The Christmas Market
"Come on Lottie! You fought a bunch of Zootists and won, what’s there to be afraid of now?“ Sammy coaxed the girl to join him. “They’re all afraid of us now! Besides, I won’t let you out of my sight.”
Lottie thought about it, Sammy did have a point, even if he was a little too proud of it and always made it sound like the two of them single-handedly defeated a tribe of Zootists and the Guardian, when in fact it had been all the Mall Rats and for some of them it had cost their lives. The weeks following that fateful day in the Mall had slipped past so quickly that she’d barely noticed anything around her. Seemed she was either busy crying over Darryl’s death, peeling the potatoes or scrubbing the floors all day long.
But now, Christmas was coming in a few days’ time and like Sammy, she too really wanted to catch a break from the gloom and doom in the Mall.
Her friend had shown up not five minutes ago, holding that flyer in his hand and announced there was a big market in the city today. She simply had to come, he said, they could scout out the best deals and then come back and tell the rest of the Mall Rats about the market.
“Okay. Only let me get my coat first,” Lottie finally decided and went to rummage through her wardrobe, both excited and a little nervous about their decision to sneak out of the Mall without telling anyone. Normally she would have let Ruby know, but… Ruby was so far away now and she was expecting Slade’s baby, starting her own family, she probably didn’t even think about Lottie anymore, so Lottie was left to make her own decisions. Today she decided to have fun.
They walked through the narrow alleys, avoiding the main streets. The air was damp after several days of rain, but the clouds seemed to be clearing now. It didn’t take long to reach the market square.
It was, of course, nothing like those Christmas markets Lottie remembered from her early childhood - there were no neatly arranged little houses, no lights strung up and the display had very little to do with Christmas. It was a lot more practical these days: traders selling clothes, soaps, fabric, smoked ham or poultry, but no Christmas ornaments. She had hoped a little too much.
“Well Sammy, what do you want to buy?” Lottie put on a brave face regardless.
He smirked, looking somewhere above her right shoulder, then suddenly grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her around.
“Those!” Sammy gleefully answered, pointing in the direction of another market stall. It was covered in gingerbread cookies, most decorated with colorful icing. As they hurried closer, they could smell the wonderful spicy aroma.
“Two please,” Sammy pointed to two of the biggest cookies displayed and in a minute, Lottie held one of them, She bit into it, she had almost forgotten the taste of gingerbread, but it was heavenly.
“What do you want for another fifteen?” Sammy started to bargain with the trader after just one bite of his cookie, seemingly satisfied with the quality, but this didn’t hold Lottie’s attention for long. She knew from experience that Sammy could get a good deal for them, but it took ages. She nibbled on the gingerbread and slowly walked from stall to stall, perusing the items, making sure to keep Sammy somewhere in her peripheral vision.
She stopped to take a look at some necklaces, they were more delicate looking than the average wooden beads you could find at the market like this and caught her interest. There were glass beads on satin ribbons and even necklaces cut from pieces of lace. Gel would have liked those, she found herself thinking fondly. But she tried not to let grief consume her thoughts again, not here, so to distract herself, she looked at the girl selling her crafts, who, with her mousy brown braided hair and sunken face, thankfully looked nothing like Gel.
“What do you want for four of these?”
“What do you have?” she got the standard reply these days. The girl wasn’t really looking at her, she was looking at the gingerbread in her hand in a way which made Lottie feel uncomfortable. She knew that look, a little over a year ago she had been the one looking at food like that, back when there was never enough of it.
She quickly emptied her shoulder bag of trinkets she had grabbed from the Mall, some whistles, candle holders, couple of cds, stuff they never really used and the stores were full of. Lottie tried to appear casual, even in this world it was considered rude to notice when someone was hungry, but when the girl got up to examine the items she was offering to trade, her cloak fell open a little and Lottie could see a baby, probably only a few months old, sleeping in it’s mother’s arms.
That was too much.
“You know, it’s okay. You can take all that, and…” Lottie quickly broke the cookie in two, she had only been eating that one corner of it, “take this too. I don’t really need the necklaces.”
She turned and hurried back to Sammy, tugging at his sleeve. “Are you done? I want to go home. Now.”
She wanted to get away from the hungry girl and that baby as quickly as she could, she felt embarrassed about it already. She should have traded one item for the necklaces and leave it at that. Wasn’t any of her business.
“Uh, but Lottie! We barely got here!” Sammy argued, visibly baffled by Lottie’s sudden change of mood.
“I’ll explain later, come on already,” Lottie urged him, but it was too late.
“Wait, wait!” That girl was right next to them, a little out of breath, but insistent.
“You gave me more than they’re worth, you should at least get your necklaces,” she reached her arm out, holdng the pieces of jewelry in front of Lottie for her to take. “The business has been slow.”
Lottie decided it was best to do as asked and get it over with, but as soon as she held the necklaces, the girl seemed to change her mind, suddenly taking an icy hold of Lottie’s arm. Startled, she pulled back and even Sammy sensed something’s off. “Hey, leave her alone,” he demanded, but the strange girl shook her head, lips pursed tightly.
“You shouldn’t be wearing that, it’s the Mall Rats’ sign,” she said with a hint of contempt in her voice, indicating the tribal marking on Lottie’s hand, before finally releasing Lottie’s arm.
“Alright, sure…” Lottie was now convinced the other girl was crazy and tried to figure out the quickest exit, but Sammy wasn’t quite as fast to pick up on it, so before Lottie could stop him, he countered: “We are Mall Rats, you know!”
That had an unexpected effect on the nomad, her face crumpled and she cradled the sleeping bundle closer to her body. “You’re lying, they’re all gone,” she finally managed, more quietly than before and without much conviction at first. “You’re lying!”
“She’s crazy, Sammy. Can’t you see? Let’s go.”
“I’m not crazy, I went to the Mall, twice!” Being called crazy seemed to give the strange girl a renewed will to confront them. “It’s all boarded up, I couldn’t even get inside!”
Lottie frowned, but now she was beginning to doubt her own declaration about this girl’s craziness. “When did you go there?”
“Just before the baby. I was hoping… there’d be someone, to help. What’s it to you?”
“When was your baby born?”
Lottie was met with another glare, but the girl didn’t move away from them, either. “Four months ago.”
“Lottie, that’s when…”
“We were on the island, I know Sammy. No wonder she didn’t find anyone.” Lottie took a deep breath, exchanging a glance with Sammy.
“I’m Lottie and that’s Sammy. We’re Mall Rats. And you’re right, we weren’t at the Mall some time ago, we had to evacuate with the rest of the city, but we’re all back now, well - most of us are. So… who are you?”
“Patsy. I - was a Mall Rat too, once.” the girl was barely keeping it together now.
“I think you should come home with us.” Lottie grinned widely. She had recognized the name immediately, from the many stories the older Mall Rats always told them during the long winter nights, sitting around in the cafe. This was a far better present to bring home than any of the gifts she might have bought from the market. “They’d love to see you!”
“Yeah! Trudy, Salene, everyone. Come on, you have to, it’s Christmas!”
“I can go home for Christmas…” Patsy repeated, just to make it feel real. For so long, she had fought, alone, to survive and to keep her daughter alive, but now this girl stood in front of her, telling that her family was still out there somwhere and that she could go visit them, see all of their faces again, hug them, that she wasn’t alone anymore. Home. She could go home for Christmas.