It’s my turn in the potato pit, so I clamber along the side of its rim, covered in mud, trying not to think about how my brother died here yesterday at the hands of King Men. I don’t mind getting my hands and my dress dirty if it means I remain hidden. Those with the guns don’t like our sticky fingers where the food grows. My brother found that out fast. The problem is, this season there isn’t enough to go around- not that my Mam told me so, not with my younger brother and sister looking on, but her faded, washed out eyes did; that weary set of the shoulders, that particular way of creasing hands over and under each other. Her body language screamed out that this season we’re desperate.
So that’s Problem Number One.
Problem Number Two is that half the city, fellow Potato Heads, are starving alongside us and the soldiers are patrolling the spud pit worse than ever. More people stealing and more people starving and angry.
Focus Maeve, I tell myself, trying not to imagine my brother’s body rotting in the pit. I grit my teeth as a light flashes up ahead, illuminating the form of Beatie Tanner. She lives on my street.
The flashlight searches her up and down and Beatie stands there shaking. I can see the goose bumps on her arms and mud spattered up her worn dress. I am scarcely breathing as the King Man gingerly picks his way down into the pit, avoiding the spuds sprouting up on either side of him. I shake myself at the silver gun in his left hand. He looks young and there is a fanatical gleam in his eye. This guy’s the type that goes overboard on the ammunition when someone opens their mouth to insult. This guy’s the type that killed my brother for sport.
I clutch at the wooden rim of the pit and have to bite my tongue to stop myself from crying out as a splinter lodges.
Beatie is looking down at her feet. Maybe she thinks that if she is meek and quiet the worst won’t happen and her brains won’t be served to the spuds for supper.
Sure enough, the soldier tips off his hat to Beatie.
She looks up gaping, her dress gathered in two hands at the front, fabric bulging over itself.
The soldier nudges her with the butt of his gun.
His tone is even and he smiles like he wants to be friendly.
Beatie’s face is white as she lets go of the front of her dress. Spuds roll out and fall onto the ground with a dull clunk clunk.
I wince in sympathy. That’s her family’s meal for a week rolling down slope. I hope she has some good friends. Beatie’s sick brother would be dead before the week was out without some street charity.
The soldier’s eyes gleam in the starlight. He brings down a heeled boot onto a fallen spud and grinds it slowly into the ground.
Beatie’s eyes follow, horrified, transfixed. The soldier cocks his own head to one side as he considers her.
“I suppose you were just hungry. I suppose I can let that slip.”
I can see Beatie’s shoulders slump with relief, her breath warm, creating a mist in the cold night air.
I want to cry out and warn her-
“Watch out. No King Man soldier got his way there by playing at niceness.”
But it’s too dangerous and I am frozen with fear knowing how my brother ended, so I say nothing as the soldier kicks her in the shins. Beatie stumbles, but doesn’t fall. She latches onto the soldier’s outstretched hand and he hauls her back upright.
“Maybe I could let you have a few. What do you think?” he asks.
Beatie’s emotions are writ large on her face; relief and confusion and greed.
The soldier shrugs.
“No one else is around to take note.”
He winks at Beatie.
“A quick kiss and I’ll let you nab a few.”
I suck in an angry breath. Kings Men and Potato Heads? It wasn’t done and pretty boy solider knew it as he said it.
Beatie licks her lips nervously.
“I need eight. Eight spuds.”
“You’re the one that’s scrabbling for them,” the soldier says.
He leans forward and presses his body against hers. I see her lips part and then I close my eyes to the animal sounds and the sweat and the overall wrongness of the proceedings till it is all over and safe to look again.
The soldier pushes Beatie away.
“Get on with it.”
Beatie falls to her knees and begins scrabbling in the mud.
There is a lump in my throat. If I’d left my poky house five minutes earlier, that could have been me debasing myself in the mud in front of one of them like that. At least Beatie is quick about it. No doubt she doesn’t want to push her luck.
The soldier lounges against the side of the pit, watching Beatie with a curious, half mad smile on his face. Thank God he hasn’t noticed me. Instead, he steps forward as Beatie straightens her back, still smiling. I want to cry out, to shout at Beatie to get the hell out of there, but I am a coward and selfish.
Beatie tries to back away but she trips on the uneven ground. I can see those glassy eyes turn terror filled as the soldier points the gun at her. “You are stealing food and the punishment for stealing from the king is death. King’s Men must be incorruptible and so here’s me, performing my civic duty.”
And then the soldier blows Beatie Tanner’s brains out.
Before I can scream, a hand closes over my mouth. I think about struggling but I am too busy gagging silently at the light falling on the smash of white bone and pinky guts and red blood of Beatie Turner lying there on the ground just ahead.
Lips brush my ear.
Derrick. A Potato Head like me. Like my brother. Like poor Beatie Tanner. I guess he’s scavenging too so I relax in his grasp. He reaches for my hand and starts to tug me back from the pit onto the tar cracked street.
I shake my head. I’m nearly pissing myself but I can’t go anywhere without those potatoes. It was bad enough that my brother had been shot and left us with nothing.
Derrick wrenches me onto the road and pushes me down it. When we’re around the corner, away from the pit, I swear at him.
Derrick is unfazed. He laughs and places a full sack in my hand.
“I got these earlier. There’s plenty to spare.”
My eyes widen.
“How,” I whisper.
It’s impossible to get that many without a bullet to the head. Impossible.
His lids lower and his mouth curves wickedly.
‘You haven’t been paying attention to the town criers or the street art,” he whispers and is gone.
Copyright Maureen Flynn 2013