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The Sweetest Taste
It was so beautiful. The gleaming red skin concealing juicy white flesh. Her eyes traced its stubby brown stem and each voluptuous, inviting curve. In reality, it was dented and bruised from rough handling in transport and then from being pawed over by prospective buyers. Mary didn't even notice. It had been so long since she had eaten an apple. So long since she ate anything that might be termed remotely edible. She could feel saliva pooling in her mouth as her body unconsciously swayed toward the piece of fruit.
Surely the merchant wouldn't even notice its absence. Surely there would be no harm. Mary licked her lips, glancing around to find out who might see.
There was a maid in a prissy white uniform and lacy cap turning up her nose at a fish.
"I assure you, miss, this was caught fresh yesterday." From the smell, Mary could tell that this was a very optimistic claim. The maid could tell, too. No need to worry about that one giving chase; she wouldn't risk mussing her frock.
A sturdy farmboy bartered for a knife, boasting all the while that tomorrow he would be in the army. A King's Man. Mary scoffed at his dreams of glory. She had seen many of his kind that had come back from the wars with missing limbs and dead eyes, begging for their bread the same as her. He would be one to watch, just in case he got any heroic notions of rescuing the poor merchant from the wicked thief. However, he was so absorbed in himself that she thought it unlikely that he would notice even if the whole square raised hue and cry.
A woman strolled past, perusing the stalls. A little girl clung to her hand, staring with cornflower eyes in wonder at all the hustle and bustle. Her pinafore was starched stiff and she wore blue ribbons in her perfectly braided hair. Mary felt a stab at her heart, remembering a time when she had been so carefree and innocent. But that time was long past. She shook herself and continued to study the crowd.
A bobby was stationed at the southwest corner, overseeing all with sharp grey eyes. Mary studied him critically, then decided that he was too fat to give her any trouble. There was a man who had never known starvation.
She examined the stall that held the coveted fruit from the corner of her eye, waiting for the perfect moment when the merchant was busy with a customer. She took a deep breath, steeling herself. This would be her first time and she had to get it right or she would be in the stocks. She sent a silent prayer of apology to her mother, may she rest in peace. Her mother had abhorred every kind of theft and would be rolling over in her grave.
I'm sorry, Mama, but I can't bear it any longer. You shouldn't have died and left me behind.
The merchant's back turned away from her and her prize as he showed a man some of his best wares. Mary darted forward, her grimy hand closing around the apple, snatching it away. She tried to slip away unseen, hiding it in her skirt, but she had been spotted. A woman shrieked and Mary took off, her bare feet pounding over the cobblestones. Her breath came in short gasps as she wove her way through the crowd and took a sharp turn into an alleyway.
She heard the sound of many feet behind her and didn't dare slow. Feeling the apple's skin against her palm, she knew it had been worth it. Just one bite...
They found her two alleys over, juice dribbling down her chin and tears streaming over her cheeks as she bit into the fruit like a wild animal attacking its prey. Even as they hauled her to the stocks, she spent her last moments of freedom licking the sweet stickiness from her filthy fingers, weeping at the pain it caused her shrunken stomach.