by Patricia Russo

 

Three o’clock in the morning, and Ria could hear the baby crying from all the way at the other end of the hall. Never mind paper-thin walls; the units in this building could have been constructed from eggshells. All it took was the slightest bump or knock for cracks to appear in the one coat of hastily rolled-on light-green paint that covered the drywall that was the only partition not only between one room and another, but one apartment and the next.

Never rent from relatives. That one should have been high on the How Not To Be a Dumbass list, right next to never do business with friends. Tano, her clan uncle, was a scamming bastard and she’d always known it. But when the choices were couch-surfing with increasingly unfriendly friends, giving up altogether and just go squat in a bus shelter somewhere, or accepting your clan uncle’s offer–“I’ve got a room. I’ll let you have it cheap. You’re family, after all”–then what were you going to do? There was pride, and there was stupidity.

Sometimes Ria thought her whole life could be summed up as a tug-of-war between her pride and her stupidity.

So far, stupidity seemed to be winning.

Three o’clock in the morning, but she was awake, had been awake before the baby resumed its apparently default mode of endless wailing, because of her tooth. The second molar from the back, on the left side, on the bottom. It hurt like a bastard, and had been hurting for three months, and the guy she did business with for the pain was not answering his goddamn phone and she was sick of leaving messages. Well, crap, what could you expect from a sketchy little fucker like him? Everything in the world was for sale, and if you took the time to look you could find a buyer for anything, but it had actually surprised her that the skinny little fuck was cool with buying a toothache. Other kinds of pain–that was easier to understand. Some other kinds of pain could be useful; once she’d known a man who’d bought the pain of a slap in the face, about two dozen a month, in order to be absolutely sure he woke up on time. Best alarm clock ever, he’d said. And some kinds of pain could even be fun, depending on the circumstances. But a toothache? Not fun, that was for sure. And not useful in any good way she could think of. So the skinny dude, who never gave his name and now wasn’t answering his phone, was probably just a middleman, buying the pain to sell to a curse-caster. Great. It had taken her three months to figure that out. Stupidity winning again. The curse had probably served its purpose, and the caster didn’t need another month’s supply of tooth-pain.

That was her screwed, then.

Almost, she threw the phone against the wall. But the wall had enough cracks in it already, and if she broke the phone, there was no way in hell she could afford another one.

The baby wasn’t helping.

The baby wasn’t helping one bit.

Not its fault, Ria told herself. Of course not. Babies cried. That’s what they did. Poor kid probably had the, what did you call it, the colics or something. Them down at the other end of the hall, two youngsters with a newborn–man. How much worse must it be for them. She could always go get her tooth pulled at the clinic at the dental school uptown. A crying baby you just had to put up with. No other choice.

Ria sat on her bed (a bedspring and bare mattress) and rocked herself, but that gave her no comfort. She wanted to pace, but if she did, she knew the old lady downstairs would take a broom to the ceiling.

Shut up, baby, shut up, baby, shut up, baby.

She tried the skinny dude’s number again. Nothing.

She’d found him–or he’d found her–at Underpass Market. There must have been a hundred places with that name over the centuries. Nowadays it was in the northeastern quadrant of the city, the open-air section taking up more space than the Grand Municipal Park, with no sign or remnant of an overpass anywhere, but the name stuck. Civilizations fell and rose and fell and rose again, and Underpass Market changed venues, but not reputation. Ria hadn’t expected to be able to sell her tooth-pain there. She had gone to hawk something completely different: a set (well, most of a set) of silver (or silverish) figurines of old-timey forest people, the gray folks with the six-fingered hands and the overly large eyes. There was supposed to be a whole family: mother, father, two children, a grandparent, and a pet, if Ria remembered correctly from her childhood. She was missing the pet and one of the children, but the rest of the pieces were in good condition. She’d acquired them by stealth, and wanted to get them off her hands as quickly as possible. But she wasn’t stupid enough to take the first offer. She hiked the length of the damn market, trying every jewelry place, silversmith, knick-knack stall, even the charm sellers (the gray folks, back when they used to live in the forest, had been believed to have powers that other people didn’t–surely the figurines could be used to fashion luck-drawers or evil-averters) but in the end she’d gotten only a couple of decent bids. It had been pride that had made her trek up and down and round and round Underpass Market; she realized that even as she was doing it. She sold the figurines in the end, for a lot less than she was sure they were worth, and was just about to head home when the skinny dude stepped in her path and smiled.

Middleman.

The baby would not stop wailing. That baby, Ria was becoming convinced, would howl forever. When did it sleep? The damn thing cried twenty-three hours out of twenty-four.

Middlemen bought and sold things.

Dawn would break in three hours. By tradition, Underpass Market opened for business one hour after sunrise. But that was for the general public. Behind the scenes, the market was like a perpetual motion machine. Contacts and contracts, deals and wheels, forever turning, forever in movement.

If that baby didn’t stop crying, she was going to lose her mind. Her tooth was throbbing anyway, but the high-pitched bawling made her clench her jaw, and the ouch! of that sent a bolt of bright blue pain straight through her head.

Ria picked up her phone again. Hit redial. This time, she left a different message. Not, “This is Ria, you know, the one with the tooth? Call me back,” which had been her first, or “Call me, you prick,” which had been her last. This time, she said, “Fine, so you don’t want to make any money. There’s something I want to buy, and I thought of you first. But I guess you’re too busy, so never mind.”

That would get the skinny bastard’s attention. The satisfaction of knowing that eased the pain in her molar for a second or two.

But other problems now presented themselves. The first was the practical matter of her possessing absolutely no cash. The second was an ethical issue. Ria had always despised people who put workings on others without the knowledge of the second party. And all right, yeah, she’d probably been selling the pain in her tooth as an ingredient for some revenge curse or torture-casting, but she hadn’t realized that at first, and anyway, you had to look at it as a question of survival. Paying the rent, buying food. Life or death, basically.

This was different. The baby’s parents would have to know. The baby’s parents would have to agree.

Most importantly, the baby’s parents would have to pay.

Ria got dressed quickly. She stuck her phone in her back pocket. He’d call, the skinny dude. And if he didn’t, well, Underpass Market would open in a few hours. Either way, all she had to do was sell the parents on the idea and hope to hell they had some cash or tradeables. Young folks living in a dump like this were probably not rolling in it, but she bet they both had families –certainly they both had clans, because everybody did–and friends. And family and friends would shell out, the first time you asked. Sometimes even the second or third, but almost always the first. And it would be for the baby, so an automatic extra helping of sympathy would come into play.

Ria went down the hallway quietly, even though anybody on this floor who could sleep through such a skull-piercing racket must have stone earplugs or be deaf to start with. No need to be conspicuous, though. And hey, put a smile on your face, she told herself. Even though it hurt. Hi, I’m your neighbor from down the hall, and I’m here to help. She was not the old lady who banged on the ceiling with a broom. She was a nice woman, concerned, friendly, offering a solution.

Right.

She knocked on the door of the apartment at the end of the hall, waited a few second, then knocked again. Come on, I know you’re awake in there. She looked at the peephole and smiled. Ouch. She waggled her fingers. She knocked again.

When the door opened, it was the man who answered it. Hard-faced. Suspicious. Defensive. Well, she couldn’t blame him. Ria forced herself to smile again. “I’m not here to complain,” she said. “Relax, okay? Really I’m not. My name is Ria and I live in 3B. I think I know a way to help.”

The man, who even sleepless and haggard looked closer to twenty than twenty-five, started to close the door. Ria opened her eyes in wide, honest appeal. “First babies are tough,” she said. “Believe me, everybody gets overwhelmed. You’re never sure you’re doing the right thing, are you, no matter how many pamphlets you read or parenting classes you take. And sometimes nothing you do works, right?”

The kid stopped closing the door. “My mother said to rub his belly,” he said. “Like this.” He made slow, gentle circles in the air.

“I’ve heard that one. And pat his back, rock him, take him for a drive if you have a damn car–”

“We don’t.”

“Yeah, well, neither do I.”

“The doctor says there’s nothing wrong.”

“Marto?” came a voice from inside the apartment. “Marto, who are you talking to?”

The man looked back over his shoulder. “A neighbor. It’s all right, Sija. She says she wants to help.”

Ria said, “I bet the doctor told you the baby would grow out of it.”

The man looked back at her. “Yeah.”

“Yeah. That’s what they always say. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the baby won’t. Of course he will. But how long are you prepared to wait?”

“Marto? What’s going on?”

“I mean, how long can you stand it? And the baby’s suffering, too. Clearly. He wouldn’t be crying like that if something didn’t hurt.”

“It’s his stomach,” the man said. “Colic.”

“Very common,” Ria said, nodding. “Very common.”

“Marto?”

“Sija, hold on a second.” To Ria, he said, “The doctor said to put a warm cloth on his belly.”

“Does it help?”

“Not really.”

“I know what he needs,” Ria said. “And what you need, too. And your wife.”

The man jumped aside as the door swung open wider. A young woman with blazing eyes and hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed for a week pushed past him and stuck her face into Ria’s. The girl was short and barefoot and smelled of used diapers. “Who the hell are you?” she said.

“Sija, please.”

The mother was always going to be the harder sell. You had to expect that. Ria made her face compassionate. “I think I know a way to help. What the baby needs.”

“Really? What does he need, then?”

“Sleep,” Ria said.

Marto took Sija’s arm. The girl scowled. “Sleep. Well, you’re a genius, aren’t you. Of course he needs sleep. The only time he’s quiet is when he’s asleep. But we are not drugging our baby.”

“Who said anything about drugs?” Ria kept her eyes wide, her face open and kind. Her tooth was killing her and the baby hadn’t stopped wailing for an instant, but she had the husband already three-quarters hooked. She just had to get the mother on board. “Only idiots do that. And you’re not an idiot. That’s plain to see. As I was telling Marto here, sometimes this just happens with babies. And they do grow out of it. Usually. Like in a few months. But wouldn’t it be better if your baby could sleep through the worst of it?”

“Sure, but…” Sija sounded uncertain now. “How?”

“May I come in?”

A crucial moment. They’d either let her in, or they’d slam the door in her face.

Smile, damn you, Ria told herself, and forced her lips to obey.

“I think it’s all right, Sija,” the man said. “I’ve seen her before. She does live in 3B.”

“I’ve seen her before, too.” Stepping back, Sija crossed her arms. “All right, then. Come in. But I swear, if you’re trying to pull something, you’re messing with the wrong people.”

“I just want to help.”

Sija went inside, and Marto nodded at Ria and opened the door wider for her. Ria nodded back, and entered as a guest would, murmuring, “Let this home know peace.”

Sija was standing in the middle of the front room, her back to them and her arms still crossed. In the back room, the baby bawled. Ria had a quick look at the furnishings. Not much–table, chairs, shelves. One picture on the wall, a print of the view from the bay. No electronics. A few paper books on one shelf. She wondered if they even had a phone.

“So,” Sija said. “How can you help?”

“You know Underpass Market.”

“We do,” Marto said.

“You know you can buy or sell anything there.”

Sija muttered something, but Marto just said, “Yes.”

“You can buy sleep,” Ria said. “You can buy an hour’s worth, two, ten. There are lots of people willing to sell their sleep. I don’t know why. I guess some people just like to stay awake. Now listen, I’m not talking about dreams or nightmares or anything like that. Simply sleep.”

“Do we look like we have money?” Sija said, her back still turned.

“We’ve never been to Underpass Market,” Marto said. Ria saw from his expression that the idea did appeal to him, but he was hesitant. “We wouldn’t know how…how to find a seller.”

“I have a contact,” Ria said.

“We don’t have any money,” Sija said loudly.

“We could ask my brother. Your brother. It’s for the baby, honey. They won’t say no.”

Sija turned around. “And what do you get out of it?” she asked Ria.

“Nothing,” Ria said, with all the innocence she could muster. “You won’t be dealing with me. I’ll set you up with my contact.” If the bastard ever called back. “You do the business with him.”

“What’s his name?”

“I only have a number. He’s a skinny little guy, short hair. He’s a–facilitator.” She gave a little shrug. “I’m sure he’ll take a cut. Everybody’s got to make a living. But I know him. I can vouch for him. You’ll get quality merchandise. I haven’t been disappointed yet.”

“You’ve done business with him?”

“Yes.”

“But you don’t know his name.”

“Kid, that’s the way these people operate.”

“Sija,” Marco said. “I’ve heard of this. We can try it. Even if we buy only an hour or two. Nothing else is working.”

“I’m not asking my brother for more money.”

“Then I’ll ask mine.” Marto looked at Ria. “All right. Call this guy, this contact of yours.”

“Only if you’re both sure,” she said. Had to keep in character, had to play the part to the end. Doubts could still arise. Something could still go wrong.

“Sija?”

“All right,” she said. “All right, goddamn it.”

Pride and stupidity. How could Ria have not recognized it? Sija was just like her, only younger and more ignorant. Ria should have known. Afterwards, she paced up and down her room, asking herself how she had failed to see it. And when the old lady with the broom whacked the ceiling, Ria just stomped down harder.

The skinny prick called back when Ria was still in Marto and Sija’s apartment. “Excuse me,” Ria said, and went out into the corridor. Eggshell walls and all, better to snatch hold of any speck of privacy one could. Besides, the baby’s shrieking would cover a lot of what she said, even if they had their ears pressed against the door.

The skinny dude was all apologetic about not getting back to her earlier–things had come up, she knew how it was. Yes, Ria thought, she certainly did. Briefly, she gave him the run down– incessantly crying baby, parents going out of their minds, would pay decently if not handsomely for some sleep. For the baby, she stressed. (The decently if not handsomely part she pulled out of her ass. Marto would get the money somehow, she figured.) The skinny dude said he understood exactly what was required and could provide it within the hour, if the cash was ready. The cash was in another location, Ria said. The daddy would meet him at Underpass Market at opening time, if that was convenient. By the south entrance, near the café. Did that work for him?

That worked for the skinny dude just fine.

“Now let’s talk about me,” Ria said.

“What about you?”

“My cut.”

“Hey, wait a minute.”

“Wait a minute, nothing. I brought you a client, so I get a cut. Business is business. And the dental school clinic ain’t free, you know. It’s cut-rate and all you get is first-years working on you, but they still charge.”

“Oh,” the skinny dude said. “That.” He paused, and there was a quality to his pause that made Ria decide to let it run its course. Her patience was rewarded. Eventually, he cleared his throat and said, “I was just about to tell you. I’ve got good news. The order has been doubled. We’ll take two months this time.”

He’d just pulled that out of his own narrow ass, but she wasn’t about to challenge him on it. “Great,” she said, in her best neutral tone. She pushed him on the matter of her cut a little more, just for form’s sake, but she knew that that second month was all she was getting.

When she went back into Marto and Sija’s apartment, she discovered that each of them had a phone, and each of them was in the middle of a conversation. She nodded at Marto and gave him the thumb’s up. “Thanks,” he said into the phone. “See you soon.”

“Very soon, I hope,” Ria said. “My contact will meet you at Underpass Market in a couple of hours.” She described the meeting place, and she described the skinny dude, and reminded Marto that names were not commonly used by his sort. “Bring as much cash or tradeables as you can. You’re allowed to haggle, but you’ve got to be smart enough to know when a final offer is a final offer. You think you can do that?”

“Yes,” he said. He looked at Sija, who was still on the phone. She had her head down, and was talking very fast.

“All right, then,” Ria said. “Looks like everything’s set, then. Good luck.”

“Thank you,” Marto said. “Thank you so much.”

Ria went back to her apartment. Her toothache disappeared a couple of hours after dawn. The money transfer would appear in her account in a week; she knew that from the previous times. So that was the rent for next month taken care of. And if she was smart, she’d take the rest and just go to the dental clinic already. She’d think about that after she got some sleep, she decided. Shortly after the toothache vanished, the baby stopped crying, and she breathed a long sigh of relief. It had all worked out. Everything was fine.

She slept until mid-afternoon. When she woke up, the baby was still quiet.

It was still quiet the next day. And the next.

On the fourth day, Marto knocked on her door.

You’ve got to be kidding me, Ria thought, but she opened up.

The young man looked very worried. “He won’t wake up. Not even for a minute. Not even to nurse.”

“For fuck’s sake, man, how much sleep did you buy?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Sija went, not me.”

And that was when Ria began to suspect that her bright idea of selling the parents on buying sleep might in reality have been one more occasion on which she had been very, very stupid.

The mother. Resisting too much. Protesting too much. Talking rapidly on the phone after saying she wouldn’t ask anyone for money. The mother, home with the screaming baby all day, while the father probably got a few hours respite at work, or going around looking for work. She hadn’t seemed like she was at the end of her rope, but then some people’s ropes were shorter than others.

“This is not my fault,” Ria said.

“Please. You said you could help.”

She went back with him to his apartment. No real choice. If she’d shut her door on him, he would have just kept pounding on it until she opened it again. She was the nice lady, the friendly neighbor. The one who said she could help.

“It can’t be true that he hasn’t woken up to nurse. Not for four days. He’d be dead if that was so.”

“Sija says he hasn’t.”

Then Sija was a bloody liar.

Ria fervently hoped she was.

She was holding the baby when Ria and Marto came in. It was the first time Ria had seen the baby, if a glimpse of a blanket-wrapped bundle with a tiny bald head sticking out of one end counted as seeing a baby. Sija turned away as soon as they entered.

“How much goddamn sleep did you buy?” Ria shouted. “Fuck, even if you bought a lot, you didn’t have to use it all at once. Don’t you have any sense at all?”

“Get out of my home. I don’t want you here.”

“Sija,” Marto pleaded. “Please.”

“Your husband said the baby doesn’t wake up to nurse. Either that’s not true, or what you’re holding there is a dead infant. So which is it?”

“He’s quiet.”

“Girl, I will slap you. So help me, I will. You said you were the wrong people to mess with? Well, believe me, I’m much wronger than you. So tell the truth. Is it dead?”

“No,” Marto moaned. “No. He can’t be. Sija. Let me see him. I’m begging you.”

“He’s fine.”

“Do something,” Marto said to Ria. “Please.”

I’ve done a shitload more than enough, don’t you think? Ria thought, but the young man still saw her as a helpful, friendly, a person he could turn to. “If he’s really not nursing, you’re going to have to take him to a hospital.”

“He’s fine,” Sija repeated.

“Show us,” Ria said. “Look at your husband. He’s terrified. Don’t do this to him. Show us the baby. Prove that he’s all right.”

Marto made to move toward Sija, but Ria put her hand on his shoulder. It was going to kill him to see his son dead, a limp, dehydrated sack of bones. Marto was going to fall to bits. There was no rush to get to that moment.

This is all my fault, Ria thought. I should have seen it. Seen what was hiding inside the girl. Why didn’t I? Because of a stupid, damn toothache?

Or because I’m just like her? Me first, and the hell with everybody, anybody else. I couldn’t see it because I was blinded by my own reflection.

Of course the skinny dude would have sold her as much as she wanted, no questions asked. Business was business.

“There might still be time,” Ria said, not because she believed it. It was a ploy to get Sija to turn around.

Marto moved forward again, and this time Ria didn’t stop him. Me and my big ideas, she thought. Me and my middlemen. What was it, now? Don’t rent from family. Don’t do business with friends. And don’t ever trust a single goddamn person on the planet, including yourself.

Ria had never seen a dead baby before, not in real life, and she didn’t want to see one now, but she made herself stand there and watch. Punishment. Or rather the first stage of her punishment. Marto would figure it out eventually. Turn on her. Blame her. And he’d be right. He’d be ninety-nine percent right.

Pride and stupidity. Now Ria’s pride told her, You’re going to take what’s coming to you. When that boy gets it into his head that you were the cause of all this and starts beating the crap out of you, you’re not even going to raise your arms to defend yourself.

She hoped he wouldn’t kill her. Her life might not have been much, but she still would rather be alive than not. Pain was a different matter. She’d had a lot of it in her life. And the pain of a beating, the pain of broken bones, well, those could be sold, if you had contacts. Even if you didn’t, bruises and broken bones healed, sooner or later. A child’s death created an abyss of pain that you had to fill in a grain of sand at a time over decades; you never reached the point when the abyss was full. If you were lucky, you could make it navigable. You could walk around the edges. Even tip-toe gingerly over the narrower sections. But it would exist for the rest of your life. I hope I live, she thought. And I am as sure as shit glad that I’m not either one of these two.

“Sija,” Marto said softly.

“Stop fussing,” Sija said. “Everything’s all right.”

“Then why won’t you let me see him?”

He put her hands on her then, and Ria expected Sija to scream, to fight, to kick and elbow and run, but she let Marto take the bundle from her arms. Then Ria expected Marto to scream, drop to his knees, howl at the universe. Marto just stood, holding the bundle, breathing hard, then turned to her with an expression of relief. “He’s sleeping,” Marto said. “He’s just sleeping.”

Wishful thinking?

“Let me see.”

Ria couldn’t believe it until she’d checked for herself, but the baby was indeed alive. Its respirations were shallow and its face thin, but it had been recently bathed. “When was the last time you fed him?”

Sija shrugged.

“He wakes up to nurse. You lied to your husband about that.”

“No. He doesn’t really wake up. He suckles in his sleep.”

“You have to suckle him more. Do you understand? He won’t grow otherwise. He’ll die otherwise.”

Marto took the baby from Ria. “Can you wake him up?”

“Me? It was her that gave him all the sleep at once.”

“She made a mistake.”

Ria doubted that, but there was no point saying so to Marto. “How much sleep did you buy, anyway, Sija? Tell us.”

Sija just shrugged again.

“If you can buy sleep, then surely you can buy wakefulness,” Marto said.

“I’m sure you can.”

“Your contact. If you could call him again. Please. I promise I’ll go myself this time.”

And for a second, Ria was tempted. The skinny fuck would have to cut her in if she set him up with a second business opportunity. But then the dread she’d felt when she was certain the baby was dead returned, a hard slap to the conscience. Do not embrace stupidity again, she told herself sternly. Just this once, don’t be an arrogant idiot. “Bought wakefulness on top of bought sleep? That’s dangerous, son. That’s like throwing a ball of flame into a dry forest, and hoping for a campfire.”

“And this isn’t dangerous?”

“Of course it’s dangerous. Your baby needs to be fed regularly, kept hydrated–you could still take him to a hospital. They could give him IV fluids.”

“No,” Sija said. “I know how to take care of my son.”

“Honey,” Marto said.

“I know what I’m doing!” Sija shouted.

“No, you don’t,” Ria said. “You should, but you don’t. You think you do, but you don’t. He’s quiet, and that’s good, but he’s so quiet you forget to feed him sometimes, don’t you? You put him in his crib and leave him there for hours, isn’t that right?”

“No,” Marto said. “She wouldn’t. Sija, tell her. She wouldn’t, I swear.”

“How much sleep, Sija?” Ria asked again. “Tell us.”

“Six months.”

Marto gasped, then looked at Ria in horror. “That’s not possible.”

Of course it was possible. Ria had just been the middleman to a middleman, but she could imagine a dozen different scenarios. The sleep didn’t all have to come from one person, for example. But the most likely one… “My contact. That skinny guy. You made the deal with him, right?”

Sija nodded.

“It’s an old man’s sleep, isn’t it? Or an old woman’s.”

“An old man’s. Your contact said the old man was selling his sleep because he wanted to spend as much of the time that he had left awake.”

“What did that cost?” Marto demanded. “Where did you get the money?”

Sija looked away.

It didn’t really matter. There were a whole hell of a lot of ways to get money–or tradeables–when you really, really wanted to.

Suddenly Marto said, “But people die without sleep. Don’t they?”

“They do,” Ria said.

“Sija, you really gave the baby six months of sleep all at once? All six months?”

She had. Ria could see it in her face.

Apparently Marto could, too. “Take it back,” he said.

“I can’t.”

“Sija, you’re going to kill that old man. And the baby? Asleep for six months? How is he going to learn to sit up, to crawl, to do anything?”

Ria said, “I think once it is done, all poured out, if you like, you can’t…pour it back. They must have told you how to use it. Drop by drop, right?”

“It was heavy,” Sija said. “It was like a sack of bricks that I had to carry inside my head. I couldn’t hold them all.”

“What are we going to do?” Marto said. He looked at Ria with desperation. “There has to be something we can do.”

“You’re going to have to make sure she feeds the baby enough. And I guess you should move its arms and legs around, you know. So the muscles don’t waste away.” Guess being the big word there.

“That’s not what I meant. I meant to change this.”

“Sometimes you can change things. Lots of times, you can’t.”

“But you…” Marco said.

Here it comes, Ria thought. At least he’s still holding the baby. He probably won’t try to kill me until he puts it down.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t suggested buying sleep. It’s my fault. But I can’t change what’s been done, and I don’t know anyone who can.”

“It’s not your fault,” Marto said, which was the last thing Ria expected to come out of his mouth. “I should have gone to Underpass Market, not Sija. You heard her. It was too heavy for her. I should have been carrying it instead.”

Dear fuck, he wasn’t going to blame the girl, either? Ria felt a touch of awe. Could it be that she was actually standing in the presence of a nice guy?

More likely, he was just an idiot like everybody else. But if that was what was keeping him from bashing her brains in, then more power to stupidity.

“Wait a minute,” Marto said. “What happens when the old man dies? How long can you live without sleep, anyway?”

“I don’t know. Not months.”

“But what happens? If he dies–when he dies–what happens?” He gazed down at the baby.

Ria shook her head. “I know what you’re thinking. But the old man, whoever he was, he already sold it. It’s like–like you sell your car. You could drop dead the next day, but the car’s still sold.”

“It can’t work like that,” Marto said. “It makes no sense.”

Right, like so much in life did.

And Sija, the little bitch, smiled and said, “Six months is not that long.”

Marto didn’t get angry, even at that. “Why don’t you go rest now, sweetheart. Go lie down for a while, all right?”

Nice guy. Idiot. Maybe they were the same thing.

But when Sija had gone into the back room, Marto turned to Ria, and there was a different look in his eyes.

“We need to do some more business. Concerning sleep.”

“What?”

“For the old man. So he doesn’t die. You have to call your contact. You have to explain what happened. We have to find the old man, and get him enough sleep so–so what we did doesn’t kill him.”

“How are you going to pay?”

“I’ll give him some of mine. And so will you. A couple of hours each, every day. That’ll do, won’t it?”

Ria looked at him for a long time. “All right. But there’ll still be a commission.”

“Your skinny guy?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah. Nothing for nothing, even when lives are at stake. Don’t you hate this world?”

“Often,” Ria murmured.

“Commission. All right. Everybody says you can buy or sell anything at Underpass Market.”

“I’d agree with that,” Ria said.

“Then we’ll figure out a way to pay the commission.” He paused. “Sija must have done that. To pay for so much sleep, I mean.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Ria said.

“I love my wife. And I love our baby more than you can imagine. Sija made a mistake. I can forgive that. But I’ll never forgive myself if I let that old man die.”

“I’ll call my contact now,” Ria said. “Meanwhile, go see if you can get Sija to nurse the baby. She should do it every couple of hours, I think.”

“You’re going to help me with that, too,” Marto said. “Some days I pull twelve-hour shifts. So when I’m not here, you’re going to be.” A touch of steel in his voice.

Pride and stupidity had gotten her into this, as it had her into so many messes before. Time to change the pattern, she thought. To one of responsibility and duty. It might even be good for her.

And six months wasn’t really that long a stretch. It was going to be hell when her toothache came back, but she’d put up with it.

Six months without running away, ditching her clan-uncle’s shabby, slapped-together building and heading for the coast. What would she do there, anyway? Same stupid things she did in the city, probably.

“Yes,” she said. “I will.”

She took the phone out of her pocket. The battery was almost dead, but there was enough juice left to make a call and leave a message. She knew what to say. She’d had a lot of practice.

Within half an hour, she and Marto were on their way to Underpass Market. The skinny dude was waiting just where he said he’d be, with a big smile on his face.

___

Copyright 2015 Patricia Russo

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