Origin by Christina Berman

They turned the water off a week ago and she hasn’t bathed since then. The power went a few days before that. She’s seven and too young to understand that those are things not freely given. Dad doesn’t talk about house stuff. He hasn’t talked at all in three weeks or more. She’s lost track of the days since he’s stopped. She doesn’t think about why he stopped, but he did, and so did the power, and now the water.

And she smells.

Dad never let her take long showers, and she only could every other day. He didn’t say why, and she didn’t mind. She used to like the dirt under her nails. At night she would pick her nails clean and when it was done she slept easily. Her nails are the only clean parts of her now. She’s all dried sweat, greasy hair, and whatever muck she fell in two days ago. Even she doesn’t like this kind of dirty, but the water is gone, and Dad’s no help, and she’s not sure where to go for a bath. At least Dad smells bad, too. Worse, she thinks. She smashed a towel under his door when the smell first started, but it keeps getting worse.

She spends most days outside. It stinks outside, too. Like all the trash and muck she fell in, but at least the wind makes it a little better. She feels cleaner outside. She avoids the trash and muck now like she didn’t before; reckoning that finding the odd broken toy or stained shirt isn’t worth making her any dirtier. She wanders. No one cares enough about her to pay any attention, and anyway it seems like something is happening now that everyone is running to see. She runs with them, because what else does she have to do anymore but explore.

She’s short and skinny and it isn’t hard to shimmy past hips and between legs. Everyone is talking and shouting all at once and she can’t hear what’s going on, but she gets closer to the front and can finally see what it is around all those hips and legs. Three men lie on the ground with guns in their hands. Their eyes are open and they look angry, but they’re not moving, and there’s blood running out of more places than she can find. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened here.

She keeps crawling forward until there’s no one left to shuffle past, and now she knows they’re all dead. A big man standing in the still-forming ring of strangers is the one who killed them. He’s so huge his body blots out the sky, like Dad, and skin like a hard leather shell. He puts his gun away, lights a cigar, and starts walking. Where he goes the strangers shove each other aside to make a path for him.

She follows, because what else does she have to do?

He’s strong and brave and he kills bad men. She knows they’re bad because Dad said there are men like The Big Man who do that for money, and he knew that because he used to be one. Dad said, with all of Earth burnt-up and worthless, the only way to make a dime was to round-up or put down the bad guys. Her dad keeps guns like theirs, on shelves she could never reach, not even with a chair. He promised her he would teach her to shoot them when she could get them down on her own.

She wonders if maybe The Big Man knows Dad, and if he could help her. At some point cops will come to her house and then they’ll find Dad and she’s not sure where they might take her but she is sure she wouldn’t like it. For all that he is strong and brave, The Big Man  is still scary, all scars and old tattoos, and so she follows at a distance, hiding behind steps and walking beside strangers like she knows them. It doesn’t matter, she thinks, he doesn’t see me. She inches closer, and one of his tattoos looks familiar; an “M” with three rings around it, like a planet.

The Big Man stops, turns to look at her.

“Whaddya doin’, kid?” The Big Man says around the cigar in his mouth. She doesn’t know what to say, but she looks him in the eyes anyway because she thinks he might like her if she seems brave like him. He has to like her or he won’t help her. Vieva’s sick of eating things she finds or steals. She wants to be clean again, and warm. She knows she needs someone to look after her. She needs someone to fix her Dad.

“My Dad needs help.” she says finally, “He got sick.” He takes the cigar out of his mouth and taps the ash off the end. It feels like forever before he answers.

“Come on.” he shoves the cigar back in his mouth.

He’s following her now. Down one street and left at another; on and on in all different directions. It’s the only route she knows, and he seems annoyed that it isn’t more direct. After a few minutes of silence he asks for her name.

“Genevieve,” she mumbles and makes a face.

He nods, and she thinks he might be smiling a little, but that stupid cigar looks as big as her arm and maybe it makes him pull funny faces. He’s not smiling when she opens the door. He looks scared. Or maybe that’s surprise. He knows the smell. Vieva wants to run. He could tell everyone her secret. The Big Man makes her close the door and stay put, and he disappears down the hall where her Dad is. Vieva hears him swear after he opens the door. The smell she’d tried so hard to hide is everywhere, and too strong, and she throws up before she can try and make herself stop.

“You gotta mom somewhere, Genevieve?”

She’s wiping her mouth when he comes back and she’s not sure she can talk without throwing up again, so she shakes her head no and rubs her fists against her eyes to hide the tears there. He asks for more family, and she shakes her head for every answer. Only Dad. The Big Man chews on the end of his cigar and paces for a minute or two while Vieva shakes with fear.

“You can come with me ’til I figure out what the hell to do with you,” he says with a shrug. He’s headed for the front door without waiting for an answer from her.

“Wait!” He looks at her over his shoulder, his hand poised above the handle of the front door. “What about Dad?”

“Nothing we can do now, kid. Better that someone else finds him.”

Vieva nods. There’s an awful feeling in her stomach, like she wants to be sick again, but there’s nothing left. “I want to get something.” She darts off down the hall to his room, determined not to breathe in the smell. Inside, Mike used the towel she’d stuffed under the door to cover his face. It’s good, she thinks. She doesn’t want to see him. She won’t leave if she sees him, she’s sure of it. Vieva grabs the jacket from his closet, the one with the M on it, and the pretty pearl-handled knife he kept on his end table. It has his name on it.

“You done yet –” Vieva’s standing in front of him before he finishes, mouth pressed into a hard, determined line. He nods and opens the door. “I’m Mike.”

“Call me Vieva,” she follows, hugging the jacket close. “I like Vieva better.”