Shadows bloom across the muraled walls and spill like ink onto the floorboards, seeping into the seemingly thirsty mahogany and filling the whole place with gloom. Small golden lights at frequent intervals on the walls do little to light the grand old manor. The only noises to be heard are the distant clangs of the cleaners and the steady footfalls of night guards. The day’s employs have long since cleared out of the reconstituted atrium which spans several floors and is still draped with lavish standards and banners, towered over by a decrepit chandelier that sways weakly over all the floors of geometric paintings and the arrays of unused furniture of silver and glass.
In one still corner on the first floor of the atrium, a guard circles the room, checking door locks and flashing his belt-clipped torch around arbitrarily. The gritty polymer of his boots pads softly as he moves away into the velvet darkness of a hallway leading elsewhere in the building. After a span of heartbeats, a low whistle sounds out of the darkness, and with a blur of motion, two small figures materialize from their hiding places in the guard’s wake. I join them, emerging from under the exquisite love seat that’s been sheltering me.
“Is that it?” came a tense whisper. One of the figures gestures at an ancient, stained grand piano, gilded with brass and blanketed with a layer of slowly rising dust. I recognize Mitch’s voice: clipped, world-weary, constantly hoarse. He sounds older than he should. I try to remember how old he should sound. I think he’s twelve.
“Yep,” comes the reply, this time a girl. Ash. “Help me out guys.”
The three of us converge on the instrument and begin to roll it toward the exit of the manor. The great rotating doors, ever-spinning during the day, are frozen in place at night by security. Mitch slinks to the doors and inspects the latch that holds them closed. After a moment, he draws a piece of copper wire from within the latch and gives a yank. A spark jumps into existence for a moment, and then the doors begin to rotate. We hurriedly pushed the piano through the doors and out of the manor.
We emerge not onto the street, but onto the rooftops of a vast network of buildings. Cities haven’t had streets since before the seas rose, back when people lived on land and farmed and had countries. Now the vast, reaching skyscrapers are connected by bridges and junctions and gondolas. Bright pulses of neon lights shine out everywhere. Billboards flash the news, the current freshwater rations, designer clothing ads, adjustments to curfew, the newest restaurant openings.
I watch Ash as she steps away from the piano and takes a deep breath of the high, briny air, stretching her arms above her head. In the glow of the vibrant city lights, the first thing I think when I look at her is the word “bones”. More are visible every day. I can see ridges pressing out from her threadbare clothes, and I know that Mitch and I are in a bad way as well. We’ve never actually worried about starving; we have been courting starvation since we were born, and we’ve always found enough food to survive. Growing up scrounging on the destitute rooftops of the city’s slums has left the three of us clever and maybe a little jaded. But sometimes wits aren’t enough to fill your belly, and often we go hungry. But things were never as bad as now. And seeing Ash in such a state, an unfamiliar feeling roots itself under my skin. It feels like what Mitch describes when he whispers to me about Ash when she’s out of earshot.
I feel a pang of guilt for allowing myself to feel anything for Ash. I cast a sidelong glance at Mitch. Mitch, who has sacrificed so much for us lately. I eye the hand Mitchell holds to his abdomen; the thin split down the front of his stomach is still so fresh it pulses to his heartbeat. It is expertly hidden in the seam of his abdominal muscles and sewn tightly shut by Ash’s experienced hands. The only thing that betrays the scar’s presence is its pink discoloration and the little peak of raised flesh at the bottom of Mitch’s navel.
He is still weak from the knife wound, and I know he hates to appear weak in front of Ash. We tried to steal meat from a butcher two weeks ago, and it cost Mitchell dearly, but it fed us for days. We haven’t eaten since. This piano is our next meal ticket. It’s going to a black market collector with more money than anybody in the city needs, and access to more than enough food to feed three diminutive urchins.
My eyes trail upward, and I see the way Mitch looks at Ash. Yearning but reserved. I know him too well. Well enough to know he’ll never make a move. My guilt intensifies.
That’s why I lie. The next morning. Once we’ve finally carted the piano to the collector’s loft. Once we’re in the kitchen of his hotel building, pockets lined with money, gorging ourselves with more food than we’ve ever had in one sitting. Ash tells me how thankful she is that I had the piano idea. That’s when I tell her it wasn’t me. Mitch has never been the idea guy, and Ash’s eyes widen with realization before she flies to him and wraps her arms around him. I start to worry she’ll break his ribs, she’s squeezing so hard. I allow myself a humorless smile when they aren’t looking. But I have a full stomach, and Mitch is happy. And that’s enough.