The city is immersed in color, dip-dyed in a swath of mist that taints everything pastel. Above, the Sun sinks its light into the teeth of the skyline and sends long shadows over the city. I watch as lights flicker on and off in the building across from my apartment, shivering from the brutal winds that descend on this rooftop around five pm. Soon, the Sun will slip below the horizon and the colors I see darting through the streets will become a monochrome haze of smog. Anbar will find me then.
As I wait, the wind whips through the layers I’m wearing. Ritchy’s sweater hangs heavy from my shoulders, his scent thick in my nose. I almost regret wearing it out today. With nothing better to do, I water Anbar’s plants. They grow in droves, reaching upwards as if to pull me into the soil I’ve rooted them in. Lights lift off of their leaves and surround me, blinking like fireflies for a few minutes before winking out of existence. I’ll have to pull out the glowing mushrooms threading their way through Anbar’s herbs and flowers later.
I’d always planned on bringing Ritchy up here someday. I’d imagined him seated on the edge of the roof with me, legs swinging beneath us. I think he could’ve brought his guitar or his ukulele or his flute, any one of the many instruments he loved so dearly. I think we could’ve had a fairly good evening and maybe he’d have believed me when I told him the smog that hangs over us is cotton candy and that he’s worth every penny any person’s ever stumbled on. Ritchy’s always been made of luck.
I guess, sometime along the way, we both ran out.
The sky looks like rain so I water the plants lightly before taking a seat on the edge of the roof. The cold of the stone sinks into my skin but I don’t mind it because Anbar should be here soon. I check my watch. 5:30.
A ruffle of feathers and the sound of Anbar cutting through the wind currents reaches my ears. He descends slowly, cautiously, before settling beside me. It’s good to not be alone. I lean against him, letting him shuffle closer and cover me in one enormous inky black wing. With Anbar’s feathers sheltering me, the wind is tolerable and the light of the Sun is concealed.
“Ritchy is leaving,” I say. Distant. Distance. It stretches out and out. A single silver thread pulls at me and I know where it leads. I close my eyes and bury my face into Anbar’s side, imagining I can distinguish between every soft downy feather pressed into my cheek. In my mind’s eye, I can map the path the silver thread is travelling. It twists around alleys and corners, reaches through doors, and travels up stairs to reach Ritchy, packing up to leave forever. I worry that he’ll go so far, the silver thread will break.
“Leaving to where?”
I open my eyes. Anbar and I have talked about this before but I guess a bird doesn’t have much room in his head for politics and international affairs.
“He’s been conscripted,” I breathe. The Sun has fled, taking with it all color and light. “He leaves tomorrow morning.”
Anbar’s chirps are a rumble in his chest. “Will you see him off at the train tomorrow?”
Beneath us, the smog rises, choking out all the colors I’d seen in the air before. The lights of a city I can only imagine is made of ash and dust are obscured by the darkness creeping upwards. I feel small. Alone. For the thousandth time, I wonder, only for a passing moment, if anything I see is real. If Anbar is even here.
Who will I have left when Ritchy is gone?
My heart squeezes painfully to think about it. The wind licks at my cheeks through Anbar’s feathers. Belatedly, I raise my fingers to my cheeks and taste salt where there was none before.
“Well?” Anbar prompts, lifting his wing slightly before settling it back down over me as if to prod me for an answer.
My voice is hoarse.
“I don’t know.”
We always hike back from school, taking a twisting and meandering route that turns a fifteen minute bike ride into an hour stroll. The spokes of our bikes turn by our ankles, pinwheels trapping glass window depictions of the world around us. I never mention the things I see to Ritchy, the way he looks distorted and pulled into curved shapes when we walk through curtains of bubbles or how I’m never lost because lights are always pointing me home. Instead, I let him ramble about his classes, his favorite teachers, his friends. I like listening to Ritchy talk almost as much as I like to listen to his music. Sometimes I tell him about the other things I see, the things he can see too: the flowers in the flagstones and the colors of the sky that morning, how the city looks from my rooftop seat.
He’s got the kind of voice that begs listening to and the kind of eyes that compel confessing to so we pass our hours in his room spooling out music and conversation and the silver thread connecting us winds brighter and brighter with every moment. I don’t tell him about the things that connect us or the colors that leak from him: all teals and sea greens.
Today, when I stare up at him from the thick carpet, I think to myself that he is my favorite color. He sings and the color lifts off his shoulders, fills the room in a cloud. This is his homework. Practice. Compose. Rest. Repeat. This is his life. He was born to create as much as I was born to be an audience.
When I’m nearly lulled into sleep, Ritchy stops playing and leans over me, blinking at me owlishly from behind the large frames of his glasses. “You could be a drummer, Ellie.”
I huff once, my bangs fluttering upwards and flopping over my head.
“I’m not letting you rope me into music. That’s your thing and I’m perfectly fine with that. Don’t you have enough musicians for friends?”
He eases off of his bed and pulls me up into a sitting position so that we’re seated side by side with our heads against the side of his mattress. I tug on one of his sweaters. It gets cold in his room so quickly.
“Imagine it, Ellie. You on the drums: my tempo, a musician’s lifeline. Me on the guitar. We just need a bassist and a singer and we’ve got a whole band.”
I try to picture it. I really do. But all I can see are the colors floating off of Ritchy dripping into my clothes and staining me.
“I’m not a musician.”
For once, Ritchy doesn’t push it, but instead reaches up and grabs his guitar. He places it into my arms. “Maybe you could try to be a guitarist? When I’m gone?”
I jerk away from him, the guitar nearly slipping from my grip.
“When you’re gone…?” I echo and I can hear the confusion in my own voice, can see myself staring at him wide-eyed and afraid. He looks sheepish, like a child caught stealing from the cookie jar.
“I- I don’t know how to say it…” he mutters. I shove the guitar into his arms and scramble to my feet. His desk is a mess, as usual. Rejected compositions litter the floor around it and homework is stacked in the corner, forgotten or ignored or a mixture of both. It’s sitting there in the center of the desk atop the pile of paper. Its seal is already broken. My fingers trace the stamp of the government. Its swoops and dives bring a knot to my throat as I remember seeing this resting on my dining table years ago. The wax crumbles beneath my touch in some places.
“But- but you’re a musician,” I say. Artists shouldn’t be conscripted. Musicians shouldn’t be stolen. The words ring hollow in my throat. I am two people in this moment: one staring down at the conscription that will call my closest friend away and the other in the doorway, watching on as the world crumbles. Ritchy slips behind me and offers me a tissue. I guess I’m crying now.
“It’ll be alright. Hey. You’ll be alright.”
A jolt races through me: a combination of shock and anger. Ritchy is a swath of blues, an ocean that could calm me with a single touch, so I step back, away from his reach, and the desk’s edge presses into my back. I let the shards of blacks and greys shoot upwards from within me. He doesn’t see the colors I do, can’t see the world the way I do, but he flinches back as if the torrent swirling within me is tangible.
“I’ll be alright?” I cry out, “What about you?”
“I’ll bring my flute. I’ll write to you. Please don’t be too upset, Ellie. Lots of people get conscripted.”
I am in two places. I stand in the doorway, stunned and still as an earthquake breaks the ground. I stand in front of Ritchy, staring up into his wide wide eyes begging me to be alright. My legs are shaky and I collapse to the floor. Ritchy is going off to war. Ritchy’s been conscripted. One of his many dismissed compositions sit a foot away from me at the base of his desk, the beginning of the song scribbled on it is cut off before it was ever completed. His handwriting is terrible and his lines aren’t even straight despite how often he draws lines on spare paper when inspiration strikes.
“You can’t die, Ritchy. You hear me? You can’t die.” The voice does not sound like my own but it speaks the truth.
“Yeah, Ellie. I thought you’d say that.”
He presses his guitar back into my arms. “Could you take care of my instruments for me while I’m gone? Maybe even ask Maylla for some help?”
I know I don’t have to say it but I say it anyways, “I don’t even know Maylla. She’s your friend, not mine.”
We sit together on the floor, side by side once more. As soon as his shoulder brushes mine, his colors seep into me and I want to believe Ritchy when he says that everything will be alright. It can’t be true though because I can already feel how Ritchy’s absence will pull on my heart and hurt. Who will I be when I’m alone? Who will Ritchy be when he is away from everything that makes him him?
“She could be your friend too. You could make more friends,” Ritchy says, too concerned with how I will be to be concerned for himself. It worked out for Ritchy when he let his parents push him into music school. It worked out for Ritchy when Maylla dragged him into school clubs. I can’t imagine how it will work out now that he is being pulled away into the army, but it is plain in the way he insists on teaching me how to play the guitar that he is worried about me.
The me in the doorway and the me in the real world quietly merge and make our peace with this reality. I can’t have Ritchy worrying about me.
I smile. “Yeah, maybe I can make more friends.” A lie.
For the rest of the evening, Ritchy teaches me how to play basic chords on the guitar and I try my hardest to memorize the color of him.
“You should see him off,” Anbar says. “I see my friends off in the winter when they migrate.”
“What would you know about friendship?”
Anbar fixes me with a piercing stare from one eye, tilting his head to examine me more closely. My image is reflected in his dark eye, framed by the moonlight cutting through the clouds.
“As much as the next raven, Minnie. Birds of a feather must stick together and you and I are of the same stone.”
“I don’t want to see him go.”
I see him off. His other friends are there so I hang in the background, avoiding interaction with the friends I’ve heard so much of. I’ve probably learned more than they’d ever want me to know, but I still don’t know them. I don’t really care to either. I’m perfectly willing to stay in the back of the crowd of people here to bid farewell to Ritchy, studying the golden whorls in the ground. I’m perfectly willing to be a face in the crowd of supporters who will miss Ritchy when he’s gone.
But Ritchy breaks through before he leaves. He always finds me. We’ve always found each other.
He smiles down at me, all warmth and greens swimming into blues, and the sun rising above the rooftops. With Ritchy, I know I’m not a blue sky of a background. You’re my most interesting friend, he says. I am the Sun and Ritchy is a sunflower, tall and bright and beautiful. He is the Earth and I am the Moon, compelled to follow and circle this blue, blue dot. I’ll miss his smile. Perhaps it will be another thing to mourn.
“Please, don’t be sad,” he says. “We’ll see each other again. I promise.”
It’s a promise I know he may not keep.
“I won’t miss you,” I declare, raising my chin as if to dare him to challenge me.
“I love you too, Ellie. There’s so much more I could say but,” he pulls me into a hug and I don’t let myself cry, “what good would it do if we both understand?”
“Write to me, won’t you?” I whisper, voice hoarse and weak. It’s for the best if I forget Ritchy as soon as he walks onto that train towards death but a part of me is clawing for this silver strand connecting us to remain alive. Who will I be when I am alone?
Ritchy pulls away first, so much braver than me. He’s either foolish enough or smart enough not to protest when he’s ushered onto the train. I am desperate enough to wish he’d never go. There is tension in his grip on his suitcase and the look in his eyes. Ritchy is afraid. Maybe even more than I am. Only the insane wouldn’t be.
“Will you miss him?” Anbar asks, always needling at me, always coaxing truths from me that I cannot ignore.
“Where will you go now?”
I cannot sleep the day Ritchy leaves. Something in me becomes twisted with anxiety and fear. Colors leak away and I dream in black and white. I wake up in the night with a pounding head and kick the sheets off of me. Sweat coats my skin and the heat of the house is oppressive. I stumble to the bathroom across the hall. My throat is burning. My eyes are glued shut. Hungrily, I gulp down water from the faucet before dropping to the ground and curling into myself. When I manage to open my eyes, the heat makes sense. Everything clicks into place in an instant when I am confronted by the white hot flames licking up the walls and reaching for me. Everything is burning. The smoke is choking me. The darkness is receding.
Panic sets into my skin, a lightning strike in a thunderstorm. My mom is asleep in her room and I can’t reach her. The doorknob singes my hands and sends me reeling backwards. Bathroom products clatter to the floor as I crash into the counter. I collapse against the window we cover with a curtain and the cold of the glass panel bites into me. The cool night air outside is a promise.
I turn and wrench the curtains off their rails. My hands shake as they fumble with the latch. I struggle to turn it once. Twice. It flips over with a click. My head is still aching, screaming really. Tears leak from my eyes in my body’s last ditch effort to protect me from the smoke. I am dying.
The window swings open violently. Its shutters slam against the wall and the night air rushes in. Outside, the whole world is on fire. It is blindingly bright, a storm of yellows and whites that I cannot look directly at. It is as if we have been taken to the surface of the Sun. I know, with sinking certainty, that this is the end of the world. And yet. Something is off. Uncertainty curls at the base of my ribcage. I blink and then, just like that, the heat is gone. The streets below are once again dark with smog like I saw them when I sat with Anbar yesterday evening. My hands are clear of any blisters or burns. Behind me, the bathroom is in shambles, but no ash or smoke rises from the remains of the disaster that swept through this room.
I sink to the floor and take in the disarray: the torn curtain, the face cream beside the toothpaste on the tiles. It was me. Only me. Chills run up and down my arms. The cold consumes me before I recognize I need to stop it.
I don’t know how I know this. I’ve never seen the future before, only glimpses into other worlds that merge with ours, only colors and images that others cannot see. I don’t know how I know this, but I know that I’ve just seen the apocalypse and that I need to find someone to help me stop it. The apocalypse. The end.
This is how I first see her. I stand to swallow the sight of the city at 2 am as if memorizing every detail will protect it from the fate I’ve seen. I take in the line of the sidewalk, the flicker of the tall streetlights, and the point where the Sun will rise. It’s as my eyes skip over the passage of the cars below and trace up the spine of the building across from me that I see her.
She stands on a balcony lower than my window, leaning her forearms on the railing in front of her and surveying a world that is hers for the taking. The image of her will forever be imprinted in my mind. She is framed by the moonlight in a rare moment of clear skies empty of clouds or smog. Her dark hair is pulled back into a loose ponytail. Stray strands of hair have fallen around her ears. They frame her oval face and fall into her almond eyes.
Maybe my imagination took an image and enhanced it, but I can see the moonlight reflected in her dark brown eyes. I can see every the crease of the t-shirt she’s wearing, could draw her face with only the memory of this glimpse. Most striking of all are the golden wings stretching out and out, up and up from between her shoulder blades, glowing with the warmth of the stars and glittering like city lights reflected on tumultuous ocean waters. I imagine her an angel who has descended to Earth with the simple goal of leading us out of this mess. I imagine her a god.
This is how I first see her: radiant and beautiful, a point of light after choking smoke has dissipated into the freezing night. She leaves me breathless and stunned. It is with blinding clarity that I know.
“Where will you go now?” Anbar asks me. My eyes follow the glint of the silver thread tied around my right hand’s pointer finger in a perfect bow. I’ve only ever found a home in Ritchy. We’ve been friends for so long, his absence from the city will mean a big part of it will be stolen too. It would be best to undo the knot and to forget Ritchy like I’ve forgotten the person whose footsteps he follows, but I leave it in favor of staring out at the view from our rooftop. Tonight, the city is black with mourning, but I know that, by the end of the week, it will find itself once again lit with colors.
Where will I go? I don’t know. Anbar has always asked the hard questions I don’t want to think about.
There is a certainty in my voice when I respond that I do not feel at heart.
“Wherever this city will have me.”