If I cross through Lincoln and Square at three o’clock, and head East for three minutes, I can turn into Aimee’s, and wait there until the next ceasefire. If they shoot till six, I’ll have to risk it, if I plan to get to the venue before dark. It hasn’t snowed all winter, but the lack of it hasn’t stopped the sun from dying early.
It’s thirty steps from here till Lincoln, and I’ll arrive to Lincoln by two fifty-four. That’s six minutes until the cease. Everyday at three o’clock, both sides lower their guns in honor of the children lost or gone missing, during the war. The fire begins again, at three-ten. The big clock will sound in the square, for the sake of any side’s personal clocks being set too fast, giving them an upper hand.
My steps are big and small, depending on how the sidewalk square looks. This step is big, because the square is caved in, like a funnel, with chunks of spilled concrete here and there. The next step is little, because the next square is jagged, like a staircase or an obstacle. There are many steps to take in this square alone. The next is a normal step. The square hasn’t been blown yet.
Gunfire. It’s never settling. It causes me to jump in my steps, and hold my yellow cards close to my ears, and it forces my shoulders to press against my cheeks, and it makes my nose turn red, and my hands turn red, and my knees to grow weak, but I carry on. I wave my cards now, flashing them high so whoever’s hiding behind a machine will know that I’m no fighter. They were given to us, the yellow cards, by the local government, as a means of keeping us apart from the war. They were supposed to allow us to cross through fire zones, without getting hit. They work sometimes.
Gunfire. It sounds closer, and far away, all at the same time. It makes me quicken my pace, and I feel the back of my violin, slapping the back of me, quicker than before. I don’t know if it hurts. I can’t feel anything more than the sharp wind, the popping in my ears, and the feel of the laminated yellow cards.
Fourteen steps until Lincoln. Thirteen steps until Lincoln. Twelve.
Wailing— I hate Adeline. She wails every day beginning at two-fifty, until three-thirty, from her bedroom window in the dirty apartment two steps ahead. She wails because she was a stupid woman who trusted her thirteen year old boy to walk across the street at night in war, and trusted they wouldn’t fire at him if he showed his cards. He forgot his cards, and Adeline forgot to check if he had them. Many people tell her it isn’t her fault. It isn’t her fault, alone.
Wailing. I hate Adeline’s voice more than I hate the gunfire. It’s piercing, and it hits you directly in the heart. It makes you feel guilty for her mistakes, and for their mistakes, and for the foolishness of the boy in love with the other boy across the street, so desperate to meet him he walked across a war at night. Shut up, I dream to scream at Addy. I dream they’ll fire into her window, and put an end to her.
Eight steps until Lincoln. Seven steps until Lincoln. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. Two:fifty-four.
Standing here is the worst part. You can feel the trembling of the concrete beneath you, as if it wishes to give before they force it. You can smell the blood, and you can see the blood from yesterday, even though the street washers try their bests to clean it up when night comes. You look into the sky, to pinpoint where the missile will fall, should they launch one. You stand still, because that is how they will see your yellow cards, and moving makes you look like a target.
I hold my yellow cards out on both sides, and feel my violin slide down my back to my thighs when I arch my back. My brown fingers turn red the harder I press them to the cards. I force my eyes shut when the gunfire sounds louder, but I open them when I feel the breeze shift, and when I open them there is a man wearing a mask standing in front of me, holding a machine against his stomach with both hands. He’s skinnier than I am. I can only see his eyes through his mask; hazel green. Angry. I open my mouth to tell him about my cards, but I cannot bring myself to show them to him, or even to speak. I close my eyes, and wait. I feel him brush against my side, and I hear his footsteps behind me. My watch beeps, finally. Three o’clock.
“Can’t pay, can’t stay,” Aimee says to the beggar, when she pours my coffee. “Go to the library, it’s a safe spot. This is a business.”
“Library ain’t safe,” the beggar pleads. “They’re gonna blow it, it’s what everybody’s saying.”
“The library’s a safe space,” Aimee says again. “Designated and shit.”
“They’re gonna fuckin’ blow it!” the beggar pleads. “Mostly Blues hide there, the Rags think it’ll send a message! They’re gonna fuck— fuck Aimee, come on!”
“You got six minutes to get someplace Joe,” Aimee tells the beggar. “This is a business, until it blows too.”
When Joe leaves, he bumps into four people, on accident. Aimee’s is always crowded during the cease, by people trying to get somewhere who need a safe stopping ground, until the next cease. If you thought politics were fucked wherever you come from, then you don’t wanna get stuck at Aimee’s for an hour.
Mr. Hartley is eighty years old and his knee got bashed two weeks ago, but he still stands on a table and smashes a bottle against a wall, as if he wasn’t packing some real heat in his back pocket. “Oh yeah? So you’re one-a-them, huh?”
Grendel Woodley is sixteen years old, and even through the times he’s living in, still hasn’t been here long enough to know anything about anything. But he pulls Mr. Hartley by the bad knee, dragging him to his ass, and points a switchblade at his nose until Aimee threatens them both. Whether or not they agree with her, everyone listens to Aimee. Without Aimee, there’s no safe spot for another seven minutes.
“Hey, what about you? Mr. Suit?”
And then there’s me. I’ve been here my whole life, but they only recognize me from the posters. First man, only man, to touch a violin in one hundred years. I started off as a party gag, until someone worth it noticed me. I sold out stages bigger than most countries, until the stages got blown. Now I play secret venues, every once in awhile. It’s hard getting gigs, when people are too scared to walk down the street, let alone to a show they won’t miss anything vital living without.
“I think,” I begin, setting my mug to the counter. “That—.”
“That we were just leaving, if we want to make it to the church on time, old friend.”
Bailey Madden wraps his arm around my shoulders, and tugs me from my stool. He hands me my violin case from the floor, and urges me out of Aimee’s, before the crowd can get too riled.
“My my, Xavier Cross,” Madden begins, “haven’t you learned anything, living on both sides of the bridge? A trap is a trap, no matter where you are.”
“They’re shooting heavier than before,” I say, looking both ways before I lead the cross to the other side of the street. I flash my yellow cards as we go. “They probably would’ve had a cease in another half hour, and we could’ve gotten to the hospital and waited there. I think you want me dead.”
“Well twenty-seven isn’t too bad,” Bailey shrugs. “You did good for yourself to only be twenty-seven! Eh, you would’ve been dead anyway, Mister I’ll answer every question honestly, just because I was asked.”
“Oh, claims Mister I’ll walk into war because I think it makes me edgy, but dare I stand by moral and fight.”
He laughs. “Oh, says Mister I’m a violinist not a fighter! Eh, you ever feel bad that I do what you do, by pressing a button on a screen, and get paid just as much!”
I shake my head, and flash my card to a passing fighter. “You don’t do what I do.”
He smirks at me. “You really carry those still? You shouldn’t be scared of a little walk across town, Xavier Cross. Something will probably go wrong.”
“I don’t think you’ve learned the definition of reassurance,” I say, when we make it to the next sidewalk.”
He laughs. “Opposite. People who say nothing’s gonna go wrong, get their feet blown off in the movies. If we admit the world’s shit head on, we can’t get karma for lying. . . Hey whose side are you on anyway?”
“Is this a trap?” I laugh. “I’m not on anybody’s side. If I were on a side I’d have a gun, not a bow. The Blues think their wealth makes them god, and quite honestly, I think the war’s sport for them. They get to show off their fancy uniform, and their expensive toys they bought to blow the Rags’ heads off, and take bets on the battles.”
“And the Rags?”
“The Rags think that the Blues’ wealth makes them obligated to help the poor. We’re all human beings just the same. No one’s got any right expecting anything from anyone else.”
“So you’re a Blue then?”
I shake my head. “But being rich doesn’t give you the right to step on people either. If you’re not gonna help, get out of the way.”
He nods, as if he’d put thought into it. And then he grimaces. “I can hear that lady all the way from here, screaming from her window, like that’ll end the stupid war. I wish they’d just—.”
“Blow her brains already? Me too.”
Madden’s eyes grow to the size of his head, as if to say he’s shocked. “I was gonna say put a sock in her.”
“It’s Addy Fisher,” I say. “She and my mom were friends, before she died.”
It was stupid. We’re in the middle of the bloodiest war on American soil in history, and she dies from heart failure. It was stupid. Unbelievable. A ridiculous way to die in times like these.
Bailey digs his fingernails into the side of my arm, and pulls me to the right, and forces me to run with him. Before I get the gall to ask him why, I look behind us to see the fading library down the road. Right above it flies the missile, set to take it out.
The missile crashes into the library, from the exact top center, and plunges into it, forcing the bricks and all its makings to cascade from the top down. At least that’s what I presume. The smoke came before the crash, and even before the sound of the explosion. The smoke took out the windows and filled the sky, and filled the surrounding land, coloring it mauvey-browns, and cloudy whites. The smoke rendered me frozen, until Bailey tugged me harder, forcing me to run again.
We’re far enough, but, we’re close enough. We’re close enough to smell it. We’re close enough to feel the trembling. We’re too far to feel the fire. They’re sending another one. Two.
“If you can see it, they already got you,” Bailey keeps mumbling to himself. And then he says it to me, and then he mumbles to himself.
“They’re trying to take out the surrounding area,” I tell him. I pull his arm, and I force him to keep going. I force him to go faster, when we hear the next explosion far but close behind us. I force him to keep breathing, when the smoke grows wide enough to cover us. I lose grip of him, when the third explosion hits, and a brick shoots into the back of my knee, taking me down. And then I don’t see anything because I close my eyes and hope through the delirium, closing them will be enough to kill me. But I hear Madden’s voice, telling me the show can’t go on without me. I’m the only violinist, on Earth. And for the sake of being able to play again, I open my eyes. It isn’t Bailey. And it isn’t day anymore. I’m wrapped in the arm of a Rag, beneath a dying sky.
The Rag holds his golden arm across my neck, and he holds a pistol to my head. He threatens the Blue across the street that he ain’t afraid, and that he’ll do it. And then he jerks me around, and I see Bailey, lying still on the ground. It was stupid. We were bombed, and it was a bullet that killed him. It’s a ridiculous way to die, in a circumstance like this. But I can’t help but weep.
“Shut up,” the Rag spits, jerking me again. “Come on Blue! One more step and I’ll —.”
“What?” I ask. “You’ll what, you’ll shoot me? I don’t even know that guy, what do you think he’s gonna do if you shoot me?”
“Shut up!” the Rag spits. “Come on Blue! Oh don’t get scared now, I got your boy!”
“What do you want?” I ask. “Money? You want wealth? What happens when you get it? You become just like him! You can’t hate someone, and want to be them, too. It doesn’t get to work like that!”
He nearly pulls the trigger, until I feel the splat of his brains against my cheek, and the back of my head, and he falls to the ground behind me. I turn around to see a Blue, holding a shot gun to his eye, before he sets it to his side. He nods to me, as if we’re the same. Slowly. I reach into my pockets, and I pull out my yellow cards. And I raise them to my ears, and hold them there, and feel my fingers tremble behind the paper. I look to Bailey, and I feel my heart tear open. I think of getting him. Dragging him to the venue, to know he’ll at least rest where he was most happy. But I don’t.
I drag my bad leg behind me, and water the jagged road with the memories of a good friend gone, all the way to the venue.
“You look like shit,” says the guy with half his hair pulled out of his head, and a swollen green eye, and a cut up lip. He got taken by the Blues last week, and they tortured him for fun, until it wasn’t anymore. Jasper taps his pen against his clipboard, four times, as he tries to figure out what to do with me. “Go get cleaned up, there’s an extra suit in room 4-o-3. Madden, I know you’re close, where is he?”
“Madden’s not coming,” I say, swallowing my heartbeat. “He isn’t, he—.”
Indifference. The indifference is worse than the gunshot. The indifference is worse than seeing it happen, right before your eyes. “That’s the third one this week!” Jasper cries. His face gets red with anger, but, he forces himself to breathe. “Fine, it’s fine, I’ll tell the other guy to get dressed. Well don’t just stand there, get changed!”
Indifference. It hurts the most when you realize, the indifference is a product of terrible things becoming the way things are, and will masquerade themselves as the way they always have been. When you forget that better, was once an achievable thing. And yet, I fall into it, all the same.
“It’s time for my set,” I say, trying to push past him.
“Honey, it’s been time,” Jasper says, setting his hand on my chest, pushing me back. “We’ve got your holo performing right now, it’s gonna be epic! Holo-you, opening for real you, no one’s gonna expect it!”
“Except anyone who’s been to a concert in the last eighty years,” I mutter. “Holograms have been relevant, since before the instruments went extinct.”
“I thought throwbacks were your brand,” Jasper says.
We’re not just numbers, I think to say to him. And I think to include that this is a real war, happening in real life. But I know he’ll tell me that I’m wrong. That we are just numbers, waiting our turn.
Jasper pushes me again towards the dressing room, and I limp the rest of the walk there. And I wonder whose side I’ll play for most tonight, when the holo decides he’s done. The Rags. The Blues. Or yellow cards, in waiting.