Staying

We cling together like droplets of water, crawling up or down glass in order to fuse with similar molecules. We isolate ourselves and shut our eyes to what happens outside our safe haven. We are loyal to one another and to no one else.

When we climbed onto rooftops as children, we saw the reason behind our elders’ warnings not to go up there. The view beyond our narrow streets and teetering buildings was grim. If our own children’s expressions are anything like our own were, the world outside our walls has not improved.

When the rare outsider arrives, we celebrate. It is a low-key celebration, nothing like the City Holidays. We pour coffee and bring out the biscuits covered in chocolate, the ones we save for special occasions, and we ask the newcomer questions. We ask about faraway places, the names of which we often mispronounce. R-Kansas, we are told, is actually Ark-n’-Saw. Mehico, the outsider corrects, is Meksico. New York, he says, hasn’t been New for a dozen dozen years. And York, he adds, is not a place you want to know about. Whatever makes a person’s eyes alive dies when he says this, until we ask about Boss-town, and then he smiles and takes out a digigraph of his niece, who was born there, who is beautiful.

We all host the outsiders when they come. We take turns and try not to be greedy. We sometimes wonder whether the newcomers would prefer to settle in one place while they stay here, but the truth is that while we are all eager to talk to the people from outside, we also don’t trust them, not entirely. It is safer to keep them on their toes, keep them moving. We don’t want them getting too comfortable. It is the rare outsider who receives a permit to settle here, and we don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. Not ours, not theirs.

City Holidays are magical. Fireworks are shot into the air and the power stays on all night and we break out the cosmetics and paint our faces as if we were Hollywood stars from the old 2D pictures, with lipstick and eyeshadow and cufflinks to match. We dance in the squares, in big circles, holding hands. We stay up until morning and then get together in big prearranged crews and clean up all the garbage our revelry generated.

There is a time for play and a time for order, and we teach our children to recognize the difference. When the thrice-yearly referendum on the state of our City come along, we show the children how to vote and explain why we choose the things we do and try to present a cheerful face even when the opposite result comes through, because that is what democracy is about, after all.

We remember our first votes, just after our fourteenth birthdays, coupled with our first apprenticeship placements and, for many of us, our first budding romances, kindled in the heat of the ironically called baby steps towards adulthood and the bittersweet flavor of responsibility. Our first votes were sweat-stained affairs. The decision, yae/nae for whichever proposition was our first, felt like a life-and-death one, even though no bullet-fueled weapon was being held to our heads, nor was there a threat to our beings should our vote ultimately be cast on the losing side.

There are rumors of people disappearing occasionally, but what society does not include conspiracy theories? We know our government, though. We are our government. And we aren’t thugs. We occasionally get into scraps when heavy drinking is involved, and of course we have a rotating schedule for guard duty and there are some nights when the more desperate among us attempt theft or assault, but murder is not a common crime. Similarly, kidnapping or “disappearing” criminals or, indeed, those who don’t agree with the more powerful among us – this is not a practice we condone. It is, besides, unnecessary. People know when they are not wanted, but it is more often by their family or their spurning lovers or, more tragically, by their resentful children. If people disappear from our City, it is because they have been active, have “disappeared” themselves, have, in short, left.

When the outsiders leave, though, few of us have the desire to go along with them. We remember our early days of rooftop adventures, and we remember the gray barrenness that lay outside our secure City. We’re safe here, and we’re staying.

Worrier

The trembling in the barman’s fingers was noticeable when he brought the next round of drinks to their table. Tabby, the tall brunette who had been eyeing him up all night, spoke up.

“Hey man, you okay?”

“What?” He set down her drink, sloshing some of the brightly colored liquid out onto the table, distracted by the question more than by his hands.

“Your hands. They’re shaking. Everything alright?”

“Of course,” he said, fixing a grin on his face. “Sorry about that,” he pointed to the spilled drink, “I’ll get a rag. Just a sec.” He hurried back to the bar, and Tabby turned to her girlfriends.

“Something’s not right with that guy.”

“Shut up, Tabby, you’re drunk. Also, you’re a fixer.” Joanna was big-boned but lanky, and she was the drunkest of them all at that particular moment. She didn’t notice the way her words were slurring together or how her eyelids were already drooping a little.

Tabby rolled her eyes at Kate and Gina. “If I’m drunk, then you’re a lobster,” she muttered under her breath. Joanna didn’t hear her. She was digging in her wallet for a couple quarters for the old-fashioned jukebox in the corner. “No, but seriously,” Tabby continued. “He’s shaking.”

“I didn’t notice,” Gina said. She shrugged, a dramatic feat that caused her to immediately hitch up her shirt so that nothing would spill out. Kate wasn’t listening to any of them; she had her face buried in her phone and was alternately typing and staring intensely at the screen as if it would grant all her wishes. Tabby raised her eyebrows at Gina and gave Kate a pointed look. Gina rolled her eyes and mouthed “They’re fighting again.”

Some girls’ night out this turned out to be, Tabby thought. Joanna’s drunk already and is going to fall asleep in five minutes, Kate’s having the same old relationship issues as always, Gina is in one of her quiet moods and I’m still stone-cold sober. And worrying about a barman who I’ve never met before.

The barman came back with a rag and wiped the spill. His hands were still shaking. Tabby stared after him. She hoped he was okay.

Town Fire

When the fire was finally put out, the townspeople began to walk among the ashes of what used to be their homes, their livelihoods, their belongings. Thankfully, there were no dead bodies among the ruins, but the twisted and scarred beams, the fragments of beloved old furniture and the stray blackened tool or child’s toy seemed almost like the severed limbs of loved ones.

A child ran into a hollow house, crying. His mother had hardly recognized the place as her own dwelling until he’d shouted and run inside. Now she watched in horror, locked in place by fear, as he began to climb the half collapsed staircase that led to the second floor. Her eldest daughter, who had been walking behind, holding the youngest of the family on her hip, thrust the baby at her frozen mother and ran after the child inside.

“Esav! No!” She snatched him up from the third stair and ran out of the house. As she stepped out of what used to be the front door, a loud crack sounded and a beam tumbled down inside, bring down half the second floor with it. Her mother clutched the baby so hard that the tiny thing began to cry, sensing its mother’s desperation.

“Hush, hush there. Hush now.” the mother snapped out of her stupor and patted the baby’s back. Tears ran down her face in a mixture of relief that her boy was safe, shame that she hadn’t done anything and pride that her daughter had.

They continued to walk through the town, looking for a place to shelter, along with everyone else.