Chapter 2: Whispers Under the Bridge
The underbelly of the Grand Golden Bridge is basically the mecca for all transient life in Violet City. If you don’t have a home, odds are that you spend most nights here. Technically, it’s not the most legal living situation in the world, but we have this sort of unspoken understanding with the cops. They don’t catch wind of us causing any trouble for them, and they don’t cause any trouble for us. I’d say that it’s a testament to their humanity, but the truth is that there just isn’t enough room in the jails to accommodate everybody who they’d have to lock up for sleeping down here. There are just too many vagrants these days.
Whenever it’s possible, Becca and I like to sleep with our backs against a wall. We’ve been out here long enough to know that struggle and desperation can often lead to violence. That kind of thing is easier to avoid when nobody can sneak up behind you. It’s not as though either of us owns anything that would be worth the trouble of stealing, but this life does crazy things to people’s minds. We’re here a lot earlier than usual today (you can blame that on my one night hotel stay), so there aren’t many other people to compete with for spots yet. We basically have our pick of anywhere we want, for the most part. We settle on one of the far corners.
As Becca busies herself with unpacking a pair of tattered blankets from the beaten brown bag she has slung across her back, I make my way over to a steel barrel located just outside the bridge’s massive shadow. It’s still full of rainwater, which is perfect. Normally we keep these barrels out to catch water that we can use drink or bathe in (at first, I didn’t realize that there were separate barrels for the two. I’ll never make that mistake again). Right now, I’m just using the water’s surface as a mirror. For a town that’s literally made of reflective surfaces, you’d be surprised how hard it is to find a mirror out here. It’s actually been several weeks since I’ve gotten a good look at myself. I gaze into the the water, and take in my appearance. Aside from the fact that my unruly umber hair is a little bit longer and shabbier than I remember it being, there really isn’t much about me that stands out.
As is typical for streeters, I’ve got a nice thick coating of filth caked up on my skin that’s accumulated since the last time it rained. I don’t mind it too much, because it helps to protect me from the sun. I could complain about how living in Violet City is like living in a giant frying pan, but the truth is that it’s not as bad as it could be. Thanks to the city’s long-standing agreement with Indigo Acres (the city of wind), the breeze always carries in just enough clouds overhead to keep us all from literally cooking alive. Beneath all the grime, I’m pretty average looking, if maybe just a little gaunt. The bridge of my nose is maybe a little too thin, and my eyebrows are maybe a little too thick, but other than that I don’t stand out much in a crowd. The only truly exceptional thing about my appearance is my eyes, which are such a pale shade of blue that even I might think they were white at first glance if I didn’t know any better.
I pull down the collar of my oversized shirt to examine my shoulder, but I can’t really get a good look at my back in the water. The angle just isn’t right. Instead, I have to try to crane my neck back far enough to get a look at it the old-fashioned way. I probably look ridiculous.
“That’s a pretty nasty bruise,” Becca says as she walks up from behind me.
“Is it really that bad?” I ask her, relieved that I no longer have to keep trying to see it for myself.
“It’s pretty big,” she tells me. “Jeez, Aiden, just who did you piss off in there?” as she’s asking this, she nonchalantly prods at the injury.
“Ouch!” I yelp.
“Sorry!” She blushes. As I watch her fair skin light up, I can’t help but wonder how she stays so pale out here. I guess the grime helps, but it shouldn’t help that much. “Well…not too sorry. You did kind of have it coming.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I sigh. “Go ahead and lay it on thick. And to answer your question about who I pissed off? It was the wrong guy. It’s always the wrong guy. Really, it’s like you don’t know me at all.” I grin at her. I can’t help it, she’s too easy. She prods at my shoulder once more, but this time she doesn’t bother trying to do so gently. “Ouch!” I yell again. “Why?”
“Think of it as…motivation,” she smirks darkly.
“How is this motivational?” I ask. I already know that I’m not going to like the answer.
“Simple,” she shrugs. “From now on, whenever you upset the wrong person and they inevitably end up hurting you, I’m just going to keep poking whichever new bruises they give you until they heal.”
“That’s just evil,” I moan. “I thought we were friends!”
“Oh, we are,” she says. Her smirk has grown into full blown menacing grin. “So just don’t do anything stupid, and I won’t have to poke your wounds. It’s as easy as that. I’m actually amazed that I didn’t think of this sooner.”
“There is something deeply wrong with you, you know that, Bec?” I say that, but her smile is so infectious that I can’t help but smile back.
“Admit it, Clearborn. You kind of like it,” She casts an exaggerated wink in my direction, as though to flirt. I know that she’s just being ridiculous. The two of us are like siblings, so the idea of there being any kind of romance between us is just silly. She just likes to mess with me.
“Keep telling yourself that, Cross,” I laugh. “Whatever helps you to get through the day. At least you’re back to your usual self. The idea of you having actual emotions was starting to freak me out.”
“Jerk!” she laughs back, prodding my shoulder again.
“Ouch! Will you stop that already?” I’m still chuckling as I hold up both of her hands in an attempt to keep her from assaulting me again. Any onlookers probably think that we’re insane. How could two streeters possibly be having such a good time? In truth, the two of us figured out a long time ago that sometimes laughter is the only way to keep from losing it. Unfortunately, I sometimes take that idea a bit too far and it ends up getting me into trouble. Still, it’s better than walking around all the time like somebody has just stolen your lunch from you.
After a while, she stops struggling, and tilts her head at me. “Your hair is a mess,” she points out.
“Thanks,” I say, pretending to be offended. “You’re one to talk”. I’m sure that she’d be poking my shoulder again if I weren’t still holding her arms above her head.
“Shut up!” She sticks her tongue out at me. “Come on, let me give you a trim.”
“I don’t know, Bec,” I say, releasing her so that she can move freely. Becca has cut my hair before, and she tends to be a little bit…rough.
“I don’t really see what other options you have,” she points out. “Not unless you’d like to let it grow all the way down to your beltline. Or maybe you’d rather let trembling Old Lady Meagan do it? Hopefully you’re not too attached to those ears; figuratively, I mean. It looks like those things are attached to your head pretty good.”
“Okay, fine, I get it,” I groan. “Just let me wash up first, okay ? I want to get to the barrels before too many other people start showing up.” It’s only a temporary escape, but at least it will give me time to brace myself.
“Fine,” she says. “But you already know that I’ll catch you if you try to run. I’m faster than you are.” Unfortunately, that’s true.
“I’m not going to run,” I swear. I’d be lying if I said that the though hadn’t crossed my mind, regardless of how futile it would be.
“Better not be,” she warns me in a sing-song sort of voice that gives me every inclination to do the exact opposite of what she’s asking.
I give her a stiff wave, and make my way over to the bathing barrels. It looks like I’m not the first one here today, which I’m thankful for. That means that somebody else has already consolidated all of the barrels. Even after a good storm any given barrel only accumulates about five or so inches of rain on average, so it always falls to whoever gets there first to empty all of the water into as few full barrels as possible so that the empty ones can be used to continue collecting. It must have been worse out here last night than I thought. We’ve got six fresh barrels. Even with the dozens of collection barrels we have positioned around the bridge, that’s still a lot. It almost makes me grateful for getting snatched up yesterday…almost.
The bathing area is nothing special. In reality, it’s just a corner beneath the bridge that we’ve sectioned off with some old rope and blankets. At least it’s private, though. The homeless may not always agree on everything, but we all agree that bathing is not a spectator’s sport. Nobody wants the whole world watching them when they’re naked, it’s just weird. Plus, having a private area sectioned off keeps us from being taken in for public indecency. Nobody wants to catch their third strike for simply not wanting to be filthy.
I pick out one of the least dirty rags from a pile that’s been collected over the years by everyone that lives under here. I can’t say that I picked one of the cleanest ones. None of them are really clean. The best you can hope for is that they aren’t pitch black.
“Hello?” I call before stepping behind the blankets. If I were to walk in on somebody, that would be more than a little bit awkward. Nobody answers, so it’s safe to go in. As usual, there’s already a full barrel positioned there for easy access. I dip the rag into the water a few times, and wring it out over the ground. I don’t want to do this too much, because that would be wasteful. We’ve developed a system, and water is hard to come by. This doesn’t get all of the dirt out, but at least the rag is cleaner than it was. I drape it over the edge of the barrel, and begin to strip out of my clothes.
I wish I had some fresh clothes to change into, but I’ve worn through all of them. I’m lucky to have the ones that I have, ill-fitting as they may be. When I hit my growth spurt a few years back, I was worried I might have to go naked for a while. Thankfully, I managed to liberate some better-fitting clothes from a well-off family who wasn’t going to miss them. My body is thin, and wiry. I haven’t eaten in a couple days. A couple nights ago, I lied to Becca and said that I had so that she would take the last of our food. I’ve been trying to ignore the gnawing in my stomach, but the cold, gentle breeze blowing against my bare skin seems to intensify it. “Quiet, you,” I mutter as my stomach growls in protest.
I dip the rag once more into the barrel and begin to scrub it against my body, starting with my face. It feels good to wash the grit away. Sometimes, I forget what it feels like to not have a layer of nastiness covering my whole body. People don’t really make much of a fuss about it out here; after all, we’re all dirty. Still, sometimes it’s nice to feel like you haven’t been wrestling with a trash heap all day. As I finish getting as much dirt off of my skin as is possible without soap, I remember that I’m getting my hair trimmed after this. As rough as Becca is, it’ll probably hurt even more if I’ve got clumps in my hair. I’d better wash it out just to be on the safe side. Before I can start on that though, I hear two voices coming from the other side of the blankets. They both sound as though they belong to older men.
“―Just can’t believe that those damned fools are actually going to go through with it,” The first man says. His voice is scratchy, and bewildered, as though he’s just heard something utterly ludicrous. He’s talking quietly, like he doesn’t want to be overheard.
“Is it really so hard to believe, Bart?” The second man asks. He sounds calmer, and more level, but he’s speaking just as quietly. “You spend just as much time under this bridge as I do. There are more people sleeping here every night. The government has been going too far for too long. It was only a matter of time.”
“That’s crazy talk, Horace,” Bart snaps. “Don’t any of them remember what happened last time?”
“That was six years ago,” says Horace. “A lot of those kids were too young to have been there for themselves. They didn’t see it firsthand like you and I did.”
“They must have heard the stories, though. They have to have heard the stories,” Bart argues. “And those bastards on the police force have only gotten worse since then. City Hall? Those kids must be out of what’s left of their minds.”
All at once, it dawns on me what these two men are talking about. There’s going to be a protest. That’s unheard of. There hasn’t been a protest in years, not since the Last Protest. Not since my parents died. I suddenly realize that I’ve been standing perfectly still. I’ve been here for a while now. Becca might start thinking that I tried to run. The last thing I need is for her to burst in here looking for me and see me naked; that would be mortifying. I finish cleaning my hair, and wait to dry off a little bit before I put my clothes back on. I can already feel the dirt from them creeping onto my skin. It’s not like I was expecting to stay clean for too long. As I walk out from the bathing area, I do my best not to make eye contact with the two old men sitting a few feet away. I’m sure that they must be the same ones who I just overheard.
As I make my way back over to where Becca set up our blankets, their words buzz like angry bees in my head. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I’m feeling. I can’t tell whether I’m upset because their conversation has brought back memories of my parents’ premature deaths, or excited because somebody has finally decided to stand up and do something.
“There you are,” Becca says as I approach her. “I was starting to think you’d gone and tried to give me the slip.”
“Nope,” I say absentmindedly. She immediately notices that something is up. It’s entirely possible that I spend way too much time with this girl.
“What’s up?” she asks. “You look like a ghost just grabbed your―“
“Okay,” I interrupt her, “First off, I’m begging you, literally begging you not to finish that sentence.” She folds her arms and waits for me to continue. “Secondly, I’m fine. I just…I heard something over by the barrels.”
“Ahhhhhh,” she says. She nods her head and stretches the sound out. “That was probably Ruth and Max. Those two have been giving each other eyes for weeks. I was wondering when they would finally get around to it.”
For a moment, I just look at her, dumbfounded. “Not those sounds, you creep. Seriously, what is wrong with you?”
“There’s nothing wrong with me Aiden,” she sighs. “It’s natural. Come on now, don’t act all high and mighty. It’s not like you don’t think about those things too.”
“That’s beside the point!” I blush. Everyone thinks this girl is so innocent; violent, maybe, but still innocent. I swear, she’s an entirely different person when we’re alone. I reiterate: it’s entirely possible that I spend way too much time with her.
“Okay, fine, you big baby. If it wasn’t that, then what was it? It must have been pretty out there to put that look on your face.” I hesitate for a moment. Becca’s parents died during the Last Protest too. How will she react when she finds out? I must stay silent for too long, because the smile leaves her face, and is replaced by a stern, serious expression. “Aiden, what are you not telling me?” she asks.
Maybe it’s better if I don’t say anything. “You know what? Now that I think about it, it’s probably―”
“Don’t you dare tell me that it’s nothing, Aiden. I know you too well. You don’t get that look on your face over nothing. Tell me what you heard.”
I let out a deep sigh. It looks like it’s unavoidable. “Okay,” I say, “I’ll tell you, but you have to promise to stay calm, alright?”
“I’m not making you that promise,” she tells me. Of course she’s not. Becca doesn’t make promises that she knows she can’t keep. Oh well, it was worth a shot.
I take a big gulp, and brace myself. “I, um…I heard a couple of old men talking just now, while I was washing. They didn’t know I was behind the blankets, so I just kind of accidentally overheard them…” I don’t know how to ease into this next part, so I just blurt it out and hope for the best. “Becca, I think that there’s going to be a protest at City Hall.”
“What?” her face goes even paler at first, but then turns a deep crimson. “Aiden, you’d better not be thinking about going!” she yells at me. “You just promised me, remember? You promised me that you were going to stop doing stupid things! You know what happened the last time! Those people must be―”
“Becca!” I shout her name. I don’t think that she would have heard me otherwise. “Becca, calm down, alright? I’m not going. Even if I wanted to go, I don’t know when this is happening. I don’t want to go though. I’m not stupid.” Even as I say this, I’m not sure that it’s entirely true. I instantly recall being excited that somebody was taking a stand. I’m telling the truth about the important part though. Even if I did know when it was happening, I don’t think I could find it in myself to go. “You don’t have to remind me what happened last time. You know that I know. It just caught me off guard. That’s all.”
“…Do you swear?” she asks me, holding out an extended pinkie.
“You’re really going to make me do this?” I groan.
“If you don’t do it, I’m not going to believe you,” she vows. I can tell that she means it.
“Fine,” I concede. I look around to make sure that nobody else is watching before wrapping my own pinkie around hers, and reciting the vow that we made up as children. “I swear with every ounce of me, from the tip of my nose, to the tips of my toes.” I immediately feel the blood rushing into my cheeks.
“Good,” she says. She releases my pinkie, and picks a pair of rusty old scissors up off of her blanket. “Now, sit down and hold still.”
Damn, I had completely forgotten about the haircut.