Theft and assault–that’s what they were accusing her of.
Stealing was technically a crime, but she’d stolen food so often in the past months that it didn’t feel like one anymore. She was hungry and the only way to keep going was to eat when she could, and Jana didn’t trust anyone else enough to form or join a group. Groups ultimately turned on one another when resources ran out or someone disagreed about how things were run. Or worse–she could get close to someone and then they could die.
As for assault, she only kicked the other man because he was trying to drag her out of her hiding spot. How could she know if they would try to hurt her or not? How could she know they weren’t sick? That she never got sick from living with Ryan was a miracle; Jana wasn’t eager to tempt fate if she could avoid it.
Eventually she made her way to the center of the room. She didn’t want them returning to find her hiding in the corner. She sat again, crossing her legs and resting her hands on her knees. She waited, mentally tracking the doors and corridors that led from the street to this room. The door opened with a squeal of protest and men and women of all ages–along with some children–filed into the room, lining the walls. They held slender candles that dripped wax of all different colors onto their skin. They didn’t even flinch.
“Rise, thief.” The man who’d led her here spoke clearly, forcing each word out with bitter distaste. “You may speak for yourself before we lay judgment upon you.” He was clean-shaven, his angular face shadowed in the flickering light so that his nose, jaw, and cheekbones looked sharpened.
Jana got to her feet. “I did steal from you, yes. Because I was hungry. I only kicked your brother to protect myself.” She wasn’t going to rationalize beyond that. Everyone had a sob story and whether or not they wanted hers, she wasn’t going to provide it. Jana didn’t want their pity–she just wanted to get out of here alive.
“You broke his nose. And the bread you stole, you might as well have taken from the mouths of these children.” The man slowly waved his paddle of a hand through the air, indicating the four or five children pressed between adults along the walls. They didn’t budge. “Cast your vote,” the man ordered. The soft rush of forced breath echoed around her as the room began to darken, followed by a moment or two of silence. “Wait here.” The man led everyone else out of the room and Jana heard the door latch in their wake.
“As though I have any choice,” she answered the now-empty room. Were they going to kill her? What did blowing out a candle signify–to snuff out her life? Did one third of the room want her dead, and, what would happen to her if they decided to let her live? She remained standing until her knees began to ache, and Jana realized she’d stood with them locked since the vote. She let her legs buckle beneath her, ignoring the dull wave of pain that radiated into her knee caps from the cement floor. Jana sat back on her heels and stared into the darkness.
When the door opened again, she lifted her head. How much time had passed, she didn’t know, but she’d ended up curled up on her side, her cheek resting on the back of her hand. A child walked forward and placed a bowl about four feet away from her. “Wait,” she called out as he retreated. “What do the candles–” The door slammed again before she could get her question out.
Jana scooted over to the bowl and sniffed at it. She didn’t know how to tell if something was poisoned or not. Maybe this was their way of executing someone who wronged them. Frowning, she kicked the bowl over and wished they’d not taken back the bread she stole. She was so hungry that she only had the memory of hunger, the way her stomach would grumble and feel like it might fold on itself.
Jana had to do something to distract herself, so she stood and walked to the door. She tried the handle; it turned but the door wouldn’t open. It was barred, not locked, which was unfortunate because she’d become deft at picking locks over the last months–or maybe a year–since everything went wrong. She turned to lean back against the wall and sank to the hard floor once more.
The next time the door opened, the man with the broken nose entered. He stepped in front of her. “Here’s the deal. Two-thirds of our group voted to spare your life. A majority of those decided you’re going to join us. However,” he reached down to drive his fingers into her short hair, tilting her head back so that she was forced to look up into his face, “if you take one misstep against us, I will kill you. Or my brother will kill you. Do you understand?”
She clamped her hand down on his so that he couldn’t pull her hair. “What do you count as a misstep, then?”
“Get some sleep. In the morning you will be taken for a shower. You smell, thief. Then the rules will be laid out for you.” He released her hair and peeled her hand off of his. Before opening the door, he kicked at her, knocking her onto her side.
Jana stifled a cry when his foot connected with her arm. She heard the bar slide into place again. A yellow light flickered to life in the corner and a voice filtered through the door. It wasn’t either of the men who caught her in the bank.
“The generator won’t be on forever. There is a closet there on the other side of the room, where you can relieve yourself.”
“Who are you?” Jana scrambled to the door, pressing her ear against it.
The voice didn’t reply right away. “Two more minutes, thief. Then it’ll be dark again until the morning.”
Jana sighed and crossed the room. The door to the closet was coming off of its hinges, and it wobbled as she pulled it open. Inside the closet sat a single bucket.