Shinda loves telling me about myself. “I swear, you’re just trying to be miserable.” She stomps down the creaking stairs, shaking her shaggy head for emphasis. “Do you even have a reason to get out of bed anymore? Call me when you’re sane.”
Why would I ever do that if I were sane, I don’t yell after her. All of a sudden the apartment is empty, the sick green walls folding over old grounds, old clothes, old papers, and my empty head. The top of the stairs feels colder than usual, though I don’t know how I could possibly notice. I take the stairs after her like a slow shadow, grab my coat and slip out the door. I barely have to open it.
When fall hits the city, clings for the last blow, I let dead leaves lead me through the streets. I squint at them, scritch scratch down the sidewalk. Shinda is cool, I tell myself, but she doesn’t know anything about people. She doesn’t know anything about me. I repeat this to myself, leaf by brown leaf, until it’s dark out.
No one I pass knows me. They might as well not be there, I think. I bite my tongue hard for three seconds. Creeping myself out. Lights wake into being around the city, windows and street lamps and far-away buildings. The Dez-Cadet Hotel looms over the core, creating a distant triangle with the spire of the Bemzer building and 67Memoria. How else do you expect me to be, I grumble to Shinda’s imaginary back, living under a tower of death like that?
I turn my back on the cluster of lights, walk east on Messer Ave in the direction of the suburbs, of wider streets, fewer bus depots, cleaner gutters. The bright towers shrink behind me. Mom would punch my ear for walking so far in the dark, as if every corner of the city wasn’t being surveyed at all times. Mechanic eyes peer down at me from each streetlight, up from every sewer grate. They couldn’t be winking but I like pretending some things when I’m alone.
When I get like this I can’t be alone. I have to eke some of the bile on another human.
Rend is sitting at the kitchen table when I walk in, one hand in a bowl of Sugar Cuts and the other up his nose. He takes a deep breath and bellows to mom, who’s down the stairs in jet speed and already cupping my elbow in her warm hand. She manages to scold me for the walk, tell me I’m too thin, and invite me to dinner in one breath. I sit, steal Rend’s Sugar Cut.
I think they’re used to me showing up like this.
Mom is wrinkling Rend’s plastic dish, squeezing the dirt out and throwing it in the Sanitub.
I tell her I quit my job because it was wearing out my knees, and because it was crap. Really I’m not supposed to come back because I overslept two days. But I can’t tell her that without at least mentioning the dreams, dreams where the objects are the same but the picture is different, where words reach me like a liquid and dissolve. The biggest trouble is they last too long, well into midday, and there goes my livelihood.
Shinda’s voice is echoing around me, her words slightly askew, as I drum my fingers on mom’s kitchen table. You’re not sensitive, you just like being bothered. You want it so people might look at you harder.
Rend and mom have been doing some light tourism. “...couldn’t stand paying that much to see a bunch of dog skeletons, so we hung around the base of 67Memoria for an hour before calling quits. Have you made it out there?”
I don’t answer for a second. Mom must think I’m getting emotional, but really I can’t keep up with her words.
“It’s a sight.” She’s looking very carefully at her hands. She’s the one getting emotional. She’s the one who still thinks about dad every day. “Ten years of building...this city really pulled itself up after that…happened.” She smiles at me, very hard. A buried memory of the news flash pops into my eye, bodies scattered and melted into rubble, cameras hanging limply from streetlights, taxis colliding in midair.
“Cool stuff,” Rend says, snapping us both out of our stare.
I don’t understand.
“They got cool stuff.” He pulls out a pair of scissors painted like a rocket on fire. “Mom wouldn’t cough up the cash for the real good stuff, though.”
“Toys are not the point,” mom snaps. “It’s dedicated to the people who died in the Incident. Those goony market people are just—just capitalizing off of people’s morbid fascination.”
Upstairs, me and Rend sit under his windowsill and try finding a star. It’s hard, between all the signal towers and airplanes, the headlights of taxis still finding lone drunk passengers stumbling out of central bars.
I don’t want to think about mom being upset, or thinking about dad alone in her room. I came home to show her my worry. Rend is telling me about the things his friends bought on their trips downtown to 67Memoria. I can’t tell him I’m afraid to go to sleep. I can’t spill bile on a ten-year-old. So I let him keep talking.
It’s grey here, and that means I’m dreaming. “It’s grey everywhere,” she says, her heavy hair falling from the ceiling. It’s falling, too heavy. “It’s grey everywhere with ash in your eyes.” That means a joke, yeah, she’s laughing. A thin face is wavering before my eyes, adjusting to the walls of heavy hair.
She has a big mole on her left cheekbone and her fingers are scalpels. “I’m so angry,” she laughs.
It’s not particularly scary, this dream. I do, after all, have a long burning wire wrapped around my arm. She can’t touch me very easily. But I hate to be here and have no control, no exit. My burning wire keeps me attached to the ceiling and to her heavy hair.
“I can’t help anyone but me,” I say. I can feel where the wire produces smoke in my arm.
“Don’t flatter yourself.” Only Shinda would be that blunt, but this face isn’t hiding Shinda. This face is the cover of hate. I’ve never seen it before. For a long moment I don’t know anything but these facts, and then the wire releases me, and I fall from the sky.
In the morning Rend gives up on pulling me out of bed at a good hour. When I finally wake mom is at work, and I take Rend for a walk. He asks me why I’m so grumpy and tired, and if all old folks stop being able to play Pisspot, and if he should change his hair before school really starts.
Did I think about my hair when I was ten?
The streets of the suburbs are so clean I can’t believe it. Hardly a tossed-out plastiwrap or fuel cell in sight. Maybe people actually go to the trouble of picking things up here. I can’t imagine caring enough.
Doesn’t look like anything’s changed much since I was Rend’s age. The Hilgards still have the bike shed that me and Cherry Budge mangled on a middle school joyride…Rend sees some friends on the corner of Yick and Mangleberry. I have to look at them twice. They’re all wearing masks. New trend?
Rend puffs up his chests and says that I’m his sister and I live downtown and I used to work at the hover armory but not anymore. The kids are probably trying to decide if they’re impressed under the masks. They’re the creepiest ones I’ve ever seen. Like photographs.
“We got these downtown,” one of them pipes up.
“I bet you did.” I’ve had enough of company. I leave Rend with the creeps and, following the skyscrapers peering above the trees, start the walk home back to the core, where nobody is human.
Tonight the dream isn’t a dream. Tonight I am coming off of an entire day spent in my room, kneeling at the windowsill and huffing fall air. Three floors up. None of the people below are Shinda, I’d know that from twenty floors above.
I’m thinking I have to get a new job soon. I’m almost out of pro-flakes, and that’s with two days of not eating anything. I’m thinking I have to stomp around the core handing out photos until someone likes the look of me. I stopped paying my Antenna bills two days ago and the bastards have already disconnected me. If my friends are wondering where I’ve disappeared to, which is unlikely, they’ll never find out.
I’m thinking all that when the buzzer rings, and I run over to say hi to Shinda but no one says anything back. A delivery guy or something got the wrong apartment. For good measure I curse into the box and turn back to the window.
There’s a girl at the window, and I think she’s familiar but a little grey around the edges. She’s picking up long strands of her hair and feeding it out the sill.
“Why is your hair so heavy?”
She looks at me and she’s laughing. “It’s not my hair,” she says. “You’re going to need to call Supervision. There’s going to be a lot of wreckage.”
“The Antenna is dead,” I say, “and I’m really tired.”
“Get ready,” she says, “it’s an emergency.”
She drops out the window smooth, limp suddenly. The pavement below is spotless. I know it’s not a dream because I’m still cold and restless, and when I sink onto the windowsill I don’t wake.
Everyone’s running around in masks. I’ve never seen a trend that spread up through the brackets so quickly.
Our booth is, at the moment, in the red neon corner. It’s the inside of a volcano, very symmetrical. It makes our Cuts of food look bloody.
“Wasn’t your dad a big Emergency67 hero?” My ex-friend Jeen’s voice is meaner behind her mask, an old woman with heavy brows. “Is that why this pisses you off?”
I tell them I just think it’s dumb. Now we’re in the blue corner, the window facing a gaudy simulation of a lagoon. I reach over to one of the masks lying on the table. On the back there is smooth writing, telling me that Gabila S. Marastika was an immigrant from the East, a greengrocer’s wife, and left behind three children when she died in Emergency67. I grind a Meat Cut into the plate. Have to keep my hands moving.
“He wasn’t a hero,” I say anyway. “He died, that’s all.”
Jeen and her friend Tomo are talking brash, but I can feel the weird looks they’re exchanging through their masks. Quiet Simoon touches my shoulder, tells me the masks aren’t supposed to be a joke, tells me they commemorate the dead. Violet corner, a very fictional image of North City’s skyline. That’s when I snap, tell him I don’t know that word, I’m going to go look it up in the Index, and stomp out of the glowing diner.
It’s funny, I do remember a time when I was younger and people didn’t ever mention “threats in the sky.” It was only after Emergency67, which bloomed on a day calm and boring as its yester, that teachers began to instruct us on proper underground procedures. Parents began to expect us home before dark, cameras began to follow us as we walked from study to study, and it began to feel like every window and door was the eye of an unseen enemy, hand on a cosmic trigger. I remember being eleven, mishearing what everyone was saying. Threads in the sky, that’s what I heard, and I imagined tall creatures rappelling out of the clouds on long metal ropes. Rend was just a baby when it happened. He thinks it’s normal, feeling watched all the time.
Only I’ve never seen anything of the enemy. The only eyes I have seen are the eyes of Supervision, protecting us.
I kick the dead leaves over the gutters, trying to cover the camera sheen.
I’ve been waiting for Shinda to drag me to 67Memoria. She’s been into it since the first day construction started. Where I have a quiet disgust, Shinda has morbid fascination.
But she’s still ignoring me, and I’m still ignoring her. Which is why I’m alone at the base of the memoria, in broad daylight. There are so many people here, tourists slipping cash to the guys selling souvenirs under pavilions, each tent varied in shabbiness and prices. Tiny before-after landscapes, fifteen. Large before-after landscapes, thirty. Plastic Supervision badges, five. Masks of the long-dead, twenty.
That’s where the crowd is thickest, and where the vendors are the sleekest and most well-spoken. Fine artistry, true-to-life portraiture, commemoration.
If Shinda were here and wanted to make me smile, she’d talk a lot of shit about this. But now her voice in my head asks me if I’m looking hard for my dad’s face. It asks me if I’m looking down at my feet because I don’t want to see it.
Apple, two. Not everything here’s memorial. I bite into it. I imagine everyone disappearing, only me left with the memoria. Me and a giant metal spike, its spinning restaurants and stacked offices, its piles of market money. They built it to look armored, like you could stick enemy heads on those spiny moldings.
Now I’m staring. The tourists bang by my elbows, wake me up a little.
It’s grey again, and my fingers are long and heavy. I’m made of connectors if I really think about it. She’s somewhere around here, since I recognize that face. I think I must have seen it ten times by now, never realizing because it’s plastic every time. But the image of the part of the long heavy hair is still there. My fingers feel so cold from density, my head is so alive from throbbing.
Everyone in the dining room is wearing my father’s mask, and it’s impossible because I don’t remember his face. Makes me angry like I swallowed a knife that was longer than my guts, now it’s poking out of my leg.
My own face is plastic, and you know I hate that fad so I slip it off.
My line is still dead when I wake up, but someone has slipped Advice from Supervision under the door of the apartment. It avoids any real subject but warns us of extrasensory alert for the next month. I giggle to myself, pretend it’s because my concerned friends have alerted the authorities.
But I guess it’s serious, because when I walk outside the building there’s people whispering to each other on the sidewalk. Everyone’s wearing neon, like they don’t want to be lost.
“They found them in alleys all over North City. They didn’t have their faces anymore. ” People glare at me in my long dark coat, offended I haven’t been scared into glowing.
No one’s committed a crime that wasn’t detected by Supervision in the last ten years. I want to talk to Shinda. She’d think it was cool. I finally slip a little money into a public Antenna and try to reach her, but she isn’t there. Was it you, I’d smirk. Was it you.
I know it wasn’t me because I’ve been sleeping so much, and there’s no strange trails in my room or any sort of change. Only a knife I don’t recognize, but it is small and thin and not going to be a problem.
ANAHIT GULIAN was born in Armenia and lives under the dirtiest tracks in Brooklyn. Hi, mom and dad!