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Chapter 1: Rebel
Alex pressed his back against the cool brick wall at the end of the alleyway, melting into the deepest corner, the darkest shadow. His loose black hoodie kept the light rain off his face, though its tiny drops turned to steam and mist on the city’s grimy sidewalks and lifted the alley’s stench into his nostrils. The only way to avoid the smell was to go home, and he wasn’t ready for that.
After midnight, after his mother and everyone else in the fangjen had gone to sleep, he sneaked out through the tiny window on the second floor and made his way through the shadows to the dening. After the movie began, he let himself in through a damaged back door and crawled to an empty seat in the first row.
The dening was the only place Alex could truly escape the leenly. At home, children shouted and played in the hallways and most adults rarely went outside, held hostage by the violence of the streets. The noisy, crowded conditions served as a constant reminder that life in the leenly was not okay and he couldn’t do a thing about it.
When he slipped through the tiny window and wandered the streets after dark, he traded confinement for risk, and the free air demanded constant vigilance. The streets grew relatively quiet at three a.m., but that didn’t mean he could let down his guard, because on the street, everything happens now. He couldn’t afford to let his mind wander through time, because getting distracted by the past or delving through possible futures could result in a knife pressed into his face or back.
Backing up against a dead end may have left him trapped, but with only one direction to watch, he could at least afford some time to think. Besides, no one would notice him here, and if no one noticed him, he wouldn’t have to run.
He wanted some time to think about the movie. He needed to replay it through his mind and settle the confusing feelings it stirred inside.
Thanks to the Federal Film Content Board, the dening only played three genres of movies these days. The Council established the FFCD during the Trade War to encourage the industry to support national goals, and now oversaw movie production for the good of the country, or so they said.
Alex least enjoyed the art films. These post modern expositions most nearly mirrored reality in that they showed conflict that rarely got resolved, asked questions that remained unexplored and unanswered, and left viewers unchanged as they left the dening. The only benefit came in experiencing someone else’s misery instead of your own for an hour or two.
The escapist genre presented dreams-of-all-varieties-come-true, but then replaced those dreams with state-approved endings. The “Maid in China” series, for example, showcased a poor girl from the CSA who won the nanny lottery and traveled to China where she temporarily lived in extraordinary luxury and bliss. Her dream quickly died, however, as her low social status brought on such distress and misery that she escaped her cruel host family and courageously endured many hardships to make her way home to her beloved Confederated States of America. At least she lived out West. If she had come from a leenly like Brooklane, she would never have complained.
The third genre consisted of little more than conflict and extreme violence. They usually centered around a protagonist who stepped out of line and resisted anything at all – sometimes a system like the law or employers, sometimes any force that confronted them. These dissenters who sought to alter the status quo were shown as mad and they always met a tragic, painful end.
Only these films had the power to make Alex think. Or rather, feel, because his thoughts remained too unclear and disorganized to think them through. Watching the discontent rebels fight, even as they knew they would most likely die, stirred something in Alex’s soul.
Tonight as he leaned against the shadowed wall, he wanted to discover why. What made him secretly root for the underdog to win? Why did he hate the forces that eventually overpowered them? Why did he leave such films with a driving desire to step out of line and defy…something?
“Am I like them?” he asked himself, his lips moving but making no sound. “What will I resist? How will I die?”
Tonight’s film didn’t clearly fit into any of these genres. Titled “The Watcher,” it starred a corrupt mayor who set up security cameras throughout his town promising they would bring a decrease in crime, then used a secret police force to quietly eliminate his personal enemies and any criminals who refused to pay him protection money.
The plot took a twist when the official used his camera system to stalk and murder random citezens, just for fun. He enjoyed a challenge and toyed with his victims until just before dawn, when he sought to increase their suffering by indicating the coming day and pointing out that the victim would never live to see it.
As a publicity stunt, the studio installed security cameras in cities all across the country. Of course people had ripped many of the cameras down, hoping to sell them at the recyclers or on the black market, but discovered them to be dummies, nothing more than empty plastic boxes.
One such camera hung on the wall near the alley’s exit. Alex peered at it through the darkness. Now that he had watched the film, the plastic shell gave him the creeps. It distracted him enough that he could no longer focus on his half-formed questions. He suddenly wanted very much to go home.
Before stepping from the shadow, he brought his full attention back to the present moment. Had anything stirred? Had he failed to notice any recent noises? Once he assured himself that nothing was amiss, he strode forward toward the street. Before rounding the corner, he paused to listen for a moment, then took a cautious glance around.
Normally, he would just walk away at this point, moving indirectly homeward, staying near other alleys and escape routes should he need to run, but tonight, he paused. He glanced up at the dummy camera, then picked up a broken brick from the shiny, wet ground and threw it at the camera, knocking it from the wall to the pavement.
It made more of a clatter than Alex expected and he turned and hurried away, but as he did, he thought he saw, from the corner of his eye, a faint electric spark.
Chapter 2: 99
Alex turned six the summer his family moved to the city, and had never liked it. His parents remained deaf to his protests then, and he quickly quit complaining, numbed by the fact that they had no choice. They could not go back “home.”
Come July, he would turn twelve. Going on sixteen. Going on twenty five. Going on ninety nine.
His body was 16. His face retained a child-like roundness but the bridge of his nose had lost its preadolescent smoothness and he easily passed for an older teen. He stood five-feet five-inches tall, skinny with strong arms and fast legs.
What he missed most from what remained of early childhood memories was running. Running through fields. Through forests. Running through parks and neighborhoods, mornings and evenings, just to enjoy the simple thrill of feeling alive, the cool breeze brushing his cheeks, his heart and lungs pumping hot blood and warm oxygen through his veins and brain. When he tired of running, he collapsed comfortably, then lay on his back in the long grass and stared upward for hours at the blue, blue sky, watching hawks that soared and twirled in wide, lazy circles on invisible thermals overhead.
He hadn’t actually run as much as he now imagined, but replaying a single mental image of such a moment over and over had created false memories that made it seem that way.
Now, during the maddeningly long daylight hours, when his mother didn’t allow him to go outside at all, he ran up and down the square stairwells of his ten-story fangjen to burn excess energy. Cooler air pooled at the base of the stairs, and when summer approached, he sometimes lay on his back for hours on the concrete floor, staring upward through the hollow stairway corridor, his eyes following the steel banister as it spiraled around and around in wide circles to the ceiling, over a hundred feet up.
The stamina and speed that this running developed gave him confidence to roam the ghetto streets late at night. If no one could catch him, then they couldn’t hurt him. He also wasn’t allowed to go outside at night, of course, but with everyone in his fangjen asleep, no one noticed his absence.
The humid, polluted air of the city didn’t caress his cheeks, but scraped softly at the back of his throat like worn-out sandpaper. He didn’t like to think of it circulating inside his body, but it was better than the alternative – thinking of his body trapped inside the fangjen.
When he got bored of running stairs, he treated the railings like a jungle gym and climbed two or three stories using only his arms. He stopped not because he couldn’t continue, not because his arms gave out, but because fear of heights got the best of him.
After the first flight of stairs, he felt afraid; but he turned off his mind and didn’t think about it. Sometimes he stopped there, less than fifteen feet up, and stared down at the floor, trying to conquer his fear, but it only grew worse. A thick dread crept slowly into his throat and whispered inaudible lies into his ears, that if his feet left the ground for more than a split second, if he quit clinging desperately to this precarious world, it would slip away and leave him dangling alone in vacant space and time.
After climbing four or five flights, his mind refused to shut off and stop screaming, demanding that he clamber back over the railing and stop dangling over the empty space that fell cleanly to the cement floor below.
When he wandered the dark city’s streets and alleys, he often used his legs to stay out of trouble, and tried not to wonder what would happen if trouble ever caught up to him and forced him to use his arms.
Certain aspects of his maturity were twenty five. Spending half his life in the ghetto had exposed him to more than his share of violence and the senseless despair of living. The neighborhood was filled with wanshang addicts sleeping in parks, on sidewalks, in doorways, filling empty buildings and unused parking garages. Murders occurred daily, even in broad daylight. To the addicts, reality had permanently faded, like daylight fading to dusk, and they they didn’t understand the consequences for their crimes, only the craving for their next fix. If they did understand, they didn’t seem to care.
Not that anyone tried very hard to dish out consequences. Across the shway, maybe, in the jonesheen where the rich people lived, but not in a leenly like this one. Most criminals didn’t possess enough cash to make it worth the courts’ time to try to squeeze it from them with fines.
Before the police quit patrolling and arresting addicts and pushers, desperate people often sought cops out and committed crimes right in front of them just to get sent to prison, which seemed like a luxury hotel compared to living in the leenly. When they discovered that violent crimes earned longer sentences, that’s when people stopped going outside, for the most part. The world seemed far too crazy when you could be walking peacefully along in a crowd, then get stabbed or kicked and clubbed bloody for no aparent reason.
A few desperate souls who never wanted to return to the leenly went a step further, slitting throats or discharging pistols into surprised faces, and the courts soon learned to oblige, to guarantee the killers would not return, and sent them to more permanent accomodations in the crematorium.
Murders stopped as a ticket uptown, but the criminal element had gained a taste for its ease and simplicity, and anyone who felt threatened learned to quickly hand over wallets, watches, purses, and anything else to whoever stood before them with a knife or gun and pointed to whatever they wanted.
Two years ago, the police quit patrolling the leenly all together. On their way out, they cruised through town in armored vehicles, shooting up whoever they considered the worst elements – the addicts, pushers, and pimps – hoping perhaps to give the citizens some sort of chance at starting over, or perhaps just taking their last revenge. Alex’s father got caught in the crossfire and never came home again.
Alex’s heart was ninety nine, at least, and dying quickly. Perhaps if he had been born in this neighborhood and never known any other home, his heart never would have opened in the first place; but distant memories of better times, of open fields, snow-capped mountains and ice-cold rivers had kept a tiny, warm ember smoldering inside, a faint memory of a better life, of happiness and peace, and he sometimes forced his face to smile just to see how it felt and try to remember why his mouth used to do that of its own accord.
But those memories had faded almost entirely, as if they never really happened, as if they came from a dream, or a storybook, or a movie watched a lifetime ago.
The narrow slit that hope kept open in his heart was a danger. It allowed him to feel, sometimes, and feelings made him vulnerable. Feelings left him susceptible to fear, and fear left him susceptible to getting hurt. Eventually that slit would seal off completely, clogged by new memories, and then his heart would die.
Then he would be safe at last. He would have nothing to live for, and therefore nothing left to lose. Then he could walk fearlessly through the streets like the addicts, dows, and others.
Chapter 3: Structure
When the cops anhialated the old power structures as they abandoned the leenly to its fate, they left a power vacuum in the streets. No one rose up and rebuilt the old structures with new faces, though, carving out gang territory block by block as before. Instead, over time, half a dozen new elements appeared – groups that hadn’t existed before.
The first were the wanshang addicts. They weren’t actually a group as they had no structure, no leadership, and individuals didn’t work together for any common cause. They only appeared to be a faction because they all had the same interests and actions.
Interest, I should say, in the singluar, because the only thing they cared about was getting another fix when the old one wore off. Their actions consisted of robbery and tearing apart old buildings for the copper and other materials they could sell at the recyclers. How so many could survive on so little was a mystery, but wanshang was cheap, and they didn’t need much food because their appetite went away with their mind.
Next came the dows. These were mostly teenagers out to prove that they could be somebody. They carried weapons and walked with their heads up. Their clothes—sometimes fashionable, sometimes not—hid light-weight body armor in case of a melee.
Most of them didn’t do much harm, they just wanted their existence to be acknowledged. Their absolute insignificance in the world turned to delusions of grandeur the moment the threat of injury or disfiguration at the edge of their knives made a passerby stop and take notice. If they show enough fear, enough respect, and if the dow wasn’t having a particularly bad self-esteem day, he or she usually let you pass by unharmed.
The dows rarely fought amongst themselves, either. They had developed their own system of slang that individuated them from other facets of society, and speaking their own vernacular emphasized their uniquness and lent them a sense of being something, as if the fact of being unique also made them important.
The truth was that they were afraid. Afraid of the world and the future that faced them on every side with no possible escape. It’s not that anyone would have stopped them from hitching a ride out of town or striking out west on foot, but the leenly had gotten inside their heads and they couldn’t bend their minds around the idea of choosing anything different.
So instead of seeking solutions and thinking outside of the tall blocks of decaying concrete boxes that made up the leenly, instead of facing and conquering their fears and making something that truly mattered of their lives, instead of [solving this giant jigsaw puzzle], they simply compensated for their fears by pretending to be brave and putting on a show of fearlessness. It was this denial which locked them in place and guaranteed they would never escape.
Other factions included small-time crime rings, religioius mystics, lings, and the chens.
With so little economic incentive to protect, criminals didn’t carve out territories and battle against each other like before. Like the dows, they sought to increase the respect granted them by respecting other criminals and got along peaceably enough, until an opportunity presented itself to plunder one another if they thought they could get away with it.
No one knew much about the mystics, who seemed content to go their own way and avoid contact with others. Rumors circulated about magical powers and their destiny to rise up and reshape the world, but no one took such folklore seriously.
Lings consisted of youth unwilling to stay locked inside, but without the dau attitude. The did their best to act like nothings, to make themselves seen as worthless, with nothing to give and nothing to lose. If they devalued themselves thoroughly enough, no one could derive any joy from debasing them further.
They walked with their heads down and dressed in black with never a thing in their pockets worth taking, wearing nothing worth killing for. Lings avoided everyone but those like themselves, walking in clumps when possible, crossing the street to avoid dows and other threats when necessary.
Somehow the idea had spread among dows that killing a naught was degrading work. That even paying them enough attention to stick a blade between their ribs demeaned the murderer and made him dirty and cowardly. This idea allowed lings to roam freely enough as long as they stayed well out of everyone’s way.
Alex had designed his own combination of both styles. He carried a pair of strong steak knives concealed in his boots, and had fashioned his own body armor of layered cardboard cutouts designed to match his arms, chest, and back, which he stitched inside a black hoodie. He walked with his head down and slumped his shoulders, but from under his hood, his attentive eyes looked up. He never looked a threat in the eye, but watched their moves when close by, taking in every detail, every tiny movement of a hand or shift of weight to one foot or the other, always ready to run if necessary.
The chens had money. They hired squads of well-armed protection sporting showy body armor and strolled through the leenly as they wished, enjoying whatever entertainment and social life remained in the area, with an arrogant, carefree air. The only true power they weilded was to hire others to fulfill their whims, and the only plausible explanation for why they stuck around was that they could never afford such prestige and self importance across the shway.
As for the rest of society, the broken individuals and families that remained trapped inside the leenly, most scraped by on government assistance while a few, including Alex’s mother, took the train across the shway to work during the day and tried not to get robbed or sliced up when they returned.
Chapter 4: Angels
Alex sensed that something was missing, but he had no idea what, nor where to look for it.
At home, he played the dutiful son, respectfully doing his studies and chores when asked and not throwing tantrums or causing any minor trouble like some of the other children on their floor who made too much noise and seemed only scarcely aware of everyone around them. Whenever Alex imagined them trying to make their way down on the street, it didn’t end nicely.
Games like long shot and wall ball that other children played in the hallway didn’t interest Alex. His coordination and strength made him adept, and smaller children begged him to join their side, but with his heart nearly sealed off, he could not connect with others and therefore the games had no meaning.
As he observed himself interacting with others, as if standing outside of himself and watching himself as a stranger, he sensed something missing, but couldn’t reach out and touch it. As if the code for connection had been deleted from his programming. As if the part of his brain containing the language of connection had been surgically removed.
Alex preferred to read or just sit in the window and stare outside and think. They lived on the seventh story, high enough above the street that they didn’t have to board up their windows as protection against anyone who could look up and want to cause any trouble.
Whenever his mother asked him what he was thinking about, he didn’t know how to reply. His brain wasn’t actively, consciously thinking. He had no continual stream of internal conversation running inside his skull. Instead, he mostly just watched and let all thoughts and feelings run along on their own path somewhere below the surface, below conscious awareness.
If he had exerted himself to discover what his brain was dancing around all this time, he would have found this single question: “Why?” What was the point of everything? What mattered beyond survival and endurance? He sensed that such questions had answers, but his only unconscious plan consisted of waiting and observing, expecting to someday discover a higher purpose to existence.
Perhaps his expectation of discovering something more came from his mother.
It wasn’t because she loved him, though she probably did. Alex’s closed heart couldn’t begin to comprehend love, so how could he comprehend being loved? He recognized her interest in his care and her protectiveness, like a mother bear, but was that love? Perhaps that was merely instinct, evolutionary genetics, the result of hormones and peptides that drove mothers to care for their offspring that the human race might survive. If that was love, then his mother surely loved him very much.
Alex suspected that he loved her back, but lacking the code to experience such things, he couldn’t know for sure.
His expectations of future understandings had more to do with things she sometimes said, off-hand comments that fell from her lips following abrupt or protracted silences.
“Don’t you worry too much, Alex, do you hear me?” she might say. “Things aren’t looking too good these days, sure, but there are things going on that we have no idea of. You’ll see. Everything is going to be better. God in Heaven has his plans. You will see if you’ll not worry yourself too much.”
If she had merely repeated these words as any mother might, betraying a naïve maternal confidence that her offspring were somehow more special than others and thus destined for glory, the words would hardly have mattered; but her assurances proved more convincing when accompanied by the quizzical glances which she aimed pensively toward him, as if she knew such things as facts yet without a full understanding.
This was the case, in fact. While not outwardly religious, Cheryl was a deeply spiritual woman who ocassionally, just when life settled into its darkest, deepest blackness of ugliness and despair, felt the hand of God reach down and cover her, setting her heart afire and taking away, momentarily, all her worldly sorrows. In such times she wept for joy and relief, and a nearly tangible light poured from her eyes such that the neighbors could not help but be touched and lifted, altered imperceptibly but permanently on some deep, indiscernible level.
She frequently saw spirits and angels. On the rare ocassions when she confided in Alex, she reported that tortured, anguished souls of murdered murderers sometimes ceased their howlings and spoke to her on the streets and on the train. They greeted her as if they were familiar neighbors passing each other on a Sunday afternoon in the country.
She rarely spoke of such things to anyone, but neighbors often caught her nodding her head or speaking under her breath to no one in particular while walking to the station and as the old train rumbled along on its underground tracks.
The angels more often came at night. She would awake to a faint glow lighting her room, and when she opened her eyes to find translucent men and women standing over her, waiting patiently for her attention, she would sit up and grant them audience. These angels rarely spoke. They only stood and gazed into Cheryl’s eyes as a certain understanding passed between them.
While these interactions brought her peace, Alex often found them disconcerting. He dreaded the mornings when he found her humming happily in the kitchen, the mornings when she would tell him things that frightened him terribly though he could never understand why.
“I don’t know why, Alex James,” she would muse while watching him with a puzzled expression woven into the light wrinkles across her face, “but you are the reason they come to me.” She would stare at him for a long moment, her face turned melancholy with an expression of some kind of firm but blind understanding. “They want something from you.”
The weight of this mysterious expectation, coupled with the certain confidence in his clairvoyant mother, coupled with the hidden love he probably had for her, coupled with the inability to feel such emotions, was too much to take. Something made him know it was all true, some unexplained clarity of thought that settled into his mind confirmed all her words; and knowing such things without the faintest idea of exactly what to expect or what to do about it created a terrifying dilemma.
Chapter 5: Options
Alex padded silently down the stairwell one night on his way to the second-floor window that served as his portal to the wider world. He couldn’t use the door on the main floor as it had been chained shut for two years. Besides, if he needed that door to get back in, then anyone else could get in that way, too, and then no one in the fangjen would be safe.
He paused on the second-floor landing and was about to pull on his padded black hoodie when a sound echoed up the stairwell and let him know he was not alone. He froze and listened intently.
A moment later, the sound repeated itself, and Alex stepped over to the railing and peered down. From under the first flight of stairs, a fist-sized rubber ball shot across the stairwell, hit the far wall, then bounced once against the concrete floor before the invisible thrower caught it again.
Alex crept quietly around the winding stairway until the thrower’s feet came into view and confirmed his identity. He slid on his belly past the section where the owner of the feet might have spied him, then made his way to the ground floor.
The next time the rubber ball shot across the room, Alex lunged forward and caught the ball as it rebounded.
“Ahh!” Carl screamed, then connected his shriek with “ha!” as he recognized Alex and pretended his sudden appearance hadn’t scared the gway out of him.
Alex laughed and bounced the rubber ball back to his friend. “What are you doing up?” he asked.
“I should ask you the same question, young man!” Carl returned with mock seriousness. “But I already know,” he added tiredly.
“You do?” Alex asked, feigning nonchalance. His mental gears spun into high gear, wondering how long Carl had known about his nightly escapes and calculating the probability that he would tell his mother.
“Oh, yes,” Carl nodded, “I know all about you. Everyone does. I just don’t understand why you do it.”
“Well,” Alex stalled, unsure how to explain himself.
“Up and down, up and down,” Carl interrupted. “What’s the point?! You wear yourself out and make this place stink worse than it already does!”
Alex breathed an inward sigh of relief. Carl knew nothing about the window, only about the workouts. He walked over and sat down against the wall next to his friend, who threw the ball again, this time so it rebounded to Alex.
“So why do you do it?” he asked again.
“Feels good,” Alex merely replied, “and it gives me something to do.”
Carl nodded empathetically about the endless indoor monotony. “Are you going outside?” he asked. When Alex froze, he continued. “You’re almost twelve, are you gonna go outside then?”
‘Going outside’ meant more than merely Alex’s occassional neighborhood strolls. It meant choosing a new lifestyle, breaking away from parental restraint and choosing a new identity with one of the factions. Kids with enough fear and bluster usually tried to become dows, and shier kids who just wanted to get outside, tried to slip past without being noticed as lings. Nobody chose to become an addict, but if they couldn’t handle the pressure and despair, that’s often how they wound up.
With such a low life expectancy in the leenly, twelve years old could mean half of a lifetime, and Carl, who was two months older than Alex, had been considering his options seriously.
Alex merely shrugged in reply. He didn’t want to follow any of the available paths, but didn’t know what else to do.
“I think I’m gonna be a dow,” Carl mused, trying to sound confident and sure.
Alex listened between the lines and clearly heard the fear in his friend’s voice. The problem was that to become a dow, you couldn’t just buy a knife and some body armor and cop an attitude. Established dows would notice and demand proof that you belonged. Initiation always involved crime, usually violent crime, and Carl was a gentle soul. He didn’t belong on the streets.
“Lings aren’t so bad,” Alex suggested. “It’s a lot less trouble that way.”
“Lings are worthless!” Carl shot back vehemently. “Who wants to spend the rest of your life walking around in fear?”
“I don’t want to be either one,” Alex confided.
“Yeah,” Carl agreed, calming down again, “but we’re kinda low on options here.”
Alex threw the ball at the far wall and it richocheted back to Carl. They spent the next several minutes just throwing the ball without speaking.
“What will you do after being a dow?” Alex finally asked.
Carl returned a confused look, clearly he had never thought that far ahead and really, what was the point? After being a dow, he would be dead. Even if he survived to grow old enough to become a worker, employers didn’t trust boys from Brooklane and rarely hired them.
If he got a job, he would become a target for every type of criminal in the leenly hoping to devour a portion of his wages, and a significant cut of his pie would go to paying for protection which was as likely to rob him as not. Protection was perhaps the only legitimate work in the leenly, so competition was fierce and often fatal. It didn’t have much more built-in future than other faction options.
The lucky few who found employment across the shway tended to sleep in the jonesheen streets until they could afford accommodations there rather than return home to get mugged, and so no one here really learned how to go about getting such a job.
Working mothers were the exception. Unable to move their families to the streets or support them in a more expensive neighborhood, they took the train morning and night, and a band of older men with enough dignity to not take advantage of them formed a protection squad for their commute home from the station.
Alex and Carl threw the ball against the wall a few more times and then, with the confusion still written across his brow, Carl mused, “Seems like it wasn’t always this bad.”
“It wasn’t,” Alex agreed.
“No, I mean…it seems like just yesterday, that things weren’t so bad everywhere!”“Feels like forever to me!” Alex disagreed, thinking about the past six years of his life, or even just the past two since his father was killed and the cops left town.
Carl just shook his head and a moment later, the confused look cleared from his brow.
Chapter 6: Clouds
Alex didn’t wander the streets that night. He and Carl climbed the stairs and said goodnight, and Alex tossed and turned all night thinking about the future and trying to work out who to be and how to live but unable to uncover any answers that fit inside his known world.
When he finally slept, shortly before dawn, he dreamt of running through golden fields, the tall grasses whipping at his elbows as he passed, ponderous purple mountains anchoring the horizon, and hawks and eagles twirling through the blue, blue sky.
“Breakfast!” his mother called, waking him not long after he fell asleep, and when he groaned and rolled away from the door, she watched him for a moment, then added, “You’re nearly twelve, you can feed yourself,” and returned to the tiny kitchen to fix something for his sister.
He slept for an hour, woken by children running and shouting in the hallway and his sister’s kiddie vids blaring in the living room, then yawned and made his way to the kitchen.
Alex’s family lived in a one-bedroom apartment with a large utility closet serving as his bedroom. His mother and five-year-old sister, Hallie, shared the bedroom, and a combined kitchen/dining room/living room ended with a seventh-floor balcony overlooking hundreds of similar balconies and a narrow street below.
“Alex!” Hallie shouted as he walked past. She bounded off the couch and skipped over to hug his waist.
Alex mussed her hair, the pushed against her ear until she let go. “I’m hungry,” he reported. He picked up a bowl from the dish drainer and stared blankly at the two breakfast options, waiting for something in his brain to decide between them. Both came from plastic bins, one filled with oats, the other with powdered eggs.
He eventually lifted his bowl to the counter and filled it half way with powdered eggs. He added some water from the sink, then set it in the micro to cook for a minute. He cracked open the tiny fridge and considered the syrup there, but that was saved for special occassions, and today was nothing special.
Plopping down on the couch next to Hallie, Alex forked the rubbery eggs into his mouth and watched cartoon forest animals sort out a misunderstanding about who was eating too much from the garden. He remembered enjoying the same vids five years ago, but now they seemed so simplistic and mindless that the slow pace frustrated him. They had an agreement, though – Hallie got the tele before lunch and he got it after – so he couldn’t turn it off.
“Aren’t you gonna do your studies?” he asked, hoping she would change the channel to her ed feed.
“Yes,” Hallie confirmed, “but I want to watch Bunnies first.”
When a thin blue bunny started crying about being hungry all the time, Alex rolled his eyes and stood up. He dropped his bowl in the sink, walked down the hallway, and climbed the stairs to the roof.
Thin, high clouds blanked the sky and trapped the earth’s heat, making it a warm June day already, and the sun had only risen a few hours ago. Carl and Kat leaned against a low wall nearby, staring down into the street, and Alex joined them.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Clouds,” Kat replied. “Seriously,” she added a minute later when he didn’t respond, “you’re so dense sometimes. I can’t believe you didn’t know that.”
“I’m sick of being stuck up here all the time,” Carl mused a minute later. “Where can I get a knife?”
“The surest place to get a blade,” Kat answered, “is from a dow.” When Carl shook his head and ignored her, she continued. “No, seriously,” she insisted, “they’ve always got one or two on them.”
“Seriously,” Carl asked again, “where can I get one?”
“You don’t believe me?!” Kat demanded, her voice rising. “Why don’t you two ever believe me?! Watch, I’ll show you!” With that, she leaned over the low wall, brushed her long hair away from her face, and shouted down into the street. “Hey! Does somebody have…”
The two boys grabbed her hands and arms and dragged her back, away from the wall. “Shut up!” Carl hissed. “Are you trying to get us kicked off the roof?”
“Ohhh,” Kat said as if just beginning to understand, “you want your own knife. I thought you just wanted one jabbed into your neck or stuck between your ribs or something.”
“What I want is to be a dow, so I can do what I want!”
“Wait,” Kat said hesitantly and looking confused, “you mean you do want a blade jabbed in your throat?”
Carl just shook his head. “You don’t understand.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Kat countered.
“No, you don’t!”
“I think blue bunny is eating too much from the garden again,” Alex interrupted. His friends could go on like this for hours if he didn’t intervene.
“What?” Kat asked, nonplussed. Alex didn’t answer, and she didn’t return to her former argument. The boys released their holds on her arms and they wandered back to the wall. Ten stories below them, nothing moved, but they kept staring down anyway, like birds trapped in a cage.
Someone wandered onto the roof across the street a few minutes later, someone older than the three children, and they quickly turned and sat down against the wall where they couldn’t be seen. Ya never know when someone might cause trouble and they were all conditioned to avoid confronting it and finding out.
“I like clouds,” Kat mused a few minutes later, gazing curiously up at the sky.
“Good thing,” Carl said, “since your head is full of them.”
“Yes,” Kat agreed, “unlike the stagnant swamp between your ears.”
Alex glanced up at the clouds and found nothing to like about them, then glanced at Kat and waited for her to explain. She continued staring upward, through the long, brown hair that fell across her face to her chin. He sometimes wondered how she could see much through it, but that was the style in the leenly these days where beauty put girls in danger of being abused or trafficked, and mothers often hid or disfigured their daughters’ faces for security. The hair on the back of her head was cropped close, partly to look less attractive, and partly because then no one could grab it and control her.
“Clouds can travel anywhere they want,” Kat finally continued, “and nobody even cares.”
“They’re just clouds,” Carl objected, “who cares where they go?”
“That’s what I just said!” Kat snapped back at him. “Are you deaf?”
Carl shook his head dismissively, but also a bit sheepishly as if the whole brief conversation had been a trap and she had lured him in to take the bait. He twisted around and peered over the wall, and finding the opposite roof empty, stood back up and the others followed.
“If you could go anywhere,” Kat began a minute later, “where would you go?”
“Back to Colorado, probably,” Alex answered, recalling his dreams of open spaces, nature, and freedom.
“Why stop there?” Carl asked, “Why not go all the way to China?”
“Why do you always ask such stupid questions?” Alex asked Kat accusingly, suddenly annoyed at her curiosity, frustrated at his wistful dreams of leaving the leenly, and despirited by his knowing that he would never escape and his life would never amount to anything at all.
Something brushed Alex’s elbow just then and he jumped back, startled and alarmed. There stood Hallie, her big, brown eyes wide and startled, too, by his sudden leap.
“You’re not supposed to be up here,” he said, reaching out for her hand. Only bigger kids were allowed on the roof. Alex couldn’t understand what sort of danger the roof might present to them, but he didn’t argue since it protected one of the few peaceful places in his world from being overrun by screaming children. “Come on,” he said, leading her back toward the stairs, “you have to do your studies.”
Chapter 7: Silver Scream
….stay tuned! More coming soon.