The raven-haired boys come on the twenty-eighth of every month, when our city grows ill. The buildings will begin to peel, copper under skins gleaming like blood under the gasping sun, and they will navigate their way between them to Central Square, where it is the driest of all. There, the streets are ashen--parched. Dust fills their creases, unforgiving. Beside them, sewers open their gaping mouths, waiting for water that will not come. And then, there are the water towers; the structures that have spread the name of our city to millions of households abroad. "Gleaming tokens", they've been called, but gleam is the last thing they do. Looming stout and unimpressive over the twelve acres of Central Square, they smile at the everyday passerby with chapped cement lips and scar-ridden faces. Wry.
But the boys, they are unlike our city. They are beautiful, like birds, with downy skin and bright silver eyes--like dimes. They flock to Waterpoint with an unspoken unity our city does not deserve, for it is no jewel. Around here, they're known as ravens. But, in spite of the name given them, the nature of the boys does not reflect the hunger and cunning linked to those creatures. Sparrows are a better suit. They are naïve and desperate, but too proud to admit either. Their limbs do not fill their clothes, and a sickly blue dampens their otherwise marble skin. They point their noses downward, as if the world is printed on our grimy streets. Perhaps it is. They always seem to know exactly where they're headed. It's almost magnetic, the way they pull towards the water towers. Then again, maybe they're just thirsty. We all are.
The thing about sparrows, though, is that they never bother to look behind them. Quick to escape, but not to evade. Following one was easy.
I knew, of course, that the second he noticed me, he'd be gone. These kids run faster than trains. We're not really supposed to talk to them, but, then again, they never really told us why. I wasn't expecting for him to speak to me anyways--I was just curious as to what exactly they did in the towers.
I don't think we turned once. It was as if he had metal in his bones. The alley numbers began to decrease in the corner of my eye, and in front of me, the earth this raven's bare feet fell on grew more and more pallid. As we drew closer, the smell of machinery crowded the air, and I had to swallow to keep from coughing. The raven started walking faster, taking longer strides, agitated. I wanted to tell him to slow down, having caught sight of the indigo bruises that ringed his ankles, but kept quiet, because I did not wish for him to make them worse by running. I had half a heart to run myself, away from the bleakness of Central Square and the blood of the riots that still hung loosely in the air. The injustice. But, strangely enough, I was drawn to this raven like he was to the tower. Steel to steel.
There were no guards at Central Gate. We passed right through. But, since we were walking so fast, I didn't have time to take it in as odd.
The bottoms of my feet were being rubbed raw by the soles of my shoes, and the chemical heat of Central Square dirt was trickling through to my skin, but to that I also paid no attention. All I had mind for was keeping up with this boy--this boy who was traveling at a horse's gallop. My muscles protested, but I carried on, thinking that if I stopped, I'd surely raise suspicion among the patrols--they were not to be messed with.
My pulse sped as we made the final twenty yard stretch between Admission Gate and Tower Four. Secrecy fosters a certain reverence towards the water towers, and approaching them, I saw them less as oversized bird cages and more as forgotten majesties who were grey in their ancient years.
My heart fell a little, however, when I saw the door of the tower ajar. It took away from the grandeur. But, turning back was not an option--for my still present curiosity or for my screaming legs.
A tide of cold air met me as I stumbled inside. My lungs were greatly appreciative. I took in the sight of the olive ceiling and pipe laden walls with some disappointment, but was not unhappy. Compared to the blistering outside, the inside of the water tower was eerie. Still. Serene.
After a minute or so, when I wasn't bent double wheezing and regretting not having taken gym, I realized that the raven I'd followed was nowhere in sight. There was, however, the soft quiver of wounded breathing in the air; it bounced off the turn pipes and ladders, and soon, the whole tower was ringing with the sound. I suppose I was dazed from all the running, because it took me a good while to grasp that what I saw in front of me wasn't the entirety of the water tower.
I blinked and turned around, the stillness of the atmosphere feeling peculiar on my skin. And there he was. The raven. His white body was crumpled in on itself; his fingers gripped the floor, pointy knuckles jutting through skin from the effort. His other hand was covering his mouth. It was shaking. He was shaking.
"Are you alright?"
When no answer came, I walked closer. I could see the bile now. But, unlike human bile, his was dark purple--toxic. It seared shapes into the floor. Like acid.
And I saw his face. His whole face. Ravens wear masks--not an oddity; you see a lot of them go around Central Square, because everyone has something to hide--but his was off. It hung feebly at his neck. But his neck was not what held my gaze. It was his mouth. Beneath his doe eyes and hollow cheeks were the bluest set of lips I'd ever seen. They looked like withered flower petals, feeding their poison to the skin around them. His bottom lip was singed violet. It was burnt. So was his hand.
I knew the right thing to do was to go outside and call a patrol over to help, but my mouth got ahead of me. "A-Are you alright?"
"What flows from the heart is pure. What flows from the mouth is evil." With the words came more bile. Wiser now, he did not put his hand over his mouth. But his shaking, that grew worse. And the acid grew darker, making deeper holes in the ground.
He shrugged through his trembling. "I don't know, that's just what they say."
My instincts snapped in, drawing me nearer to him and endowing my arms with the idea of comfort. Before I could, the raven threw an arm out towards me, and, through clenched teeth, told me it wasn't safe to touch him. Although his burnt tongue made the words blur together, I could tell from his voice that this raven, though feeble, was no boy. He did not speak in the soft soprano I'd expected. Rather, he had a deep voice, especially for his features that stated no more than sixteen; a voice full of conviction. It's not something kids have these days.
"Aren't they," I bit my lip, "They're going to come back for you, right? The other ravens?"
He just shrugged again. When he saw me staring wide-eyed at him, he wiped his mouth and straightened, letting his hands fold in his lap.
"Well are they?"
"I'm no help to them now."
"But they're your friends," I stuttered, recognizing the feeling of anger mixed with longing in my stomach. I willed it to quiet itself, but it only grew worse, laying stones in my throat. The boy's expression grew concerned, and that's when I realized I was crying. "But they can't do that. They can't. It's not fair. All this dying isn't fair." I was sobbing now, unable to speak and cry at the same time. Words were useless, anyways. I was making a fool of myself.
He stood, steadying his limbs, and wrapped his arms awkwardly around my shoulders. He rubbed my back, giving me the comfort I'd wanted to give him. "Hey--don't cry. Dying isn't that bad."
I just cried more.
"Trout," I said, smirking. "How'd you get that name?"
"I caught one. In a river by the Alps. A steelhead. Rare."
"The Alps." The name sounded strange. We don't learn much in school beyond this city and the nuclear wars. "Are those mountains?"
"Used to be. There wasn't much left when we got there."
"But there was trout."
"There was trout." He smiled. It was pretty, despite his gaunt features and shriveled lips.
"I, I apologize for earlier. I don't know what came over me." I wrung my hands.
"Don't worry about it."
"I mean, I understand if you think I'm one of those crazies and never want to see me again. I-I can leave, if you'd like me to." I chewed on the inside of my cheek, feeling incredibly stupid for what I'd just said, and a flicker of dread for the truth in it.
The raven only laughed. A broken sound. "Faren, I like you. You're probably the last friend I'm ever going to make. Stay."
"Don't say that. You're not going to die." But I couldn't bring myself to look at him when I said it. Instead, I looked up at the ceiling. Hundreds of feet high. The rest was empty.
He sighed. "Tell me Faren," he said brightly, "what do kids these days do?"
We eat and sleep and poison ourselves with the words of books that tell us how things are now are how things ought to be. We learn from our parents to turn a blind eye to even our brothers disappearing; we learn from our teachers to love those with different genes but not those with different religions; and from our friends, we learn violence. Every day we go to the arena and watch our brothers and sisters, friends and enemies, tear each other to pieces. And we cheer.
"I don't know. I don't much associate with the other kids at my school. I don't. I don't share the same interests."
It was his turn to smirk. "Well what do you do, then?"
"I do what kids from the twenty-first century did. I watch movies and play video games on old modules I buy from Henry. I read books. Not the ones our teachers give us, but the ones written way back then, before the war, about knights and warriors. Heroes."
"That sounds nice. I think I'd rather do that, too." He smiled a quiet smile. A sad one.
"Well, Trout, how about you? What do you do?"
"I help make rain."
"I've gathered that." I didn't say more, because I knew he wouldn't tell me.
"I've also. I've--oh, it's silly."
"Tell me." I looked at him now. And I hated myself for having butterflies in my stomach. "If you're really dying and all."
"Fair enough." He turned a little more towards me, "I've always wanted to fly."
My plan was to go to Old Henry's--buy an old laptop and some DVDs while Trout stayed put in Tower Four and waited for my return. The boy could barely stand. If he was dying, I didn't want to see it. And if he was, I wanted him to die with hope in his heart. I thought that maybe a few old war movies would help. The ones with happy endings.
But, he insisted on coming with me. He told me in that sure voice of his that there was no way I'd make it out without being caught, going the way I'd come. So, he took me on a shortcut. He showed me a panel behind Tower Three and led me inside, into an underground tunnel he claimed came back out at Angels' Cross.
It was dark inside; darker than the veil of night. Although I was too embarrassed to say the words, Trout sensed my fear and held my hand. I couldn't see him, but I could hear him talk. Talk of the places he'd been and the people he'd seen, but in similes and metaphors. The result was that I couldn't differentiate between the "who's" and the "where's", but that made it all the more beautiful.
I could hear him talk, and I could hear the sound of running water, somewhere far away, thin and sweet. The air was heavy with its scent. Coarse, but pure.
His thin fingers were laced between mine, so delicately that I had to check to make sure they were there. I couldn't see him, but I could feel him. Smell the rain. An imprint.
Trout's words rang true. We surfaced at a small panel on the side of Alley Five, the afternoon daylight shocking us into dizziness. All we had to do was turn onto Alley Seven and walk the few blocks from there to Old Henry's.
Under the sun, Trout ceased to be the phantom he'd been in the tunnel. He was alive, real, and atop his features, death was tangible.
"So you want to fly, raven?"
He answered with a smile.
Usually, I wouldn't step foot onto Cerulean for my life. But they call it Cerulean for a reason. Above it are the bluest skies--so blue it makes your eyes sore. And, it's the last place the sun looks upon before closing its eyes. Sundown. That's when the wealthy kids from Sector Seven come, with weapons in hand and brutality in their eyes. Not that we're better. But that was a few hours away. Now, there was just me, Trout, the sky and my glasses. I'd gotten them from Henry's store, too. Just about anything anyone drops ends up on his shelves. From the beginning of time. Or, at least, from after the war.
The glasses, they turn things upside down. Makes heaven earth, and earth heaven. Makes humans angels.
I got made fun of a lot wearing them, but on Trout, they were perfect. Maybe this was what an angel looked like: arms spread so wide they looked like wings; legs moving so fast you couldn't tell if they were touching the ground anymore. Rainbow-rimmed goggles around his eyes to protect them from the wind.
A smile plastered on his face, so soft at the edges it made my heart break.
I got the DVDs from Old Henry--one about World War II and two about the Romans--and a few chocolates, because he's the only one who sells them. We took the long way back to the towers, through Central Gate, because the workday was over. It was five, which meant I had only one hour to return home before the night patrols began their shifts. I was determined to spend as much of it as possible with Trout.
The whole way back, Trout was wearing that smile. That elegant, elegant smile. It made everything else a little less ugly.
It felt different, arriving back in Tower Four. The walls were no longer barricades, but protectors; they hid Trout and the other ravens, and they would conceal this moment, our secret, from the rest of the world's teeth as well. No one expects to find beauty behind grey walls.
Trout chose the movie about Cleopatra, because she was lovely. Unlike me. I couldn't help but feel a pang of jealousy.
This wasn't for me, though. It was for Trout.
But those next moments, they were beautiful. It was more than the gold and silver war scenes that dashed across the laptop screen, the hero and his lust; than the taste of chocolate in our mouths; more than even death. It was about the fact that we were never supposed to meet, and that when we did, it was so. Elegant.
His skin was dissolving into water. Under the liquid, his bones perished, soft ivory blurring into nothing. I realized then that ravens do not have silver eyes. They have eyes like water--like mirrors; they reflect whatever you want to see. People want water, their eyes turn blue. People want steel, their eyes turn silver. The citizens of Waterpoint just happen to prefer the latter.
In his eyes, I saw light.
A peacefulness swept across his face, and then was gone, along with any other expression. I held on to his hand until that, too, became a phantom.
I'd fallen asleep. The sound of my watch, set for 5:50, woke me up. The tower walls bounced it back and forth, just as they did earlier that afternoon.
But there was no answer. No quivering breath. No holes in the ground. No smell of water.
In the pale milk of Friday evening, I walked through alleys Four, Five and Six to the apartments, where Mother would be waiting at the table with a dinner of canned soup and dessert pastries, just like any other day. Except this evening, there was a feeling of emptiness beneath my chest I couldn't shake. But, somewhere inside this emptiness, lost, was hope. It was my secret, and something told me I should keep it.
And then, the most amazing thing happened. The air around me began to shiver, and an instant passed before I recognized the feeling as familiar. This was rain. A storm was about to awaken.
"The angels have remembered sympathy," Mother murmured, through a smile. "We should get the buckets."
Rain feels wonderful on my skin, a long lost friend. Mother's scolding me for standing outside, but a few more moments couldn't hurt. I'm standing very still, eyes closed, listening to the water play a lovely vibrato into our metal pails. It sounds like laughter.
If there's one thing you should know about sparrows, they're masters of illusion. You think you're going to catch one--he's right in your hands, and then, he flies away.
But the sparrow you chase, he is yours. Always. Regardless of how much he changes, you will recognize him.
Whether it's from the tint of his feathers or the way in which he flies.
Or simply, the sound of his voice.
i've been wanting to write this for a while.
critique is welcome on anything, but mostly i'd like critique on voice.