No park benches anymore.

We don’t stop when we can be seen, there is dark danger in that; roaming gangs drift in and out of trees, always seeking, always hungry.  I’m not old, but I’m wary, I dodge suspicious boxes, my shoes are soft, soundless.  It is the faint squeak on lino of survival, out in the street they don’t hear me coming.

Every faint rustle is a warning, a danger, and alarm.  I look about me, glasses like shields strapped to my head, little mirrors a trick taught by survivors.  Padded steel down each arm, broken many times, but no more; shin-guards on my legs,  and, yes, a breastplate, because the hurts too.  They don’t see any of it though under my great coat, I’m always hot, even on the coldest of days, a faint patina of sweat making me look tense, edgy.  Even my “friends” are cautious around me, I’m “that girl”; the one who can defend herself, but don’t get, as they say, too close.

My supplier is close, I can smell him, or at least his wares; a faint aroma of manufacturing around him, he’s dealing now I know, but I won’t approach yet, not until the crowd has gone; Bob may be around, and I should at least protect him from that, for the favours.

An urchin eyes me from a  bush, looking over me like a professional, which he probably is; he sees the rucksack bound to my front, slim.  Some people make the mistake of trying a weekly run, lessen their exposure, but they get caught, stripped bare.  They’re stupid, can’t move fast, can’t get back to the sanctuary.  What are they doing out anyhow, live on the gruel, you won’t die, what do you need more for?

What do I need more for?  Because I’m a dealer too right?  And I have to buy when I can, or they’ll stop producing, and I can always sell it on.

I’ve worked my way south, it’s true what they say, people are more honest up north, but that just means that now, everyone knows they’re out for themselves.  Down south, well, you can at least take advantage of people’s delusions, their pretensions of normality.  Some fool even runs a shop still, well, I say a fool; no-one rash enough to try anything has ever been seen again and Bob doesn’t take an interest.  “It’s their own risk.”

Huh, risk.  I remember, when I was the one in charge of risk.  Don’t trip, don’t fall, assess, lessen.  Now look at me.  Shopping is a risk to life.

The urchin falls back into the undergrowth, aware that I’m not a good risk; that’s good, fewer confrontations; but bad, better armed confrontations by the more desperate.  Guns are illegal, but no-one cares any more, so more people are carrying. Not me, I tried a gun, it broke my wrist.  I reply on other tech; tazer, home made.  It’s saved me, and those boys, they learn real quick now.

There’s a tree down in the road.  It’s big, I can’t climb over it.  I know there are watchers here, I can feel their eyes, seeing what I’ll do.

I can’t lose face, be a victim.

This tree, it’s not safe around the edges though, the darkness is what gets you; it’s their territory, you can’t see and they strip you bare.  The older ones, they want to do, other things, but the young ones are hungry.  I pull out the torch.

It’s bright, and I wind it and wind it so that it does not run out.  These days they spend so much time in the dark and the sewers that bright light, it’s a weapon, but it never lasts long, the pulse saw to that. Nothing electrical works well any more, just the basics, light heat.  Communications, things of the past.  They said we were dead without it, but we’re not dead, not yet.

I pick my way around the root, pulled out by the wind, and a fence, a narrow little channel, and that’s when they come.

“What’cha got lady?”  They’re young, younger than normal, they’re being trained up.

“Nothing for you sonny.  Move along, before you get hurt.”  I earn a grin for my warning.  Pity, it’s the only one they’ll get.  My little glasses mirror catches a glimpse of movement.  “Tell your little friend behind me to stop.”  I say, putting a darkness into my voice.  Their hearts are racing, adrenaline pumping their bravado higher.

“Give us the bag lady, and maybe we’ll let you go.”

“Unlikely.”  There’s a snigger from behind, and I realise that this path was the rash one, I should have known better.  Always take the least likely route.

“Alright, missus, you’ve got us bang to rights, we’re not gonna let you go, but it could hurt a lot less.”

“Come and get it then lads,” I say hoping to entice one of them into range.

“No way, missus, we know about you, you got armour.  Throw it over here.”  I smile in what I hope is an unnerving way.

“Well boys, we’re at an impasse, because I’m not throwing anything anywhere.”  There is silence for a moment, then a click, and I know their bravado is not baseless, they’ve been given an edge; that’s why they’re willing to take me on first ball out of the bag.

“Well, well, well, ” I say pressing for time, “playing with the big boys already?”

“We know about you, ALL about you, missus.”

“That’s miss.”  I look grim.  The whole thing is looking grim.  One of the lads has a shovel.

“Miss then, we don’t mind.  Is that what you want on the headstone?  And cooking pot?”

I know now, there is no chance here, it’s me or them.  They’ve raised the game…

No cheese for me today.

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