City of Savages
h our wall of windows, I watch dawn stand up and take on the city. It throws a thick, molten net over the skyscrapers, sets the river on fire, and makes me restless to be outside. It’s our last day downtown, and I want to enjoy every second of it.
I untangle myself from the piles of blankets and clothes Sky and I share to keep warm this late in autumn, trying not to wake her. I take a peek around our apartment but can’t find Mom. She must be up and already on the hunt for breakfast, and since there’s no food left in our rooftop garden, she’s got to be by the river. I press my nose against the floor-to-ceiling glass and pretend to fly for a minute, look down five stories to the small tuft of grass that hugs the water, but I don’t see Mom anywhere.
After pulling on my boots and one of the coats we’ve scavenged, I rush out the door and practically sprint down the hallway to the dusty EXIT sign. But I take my time going down the internal stairs—a tunnel of darkness, but the only way out. Even though I know every chip on the railing and every groove on the stairs, I know I can’t be too careful. Besides, there’re far cooler ways to die in this world than tripping on a set of steps. When I reach the empty lobby, I crawl through the hole Mom bashed out of the glass door frame, maneuver around the Dumpster that hides it, and greet the morning.
The day is breaking open like an egg, the river runny with orange, red, and gold. I walk to the water’s edge and look out at the statue Mom calls Lady Liberty, a green, rusted woman floating in a sea swamped with shrapnel and debris.
Even though I’m pumped to go back to Central Park for the winter, I’m really going to miss this place. I guess if I called anywhere home, it’d have to be this corner of the city—the glass towers bordering Battery Park, the Hudson River slapping the remains of the docks. But now it’s October, smack in the middle of the month, and like on all my birthdays, it’s time to join Rolladin in the Park for the POW census.
I hear a snap of a twig behind me and turn, in time to catch Mom taking down a couple of baby peacocks with two quick shots from her BB gun. The peahen and the rest of her chicks scream and scatter in a rage of feathers and tiny limbs.
“I couldn’t see you from the window,” I say.
“Good.” Mom smiles. “Means I’ve still got my edge.” She carefully finishes off the chicks with Sky’s knife, removes the round pellets from the birds’ flesh, and cleans them off for another day. She places the birds in her satchel.
“I don’t know about that, old lady,” I tease, ’cause it doesn’t mean anything—Mom looks like she’s only a few years older than Sky. Mom’s tall with even features and long, tight limbs, as if underneath her skin there’s nothing but steel and coiled rope.
“Speaking of getting old . . .” Mom throws her arm around my shoulders as we walk back towards the apartment complex. “Happy birthday, Phee.”
“I was wondering if you remembered.”
“Are you kidding? I could never forget this day, Phoenix-of-mine.” She pulls me into her and pats her satchel, reminding me of the carcasses inside. “You ready for your birthday breakfast?”
“That’s all I get? A couple of dead peachicks?”
“No, this day’s going to be full of surprises.” I can’t tell if Mom sounds excited, or . . . nervous. Scared, even. “We need to hit the road, though. We don’t want to miss check-in, and your gift means a stop.” She takes a deep breath. “An important stop.”
We round the Dumpster and Mom climbs back through the opening of shattered glass. “I’ve been debating with myself whether it’s time to show you girls,” she adds. “Whether we’re ready.”
I’m not really following whatever she’s talking about, but one thing’s for sure, I want the gift. So I say, “Come on, I was born ready,” as I scramble through the opening after her.
And even though I’m clearly joking, Mom doesn’t smile, and her eyes drift, like they do when she’s thinking about her world of long ago. But this is how it is with her. You never know what’s going to send her away, back into the past.
“That’s very true,” is all she gives me, and we walk in silence towards the stairwell.
* * *
When we get back to the apartment, my older sister’s already laid all her favorite things across our bed. Sky sighs as she strokes all this totally impractical clothing, lace and feathers and sparkles and gems, biting her nails like what she packs has life-or-death importance. This is my sister—everything means more than it should for Sky. She cries over chopped-down trees, and she can’t sleep the days we find a dead animal.
“Just pick some stuff and throw it in your backpack,” I tell her, as I shove my own few things into my satchel—long underwear, boots, extra hoodie, and pants. “It’ll all be here when we get back. Or at least it should be. You can wear those practical miniskirts next summer while we hunt for squirrels.”
Sky smiles as she studies her clothes. “You know only one of us can get away with a year-round sweatpants uniform.”
I grab one of the hats she lifted a few years ago from what’s left of Bloomingdale’s, this big, stupid, floppy thing that makes her look like a sunflower, and throw it on. Then I use my high-pitched girly Sky-voice: “I’m thinking sequins for picking corn. No, no, the suede—”
She laughs and lunges for me. “God, don’t touch the brim—look at your hands!”
“Come on, guys. Pick up the pace,” Mom calls from the kitchenette. “We’ve got a long day ahead of us.”
* * *
After a quick breakfast of peachicks roasted over the kindling fire Mom built in the fireplace, Sky gives me my birthday gift, a hand-woven necklace of grass. It’s beautiful, and something I could never make: I don’t have the eye or the patience. I thank her and put it on carefully. Then we gather up our coats and things and leave the apartment unlocked, just like Mom found it years ago.
We’ve spent summers in this apartment for basically my whole life. But like most stuff, Sky and I know only half the story of why. Mom’s mentioned in bits and pieces that she remembered the shiny skyscraper from “before.” Something about visiting her Wall Street friends during “lunch hour,” and being impressed with the “amenities.” So we set up summer camp in the building’s model unit after the Red Allies slackened their Park mandate. Mom said it was as good a place as any.
“Why are we heading east?” Sky says now.
“For Phee’s gift.” Mom checks the watch she’s had since we were kids. “We need to get moving, it’s already nine. You know we can’t be late for check-in.”
Rolladin has all these strict rules on timing—on everything, really. Sure, it bugs me as much as the next prisoner; but being on time’s a small price to pay for front-row spots at the POW census festivities.
“Where’s this present of mine again?” I ask.
“That’s part of the surprise.” Mom shakes her head, her eyes already watering from the cold. “It’s better this way, trust me.”
We brace ourselves against the chill and walk past townhomes with their windows blown out, through rows of mutilated storefronts. The corpses of the monsters Mom says once moved, she calls them cars, litter the streets and avenues.
“I’m freezing already,” Sky says.
“That’s ’cause you’ve got nothing on. Look at that coat.” I fluff the wide collar of her flimsy leather jacket. “You know, one day those fancy-pants outfits are going to land you in Rolladin’s den.” I wiggle my eyebrows. “Our little Sky shacking up with the warden.”
Sky fake gags as she pulls my parka hood over my face. “You’re obnoxious.”
“And you’re asking for it.”
“Guys!” Mom hates it when we joke about these things—about anything to do with Rolladin, really.
I laugh and nudge her. “Come on, we’re kidding.”
As the sun climbs up the sky, we reach the ratty mess of streets once known as Chinatown, hike a wide circle around where Broome had greeted Bowery, trek all the way to the East River to get into the Lower East Side. The tear in the earth we circle is blocks wide, and it adds about an hour to our trip.
Mom never lets us come up this way, even though there’re no tunnels over here and the bombing stopped over a decade ago. But it’s still far too dangerous, she always says, so whatever gift she has for me must be good. And I’m excited for it, really, but I’m also anxious to get to the Park, settle in at the Carlyle, and get prime spots for the 65th Street fighting. When I’m about to point out that this is taking all morning, Mom finally says, “This is it.”
She stops in front of an ordinary row home. A pile of bricks, maybe four stories high. In fact, the only thing half-interesting about it is that it’s still in one piece, what with being so close to the bomb crater.
Sky and I look at each other, confused.
“What’s my gift doing in there?” I ask.
Mom’s eyes are lost again. “This was my old home, with your father. This is where Sky was born.”
Old home? I wasn’t expecting this. Mom’s never mentioned this place. Or much of anything, really, about her life Before. I don’t know what to do with this information.
“So we lived here before the war?” Sky cranes her neck to look up at the wall of brick and dusty glass. She snaps her head back to Mom. “Before the Red Allies attacked?”
But Mom’s focus is on the front door, jiggling it open with a key I’d always thought was a necklace. “Only for a little while.”
“Was I born here too?”
Mom shakes her head at me. “Just Sky.”
The door sighs and clicks open. We walk into a musty stench so thick you can cut it, climb two sets of stairs, and stop in front of 3B. Mom stands in front of the bloodred door, waiting. Waiting for what, I don’t know. Sky’s trembling next to me like some cloud before a storm, so excited I think she’s going to burst.
“It’s getting late, Mom,” I say, as patiently as I can.
“Right.” Mom breathes deeply and clicks the golden key into the hole, and the apartment door opens.
It’s weird. Mom’s old place looks nothing like the glass box we live in near Wall Street, with its slate tiles, grays, and whites. This apartment’s stuffed and soft. Pillows and blankets thrown over worn-cushioned couches, books tucked into corners and teeming from tall shelves. Yellow walls and dusty junk. Dust everywhere. And pictures. We can’t see a tabletop, there’re so many pictures.
“Is this Dad?” Sky clutches a large photo. A man has his arms wrapped around Mom. She’s smiling, and younger around the eyes. “And is this me?” Sky shows me another one of a chubby baby.
My mom walks over to us carefully, slowly, like she might need to lie down any minute.
“That’s you, Skyler,” she finally says. “And yes, that’s—Tom. That was, is, your father.”
I can’t take my eyes off him. “He’s got my hair.”
“A wild crop of blond, just like yours.” Mom ruffles my wavy mane. “And Skyler’s eyes.”
“They are mine, right?”
“Definitely. Green eyes that were always probing, always questioning, just like you. Your curiosity and Phee’s mouth. A brutal combination.”
I look at Mom: she’s trying her best to smile and joke, but this all feels wrong. Hollow or something. It just reminds me that I don’t know this guy, that we’ve never even seen a picture of him. That the most we’ve ever gotten when we’ve asked what happened to him are vague answers or Mom’s knee-jerk, bogus mantra, Sometimes the past should stay in the past.
I look back at the picture. Tom Miller. Husband. Father. I try to match these names with his face, but I can’t shake the disappointing feeling—in my mind, he’s played by someone different. Someone a little older and heavier, maybe, and with a beard.
I stare at him longer, hoping for something to register that this is the guy who made me, who willed me into the world. But he’s just some stranger—there’s no connection—and the sharp truth of it pricks my eyes.
“Why haven’t you brought us here before?” Sky’s bottom lip starts quivering before I can say anything first. “All the times we’ve asked you for something, anything, from before . . .”
“She wanted to keep it to herself,” I answer.
“Please, Mom, don’t ‘Phee’ me.”
I try not to get as worked up as Sky does, over all the holes in the past that Mom refuses to fill, but still, my own lip’s quivering. I walk towards the tiny kitchenette before either of them can tell.
“The Lower East Side was off-limits for years,” Mom starts slowly. “After the bombing stopped, the Red Allies quarantined the area. Even if I wanted to show you, Rolladin—”
“Oh, please.” Like Mom follows every order of Rolladin’s. “You could’ve brought us here sooner. You know it, and we know it.”
Mom shakes her head. “You’re right.”
She sits down on the ratty green couch for a minute and runs her fingers through her hair. “I know you two won’t understand this, but I brought you here when I could. I wasn’t ready to make these memories real. I’m still not ready. It hurts just to be in here, to see it frozen in time.” She looks at us with glistening eyes. “God forbid, one day you two might understand what it’s like to lose everything. To have to face it again, afterward—that might be the worst part.” She stands and turns to the window. “Sometimes the past should stay in the past.”
Mom stays there for a while, looking out to an empty street through dusty glass. I know what she’s doing. She’s centering herself, closing herself off before we can figure out another way inside her.
“We’re running out of time.” Mom turns towards the bedroom, her eyes on the matted carpet. “Let’s not forget why we’re here. Phee’s birthday present, remember?”
“So that’s it?” I call after her. “End of conversation?”
Sky and I exchange a look. This is how Mom is. A closed book. It’s useless to try to open her.
“This gift better be good, is all I’m saying,” I finally whisper to Sky, and we follow Mom into her old bedroom.
Mom’s sandwiched herself in between the nearby wall and a bed that nearly devours the room. She takes a blurry black-and-white photo off the wall to reveal a small steel door.
“What is that?” Sky asks.
“A safe. Your dad installed it when we moved here.” Mom takes her time, twisting a knob on the safe’s face round and round. Right, left, right, and the safe door clicks open.
“What’s it for?”
“It does what it says. Keeps important things safe.”
“Like what?” I try to peer around her, but she blocks me.
“Like . . . our passports, Sky’s birth certificate—”
“A birth certificate?” I say. Some things from Before are just so dumb. “A certificate that says you were born? Isn’t the fact that you’re here proof enough?”
Mom gives a little laugh, continues fishing through a pile of things I can’t see. God, I really, really hope my gift is not some lame piece of paper.
Finally she pulls something shiny and red from the safe, and my heart skips. It’s—
A real one, not a BB like my mom’s. And the gun’s painted red, just like the whorelords’ few weapons in the Park. The ones sanctioned by the Red Allies.
“How’d you get that?” Sky whispers.
“It’s not important.” Mom opens the chamber, and I count four bullets, real bullets, fat silver fish that beg to be shot.
“Is it for me?” I ask.
Mom looks at Sky, and I can tell she’s trying to get a sense from my sister whether she thinks this is a terrible idea. I’m sure Sky thinks it is. But Mom knows I’m old enough now to protect myself, from holdouts during the summer, or from any trouble in the Park. You’ve got to be tough on this island, or else you don’t have a leg to stand on. But Sky’s never really understood this. She’s never wanted to.
“So Phee gets the gun?” Sky just shakes her head. “You didn’t think this would be a good gift, say, a year ago? When I turned sixteen?”
“Sky, come on,” Mom says. “Don’t make this difficult. This is Phee’s day. I gave you what I thought made sense at the time.”
“You’re a lousy shot, Sky, everyone knows that,” I try to help, thinking back to the first and last time she entered the census celebration’s junior archery competition. But when I look up, Sky’s face is all mashed up, like she’s going to cry again. Damn it, I hate it when my words just slip out and cut her. “I mean, your knife is more your style. A more personal weapon. If you ever had the guts to use it, of course.”
My sister shoots me a look more lethal than any knife.
“Phee,” Sky says, “I really can’t stand you sometimes.”
She stomps off to the bedroom’s bathroom, edging her way around her old crib. She slams the door behind her.
“Why do you say things like that to her?”
“I was trying to help.”
“I’m serious, Phee,” Mom pushes. “Try to walk in her shoes. If you two don’t have each other, you don’t have anything.”
I look down at the worn carpet, and a warm wave of shame flushes my cheeks. I hate feeling like this, so I try to ignore it. “Come on, can’t I hold the gun?”
Mom sighs. “This isn’t a toy. I was debating even giving it to you.” She fiddles with it, opens its chamber. So much power, potential, in her palms. “I thought Sky would be more careful with it,” she says. “But I knew if you ever needed to use it, I mean really use it—”
“I’d be able to pull the trigger,” I finish her sentence. I don’t have to add that Sky would not. We both know. We all know.
“I can’t protect you forever. This gift is a sign of trust. That you’ll keep it hidden and only use it if you and Sky are in trouble. That you’ll respect it. Do you understand that?”
I nod, but my heart and mind are racing. I want to be outside, firing this thing. Pow. One pull of a trigger and lightning comes out of my hand. Pow.
“Are you listening to me?” Mom’s blue eyes bore into mine.
“Yes. I’m listening.” And then I hug her, for the gun and for the trust, and take the gift out of her shaking hand. The shiny revolver fits into mine like a puzzle piece. Like it was made for me to hold it.
“Can I try it?”
Mom takes the weapon again, then digs back through the contents of the safe. She pulls out a small red box, torn around the edges, and shoves it into her pocket. “You get one shot. One blank. I don’t want to make too much commotion before we travel uptown.”
She pushes back the little lip of the gun. “That’s the safety. Always keep it on.” She fumbles with the chamber again, opening it. “And always keep the bullets separate from the gun.”
She dumps the pile into my hand. “Keep them safe. It’s not like my BB. This is all the ammo I have. And once it’s gone, it’s gone. Do you understand?”
I nod, totally fixated on the weapon.
“Come on, let’s make sure it still works.”
I follow Mom to the window, a nervous energy creeping up my spine. She opens the glass pane that hasn’t been touched in over a decade, and we step out onto the fire escape.