Ellie wouldn’t have wished this house on her enemies. Stained walls, smeared with an unknown substance. Water damage on the ceiling that made her worry about what was going on in the room above this one. Gaps in the wood-panel floor, with the occasional wayward nail jutting out.
She sat on said floor, her legs positioned carefully as to not accidentally reveal herself. Sitting to her right, Zinnia had insisted that they avoid the couch. Judging by the way it looked, it was one or two more sits from collapsing all together.
The woman that had beckoned them inside sat across from them. The sharpest thing about her face were her eyes, devoid of any fear. Her lips were full, shaped in a way that gave her what looked like a natural pout. In another circumstance, Ellie may have admitted that she was attractive, but that opinion may have been biased by her teasingly low neckline.
“Heiress, it’s so good to have you here. My name’s Noemi. The guy over there is Lucio.” Noemi tilted her head in his direction. He hung in the doorway, not saying anything, just watching the three of them like he was their chaperone. “I apologize we don’t have a carpet to roll out for you. We’re renovating. Lucio, how about you get the Heiress something to drink?”
“We’re running low on our water ration.” The hole in Lucio’s mouth was impossible to miss, a big empty spot where there should’ve been a tooth. He was set to lose more. The surrounding teeth were graying.
“It’s okay.” Ellie said.
“Lucio, why don’t you pay Gracja a visit? She’s probably lonely in the basement.” Something about Noemi’s tone told Ellie that that wasn’t a question. He gave Ellie one more glance, and then left them alone, his bare feet slapping the floor as he went.
Noemi smiled at her. “What brings you into the neighborhood, Heiress? Are you curious about how the other half lives?”
Ellie made sure not to smile back. This wasn’t a friendly chat over invisible tea. This was a stern talking to, from future city leader to current city rat. “I’ve known Zinnia for a long time.” Hearing her name made Zinnia perk up. “She’s not this kind of person. You’re taking advantage of her, and that’s sick.”
“Ellie’s got the wrong idea.” Zinnia’s words ran over the ends of hers.
“You told me you’re on drugs.”
“Not illegal ones.”
“It sure looks illegal from here.” A run-down house that stank of smoke and sweat. Dark streets full of shady people, each one hiding something more sinister than the last. They were the crusted heel of society, not doing anything to scrape off the dirt and better their conditions. They wallowed in it, reveled in their collective race to the bottom. Zinnia didn’t belong with them.
“Are you planning on telling on her, Heiress? It’ll be more than her life that’s ruined if you do.” Noemi said.
Her words lingered as Ellie dug deep within herself for memories of her conduct lessons. Bold voice. Direct eye contact. Never let them see you sweat. “If you promise to never see Zinnia again, then I’ll pretend I was never here.”
“Stop it, Ellie.” It was the crack in her voice that made Ellie look at her. She wished she hadn’t. The desperation on Zinnia’s face was like an echo, a whisper of another person.
“Look at what you’re doing to the poor girl,” Noemi said. “You’re going to make her cry.”
“I’m trying to do what’s best for her.” Ellie looked away from her, her and all of her trembling. She scooted over to give her a tad more space.
“If that were true, then you’d be looking the other way, Heiress. What kind of leader are you if you can’t be discerning? The ripple effect from whatever raid you launch on Arntzen isn’t going to be pretty.”
Another threat. Ellie couldn’t let it slide this time. “Of course it won’t be. That’s the point! Who the hell do you think you are, anyway? Some kind of drug lord?”
“Ellie!” Zinnia clutched her head in shock.
Noemi laughed. “That’s one interesting assumption, Heiress, but sorely mistaken. I’ll play along, though. I’ve always wanted to be royalty. Drug queen, not lord.” She lowered her voice. “Hey, what do you think would happen if someone caught wind of you being here with a drug queen like me? Folks saw you willingly come in here, you know, and they’re rumor hungry. This could spread wildfire-style. Imagine what the Chieftess would think.”
“She’d think I was doing my job of protecting Stockbrunn,” Ellie said. “Another criminal off of the streets, one that wouldn’t be allowed to prey on girls like Zinnia ever again. I’m not afraid of you, Noemi, and I’d like it if you’d stop trying to scare me.”
“This is how we talk around here, Heiress. Gruff’s the default. Sorry I forgot my manners.” Noemi saluted her. “I’m gonna check on Lucio and Gracja. Give you girls some space.”
It took about a minute after she left for Ellie to let out a big sigh of relief. “Phew, glad she’s gone. I was scrunching up my ‘brows so hard I thought my brain was going to pop.” She massaged her forehead.
“You shouldn’t be here. You’re not helping me. You’re just making everything so much worse.” Zinnia moved to face her.
“I’m saving you from yourself.”
“I don’t need a hero. I’m fine by myself.”
“Obviously, you’re not.” Did Ellie really need to rattle off a list of reasons Zinnia needed rescuing? The evidence was as clear as day.
“Would you listen to someone other than yourself for once in your life?” Zinnia shot at her. “How selfish are you?”
“I’m not selfish! I care about you, and it’s because I care that I can’t let you do whatever this is. What would Freesia say if she saw you doing this, huh?” Her name came out of her mouth without thinking.
Zinnia became quiet, voice at a whisper. “…So now’s when you want to bring her up? What’s next, you’re going to tell me it’s my fault she’s gone?”
“We know whose fault it is.” Ellie spoke tersely.
“Hers, so how dare you bring her up to me!”
“Hers? You’re joking.” Her anger must’ve been clouding her judgment.
“I’m not joking. You’re the one that jokes around all day,” Zinnia said. “Do you think I don’t see you parading around with your dog and that pig like nothing matters to you, like nothing ever happened to all of us?”
“Like nothing happened…” Ellie had to chew her words over in disbelief. “What’s wrong with you? Not a day goes by where I don’t think about her. I’m trying to find her while you’re just here, just here doing drugs and acting like nothing’s happened.” The outrage on Zinnia’s face only spurred her on to talk more. “Yeah, it’s you that acts like life’s gone back to normal. It’s not normal, it’s not normal at all!”
“How can you say that? She’s not out there. If she was, she would’ve come back by now.” Zinnia wrapped her arms around herself. “She wouldn’t have left me. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“I know she’s still out there.”
“Don’t use her as your excuse for what you’re doing. It’s insulting.” Zinnia added, “disgusting, actually.”
“Is she yours for whatever you’re doing here? Because if anyone’s doing anything disgusting, it’s you.”
“She devastated our family. What she did made me have to do this, and no, I’m not a drug addict. Get that through your thick skull. I’m doing what I have to do.”
“And what’s that?”
“Dammit, I’m running drugs for these people, so if you’re going to raid them or ruin them or whatever you want to do them, you’re going to ruin us too. Noemi helped me.” Zinnia loosened her hold of herself.
The room spun. Ellie had to palm the floor to keep from falling. “You’re…what? Really?” Maybe she had heard her wrong. Zinnia, studious front-of-the-class Zinnia, couldn’t be a drug dealer. “What are you taking?”
“What was prescribed to me…a lavender-hybrid mixture. I don’t have to explain more than that, do I? I’ve been on it for years.”
For years? She’d kept that a secret from her for that long? “You never told me you were a transitioner.”
“I don’t have to tell you.”
“So that’s part of your payment? Lavender drugs? They’re using you.” Ellie said.
“They’re not! You’re wrong. You don’t understand anything about what’s really going on in the world,” Zinnia said. “You get to escape into the woods and ignore everything that’s happening here. That’s great for you, but I don’t have that luxury. No one does aside from you. You get to run and hide.”
“I wouldn’t call it an escape, and it’s sure not running and hiding,” Ellie defended, “but if you want to think of it that way, it’s better than slinking off over here and pretending you’re some tough gutter girl when you’re clearly not. The old you never would’ve done this.”
“The old me never had to.”
“You don’t have to! I can help you. I can pay them off, make whatever you’re doing into your last run for them. All you needed to do was ask me for help, Zinnia.”
“Help me by leaving us alone.” Zinnia was on the verge of tears.
Ellie’s stomach turned. Flustered, she tried to redirect their conversation. Anything to keep her from bursting out into full-on sobs. “Why don’t you come with me the next time I go to the woods? It’ll help get your mind off of things. Kinda like a mini-vacation. We could all use a break sometimes.”
Zinnia blew out a puff of air at that, a short bitter note.
Someone knocked. Ellie looked up, and saw Noemi saunter into the room. “Hope I’m not interrupting anything,” she said, definitely aware that she was.
“No. We’re going home now. We’re done here.” Zinnia got up. Ellie stood up with a little less grace.
“Heiress, do you mind if I talk to Z real quick? I don’t wanna hold you guys up or anything.”
“Go ahead. I’ll wait in the foyer.”
Noemi grinned. “Heh, if you wanna call our hallway that, then, sure. Wait in the foyer, Heiress dear.”
Ellie left them alone, going to the front door. She leaned against a wall, not sure what to think of what she’d heard. Zinnia resorting to doing this was so unlike her that it made Ellie’s head hurt. Was this Ellie’s fault too? Did she cause this to happen? Something heavy ached in her chest.
Things were bad enough for Zinnia as it was. Ellie couldn’t just rip the bandage off of her problem by alerting her mother to this. If Noemi’s threats were to be believed, a lot of people would be affected. Could she deal with the weight of everything falling?
An untreated wound was doomed to fester, and that’s what she’d be doing if she ignored what was going on. Something bad could happen to Zinnia. She could try selling to the wrong people, or someone else could attack this likely opium den for whatever reason and she’d get caught up in a knife fight.
How fast would they abandon Zinnia if something bad happened? That guy didn’t have a problem pushing her around earlier. He didn’t seem like he’d lay his life down on the line for her. And Noemi didn’t look like the type of woman who was above using any of them as a meat shield if she had to.
This wasn’t safe. They weren’t good people.
But if she told… There was more than Zinnia to think about, and even Zinnia herself was practically begging Ellie to keep her mouth shut. There were more than her drugs at stake. What if Noemi and her goons went after Zinnia’s family? Who knew what they were capable of?
Ellie was snapped out of her thoughts by Zinnia joining her at the door. Zinnia sucked in her bottom lip, her eyes glowering. Ellie asked her, “are you okay?”
She was honest with her. “No, I’m not. Let’s go.” Zinnia led them out the door.
They didn’t talk the rest of the way home.
A/N: Hmm…if Shreya brings that bear home she’d have to explain how she got it, but if she leaves it then that’s a waste of meat that could be needed in her village. Voting will end Sunday, March 13th at 11:59 PM EST.
This chapter allowed us to see the results of 2 polls. 11 people voted yes and 6 people voted no for Ellie offering to take Zinnia into the woods the next time she goes. 12 people voted yes and 3 people voted no for Ellie and Zinnia to exchange their real secrets.
Also, here’s your chance to contribute even more to the story. I’m looking for wolf character designs – names, general personality traits, age (puppy, adolescent, adult, or elder), no robust histories or anything like that. Please leave a comment below with character suggestions and you may see the wolf you helped create in the next few chapters of Redwood Crossing.
As always, please vote on Topwebfiction to help us get on and stay on the charts!