Justice poked her head out of the alleyway and looked both ways, and again, like she did as a little girl. A vendor was selling forged signatures. They wouldn’t fill bellies, but people believed they would, that those askew signatures had the magic of the real thing, that they would warm them when the sun set. On the other side of the street, a man in an old food truck with missing wheels sold postcards, which he claimed were real photos he took on his travels. The man was named Oscar, and Justice knew him her whole life. He was never away from this street. He lived in the truck.
The visitors were once called tourists.Now they were hobos. They had money, but the Aura of money depleted long ago, vacuumed into servers, which became coffins. The paper meant a little, but not enough. Mere copy. Forgery. Enough of it might keep you alive, especially if it was long-expired tender, but not like an baseball autographed by Mike Trout. Not like a painting by Pollock. Not like a limited edition Amazing Fantasy #1. You could live off the aura of any one of those things for a lifetime–and your kids, too.
There was no other way home without taking an extra hour to get around the busy street. One more hour meant an hour of holding onto the book. An hour of opportunity for a thief to find her. An hour for the sun to fall and the temperature to drop. The book would keep her warm, of course, but others would sense the heat, the nourishment, and they would take the book for themselves.
No choice. She stepped out of the alley and watched for vehicles–all of them by-the-numbers Toyotas and Hondas. Pedestrians–tourists–hobos–glanced at her, but returned to the vendors, weighing the Aura cost. Would a forgery be convincing enough to manifest Aura? Of course not. Even authentics were scrutinized and dismissed sometimes, draining their once bountiful Aura to nothing. Nobody wanted anyone to have what they couldn’t. Which was why Justice had to be careful.
It was hard to walk with a heavy book in her coat without it affecting her gait. She was moving her arms manually, even though they were in her coat pockets, and even though she had the book under her right arm. Her movements weren’t natural and she knew it, and soon the others would know it. Walk faster? No. It would reveal her. She concentrated on breathing. Tried not to look around. Tried to pretend she didn’t have a book under her armpit, but not to the point of dropping it.
People were looking. They could tell. Oh God. She couldn’t help walking faster. She made it to the adjacent end of the road, onto the sidewalk. One more alley and she’d be able to slip into her back yard, away from prying eyes. But she wasn’t there yet.
She began to run, clutching the book to her chest. No, no, this wasn’t the proper way. It couldn’t work like this. She’d lead them to her home, they’d know she had more Aura than the lot of them combined.
Footsteps behind her. Shouts. “What do you have? Where did you get it?” They couldn’t know about the book. How could they? It was in her coat, beneath her arm. She passed her little house, and knew she couldn’t enter. They couldn’t know where to find her. So she kept running, and the visitors kept following, sprinting after her.
“We just want to see!” they said. “We won’t take it!” They were liars. They didn’t know what truth was. What authenticity was. Their lives were forgery, counterfeit, simulacrum, down to the last thread of their store-brand clothing.
Justice breathed hard, her legs burning with exhaustion, her knees aching with each slam of her feet to the pavement. She opened her coat and breathed in the book. It was working–it was radiating Aura. It gave her the strength for one more step–no, two more. More and more. And the visitors behind her were starving, weak, desperate–desperate enough to run longer than they should, but not strong enough to follow. They fell behind, while the book gained more and more Aura. It had passed into legend. They didn’t even know what it was. A MacGuffin. An artifact. An unnamed answer.
In truth, it was a mass market paperback copy of Twilight with the cover torn off. No autograph. Nothing special.
Nothing but what the visitors believed. And that was everything Justice would ever need.