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by Robin Pfeifer

A goddamned wasteland, that's what this city is. Not a good first stop on any journey into the whole wide world, and definitely an anticlimax even in comparison to the boring Irish town the name of which Fiona had vowed never even to think again the moment she had turned her back on it. Run away from not much of a home - stowed away on a freighter in the company of a dirty and stinking sailor with an unpronouncable name but a definite liking for young, white flesh she had satisfied with a flick of the wrist - and now, welcome to hell.

For what must have been the hundreth time on this overcast, cold winter morning, Fiona rummaged in the single outside pocket of her once-red jacket and fished out the crumpled photography with the yellow sheen on it, which showed a young woman with red hair and a lot of freckles - hair and freckles like Fiona's - smiling insecurely into the camera. A hairdo so unfashionable it was back in fashion again, and the garishly coloured blouse to go with it, marked the photo as having been made back in the 70s, when the world was still colourful provided you took the right kind of pills first. Fiona had come to know that the woman in the picture was her Mom who had left her on the porch of a small church back in you-know-where, wailing and miserable and at an age still measured in hours. Or so she'd been told all her life. About her father she had found out nothing, and the parish priest, in the house of whom she had grown up and who was a good man both in his own and his parishioners' eyes, had always said that was for the better. Forget him and your mother, child, they were sinners. She was a sinner as well, and she had lost count of the nights she could not lie on her sore back when the priest had decided she had to be punished again for all that she had sinned again. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Right-ho, spoiled she was, and proud of it.

That day, not a week ago, had been a godsend, had there been someone worthy of the epithet. Fiona had long decided that there wasn't. If there was anybody, he had better go back to creationist school and have it all explained to him again so that he did not make such a mess again next time.

Anyway, that day the priest had locked her up in the confessional (imagine that! A confessional with a lock! What would that be for?), because one boyfriend of hers had beaten up another who had dropped her after having had his way with her, uppity son of a lawyer that he was. His parental connections proved the other boy's downfall - he was now in the pen, but only after saying that was bloody well worth it.

Fiona had not been caught too close to the opposite sex for the first time. Hell, she was fifteen and there was absolutely nothing else to do in you-know-where. It's not as if she hadn't liked it, most of the time. Guys were so easy. Not two years ago they had called her matchhead for her hair, and worse things, then come puberty, and oops - two reasons why they were suddenly very nice to her. You could play them like an instrument, the poor sods.

Well, you didn't hang out with the people she did (excepting the lawyer's little boy for a moment) without picking up a thing or two, and locks had been among them. The one on the confessional was no stranger to her, she could have opened that with toenail clippings if she had had to.

She had sneaked into the house, meaning to pack her bags and move, when she heard the whining voice of Mrs. Cavanagh, the righteous bitch who sought to buy a place in heaven by keeping the priest's household. "She's no good", she was saying, "one day she'll come in and tell you she is pregnant, and then we'll have two of the kind. That simply will not do!"

"But I have my responsibilites, Mrs. Cavanagh, and you know that!" All the authority normally reserved for Sunday sermons had gone into that sentence. "I cannot give up on her now, I have not taken her from her godless mother to let her go to waste as well."

"Oh, but Father, you surely have done enough good to balance this one - this unfortunate event, and the Lord..."

"Mrs. Cavanagh, you are overstepping your bounds! She stays, and that's that. I will not discuss this any further."

Fiona had been hiding on the stairs, and when Mrs. Cavanagh backed out of the priest's library, all excuses, she pressed herself flat against the wall and became very quiet. The hag hurried into the kitchen and took her frustration to the dishes. Fiona might have been a failure in Mrs. Cavanagh's eyes (and make no mistake, the priest had shown her more than once that she was not worth anything he had ever done for her), but she was no fool. She was - how had Mrs. Cavanagh put it? - his unfortunate event. And he had taken her from her mother, she had not been abandoned at all. Well, you didn't even have to be able to add two and two together to figure that the priest obviously was her father. Fiona had chuckled to herself about all those times the priest had given her that sermon about self-absorbed and uncaring sinners like her mother and father, and his most favourite: "From naught cometh naught". Bull's eye, man.

She had sneaked back into the confessional, had locked it again after her and was all angels when he finally came to release her. He sent her to her room and she obliged - smiling like sweet. If that transformation puzzled him, he did not show it.

Come nightfall, the priest went to bed, as he was wont to do when no services were to be held. Not long after, a low but unrelenting snoring could be heard, when Fiona pressed her ear to the door. She stole down into the library and began searching the priest's desk and papers for a clue. That was when she found the picture of her mother; it was in a folder in his drawer, right on top of a number of documents dating back to the 70s and concerned with applications for custody and other things. Among the papers she found carbon copies of correspondence with a company in Liverpool - reading them, she found that the priest had obviously sent her mother away to England and set her up to work with that selfsame company!

Fiona pocketed the letter and the photo, hurried up to her room, grabbed the bag she had already packed and left that place without ever turning back. She was headed for Liverpool, and she was going to find her mum!

Well, here she was now, and any illusions she had about life in the big city lay shattered back in the sorry excuse for a port they had here. This city was a dirty place, the people looked bored at best and dead at worst, and every face spelled recession. The address in the letter was not far from the port, and she had asked her way there, only to find that only the shell of the building remained, and three letters of the company name above the door. The company had been one of many casualties of Mrs. Thatcher's government.

Fiona had never been shy, so she had simply walked up to some kids her age hanging around on a street corner and asked them what to do. They had talked a while, and one of them had told her: "If anyone knows his way 'round this bloody city like the way to his own arse, it's Jimmy-Joe".

Other than that this living city directory lived in the borough of Toxteth, the kids could not help any further, so she went there, swapping some pilfered cigarettes for a catapult first. Practising on her way to Toxteth she broke the window of a small shop, but she was a good runner and managed to get away from the young man chasing her screaming for a few blocks. Now here she was on the outskirts of Toxteth, and it had just gone worse. Toxteth was an urban nightmare. Half the houses were abandoned, the others had better be. This could have been life after the nuclear holocaust, Fiona imagined. Whole streets were deserted, the two-storey houses dilapidated, the lawns overgrown with weed and garbage. Blocks had caved in or had been torn down without anyone bothering to take away the rubble. They had just piled the garbage on top of it, and had created a mini-mountain range of ex-civilization with narrow paths between the various junk summits.

Fiona was walking between these hills, eyeing the ground for something, anything still usable (there was nothing. Everyone had done that for years, and nothing was left), when she heard the distinct sound of a number of motorcycles on the other side of a particularly large hill. It didn't sound as if the bikers were riding off - they were waiting for something, revving their engines every once in a while, but staying in place. Fiona's nosyness and curiosity took over and guided her steps carefully up that hill. She peeked over the bent metal shape at the top and saw a number of baddies in jeans and leather on custom-disrepaired bikes encircling a huddled form on the ground which looked like a discarded greenish-black sack, but then twitched and moved a bit. It was a person in distress, and although Fiona had not previously known she had a caritative streak, she plucked a nut from the metal thingy in front of her, put it in her catapult, took aim, and -

Time went very slow when Fionas keen eyesight followed the small dot hurtling towards the army helmet one of the nastier-looking bikers was wearing. He was holding an ugly set of chains, designed for doing very bad things. The dot closed in, and the oblivious sneer of the guy spoke of unforgettable torture. She was roast.

Fiona turned around and - slipped. She fell flat on her fanny, her red hair sticking out like a beacon slightly above the trash, underlined by her distinct "Ouch!".

Heads turned at the precise moment the nut connected with the helmet of the biker, giving a metallic clang (Fiona could see the letters of the word come sailing over the hill comic-style), followed by the sound of man and machine losing their equilibrium and crashing unceremoniously on the ground. Fiona was making her way down the trash when the bikers were still puzzling out what happened, but the more hedonistic among them decided that a moving target was more interesting than a huddling one even without actually understanding they had been attacked. The revved up their engines in a "19, 20, coming!" roar, and sped down a path leading around Fiona's hill.

Fiona, meanwhile, reached the ground and began to run. She turned this way and that, always expecting to hear the bikes closing in, or worse, come up from the front. She lost her way, and while the bikes took longer than expected to catch up on her due to the litter on the path, she had only seconds before she met an undoubtedly messy end. Then, she spied a hole in the trash to her left, just big enough to accommodate her. In a frenzy, she jumped in, squeezing and squiggling into it, and pulled in her foot not a second too late when the first bike roared by.

The bikers soon found that their quarry had escaped somehow. They searched this way and that, and they grew even more frustrated when they saw that their initial victim had also managed to get away. Eventually they fired up their engines again and soon were only a thunder on the horizon and a heavily thumping heart in Fiona's chest.

Looking down at herself, Fiona gasped. She was bare naked, not a thread on her.

Confused, she turned around, seeing her sneaker in front of the hole she had hidden in, a hole that looked far too small now to have ever taken her in fully. Nevertheless, she found her clothes in a heap inside. She quickly put them on again, not wanting to think what might have happened and secretly wishing herself back to you-know-where where life was simple and easy and sucked in a friendly way.

A movement above her gave her a jolt, and she looked up, ready to escape. There, a couple of meters above her, sat the ugliest kid she had ever seen. So ugly it was cute again, probably an effect of sympathy. It (he or she? Difficult to say) sat there on its haunches (dogs do that. People squat!), looking curiously down at Fiona. A wide mouth with a strange v-shaped twist to the middle of its lips, small, beady eyes, a greenish tinge to the skin, matte black thin wisps of hair, and formless clothes the colour of which Fiona had seen before - the twitching greenish-black sack, no doubt of it. She had risked her life saving - that? The squatting kid stood up, ever so slowly, and climbed with agonizing deliberateness down the garbage hill as if every step had to be carefully calculated. The sack was obviously hiding some deformity, like a hunched back or something.

At long last, the kid was standing in front of Fiona, and it looked up at her - adoringly. While half of Fiona's brain screamed in disgust, the other fell instantly in love with the creature.

Slowly the kid - Fiona decided that it was most probably a girl - reached out a hand as if making first contact with an alien species, taking Fiona's hand and then saying: "Thank. You." Fiona, for once, was at a loss for words. "Ah, well - ahem - think nothing of it. Ah - look..."

The girl (definitely a girl) turned and began pulling Fiona along. Without protesting, Fiona let herself be led between the hills towards an exit, although she had to restrain herself not to overtake her guide. Had this been a shopping centre and not a junkyard in the middle of urban hell, she could easily have found the time to buy a whole cupboard full of new clothes in the meantime without letting go of her guide or her guide stopping. And that included trying everything on.

Finally (the sun had, surprisingly, not begun to set nor rise again, not that you could tell easily in the murk), they were reaching a decent street. Could only be hours now. But the kid let go of Fiona's hand, and managed somehow to scamper in slow motion over to a heap of garbage, there pulling an old bucket free from the junk, then scraping a huge amount of smelly dogshit from the ground and filling it into the bucket. She put the bucket down on the ground near the low remains of a brick wall, then took up a length of pipe, turned around her own axis three times clumsily, then threw the length of pipe over her shoulder. It came to rest in the middle of the path.

Somehow she managed to make these silly actions look like a good day's work. She was smiling when she came back to Fiona. Walking down the street, Fiona managed to overcome her puzzlement and ask the girl whether she knew a certain Jimmy-Joe. The only indication that the girl had heard her at all was an ever so slight adjustment to her course. She kept leading Fiona down the run-down street, and Fiona caught herself entering the girl's decidedly decelerated time stream and wondering about the people and cars rushing by as if they were pursued by the hordes of hell.

After several weeks of travelling (now don't be silly) the girl stopped and pointed at one of the run-down houses. It looked like all the others here, which means it should have rolled over and died any moment now.

"Is that where Jimmy-Joe lives?" Fiona asked. The girl pondered that for an eternity, then shook her head, turned around and went away.

Needless to say, Fiona was utterly confused. She stood there in the street, not knowing what to do, while the girl, who had not spoken a word all the time since the initial contact, eventually disappeared around a street corner. Shortly later, a boy showed up, not older than 13, coming up the street and walking towards the door of the house the girl had indicated. He stopped, halfway up the stairs, turned towards Fiona, and squinted at her. When she did not move, he came back down the stairs and walked towards her. "You okay?" he asked helpfully.

"Er - Jimmy-Joe?" Fiona instantly felt silly having said that, and was mightily surprised when he said "Yes - do I know you?" In a rush Fiona re-entered the normal time flow and finally managed to focus on the boy. He didn't look too bright and he wasn't wearing exactly wearable clothes, but then again, no-one here was. "You are Jimmy-Joe? Some kids told me you knew this city like - um, well you know people and places."

The boy beamed at her. "That's true", he stated, not bragging, but as if it were an evident fact and he was glad she had figured that out. "And what's your name?"

Fiona told him and then began pouring out her story and showing him the picture she was carrying. All the time Jimmy-Joe listened to her carefully, nodding his head understandingly. When she had ended, he said: "Well, there's not much we can do right now about that, but I promise you I will help you look for your mom tomorrow."

"Fine", Fiona said. "Right now, I am more worried where to sleep, actually."

"Oh, not to worry", Jimmy-Joe replied, "I know a lot of fine places - some are even warm!"

At least this boy did not move as if he was in a state of suspended animation. He lead her back the way she had come, telling her a story how he was doing the shopping for a nice old lady down the street who was nearly deaf and blind, and he had the keys to her house and she would soon be asleep anyway and Fiona could crash on her downstairs sofa if she wanted and if she was an early riser (not as such, but I'll manage).

The house was near that damn garbage lot she had just come from, and Fiona was surprised to find that it was mere five minutes from where Jimmy-Joe lived. It was also directly opposite of the house of Jimmy-Joe's old lady, and the two of them waited in a conveniently hidden place for the downstairs light to move upstairs and eventually extinguish altogether.

Fiona asked Jimmy-Joe about the girl she had met, and he said "That's Turtle. That's what the kids here call her. She's a loner. And a loony."

She was about to reply something, when down the street the umistakable sound of motor bikes appeared. "Down!" Jimmy-Joe hissed, already ducking behind a crumbling garden wall as his long-trained survival reflexes kicked in. Fiona crouched beside him and seconds later the biker gang reappeared. Fiona blinked, for she could have sworn one of them was impossibly huge and blue, and the others had rows upon rows of crooked, malicious teeth, but that illusion went as fast as it had come. With satisfaction she noted that the one leading the group had a new dent in his helmet and was wearing a white bandage underneath. The bikers turned into the path across the junkyard where she and the girl had exited, and the following events would replay in exquisite slow motion for a long time after in her dreams. The leader of the bikers reached the place where the length of pipe had landed. It was pulled up when his front wheel rolled over it, somehow ending up between the spokes of it. It blocked the wheel when it struck the fork, and the bike bucked like an untamed stallion. Its rider was immediately airborne, and with flailing limbs sailed towards an outcropping of remaining brick wall. His helmet departed his head's company and flew on the pile of trash, while the biker himself landed bandaged head first in the bucket of dogshit. The other bikers tried to evade the tumbling bike and ran straight into the garbage to the left and right, toppling, cursing, swearing, and some screaming with pain or fear.

Lights went on in all the houses on the other side of the street while people were looking out to find out what the commotion was. Things took some time to cool down, but Fiona and Jimmy-Joe had to fight for their composure for fear of giving away their witnessing the embarrassing scene. At last, the bikers had pulled their bikes free from the grasp of the trash, lifted them and their companions from the ground and retreated in a disorderly if in one case smelly manner.

Yes, things were definitely looking up, Fiona decided. Her new friend seemed nice enough, if a bit young, and when the lights went out in the house opposite the junk yard and the old lady went to sleep, Jimmy-Joe let her into the house and she could make herself comfortable and above all else warm on the lady's sofa.

When Jimmy-Joe had left and she finally slept, she had the strangest dream about turtles and about huge amounts of salad and carrots.

But that is another story.

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