Sharp as a bloody knife, and I didn’t think there was a place for me in it anymore until someone said my name.
“York St. James?” A hand on my arm made me jerk away, survival instinct kicking in before I could help myself. The guy didn’t seem offended; he just looked at my face like I was his personal Jesus. “Dude. Dude. You’re still alive. York St.-freaking-James is still alive. Is that your freaking guitar? Oh my God. You still have it.”
I cocked my head and looked at him. He wasn’t chubby, but he was soft, softer than me with my tight blue-jeans and scar-covered arms and shaved head. My eyes dropped to his nails: smooth, unlined. Then to skin of his hands: pink and healthy. I stopped thinking about the switchblade in my pocket. “Yeah. I’m alive.”
“Dude. You have to play for my club. Tell me yes. Dude, you haven’t been playing, have you? Why haven’t I heard you? Where’s the rest of The Wicked?”
I didn’t know, but I said, “Dead.” It was as good a guess as any.
He made a face, sort of like a snarl, weird in his soft face. “Whatever. We’ll find you a band.”
That was how it started. He found me a band amongst the sleek survivors, a drummer, a bassist, a keyboardist. And another guitarist, Jude, whose angry chords made my guitar sound like an angel. We rocked even more than The Wicked, because now our sound was the lean, savage sound of the aftermath. And we had what the people wanted, because what they wanted was to escape.
The gigs started to run together like they had before, and on stage, it was easy to pretend that the city was almost the same. People knew my face and my name again, and they screamed it when I led the band onto the stage. If the crowd was thinner, well, it was easy to think there were more people waiting beyond the door.
It was only between gigs that the world was changed. Nights without gigs, Jude and I would leave the apartment that the band members shared, and we’d go in search of food and new gigs. We left the Porsches and the Hummers and the Maseratis parked on the stret, because the fact that we had them reminded us of the people who used to.
When we walked under orange streetlights, there were the clues to our changed city. There were the cheap cars with flat tires from sitting too long, abandoned for something better by the side of the road. There were the people you saw: they were the strong, the cunning, the wicked, the rich. I hadn’t seen gray hairs in months. I hadn’t seen children in years.
And then there were the locket sellers. They sat on the sidewalk, the streetlights reflecting off the silver boxes at their feet. Lockets, they were called, and the chill from them stretched all the way to the street where Jude and I walked by. On hot nights, condensation gathered on the lockets like so many tears.
Jude always looked away, his jaw set. But I didn’t. I always counted the boxes. And when we got back to the apartment, I locked myself in the bathroom and carved a line in my skin for every locket I’d counted. The blood bubbled up behind my razor and streaked down my arm and I felt less like the walking dead.
I wrote a song about the lockets. I called it “Carnivore.”
Jude was the first to notice the lines on my fingernails, even before I did. One night at a gig at Club Metallic, I saw him look to my hands during a riff, waiting for his cue. My guitar wailed higher, but his eyes didn’t look away. He missed his cue.
And I knew it had started. The dying.
Afterward the show, in the dark brown room behind the stage, Martin the bass player jerked me aside, his fingers tight around my shoulder. “You didn’t tell us you weren’t Made.”
I shrugged as if his hand didn’t bruise. “You didn’t ask.”
“Hell, man,” said Kell, the drummer. “You’ve got to get a locket.”
Martin rammed a fist into my chest, pushing me up against the wall. My guitar crashed to the ground behind me, the strings ringing dully. “Even York-rich-as-God-St. James doesn’t have the money for a locket. So you gonna come after one of us? We gonna have to sleep with one eye open?”
“You don’t take your hands off me, slick,” I said, “You won’t live long enough to worry about sleeping.”
Either Martin remembered my police record or he thought that Jude, coming closer with his guitar case held at a warning angle, might come to my defense. We were all of us dangerous these days. In any case, he let me go and flashed me a smile that wasn’t one. “You’re too good at what you do to die, asshole. So find a heart, just not one of ours.”
Jude looked at me as Martin left, saying more with that look than Martin had with all his words. I dropped my eyes to the pale white lines in my fingernails. Innocent-looking half moons like the one that hung in the New York sky above the club. But nothing was innocent in this world.
I’d watched Eva throw up in between gigs, vomiting away her singing voice, and then her smile, and then her guts. I hadn’t kissed her in months, but I knew I’d been exposed, because everyone had been exposed. Everyone had been exposed and we were all waiting to die.
I drew lines in my skin with my razor, watching my blood escape, wondering if the disease escaped with it.
No one knew who first found out about the hearts. There were cultures that believed to eat your enemy was to conquer him completely and to take on his strength. We were that culture now. They’d found the fountain of youth and it was a human heart.
Suddenly the survival rate looked better.
I wrote a song. “Fifty Percent.”
“Weakling,” I scoffed.
Jude didn’t raise his cheek from the seat, but he smiled at me. “You should know.”
“How long?” I asked.
He shook his head, just a little bit. “I don’t know. York, get a locket.”
I just stared at him. Jude, who couldn’t even look at them. “You said once there were children in those boxes.”
Jude closed his eyes. “I know I did. But they’re already
dead. You’re not.”
“I couldn’t afford one even if I wanted to.” I slid down the wall and leaned back against the tile, watching the pulse in my wrist. “And if I could, you’d deserve it more than me.”
He opened his eyes. “Don’t stop being an asshole now, York.”
The guys who were there already were looking at me, eyes darting to me and away. I was the razor now, cutting them.
“Where’s Jude?” I asked.
Martin knelt to get something from his bass case, and then he turned to me. His voice was strung tight, savage and bitter. “He wanted me to give this to you.”
He held up a silver case, condensation on the outside, and Jude within.
Author’s Note: I was listening to "Brooklyn is Burning" by Head Automatica and wanted to write something savage and apocalyptic.
image copyright 2008 Maggie Stiefvater.