Chapter 3: The Brass Star
“Would you please stop scratching?” Becca snaps at me as we walk down Iron Street. Today all of the buildings look as though they’re made of smooth, glossy metal bricks. When we woke up this morning, she insisted on sticking together this time out. She claims that it’s to make sure I don’t get locked up again, but I can’t help feeling that she just doesn’t trust me to stay away from City Hall. She’s right not to. The closer you get to the center of town, where City Hall is located, the richer the families get. We, on the other hand, are heading in the opposite direction. A lot of the families down this way aren’t really that much more fortunate than we are.
“I can’t help it,” I complain. “It feels like my shirt is full of fire ants!” I continue scratching, taking care not to press too firmly against my injured shoulder.
“This wouldn’t be a problem right now if you’d just agreed to take your shirt off before I cut your hair,” she points out. She’s right of course, but she probably would have just used that as an excuse to poke fun at me. Never mind that she’s probably just as bony as I am, Becca never misses an opportunity to lay into me.
“Worth it,” I lie, running my hand over a section of hair which I feel she may have cut a bit too short. “It was totally worth it.” I don’t bother trying to tell her that we’re not going to find anything worth taking in this direction, though I should. We’re in desperate need of food, and it wouldn’t feel right to take money away from people who need it almost as badly as we do. I know for a fact that she feels the same way, but there’s no way that she’s letting me go anywhere near the center of town until she knows for a fact that the protest has passed. Looks like I’m going to have to put up with this hunger for a little while longer. “So what’s the plan, Bec?” I ask, hoping that she actually has one.
“Em,” she says simply. I stop in my tracks.
“Nope,” I say, immediately turning around. “Not happening, Bec. Sorry, but it’s just not happening. “
“Come on, Aiden,” she pleads, tugging my arm back in the direction we had previously been walking. “We don’t have any other choice, we need the food.”
“You know how I feel about that place, Becca!” I say more loudly than I mean to. “Why can’t we just head up to Platinum town? We could pick a few pockets and be done with it, simple as that.”
“I get it, I do,” she swears. “I don’t like The Star any more than you do, but Em has never been anything but good to us. She feeds us, and all she asks in return is a few hours’ work. Is that really so bad?”
“You already know that it’s not Em or the work that’s the problem,” I say, turning around to face her. “It’s a cop bar, Becca! How can you just ignore that?” It’s not my intention to sound so harsh, but I can’t help it. Cops get under my skin. Just the idea of willfully inserting myself into a room full of them is enough to ruin my appetite…except for that it’s not. My stomach picks the most inopportune time possible to rumble, and that’s all the ammo that Becca needs.
“I don’t know,” she says, “I guess it’s pretty hard to hear them over the sound of my stomach growling.” Ouch, that one hurts. She’s not playing fair. She knows that I would never let her go hungry, and I know that she’s not going to let me go anywhere with anything worth stealing. She’s got me in a corner.
“Fine, I’ll go,” I mutter under my breath.
“What was that?” she asks, cupping a hand around her ear as though to hear me better.
“I said that I’ll go,” I growl. “By the way, gloating is really unattractive. You might want to try breaking that habit if you plan on ever attracting a man.” I said that I’d go; I never said I’d go easily.
“Trust me, I’ll live,” she says with a roll of her eyes. “Now march, Clearborn.” She motions for me to start moving first, probably so that she can keep an eye on me.
“Ma’am, yes, ma’am,” I tease her, knowing full well that she hates it.
“Remember what happened the last time you wouldn’t stop calling me that?” she asks coolly.
“Trying really hard not to,” I reply. Let’s just say that Becca makes Officer Markum look like a puppy dog.
“Well, keep it up, and you’re going to have to start thinking of ways to explain to people how it is that a girl beat you up…twice.”
“Considering that that girl is you, I don’t think that anybody would really question it,” I point out. Becca has a reputation for not taking trash from anybody, and having the chops to back it up.
“Fair point,” she says, digging her finger into my shoulder.
“Ow!” I really should have seen that one coming.
I remain silent for the rest of the trip. I’ve already pushed my luck enough, so I decide that it’s probably best if I keep the rest of my complaints to myself. Thankfully, I didn’t do any real damage to my tailbone when I slipped and fell yesterday, but I would like the bruise on my shoulder to actually stand a chance of being able to heal someday. That’s might not happen if I keep giving Becca excuses to prod at it. Lucky for me, if “lucky” is the word that you want to use for it, the bar isn’t much further.
Before, I said that the streets in this town are one of few things that never change. That was not an exaggeration. In total, there are four things in this town that aren’t constantly changing. There are the streets, of course, but then there’s the Grand Golden Bridge, City Hall, and the wretched sign that hangs above the entrance to The Brass Star. Although the building itself changes every day to reflect the appearance of the rest of Violet city, that damned sign always stays the same. It’s a larger than life recreation of the same badge worn by the officers of the Violet City Police Department; a seven-pointed bronze star with an inverted triangle positioned directly in the middle of it, and enclosed in a circle.
I hate that badge in ways that words can only ever understate. It’s the same badge that was worn by the people who took my parents from me. I don’t know why this sign doesn’t change. There’s nothing special about this building other than the fact that it’s frequented by cops. Even Em, the owner, wouldn’t be considered overly wealthy. Still, she’s better off than me and Becca.
I should probably be more grateful for the kindness that Em has shown us over the years, but I can never seem to get past that giant reminder she hangs above her door. Whenever I see it, I’m reminded of what people like the ones in her bar took from me. I know that it’s not right to channel that anger towards her, but I can’t help it. I don’t understand how she can continue to cater to pigs and sellouts. Maybe it’s for the same reasons as Alec. Maybe she needs the money more than she needs her dignity.
My stomach sinks the same way that it always does when I walk into this place. I swear that cops have their own stench. They smell like body odor, and shoe polish. Some of them smell like shame. Those are the ones who you can tell are only doing it for the money. I try not to hate those ones as much as the others, but I usually just can’t help it. In case you were wondering, my Uncle Alec doesn’t smell like shame.
The smell of the cops is only offset by the warm smells of food and alcohol. One great thing about metal floors is that they don’t absorb vomit. If they did, I’m sure that this place would reek of it. One of the things I find most odd about The Star is that it isn’t filled with metal furnishings, like most of the businesses in this city. Instead, each and every chair, counter, table, and bar stool is made of highly polished wood, probably brought in all the way from Green Hollow. That doesn’t come cheap. Behind the bar hangs a large violet banner, emblazoned with the same seven-pointed star that’s positioned above the door outside. It gives me a chill of distaste each and every time I see it. Almost out of reflex, I spit on the floor at the sight of it.
“Aiden!” Becca whispers loudly, driving her elbow into my ribs. “What are you doing?”
“Ouch!” I whisper back, “it’s almost like you enjoy hitting me!”
“You can’t just spit on Em’s floor and then expect her kindness in return,” she chastises me. She’s right of course. That doesn’t mean I have to admit it.
“I’ll just clean it up,” I sigh. I get down on my knees, and wipe the spit up with my shirt. “See? No harm done.”
“Daft as always, I see,” a creaky old voice calls from the back of the room. “That shirt of yours probably just made the floor even dirtier. By the metal, boy, when’s the last time you changed those rags you wear?”
“Not all of us are well off enough to afford new ‘rags’ whenever we need them,” I retort, standing back up.
“Hi, Em,” Becca says, elbowing me in the ribs again. “I’m sorry about the floor. He didn’t mean any disrespect, I promise.”
“Child, you know better than to make promises you know aren’t true,” Em says, gently waving Becca off. “It’s perfectly fine though, really. I know that it’s not me who young Aiden here is mad at, so I’ll let it slide this time.”
“Thank you, Em,” Becca says, breathing a sigh of relief.
Em is a hunched over old lady, with curly gray hair that reaches down to her knees. She’s got a hooked nose, and more wrinkles than the sky has stars. The knotted cane that she uses to support herself is made of the same fine wood as all of the Star’s furniture. I always find her fascinating to look at. Most people don’t make it to the age of sixty, but she looks substantially older. I can’t help but wonder how she’s made it this long in this world.
“How can I help the two of you today?” Em asks. She’s looking at Becca as she speaks, and not me. That’s a wise choice. Wisdom is something that Em has plenty of.
Becca looks down at the floor, and blushes. Her skin turns as bright as a cherry. It’s not easy for her to ask for help, even when she knows that she has no other choice. “Um…” she says, “You see, Em, we were…Aiden and I…we were wondering if we could maybe…work here today?”
“Now child,” Em says with a kindly grin on her face, “How many years have the two of you known me now? You know that you could work here every day if you wanted to. It’s honestly beyond me why you choose not to.”
Becca casts a darting glance in my direction, and I blush and look down at my feet. Would it be easier to just work for Em? It might be. Who can say? But I don’t think my pride could handle it more than every once in a while. I’ve never told Becca that she can’t work here as often as she wants, but for some reason she refuses to unless I come with her.
“Ah, I see,” Em’s smile grows even broader as her crystal clear hazel eyes drift between the two of us. “Very well, you can work for the day. Same terms as always of course, one meal before you start, and one after you finish. Does that sound agreeable?”
“Of course! Thank you so much, Em!” Becca says, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
“Yeah, thanks,” I mutter.
“Any time,” says the old woman. “Of course, you know that I can’t have you serving customers in those tattered old clothes. The uniforms are in the back, where they always are. I’m sure Pavel already knows that you’re here, with those ears of his. He’s already started prepping the kitchen, so he should have something ready for you to eat by the time you’ve both changed.”
Becca nods her understanding, and Em goes on about her business. It’s still the middle of the day, so there aren’t any patrons yet. This time is dedicated to preparing the bar for customers.
“Any idea what that was about?” I ask Becca.
“Any idea what that was about?” she asks as we make our way to the back room.
“The way that Em looked at us just then? You don’t think that was just a little weird?”
“Oh, that,” Becca says, quickly looking away from me. Well, you know, sometimes Em is just a little weird.” As she says this, she quickens her pace, and makes her way through the double doors before I can get another word in. That was unusual.
“You okay, Bec?” I ask as I enter the room behind her. She’s not usually the type to mince words, so this is pretty odd.
“I’m fine,” she says shortly, still looking away from me.
“Why aren’t you looking at me?” I ask her. “Are you still mad at me about spitting on the floor? I cleaned it up right away. Em wasn’t even mad about it.”
“Aiden, I’m fine,” she says, turning to face me. There’s a weak smile on her face. Becca’s good at a lot of things, but lying definitely is not one of them. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go into the closet and change first. Is that alright?”
“Yeah, I guess,” I say. She doesn’t wait for me to finish my sentence though. She’s already walked into the closet and closed the door behind her. “Girls are nuts,” I mutter beneath my breath.
“Spoken with the wisdom of a man twice your age, my young friend!” A voice calls from the back of the kitchen, startling me. It had entirely slipped my mind that there were other people back here, working away.
I turn to see who has just addressed me, and find that the comment had come from a large, burly, round man who was busy dicing vegetables. “Damn it, Pavel, how long have you been there?” I ask. I know it’s a dumb question, but it’s the only one that I can think to ask as I wait for the blood to leave my cheeks.
“This is where I work,” the large man shrugs. “Where else do you expect me to be? If anything, I’m the one who should be surprised. I don’t see the two of you as often as I would like.”
Despite his imposing build, Pavel is a kind, gentle man. He has rosy cheeks, and is almost always smiling. Though his head is shaved, the lack of hair on his scalp is offset by his large, bushy handlebar mustache. I like Pavel; he almost even makes working here bearable.
“Aw, don’t start crying now,” I tease. “You’re going to make me feel bad. Hey, I’m here now, right? Let’s focus on the positives.” For the sake of not hurting Pavel’s feelings, I guess that I’m willing to pretend that being here is a positive.
“This is true,” he says, not even looking as he continues to slice a very large onion. It astounds me how deft he manages to be with those giant mitts of his. “I suppose that a little bit of you does go a long way sometimes.”
“Now, see? Those kinds of jokes are exactly why I don’t come here more often,” I say with a large grin on my face. It seems like the big fellow has managed to cheer me up a little. His cheerful demeanor has a way of being infectious. “Words hurt, big guy.”
He chuckles, and innocently shrugs his massive shoulders, but says nothing more. I take a look around the kitchen as I wait for Becca to finish changing. It’s much bigger than the serving area of the bar, and full to the brim sharp, shiny, metal objects which hang from bars positioned above stoves and countertops. No springing for fancy wood back here, behind the scenes. In a way it makes sense. Appearances really only matter when customers can see them.
The entire area is already packed with cooks, bussers, and servers, bustling about, readying themselves at their own paces while they still can. When the customers start to come in, a switch will flip inside of Pavel. He’ll transform from his normal, cheerful self into the iron-fisted head chef who keeps this kitchen afloat. I’d kind of like to get out of here before that happens.
Just as the thought occurs to me, Becca walks out from the closet wearing a purple vest with brass buttons, a black skirt that goes up several inches above her knees, and a long-sleeved white shirt. The ensemble is in sharp contrast to the pair of worn-out brown boots that she’s still wearing. It’s been several weeks since I last saw Becca with a clean face and clean clothes. Sometimes I forget just how well she cleans up.
“What are you looking at?” she asks me, looking down at her feet. Her face is glowing red. She’s not exactly the “skirt” type. She gets embarrassed every time she has to put one on, but she always gets over it after a while.
“Nothing, really,” I reply. “You just don’t look horrible, is all.” I thought that that was a compliment, but Becca doesn’t seem to feel the same way.
“Gee, thanks,” she says before storming back to the other side of the double doors.
“I’ve got no clue what her problem is today,” I say, thinking out loud.
“If you ask me,” Pavel says, “That girl’s problem is that she’s in love with a blind man. But then again, I could be wrong. It’s like you said earlier, girls are nuts.”
“Yeah, right,” I laugh. “Becca, in love? I’d be less surprised if it started raining money. Besides, if that was true she would have said something to me by now. The two of us don’t keep secrets from each other.” I don’t think that anything I just said is particularly funny, but Pavel obviously disagrees. He breaks out into a loud chuckle, startling a few of his workers. I wish somebody would consider laughing this loudly when I tell an actual joke. “What’s so amusing?” I ask.
Pavel says nothing. He simply shakes his head and returns to his cutting. I don’t have time to inquire further. I’ve got to get changed and eat before things get too busy around here. I enter the closet that Becca just walked out of, and dig for a uniform in my size. The male uniform is pretty much identical to the female one, only with a pair of black slacks instead of a skirt. As I finish dressing and washing my face in the closet skink, I look down at my shoes. Some people believe that you can figure out pretty much anything you need to know about a person by the shoes that they wear. They’re not entirely wrong. The second anyone sees these shoes of mine, they’re going to know right away that I’m a streeter. I’m not sure why, but that irritates me a little bit.
Whatever, it’s not like it matters. I am what I am, whether a bunch of cops know it or not. It’s not like anything will change just because they can’t tell that I’m homeless. I cast the thought away, and head back out to the service floor. When I emerge through the double doors, I find that Becca has already finished eating, and has begun prepping tables. I head over to the bar, where my own meal is waiting for me. It’s a plate of bread, mashed potatoes, gravy, and mushrooms. I hate mushrooms, but I’m in no position to be picky. I scoff the food down, and I’m so starved that the fleshy little caps and stems maybe even taste a little bit good.
“My, my,” Em chortles from behind the bar. “You finished almost as quickly as Becca did. The two of you must have been famished.”
I look over at Becca when Em mentions her name. She’s now busying herself with a table at the far end of the room. “Do you have any idea what’s up with her all of a sudden?” I ask.
Em eyes me curiously for a moment before she speaks. It sends an unpleasant chill down my spine. It feels like she’s looking through me, the same way that Alec does. “You really don’t know, do you?” she asks me. Leave it to Em to answer a question with a question.
“What don’t I know?” I ask. I’m starting to get impatient again. I can’t seem to get a straight answer out of anyone today.
“It’s really not my business to say,” the old woman answers apologetically. “Have you tried asking her directly?”
“Of course I have,” I tell her. “She just said that she was fine, and then she walked away.”
“Yes,” Em smiles softly. “Yes, I suppose that that does sound like our Becca doesn’t it? Always more bark than bite. She acts so tough, but she is still just a young girl after all.”
“Are we talking about the same girl?” I ask, raising an eyebrow. “Becca’s got more bark and more bite than anyone else who I’ve ever met. Pretty much all she does is talk and fight.”
“There are different kinds of fights, dear,” Em says cryptically. “The kind of fight that Becca needs to be fighting isn’t one that she’s going to be able to fight with her fists.” The old woman is silent for a moment. Just as I’m about to ask her to explain what she’s talking about though, she decides that she’s already explained enough. “Well, it looks like you’ve finished eating. You should go help her with the tables. It’s rude to make a lady do all the work herself, you know.”
I hesitate or a moment. I want to know what it is that nobody seems to want to tell me, but it will have to wait. I made a deal with Em that I was going to work for my food. I may be a crook, but I’m no conman. It’s almost three o’clock. The early birds will start coming in soon. I should hurry up and get working.