by Jennifer de Guzman
26 March 2001
The air on the pier smelled of rotting fish and sea lion shit. Bird was spinning, with her shirt waving in her hand like a flag, high on fairy dust. It was a few hours before dawn and the wharf was dark and empty. The water lapped against the old boats as they rocked drunkenly by the docks. They were in disrepair, paint peeling, decks slimy with muck. Rich people didn't keep their shiny-new boats with bright colors and clever names in San Francisco anymore, and the ferries and tour boats had stopped running months before.
Bird had her arms spread wide and her skin was dull with gooseflesh, her nipples puckered to points under her bra. Her eyes were hot and gleaming and her mouth spread out into a painfully wide smile. I guess the whole scene should have turned me on, but I'd been around Bird enough when she was high to know that she didn't want anything from me just then. So I sat on the cold concrete, leaning against a log post, watching her dance and waiting for her to come down.
Bird came out of her highs in crashes. She'd been using too long -- as long as I'd known her, some seven years. When Bird was high, she was beautiful in a solid, blinding way. Her eyes snapped and light glinted off her teeth -- dangerous, like a colorful, poisonous snake. Fairy dust makes everything beautiful: when you're using it you look beautiful and everything looks beautiful to you.
But it leaves you in an instant, like a glamour coming off. When the fairy dust wore off, Bird looked drained and pale, wan and thin, nearly transparent, but still beautiful. That night, she came down just as explosions sounded in the distance and shuddered across the bay -- a barrage from the large guns at the Presidio, the old army base that San Francisco had turned to its main defense post. Bird dropped to the ground out of instinct rather than conscious fear -- she was coming down and nothing existed to her but the thought of scoring more dust.
"Craft," Bird said, her voice thin and desperate as she dragged my name out in a long guttural sound. "Craft, I need to go to the Hall."
Bird bought her dust in the plaza near City Hall from Old Maude. I didn't want to go there -- and not because the homeless slept in the square in front of the hall on the benches under the scraggly trees. I didn't mind that. It was that Old Maude always made me feel like an afterthought, like something that shouldn't exist. She loved Bird, but she always passed her eyes over me and said, "Why you with that boy, a pretty girl like you?"
Bird sat on the ground, her long skirt billowing around her. More explosions sounded, closer this time, coming from the direction of the water. I ran to Bird and pulled her up off the ground, her body already limp and cold with sweat. There were little tremors under her skin, both from dust withdrawal and the vibrations that pushed through the air.
"Do you have any money?" she asked me. "I'll pay you back -- I don't need much, just enough to tide me over till morning."
"Don't you hear that?" I said. "There's something going on, Bird."
The Feds were attacking us, I was sure of it, but I didn't want to confuse Bird -- or myself -- by saying it out loud. That would make it real, and I didn't want it to be real. The last I had heard, the state had worked out some kind of treaty with them, had maybe even decided to stay in the union. I grabbed Bird's hand. "We gotta get to a shelter."
"Yeah, but first I need to go to the Hall," Bird whined, pulling against me. "There's a shelter right near the Hall -- the old parking garage. The one that always smelled like old piss."
"Bird, that's too far away. We gotta get to a closer one."
"I need dust, Craft."
Everybody's different when they're coming down from the dust. Some people shake, some people cry. Bird went weak and sick and ragingly delirious. The dust wearing off is like a transition from a wonderful dream to reality -- when reality's a box in an alleyway or a terminal illness eating away at your insides. It's all disappointment, really. Disappointment that turns to despair if you dwell on it.
If you sit through the despair for a day, for a few days, maybe a couple weeks, it gradually goes away and settles into acceptance of what's real. I learned that after using dust for three years and finally running out of money. Bird knew that too. She could go straight for a few weeks if she wanted to, but she didn't like reality and would get back on the dust as soon as she thought the time was right.
I dragged her to her feet as the guns from the Presidio continued to fire. The boats rocked and tilted wildly as the sky lit up with flashes, illuminating everything so brightly that the scene around us looked like a negative image. The boats turned eerie shades of green and blue and Bird's skin was all grainy blacks and whites. The sea lions huddled in heaps on their platforms, their eyes gleaming with each explosion. Mixing with the usual pier stenches, the sharp, metallic smell of fire tinged the air.
Something in the bay was burning. I squinted through the smoke and saw that it was one of three ships that loomed in the water. They had gotten past the Presidio. Stalking like huge black cats, they appeared at first like shadows, silhouetted by the orange light coming from their burning comrade. The ships gave birth -- small vessels slid out of their hulls and made their way towards the piers, smoothly sliding over the water, never buffeted by the waves. I tried to keep Bird moving.
"What the hell?" Bird said. "Don't drag me!"
The toes of her shoes caught on cracks in the pavement as she tried to gain her balance and walk on her own. Another blast threw Bird and me into the bushes with a force that knocked the wind out of us. Bird's scream stopped short and turned to coughs and gasps. An alarum went up among the sea lions, their barking eerie in the dark.
"What's going on?" Bird asked as she sat up. Her right cheek was scratched, and a streak of blood dripped off her chin and splashed onto her breast, blending into the red of her bra. She seemed to come back to herself for a moment and looked around the Pier in alarm. Her face glowed in the flashes of light.
"I don't know," I lied. "We have to get inland."
I looked behind us. The smaller vessels were still pressing forward towards the piers, and I knew they were full of Fed soldiers, ready to swarm onto the land, ready to take the capital. And Bird and I were in their way.
"Come on," I said. I put her shirt on her and then pulled her down Taylor Street with me. Bird muttered something as we ran, but she recognized our course as the route to City Hall, so she didn't struggle.
The streets were empty and quiet, no cars on the street, no people on the sidewalks. I thought of the abandoned underground of Seattle, a new city built over it on iron girders and concrete. I imagined the Feds destroying the old San Francisco and then building a new one atop the rubble of the Transamerica Pyramid and Grace Cathedral, leaving us to huddle in the bottom floors of old buildings, never seeing sunlight.
Another explosion came. I couldn't tell if it was the Presidio firing at the ships or the ships firing at the Presidio, but I didn't care anymore. The alarms of the few cars still parked on the street started wailing and North Beach began to stir. Pretty soon people were peering out of windows and doorways as we ran by, their uneasiness reverberating through the air like the invisible aftereffects of the blasts that shook the city's stunted trees. Occasionally someone questioned us and Bird would slow down to chant deliriously at them, "We're going to the Hall, to the Hall, to see Old Maude," no matter what the question was. She kept repeating it, her voice rising over the car alarms.
"Shut up," I said, hauling her along. "Snap out of it and walk!"
I pinched her hard on the back of the arm and she yelped.
"Fuck!" she cried. "Fuck you!"
She started beating at me with her small fists, swinging hard and missing, until she lost her balance. Her arms flailed and her feet got tangled in her long skirt. I missed when I tried to catch her, and she fell to the pavement, grasping at the air. Her head knocked against the concrete with a nauseating thunk. She lay still for a moment, and then sat up, rubbing the back of her head.
"What's going on?" she asked.
"No shit. I mean, what are all the explosions?"
I sighed. Bird was going to keep asking until I told her what I really thought. "The Feds are bombing the wharf," I said.
Bird snorted. "If the Feds are bombing the wharf there should have been an alert. Why wasn't there an alert?"
"I don't know. Get up."
She stood up shakily and I helped her button her shirt and wipe the blood off her face. A low thundering came from the northwest -- the Presidio guns again, but they were useless. Those boats full of soldiers were going to land -- maybe had already landed. The fighting would be in the city now, and it would all be over soon.
I held Bird up by her waist and she staggered along next to me as best she could. The cut on her face started bleeding again. She leaned her head on my shoulder and her short hair tickled my face as her head lolled and her eyes rolled in time to our walking.
"Craft, I gotta stop," she said when we'd been walking for about a mile. "I gotta stop. I'm sick." She dragged her feet to a stop and let her arms hang limp at her sides.
"Shit, Bird, we can't stop. There's a fucking army behind us."
"I'm sick I'm sick I'm sick," she insisted. She was crying and her tears and snot soaked through my shirt.
"Oh, for fuck's sake. . . . Here, sit down."
I left her sitting on the curb and walked out into the street. For a few minutes there was nothing, then a lone pair of headlights headed toward me, the first moving car I'd seen on the street all night. I waved my arms at it.
"Hitching's not safe, Craft," Bird said from the curb. "We can't hitch. It's not safe."
The green SUV stopped and the driver beckoned us over. He was probably about thirty, sandy-haired, wearing a Stanford sweatshirt. Just the kind of person I hated -- a rich kid whose parents paid his way at the fancy school. C average at best. Always rooted for the home team. Go Stanford. Beat Cal. Nothing but bullshit. I went to college once -- I paid for it myself and got A's, graduated and everything. No one would have guessed. But Bird knew, and she looked at the guy in the SUV with the same distaste as I felt. Still, she couldn't walk anymore, and I was tired, so we took the ride he offered.
"It's not a good night for walking," he said as we climbed into the back seat. He grinned, and I knew he was a tourist, here to get a cheap thrill out of the chaos. "I'm Dan, by the way," he said. "I guess you guys are heading south."
"Yeah," I said. I didn't want to talk to him more than I had to.
"You out here to see the action, too, or did you forget your way home?" He twisted around in his seat and gave me a condescending grin.
If I get the chance, I thought then, I'll smash this fucker's face in.
Dan sped through an empty intersection at sixty miles an hour. "Official word is to get to a shelter, but I didn't come to the City to stare at concrete walls. This is history, man. I want to see it."
Bird groaned as the truck hit a bump. "So we separated officially? The whole state?"
"Just Northern California -- early last week. Where you been?"
"Fairyland." She sniffled. "It's the end of the fucking world as we know it."
She laughed a hysteria-edged, sick laugh, and I frowned at her. "It's not fucking funny, Bird."
Oozy tears ran down her face, mingling with the blood on her cheek, but she still smiled. "It's not like we didn't expect it," she said. "They've been setting up the Guard in the Presidio for months." She pulled her legs up to her chest and leaned her head on her knees. "That treaty stuff was bullshit. You should have known that, Craft."
I don't know whose condescension I hated more -- Dan's or Bird's. Probably Bird's, but what was I going to about that? If I got mad at her, it would just drive her away, and I didn't want to lose her again.
I didn't know how Bird got her name when I met her. I assumed it was because of her eyes, small and black, and the way she would nervously tilt her head and look around, always wary. I found out later that it was because she had a habit of disappearing once she got what she wanted from a person -- "flying the coop," as the expression goes. Still, I kept thinking it was because of her eyes, the way she never missed anything, even when she was high.
She'd known the invasion was coming for weeks. True to her name, Bird built a nest when she was expecting something. She'd been staying with me all the while, instead of flitting from place to place like she usually did, trading sex and money for dust. She showed up at my door one day, as if she hadn't ever left, hadn't ever made me feel like shit by disappearing. She bought a subscription to the Guardian and stocked my bare cupboards with cans of soup and that food supplement drink in every flavor -- vanilla, strawberry, chocolate.
Bird stopped using while she was preparing, and I started again. Dust is like an old lover -- you slip into it and pick up the familiar rhythm as if you've never been apart. It's like nothing else is worth your attention when you're with it. She talked to me about the possible secession sometimes, but her words didn't mean anything to me. They slid out of her mouth and floated away. I just watched her mouth as she talked, wanting to devour her. I lost it all, somewhere in between dust and the warmth of Bird's body.
Then she took my stash and hid it for herself, went on a binge while I went straight, and the newspapers started piling up on the doorstep, unread.
I leaned my face on the cold window as Bird told Dan she needed to go to City Hall.
"Are you crazy?" he said. "We can't go to City Hall! It's probably gonna get bombed."
Bird shook her head. "The Feds still think they own this city. No way they'd bomb City Hall -- it's a fucking historical monument."
Dan considered this for a while. "Okay. But if you're just saying that because you need to buy drugs, I swear. . . ."
"I don't do shit like that. There're more important things than my habit."
The desperation in Bird's face told me something different. But she was probably right. The San Francisco capitol building had a dome even bigger than the one on the U. S. Capitol, and was set smack near the opera house and the symphony hall. They wouldn't dream of bombing it.
Dan kept speeding down the street, ignoring red lights. But we had to stop at Geary for a line of tanks and soldiers to cross. The San Francisco Guard wore plain gray street camouflage, their faces determined -- though maybe a little scared -- under their helmets as they marched alongside the rolling tanks. The procession went by as if we weren't even there. Bird watched them with her small black eyes, squinting as if to scrutinize and remember every face.
We arrived at City Hall before the sun rose. Dan parked the car on the street and didn't bother putting change in the meter. Bird slid out of the back seat to the pavement eagerly, catching her skirt on the frame of the truck and tearing it when she jerked it free. She grabbed my hand and strode to the center of the plaza, stepping over sleeping men and women who were just beginning to stir in the pre-dawn cold. Old Maude sat in the midst of colorful old afghans. Next to her was a rusted shopping cart filled with bottles and cans and decaying magazines. Dan followed us -- for lack of any other plan, I suppose.
Old Maude called herself a philanthropist. She kept stashes of whatever a distraught young woman could need in the city -- tampons, face powder, food tickets, drugs. She had tired, rheumy eyes and frazzled hair a half-hearted shade of red, streaked with resolute gray. She smiled when she saw Bird approaching, the few teeth she had worn down and yellow.
Bird trotted ahead of us to Maude and sat on her lap. Old Maude hugged her and laughed a crone's cackle.
"You got a couple of young men for Old Maude, eh?" she said as we approached, looking me over and then dismissing me, as always. "Girls been complaining that I don't keep any of those in stock. I tell 'em, 'What you need with men, anyway? They ain't no good for anything!'"
I sat down at the edge of the bench, but Dan hovered nervously. Old Maude ignored us and talked to Bird.
"What you need, honey? I got some fine dust for you." She clucked her tongue and shook her head. "A pity that a pretty girl like you is mixed up with this stuff, but I said to myself the other day, 'Maude, she ain't hurting herself none, so let the girl have her fun.'"
Bird looked at me, pleading with her eyes. I pulled my wallet out of my pocket and pulled a few bills out. Bird took them, head bowed as if she were ashamed. She handed the money to Old Maude quickly -- an inexperienced eye would have hardly noticed the action. Maude reached into the voluminous pocket of her army surplus jacket and handed Bird a bag of fairy dust --innocuous looking stuff, as white as talcum powder. Bird smiled at Maude and kissed her rain-streaked brown cheek.
"The city's being invaded," Bird said absently, taking the bag and looking at it hungrily.
Maude shook her head. "Well, I figured. There's gonna be a rush for the shelters soon, but right now we're getting in some sleep while we can get it."
Bird wasn't listening. Old Maude stopped talking and closed her eyes. Bird had slid off Maude's lap and was pulling her works out of the pouch she kept strung around her neck. Dan watched her in silent fascination as she pulled out each item: spoon, lighter, needle. He had probably never seen a junkie up close, and I didn't like how he scrutinized Bird.
"Help me, Craft," Bird said as she started to tie off her arm. I pulled the length of rubber hose tight for her and she slapped at her vein until it bulged. Her skin was smooth and white, with tiny pinpricks lined up neatly up and down the vein.
Bird always used a tiny needle, so she wouldn't get scars. The great thing about fairy dust is that your body doesn't get used to it very quickly. Most users are still using the same amount per hit when they die as when they started.
Bird snuggled close to me as she shot up and then kissed me, messy, with a sigh. Her breath turned hot as the drug hit her system, her body arching beautiful against mine as the city exploded with war in the distance. I pulled myself away from her as the ground groaned with more explosions. The sun began to show between the buildings, illuminating the pale gray of the sidewalks and the quartz-shiny streets.
The people in the square began to gather their meager belongings and head over to the shelter entrance across the street. Another explosion came -- far away this time, felt more than heard, but it still pushed the people to move faster. Bird watched an old man shuffle by. She stood up to help him, her eyes not seeming to seeing much else but the old man, and she passed by Dan like a wispy spectre, as beautiful as a portrait of a virgin martyr.
Dan stared at Bird's enraptured face. "Is she okay?"
I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. "Yeah, she's fine." But I stood up anyway and pulled Bird away from the old man. I didn't want her to wander off.
"What are you going to do?" Dan looked fearfully up Van Ness, as if expecting invading forces to come storming at us any moment. His thrill-seeking fantasies probably hadn't involved him nearly pissing his pants out of fear, but from the looks of his face, he was close to doing just that. "You're not staying in San Francisco, are you?"
I sighed. "Why not? The shelter'll be safe. Bird was right -- they're not going to blow up City Hall. The government, even the Feds, doesn't go blowing up stuff they want for themselves." I slipped my hand under Bird's shirt as I spoke. Her skin throbbed under my fingers. "Where could we go, anyway?"
"Oakland. Or Berkeley. We should get off the peninsula."
He ignored the roll of my eyes and disdainful glare, but when Bird laughed, a high whinny that started in her throat and slid down into her chest, he snapped his head up and looked at her with the same creepy fascination as when she was shooting up.
"Oakland!" Bird cried. "No way you can get across the Bay Bridge. I bet you a million dollars it's already clogged up with people trying to get out." She waved her hand at Dan. "And the San Mateo and the Dumbarton -- 280 and 101 will be like big parking lots before you can even get near them. You'll never get anywhere. You're stuck-a-roni, Dan. San Francisco treat."
Dan's expression had turned from fascination to disgust while Bird was talking. "Fucking junkies. You're all fucking crazy." He glared at Bird. "Stupid slut."
Both Old Maude and I looked up. Bird sat and slouched down on the bench, tipping her head to one side, her forehead wrinkled in worry.
These fuckers are the same, all the same, I thought. The general hate I had felt towards guys like Dan turned into a specific hate for the blond guy in the Stanford sweatshirt standing in front of me. I stood up close to Dan so he could feel my breath when I spoke. "What'd you call her?"
Dan narrowed his eyes. "She's a fucking stupid junkie slut and you know it."
Dan's spittle hit me in the chin. I wiped it off and then hit him squarely in the face and shoved him to the ground while he was reeling. He fell on his side and I kicked him in the stomach with the steel toes of my boot. He didn't have a chance to scream before I knocked the wind out of him.
Old Maude grabbed me, but it was too late. A crowd had already gathered around us, shouting, urging us on, the rush to the shelter momentarily forgotten. Chaos is as good as food or booze or drugs if it's the only thing around.
I kicked Dan again as he scurried off to his SUV. He tripped, fell, and scrambled up again, hunched over and holding his belly. Behind me, Bird stood up and started screaming incoherently. She picked up a glass bottle that had been rolling back and forth uselessly at her feet and threw it at him. It hit Dan in the small of his back and then hit the ground and shattered.
"Stupid slut?" Bird screamed. "I'm worth ten of you! -- a hundred, a thousand, a million, billion, trillion, hundred million billion trillion. . . ."
She was crying and sniffling, her hands clutching the short chunks of her hair. Bird had once had long, long black hair. She showed up at my apartment one day without it. When I asked her what happened to it she shrugged and said, "Sold it."
Bird was starting to run after the terrified Dan, but I grabbed her around the waist and pulled her back down to the bench. Old Maude sat down next to Bird and whispered to her until Bird calmed down.
All around us, the rage was beginning to spread. I sat down, panting, next to Bird and watched as the just-awakened homeless chased after Dan's SUV, pelting it with precious bottles of wine and anything else they happened to have in their hands. The SUV swerved in and out of lanes, trying to avoid the bottles and cans, the bits of rotting garbage. Dan took a screeching turn and careered off into a side street.
The sounds of the explosions were getting closer and I could almost feel the rumble of tank treads. The Feds were heading for us, firing through our troops. Plumes of dirt fell from the sky, carried by the wind. The dirt settled on Bird's cheeks, where tears streaked through it. It coated my throat and filled my nose and eyes. For a moment -- probably no more than a few seconds -- I panicked, thinking I was being buried alive. But Bird caught hold of my hand as I flailed and I came back to myself.
By now, people were rushing in a torrent to the shelter entrance across the street. They weren't just the homeless from the square, but people streaming in from all directions. Cars even appeared on the streets, honking as they tangled into gridlock at the intersections. Old Maude stood and tried to pull Bird along with her, but Bird shook her head and sat perfectly still. The dust had obliterated Bird's momentary anger and panic and she watched the chaos around her with a small, absent smile playing across her lips. Maude left Bird and the grocery cart and ran to the shelter. I shifted my weight nervously and was about to pull Bird to her feet and drag her to the shelter when she darted up from the bench and ran towards the mob.
I didn't hear or see whatever it was Bird had heard or seen until she had already gathered a crying little girl up in her arms and was running back towards the bench with her. Bird wiped away tears on the girl's cheeks -- so much like her own tear-stained cheeks -- and smoothed the girl's dirty hair. The girl was one of the kids that followed Bird around whenever they saw her, probably no more than six. For a while, she just cried, sobbing Bird's name and not saying anything else. Bird leaned over the girl's head, whispering soothing sounds, oblivious to the screaming and shouting around us, to the rumbling in the ground and air.
"Where's your mama?" Bird asked when the girl had finally calmed down.
"Under the ground," the little girl said. "I can't find her."
"We better get there, too, Bird," I said. I motioned to the converted parking garage.
Bird sighed and closed her eyes. When she opened them I could tell that -- at least for that moment -- she knew what was really going on. "Yeah," she said. "I guess so."
I picked up the little girl, even though she reached out to Bird.
"Craft'll take good care of you," Bird said, "and I'll be right here, okay?"
Bird wove a bit as she moved because of the fairy dust, but we ran as best as we could to the shelter and pushed our way through the crowd. Mostly men, they shouted obscenities at the four guards who stood at the shelter's entrance, blocking it off. The little girl had started crying again, and she gripped the back of my neck, her tiny fingernails digging into my skin.
"The shelter's full," one of the guards shouted above the crowd. "There's another one in Union Square."
Bird took the little girl from me, quieting her with a whisper and a light touch of her hand. "But it might be full, too," Bird said to the guard. "I have a little girl here. You can't just leave her out here."
The guard studied Bird for a moment. "All right," he said finally. "I'll take her in."
When Bird hefted her over the barrier and into the guard's arms, the little girl immediately started bawling again, screaming, "Bird! Bird!" as if she were being pulled down into the inner circle of Hell.
"You her mother?" the guard asked over the girl's screams.
I started to answer for Bird, started to say, "Yes, she is," knowing they'd let her in, knowing that she'd be safe and when all the ugly shit was over I'd know where she was. I'd be there when she came out of the underground, and she wouldn't be able to disappear again.
But Bird shook her head before the words were out of my mouth. "No. Her mother's inside."
The guard turned and took the little girl inside the shelter, and her wailing was lost behind the heavy thud of the metal door.
"Bird, what the hell did you do?" I shouted. "Why didn't you go in?"
"I don't want to go back underground," Bird said. "I'm going to stay up here with you."
She grabbed my hand and slowly wove her way through the crowd. I kept my eyes on the tattered hem of her skirt, and the shouts of the people around me turned into a low-pitched hum. As we got into open space, another explosion, closer now, sounded. The concussion knocked Bird and me to the ground. I pulled her close to me as a shower of tiny, stinging bits of rubble rained from the sky. She screamed, and her cries reverberated through my body and rose high in my ears. She clung to me with such fierceness that I knew, finally, that she needed me for something. But I still held onto her with desperation equal to her own, as if I were afraid she would disappear.
Copyright © 2001 Jennifer de Guzman
Jennifer is an English major at San Jose State University and all-around devotee of the written word. Her work has appeared in Dreams of Decadence, Byline, and other publications. She is the slipstream guest editor for the online speculative fiction magazine Ideomancer, and a proud member of the writing groups Spooky Disco and Sporks. For more about her, see her Web site.