“I’ll give you fifty!” Hazel shouts as she throws her hand in the air.
The woman next to her tightens her jaw and throws her paddle in the air. “I’ll give seventy-five!”
Hazel won’t lose to this hag, the neighbor who stole her future husband and sent wild rumors about town that she was frigid. “One hundred! I’ll give you a hundred!” Then she callously whispered, “Take that, Olivia.”
A strange calm enveloped her body. Hazel relaxed for the first time during the auction with her eyes resting on the crate at the front of the room at the auctioneer’s feet. The dust gathered on the boards was thick and curling, but the places fingers grabbed to carry it up there were barren. There had to have been at least twenty cans inside.
Olivia’s hand shot up, waving the paddle enthusiastically. “I’ll give you three hundred and sixty-five!”
A hush fell over the crowd. Offering so much for any crate seemed outrageous. In fact, the largest amount ever offered for a simple crate of canned beans was under two hundred. There were only four containers of food left to be haggled over though with about twelve families to fight over them. Now it was clear as to why Olivia was so desperate. Still, she looked ragged, much more so than Hazel.
Hazel remembered when they attended school together. Not really “together” as if they were friends or anything but at the same time. They’d always been stiff competition, each pushing the other to her limits. Neither budging until the last drop of sweat hit the gymnasium floor. Olivia was always the prettier one, though. Hazel hated her for that. She was certain Olivia would be chosen to marry the senator’s son and live on the corner of Easy Street and Leisure Lane. They were, after all, the Junior Prom’s king and queen. But that was the undoing of Olivia’s future.
Immediately following the prom, it’s said that Olivia and her date stopped at a make-out point above the city for a romantic fling. The wind caught hold of her wrap and pulled it free from her, tangling the silky fabric in a bush at the side of a cliff. In his noble effort to retrieve it, he tumbled helplessly to the rocks below. The town was overcome with despair. Olivia quickly lost her position and was cast down into the depths of the rest of the ordinary people, where there was hardly enough room to stand much less net rations.
All the women married, or at least that was their goal. Olivia had enticed a second suitor to father her child before realizing he was already taken. When he discovered his predicament, he moved his family to another town that very night. No one knew of it until the next day. Olivia, devastated, determined she would have the baby anyway. She decided to do it all on her own, despite what everyone else thought.
They all hoped their children would marry out of the dirt and be chosen by one of the predominant family. Doing so, given the children respected and loved their parents, would save the lives of the entire family. But of course, the more children in the family to choose from, the better the chance of escaping squalor.
Olivia had only one child–a little girl. She named her Felicity. The child inescapably embodied the image of her mother. The same sunken cheeks and hollowed eyes with dirty blond scraggly curls falling down her seven-year-old body. She clutched at her mother’s free hand. Olivia had aged tremendously. Hazel doubted she’d even be around to see Felicity marry at the rate she was going. She had the appearance of a sixty-five-year-old woman, even though she was twenty-six. The last eight years had aged her dramatically.
Hazel smirked as she remembered Aesop’s fable of “The Tortoise and the Hare.” The way the hare zipped along, flippantly teasing the tortoise. Sleep invaded its senses as it fell prey to resting until the tortoise won the race. The story of Olivia’s life, Hazel decided. The tart mistakenly thought she had her future in the bag until ripped from her clutches. Now look at her. A large grin stretched across Hazel’s face as the silence thickened.
Two men from the stand marched down the stairs, carrying the crate into the parting crowd. Everyone rotated, in turn, and watched the men as the sea of people parted, with gaping mouths, and encircled the men with the type of stares surrounding a car accident–not wanting to look but having little choice. The wave continued until the men stopped in front of Olivia. She didn’t move.
Her pink and white polka dot dress, ratty around the edges, betrayed her haughtiness as she watched them lower the crate at her feet. Felicity stared at the crate and upturned her face to see her mother.
One of the men pulled a syringe-looking device from his belt and held out his other hand, waiting. Olivia extended the paddle toward him and he accepted it, handing it to his partner. He then cradled her arm, vein side up, in the palm of his hand. The needle making its way through the tiniest of holes amidst a brown peppered patch of skin, caused her to wince and bite her lip. Taping the hose to her arm, the other end of the vial attached to a large clear bag dangling from his waistline. A steady stream of blood siphoned in, immediately turning the once empty container a dark liquid crimson.
Exposing another needle hooked to a bag, this one containing a light pink substance, he paused. They exchanged glances and the distant murmurs of the crowd started. Olivia gave a subtle nod and let go of her daughter’s hand. Felicity quickly clasped her mother’s leg and bowed her head, as if she didn’t dare look up.
With her hand free of her daughter, she reached toward the man with the solution who quickly jabbed the needle in. “Agh,” she screamed as he daughter clutched tightly to her leg, wincing as if sharing the pain. Hazel imagined it nearly unbearable as in their school days, Olivia could take quite a lashing.
Hazel’s husband wasn’t here for the show today. He was working. He didn’t care much for this anyway but felt his time would be better spent working for money rather than participating in the auction. They only had two kids, but he was an accountant and provided adequately. Hazel never brought the kids along and only bid to get the numbers up, really. Most of the time, she enjoyed watching Olivia pay. After all, Olivia had ruined Hazel’s chance of marrying the prom king. She felt it was her turn to watch the life drain from Olivia’s beautiful body one year at a time. The way, she only had to get her to sacrifice about twenty more times before she’d be nothing more than a withering snake skin, sacrificed for her daughter’s survival.
When they introduced the next crate, Hazel glanced at Olivia and raised her paddle. “I’ll give you fifty!” she chimed with a toothy smile from ear to ear.