Author : Jay Knioum
The buildings so tightly packed that the roofs became a city unto themselves, new roofs erected from detritus hauled up from the streets below, built by human versions of same. Old rooftop was floor space now, shingled and tar-papered carpet subfloor under layers of cardboard bedding and lean-tos and corrugated shacks thrown up against exhaust vents. The sun was blocked by endless tarpaulin of vinyl sheeting stitched with baling wire and shoestring and power cables from obsolete machines, held aloft by whatever the roof dwellers could prop up.
Cymbal was picking mushrooms under the blue light cast from noon sun filtered through the vinyl overhead. It had once hung on a commercial blimp advertising perfume, clear blue water in a crystal vial fashioned to look like intertwined lovers. Now the blue lovers were mildewed. Cymbal wiped dung from her gloves and hoisted her bag of harvest. It was lighter than she’d like.
She felt a furry brush at her ankle, and an impatient mreaow. Pud was old and blind, but knew the smell of the mushrooms, and knew Cymbal would always be by with a scrap from Cook’s buckets. She gritted her teeth, and tried not to think about that.
Cymbal knelt, dropped a few bits of boiled pigeon and a stale bread crust on the cardboard floor, where Pud sniffed around it, sniffed at it, finally chomped it down. He had something tied around his neck. She scratched his ear as she undid the knot.
Boot string, threaded through holes punched in bottle caps. Zany-Zuds! sang the unmistakable, red, spiralled logo. Even through the rust.
Cymbal hadn’t had a taste of it for many years. Not since the summer just before the war, when she’d last seen the trees with leaves on them. That’s when she and Mom came here. On the train. Where Cymbal met Pel.
Cymbal looked around. The roof was abandoned. They would be here soon. She already heard the boots kicking aside fast-deserted campsites and heavy hands pulling down shacks and tents, searching for contraband, usually. Not this time.
She thought about the permanent gap between Pel’s front teeth, his long neck, the way he ended every sentence with a little laugh. Even at the end of the train ride, when they put his sister into a different queue, gave her a different badge, shoved her into a different truck filled with people with the same different badge as her.
She thought of the way Pel liked to collect things. Bits of glass. Shoestrings. Bottle caps.
Pud nervously backed away, nostrils flared. Cymbal was relieved when he fled into a familiar-smelling bolthole.
She remembered Pel’s smell. The way he felt. The way they both felt, that time when it was the first time for them both, under a vinyl sky.
A pair of boots stopped near her.
“I’m the one you want,” she said. “I turned three days ago.” She pulled down her dung-stained shirt collar to show them her badge, burned there eight years ago, right there on the train platform. She was ten then.
The boots shuffled, hestiantly. “You people usually hide. Or run.”
She shrugged. “And you people usually rip everything up finding us. I just want you gone. So let’s go.”
They could have done a lot more than they did, or so the stories went. But the boots just surrounded her, a firm, gloved hand pushed her in the right direction, and she shuffled off in the middle of them, clutching her bag of mushrooms, and Pel’s parting gift hidden within.