House of Crooks

She was entering the jowls of the underworld—this she knew. The pithy, smelly, raggy lands where ashes scattered over the ripe heart and death was only a quick spell away. Her footprints in the sand were heavy and aching in the underbelly. The scents of the foul were all over the stained bricks. Eight out of ten didn’t make it back alive—this she also knew.

She just planned to be one of the two who did.

“I’m looking for a job,” said Arisa, in the most plaintive tone she could manage.

She was laughed out of the room.

Later, when she was starving, and the ends of the earth seemed to be before her eyeballs, a woman fetched her from the moss and grime.

The woman grasped her by the chin, as if she were an unpleasant stray cat.

“Aren’t you aware they’re looking for you?” The woman asked Arisa with disdain.

Arisa shook her head blankly.

She collapsed onto the black fur rug, tainting it with blood.

The woman jerked the rug away from her so that Arisa came to face the stone floor.

“No, that’s no good either,” the woman muttered. She retrieved a jug of water and sloshed Arisa with it.

“Scrub that floor, please, while I make dinner.”

Arisa tried to oblige, but each pellet of the stone seemed to eat the other, and the whole of the stone didn’t budge.
Her world shrank to the length of the stone and slipped away.

“Who is that dead girl?” He slamed the door open, knocking anything living thing into electric-wire fear, or so he hoped.

“So you’re home.” Ritsu gave him the flattest, most unimpressed look.

He demanded that she answer him but she chose to stir the soup in silence. Her eyes darted to the sleeping medicine, located conveniently next to the oregano, and then back to eye-level with the soup.

With an injured air, he squatted to feel the girl’s pulse.
It was weak and barely there.

“Give me the soup,” he barked.

And Ritsu turned away, her lips twisting bitterly.

Once upon a time, he’d ask her to welcome him home with a smile. Ask, because even then she wasn’t nearly as willing as he liked to pretend she was.
Once upon a time, they imagined they loved each other.
Imagined, because it wasn’t true.
But the illusion of a dream was the last remnant of one, the last trace before a vanishing existence.
It had been dissatisfying but at least it was something.
She’d smile, so that her gums showed. And bow slightly as if he were somebody’s grand master.
Then, she’d turn back to her broth.

That, compared to this was a stone-cold bitch compared to someone human. Exactly that.

Arisa had never believed in moral absolutism, because she didn’t really like to believe in anything. But now she felt like there was at least a ground rule she could set down: don’t be an asshole.
It was advice like breathe air and walk with two feet if you have them. But sometimes a reminder was necessary.
When she recovered enough, when enough days of gulping down scalding amounts of chicken noodle soup, seconds after it left the pot, Arisa rose to her feet.
She breathed. She took three steps forward, to where Ritsu’s husband, Astir, the absolute fool, rested on his mat and she punched him.
It was a slow wind-up, leaving enough time that Ritsu could have stopped her if she wished.
But Ritsu’s eyes had flickered back to the sleeping medicine and her mouth had twitched with laughter. There was something she had seen in the little girl she had plucked off the streets, some sort of rugged camaraderie. They were kindred spirits, she figured.
The punch struck Astir by the balls, a peculiar choice for the young girl, but one the girl stuck by with deftness as her fist plunged its way up.

Ritsu’s lips tightened into a belligerent smile.
She had flashbacks, now, of the first few instances she had kicked men in the groin area. Some were during particular taekwondo sessions where the douches were winning and she was fed up. But some were in scattered days of middle school, when her hobby was being a tomboy and her passion was beating people up.
It had given her joy then. But the small thrill was nothing to this, outright orgastic pleasure of raising up a little headcase of her own.

Astir came to a violent awakening as his balls erupted in pain.

“Please no,” he muttered as he looked up at the little girl, before registering her face.

Then his hands clutched at her, ripping vengefully, every and any direction until his revenge was exacted.

Ritsu slammed a leg into her husband, knocking him back into the stone wall.

Arisa was crying now, silent tears, like she had trained herself to do, if ever she was feeling too sorry for herself and the water wouldn’t stay inside.

Nobody noticed.

Astir blinked awake, making out the hazy figure of his wife.

She was stirring something again—probably his favorite potion by the looks of it.

His conscious flickered away again.

“I have you to thank, little girl,” said Ritsu, beaming. “For finally giving me courage to go through with this,” she gestured at her cabinet of herbs.

Arisa nodded, still icing her bruised arms. “Thank you for saving me.”


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