I hear planes circle overhead. Instinctively, I crouch back into the shadow of the building, pulling Harlow by the arm with me until the concrete beams and whatever broken windows remain hide us. I let the night envelop us like a soothing, protecting veil. I can see Lyle further behind us, a dark shape in the middle of the barren storey, having already melted and disappeared into the backdrop, like we’re so used to doing. Once the noise of the planes has receded, I let myself sit on the ledge for a moment, basking in the glow of the city lights and the rising sounds from below, imagining I am on a beach, on an island somewhere far away with palm trees swaying, birds chirping and girls in swimming suits all around me. Right, Ivo, as if you’d ever find yourself in that situation instead of in an abandoned skyscraper way past anyone’s bedtime babysitting a mid-teen girl and an unnerving, freaky 20 year-old blond dude. I snort out loud and ignore the concerned stare Lyle throws me. Let him make his own assumptions.
The night is pitch-black and, once again, the three of us are invisible, anonymous and unknown. My black hair falls to cover my face and I’m reminded I’m long overdue for a haircut. I can see Harlow examining the split end on her long, dark brown hair.
For once, I acknowledge the luck I had in finding these two: Harlow is crazy quick when it comes to running and climbing buildings, and her mind whirrs faster than any of the spinning tops the rich kids play with. For such a young-looking girl, I’m surprised by how well she copes with the situation: being homeless and hunted and illegal due to our very existence. In reality she’s 17, but no one would guess that simply by looking at her: her straight dark hair hangs to her hips and frames a pale, small face that could only belong to a 15 year old. Her dark brown eyes are always eager for the next new adventure, and I wonder if it is just an act, or if she really has managed to keep her innocence with her all this time. I hope for her she has, but really, I doubt it.
Lyle, on the other hand, I am less fond of. He is silent and observing, and that wouldn’t bother me too much but for the fact that some piece of him rubs me the wrong way. I never know what he’s thinking and for some reason I always think what he’s thinking is bad. His dirty blond hair is forever a mess, un-brushed and hanging limp and I doubt he’s ever put one once of effort into making it look like something other than a rat’s nest. The way he peers at me out of those strange, too bright blue eyes unnerves me too. On the other hand, he is very useful when it comes to stealing food for us and finding a new hideout. Anyway, I try to stay away from Loco Lyle.
Harlow looks up suddenly, “Want to head down tonight?” she asks, looking at me with such hope in her eyes that I’m reminded of a kid hoping for candy. God, how can a 17 year-old look like that? I don’t know how she manages it, but I’m instantly won over. Like every other time.
She’s always the one who initiates our trips down to the main ground, to the crowded and bright streets where life screams at every corner. We’ve been living in abandoned buildings for too long now, sound feels foreign to me. It makes adrenaline course through my veins and keeps my senses on alert. That’s a good thing, considering every second could be my last one. But I’ll have to bear this trip, we’ve been holding onto one package for far too long. It’s ridiculous for me to be so apprehensive when it comes to delivering this simple package, but the neighbourhoods we pass through could – and probably are – lurking with thiefs (like us) and assassins (not like us), and I’d rather stay away from them. But I know the job must be done one day or the other. So I suck it up, so to speak.
I look back once to the shops and streets below, then to the black, moonless sky before following Lyle and her to the stairs. I see her long hair swish from side to side as I take silent, careful steps down. I feel watched and turn back to see Lyle’s clear blue eyes cutting into my soul. A shiver runs through me and I step up my pace. Three storeys from the ground, I grab the handrail and let myself slide to the bottom, ignoring the shuddering impact of my feet hitting the concrete and the laugh and smile Harlow gives me in return. She knows how I enjoy acting like a kid from time to time, with no worries and only exciting adventures ahead of me.
What a night to be alive! Summer still clings protectively to the city even though the year is dangerously headed towards October, now. But for a September night, it’s surprisingly warm. Our black tee-shirts and jeans are suitable-enough attire that I’m glad we had the forethought to leave our bags in the building.
From here, we can hear music drifting from further down the street and I shadow Harlow when she starts to jog to the end of the dark alleyway.
All at once, the city envelops us in its arms.
Yellow, red, orange mixing with the black of the night
The loud chatter of the shop-keepers, of the passers-by; music that changes radically every hundred meters as we leave one section of the thin street to greet another: violin, accordion, flute, guitar.
A wealth of curious objects and interesting baubles to look at: Chinese lanterns hanging from the thick cloth that shop keepers use as eaves, rows upon rows of new gadgets, necklaces, bracelets and food. Oh the food! Chicken doused in an orange sauce on a stick, pork swimming in a spicy sauce that assaults my nose that has grown so accustomed to the smell of sweat and rain. I eye tiny round cakes with pink edible roses on the top that are gathered on a palm leaf and make my mouth fill with saliva.
I soak in the smells, sounds, sights and even the heat radiated by the crowd. How could I ever get enough of this? I feel someone pressing up against me and turn around to see the careful, guarded look Ivo always has when we walk through the streets. His right palm rests on my shoulder, both protecting me by staying close and reminding me to be careful. Of course. He prefers to jump from rooftops, flowing with the wind and feeling infinitely cool to be able to do so. He can say what he wants, he’s still just a 23 year-old guy, hardly even an adult at this point. And although I do adore the vantage point that rooftops provide, I’m not as conceited as he is, I don’t care if anyone sees me. As long as it’s not the patrols.
So I continue to ignore him and enjoy the situation as long as it lasts, heavens know when the next time I can do this will be. Most likely I’ll be dead by morning.
As I advance, I keep my eyes peeled, let them skirt to the all-but-invisible, thin alleyways that branch out from the busy street, just in case we have to make a speedy retreat. Two officers appear from behind a group of people and the three of us automatically turn towards a shop so as to hide our faces. As we pretend to examine an assortment of bronze rings, I hear Lyle whisper “It’s fine. They’re gone”. We wait a second longer before resuming our stroll. Without the added worry of patrols showing up until their next round an hour or so from now, I’m free to expose my face to the warmth of the night wind and the lights. I even tentatively close my eyes, even if only for a minute, and open them to meet curious looks from strangers. I ignore it, putting their stares down to my too-dark-for-September attire, or to the length of my hair which is so unusual in times when fashion dictates short, cropped hair.
I would be glad to appreciate our nightly excursions, but tonight we have a job to do. Ivo signals to take a left at the stone bridge and we continue on, following the river as it leads us further and further on through the night, towards less hospitable and darker neighbourhoods. All too quickly we enter the poorer sections, where the walls of buildings are black as night in the darkness and rain and grit run down the sides. Cold wind engulfs us, and we hunch ourselves over to lock in the warmth. Ivo puts his arms around me and tries unsuccessfully to summon heat into my arms. I reassure him I’m okay before taking tentative steps down the alleyways, further up ahead as is my habit. The dilapidated buildings turn into a maze tonight, and I wait for Ivo and Lyle to catch up before resuming my walking.
“It shouldn’t be too much further up ahead”, Ivo soothes me.
I stay silent and keep my eyes open for trouble. The silence is eerie, and all-enveloping. Even our footsteps, usually completely soundless, somehow make soft pitter-patter against the cold, wet stone. No noise emanates from our breathing, all we hear is remnants of the music that stretches to us, although distorted and subdued.
“Number 719. Here we are” Ivo mutters. I always used to wonder how he could find his way through the city, along all the side-streets and alleyways, in ground-floor tunnels and courtyards. It’s not as if he walks around with a map. And he should need one, considering the size of the city and how far we’ve had to travel on occasion to deliver a parcel. Nevertheless, he’s never gotten us lost. And what with my speed and Lyle’s thieving abilities and cunning, we’ve seldom gotten ourselves into difficult situations, we’ve always managed to extricate ourselves from whatever claws or traps have been set for us.
Ivo indicates a wooden door set in what I thought was just a wall. Across from it, a courtyard is overrun by trees and plants that sag with the weight of the rain that remains hung onto their leaves from when it rained earlier today. I try not to notice how the branches look like arms and legs this late.
I hang back and let Ivo knock. Candlelight spills from within and a figure gestures for us to enter. I skip in and make it right on time before an old lady – perhaps the matron – closes the door behind me, effectively shutting the cold night out.