I wrote this for a contest over the summer. The prompt was centering the story around a city and I chose Detroit. Reviews appreciated; please enjoy!
I am dying. I am empty, soulless windows looking down on broken streets. I am industry amok, wraiths of former glory rustling in the gutter. I am old blood on the pavement, never released, no matter how clean I have been scrubbed. I am grit and poverty and crying children locked in the apartment while Mommy goes to see her dealer to get enough Alice to make it through another week. The click and cold of a gun barrel and a man in a mask breathing threats, gone like smoke before the cops arrive.
I am dying.
Three miles north of Eight Mile, Tykera's eyes snap open.
Today Tykera has an eleven-hour shift at work. It's a bit more than her everyday load, but not terrible. To be honest she wishes she could have the opportunity more often, but the chances for taking on extra hours have gone down ever since her KFC has stopped being short-staffed. They have a new girl now, from a mile or so north.
North. Cold. Like playing that game as children, hot and cold, you're warmer, you're warmer…no, further away. Cold. The world's axis is to the south, but a lot closer than everyone else knows.
She pulls up black hair in front of the mirror, looks into deep brown eyes lacking makeup. Her mother has always said that her skin is beautiful, a careful, smooth brown. She thinks it's just the cheekbones; the skin itself is nothing. It feels harsh to her, even. She pulls on long, thin black pants that crease strangely in the middle, and a red shirt that smells strongly of cooking oil, despite being freshly washed. The pants are beginning to feel slightly tight, and she wonders what company policy is on this sort of thing. It's not as if it's her fault, after all. Not directly.
It takes her a few minutes before she finds her glaring red hat under a pizza box. She unpins her nametag from the front and sticks it in her shirt, where it hangs lopsidedly above her heart. She finds black shoes clouded with flour and dust by the front door.
"I'm leaving," she calls without looking back. She doesn't know whether or not Tristan has an early shift, but if he does he's not here, and if he doesn't, he's probably sleeping anyway. She grabs her coat, steps out the door and into the apartment hallway, then is down the elevator and on the sidewalk. It's a bit windy today, but luckily it hasn't yet started to snow. When they scrounge together the money for a car it shouldn't be so bad, but until then she lives with slightly-bated breath in anticipation of obstructive yet tantalizing flurries of white.
It's during the busy dinner hour when they come in, so she doesn't notice them until she's finished taking their orders. Her manager keeps telling her that she needs to look up when talking to customers, but she had no idea that it was a self-preservation method. When she does glance up, she freezes for a moment and fumbles with their change. Tyrone just smiles that lazy smirk of his, while Amber raises her eyebrows, her full lips flat and inexpressive. Five dollar bill, one, one, quarter, dime, dime, penny.
"Seven-forty-six-your-change," she says quickly, passing out the money without further comment.
Tyrone takes it with a loud, "Where you been, 'Kera?" and she winces.
Amber slaps him on the shoulder, and her jolt-blue earrings swing in time. "She been livin' up here. Where you been?" It sounds like a joke, but Amber's black-lined eyes are not amused, the winged tips making her resemble some sort of slinking cat.
Tyrone shakes his head. "I damn forgot. You still livin' with Trisha?"
"Tristan," she corrects automatically. It was always just their little joke, but she remembers that too late and by then it would be more awkward to linger, so she says, "Sorry, can you move over? I got a line."
Amber snorts. "No time for the old crowd, huh? You movin' up?" Her eyes seek Tykera's out, but she's already caught up in "Hi-can-I-help-you" for the elderly gentleman behind them. Amber's long nails click sharply against the counter, and then she's gone.
When the employees go out for smoke break, they leave by the side door. This is the exit facing the rumbling roar of the freeway, and the exit facing south. Tykera takes a long drag and watches the cars speed by on the service drive, some of them dipping down below to the I-696 to destinations unknown. Cars move at a slightly slower pace down Hoover, crossing over the interstate. Moving north, moving south. In or out.
She hears the door close behind her and turns to see Evan, already lighting his own. He sees in that thorough, disinterested way he has, gray-blue eyes sweeping across her face and to the freeway. They stand in companionable silence for a moment or two as he comes up to watch besides her, smoke twining and dissipating, snatched away by the chilly air.
"You shouldn't be smoking," he says conversationally.
She sighs. "An' you shouldn't be on break while I am."
"I'm a cook, it doesn't count. But I'm serious. D'you wanna doom the baby before it has a chance?"
"No!" she says, more sharply than she intended, and he turns his slow gaze back to her. "I mean…no, I don't, but I gotta get off it slowly." Shifting her weight from one foot to the other, she goes back to watching cars.
She can feel Evan's skeptical eyes still on her, a pressure against her skin. "…How old are you?"
She doesn't look at him, but her voice is unapologetic. "Nineteen."
More silence follows, and she clutches the cigarette in her teeth so she can jam her hands in her pockets. Colder every day.
When Tristan comes home, he's carrying a bottle.
He catches Tykera's wary glance and smiles. "Naw, I jus' thought we could share some."
She nods and goes to the kitchen, but it's hesitant and slow. He flops himself down on the sinking sofa and sighs. "'Kera…it ain't evil."
"I know," she says, clattering dishes around looking for a couple of clean cups.
"It's about what you do with it, y'know? I ain't…" He trails off, and Tykera decides that they'll have to use the two good glasses. She comes in and deposits them on the low, scratched table.
"Nothin.' Just ain't like your daddy, is all."
Tykera snorts and sinks onto the sofa besides him. She takes the bottle from him and begins to pour. "You think I don' know that?"
Tristan is silent, hunched over with his elbows on his lap, broad shoulders muscling through his shirt. He's been moving boxes a lot lately.
By the time she puts down the bottle she feels terrible. She ducks her head down and smirks up at him, just the tiniest quirk of her lips, and wraps her arms around his neck. She kisses him, first on the cheek, then the chin, then the soft brown lips, where she lingers for a moment extra before pulling her face away to speak. "I know that. 'M sorry."
Tristan gives her a small smile, and it hits her all over again that this man left everything for her, when he just as easily could have left her. She wonders at how, after all this time, he can still make her heart catch and her breath freeze in her throat. But there are bags under his eyes, and he looks so tired. She would kiss those too, if she didn't think it would make him feel self-conscious. So she unwraps herself from him and takes a sip, cheap wine filling her mouth like sanity.
He laughs. "We dining rich tonight."
The next morning, there is news of a shootout. South, in the heart of the beast. Measured in miles, it is four away from the KFC. Measured in Tykera's heart-lengths, there is an ocean in between, in the form of a great freeway dug out in the ground where the cars go whizzing by. They are talking about it at work, wondering idly if they should lock up early tonight. Tykera doesn't understand. They are not in the city. The beast can't cross the chasm. They are safe. She is safe now.
The cars howl by, and she remembers Hoover, bridging over the gap. Letting the city escape.
Evan shakes his head, his smoke drifting ineffectually towards the barrier. "It keeps getting worse down there."
She lets her eyes go out of focus, taking in the telephone wires, the patches of grass on both sides of the highway. It's going to take a lot more than a physical barrier to keep the thing back.
"I know." She glances at her cigarette, then drops it, grinding it into the unforgiving pavement with her foot.
Evan looks down at the mess, than to her face. "You used to live there."
She crosses her arms against the wind. "Yeah. In a real bad part."
She expects him to let them sink into their trademark silence, but there is no smoke slow dancing in her lungs this time, so naturally other things would go differently, too.
"It can be saved, you know."
"The city. There are ways. Plans that the president has, or a city planner, or…different people. But they never commit. No one does, because they think it's lost." Evan is watching her again. "So do you."
Tykera shrugs. "Some parts is better than others."
"And your part?"
She rubs her hands together. "My part was the goddamn antichrist. But you know the funny thing," she finds herself chuckling, sudden but weak. She doesn't cough on Evan's smoke. "I seen pictures. My gramma's old apartment, before it was condemned. Beautiful."
Evan smiles, small and wistful into the air as if he sees it too. "The whole city was, once. And so much history – you know that's my major? History?"
"Yeah," she says, and she lets him tell her about the history of Detroit, the bold dream engines of Henry Ford, glory of rushing machinery drawing the tired and the poor. Motown nights and cultured days at the museum, Diego Rivera painting a mural on the walls. A tribute, he had said, to the people of Detroit. Farmers, factory workers, all: white, black, Latino, beautiful people with steady hands and human eyes staring out through the paint.
And then there was terror. Men and women of color, beaten down for far too long, rising up to take the city and tear it apart with their bare hands. Screaming, breaking buildings and bones, smashed windows and blood on the streets. Fire, riot gear, police and civilian brutality alike. People ran as though the beast would chase them, fled to the suburbs if they could afford it, leaving the others there to rot.
And desolation remained, festered like a sore until it bubbled over into black.
When Evan is finished, Tykera's break is far over, but she doesn't go inside. All she can think about is her grandmother's distant, white-webbed eyes, and her father's drunken leer.
When Tristan gets home that night, she smothers him in a hug and buries her face in his neck.
The next day she walks into a small building on the edge of Nine Mile, breathing in something like dust. It's the closest she's gotten to the heart of the city since she was seventeen years old. The last time she had been around here she hadn't dressed as humbly as she did today, a loose-fitting white T-shirt and jeans hanging simply but elegantly against her skin. A faded old blue coat. She clutches her purse like a safety blanket.
A middle-aged woman sits behind the whitewashed desk, paging idly through a [i]Cosmo.[/i] Tykera approaches nervously, already fumbling through her bag.
The woman glances up. "Volunteer?"
Tykera pauses and raises her eyes. She visited the Detroit Institute of Arts today, saw the small, shining room that hosted the old walls of Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry. Humans of glowing hot color, spinning around and around the walls. Hope.
She pulls out her small resume and shuffles the papers into a neat little pile. There's some after-school tutoring in there, and babysitting. It's not much, but it's something. A start.
"Yeah. That's me."
The city is a beast. It is feral and wild and uncontrollable in the night ink. It is wounded, lashing out in what aren't quite death throes. But it has a heart, and something is piercing it deep.
Someone has to go back in and pull it out.
She puts the papers on the desk. Outside the window, it's starting to snow.