We’d always been poor. But Ma and Pa made ends meet. No matter what they had to do. Scrounging for food in dumpsters, begging for food behind restaurants, buying what day old rations they could afford.
The mines didn’t pay well. It was grimey, gritty work. Pa came home with a cough. He was all right, he said. Said it until the day he kipped over, spluttering out mucus and blood all over the threadbare carpet.
One tear ran down Ma’s face, closely followed by a second. But only the first made it to the floor where Pa lay. She wiped the other back fiercely, like she didn’t want it to exist.
With Pa gone, Ma took on more work. Not just sweeping up hair down at Jay’s. The local barber wasn’t enough anymore. I could scrounge for me own food, but the littles? At five and six they couldn’t fend for themselves, and at ten I wasn’t old enough, strong enough, or clever enough to do so.
I tried though. For Jay and for Reno, who owned the rights to the market, I ran errands. Under shop-fronts with their corrugated iron roofs, where you always knew if it was raining, down through the desolate quarter with their holey walls and paper castles. We were poor, but there’s always someone worse off.
My meager pay didn’t help for much. It barely paid for my meals and still I was so dang proud of myself. The littles looked up at me, green eyes round like the fresh apples we couldn’t afford. They clutched at the shiny coins in my hands like I was the most amazing big brother ever.
Until Ma came home and coughed.
She never told me where her other work was. She never told me how much we needed to cover the rent of our shack and its missing corner of the roof. She never told me anything until I held her, hugged her, and heard the rattling in her chest.
Ma tried to speak. I’m sure she tried to say she was alright. But I knew what happened to Pa when he said that – and the littles and I couldn’t lose Ma. Never. Ever.
There were rumors of course. Of things that could cure. Natural things. And of evil things. Things you had to sell body parts to get. I had a body, and parts. Ma had to live.
Jay said Reno would know. And I’d done Reno favors, so I asked. He watched me, an odd twitch to the eye with the scar running through. Rumor had it he could see into your soul. I always thought he’d done offended the wrong punter.
He watched me while I spoke, while I tried to explain that me and the littles couldn’t manage with Ma sick.
“You’re a big boy now, Jack.” He said, clucking his tongue and twirling the straw in his teeth.
I nodded and waited. There was a man behind Reno, but I couldn’t tell much about him. Each breath he took made his chest enormous. His eyes obscured by the shaggy brows above. A huge hulking shadow. The biggest man I ever saw.
“Tell you what, lad.” The man said and his voice hissed like a snake, deep and haunting to the bone. But I leant forward, because I had to know. “I’ll give you these beans, Jack. They’re magic beans. If you can get them to grow, I’ll help save your mother.”
I stood back and crossed my arms. Maybe I’m just ten, and maybe I’m none too smart, but I’m not completely stupid. “If I can get these to grow, you’ll help me Ma?”
For a moment he was silent, but nodded. “I’ll help your Ma, and you’ll owe me.”
Shivers ran down my spine, but I had to be big, didn’t have time to be a kid anymore. “Done.” I said, spat on my hand and shook with the big man before my courage wore off.
Beans. Couldn’t be too hard to grow, right? Never grew a thing in me life, but all I had to do was find earth dirt. I searched and I ran and I hunted up and down. Through the dead zone where the plagued went to die, through the desolate quarter and all through to the end of the poor… and I found it.
Between the high concrete walls of the outer crumbling buildings, there was a tiny sliver. Just a crack in this otherwise concrete jungle. I fetched stagnant water from a nearby puddle and pushed the beans down into the crack as far as my small fingers let me, and then I upended the liquid all over them.
I didn’t tell Ma, though I bathed her forehead and went without my own food so the littles could eat. They thanked me, eyelashes fluttering like butterflies while Ma suppressed the coughs wracking her thin body as best she could.
It had to grow. It had to grow.
The next morning I went back, with a break in the clouds enough to let sunlight rain down on us for one of the rarer moments we get these days. Where the light shimmers and for once the hope surges through that being poor might not be our sentence, but a better future.
The plant was stronger than I expected, with three buds. Against all those odds, it had grown, was growing, right before my eyes. As quick as I dared, I gave it more water, and watched for a few moments. Must’ve been my imagination, but I swear the concrete had new cracks that weren’t there yesterday.
After double-checking my end of the deal, I began the run to Reno’s market to let the stranger know. I’d just stop by our house on the way, to feed the littles and let Ma know everything would be okay.
Screams reached me long before I reached them.
I watched, hands limp at my sides while snakey man stood watching men drag the littles over their shoulders – kicking and screaming – away from our hovel.
“But I made the beans grow.” I didn’t mean to sound so sad. I didn’t even mean to speak.
“Yes, Jack, you did. No more worries for you now, not with the littles gone.” His dark eyes look me up and down for a moment and his smile hurt my head with how wrong it was. “Remember you owe me. I’ve taken care of your mother for you.”
A cold pit formed in my stomach and I scrambled to run into our house. Coppery tang hit my nose as I barged in. Blood streaked the room, all the beds, even the meager food supplies.
Ma’s blank eyes gaze up at the open gash in the ceiling.
There is no magic.