I had never seen the clean parts of the city before. The buildings stood tall before me like gleaming towers of gold and blue light, and fancy new cars hummed smoothly down the paved roads. Men in suits with briefcases rushed along sidewalks and across streets looking very businesslike and women in pretty dresses, some accompanied by their children, walked along in a radiance unknown to me all in the busyness of a beehive. I was dazzled by the glorious gleam of the city and treasured all before me with the adoration a child does upon receiving a brand new toy, box and sticker and all.

I tore my eyes from object to object, person to person so fast that I started to feel dizzy. That car was lollipop blue, that woman's face was like snow, that man was talking on the tiniest phone I'd ever seen until I saw another man talking to an even smaller phone which (until I saw the device around his head) made me think he was talking to himself. That boy was using what looked like an electronic book, but he had it on his lap the wrong way, and there were stands in the middle of the walk with hot, steaming food... My mouth watered as I inhaled the delicious scent of fresh hot dogs and mustard and before I knew it my feet had led me down walk toward the nearest stand. And then I remembered I had no money and felt highly discouraged.

I would not even be up here if not for Mariah's stories of the city streets and crowded subways and pretty clothes and economy. About how women's faces were perfect, and buildings were tall and new and sleek and made of glass; about the small cars with custom paint and leather interiors that don't let any noise from the inside outside; about the coldness and chill people had with one another. There was something about the atmosphere in this part of the city that seemed empty and impersonal. Even when I passed another Back Streeter I could do nothing but smile weakly and nod. They didn't even do that much, just stared with their dark eyes. I felt small.

I wanted to explore this place, read about it, learn about these people, these things, how to use them – not that I ever would – meet one of the pretty ladies and wear one of the dresses. Already I was creating fantasies about some rich man finding me on the street, taking pity on me and bringing me home with him where his wife would wash me and feed me and tuck me into bed like with her other children. And give me milk. How I longed for milk and honey, the rarest treat mama saved up for for Christmas. And I'd tell them about my mama and Jesse and we'd all live to become a larger family...I'd give some of my wealth to Samuel and Mariah...Joe and Sydney..

Again, the savory smell of the hot dogs hit my nose and I closed my eyes to walk away, but as soon as I turned and opened my eyes – I thought a miracle had occurred; there on the pavement was a dollar bill wedged into the crevices. I leapt onto it, feeling triumphant and proud when my dirty little fingers curled around the crumpled bill. My heart thumped wildly and my stomach growled for those hot dogs, so I stood and timidly walked over. At first, the large man glared at me with his bulging eyes and shooed me away, but then I showed him my bill, hand shaking, and he looked surprised. He smiled though and gave me a hot dog in a bun with ketchup and mustard and relish and I couldn't believe my eyes. I hungrily bit into the thing on the spot, watching the ground, feeling other people of all social statuses casting looks at me and the shyness I felt could have devoured me whole. Like I devoured my snack. I was so intent on keeping my head down and finishing my food quickly that when a hand clamped down on my shoulder I jumped. Sam's laughter met my ears and I looked up to see his smiling face.

"Here you are! What are you doing out here, Cass?" He asked with twinkling eyes. I felt myself flush, hoping he wouldn't notice it.

"I wa..I w..." The words wouldn't leave me. Sam gave me a precarious look and pointed up to the corner of his mouth. Knowing what the gesture meant, I reached up to wipe at my mouth with the back of my hand, leaving a smear of ketchup on my dirty skin. He walked over to the man at the food cart and asked for a napkin. I heard him snap at him using words I didn't understand before he came back. I quickly wiped my face and hand with the paper.

"What are you doing out here, Cass?" he repeated, squatting down in front of me and straightening my skirt. I shrugged and continued to eat my hot dog. He eyed it greedily, but didn't make to take or anything. "Where did you get the moolah for that? I know those greedy food cart guys don't give nothing for nothing."

I swallowed. "I found some money."

"Did you, now? Fallen or something?" I nodded. "You're a lucky gal, Cassidy," he told me, smiling again. "But you know, you shouldn't be up here. People don't like us."

"Why not?"

"It's tricky. But never you mind, we just need to get back home. Jesse was worried when he looked for you this morning and couldn't find ya. I'm sure you could imagine your mother's reaction." He stood straight, taking my clean hand. I was still bites away from finishing my hot dog, so I walked slowly at his side. People kept watching us, limiting their glances to only a few seconds at a time. I wondered why.


My excursion into the upper city was a short one, but it made for a fabulous tale. I stretched the details to make my trip seem lengthier, stressing and using hand motions to dazzle my brother and his friends. They stared at me with wide eyes, waiting for each next word with maddening impatience. I wished I could somehow let them see what I saw, let them really experience it. None of them had ever seen the upper city before. We were real Back Streeters. Born into the life and living happily in the life. Even my mama was born a Back Streeter, and her mama was an immigrant from Asia, she said. The ultimate low of the society was our home, and we had our own comfortable haven even if all we got to eat was thrown-away packages of muddy chips and maybe nothing at all. On rare occasions, we might find some marshmallows to toast (that sometimes tasted uniquely of onion) and on others some of us found dropped money in the streets, but we used it for ourselves. I saved my miracle from the boys so I wouldn't have them envy me. Even Mariah joined them eventually, and though she was at least eighteen, she stared with the same childishly awed expression.

It left them all in a frenzy of excited murmuring and arguing.

"See? I told you there were phones as small as your palm!"

"I can't believe that a woman's face could really be that pale!"

"How exactly didja get upp'ere?"

"Next time just tell me, okay?" muttered Jesse. He still looked thoroughly impressed, but his eyes were worried. Jesse would make a great husband, some day, I mused. He worried just the right amount and forgave just the right amount and appreciated just the right amount. I smiled at him and patted his head.

"Sorry, Jess. I couldn't help myself. I'll take you next time, alright?" I offered the consolation and he seemed slightly appeased. Enough so to snatch the ball at his feet, thus stealing his playmates' attentions and they all bounced away with cheerful calls to play a game. Mariah was the only one who remained, and she was smiling as she always did. I felt shy under her sharp, but kind gaze. Unless I was much mistaken, she looked a little reproachful.

"So you do pay attention to me," she teased.

"I always pay attention to you!"

She laughed and stood up. "Sounds like you had quite and adventure. Why did you go up there, Cassidy? I know it was beautiful and exciting, but you really shouldn't. People don't like us, hun."

Again, that infernal but apparent claim. Mariah took my hand and we started walking down the alley. Around us were our neighbors talking and keeping warm, talking and playing idly or fixing things, talking and making themselves inconspicuous. Talk was our favorite past time. Several people were fortunate enough to have started small fires or were using the fiery Drug, so that smoke tickled my nose.

"Why do people hate us, Mariah?" I asked, squinting as I tried to comprehend the reason. "Because we don't have pretty cars or new clothes?"

"That's exactly right, Cassidy." Mariah's voice was solid, hard like brick. "No one likes that we're different, that we're not pretty. They like clean and proper... I think part of the reason is that we don't have showers daily." And she displayed her long fingers which were a mottled ashy brown and light tan. I knew under that tan was a porcelain like the women up on the clean city. I'd seen pictures of her when she was my age.

"We do!" I piped up. "Jesse and I do. Mama makes sure that we get cleaned once a week!"

Mariah laughed again, her pretty, airy laugh. "Your mama is a good person, and she's smarter and luckier than the rest of us."

I stared down nervously at my feet as we passed under a line of drying laundry. "She's sick."

"Aye, chica, she's sick. She'll get better!" Mariah stopped us in our tracks, just so that the sun greeted her eyes and made them shine like emeralds. "God knows which people are good and he takes care of the good people. Like us, for example. We may be poor, but we're just as happy as if we had feasts every week and fancy clothes and warm beds."

I has to smile at her.

"Just do your mama a favor and don't go back up there again? She gets worried about you."

"Already done retelling your story, Cassidy?"

I looked over at Samuel and smiled at him. "Yeah. Everyone loved it. I wished they could have seen..." I told him, but he looked a bit preoccupied with Mariah. So I ran away from them, knowing they wanted to be alone.


From then on, I was banned from the clean city. It was a sad thought, but I lived with, knowing that one day I'd back up there. My daydreams of being picked up by a rich man and his wife had dissolved into Mariah's repeat of Sam's words: "People don't like us." Why? Because we didn't have what they had? I'd been educated about racism and prejudices, but I thought most of it had just been a puzzle, an old photograph fuzzy on the edges and faded with an aged tint. I wished I could meet one of them, one of the Pretty People as I'd come to know them by, I wished I could ask them about their lives and themselves. I wished I could really learn why they didn't like us. What for. So I could fix it and discuss it with them and tell them they had no reason to.

I ended up creating new fantasies, and they drifted from being a popular leader of our community to my becoming known throughout the clean city as a wealthy woman who scraped her way up the social ladder from absolutely nothing. I liked thinking about these fantasies from the top room on the west side of the old factory. The window of the room was broken, shards of dangerous glass poking out like flat, clear, jagged flames. This was my room. My personal room, no one else's. People fought over the other places of the house, and even once or twice I'd had intruders in here, but this was all mine, and the sky and sun and moon and city before it. My personal items from the moment I stepped into the room to the moment I left. Presently the sky was a dazzling mix of honey gold and orange and rose and indigo. The moon peeked up over the burning sun, waiting for its chance to shine. I couldn't wait for its chance, either; I loved the night.

During the night our streets came alive. Colorful electric lights are hung everywhere and fires show up better and someone is always playing a radio while others enjoy the blissful feeling the Drug through their veins. I loved it all, but most of all I loved being part of it. I loved being old enough to have what the adults had. I've had beer and whiskey and just recently I'd learn to try the Drug. I was excited for more.

Samuel said it was really bad for me, and I wasn't to take it often or it would kill me. Mariah said it would kill me anyway. I thought she was just trying really hard to keep me a little girl forever. But I had grown up. The week-long bleeding once a month was proof. And that started last year.

I was running excitedly through the streets, the sun nothing but a little glimmer sitting in a red line over the horizon while the moon was high already and mirroring the color in a paler hue. My senses dazzled me. Beneath my bare, calloused feet was the dirty road specked with tiny bits of glass in some places, splayed in tatami mats in others, a ball constantly hitting up against the curve of my foot. I smelled delicious things, disgusting things, smoky things and sweet things, and I hear the clatter of talk and what Sydney called reggae. The loudest sound of them and that which I was most conscious of was the happy call of "Come back here!" or "Pass to me, Cassidy!" as I played with the boys and their ball. I passed to Jesse, his curls flopping in the wind and some catching between his teeth as he laughed. We skirted past Sydney and Samuel and old Mr. Calendar, their faces darkened and greased by the dark smoke coming from something each of them were holding. I faltered as Mariah joined them, and they laughed together at something they said, but suddenly their air grew serious again and their faces hard.

"...heard that they want to tear the city down. Says its production of E.D. Is endangering the health of the world," said Mr. Calendar, words punctuated by a harsh cough. "You should see the fish from the local seaport, though. Cut the things open and their blood is like ink."

Sydney shook her head, frizzy hair bouncing. "I don't know how tearing the city down is going to help. E.D. Is too important to our society for it to stop being produced. Someone else will take it up."

"I agree," said Samuel, "but I wouldn't bother trying to reason with that. That just gives them an excuse to fire openly on us. And then they might not even listen. Terrorists are called what they are for a reason. I think they think if they maybe scare us out of doing it..."

Mr. Calendar snorted. "Fat chance. But maybe...I mean, if our seafood supply ceases to come in any more from the local ports, that's just the start of an uprooting. Where will people go then for their fish? They'll take from other seas and overfish the world out of its seafood! The Eastern countries wouldn't be too pleased with that. I say cut the trouble off at the source." He coughed again.

Sydney scowled, dark eyes narrowing through the smoky haze. "You're not supporting the terrorism, are you?"

"Of course not. I'm speaking from an unbiased angle."

I watched Mariah closely, waiting for her to say something though she never did, looking skeptical the whole time. I didn't understand a word of what they were saying. I didn't pay attention to the news, I didn't have a large enough vocabulary to read a newspaper and understand it fully, so how could I? What was E.D.? Who wanted to tear down what city? My city?

Mr. Calendar looked sadly down at his blackened palm. "I just hope this stuff kills me before anyone starts bombing anyone else."

"I heard they're trying to make a cure," Mariah finally said.

"I doubt they will within the next decade. It was like with the trouble with AIDs..."

Mariah didn't look troubled at Samuel's words. "They got it eventually, though, right? People have been donating money..."

"For what?"

"Equipment? Testing?"

"I have no idea, but we have to have faith..."


Jesse was panting before me, ball under his arm. The boys behind him kept their distance, keeping respect for the older people around. I smiled at him and averted my eyes from Mariah's. "Nothing, Jesse. Can I stop playing for a while? I'll join again soon, I promise."

Jesse nodded at me and he and the others ran off, kicking the ball to one another again. I timidly walked around the edge of the small circle of people until I reached Mariah's side. I was inconspicuous enough for no one to notice me unless they looked directly at me, which none of them did, but Mariah already knew I was there. She put her hand to my head and stroked my hair like a mother does, or an older sister, and carefully passed me some of the Drug. I took it anxiously, remembering how to use it, and then I did. It burned my nose and scorched my throat, leaving that unfamiliar but pleasing smoky-sweet taste on my tongue that went away quickly and left my mouth numb. I felt like I was floating.

And, as it had been last time, the rest of the night was more of a dream than anything else. I laughed and spoke of things I didn't understand, and other people did the same with me. Lights blurred and lefts streamers when I turned, and people's words jumbled in their mouths or in my ears, so they were talking utter nonsense. And then they took the beer out...