybe I will get lucky and the evil that rules the streets at night will stay indoors, out of the rain.
I found myself in silent prayer as I traversed the streets. Avoiding the larger puddles of water that had gathered along the edges of the street, I wandered down the paved road in the darkness. Rain continued to fall, and within minutes of leaving the nursery, I found myself drenched and cold.
Passing building after building, I pulled my shirt tighter around me to try and ward off the chill of the rain, but it was no use. My clothes were soaked and there was nothing I could do about it.
My foot slipped on something hidden in a puddle in the road. Landing hands first, my palms stung as the asphalt scraped against my skin. Pulling myself up on my knees, I noticed the hole in my pants.
“Great, Phoebe. That’s just great.” A smear of red on my pants leg caught my eye. Not only did I fall and tear a hole in the only good pair of pants that I have, I also stained them with blood. My knee stings as I inspected the wound. It is superficial, nothing more than a scratch compared to some of the wounds I have seen the workers suffer at the nursery.
“Young lady, do you need some help?” A deep voice from a nearby alleyway asked. My heart jumped up into my throat at the question and a chill ran up my spine. My voice was stuck in my throat.
Standing up quickly and walking as fast as I could in the dark downpour, I rushed towards home. Two blocks. Just need to make it two blocks more. Clenching my fists at my sides, I prepared for the owner of the deep voice to attack. I strained my ears to hear his footsteps behind me.
My breathing was fast, and my heart drummed in my ears as I knew the inevitable was going to happen. I was going to be attacked. I had been found by one of the evils that lurk around the city at night. Thoughts of pappy ran through my mind. If something happens to me, pappy will be cast out of the city. I won’t allow that to happen.
My best option (my only option) was to try and get the upper hand. Maybe I could escape if I caught him off guard. Balling my fists tights, I spun around to face my stalker, but all I saw was an empty street behind me. There was no sign of the owner of the deep voice.
After several deep breaths, I continued towards home. I almost made it, but a group of men standing in the rain, surrounding someone lying on the street, caught my attention. It wasn’t bravery that made me approach them. It was the shoe of the man on the ground. It had a hole in the sole. I am as familiar with that shoe as I am the freckles on the back of my hands. I knew before I saw him that he was dead.
Blood rushed to my ears as I bellowed into the night. Thunder roared, and lightning cracked overhead, but it was nothing compared to the panic and fury that flowed through me all at once.
I pushed past one of the guys in the group and fell on my knees before the man lying in the pool of blood on the ground.
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