Gift for the Cutter Man

September 28, 2021

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D. Thomas Minton lives in the mountains of British Columbia. As a tropical marine biologist, he’s still trying to figure out how that happened. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, and numerous other magazines and anthologies. He is also the author of four novels in the ongoing Calypto Cycle.
Content Warning(s):
Blood/Gore, Child in peril, Death of a child, Death or dying, References to a pandemic/epidemic, Terminal Illness, Violence

The blade of Legrue’s scalpel flared in his headlamp’s narrow beam, casting glints of light across the slender hand strapped to his cutting table.

“Deed done?” the woman asked, a warble in her voice.

Legrue adjusted his magnifiers. He had not eaten in over a day, and the emptiness in his gut gnawed at his focus and put a tremor in his fingers.

He had to finish before the woman lost confidence in him and he lost a scrip worth a hundred youn, more than he made most days. “Steady on,” he said gently, as much to the woman as his hand.

He lowered the scalpel against the middle joint of her left pinky. The leather strap creaked as the woman’s hand tightened.

“Easy, easy,” Legrue urged. The tension would shift the underlying musculature and connective tissues, making his task harder, not to mention, more painful for her. “Steady, now.”

The scars on her forearm made clear she was no stranger to a cutter’s blade, albeit not his, but a finger was a next-level investment in the wet market. Blood would regenerate; her pinky would not, so it was only natural she flinched at the touch of his scalpel’s edge to her skin. 

Satisfied his blade was well-positioned, Legrue pressed firmly downward. Blood spilled onto the cutting table, flowing into the grooves that funneled it into a brass collection bowl for later tubing.

The woman had gone quiet, likely blacked out.

Legrue did not let it distract him. Through the joint now, he angled his blade so the final cut would create a flap of skin that he could use to cover the raw edge. He slid the severed pinky into a glass tube, capped it, and dropped it into the ice trough at his elbow.

He let the stump bleed for a five-count, then coated it with coag-gel and sutured the skin flap to cover the wound. He snapped on a pressure bandage. 

Start to finish, less than a minute.

“Deed done.” The woman stirred weakly as Legrue released the leather strap. 

Slowly the hand scraped back into the shadows of Legrue’s stall. He preferred the anonymity the darkness granted. Even so, he knew this woman’s story. Desperate, hungry, likely even had mouths that depended on her, she had few choices but the wet market. Hers was everyone’s story in the Under, and the service Legrue provided, barbaric as it was, helped people survive.

“Money me, cutter man.”

Legrue bristled at the name. He was not a typical cutter; he took pride in his craft, even as it cost him youn—coag and sutures weren’t cheap.

Legrue paid her the front money owed, and thankfully she left without another word. He set his magnifiers aside and slumped onto his stool. The woman’s blood had cooled on his hands, but he did not have the energy to wipe it away. The youn he would make from the pinky and the tubes of blood would barely cover another cycle of Abigail’s antipyretics, and with Livia’s milk having dried up, they also needed cereal. And how much tighter could he pull his own belt?

His head down, Legrue did not immediately notice TwoTony enter until the rascal set a pocket lamp on the cutting table. TwoTony dragged on his atomizer and let the reddish steam trickle from his nose. “You tweaked?” TwoTony asked.

Legrue stifled a sigh. He wasn’t ill; TwoTony was simply the last thing he wanted to see today. “I made my payment.”

TwoTony tossed him the cloth from the wall hook. “Show respect.”

Legrue wiped at his hands, but he would need a brush to dislodge the dried blood from the nail beds.

TwoTony poked at the tubes in the ice trough. “I need a cutter man, and you be him, Legrue.”

The back of Legrue’s neck tingled, but he held his tongue. Two weeks ago, Abigail had needed a stronger cycle of antipyretics to control the fever brought on by the wasting, and TwoTony had fronted the youn. Until he repaid the money, Legrue was indebted to the rascal, but that didn’t place him in his servitude. Yet, he felt obligated to hear him out, especially if it might help him come even.

“A client needs twenty and five tubes. Not crusty, flowing clean like.  You ken?”

Twenty-five tubes of uncongealed blood were a lot, but any cutter in the wet market could have provided them. And such a routine request, too, so why go through TwoTony instead of placing a scrip through a legit broker? There had to be—

“Special needs,” TwoTony said, and Legrue’s stomach dropped. “Must be sourced from a twobee.”  He held up a finger. “One twobee.”

Legrue felt like he was going to be sick. Twenty-five tubes would kill most adults; without doubt, it would kill a two-year-old. No wonder the buyer had gone to TwoTony. No legitimate broker would take a scrip like that for a twobee.

And what monster would request one?

“Find another cutter.”

TwoTony grinned at him, but the flash of yellow teeth was an obvious threat. “Tomorrow,” TwoTony said. “Tubes or youn, either way, skin come even.”

§

The wet market smelled of fear and blood. Over the years, Legrue had grown accustomed to its stink, but as he pushed through the narrow, crowded alley, snaking through the tarp-and-wood cutter stalls, he felt nauseated. The market had always served a purpose, Legrue believed, even if he did not fully understand it. The Skylers, those that lived in the glittering domes high above the Under, used the blood and tissues from cutters like him as the raw materials for the vaccines and prophylactics that kept the plagues at bay, or at least beat them back when they came, which they inevitably did every few years.

Legrue had never met a Skyler; to his knowledge, no one in the Under had, not even brokers like ChimChim, but he had always thought of them as people like himself or Livia, only with plentiful lives. He used to begrudge that, but as he matured, he had too many worries of his own to waste energy hating people he would never meet.

Legrue pulled up suddenly as a tarp parted in front of him and a large man with a mane of shock-red hair and a body slung over his shoulder barged into the alley. The man turned and headed off, the lifeless torso dangling down his back, its gaunt and handless arms swinging back and forth, like pendulums of a macabre clock.

Legrue stood motionless in the alley, forcing the line of people to flow around him. Glass tubes clinked as he clutched his cloth sack tighter to his chest

It wasn’t every day a whole-sale scrip was filled, but in his time, Legrue had seen many bodies carried out of cutter stalls and it never grew easy to watch. Early in his time as a cutter, Legrue had tried to fill a whole-sale scrip. Although the woman was old, and she had willingly made the decision to help her struggling daughters, Legrue had no stomach to drain her life into little glass tubes and sell the remains to the highest bidder. 

No one had ever been carried out of his stall. He left that brutality to other cutter men.

Legrue’s brow pinched. If he could not take that old woman’s life, given willingly, how would he do what TwoTony wanted?

Legrue shook off his unease and continued on to the brokerage, hopeful his tubes would fetch a premium today, maybe even enough to buy his way out of TwoTony’s debt. He exchanged all but one tube of blood for a dozen inadequate strips of youn that even folded over twice upon themselves barely raised a bump in his pocket.

He had struggled over the fate of the final tube of blood, eventually deciding to give it to Livia. Over the last month, she had turned increasingly to hemopyric therapies—blood burning—to treat the wasting consuming their daughter.

Legrue saw little value in the practice, promoted, in his opinion, by charlatans and embraced by those who mistakenly thought they could use blood just as the Skylers. Already, Livia had spent precious youn on a burning bowl and tubes of blood and had started a holistic round of treatments that included burnings for Abigail and herself. A waste, but Legrue could not doubt Livia’s motives, and he shared her desperation. At least if he supplied the blood, it would be less of a financial drain.

§

Legrue’s family lived in one room, but it was at the end of the tenement row, so it had a narrow window that overlooked the foundry. Due to the smoke and dust from the industrial yard, they never opened the window, but for an hour, the morning sunlight came through the hazy glass, and they did not have to waste their chem-lamps. 

As Legrue entered, he found Livia on the floor crouched over her burning bowl, a cloth draped over her head to trap the smoke. She breathed deeply, coughed, and inhaled again a second time. In the middle of her treatment, she did not emerge to greet him. Legrue stood the tube of blood on the floor next to her.

Abigail let out a weak cry. Except for the rapid fluttering of her chest as she panted, she lay motionless in her bed, a basket tucked into one of the large floor-to-ceiling cubby-holes that covered the walls. Her skin, blotchy and red, was hot under Legrue’s hand.

Until three months ago, Abigail had been a vibrant child. She had started talking and had grown daringly rambunctious, climbing the cubby-hole shelves and knocking the pots onto the floor. Then, like too many children her age in the Under, she contracted the wasting, a contagion that consumed the young and for which no cure had come down from the Skylers. While the wasting claimed most of its victims, some children survived by outlasting the fevers.

With a cool, damp rag, Legrue sponged Abigail’s forehead and down her chest, his fingers tracing the ridges of her ribs. Over the past month, her fevers had come more frequently and with greater ferocity, and despite their efforts, she had lost a third of her weight.

“We got no more,” Livia said as Legrue filled the dropper with the last of the fever medication. “What comes tomorrow?”

The question made Legrue’s heart ache. The painfully small lump of bills in his trouser pocket would not cover another cycle of antipyretic and food for them all, let alone what he owed TwoTony. It had been like this for several weeks now, and his and Livia’s emergency reserves had vanished some time ago.

“Tomorrow won’t matter if she burns down today,” Legrue said.

Livia took the damp cloth from Legrue and edged him away from the basket. 

The smoke from Livia’s burning bowl snaked around him as he stepped over it and slumped onto the stool on the opposite side of the room. This was the third day in a row he had come home to find Livia crouched over that bowl and Abigail burning with fever.

“You’re early,” Livia said, an edge to her voice.

Did she think he was shirking his responsibilities? She had no idea what he had already done and would likely need to do, but he saw no value in sharing his burden. “Slow day,” he said.

“Hmm.”

Legrue could not decipher the meaning of her sound. A year ago, he was certain he could have, but a lot had happened, and in many ways, he felt he did not know his wife anymore. “I got you a tube.”

Livia spared him a wan smile.

Legrue lowered his gaze to the dropper still in his hand. He might have enough youn to appease TwoTony, but then it would be two, maybe three, days before he saved enough money to buy another cycle, and he feared Abigail did not have that time. His stomach growled; there was that, too.

The stink of the smoke made it hard to breathe.

If Abigail had any chance, Legrue needed a rascal like TwoTony, and TwoTony knew it. 

Legrue forced down the lump in his throat. He set the dropper on the shelf next to Abigail’s basket and moved to kiss Livia on the neck, but she shrugged away from him.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“To find a way.”

§

After an hour of wandering the warrens of the Under, Legrue still saw no path forward. He had quickly dismissed giving TwoTony tubes of adult blood; he suspected whoever had made the scrip would detect such subterfuge, and the repercussion to Legrue and his family would be swift and brutal. 

Even if Legrue had been willing to do TwoTony’s cutting, the rascal had not even offered a client, something a legit broker would have done in such a specialized case. Just as well, because Legrue didn’t know how he would have responded had TwoTony arrived with a child in tow. Finding a twobee presented significant challenges, however, and finding the right twobee even more so. Legrue thought that perhaps he could find a child with both feet firmly upon death’s threshold, but he realized that he could never find such a child before tomorrow. 

Lost in his thoughts, Legrue had not been tracking his progress through the crowded streets, and his focus returned only when he was bumped hard enough by a passerby that he nearly fell. It took Legrue a moment to shake off the impact, and in a sudden panic, he reached into his pocket. The money was gone, the pocket cut skillfully open by a razor. Frantically, Legrue scanned the crowded street, but distracted as he had been, he had not seen the thief’s face.

He pushed his way through the crowd in the direction he thought the thief had gone. A rheumy-eyed woman cursed him as he bumped into her. Seeing nothing in that direction, Legrue turned back—maybe the thief had circled around. His panic rising, he rose up on his toes, scanning over the top of the crowd. 

How could he have been so stupid?

Now, even if by some miracle he found a suitable client, he had no front money.

He suddenly found it hard to draw a breath. The crowded streets, the cramped buildings, and girders crisscrossing overhead blurred and spun as Legrue feared he was going to faint.

A hand on his arm steadied him.

It took Legrue a moment to recognize who was touching him. “ChimChim?”

ChimChim stepped back as if realizing Legrue might be ill. “You tweaked?”

“Just tired,” Legrue said, looking to put ChimChim at ease. While several years had passed since the Under’s last epidemic, memories still lingered.

ChimChim was a broker for the wet market, a legit one, not a poser like TwoTony. When Legrue had first started cutting, he had worked scrips for ChimChim because he lacked reputation and front money. Brokers came at a cost, however, demanding a high ratio, so when the conditions were right, Legrue had forged out solo. Understandably, ChimChim had been angry, but the years had cooled his ire, and now he occasionally brought Legrue scrips he felt uniquely suited to his skills. It had been years since Legrue had asked ChimChim for anything, but maybe the broker could help. “I’ve got a business prop.”

ChimChim’s left eyebrow rose under the brim of his cap.

“I need—”  Legrue’s mouth went dry, making it hard to form the words. “I—”

ChimChim shook his head. “No can help with that.”  He tapped his right fist against his chest, indicating his sympathy with Legrue’s predicament. “Truth is, no legit broker would take that scrip, so they tap TwoTony.”

Ashamed, Legrue looked away. ChimChim had ears everywhere in the wet market, so Legrue was not surprised ChimChim already knew what he was going to ask. Perhaps his fist tap had not been in sympathy, but pity.

“You and me, Legrue; we’re solid. I want to help, you ken, but …” ChimChim scanned the crowded street. Then, seemingly satisfied no one important was watching, he leaned closer. “Only place to fill that scrip is the Pit.”  

§

The Pit came into existence the year Legrue was born. Over the span of a week, a sinkhole that had first appeared next to a tenement north of the foundry had widened and deepened until the building itself had tumbled into it. Soon after, people migrated into the hole to escape the claustrophobic confines of the Under, and the Pit became a semi-autonomous warren where everything was overseen by a magistrate called the V.I.Per.

Legrue had been before the V.I.Per on one occasion, and the memories still troubled his conscience. He never spoke of the meeting to anyone, not even Livia, and as he spiraled down the narrow walkways into the depths, he fought against every attempt by his brain to dredge up the memories of that afternoon. The closer he got to the floor, the harder it became, and as the smell of the Pit engulfed him, he was overcome by the memory of the screams willed forth by Legrue’s own hands and the glee of the V.I.Per’s entourage at his impotence to stop it. He clung to a metal scaffolding for support, uncertain he could go on.

He thought of Abigail, innocent and frail. He and Livia had struggled for several years to bring her into the world and now to keep her there, a fight they were gradually losing. Legrue did not know if their sacrifices would matter, but he had survived in the Under by doing what needs required.

Legrue forced his left foot to rise, swing forward, and drop onto the metal ramp. He willed his body to roll forward, and for his right foot to follow his left. Two steps, three, each subsequent step lower into the Pit coming easier as his resolve solidified.

By the time he stood before the V.I.Per, he knew he would pay the price, no matter what it might be.

§

A smile slid across the V.I.Per’s lips, sending a chill through Legrue. “I ken you. Cutter man all weepy over snip-snip of em drogy,” he said, his Pit-slang thick and nearly impenetrable to Legrue. Arrayed behind his throne, the V.I.Per’s entourage laughed and jeered, much to their boss’s amusement.

The V.I.Per raised his fist and received silence. Leaning forward on the throne, he bared his teeth at Legrue. “Why come back, cutter man?” he asked, sliding effortlessly out of his Pit-slang.

Given the toll of the years, Legrue had not expected the V.I.Per to recognize him, but now that he had, he wondered how that might affect his ask. Legrue cleared his throat. “I have need.”

The V.I.Per cocked his head in surprise. “Rim man slums low. Why should I help puss like you?”

Did the man want him to grovel? Legrue would if he thought it would help. It hadn’t the last time, but then Legrue hadn’t understood what he had gotten himself into when he came to the Pit to purchase a set of quality cutter tools. Young and ignorant, he had been unprepared to pay the V.I.Per’s price, a mistake he did not intend to repeat today. “I can pay.”

“Indeed,” the V.I.Per said. He tapped his temple with his index finger. With a grin to his entourage, he said “Once, cutter man snip-snip good. All drogy bus eyes big and touch knee, slap skin ’n tribute. Respect.” With the context, Legrue knew he was talking about the last time he had been there. Several in the V.I.Per’s entourage nodded knowingly, and Legrue realized that at least some of them had also been present that day.

Legrue had always suspected the man he had dismembered in payment for his scalpel had been the leader of a rival faction to the V.I.Per. Legrue had skillfully amputated the man’s feet and hands, keeping him alive for over an hour until the V.I.Per permitted him to mercifully end his suffering. The man’s screams still rang in Legrue’s head, but he most remembered the gleeful faces of the V.I.Per and his entourage as Legrue’s actions effectively put an end to any challenge to the V.I.Per’s power. That day, Legrue vowed to never let another human unduly suffer at his hand, a vow he feared would be challenged today.

“Speak your desire, cutter man.”

Legrue licked dry lips. “A twobee.”

“Mmmmm,” the V.I.Per said as if savoring the sweetness of Legrue’s request. “Twobee for cut? Dark, cutter man, dark.”  The V.I.Per lounged back in his throne, casually draping his left leg over the chair’s arm. He picked at his teeth, some of which had been filed into points.

Legrue took a deep breath. He didn’t think the V.I.Per understood his ask. “The twobee won’t come home.”

The V.I.Per showed no surprise, although some of his entourage did. “Cutter man got jimmy for soul,” he said, sounding impressed. “Why do you need this twobee?” he asked.

“Twenty-five tubes, skin to come even with a rascal.”

With a speed that made Legrue jump, the V.I.Per leaned forward. As his left boot hit the floor, the sound rang through the small audience room. Amused by Legrue’s startle, the V.I.Per smiled again. “That skin then comes to me, cutter man. You will owe me.”

Legrue had no money, but then, he suspected the V.I.Per had little need for that. Legrue had skills more valuable than youn.

The V.I.Per’s eyes narrowed as he watched Legrue fidget. “A deal,” he said, but held up his index finger before Legrue could say anything. “You cut your two ’n five. For me, you dress down the morsel all pretty in tribute. You ken?”

The offer surprised Legrue. He could have sold the toddler’s organs for enough to buy food and another cycle of Abigail’s antipyretic, but giving the body back to the V.I.Per would be a small price to pay to free himself from TwoTony and any obligation to the V.I.Per.

Before Legrue could agree, the V.I.Per raised a second finger on his hand. He waited for the murmurs of the entourage to quiet. “When cutter man gets weepy and goes no-no, skin come skin; cutter man come me.”

Legrue’s brow knitted. He wasn’t sure he understood, but the flutter in his gut gave him a bad feeling.

The V.I.Per stood. In his heavy boots, he was two hands taller than Legrue. “You no ken.” The V.I.Per’s amused tone drew snickers from the others. “I of mind you no got jimmy for soul, cutter man, and cutting that twobee will be too dark for you. If you don’t deliver, then I own your weepy soul. You ken now?”

Legrue felt sick. If he did not deliver the remains of the child, the V.I.Per would own him.

It would not come to that, however.

“Deal.”

§

The V.I.Per sent Legrue away with his promise to deliver a twobee to his stall in the morning.

The climb out of the miasma of the Pit did little for Legrue’s spirits, and when he finally reached rim-side, he clutched at the stitch in his side and could go no farther. The meeting with the V.I.Per replayed in his mind, each time Legrue’s physical presence becoming smaller, the V.I.Per more imposing, and the deal to which he had agreed less palatable. As his regret grew, he became ill.

That night, sleep would not come, and Legrue sat at Abigail’s side. Her closeness as he lay his head next to the basket allowed her ragged breathing to be heard over the noise from the foundry. Every so often, her rasping breaths would calm, growing so quiet Legrue wondered if she was finally free of her suffering. When it happened, he would close his eyes, and unable to see the red glow bleeding through the narrow window or Livia’s form cocooned in a sheet on their futon on the floor, he felt weightless, as if floating in a void. The noise of the Under was lost beneath his whispering, light as a wind, as he counted off the seconds until Abigail’s tiny lungs would rattle and gasp back into action, cutting into his heart more painfully than any knife.

Eventually, the dawn light shone through their narrow, dingy window, spotlighting the dust and haze that hung in the room. As the light crawled across the floor it illuminated Livia’s ritual bowl and glinted off the empty tubes, scattered about like pieces of a broken vessel.

In a way, they were, Legrue realized. Each tube had been cut from a person broken not just by the Under, but also by his own hand to patch others who were also broken. Yet, would cutting away the others ever fix Abigail or Livia or himself? He despaired at the futility of it all, but then, this was the Under, and what options did he have?

§

Legrue opened the shutter on the skylight of his stall, and the watery light fell across the packed dirt floor and the cutting table. He couldn’t remember the last time he had done that, and he wasn’t sure why he did it that morning. The darkness had masked how small and dingy his stall was. His cutting table filled nearly the entire space, and if he added all of the leaves to the table, it would leave only enough room at one end for him to squeeze around it.

Legrue stood three dozen tubes on the table, and next to them, he laid out a silk bundle. When he had returned from the Pit with his tools those years ago, Livia had cut the cloth from the hem of her nicest dress and given it to him. All these years holding such brutal instruments had left the silk tattered and stained, and he wondered how much longer before it came apart entirely.

The canvas flap rose slightly, and a woman peered in. Her grey shawl, pulled up to cover her head, obscured her face. Seeing Legrue, she stepped inside, leading a small child. Legrue could not tell if it was a girl or a boy; it wore only a cloth diaper and hid behind the dangling tails of the woman’s shawl. What he could see, without doubt, was the child was healthy.

Legrue’s words failed, as a sudden chill gripped him. He squeezed the edge of the cutting table to steady himself.  Abigail was depending on him. He couldn’t fail her and Livia.

The woman lowered her shawl. The smoothness of her skin suggested youth, but a dullness in her eyes spoke of desperation, and the dark skin of her chin and neck was crosshatched with pinkish scars from dozens upon dozens of cuttings. “You are Legrue?”

Unable to speak, Legrue motioned her toward the stool on the opposite side of the cutting table.

She sat, placing the toddler on her lap. The child buried its face into her breast. “Be brave, Che,” the woman whispered into its curly hair. “Get ’em sweet when the cutter man done.”

Legrue’s brow pinched. There would be no sweets for the child after the cutter man. There would be no child, only tubes of blood and bags of fingers and toes, liver, heart, strips of muscles, and a pair of tiny, tiny eyes.

Bile rose in Legrue’s throat. The V.I.Per had not told her. She was expecting Legrue to take a tube or two of blood from her child, like the other cutters; then some youn for them, and a sweet for her twobee to assuage her guilt. No, V.I.Per knew what he was doing, sending the mother with her healthy child when he could have had one of his entourage bring a sickly twobee from a desperate family. He sent this one because he wanted Legrue to fail. Because, as he had said, Legrue had “no jimmy for soul.”

Legrue squeezed his eyes shut, but try as he might to envision Abigail’s face, he saw nothing but darkness.

The toddler started wailing, healthy lungs throwing forth fear. “No, no,” it shrieked.

Legrue thought he was going to vomit.

“Shh, Che. No hurt, no hurt. Shh.”

Legrue opened his eyes. The woman had placed the squirming child on the cutting table. She struggled to fit its tiny arm into the restraint made for an adult. The child was already missing a pinky finger and several scars puckered its forearm and chest. Whoever had cut its tender skin had not been particularly skilled.

She finally managed to secure the wailing child’s arm. “Sorry,” she kept saying, and Legrue didn’t know if the apology was meant for him or the twobee.

Legrue unfolded the tattered silk. The light shone dully on the nicked scalpel, the dull grey tines of the forceps, and the pitted curves of the clamp. In the hazy light, the tools looked efficiently brutal atop the tattered silk.

“Hurry,” the woman pleaded, tears welling up in her eyes. She stroked the child’s hair. “Shh, Che.”

Legrue donned his magnifiers and adjusted the headlamp. He felt faint, but he dismissed it to his hunger.

He drew a deep breath; he could do this.

Legrue picked up the scalpel.

The child had stopped struggling and lay spread on the table crying despondently. Even so, it was a beautiful child—curly dark locks framing its round face. Legrue could see its mother in the color of its eyes.

He turned away, his hands shaking and his chest so tight now he could not draw a full breath. His mind raced with fantastical scenarios that would save him having to take this woman’s child, but he knew he was out of time. Soon TwoTony would return and finding neither tubes nor youn, the rascal would shatter Legrue’s hand, destroying his livelihood. Yet, Legrue might not even be there if the V.I.Per discharged someone to collect him before TwoTony arrived.

With him gone, what would happen to Abigail and Livia?

“One for three,” he whispered—one healthy child for three lives. But they were broken lives, and Legrue did not know if they could ever be repaired. Yet, he knew if he did this, it would break him forever.

“I won’t.” He tugged at the strap, releasing the child’s arm.

“But—”

Legrue swept his tools onto the floor and scattered the tubes across the stall. “Go!” He turned away again, ashamed of his outburst, but the woman left, and the wails of the twobee were swallowed by the noise of the waking market.

Spent, Legrue slumped onto the stool and buried his face into his hands. His whole body shook. What had he done?

He rushed out into the alley. Frantically, he craned his head above the crowd looking for the woman’s grey shawl, but he could not find it. She was gone, and with her went any hope.

Back inside, Legrue gently dusted off the blue silk, retrieved his scalpel and forceps from under the cutting table, and carefully rewrapped the tools and what glass tubes he could find.

He contemplated waiting for fate to come to him, but as he stared at the small bundle of silk, he realized he had never been that type of man. 

Maybe he could still find a way, perhaps luck would be with him, and a child that had died of the wasting will have been left in an alley. He had heard stories that this still happened, although he had not witnessed it since the last pandemic had swept through the Under.

He took his tools and headed out. For many hours, he searched the alleys behind the tenements. Finally, his feet hurting, he found himself before his own door.

§

The sun, long past its zenith, no longer came in through the window, leaving the apartment dark and smelling of burnt blood.

“Livia?”

Abigail coughed pitifully from her basket. Legrue placed his hand on her forehead. She burned with fever, hotter than Legrue had ever experienced, and the dropper was empty.

Where was Livia?

Legrue picked up his daughter. Her head rolled back and then forward onto his shoulder. She lay limply against him, her breath rattling in her chest. So light now, she felt almost like a newborn again. He cupped her head in his hand to hold it steady; her hair, fine and thin, felt like nothing against his palm.

Legrue’s legs threatened to buckle, so he sat on the stool and hugged his daughter to his chest. He remembered his joy the day she had been born. “Shh,” he whispered gently. The heat of her fever radiated through his shirt.

“Livia?” She hadn’t left the apartment in weeks except to purchase the bowl and tubes of blood to burn. Could she have left Abigail to buy another tube? Over the past days, Livia had grown distant. He could not recall her comforting Abigail, and she had avoided his touch at night when he wanted—needed—her caress. A vacant stare had settled into her eyes, the same emptiness he saw on those who came to the wet market over and over, those who were ready to whole-sale themselves to bring it all to an end.

No, she couldn’t be gone. Abigail still needed her. He still needed her. 

“Livia?” he whispered into the room’s lonely shadows.

The lingering smoke from the burning bowl stung his eyes. The tube Legrue had brought home yesterday lay empty on the floor next to it. False hope, all of it, Legrue thought. The blood, the burning, the cutting, all of it meant nothing.

He kicked the bowl and it clanged dully off the door.

In his arms, Abigail’s frail form had gone still. Legrue did not move, but lowered his ear gently to her hair and started to count, waiting for her fragile lungs to rattle back to life, but they did not.

Like his daughter, the Under was quiet.

Legrue screamed, months of pain released in an anguished howl. He had failed her. That morning, if he had cut the twobee, he would not have wasted hours wandering alleys in his futile search. He could have sold any extra tubes of blood and some of the organs that surely the V.I.Per would not have missed and used the youn for another cycle of antipyretics. He could have come home, and Livia would still be there. Broken or not, they would have survived another day, and in the Under, that’s what life was. Living had a price that came due every day—skin to come even—and today Legrue had failed to pay.

Drained, he slumped over the tiny, still body and wept.

“Legrue?”

He raised his head. 

Livia stood in the doorway. Legrue blinked several times, not sure if he was hallucinating.

Her lip started to quiver as she noticed the body on Legrue’s lap. A bottle dropped from her hand, shattering on the floor. “No,” she said. “No.” Her voice grew thinner as her throat tightened. She dropped on the floor next to Legrue and scooped Abigail into her arms.

Legrue stared at the broken bottle. She had gone for a cycle of fever medication, but how had she paid for it? He noticed then her disheveled hair, the top of her dress askew. 

Legrue knew she would not speak of what she had given for her daughter, and he would not ask. That was the way in the Under. He slid onto the floor and pulled them both into his arms. She turned into him and cried into his shoulder.

Gently he stroked her hair. He should not have doubted her.

A lump rose up in Legrue’s throat. Soon his own debt would come due, but finally, he saw the path forward, and it was a path both he and Livia would need to follow together, as they had always done.

They could give nothing more to their daughter, but she could give them one final gift.

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© D. Thomas Minton

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