Chapter 1: The Junkyard Gang
I stand before a world falling apart, with the power to save or end it all literally in the palm of my hand, but I've lost so much already. Amongst these buildings there are wars, big and small, the beautiful things that get lost in the fires, and the lonely ones left to mourn them. I touch my hand to the window, unable to feel it, and look out as the darkening sky turns red, and streaks of lightening arc over the city.
My heart isn't where it should be anymore, not like when I was a kid, and this city was still one big beautiful mystery. —
We were mutts, destined to scour the streets all night and forever. My clan and I sought refuge during the day wherever we could, but when night fell we were monsters. Mark, Nat, and I would leap from rooftop to rooftop like spiders beneath the pale moonlight. It was a beautiful life.
One night on our prowls, we came upon an old lady with a furry handbag who smelt of hairspray and cats, but we had never seen her before, and she had wandered very carelessly into one of our regular alleyways. She seemed lost, and was easily startled by our low prowling movements as we circled around her. Mark said he was hungry for frozen yogurt, but we had no money, and this was just too easy.
I crouched at the edge of a nearby roof that overlooked our prey as Mark walked into the alley behind her. Nat sat quietly in the darkness at the other end of the alleyway; her lithe silhouette barely visible against the shadows. This wasn't the first time or the last time that we'd do something like this, and by now we didn't even need to communicate with each other to know just when to strike.....
A half-hour later, we're sitting on the roof of our abandoned red caboose at the city junkyard, perched dangerously on top of a mountain of rusting cars and scrap metal. Nat got pistachio. I got chocolate, and Mark picked strawberry tangerine. We wear dirty clothes, ripped jeans, and whatever shoes we can rescue from the telephone wires, but it's still a good life. From the junkyard, we look out at the city's twinkling lights that shine like jewels in a treasure chest, our treasure chest—Zero City.
They say that if you've never lived a day in Zero City then you've never lived a day at all. For my clan and I, a life on the streets and rooftops of Zero City is our every waking moment, so if this is true then we must be full of life.
Later, as the morning sun rises over the tops of the far away buildings, we make our beds. Nat sleeps in the caboose's lookout room, and Mark and I throw our mattresses down on the floor. We pull dark goggles over our eyes to shade them from the sun, and as the city around us wakes up to start its day, we finish our final thoughts before falling asleep.
There are dreams ... but not many, and there are ambitions, but they're not important. Of the three of us, Nat is the only one who's ever thought of growing up. She wants to be an artist. Even the wall spaces between the windows of her lookout room are covered with sketches and drawings, which have been drawn onto the backs of random papers that the city has floated her way. Once I stole a package of white printing papers for her to draw on, but she says that she likes drawing on the city's paper more.
The sunlight beaming through the caboose's grimy windows catches the dust in the air, and my eyes slowly close to black. Sometimes I can still see Mark and Nat when I close my eyes, but when I reopen them at dusk, I find myself staring up at the same moldy wooden board above my head.
After several minutes of silence I stir, and my stirring awakens Mark. He sits upright, pulls off his goggles and wipes the sleep from his eyes. I climb the ladder to Nat's lookout room, and with each rung up I think about how I should wake her up tonight: tickling, tackling, blowing air into her ear, but when I reach the landing and look at her mattress it's empty.
"HEEEEEEEY!!!" Nat's voice rings out from the junkyard. "Loookeeeee what I found!"
I rip off my goggles, and rush across Nat's room to the windows and wipe my sleeve over the dirty glass. She's standing halfway down the junk pile and waving around a shiny metal disc. Mark is already hopping down the layers of junk and garbage to get to her, with his chin-length blond hair bouncing up and down as he hops. I jump down the ladder, and kick my mattress aside as I rush out the door.
A warm nighttime breeze whistles through the junkyard and hits my face. Heat spews out from all of the air-conditioning units in the city and helps keep everything nice and toasty.
When I reach Mark and Nat, she holds up a chrome hubcap and shouts, "This is my armor!" and she ties it to herself with a green bungee cord. Mark lowers his eyes at me and I grin back at him; then we both start building suits of clanking junkyard armor for ourselves.
An hour passes, and just as the moon appears, we finish jamming our arms and legs through tin cans and tying scraps of metal to our bodies. Mark wears a bent yellow "YIELD" sign on his back as a shield, and I've made a sword out of a long rusted pipe. Nat loops the drawstring of her leather marble pouch over her shoulder, and she finds a second hubcap to use as a frisbee. Once we're fully armed, we head out to the city on the hunt for breakfast—or dinner for everyone else.
I lead us down the crowded streets, and their neon signs swim around us like a swarm of electric moths. Now, you can't go pillaging without your armor on or your weapons handy, because these villagers would eat you alive if you weren't prepared.
I keep my pipe sheathed in the belt loop of my jeans to show the villagers that we mean them no harm, but still they gawk at our glistening foreign armor and whisper behind their cupped hands. It doesn't matter what they're saying though, as me and my comrades continue to stride forth with our heads held high.
The city's lights guide us through the mad streets until we come across a local bazaar, but they refuse to let us enter with our weapons.
"But we need these!" I shout. The shopkeeper scratches his balding head and jabs threateningly at the talking box on the wall. It's either fight or flight, and we are hungry.
Nat flings her hubcap at the shopkeeper's head and hits him hard in the temple. The man crashes backward into a canned food display, and sends cans clattering and rolling in every direction. A thin trickle of blood rolls down his cheek, and I swing my pipe to keep away the other shoppers. Mark piles Twinkies, candy bars, and other supplies onto his shield until it's full to the brim. Then he gives me a thumbs-up and I signal to Nat, and we make our escape through the sliding magic doors.
We run across the street, and the horseless carriages stop and honk their horns at us until we reach the other side. I lead our getaway down the crowded sidewalk, swinging my pipe wildly as we run. The villagers scream, and a tall bearded guy tries to stand in our way, but a swift blow to his gut with my pipe drops him to his knees.
I keep swinging my pipe for the next couple of blocks until we run into a dark alleyway. Our tennis shoes slide over a layer of ooze from some nearby garbage bags. Mark bends down in front of a fire escape and Nat steps onto his back. Then she jumps up, and grabs hold of the ladder and starts climbing to the first landing. I toss up my sword to her, and with it she breaks the chains holding the ladder in place and it falls down. Mark and I climb up the ladder to the first landing, and together we run up the stairs to the top of the building.
The view of the district is always gorgeous; an electric city of shops and apartments, alive and complicated. We sit at the very edge of the roof, dangling our legs off the side of the building, and catch our breaths and celebrate our victory.
"Nice throw Nat!" I say.
"Yeah did you see him? He fell down like a sack of hams!" Mark chimes, and he tosses our spoils above our heads. Twinkies and snacks rain down on us and we catch them out of the air.
"Thanks, it was a good throw if I do say so myself," Nat says, and she rips open a Twinkie and takes a massive bite.
"Why did you get grapefruit, Mark? I hate sour things," I ask.
Mark slides his long blond hair out of his face and says, "They're not sour they're tart, Edvin, and I like 'em. Besides, growing boys like you should eat more fruit."
"I like grapefruit," Nat speaks up.
"Then here!" Mark says, and he lobs one of the fruits over my head to her. Nat catches it, twirls it like a small basketball on the end of her index finger, and begins ripping off the hard flesh.
After we've eaten more than enough snacks, Mark loads up the leftovers onto his shield and tosses them over the side of the building. The people walking below are bombarded with Twinkies and grapefruits, and when we hear them shouting in anger we can barely control our laughter.
Suddenly we hear a loud clanging noise coming up the fire escape. We rush over and look down to see three please-men in black shirts, with golden badges on their chests, running up the stairs. They shout at us, so we back away slowly and pick up our weapons.
"To the next building!" I cry.
We take off at a sprint across the roof and leap to the nearest building. Our bodies roll as we land, carrying our momentum, and we don't stop running. The please-men reach their roof and their shouting appears at our backs. Suddenly a loud bang! noise rattles the world, and something small and hard hits my pipe and makes it spark. Mark, Nat, and I yell as we jump into the fire escape of this building before it happens again. Then we scramble down the stairs as fast as we can with our armor on, and at the bottom of the fire escape we jump down to the alley bellow, where a pile of garbage bags cushions our fall.
The shouting of the please-men disappears, and after spending a moment in the garbage to cheer our second successful escape of the night, we stand up and start walking toward the street.
But then a blinding white light enters the alley and blocks our path. It creeps its way slowly toward us, pushing us back, and fills the entire width of the dead-end alley. The light shines brighter than a cyclops' eye, but as it comes closer we see that it's in fact a biclopse, or two short cyclopses, which turn out to be the headlights of a top car. The car suddenly speaks with an electronic voice that echoes off the walls like a train going through a subway tunnel. It keeps advancing, and we reach behind us and touch a solid brick wall at our backs.
Then just as all seems lost, the doors of the top car open, and two please-men step out and walk in front of the headlights. They approach, and one of them speaks with a coaxing brutish voice like a cat luring a mouse out of its hole. They don't move with open violence, but we can clearly see the shackles dangling from their belts. They ask us to lower our weapons and come with them into their car, but we've met with please-men before.
I take a knee and lower my pipe to the ground. One of the please-men steps forward, and I tighten my back because I know what's about to happen next.
Then I feel it: the pressure of a small foot stepping onto my back and disappearing. I look up and watch in a dreamy slow-motion, as Nat jumps into the air and throws her last hubcap at the second please-man. While Nat is still airborne, I strike like a snake with my pipe at the nearest please-man's legs, and the exciting contact of metal on bone drops him to the ground. Nat lands on the hood of the top car, jumps off, and runs for the exit. Mark and I run past the two please-men on the ground, and the one whom Nat hit in the head with her hubcap has decided that now would be a nice time to take a nap.
There's muffled laughter and giggling between the three of us as we run out of the alley, and tear down the street until we feel that we've gone far enough. Then we slow down and walk casually under the city's sparkling lights.
A few blocks later we arrive at a plaza filled with small tables where adult couples sit, drink coffee, and smoke. We walk past them, and toward a blue, dolphin-shaped fountain in the center of the plaza. Water shoots up from the dolphin's blowhole, and splashes down into a circular pool lined with blue tile. We scooped out all of the change from the fountain weeks ago, but we would gladly throw it all back if wishes really came true.
Mark and Nat take off their shoes and sit at the edge of the pool to soak their feet. There's joyous content in the air around us, one we believe that even shields us from the curious gazes of the adults, who one by one leave their seats and retreat to sit farther away from us.
"Not a bad getaway! They couldn't even stand to chase us afterwards," I say to Mark and Nat as I sit beside them and start taking off my armor.
"It's a classic," Mark says. "I bet you that they're still in that alleyway." He laughs, and removes his shield and lays it beside him.
"The best part is that I didn't have to use any of my marbles," Nat says, and she removes the last of her armor, and pulls out a scrap piece paper and some cardboard from her back pocket. She uses the cardboard as a backing for her paper to draw on, and starts to walk barefoot around the fountain's edge. I turn to Mark and he smirks at me as Nat leaves our earshot.
"Edvin, how long have we known each other?" Mark asks as he reaches into the pocket of his baggy jeans.
"For five years I think. I was eight, and then two years later we met Nat. Why do you wanna know?" I reply.
"I was just wondering how long we've really been alive," Mark says, and from his pocket he pulls out a small circular tin which holds his collection of loose, half-bent cigarettes. He puts one of the less crooked ones between his lips, pulls out a stolen lighter, and lights the end of his cigarette. He blows out several rings of gray smoke which I watch as they disappear into the warm air.
"This is our city," I say. "It's our world, and nobody is ever going to say how we live in it."
"Damn right! That's the truth Edvin," Mark says as he sweeps the blond hair out of his eyes and inhales. He's fifteen and a half, so it's okay for him to smoke, or so he tells me.
"I mean, when we want something we can have it!" I rise and clang my pipe on the cement. "I am the King of Zero City!" I shout. "There's nothing I can't do!"
"Hey, who made you the king? I'm the oldest, and the wisest, and that makes me more fit to be king," Mark says.
"Well, being older just makes you closer to dying age. I'm the better fighter, and a king needs to be strong and co - co—"
"Courageous?" he finishes my sentence.
"Yeah that too!" I say.
"But you're too young. You'd make a better fool, and besides, to be a king ... you'd need a queen." Mark's eyes flit for a split second in Nat's direction. I open my mouth to say something to him, but before I can think of anything, Nat jumps into the fountain and splashes water over the both of us.
"HEY!" Mark and I both shout.
Nat laughs and kicks a second spray of water at us. "What are you guys talking about?" she asks.
"Who'd be a better King of Zero City," Mark answers.
"Oh, well Mark obviously. He's the oldest," Nat says.
"Hey!" I cry, but Nat holds up the drawing she just finished and says, "Look Edvin! What do you think?" The drawing is raw, dark, and sketched with a bit of charcoal that she found at the junkyard, but otherwise it's a picture of the two please-men from the alleyway. Both of them have pig-like faces, and one of them has a hubcap sticking out of his head, while the other is rolling around on the floor and gripping his legs in pain.
"I like it! What are you gonna call it?" I ask.
"I don't know yet ... but I'll think of something before I put it on the wall," she says, folding the drawing within the piece of cardboard and putting them both back into her pocket.
"Hey!" Mark cuts in. "Do you guys wanna go see Maggie? It's been over a week since we last saw her."
"Yeah! Let's go see mom!" Nat says, and so she and Mark put their shoes back on and I pick up my pipe.
To get to Maggie's we'll have to travel through the heart of Zero City, across Azure Park, through Compass Rose Square, and right into Hell. Well, Maggie always called it Hell. Right now we're in the Kumani district, which surrounds the junkyard, and stands between the Central district and the end of the world at the edge of the city.
We trudge away from the dolphin fountain and ignore the whispers of the adults as we walk by:
"What are they doing out so late?"
"Where are their parents?"
I know why we're out so late, but sometimes I wonder where my parents are. I know a little about my mom … and I'd probably be sadder if I had any memories of her, but I was mostly raised by the streets like Mark and Nat.
Five years ago I escaped the Eastside Orphanage and met Mark, and together with Nat we've been living on our own. All I can remember from the orphanage were the high brick walls, mean faces, and the barbed wire, and that was all I knew until I turned eight, escaped, and found freedom in a dirty city.
Nat's tiny fingers close around my wrist and snap me out of my memories. I look at her and notice that Mark is holding her other hand. She smiles at me, and then takes a deep breath like she's about to plunge into a pool. I smile back, and as she tightens her grip we jump.
All three of us are momentarily weightless, but then our feet hit the moving ground, and I nearly tumble backwards off the world.
Suddenly the noise of Zero City comes back to me. We've just jumped off of a bridge and landed on top of the 278 bus to Azure Park. Nat holds tightly to my wrist, and I use my pipe to keep from falling into the sea of cars below. I catch my balance, and take a surfing stance with Mark and Nat like we always do when we ride the bus.
"WOOOOHOOO!!!" I cry. Just because we've ridden the bus like this so many times doesn't make it any less fun.
"Yeah! WHOOO!" Nat shouts beside me. Mark lies down, and dangles his head in front of the windows and makes scary faces at the people inside. Soon we hear their screams, and Mark flips back up and laughs with us.
"Have at ye scallywags! I be havin' enough timber here to send three dozen of yer lot to Davy Jones' Locker!" Nat says in a pirate accent, and with one of her eyes squinted.
"Raeergh! Captain Nat the Small, the booty that you stole is rightfully mine since I was planning ter steal it first! Now if you hand it over carefully ter won't be any blood spilt," I reply, and tap my pipe on the bus's roof.
"Ye'll be getting no such peace from me and my crew!" Nat shouts. "You'll have to pry this here booty from my cold, dead, scabby—WHOA!"
The bus stops suddenly at a red light, and the unexpected shift in motion knocks Nat and I off our feet. We laugh, and Mark rolls onto his back and laughs with us. Then the bus starts again, and the stop light passes a foot above my face, but rather than stand up again, the three of us are content to simply enjoy the ride lying down.
I look up at the night sky, a big purple emptiness tinged orange by the lights coming from the streets and buildings. When you live in the city there are no stars, but it's okay since the building's windows make their own twinkling lights; although sometimes we crave for the real thing. That's why Mark, Nat, and I like living in the junkyard. It's in the city, but just far away enough from the buildings so we can see the stars.
"You could see the stars if you lived in one of those skyscrapers you know," Mark says, almost as though he were reading my thoughts. "You'd be above the light pollution, and your vision would be open to the sky." He sits up and carefully pulls out his tin of cigarettes from his pocket, lights one of them, and lies back down. The smoke trails away from the tip as the bus turns right and goes down a different street.
"Why would you want to live in one of the skyscrapers?" Nat asks Mark as she turns her head toward him.
He blows out smoke through his nose, and it runs parallel to his body like a ghostly blanket. "I would want to live in the skyscrapers because that's when you know you own the city. A king has to be high atop his land in order to rule," he says.
"Aaah boo!" I yell at him. "Why would you want to ruin a good thing?" Nat turns her head to look at me then turns every time Mark or I speak. "We got the city to ourselves," I say, "and we live out on its streets. It's more fun to be a knight than to be a king, and be all locked up inside his castle."
"HA!" Mark laughs. "An hour ago you declared yourself the 'King of Zero City,' and now you're changing your mind?"
"Well, umm yeah! That's exactly what I'm doing, changing my mind. I'd rather be a knight than a king any 'ol day."
"Well then you go ahead and be a knight Edvin, but I wanna be a king, and as king you'll have to do whatever I say," Mark says, breathing out a column of smoke.
"As if I'll ever obey any of your royal orders your hiney-ness," I say, and Nat laughs loudly.
"Well," she begins, "you two can be whatever you want. I'm still a pirate. Reaargh!"
We laugh, and five minutes later I grab my pipe and we stand up once again. We're no longer among the short brick buildings and alley filled streets of the Kumani district, but on the eighty-story-high, skyscraper-flanked, car-packed streets of the Central district. This district surrounds Azure Park—a circular park that's one and a half miles across, and sits like a green impact crater in the center of Zero City. It's more like a forest than a park with its many trees, lakes, fields, and winding paths.
Mark, Nat, and I move up to the front of the bus and stand ready as the park rushes by on our left, and the skyscrapers zoom by on our right. We look at each other and check that we're all ready as the bus quickly approaches a red light. Then the driver hits the breaks, and we jump forward, throwing ourselves with the momentum of the bus, and open our arms and legs wide like spiders to grab hold of a tree branch hanging over the street.
"OOF!" we each say as the branch hits us in our stomachs. The bus passes below us and turns down a busy street that'll take it back to the Kumani district. We scramble on top of the branch, and shimmy along it toward the trunk of the tree and jump down to the soft grass below. From here we'll have to travel at an angle through Azure Park to get to Compass Rose Square, and then from there it's just a short five block walk into Hell.
"Come on! This forest isn't gonna adventure itself!" I say, and hold my pipe ahead of myself like a baton. Mark and Nat follow behind me and keep watch as we head deeper into the forest.
Thank you for reading Part 1.
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