Morning faded and the sky brightened into the rich hues of an early-rise orange, while the waves of fatigue washed over Cooper, drenching his bones in a weary contempt. His eyes stung from the light and his stomach panged for food, leaving him with a dizzying nausea. He considered nibbling while walking, but found himself cautious of onlookers and bystanders, so instead made an attempt to keep his basket hidden out of sight as he ventured further into the Apartheid District.
He was nearing his destination; a momentary glimmer of joy as he yearned for his bed knowing that it was only a short distance away. His joy was short lived though, as in the distance coming towards him, Cooper could hear the drunken and boisterous ramblings of a group of men. They were just out of sight, hidden from the winding paths of the street – but they were close.
Cooper could hear them more clearly now, and they were singing, voices full of the dulcet tones of intoxicated whimsey; “We like drinking with Boldy, ‘cause Boldy is our mate! And when we drink with Boldy, he downs his pint in; eight, seven, six—”
Cooper glanced to his sides, looking for an alley to quickly dart into. He found nothing but grubby buildings that tightly lined the street on each side. It was a narrow path. He wouldn’t be able to avoid them.
“—Three, two, one,” There was an eruption of cheers from the men, followed by the noise of shattering glass and laughter.
Cooper contemplated running in the opposite direction. But his feet were weary, his stomach was empty. He wouldn’t get far. Maybe they would ignore him? Maybe, he could keep his head down, remain passive, out of sight and out of mind. It would be fine, he thought, would be fine, he would be—
“Hey, it’s Mule!”
Cooper lifted his head to see that the three men had turned the corner and were rapidly approaching him. Standing at the forefront of the group was the man Cooper recognised to be the as the same person who started the chant in the Tavern. The bags of his eyes were blackened with fatigue, his face flushed with alcohol and the morning cold, his hair unwashed and weedy. He smiled at Cooper, displaying his motley row of jagged teeth.
“Alrigh’, big lad?” He said, slapping Cooper hard against his back. “Where ya’ been?”
“Aye, where ya’ been!” Parroted the heftier member of the group, who could barely keep his eyes opened simultaneously—so it impressed Cooper that he could still speak, albeit heavily slurred.
Cooper said nothing but laughed awkwardly. He didn’t want to greet them. And even if he did, he couldn’t remember their names. They may have told him in the past—in fact, he was sure that they had, multiple times. But they had given Cooper a name that he did not want, so he refused to acknowledge theirs.
“What’s in your hand?” Asked the third member of the group. Cooper could see that he was the most articulate, and although visibly tipsy, he was not belligerent. His eyes were sharp and calculating. Out of the three, he frightened Cooper the most.
“Ah, ‘ere, is that Mariana’s?” Asked Jagged Teeth. “How’d you get yer hands on that then?”
“Smells good,” said hefty, visibly salivating.
“Get back, Boldy,” Jagged teeth demanded, shoving him out of the way, “You’re gonna drool on it. Besides, our wee Coop is gonna share, right?”
“I… can’t. This is all I have to eat,” Cooper replied, trying to avoid eye contact.
“Ah, g’wan. Don’t be stingy. There’s plenty there!”
“Yeah. And we’re famished,” Boldy continued, looming over Jagged Teeth’s shoulder, eyeing up the basket.
Cooper remained silent. He glanced over to the third member, who stared back impassively. Jagged teeth quickly made a move and placed his arm around Cooper’s shoulder, resting the weight of his body on Cooper’s back. Although he stood a head and a shoulder taller than Cooper, Cooper was surprised to find that he was uncannily light compared to the kegs. Unfortunately, much like the kegs, Jagged Teeth reeked of stale alcohol.
“Whadya’ say, Coop?” He hissed in Cooper’s ear. “Ye’ gonna share, or wha’?”
Cooper felt his chest tighten, his teeth clenching. He just wanted to go home. To be done with all of this. They were right though; he could just share. It would be the easier thing to do. But, he was hungry. And it was his.
“I said no,” Cooper repeated, half demanding, half pleading.
Immediately, Jagged Teeth snatched the basked out from Cooper’s hand and Cooper leapt after him, shouting in protest.
“Aye, hold yer horses,” Jagged Teeth said, pushing Cooper to the side, “Look there’s enough ‘ere for all of us,” and he began distributing the loaves to his companions; “One for me, one for Boldy, one for—Oh? What’s this?” He said, pulling out a white linen that lined the bottom of the basket, “Tried to pull a sneaky one on us, didn’t ya, Mule?”
He took his hand out from the basket and with it emerged a still steaming pie. It’s crust was a golden brown, perfectly glazed in sugar and the smell of sweetened apple and cinnamon yanked at Cooper’s stomach.
Jagged Teeth flicked Boldy on his bulbus nose, who began salivating and drifting closer to the pie, “Stay back,” he said. He looked to Cooper. Cooper averted his eyes, keeping his sight locked to the ground and his fist clenched tight in a knuckle-whiting grip.
“We’ll take this as compensation for lying,” Jagged Teeth said, slamming a loaf of bread into Cooper’s chest as he walked past, still holding the pie. “I said there was enough to share,” he finished.
Cooper remained still, never lifting his gaze upwards and he waited until he could no longer hear the trio. He glared at the bread in his hand, his fingers digging into the crust. He couldn’t contain his rage any longer and in one swift movement slammed the bread down onto the ground.
Moments passed. He did not know how long. His chest still rattled with rage. He tracked the splintered pieces of bread scattered around him. His stomach rumbled. Cooper bend downwards and began picking the pieces up, caring not for the dirt or grime, but only for his hunger.
Pathetic, he thought to himself.