e-mail: potlatchkeykid [ at] yahoo dot com
Content warning: Contains graphic violence committed by children; graphic violence against animals.
The boy was the king of Brooklyn. It was a Brooklyn of ghosts, as dead as the summer air that pooled heavy and stale over the weedy streets, but it belonged to him, and that's what mattered.
The boy-king squatted in the street and tapped his stick against a dead cat. A cloud of black flies spun and parted and spun again, reluctant to relinquish their prize. The king let them settle again and he watched the way they glistened, their bodies hard like peppercorns. Their wings shivered and shined in the sun. Their churning as they wended through the flat matted fur stirred a whisper of memory, from before, as dry and faded as the old rot stink of the cat.
He jumped to his feet. He slammed his bare heel on the cat. Crusted dry fur and sharp bones snapped with a delicious crunching sound. He danced on his heels, mashing flies and carcass together, shaking his stick high and shrieking. His voice skittered bat-like across the broken glass and dirty brownstone lining the street.
The boy stopped, his heart pounding, and then he flashed yellow teeth at the gap-toothed windows leaning in all around him. "Hi," he said.
Wind -- wind, a real wind, the first breath of movement in days -- shook the limp locust trees to life. Dust kicked up from the street and its double row of forgotten cars. The king frowned and shaded his eyes against the grit.
A lean dog wormed out of a window frame. The boy thought of maggots sprouting from eyes and tooth holes. He smiled at the dog but as soon as it found its feet it capered down the street, bobbing in and out of sight behind the cars. The boy flung his stick whoop whoop whoop after it but only managed to shatter a side mirror.
"I'm talking to you!"
The wind rose, tumbling mummy shrouds and old newspapers and yellow locust leaves like beetle wings in a brittle stampede down the street. With a last clatter of uncut nails the dog slipped around a corner and out of sight.
The sun slipped behind a roof. The boy, naked, felt his skin tighten in horripilation.
"I can feel you. I know you're there."
The wind sighed, exhausted. A few bits of newspaper and polystyrene settled around him, roses tossed onto a stage. He had seen that on the television, before.
"No. No! I won't let you. I won't let you in. I'll find you. I'll find you."
The street was silent. The trees were still. Flies tickled his feet, bones and teeth pricked his soles. He scratched at his heel. The buildings looked very tall now as the sun slipped down.
"No," he murmured, and he ran.
The Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges had splintered, sagging into the East River, but the BQE promenade still rose like a battlement over the wharves. The concrete was sun-warm beneath his feet. Two stray dogs on the expressway below fought over a lost doll. He laughed. The smaller dog heard him and dropped the doll's legs and bolted away. The big dog, teeth still clamped in the doll's blonde hair, hesitated until the boy flung a golf club. It dropped the doll and fled, chasing the first dog around the bend.
The boy chewed his thumb, scanning the wide open sky and the empty space between the expressway and the silent wall of Manhattan. The sun was low, down by the Statue of Liberty. Not a cloud, not a bird. But he could still feel the eyes on him, feel the short hairs on his arms and the back of his neck rise.
Night had already fallen in the canyons between the buildings across the water. He squinted -- someone, his mom maybe, used to make him wear glasses, before -- but could locate no movement, no unexpected shapes. He didn't venture into open spaces often, but the topography of the lost isle hadn't changed since the last time he'd come to look. Some vines grew thicker from the shattered windows, some grass wilted yellow on the FDR. That was it.
Even so, he could feel the eyes. And even worse, the thoughts behind them. There were two minds out there... no, no, there was a third, she was almost hidden but he could feel her watching him, spying from somewhere he couldn't see.
He squatted with his back to the astrolabe, the one that dominated the promenade, shrinking himself into as small a shape as he could. "Can't scare me," he said to his knees. His hand felt empty without the golf club, without the stick.
He forced himself to crouch there and wait.
The sun sank. The sky cupped over him, luminous blue, the silence punctured only by the occasional distant howl. He bared his teeth whenever he heard a mutt, but none came near, none came within his sight.
When the sun vanished he saw the first wishing star.
It floated high, weightless, a violet bubble adrift above Manhattan. It hurt to look at, as if its sheen were just outside the spectrum he was meant to see, an optical illusion he had to cross his eyes to bring into focus. He was on his feet, pressing against the rail, shouting wordless as the wishing star shimmered and sank, threading between the buildings, its light melting the color from their walls, shrinking in on itself until it became a blinding pinprick.
The boy-king screamed at it, and it came.
It came silently across the water and settled into his palm, no bigger than a firefly. It whispered inside its head in a tongue like the slow grind of continents, like the burning of seas. Somewhere inside him he heard his own scream mom mom mom help mom help please oh mom please mom where are you oh god mom please help but his eyes were filled with the wishing star's light and his blood flooded with its heat. Everything, every thought, every glimpse of before, burned out of him as it always did. There was only the boy-king and the dazzling pearl in his hand.
"Yes," he said to the wishing star, and it winked into nothing, leaving the night air burnt black around him.
He walked home with quick steps. The night was not his kingdom. Brooklyn was populated in the dark, filled with drifting light. He found a rock and pitched it through one ghost but it paid him no mind, following the track of its old life perhaps, just as it ignored the other lights in its path. They flowed up and down the streets like jellyfish, like... like cars down a nighttime street, before...
A ghost swept through him. The pain was like a blade in the core of his mind. The boy fell bonelessly against a battered mailbox and slid to the pavement. He could hear the ghosts now, or maybe sounds had left behind ghosts too, the hum of engines and crackle of tires over streets, workers walking home from the subway, shouts and conversations and barking dogs. The memories shoved their way out from somewhere, sprouting from deep fire-blackened roots to pierce him stem and crown.
He screamed "MOM!"
She was there again in his head, her face pinched in horror and pain, her body a flopping weight hauled skyward. He watched her but couldn't move, couldn't do a thing, couldn't make a sound as her body smashed through the window and a violet light lifted her up into the sky. Outside, the air was filled with violet beams, a million barbs reaching through houses and trees, a million more screams fading fading fading away into the endless night.
He found himself cocooned in blankets, sobbing. Even when he could no longer remember why, he wept. Lights drifted past his window, more wishing stars, more ghosts, more vapors. The boy-king wept until he couldn't any more, until he doubled over coughing, his throat wrung raw. He had to get up to piss out the window. He pissed down on ghosts but somehow the thought did not make him smile.
In the distance, over the neighboring blocks, he could see violet light probing from the sky, vultures late to the feast, circling empty overhead.
He wiped his face dry and pushed the mattress up against the windows to block out the ghosts and the beams. He felt his way in the dark, running his fingers over the nightstand. A picture frame stood there amid the empty cans and discarded food wrappers, its glass busted out and its memories ripped up long ago, but he picked it up and ran his fingers over its outline. In the dark that was almost as good as remembering what the picture had been.
He slept wrapped tight in her blankets, dreams heavy like worms in earth.
The king dressed carefully at first light. There was an old army jacket he had found on one of his foraging trips long ago. It rattled with medals, its sleeves moth-eaten and elbows threadbare. It would have fit a man twice his size. He rolled up the sleeves and wore it with dignity. He settled a police cap on his head and put on his old school shoes that pinched his toes. It was important to approach a state function with pomp and decorum. War was, if anything, the most important state function of all.
He marched up Henry Street tapping a baseball bat against each car he passed. He had smashed out their windows months ago, or maybe they had been broken when other people still prowled here, after the cops had stopped responding to calls, when the warlords rose to rule in Boerum Hill and Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg. The boy knew to stay hidden in those days, to wait for the wishing stars to do their work while the old kings huddled in their halls at night, behind bolts and barricades and shotguns. One by one the old kings were snatched away into the sky until one night the boy crept out and found himself alone amid the ghosts, the last king, the right king, the chosen king.
When the wishing stars spoke, after all, he listened. And in return they permitted him to wish, and to rule.
The first dog slipped out from under a bus. It bared its teeth at him, eyes red and terrified. The boy-king called to it, gesturing with an empty hand as if it contained a treat. The dog bristled but made no sound and did not come closer. The boy raised his bat and in an instant the dog was gone, streaking around a corner out of sight.
He saw an empty wrapper near the bus where the dog had been, and said, "Shit."
He climbed through an empty shop window, nice shoes crunching on glass. The stores had emptied fast after that first night, but there was still food tucked away in odd corners. He had been through this store a dozen times but somehow that mutt had rooted out something he had missed. He grit his teeth and smashed his bat against the overturned racks, against the counter, against the walls, plaster exploding into dust. He battered the lotto machine and the empty ice cream cooler. He beat the floor again and again, cracking the tiles, warping the bat. He raised his head and howled at the ceiling.
Something rustled and skittered from a corner and he brought the bat down on a mutt's back. It yelped and spun splay-legged like a comic ice-skater. The boy-king snarled and slammed the bat down again, beating the mutt's skull into pulp. He kept beating it, rumpling its flesh, bloodying the floor. He beat it until he couldn't see, until sweat filled his eyes, until he was weeping over the dog, until he sank to his knees and buried his face in its bloody fur and cried.
Later, he found a bag of Funyuns under the wreckage of the counter. He took it and moved on. He ate as he walked.
He came to the ruin of the Brooklyn Bridge, and wished himself across.
The boy found himself in the Financial District. He followed a well-worn path down the center of Water Street, a broad grassy canyon under an impossibly blue sky, dragging his bat behind. Queen Anne's lace nodded its white flowers on every side. Bees and butterflies sketched flights like tiny counterfeits of the wishing stars. He swung his bat halfheartedly through the grass but the butterflies ignored him as if he were just another ghost.
"I'm coming," he said. He puffed his chest out, displayed his medals. "I'm gonna find you."
In reply, the wind came to life, rustling through the grass.
He heard things moving, small things, even caught a glimpse of a bunny's white tail in the moment before it slipped away to safety. A bird whistled, and he heard the call passed down the street. He stopped in his tracks, turning, eying the windows above him. They were empty holes black in the morning sun, bristling with ivy.
The king looked down again to find himself surrounded by dogs. They padded silently through the grass, converging from every street, trotting out of every doorway. They stood on Dumpsters and overturned buses, on the burned ruins of newsstands, eyes brown and black and blue, hunting eyes. They circled him in their tens and their hundreds without making a sound. The boy raised his bat and swung whenever a toothy muzzle pushed close but they danced away each time.
The boy screamed at them. He lunged forward to smash one of the mutts right in its eye but the whole circle shifted with him, every one of them keeping its distance, edging away, slipping back again. He couldn't throw his bat -- it was his only weapon to keep them respectful. The boy wished again but he had already spent his wish.
The dogs nipped at his heels, pressing him on, herding him. He spat at them, snarled at them, but they only harried him on. Some of them salivated, splatting his heels as they trotted after him.
He broke into a run. The mutts chased him, steered him, drove him up streets and through meadows. They never barked. They never snarled. He tripped and fell and his bat rolled away and was lost beneath the crowding legs, and the dogs nipped and worried at him until he was on his feet and running again.
And then, as quickly as they had come, the mutts disappeared. The king was left at the verge of the overgrown savanna of Battery Park. Three girls waited for him.
"I'm sorry," said one.
Two looked alike, as if they might be sisters. They had brown skin and black hair, the older one in a long braid, the younger one in a short and ragged bob. The third girl was taller and black-skinned, with an intent stare. The younger girl clung to her sister. A sea of grass swayed around them.
"No," said the boy.
"I'm sorry," said the braided girl.
"He's friends with them," said the tall girl. "The lights. I seen him, at night."
The youngest girl was silent, burying her face in the braided girl's dirty dress.
"I'm king," the boy said. He put his hands on his hips, showing off his medals.
"That's blood on him," the tall girl said.
"Tell them to go away," the braided girl blurted out. "Tell them to go home. Tell them---"
"No," said the boy. "I'm king. I'm the boss."
"Who'd they take from you? Your mom? Your dad? They took them! They're---"
"No!" The boy sprang toward her. Fire sirens blatted in his ears, red lights flashed in his eyes, and he reeled blindly after his mother, just out of her reach. Someone was shaking him. He punched and kicked and thrashed but they didn't let go. His mother was right there, didn't they see, she was right there and he could help her, he could help her but no matter how much he shouted her name, no matter how hard he reached to catch her, no sound escaped his lips, his fingertips didn't move an inch as he watched her flail into the violet-lit night. He watched her and couldn't say a word.
"I'm sorry," whispered the braided girl. Together the two bigger girls pinned him down. "Tell them to go away." He saw their faces over him in the gently hissing grass. The little girl, the silent one, buried her face in her hands.
"Can't." The boy thrashed. He punched and kicked at them but still they held him down. "Can't! Can't! Can't! Can't help her!"
"Help us. Make them go away."
"I can't." Somehow he found the strength to tumble the two girls aside. He scurried to his feet, patting the ground for a stick, a shard of glass, anything. He saw the smaller girl standing there alone. He smiled.
She dropped her hands and looked at him. The wind stopped, the air hung still. All around them the dogs came, nosing forward, intent only on him. They surrounded him once more.
Her eyes were empty, brown, lost. He felt her, an intruder in his mind, cool like mud where the wishing star had burnt through him. He tried to shove her out, tried to twist away, but she pushed in, inch by inch while the dogs stared, and waited.
The boy sank down, sat. The older girls came up beside the young one, each placing a hand on her shoulder. The boy felt something as if from a great distance, something cool, something wet. He looked up. Ever so gently at first, rain began to fall on the ruins of Manhattan.