The markets glimmer in the dark like firelight.
It’s the fairy lights draped over each booth, Jamie thinks, and the lanterns that criss-cross the paths between them. Individually, each bulb is small. They don’t produce much light. But together… massed together, they’re breathtaking.
It’s a nice metaphor. Jamie mentally notes it down to use later in a story.
‘Okay, we got a bunch to do. Where first?’ Jack asks the group, his arm slung over Callum’s shoulder. Jamie glances sidelong at them, then away.
It’s not jealousy, exactly. It’s not like they miss being with Jack specifically, and he and Callum really do make a good match (hell, Jamie had been the one to suggest that Callum ask Jack out in the first place). But of their circle of friends, Jamie is the only one who doesn’t have someone and sometimes that loss feels like lead in their stomach.
It had been their choice, they have to keep reminding themself of that. It had been Jamie who had told Jack it wasn’t working, and they have no one else to blame.
And they’re at the markets, and they’re big and bright and bursting with life and maybe, maybe they can find someone here, find a connection. Somewhere amidst the lights and the lanterns, the arts and crafts, music and sound, amidst the swell and push of humanity, maybe there is someone here who they can connect with.
Coffee in one hand, and they won’t sleep well tonight. But Jamie’s wandering feet have led them to a stall bursting with music and movement, a keyboardist spinning songs from their fingertips. Jamie stops and watches, lets the music sink into their bones, and the song comes to an end and the keyboardist looks up and meets their gaze.
There’s warmth, there. Curiosity, fascination. The potential for a connection, maybe, if they dare. They hold Jamie’s gaze for a moment, then a smile crosses their lips.
Jamie smiles back.
Danica hands over the sketch, accepts the ten dollars, and gives a sunshine-bright saleswoman smile.
‘Pleasure doing business with you!’ she beams, tucking the note in the tin. She’s already planning out the groceries – eighty cents for a half-kilo tin of lentils, two bucks forty for peanut butter, a dollar sixty for the no-name supermarket bread…
There’s a gap in the music; she glances up from her list. ‘Hey, Lucc? White, wholegrain, or multigrain?’
The pianist runs a hand through eir hair with one hand and reaches for the water bottle with the other. ‘Uh, dunno. We already get rice?’
‘Yeah, two pictures ago.’
Danica nods and jots it down. ‘Cool. We almost have enough for bananas.’
‘Bitchin’.’ Lucc grins and launches into a cover of The Banana Boat Song; a few of the market-goers pause to sing along to the old standard. Smiling back, Danica drums against her little table to provide some accompaniment, a few red curls escaping their clips to bounce around her face as she sways to the song.
The movement helps. Movement means catching people’s eye, catching people’s eye means they’re more likely to look at the paintings she has for sale or, more likely, the ten-dollar sketches she does (‘While you wait!’). It works out well, sharing a booth with Lucc. They split the vendor fee, eir music attracts people who might buy Danica’s art; those browsing her art will inevitably listen to Lucc’s music and maybe contribute a few dollars to the tip jar, maybe buy an EP.
Rent does not come cheap.
Lucc has wrapped up the cover and gone into one of eir own compositions. A few stick around to listen, including a cutie with freckles splattered over their face like paint and a jacket adorned with a riot of colourful badges. They (there’s a nonbinary flag amongst the badges) have one hand on their cocked hip, a smile on their lips. Danica is about eighty percent sure they’re flirting.
‘This next one,’ Lucc says as ey finishes up, ‘Is dedicated to all the beautiful people out here tonight.’ Ey winks at the one in the jacket, Danica laughs at the blush it produces and turns back to set up her sketchpad for the next portrait.
It’s on the ground, along with her pencils and eraser, stool overturned. The kneaded eraser is half buried, and there’s the imprint of a boot in its soft surface.
‘What the hell?’ she mutters, straightening up the stool, trying to work the mud out of the eraser. It’s well and truly ground in, unusable without leaving streaks of dirt over the paper, and she bites her lip savagely.
Kneaded eraser, four dollars ten. Broken 4B pencil, eighty cents for one or two bucks for the three-pack for the cheap ones…
The thing is, she’s starting to realise, is that the stool had been tucked away in the middle of their little stall. It’s not somewhere where people might randomly bump into it, where they might accidentally knock her supplies to the ground. To get the imprint of a boot like that (and Danica’s boots have a different print, and Lucc has not left the keyboard since she last saw her sketchbook), it would have to be deliberate.
The cash box hasn’t been touched yet. Danica hesitates, then slips the money out and into her jacket pocket, buttoning it shut.
She hates not trusting people. Hates it. Danica likes to think herself an extrovert, that the people she surrounds herself with are good at heart. She likes to think that the people at the night market are people who care, who are seeking homemade food and handcrafted art, to hear live music and to exist within humanity’s heartbeat.
Vandalism doesn’t come under that category.
There’s a break in the music and, just on the edge of her hearing, a few whispers. Some muffled laughter. The sound of something tearing. She turns just in time to see one of her earlier sketches drift to the ground like a feather.
Her jaw sets. ‘I need to check something out,’ she murmurs to Lucc, and then she darts around the side of the stall just in time to see someone disappearing into the darkness.
The fairy lights and lanterns might be atmospheric, but the light they give is dim. Danica wavers, bites her lip.
Trying to catch them would be futile at best. She’s not dressed for running through the dark, over uneven ground. She would be better off brushing her things off and getting back to drawing, let market security deal with the issue.
But it’s left a stain on the evening. A sharp reminder (in the form of a trodden-on eraser) that she has to fight for every scrap of independence. That it’s not enough to be able to survive in the city with her art, with Lucc’s music, with friendship and the markets at the hub of it all. That there are forces actively working against her.
She doesn’t even know who they are. Wouldn’t even be able to pick them out in a line-up. She doesn’t know if they’re vandals on a mission, or just reckless kids acting up.
Slowly, she picks up the sketch from where it had fallen, brushing off some of the dirt. Slowly, she pins it back up, rightens the stool, sets her things up again.
She has work to do.
Miri’s fingers are stained grey.
She has her hand shoved in her jeans pocket, tight around the cash and feeling hideously conspicuous. Matt’s advice (‘Don’t look guilty, don’t run, just walk around like you own the place’) feels utterly inadequate; she’s sure that everyone can see the handful of fives and tens she took from the noodle stall through the fabric as she weaves through the stalls.
Apparently that damn artist had been using some kind of super-pencil. When she had ripped the drawing off the wall, it had covered her skin in glossy charcoal grey.
Stupid Matt. Stupid, charismatic, charming Matt and his stupid, charismatic, charming friends.
None of them are in sight, of course. They all scattered the instant the artist had nearly caught them in the act, leaving Miri with stained fingers and the sensation of being dangled over a cliff in her stomach.
She needs to wash her hands. Then she needs to find the others. Then she needs to… she needs to…
One clenched finger at a time, she lets go of the money in her pocket and wipes the tips of her fingers against her thigh. No one will notice the dark streaks on dark denim, and it gets most of the surface stuff off, at least; she doesn’t look too immediately guilty.
Doesn’t look it, anyway.
What the hell is she doing? Stealing and breaking things, causing trouble, hurting people, just to win approval? Matt might rule the school, he might be funny and clever and have really nice blue eyes, he might throw the best parties and have the best car, but…
Her older sister Sarah is a genius. Her older brother Jack, he’s an actor and everyone loves him. Her parents are wildly successful and always telling them what they need to do to be great in life, and here is Miri, resorting to vandalism to earn the friendship of the coolest people in school.
No, not even friendship, because Matt had made it very clear that she was still only part of the group on a trial basis. She still isn’t being invited to the parties; she still hasn’t been given a lift in Matt’s car. She’s doing this to become their lackey, with friendship a distant hope.
They’ve ditched her, probably. Knows that if they’re caught, it’ll be her with the pencil marks on her fingers and a pocket full of stolen money who’ll be the liability.
Is it worth it, after all?
Miri slips her hand back in her pocket, wraps her hand around the notes, and decides, no.
Between customers, Rupert rests her leaden arms against the counter and sighs.
She likes cooking, truly. Wouldn’t be a cook if she didn’t. But working the markets is wearying, and towards the end of the evening she feels weighed down, the ache deep in her shoulders and biceps from flipping, folding, and filling gozleme.
It’s good money, though. Makes Jess happy, and making her wife happy is one of Rupert’s favourite things to do (along with cooking, lounging, and naps). And that, there, is the source of her current discontent.
A customer. Minced lamb for this one, with a scoop of mint yoghurt; she accepts the payment and serves it with a smile.
Beneath the beard, Rupert’s smile turns a little pained.
What is she going to do? She’s not sure how much longer she can stand being like this, a woman stuck in a man’s skin. She wants to be herself. Wants to hear ‘ma’am’, not ‘man’. Ditch the beard. Grow her hair out. Try heels. (Fall over in heels. Twist ankle in heels. Go back to sneakers. Rupert is nothing if not a realist.)
But Jess married a husband, not a wife. If Rupert spills her heart to her, she could lose her forever.
There’s another customer waiting, a girl glancing between Rupert’s gozleme and the Hokkein noodle stall one over before settling on her. ‘Spinach and feta, please’ she says, a soft little thing, gaze fixed at the stall counter.
Poor kiddo. Must be tired.
Rupert musters a smile for her and starts heating one up. ‘Long evening?’ she asks sympathetically, and the girl glances up in sharp surprise before looking away again.
‘Uh, yeah. I guess so.’ She scratches at her temple, leaving a dirty smudge there; silently, Rupert offers her a wet wipe. ‘Oh. Uh, thanks.’
‘Well,’ Rupert says conspiratorially, ‘You know the coffee stall a few down? They do a really good Turkish coffee, if you need to stay up. Tell ’em Rupert sent you and you’ll get a discount.’
The girl doesn’t reply, just stares at her hands, at the counter. ‘Okay.’ She worries at her lip, scratches the back of her hand; Rupert keeps cooking and watches her with a concerned eye. When she finally speaks again, her voice cracks. ‘I don’t think coffee will solve my problem.’
There’s something small and vulnerable and afraid about her; Rupert’s heart twinges. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ she offers gently, far too aware of the incongruity of her appearance; not a maternal, gentle older woman, but the very appearance of a middle-aged man with a beard, paying attention to a teenage girl. She can’t get too involved, can’t help too much just by how she looks. Hates it.
Silently, the girl shakes her head. ‘Just –‘ she starts, stops again. ‘Just… I’m trying to be someone I’m not. I’m doing stupid, shitty things to try and be, like, acceptable, and it’s… stupid.’ She repeats the word, softly this time. ‘It’s stupid, not being myself.’
Something in Rupert’s chest twists. ‘Do you want to be yourself?’
‘Then you should. You should be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else just to please others, that only breaks you up inside.’
She has to take the chance. Has to risk telling Jess, even if it breaks her heart. Has to be herself, because the only life she has is her own.
‘Yeah. Yeah.’ The girl gives Rupert a watery smile, then pays for her gozleme and picks up the paper plate. For a moment, she hesitates, then pulls out another small wad of cash, fives and tens, half-crumpled. ‘I took this from the noodle people next to you,’ she says, and her voice is steady now. ‘Can you give it back to them and tell them I say sorry?’
And she turns, runs before Rupert can speak a word, runs and leaves a grubby handful of stolen notes behind.
Rupert gives the noodle people their money and the girl’s apologies. Cooks food for people, good food to nourish them. Packs up as the markets slow down like it’s falling asleep.
The artist from the stall across from her wanders by with her sketches and gear, an expression of grim determination on her face. Behind is her musician friend struggling by with their keyboard, a freckly-faced young person in a badge-covered jacket helping wrangle it down the path before stealing a kiss. Rupert thinks of bravery and authenticity and a fistful of money left with an apology.
She’s going to go home. Talk to Jess, no matter what may come of it.
Around her, the market goes to sleep, and the lights flicker out like embers.