This is a story about Maybe. She lived in the small town of Nowhere on the outer edge of Somewhere, the big metropolis. She started out with a life that many people would find simple and satisfying. Suspended in amniotic fluid, all you can eat buffet, playing Bounce In the Belly were just a taste of the perks she had, all which were stripped away from her the moment she was born. Maybe belonged to a big family by our standards, and I mean humungous. People just don’t have this many children, but the Fringe was teeming with children and so was the squalid overhang that Maybe’s siblings sometimes piled under to sleep. Though none were like Maybe. There was no one in Nowhere like Maybe or even in the Fringe. She had five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot which was extremely wasteful and greedy for a Fringe child.
Most Fringe children were dark and dingy like the desert soil with hardy bones and brawny frames. The girls were bred wide in the hip for popping out at least two babes at a time, so more mangy brutes and brutesses could populate the fringe and hold out the territory. The boys were tall, dark, but by no means handsome and awkwardly broad shouldered. They were built like oxen and even looked like they came from them too. Sure, I guess you could say there were less grotesque Fringers than others, but you could never say some Fringers were more attractive than others. They weren’t even remotely beautiful by our standards, but our standards were not theirs, and all Fringers regarded themselves as delightful creatures. They were not the only beings or creatures in the world. There were many more pleasant beings that did not tend to stink of boiled cabbage.
The average number of toes for a Fringer was three for each foot, two for balancing from side to side and one for extra stability when balancing front to back and that was if you were lucky. As hands go a thumb and a finger were efficient enough. All Fringers were born squarish headed and bald, and remained that way till the day they died.
Fringers didn’t always used to be bald. There was a time when there were a good number of hairy-headed Fringers and a good number of unhairy-headed Fringers. In those days the Fringers were at least pitied. The problem started with two brothers. One had a hairy head, the other not, the hairy called Lentil and the hairless called Herb. Herb was jealous of his brother for not only did Lentil have hair, but he also seemed a fair amount smarter than Herb. For one thing, Lentil was able to secure himself a job at a fish market in Somewhere, though he still smelled like boiled cabbage, and in his case, dead fish. Herb was also bitter because Lentil took care of them both. Herb was a good bully but he would never be able to make money like Lentil did. Lentil may have been smarter than Herb but he was still simple-minded, naïve, and in some ways more foolish than Herb out of ignorance. He was gentle, still ugly, but he did have hair, and for all of these things Herb killed him.
It was at this point that the hairless Fringers probably had their greatest moment of intelligence and most horrific moment of idiocy. The hairless Fringers rose up against the hairy Fringers and slew all of them. Now what was remarkable was that they were actually able to group together for a conscious common goal. What was incredibly stupid was the bald Fringers killed off what outer society considered their only redeeming qualities. At first, any hairy-headed babies born were killed. Soon there were no more hairy-headed babies being born. As their territory shrank and time went by, hairy heads became a symbol of ugliness and freakishness to the Fringers. If a hairy-headed baby was born by some fluke it was no longer killed, but it wasn’t embraced either. However a hairy-headed baby had not been born in a long time, and the oldest of the old faintly remembers it, the memory mixed in with the ravings of senility. Fringers don’t remember the massacre long ago because none of them can read or write and of course they don’t live very long either.
Now money was made by the Fringers in one manner because it was the only manner they were suitable for, bullying. Every day the children hit the streets to bully their way into getting food, clothes, money, anything they could get their grubby hands on. They would bully the old, the young, the sick, the smaller, and more often than one would think, the larger, for the Fringers were none too bright. Often the old wasn’t much older, the young not much younger, the sick not much sicker, the smaller never much smaller, and the larger never much larger, for they were the slum stock of society.
It was their intelligence capacity, or capacity to use what semblance of intelligence they faked, that promptly determined a short average lifespan for Fringers. Although Fringers were built for brawn and survival, their lack of wits often led them to a watery grave whether they bullied the wrong person and ended up with their brains more mushy than before or they simply mismanaged their savings (which happens a lot) and were put down by the state on irresponsibility charges. Those Fringers that survived their adolescence healthy were usually either just plain lucky, or lucky enough to bully the right person and bully them into giving them a job to bully other people. One thing is for sure, every Fringer eventually ended up being dumped in the Pituitary Tributary that snakes through Nowhere, the Fringe, Somewhere, and south through Home out to the Pancreatic sea. Home was a seaside city that hosted the most foul beasts ever according to the Fringers, and even the Nowhereans would dump their filth in the Pituitary tributary. Everyone thought the Fringers did it because they didn’t know any better, or at least that was the common consensus.
Now being bullied is one thing, but being picked on is entirely another. When a Fringer bullies someone they want or need something, but when someone is picked on it is often for no reason at all. And when someone starts picking on another person it is likely never to stop because that someone will never get anything they wanted or needed. This was what happened to Maybe.
You see, Maybe wasn’t like the other Fringe children. It’s not just that she had too many fingers and toes, but that she was appallingly greedy and very repulsive. She was born pale as the moon, the faintest blue hue like it too, petite, frailly thin with icy eyes, and the worst of all, she had hair. Her hair was the color of frost and grew long, for everyone thought she was so repulsive that they didn’t even want to touch her hair. Maybe found out she was undeniably different from other Fringers when she was just a wee babe and the other Fringe children continued to remind her every day after.
That is until that one day, that one day something happened, something extraordinary disguised.
“Wake up! May you rise and shine boots!” The Fringer that claimed to have found Maybe just outside the overhang bustled over piles of mangy children, kicking them softly in their guts. “Rise and shine boots!”
That was Mother’s job. She woke up her children and kicked them into gear, so she wouldn’t starve to death. Maybe was sandwiched somewhere in the middle of a mound between Beet and Yam, two of her burly brothers. When Mother’s foot came round, a soft kick for Beet and Yam was not so soft for Maybe.
“Oof!” Maybe erupted into tiny gasps for air, trying to sound surprised.
“Wake up you mongrel!” Mother growled and spat. She reached down to yank Maybe to her feet. Everyone else was already up and plodding out to earn breakfast. “Marshubble. You nothing but curses. Should’ve left you in the dirt where you came from.” Mother’s voice was gravelly as if she’d dined on mud clods far too long. She was very very old. She was twenty.
“Okay,” Maybe said clearly. She rubbed her side as she stood and walked out, her tiny movements in stark contrast to the fumbling and rumbling of her siblings. Maybe didn’t care if Mother kicked her from the family because it was easy peasy to crawl right back into the lump of children at night.
But this time the kick was particularly painful. and the sting from where Mother’s big toe dug into her ribs continued to hurt for some time. It wasn’t that Mother had kicked her any harder than usual or had worn steel toed boots or the like, but the night before Maybe’s family tried to help her; Maybe’s siblings had jumped in on her punctual neighborhood pounding.
“It’s for your good!” Radish barked out under the smog screened stars as he rubbed mud into Maybe’s hair. Radish was Maybe’s brother from the womb, so they were the same age. He was always especially mean to Maybe. He had his reasons, but he never needed to give them. Radish got clever and smeared the mud over Maybe’s face, over her bruising skin. “It’s so you fit more.”
All the Fringers guffawed, their bellies jiggling and bouncing as if they’d smack the heavens. Radish talked too much and had ears that reached out so far they turned downwards. The Fringers seemed to equate this extension with compulsory wisdom, though they wouldn’t use those words. However, Maybe came to the conclusion that Radish wasn’t wise, because how could anybody who listens to the ground all day be wise?
They wanted to make Maybe tougher, they said. They wanted to have some fun. They wanted to help her. Why shouldn’t they? You must not fault the Fringers for it is only in their nature. After all, these are the beings who weren’t quite able to form a circle around Maybe that night; pi is so far out of their reach. It wasn’t right for Maybe to cry and so she didn’t.
There was one Fringer who always found a way to be somewhere else during the poundings and that was Maybe’s little brother Squash. He could never figure out why he was always finding other targets to bully. However, that night he was in the thick of it, so instead of his usual mutt or cockroach, Squash had to make do; he had to resort to a rock. By the time the others were done with Maybe, the rock had won. Squash had beat the rock so hard that it had done more damage to him than he did to it. Radish had touched Maybe’s hair.
The pain of difference was just as fresh on Maybe’s mind as the pain in her side when she shuffled out into the neighborhood. She could hear Mother screeching something about not coming home and then perhaps something about food. Maybe couldn’t hear her. Her head was all caked in mud like an earthworm cocoon. Most of the mud had dried, but some of it was warm from Beet and Yam’s secret weapons, their armpits.
Lifting her bonelike fingers, Maybe pushed her matted mass of hair from her eyes, but it flopped back down to slap her in the face and send flecks of dried mud into her eyes. While she was able to squinch her eyes shut fast enough, Maybe’s yawn wasn’t as timely and so she ended up with her first meal of the day, mud sprinkles.
‘More than I’ll get today anyways,’ Maybe thought to herself as she stopped to push her fingers through the crusty curtain of hair. She clenched her teeth as she split the curtain and her tender scalp began its protest. Maybe knew, just as anyone worth their salt around the Fringe, that being all bruised up or looking like you’ve been left for dead isn’t all that intimidating. Normally, Maybe would just let her brothers use her to lure travelers into an ambush to make things easier on them all…except for the travelers. It had been her idea in the beginning. This day wasn’t quite the same as others, but she did it anyways.
“Beet! Yam!” Maybe called out as loud as she could while keeping up an easy jog. Hopping over a small crumbling wall, she mentally assured herself that Squash was probably with Beet and Yam since she hadn’t woken up with him wound around her feet. Maybe called out again for her brothers, but this was Beet and Yam, so she gave them at least four to five seconds to consult each other and then two more to respond. They didn’t answer though, so she kept moving. Finally, as Maybe approached a sharp aluminum fence, she could hear their arguing. That was the last possible outcome.
Maybe scrambled over the fence quickly, but scraped her knees along the top of it which was raw like someone had been gnawing on it. Maybe slowed down to a walk as she approached the two Fringers.
“No I-No you do!”
Arguments between Beet and Yam involved much shoving and such, but they usually digressed into a roaring match of one syllable stichomythia over possession of nothing, for often Beet and Yam forgot what they were arguing about by the end of it. One of them picked up a large rock with both hands, and the other stepped forward to try and wrench it away . Maybe had troubles trying to figure out which one was which, though it never really mattered much anyways since no one ever really could.
Maybe tapped one of them just where she could reach and the effect was domino.
“Sister!” one turned, dropping the rock. Then the other repeated the gesture, though without the rock. Plop! And all was forgotten. Maybe was most certainly the brightest thing in Beet and Yam’s lives.
Maybe’s head rolled back like a pez dispenser to look Beet and Yam in the eye and announce, “It’s time to get breakfast.”
Maybe would never volunteer to let anyone use her except Beet and Yam because even though Beet and Yam were the largest and most powerful of the family, they were also the stupidest. They were often getting used by others in the family and cheated out of some of their portion without the slightest knowledge of it. There were some days where this exploitation couldn’t be avoided. Today was one of them.
Maybe learned the instigator of Beet and Yam’s squabbling rather quickly. What started out as bellowing laughter cracked with the embarrassment of puberty. Radish. Maybe knew exactly who it was. The sound came from the ditch beside the road, but it was more a moat of litter, so everyone called it the Moat. No Fringers ever set foot on the road unless they were crossing it, unless the state was coming to put someone down. So the Fringers saw the Moat as protection. The road brought life and death, the travelers and the state. The Fringers needed no other reason to be afraid of the road. Crossing the road was taboo enough though sometimes it had to be done, but walking along the road, that was crazy.
Radish popped his bulbous head out of the trash and into abrupt silence. Bursting out with a, “HA!” he crawled out of the trash like a drunk fat spider lumbering towards its prey. “Let’s hunt tourists!” Anyone who absolutely had to go through the Fringe to get to wherever they were going was considered a tourist. Tourists never took pictures or snagged a broken bottle from the Moat as a souvenir. In fact, most of them pinched their nose or pressed a hanky to it with their other hand clutching a weapon.
“Okay…” Maybe responded, dropping her head. She responded the only way she knew how. Her thin tummy rumbled its consent.