I. THE FEVER STREETS
A girl hurried barefoot through the streets of what had once been East London.
She stumbled, clumsy in her haste, and caught herself with the iron railing she carried in her right hand. Her skin was covered in scales of tiny terracotta rooftops. A fringe of rubberised cable fell across her forehead from under the hood of her sweatshirt. The hair-fi ne streets that crisscrossed her back were flooded with oily sweat. As she ran, her shadow loomed and shambled in front of her, stretched by the dawn.
Beth could barely keep her eyes open. Hunger, exhaustion and week after week of pretending to be fi ne had hollowed her out. She licked her dry lips. She could sense the pulse of the street under her, but instead of slapping her soles flat to the pavement and replenishing herself from that tantalising thrum of energy, she ran on tiptoes like she was trying to avoid broken glass. She looked up at where the houses had used to be and swallowed fearfully. Hungry as she was, she didn’t dare feed here.
Brick terraces rose on both sides of her, their façades unbroken but for the zigzag of mortar: no windows, no doors. Gravel paths led through the overgrown front gardens to dead-end against the featureless walls. No one knew exactly when Hackney had fallen to the Blank Streets, or how many people had been trapped in their homes when all the entrances and exits had suddenly vanished. Beth had heard rumours of fat beads of blood rolling down the cracks between bricks like marbles through children’s toy mazes, but she’d never witnessed it. All she knew for certain was what everyone knew: the cries for help had fallen silent quickly – far too quickly for those entombed inside to have starved to death.
Oscar, nestled in her hood, growled and curled tighter into her neck.
I hear you, little buddy, she thought. She reached back into her hood and let the little lizard lick her fingertips. I hear you.
She paused at the end of the street and bent double. Her breath sawed in and out of her lungs, rattling like a troubled engine. Get a grip, she ordered herself. She straightened slowly, feeling the steel hinges in her vertebrae click into place.
She heard a noise and froze.
It was very faint, like a shoe-scuff, but the city was all but silent now and such small sounds carried. She felt a brief impulse to open herself up to the street, to push her consciousness into the asphalt and feel what it felt – but she held back, eyeing the windowless walls. On these streets, she didn’t know what might push back into her. She imagined her eyes, nose, mouth, ears, even her pores, sealing over with the same seamless brick and shuddered.
She inhaled deeply and all the minuscule lights that dotted the city on her skin flared in response to the fresh oxygen.
Thames, she whispered inside her head, please, dear Christ, let me be in time.
She turned the corner – and stared.
If her voice had still belonged to her, she would have laughed, but instead she just stood there in silence, her mouth open, while her chest heaved and her jaw ached.
Garner Street, the road where she’d lived all her life until three months ago, had been spared.
She stumped towards number 18 in a relieved daze. Wilting plants and dead bracken blocked the gate from opening more than a few inches, but she knew that gap well and squeezed through it with ease. Chapped paint surrounded a letterbox with so fierce a spring that when she was a kid she’d imagined it was the snapping jaws of a brass wolf.
She smiled to herself. Back when we had to pretend.
The place looked the same as always, the same as it had the night she’d fled it: the night Mater Viae returned.
She relived it between eye-blinks: the blue glare from the blazing Sewermanders reflecting off the walls; the stink of burning methane and wet cement; the terrified faces of London’s Masonry Men pressing out of the brickwork, their mouths silently shaping pleas for help. The walls had rippled as Mater Viae’s clayling soldiers swarmed under them, clamping red hands over those screaming mouths and pulling them back beneath the surface; the Sodiumites had fled their bulbs in bright panic, leaving darkness and silence in their wake when everything passed on.
And the cranes…
A spindly shape caught her eye and she looked up. A crane loomed over the tiled roofs at the far end of the street. It was stock-still.
If you’re looking for something to be grateful for, Beth, she told herself, there’s always that.
When Mater Viae first stepped through the mirror, the cranes had started to move. For three days and three nights they’d torn at the flesh of the city, but then, as suddenly as they’d woken, they’d stopped, fallen silent. Not a single crane had moved since. No one knew why, but it was the smallest of small mercies, and Beth wasn’t complaining.
She fumbled in the pocket of her hoodie, but came up empty.
You’ve got to be kidding me. What kind of Street Goddess locks herself out of her own damn house?
Lizard claws pricked their way down her arm and Oscar appeared on her hand, growling at her questioningly. Beth sighed and nodded; the Sewermander rolled an eye and moved towards the lock. There was a faint hiss from inside the house, from the direction of the kitchen. Beth smelled gas.
Oscar’s tongue flicked out. Blue flame flared in the keyhole and with a snap-sizzle the lock vanished and was replaced by smoke, charred wood and a hole two inches across. Beth stroked the back of Oscar’s head and he let out a self-satisfied purr.
Ah, the Sewer Dragon. What self-respecting burglar would be seen without one?
She pushed inside and let her feet settle flat on the carpet. For a moment she swayed in place, stretching her feet, wiggling her toes and relishing the return of her balance as the tension ran out of her insteps. The place smelled of dust and next door’s interloping cat.
The house felt smaller than it had when she’d left it, like a three-quarter-scale mock-up for a film set. She hurried up the stairs, passing photos of her mum and dad and herself as a kid. She trailed her tile-clad fingertips across them as she passed, but she didn’t look at them.
A cobweb stretched across the doorway to her room and she broke it like a finishing-line tape. A sunbeam shone in through the skylight. Old sketches were strewn all over the floor. She accidentally kicked a mug over, and cold, mouldskinned tea crept over a half-finished flamenco dancer with swirling charcoal galaxies for eyes.
She yanked her wardrobe open, shovelled armfuls of clothes out of the way and pulled out a battered Crayola carry-case. Over the years that yellow plastic box had held her diaries, her love letters (both the ones she’d received and the ones she hadn’t had the guts to send; sadly, they were seldom to the same boys), condoms, a handful of razor blades and her first-ever eighth of ganja, still wrapped in cellophane: everything she’d ever been scared of her dad finding.
She snapped the clasps and tipped out the current contents – a round-bottomed chemical flask and a yellowing paperback novel – onto the bed. She picked up the book and turned it over. The cover had fallen off and the pages had the texture of ash. The Iron Condor Mystery: she’d locked it away in her box the day after Dad gave it to her. She remembered her mum leafing through it when she was alive, and her dad obsessively doing the same after her death. She ran her thumb delicately along the spine, then pulled her hand back like she’d been burned.
Even after the cranes and the trains and the metal wolves, even after the chemicals had changed her skin to concrete and her sweat to oil, Beth feared the traces this book had left on her heart. She stuffed it into her back pocket and turned to the flask. The liquid inside it glimmered like mercury and reflected the green light of Beth’s eyes back at her as it clung to the inside of the glass. A label taped to it read: Childhood outlooks, proclivities and memories: traumatic and unusual. Dilute as required.
She pulled the label off and turned it around. The words were written on the back of a sepia photo of a boy with messy hair and a cocky smile.
So here we are, Petrol-Sweat. Beth looked from the photo to the room and back again. With everything we used to be.
She lifted the bottle and peered into her reflection in the glass. And here’s what I am now. What you made me. She felt a dull ache set into her forearm from the simple act of holding up the flask. A drop of sweat fell from her brow and stained the duvet black.
But did you know any way to save me from it?
Beth looked up sharply. The skylight was open and a girl in a black headscarf was looking in, her chin resting on folded arms. The scars on her brown skin bracketed her mouth as she smiled, a smile Beth returned with an openmouthed stare.
‘Anyone else, I’d say this was an awkward silence,’ Pen said. ‘But since it’s you, I’ll let it pass.’ She swung her legs in through the window and dropped into the room.
Recovering herself, Beth rummaged in her pocket for her marker pen and grabbed a scrap of paper from the floor.
Told you to wait back at Withersham, she scrawled on the back of it. Her surprise made the words jagged. Blank Streets, fever Streets. Not safe here.
Pen lifted her scarred chin the way she always did when Beth implied she couldn’t take care of herself. ‘Chill, B. I came over the rooftops. The tiles aren’t deadly yet, far as we know, anyway. Besides, you were taking so long – I got worried.’ She frowned, puzzled. ‘What gives? I covered the distance here in forty-five minutes, which means you could have run it less than five. But you’ve been gone more than an hour. What happened?’
Beth swallowed, her rough tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth as she wrote her reply. Being careful. Masonry Men at junction with Shakespeare Ave. Didn’t know whose side they were on.
She passed the note over, watching Pen carefully. One advantage of losing your voice, she thought to herself. Lies go over easier on paper.
Pen’s frown deepened. She sat on the end of Beth’s bed, crossed her legs under her and started drumming her palms against her kneecaps. ‘Weird being back in this room after all the nights we spent sitting up in it,’ she said. ‘You remember the very first time? When we were bitching about Gwen Hardy? I was so worried you’d tell her I could barely get the words out.’ She laughed and showed the scarred back of her hand to Beth. ‘It felt like the riskiest thing I’d ever do.’
Beth smiled carefully, keeping her church-spire teeth hidden behind her lips. She went to sit beside Pen.
‘You miss it?’ Pen asked. ‘Talking like that?’ She paused, but Beth made no move towards her paper. Pen started to pick at the cuticles on her hands, peeling the skin back from around her nails like pencil shavings.
Quickly, Beth put a hand over hers to stop that little self-demolition. She mouthed, What is it?
Pen looked right into her eyes. Beth could see the green glow from her own gaze fill her friend’s eye sockets. ‘Could you use your other voice, B?’ Pen asked quietly. ‘Your new one? I miss hearing you talk back.’
Beth hesitated, but then she opened her hands in front of her. The lines in her palms were streets, dark canyons between miniature rooftops. As she concentrated, tiny lights began to traverse them: the wash of headlights from invisible cars. She heard the growl of their engines and the faint protest of their horns. Water gurgled through turbines on her shoulder. A train rattled over tracks near her heart.
The sounds were faint, but if you knew how to listen, you could hear words in the edges of them where they blended into one another: a precise and literal body language.
‘What’s wrong, Pen?’ Beth asked.
Pen sighed. ‘Glas sent a pigeon,’ she said. ‘She found my parents.’
Beth started forward in concern. ‘Thames! Are they okay? Are they—?’
‘They’re alive,’ Pen said. ‘They’re not hurt. They made it to the evacuation helicopter when Dalston fell – they manage to dodge the Sewermanders and get out. They’re staying in Birmingham right now—’
‘Pen! That’s grea—’
‘—with Aunt Soraya.’
Beth sat back. ‘Oh.’
‘Your favourite Aunt Soraya? The one whose house I stayed at?’
‘That’s the one.’
‘The one with pictures of you up all along her hall? The one who named her cat after you?’
‘Yeah. Can’t imagine that was awkward when my folks turned up, what with them not even remembering I exist.’
‘I did that to them, B,’ Pen cut her off, her voice still quiet but stony, matter-of-fact, brooking no argument. She kept her eye on the shred of skin she was flicking on her thumb. ‘I was the most important thing in their lives and I stole myself from them.’ Her gaze fell on the bottle of Fil’s memories. ‘Just like that. I thought that what they couldn’t remember couldn’t hurt them, but damn, it’s hurting them now.
‘Glas had her bird sit right on the window ledge. It listened in to a whole conversation. You’d be amazed how many words that trash-spirit has to use to say, “You’ve made your parents think they’re crazy.” when she’s trying to be nice about it.’ She sniffed like she’d been crying, though no tears had fallen, and rubbed the sleeve of her jacket across her eyes.
After a moment she continued, ‘Anyway, Glas just told me, and since we were here anyway, it felt kind of appropriate to tell you here, for old time’s sake, you know?’
Beth nodded, but she couldn’t hold her friend’s gaze so she studied the swallow pattern on her duvet cover instead.
Beth didn’t look up.
‘Is there anything you want to talk about?’
Beth stilled her shaking right hand by making a fist.
For old time’s sake, she thought. Her old backpack was tucked under her desk, stuffed with aerosol cans and stencils and markers. The smile she gave Pen was almost shy. ‘You feeling inspired, Pen?’
Pen returned the smile, stood up and stretched. ‘I think I might have some game, sure.’
Tom Pollock’s OUR LADY OF THE STREETS is the third novel in his Skyscraper Throne series, and will be published in the UK by Jo Fletcher Books on August 7th, 2014. The series also includes The City’s Son and The Glass Republic.