Fiction in response to Zero Hunger
By Caroline Sun
CC Image courtesy of Brian Evans
It was raining.
The boy ducked into a nearby ally, small hands raised over his head. There, he crouched down atop a crate, chest heaving. His dark, matted hair hung over his face, covering most of his chocolate-brown eyes.
As he sat there on the cold, wet ground, his stomach growled softly. The boy glanced around and cursed softly. Now that the rain was here, merchants would be closing up their stalls for the day. He was too late.
No. He had to get some food. He wouldn’t let his little sister starve again. At the thought of her, the boy’s heart clenched painfully. All too clear was the image of her emaciated body, her hollow features.
He had to hurry. Shakily, the boy stood, feet splashing water across the sidewalk. Slinking out of the ally, he slipped into the throng.
The rain fell harder, increasing in intensity until the boy was soaking wet. His oversized t-shirt hung from his bony shoulders, clinging to his skinny frame. The falling droplets coalesced on the cracked pavement, forming muddy puddles.
The boy’s bare feet slid across the rain-slick roads as he made his way towards the market. He dodged through the crowd easily, keeping his head down.
Despite the rain, the city was still hectic. Colorful umbrellas spun through the air, sending droplets of water onto his cold face. Heavy rain boots thudded past, and the boy made sure to watch his toes.
As he walked past a busy intersection, a huge truck drove by. Its rear wheels dipped into the growing puddle of water at the side of the road, sending a spray up across the sidewalk. The boy, standing right amidst the unfortunate splash, just shook off the cold water and continued walking.
Hunger did the worst things to people. As he walked down the dark streets, he couldn’t help remembering his mother’s corpse, as pale and unreachable as the winter sky. He shivered, trying to keep the memories away.
It didn’t work.
He remembered that morning, when he had woken up just before the crack of dawn in their little hut. He remembered walking over to her pile of blankets, yawning widely.
Her eyes had been open. Unblinking, yet open.
The boy had tried to shake her awake, as he had done every day since the day their dad disappeared. But she hadn’t replied. The boy had tried shouting at her, pinching her face. He’d even pulled at her arm, like he used to do when he was young and wanted attention. But she never moved.
She had given up her life just so her children could go to bed full. And although sometimes the boy hated her for it, hated her for leaving him alone, he understood. After all, he would do the same for his little sister. If it meant that she got to eat a full meal, he would do anything.
The boy’s thoughts were interrupted as he approached the market square. In the center of the square was a tall statue of a woman, raising her hands to the heavens. Surrounding the statue, in concentric circles, were stalls of all sizes and shapes. Many consisted of a tarp thrown over a few propped wooden slats. Already, many of the stalls were closed for the day, waterproof covers thrown over the makeshift little tents.
The boy walked forward anxiously, peering around the square.
There! In the corner of the huge courtyard was a small cart full of fruit. A battered wooden sign reading “50 cents per appll apple” was propped up next to it. The vendor was nowhere in sight.
The boy headed towards the fruit cart, glancing around furtively. The square was mostly empty, except for an old lady hunched under the statue, and she was fast asleep. The boy clasped his hands together, trying to massage some feeling back into his frozen fingers.
He came to a halt before the cart, scrutinizing the fruit. The glossy skins of apples shone dully, covered in a sheen of rain.
The boy smiled, relieved. Already he could taste the crisp sweetness of the apple. He stretched out a hand, caressing the soft surfaces of the fruit. His thin fingers curled around a perfect apple, red and round, and he pocketed it.
As the boy pocketed another one, a small twinge of guilt lodged itself in his gut. For all he knew, this person lived as poor a life as he did. And now here he was, stealing their fruit.
No, he told himself firmly. Think of your sister. As hard as it was, the only way to survive was to care about yourself. And what was one apple anyways? The vendor had plenty to spare. Determined, the boy picked up a third apple and turned away. He headed back in the direction he came from, tossing the apple casually in his hand.
Suddenly, a shout rang throughout the empty market square, loud and clear.
Panicked, the boy dropped the apple onto the pavement. It bounced, rolling across the wet pavement. There was a smear of dark mud across its side. Glancing back, the boy spotted the vendor a few hundred meters away, across the square. He was running, arms outstretched.
The boy’s heart filled with dread. The vendor must have seen him take the apples.
“Thief! Police, help, there’s a thief!”
It wouldn’t be long until someone heard. The boy ran towards the apple, chasing it across the slick pavement. He needed that apple, and there wasn’t enough time to go back to the cart.
The boy grabbed desperately for the apple while still running, fingers brushing its smooth surface. As he bent forward, however, his feet slipped on the slick ground and he fell.
Pain shot through the boy, and he groaned. His knees throbbed where they hit the concrete, and his palms were scraped.
The vendor’s voice was louder now, raised in anger as he approached. The boy glanced back in fear. He was only a few meters away now, striding quickly towards him with rage written across his face.
The boy crawled to his knees, breathing hard. He looked back at the vendor once more, getting closer and closer, still yelling loudly. He looked at the apple, lying on its side in a puddle a few arms lengths away, dented but edible. He looked out towards the street, towards the crowds of people in the distance. If he ran, he might make it. He could blend into the crowd, disappear into an alleyway. And then he remembered his sister, the pain in her eyes and the weakness in her thin body.
The boy reached out and grabbed the apple.