Nema – Chapter Three: Part 1 of 4 (Smashing Pumpkins)

Clenching the steering wheel Nema bounced her middle finger impatiently on the turn signal lever, making it spring lightly up and down, only giving a full press when she needed to change lanes or turn. Pausing obediently at the stop light, the sound of the blinker was like a drippy faucet in her ear. The little car rocked a bit on its springs as a strong blast of wind swept into the side. Leaning forward onto the wheel, she rolled her eyes upward and glowered at the dark, afternoon sky.

“Nema, I need a few things from the market tonight. Could you pick them up on your way home, and drop them off at my house?”

“Can it wait for tomorrow?” She hadn’t told her sisters that she was making a special dinner for Neisha, but she thought it was obvious that she wanted to leave on time. Holding the stack of pristine, white towels, still warm from the dryer against her stomach she felt resentment flood in as Jung grabbed her tablet and began tapping quickly on the keyboard, clearly making a list.

“Make sure they give you the honey from Q-13 this time, not the local stuff.” Raising an eyebrow Nema forced back the urge to start an argument. With a final tap Jung looked up and smiled. “Thanks.”

The smile was so contrived that Nema felt it like a small cut. For a moment the pair froze, their eyes snared together like antlers. She was minimally aware that Hyun and Nari had both stopped working and were watching them. Swallowing her anger Nema snatched her gaze away and returned to stocking the salon’s stations, pointedly ignoring the looks being exchanged behind her back. Maybe Jung would forget to hand over her Q-card. It would certainly serve her right.

The parking lot of Q-23s market was maddeningly full, forcing her to circle it once before she was able to find an empty spot, and making her dinner plan dissolve almost completely. All these cars meant the lines were going to be long and slow. Turning off the engine she pulled the lever to release the trunk then braced herself for the wind. She had to push hard to get a large enough gap to allow herself to exit the vehicle. When she let go of the handle the door slammed like a hungry maw, nearly catching the edge of her shoulder bag that she whipped aside at the last second. Her long hair tore free from its ponytail and streamed blackly across her eyes as she let herself be pushed toward the trunk. Bracing the lid against her shoulder to prevent it from crashing down, she grabbed Jung’s peach hand-basket. Her own basket was tipped on its side, the long crack on it’s faded, royal blue bottom smiling stupidly at her. Blue had been the popular color four years ago. Jung had made sure she was the first of the sisters to get one of the new ones, presenting it to Nema as if she were bestowing a great gift. It had felt pretty good to literally toss the basket into her trunk and slam the lid while her sister watched.

The smell of baked pumpkin, cinnamon and nutmeg socked her in the nose as the market’s door slid open at her approach. Despite the wind she paused long enough to allow the magenta light to swell from the basket’s webbing as it passed through the door scanner. Her own basket just emitted a pitiful tone when she entered the Q-21 market. Rumor had it the light only worked with the peach baskets, but the feature would hopefully get rolled out to the other Quads in the coming months.

Q-23’s market was large and deep, and filled to the ceiling with the season’s produce. Everything from carrots, potatoes, sugar pumpkins and apples to tomatoes, pole beans, navy beans, ground wheat and beet sugar filled the bins and shelves in the front, just behind the heavy, main counter. On the left side was the bakery area with fresh pies and muffins, cookies and other seasonal treats as well as breads and rolls. In the very back on the right was the area reserved for the items the Quad traded for every year. The honey was stored in multiple, small metal vats with draw spouts. Q-23 had its own honey which was perfectly good, but Q-13’s honey was a specialized item. They devoted four fifths of their allotted garden space to just flowers for the bees. The honey was traded for wheat and other grains which they used to produce various types of alcohols which, in turn became the main trade item for the actual food that Q-13’s residents would need to live off of during the coming winter.

Several people from the bakery counter moved toward the exit all at once, each of them carrying a pie or a tinfoil wrapped roll. Wrinkling her nose at the smell, Nema refused to step aside for them, instead shouldering her way forward to the end of the line at the main counter. Looking casually back to see who had entered his space, the man ahead of her gave a surprised skitter. Encased in her hooded, brown jacket with her hair wind-blasted around her face she looked like the regrettable love child of a cave troll and a banshee. Staring up at him as hard as she could, she willed him to stop looking at her. Visibly uncomfortable he turned quickly back around and inched forward, away from her. Like a Slow Loris on a mission, Nema closed the gap. While she waited her thoughts turned to salt.

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