(image taken from https://abruptdeparture.wordpress.com/)
The city was a sea of gray. The sooted streets of slate diminished by disrepair and the surrounding waters a dismal, drowning taupe in their reflection of the constant clouds. The snow-like powders that went into greasy pipes and the cigarettes that blackened lungs. The silver knives stained from daily use, and the guns a frigid, polished shine. The seagulls picking trash with more discrimination than orphans and ravens feasting on the corpses without prejudice. The hollowed, steel blue buildings darkened by ash, and the fog a hungry ghost, enveloping all of it like a death shroud.
The forces themselves were night and day, a towering mass of neon black versus a quiet whisper’s worth of white, but the people, the heaving waves of people—they themselves, and they alone, were gray.
Roc was one water droplet amongst so many. His little doings, his quest for daily bread, splashed and foamed and got tossed around as one with all the others. We might call him a little one, about eight years old. But there were no true little ones in Oshana, and neither did the city track the years. He and they only knew the local astronomy—day and night, cool and cold, a time to scavenge and a time to hide. He matured as fast as anyone else: immediately, because he had to.
And yet he was different. For his little waterdrop kept crashing down nearer and nearer to the shore. The moon still pulled him back through the lubricated grains of soft, soaked sand, but so also did it let him taste the drier, harder grains. Though he knew that taste had never touched his tongue that he could remember, a deepness inside ached for it like homesickness.
This day dawned in clouds, as it always did. Roc poked his head out from between the bursting garbage sacks that were his fortress and flipped his head both ways down the alley. The stench of urine that was ingrained in cement and brick had performed its duty again: no threats laid in either direction. No hungry bullies to break his thumbs, no drugged-up ranters on a rave, no darkers out for blood.
Like a sparrow he hopped out of the trash and over to the alley’s end. A blast of wind hit his face and he ducked back. The wind died down and he made his way out and over to the city’s edge to perform his morning ritual. He ducked beneath a broken set of concrete stairs once attached to a nearby crumbling structure and stared through the gaps.
The sight of the Bridge never ceased to amaze him. The titanic structure of cement and steel arched over the unsettled sea and disappeared into a wall of fog. Roc assumed, from the painted lanes on the dried tar, that cars were once meant to cross it. But as far as Roc knew, neither cars nor anything else had made that journey since ancient times. Not even the cars of the Rose or the Namers. Nor even the Sea itself.
A hundred yards down, the lanes wrapped around a towering lighthouse rising out of the fog. Once as white as its light, the beacon’s bricks had been charred and stained by a mix of pollutions. Its duty of illumination had turned dark. These days Roc had only ever seen it used to spot people trying to leave the city by boat. But it held no fear for him, like it did for so many other kids. He was more afraid of what might lie beyond that wall of whiteness than what was here in the city.
The armed men who stood guard at the Bridge’s entrance—people called them the Sentinels—well, they didn’t scare him either. The Sentinels were silent men, nameless and still, like a legion of chess pieces, or rows of gravestones. He understood what they did, but not why, and that mystery was part of the gravity that drew Roc here every morning. Nothing about their manner ever gave away their reasoning. Roc had never even heard them talk. They hefted their big guns casually, almost lazily, as if waiting for something to do.
No one had tried today. Not yet, anyway.
Roc leaned out to lick the dew off the rusted metal rail and suck air in through his nose. Condensation produced the cleanest water he’d ever tasted outside the saloons, and the sea’s salt purged the urine from his nostrils.
Drawing back, Roc saw him. He was here again. The other observer, the one across the street. The rough-cheeked, black-haired man with the eyepatch and the motorcycle and the dark jacket. Roc had seen him here many times, but not every day, and considered him a deeper mystery than the guards. Especially those gloves on his hands. Even Roc, as little and obscure as he was, knew gloves were illegal. The man must have been either powerful or fearless. Roc guessed just fearless. But the fearless in Oshana either died quickly or became powerful.
Either way, a good person for a friend, Roc thought. And even though they’d never spoken, that’s how Roc thought of him. Maybe not a friend, but an ally. Maybe not an ally, but a protector.
Something about the idea was comforting. It just felt right—or close to right.
Today, more than any day before, the man’s left-eyed gaze on the Bridge seemed to go far beyond the cement and steel. Deep into the fog, into places and feelings Roc was blind to.
Then they heard footsteps and a racked whimpering. Both heads turned.
A teenaged girl wrapped in rags was shuffling down the middle of the street. She clutched a threadbare shawl around her neck. Cotton, with more holes than cloth. Probably provided only the illusion of warmth. The fog had buried the slip-slip of her footsteps and her bloodied, ragged breathing until she was nearly parallel with Roc. This close he could see the snot running down the shivering cheeks, dripping even into her lips. She passed through the two observers like they were open gates.
Roc’s heart beat a little faster. He knew what was about to happen. She was nearing the real gates. There was no defined line to cross, only the dried puddles of brownish-red stain that stretched across the intersecting streets. Once in a spate of hard thinking, Roc had figured that this vague area created a space of uncertainty that attracted the runners. If you were trying to cross, but hoping for the best, you would never know the exact moment. Maybe you’d even feel a little hope. The Sentinels weren’t going to do it! Not this time! This time you were special, and you were the only one who’d get past, the one who’d get to see lie beyond the Bridge, and inside the world of fog.
And of course that would be the last spark of electricity that surged through your brain, because then your brains would be spilled out onto the ground.
At the last second Roc turned away, and looked up at his friend’s lightly bearded face across the street. The mouth he saw was open but empty, like it was trying and failing to muster words. The shoulders below it were tense as if about to lunge. The man did not.
The successive cracks rang out and Roc’s whole body jolted, like it always did (because you never knew just when). He looked just in time to see the girl perforated with bullets. Her scream died pitifully as she collapsed. Blood pooled around her and added a new layer to the shapeless stains.
Roc looked to his friend again. The mouth had closed, but the jaw was quivering as three of the Sentinels ventured out to retrieve the girl’s body. One raised his gun on the eyepatch while the other two dragged the girl’s body by the arms over to the water’s edge. They lifted her over the short concrete barrier and dropped her fifty feet into the drink. Roc heard a splash. They resumed their post without speaking.
How many skeletons must lie sleeping on that sea floor, Roc thought.
On the other side, that one eye was so fixated on the girl’s burial that the man did not hear Roc approach from the side—the first time the boy had ever worked up his courage to do so. Today he needed to know why this man did it. Why he watched, like Roc did.
Roc could have explained that he watched because there were things you could do that made you stop moving, that made blood come out of your skin. And that if you followed those rules, you could keep moving, and keep your skin together.
But Roc did not explain. Could not.
“Why?” he said to the man.
The man answered, and yet in such a manner that Roc wasn’t sure if he’d been noticed at all.
“I need to see myself,” the man said in a hollow voice that shocked Roc for its mildness. “I need to know myself.”
Roc was close enough to really see the man’s remaining eye—a shining sea-blue of an eye that stood out all the more against the blackness of his hair, beard, and jacket—and see how its beacon-like light was directed inward. Roc was close enough to see tears trickle out of that eye, and down into the wilderness of his unshaven cheeks. Roc was close enough to tug on that jacket if he wanted, to get him to look down at the child who had wanted safety and security and companionship all his life but never even knew the words to describe it.
“The city is clothed in its own nakedness,” the man whispered.
But it didn’t help Roc, for, despite being mere inches away, Roc was still not close enough to understand.