This city used to be something once. I’ve seen pictures of the way it gleamed—sun so bright off windows it could burn your eyes. At night, lights shouted from steel like catcalls, loud and lewd, while all day long white-gloved men rushed to open doors for women who tottered about on skyscraper heels.
I wonder sometimes what happened to those women when the Return hit—how they were able to run and survive with such absurd contraptions strapped to their feet. How different the world must have been before—safe and comfortable.
The City’s nothing like that anymore. Now, bare beams scrape the sky like splintered finger bones. Half the high-rises have fallen, and scavengers pilfered the intricately scrolled ironwork long ago. There’s not much of anything left anymore, just the fear that seeps foglike through the streets.
Fear of the Recruiters. Fear of the Unconsecrated. Fear of tomorrow.
Even so, this city’s been my home. Other than the village I lived in as a child, this is the only world I’ve known. It’s sharp-cornered and raw but it’s a refuge for those with a burn to survive. You pay your rents, you follow the rules and you do what it takes to keep living.
Which is why I find myself on the Neverlands side of the Palisade wall that cordons off and protects the Dark City as the last dregs of evening slide across the sky. This is the place where Elias would go when he was desperate for money, desperate to trade so we could pay our rent and stay in our tiny flat for another year. It’s the place where anything can be found for the right trade, and where, after the blade of my only knife broke this afternoon, I’ve come for help.
Clutching the replacement blade tightly, I’ve started to cross over one of the bridges strung between two buildings when I hear a deep rumbling cough. It’s approaching dusk and storm clouds hover over the river, causing the light to drip a dull green. I shuffle faster toward the next roof, determined to get back to my flat in the Dark City before full night, but as soon as my foot lands on the rickety bridge connecting the buildings a voice calls out, “Wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
I freeze, the frayed rope railing in one hand. I’ve been alone long enough to have learned to look out for myself, yet something about the warning makes me hesitate. Just as I start to take another step the voice says, “Look down,” and I do.
The alley a dozen stories below is dim and choked in shadows, but even so I see something moving. A moan floats up, echoing softly between the buildings as it rises. The sun breaks through a narrow gap in the clouds and the light reflects down the alley, glinting briefly off what looks like eyes and a row of cracked teeth.
As my gaze adjusts I can make out dozens of clawing fingers reaching for me amid a pile of broken bodies that should have died from their fall but didn’t. Or maybe they did die and infection’s brought them back as plague rats. I shiver, disgust rolling through me.
Carefully, I inch back onto the roof, noticing how the wooden boards I was just about to walk onto are rotten. One step more and I’d have been down on that heap as well.
“You’re the first one to listen to me and not take a dive,” the voice says, and I spin, pulling my new knife between us. A woman sits tucked between two crumbling stone chimneys. In her hand she clutches a charred wooden pipe that feebly chokes out smoke.
I glance around the roof, expecting some sort of trap. The woman gestures toward my knife. “Don’t bother,” she says. “Just me up here.”
She puts the pipe back in her mouth, the end of it burning a bright red, and in that instant I get a clear look at her face: thick dark lines painted around eyes smudged by tears or sweat or both. Then the ember fades, pulling her back into shadow.
But not before I see the raw circle around her wrist, festering with infection. The flesh edging the wound puffs and oozes, and I recognize it as a bite. I pull my knife back up between us, refusing to let it shake.
I’m usually pretty good at avoiding any confrontation with the Unconsecrated. No matter how careful you are, there’s always the risk that something will go wrong and they’ll get their teeth into you one way or another.
The woman shrugs and inhales. The light makes her skin glow again and I watch how her hand trembles. Cracks etch through the powder she used to make her old skin appear blushing and fresh—it looks like a fractured mirror instead.
I think of my own face, the scars overlaying the left side of my body like a thick spiderweb. Her cracks can be washed away. Mine can’t.
It’s easy to see that she’s close to the end—when the infection will kill her. I glance down again at the pile of bodies below, their feeble moans filtering into the night. She’ll be one of them soon. If she’s lucky someone will take care of her before she turns. If she isn’t …
With a sickening heaviness in my stomach I realize I’m the one who’s going to have to kill her. It makes me feel off balance and I take a few steps away from the edge of the building, suddenly unsettled by such height.
The last of the evening light slides down my body, a final brush of heat, before disappearing for what will be yet another night of forever. The woman’s eyes aren’t on my knife; instead they focus on my face.
She inhales but her chest barely moves. She considers me a moment, staring at my scars. “There are men who like ’em like you—messed up,” she says, nodding. Her gaze slips past me back down the island toward the ruins of the bigger buildings of the Dark City in the distance.
No they don’t, I think.
She exhales a wavering line of smoke. “But more ’n likely, they’re the ones that want to do the messing.” She pushes a thumb into the corner of her mouth, as if tidying up a lip stain that she’s no longer wearing, the gesture a habit of so many years that’s become useless.
I should say something. I should be comforting or consoling or helpful. This woman’s infected and she’s facing the final moments of her life and I realize how utterly useless I am faced with the enormity of what’s going on. Instead I clear my throat. How in the world would I know what could give this woman comfort?
I look back across the roof where I came from. It would be easy for me to just retrace my steps—leave her for someone else to deal with. But that seems unnecessarily cruel. After all, I’m alone on this island like she is. Maybe if I were in her position, I’d want someone to listen to me at the end.
She picks at the edges of the bite, pressing against the angry red infection lines streaking up her arm. “You got a man?” she asks. “You in love?” She sounds nervous, like she’s uncomfortable. Like she understands what I’m going to do and she’s just extending time a bit.
Her interest takes me aback. I try to say yes and no at the same time and instead it just comes out as a grunt. “I have a …” I stumble over the word, then mouth “brother.” It’s the lie Elias and I have told everyone to make our living together in the Dark City simpler. We’ve said it so long it feels like truth.
“He joined the Recruiters,” I say instead.
“When?” Her eyebrows pinch together.
The question has weight to it—if he joined up before the Rebellion it means he wanted to change the world into something better. If he joined up after it means he’s a masochist who gets high on the power of controlling people with no hope.
“Three years ago.” I’ve rarely had to say it out loud. Had to acknowledge how long he’s been gone. Before, I could just go from day to day: tomorrow to tomorrow to tomorrow without having to bundle them all together in heaps to represent weeks and months and years.
The woman laughs, her wet mouth open and lip curled in where she’s missing a few teeth on the left side. She doesn’t even have to say how absurd the hope in my voice sounds. We both know the survival rates of the Recruiters before the Rebellion: one in seven. Only that one ever makes it home after his two-year term is up, and Elias should have been back a long time ago.
Anger darts through me. Maybe that’s what she wants. To make it easy for me to thrust the knife into her chest. Make me want to feel the jolt of the blade grazing over her ribs and the squelching heat of her blood. I take a step toward her, narrowing my eyes. She’s as good as Unconsecrated, and I’ve put them away before.
She just slips the stem of the pipe through the gap in her teeth and inhales, burning a red glow between us. “Oh, honey,” she finally says, but it’s not judgment I hear, it’s pity.
It unsettles me, and I turn to the side so she can’t see the expression on my face. Even so, her gaze traces over my scars again, one by one. She tilts her head as if trying to piece them together in some sort of pattern.
“Oh, honey,” she says again, and I know it’s for the misery of this moment. “You been waiting for him all this time?”
The concern in her voice sounds like the way a mother would talk to a daughter, and this opens up a fresh ache inside me. I nod.
“The City’s dying,” she says. Her voice is calm and gentle. Soothing. “You should leave. Find a new life.” She drags the thin strap of her shirt up over her shoulder but it just slides down her arm again.
I shrug. “This is my home,” I tell her. I know I sound defensive.
There’s silence between us for a bit. Not real silence—that doesn’t exist—but as quiet as it gets in the Neverlands with the moans drifting from the alley and the sound of someone yelling the next block over.
“I had a man once that I stuck around for,” the woman says. She pokes a toe through the tip of her worn shoes and I wait for her to tell me more, but instead she just contemplates her foot awhile and then shrugs.
“Some men have a strange idea of what love is.” She pushes a strand of greasy hair back behind her ear and I see bruises dotting her neck.
What she doesn’t understand about me and Elias is that I promised him I’d wait for him to come back, and leaving would mean he’s dead. I know there’s nothing else that could keep him from coming home to me. The evening he left he said he’d find me again, and I believe him.
But a dark thought seeps into my mind, one that’s been curling around the edges of my consciousness for months: Elias left my sister alone in the Forest of Hands and Teeth when we were kids. Why would I ever think that he wouldn’t leave me?
The woman stands and I whirl to face her, pulling the knife back between us, ready to end it. She doesn’t come closer or threaten me in any way. She just flips her pipe over and knocks it against one of the chimneys, spirals of embers twirling and fading around her legs and feet.
“Did you ever think about what you really wanted your life to be like? Like when you were a little girl?” She moves toward the edge of the roof. The darkness seems to stretch forever.
I think about the village where I was born. Where I had a sister and a father and a community of people who loved and took care of me.
That. That’s what I want my life to be like. Not this city. Not these scars. Not this loneliness. I remember the moment in the Forest when my sister fell and scratched her knee and how bright the blood looked. How desperately the dead clawed at the fences while Elias and I walked away from her.
But I tell this woman none of those things. Instead I shake my head. “No.”
Her face falls a little as if she was expecting a different answer. “Ever wonder what you’d do if you knew you were going to die?”
“We’re all going to die eventually,” I tell her.
She smiles, more like a wince. “I mean if you knew when,” she clarifies. “If you only had a few days.” She inhales, sharp, and adds, “A few moments.”
I shake my head. It’s a lie, but I don’t want this woman to know me any better than she already does. Being here for her death—that’s already more intimacy than I’ve shared with anyone in years. I don’t want to like this woman—I don’t want to care about her—because then this moment and the one that’s coming next will hurt too much.
I refuse to have feelings about someone when I know they’re going to leave me. I feel sorry that I can’t offer this woman something different, but I have to protect myself more than I have to protect her.
Her eyes begin to glisten and her shoulders shift as she pretends to laugh. “Oh well,” she says, waving her dirty pipe in the air as if it could clear it all away. “Oh well,” she says again, barely a whisper.
She begins to shake. I’ve seen it before, the infection taking a firmer grasp, burrowing in deep for the kill. Any moment she’ll collapse, her body giving out and dying. And then she’ll Return, clawing for my flesh.
I move toward her, knife tight in my hand, but she jerks her head, waves me away with a fling of her arm. She’s standing on the ledge of the roof. Below us the plague rats moan.
“I just…,” she says, raising a hand to her head, patting her hair into place. She presses her lips together, her nostrils quivering as she takes a deep breath. “I just wanted someone to remember,” she says then. “I just wanted to be beautiful to someone, just for a little while.”
And before I can ask “Remember what?” or “Remember who?” she tips forward and jumps. The rushing air pulls her hair from her face, and her body twists like a ribbon caught in a breeze for a moment before she tumbles into the darkness.
She doesn’t even scream.
I don’t have to run toward the ledge to know what happened to her. I hear the thump of her body hitting the concrete below. The sound of bones breaking, of her skull shattering.
I drop the knife and press my face into my hands, dig my fingers against my forehead, as if that will hold me together. I shouldn’t have been the person here at her death. I don’t even know the woman’s name or who to tell that she’s gone.
And suddenly I realize just how much her situation echoes my own. How no one would know or care if the same thing happened to me. How unlikely it is that any of the few neighbors remaining in my corner of the Dark City could even recall my name, much less notice if I went missing one day.
I’ve never felt so alone in my life. Sure, I’ve spent the last three years on my own but I’ve always focused on surviving and waiting for Elias. This woman’s done something to me, though. She’s made me recognize a kind of gap inside, and now I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out how to close or fill it.
Finally, I raise my head and notice a bundle left in the nook between the two chimneys where the woman was sitting. Numbly, I pick it up. It feels wrong to sift through the contents, but that doesn’t stop me.