The only reason I caught Peasant the first time was because I was snooping. Sick of the view from my room, I wander into hers late one night to see what alley views the backyard holds. Instead of my sleeping 13-year-old sister tucked in her bed, I spy her out the window. She looks both ways and opens up the rusted chain link gate.
“Peasant!” I whisper-scream in shock.
She turns and just stands there. Then she sighs a very long sigh, closes the gate, and walks back to the window. She is too far away for me to grab.
“What?” she whispers.
“What are you doing?”
“Going out,” she says like it’s the most reasonable thing in the world.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean – going out where?”
“I can’t tell you.” She says this all tragic, like the omission causes her physical pain even though I know it doesn’t, the toothless rat.
I feel many feelings in that moment: rage that my kid sister has a secret, pride and envy that takes my breath away, that she can so casually accomplish something I have failed at for weeks. I want to slap her but I can’t even reach her and I need her to teach me how to be brave.
“Can I come?” I ask.
She sighs again. I switch tactics.
“If you leave without me, I’ll tell Vivian you’re sneaking out of the house at night and she’ll probably pay me in I-O-U potatoes to break your skinny legs.”
“Ok, if you’re quiet and don’t say anything. But hurry.”
A minute later I’m sneaking through the living room, past Elysian Fields and the couch that holds our snoring Pops, to the kitchen. After the first bombing but before he enlisted, my older brother Paul joked that a kitchen couldn’t be called a kitchen if it didn’t hold any food in it. Years later, we heard stories of soldiers eating the dead for lack of anything else. Vivian said they were just lies spread by traitors but sometimes when I can’t sleep I wonder how much of Paul and my other siblings those urns hold.
Now the kitchen is just a breezeway to the back door. I open it gentle but it creaks with a conscience. I take a deep breath, then another, and step out. The sand is still warm under my bare feet. Peasant is at the gate again but she’s waiting for me. She opens it and after another few deep breaths, and some dramatically deep sighs on her part, we step through.
She leads. We pick our way down the dirt alley and into the street. My heart is pounding. I don’t know where we’re going and my tender feet cannot keep up with Peasant’s sure stride. I grab her hand, as much for balance as for comfort. She leads us east, guided by the distant glow of downtown’s neon lights. We walk in the middle of the street, away from the broke-down cars and twisting shadows that haunt the sidewalks. At night you can’t quite see the craters where our neighbors used to live.
“Where are we going?” I whisper a block later when I can’t stand it anymore.
“Virginia Street,” she says and still I don’t know how to process it, this little girl who knows things I don’t, who walks at night to clandestine markets on her own. I’d heard Vivian talking about the market that springs up each night next to the strip, where dealers traded in gossip, food and contraband, among other things. But suddenly I’m full of doubt. Our feet are tender, smoother than the palms of our hands from disuse, and the reality of being outside now makes me feel vulnerable and foolish and stupid.
“I wish I had shoes.”
“SHHHH,” Peasant says. “Don’t talk unless you need to.”
So we walk in silence, guided by the crazy rainbow of the strip. I sense by her impatience that I’m slowing her down and I wonder how many times she has walked this walk before.
Some blocks have barrel fires, solar lamps and the odd working streetlamp that show what nine years of world war has wrought. The views are new and wondrous: every junked out car now homes a family; whispered conversations caress our ears. A body is curled up tight under a detached car hood. Next to it, a couple is necking for the fun of it. Lumps of people sort through their trashes and treasures, getting set to hit the night market and barter for new trashes and treasures. Almost no one’s got money or even anything new that the government doesn’t give them. The exception are the soldiers. After the war ended, the lights came back on (kinda) and more soldiers came, albeit with a new name: Peacekeepers. The casinos never stopped running, even in blackout.
I stub my big toe and pitch forward. A hand snakes out and grabs my arm. I flinch and pull away. My neck prickles like we’re the unwitting stars in a Greek tragedy.
“Watch yourself,” a man’s voice says. “This isn’t the place for girls who can’t watch their step.”
I want to say something bold and withering and assured but my throat is too dry. Suddenly Peasant is standing in front of me.
“If that’s a threat you should be more clear about it,” Peasant says. “And if it’s not you should get out of our way.”
The shadow man chuckles. “I was only trying to help,” he says. “And you should know: good threats never announce themselves.”
Peasant grabs my hand again and pulls me further into the street. I catch the impatience in her voice.
“If you’re going to be out here, you have to move faster.”
When did my wussy little sister grow a backbone?
Then she’s moving faster, propelling us towards the neon mecca of the strip. The further we go, the faster my bravado fades. I know we shouldn’t be headed downtown, where no one knows where we are. Vivian would be pissed if she still had the sense to mother us.
“Maybe we should go back,” I say.
She doesn’t respond. She’s done even looking at me.
It’s only about a mile to Virginia Street but then, I’ve only ever done the walk once in recent memory. One day about three years ago Los opened the front door and there was our Pops, just standing there.
“Which one are you?” he asked.
“I’m Carlos,” Los said.
Back then it was a happy reunion. In an instant, we had a Pops again. We bustled around the house, a sad three-kid welcome committee, fluffing pillows and fighting to share our astronaut juice rations as he walked through a house he hadn’t seen in nearly a decade and ran his hands along the urns of our dead: his two brothers, our three brothers and sisters. The urns are lined up on a mantle Peasant and I nicknamed “Elysian Fields,” after the final resting place of Greek heroes. But more and more, it feels like our whole house is Elysian Fields, not just that mantle. Like we’re all buried alive in here, slowly suffocating amidst stacks of books.
After our brother Paul came home in a box, our third loss, mother ordered us to stop calling her mother. I was 10.
“Call me Vivian,” she said.
When Vivian didn’t come home that first night with Pops, we pretended it was normal. She worked as a cocktail waitress – head cocktail waitress! – at Circus Circus, we told him proudly. But when she didn’t come home the next, Los conscripted me to help him find her. We left at first light, a time when the city is showcased at its most broken. I don’t remember much about the trip. Los told me to keep my head down and keep walking. I remember my feet were tenderized on rocks and trash but I didn’t want to slow him down. When we reached Circus Circus, it’s electric doors slid open, releasing a breath of air-conditioning and the jazzy wails of slot machines. I moved forward, entranced, but he walked me to the back, handed me a steak knife, and told me to wait in the dumpster. I refused. We argued. A compromise was reached: I crouched behind it.
He returned alone awhile later, mouth drawn in a sad little line.
“She said she’d be home tonight,” was all he said. That was that. We went home and eventually so did our mother, smiling tightly and gripping a bottle of celebratory Circus Juice that our Pops guzzled with endless thirst. A broken family reunited.
But that was then and this is now. The closer Peasant and I get to Virginia Street, the more people join us. We’re caught in a steady stream of gutter-tricks, proselytizers, hawkers and thieves heading towards pulsing lights. Nobody looks at our faces; we are part of the crowd.
We turn a corner and suddenly we’re bathed in those pulsing lights that shout “LAST CHANCE” and “FATE’S FORTUNE” and “STEAK NIGHT.” The muted din of arcades and hawkers and laughter beckon us from all directions. Peasant’s fingers hover behind the chapped flesh of my elbow. People like us converge around a clot of crisply dressed Peacekeepers who look to be Los’s age – their faces have hair on them but their cheeks are plump and round like the apples that tempted Eve. They smell so good, like sunshine after a rain, and they’re wearing shoes that are shinier than my hair. Reno at night is magic, I decide right then. The Peacekeepers barely glance at me before settling on the beauty of Peasant’s face.
People love Peasant because she’s pretty. Her features look like something you’d find in a dewy church painting, all golden with angels buzzing about her head. We’re sisters but my features are plain with touch of ugly – cheeks too round, nose too big, eyes too wide to be taken seriously. I’m smaller, darker like our other siblings, and when I smile it most often looks like a threat. Our house used to have normal stuff, like mirrors, along with our half-ton of books. I know I look like a thumb with bangs.
One of the Peacekeepers leans towards Peasant, holding out a piece of paper like he’s giving her an order. She dodges him even as her fingers snake out to grab the paper. Before either he or I can react, she disappears into the crowd. I try to follow but my soft feet are clumsy and I lose her. I should be worried but suddenly I’m not. She’ll be back, she can’t just leave me here. Plus, it’s hard to worry with this many people about. Color is everywhere. The loudest lights win. Neon is such an optimistic color. It smells like real food here – food I couldn’t identify in a lineup but my stomach recognizes it on a gut level and responds by doing the wave.
Then I see it – the peeling head of a giant clown. Circus Circus. Only Peacekeepers and employees are allowed inside, partly because they’re the only people with money and partly because they’re the only people with power. People like us stand next to the toothy doors, selling whatever they can – a single glove, twigs twisted up to look like hearts. Warring cries of “shoe shine, two coins!” and “gentleman’s shave for five!” fill the air.
Somewhere inside that giant clown head Vivian is working. When the doors whoosh open and the clown grins its widest, you can see a crowded mix of crisp white uniforms and bouncy, jestery servers slinging trays of food and drink. It’s hard to imagine her in there. I wonder if she laughs and if so, it’s real. I’m just old enough to remember when having a mother was normal. When baths and birthday cakes were normal.
In the alley, I find a kid reading the bottom of an old shoe. Beside him sits a half-full bottle of something – it looks like astronaut juice, the stuff they feed kids to make sure their bones grow and hair doesn’t fall out.
“What are you reading?”
“I’m reading this shoe,” the kid says.
“What does it say?”
“I can’t really read it because I don’t know how.”
I would guess most kids don’t know how to read. Our schools were bombed and even if they weren’t, where are the teachers to teach them? I crouch down and notice the shoe he is holding is part of a pair. They’re old but good quality. Black and white leather, the kind of shoes named after a fast cat. The kind designed for runners.
“Let me see,” I say.
Even in lights that scream “STEAK!” his little face looks cherubic.
“I can’t read this one, either,” I tell him. “Can I see the other one?”
Like an angel he hands me the other shoe.
“Thanks,” I say, standing and running my hands along their tread, fingering the unfrayed laces. He stands too. He’s just a scrap of a person. Barely hits my belly button. His hands are as dirty as his tiny feet. Where would a little boy get such shoes? What would he do with them? These shoes would never fit him.
I look around again but no one is paying us any attention. I start to back away from him. His features transform from confusion to the sad, impotent rage of the powerless. If he blinks, he will cry, so he just stares at me as I take his prize.
“But what do they say?” he asks again.
“They say you’re a sucker,” I tell him. I say it gentle because it’s the truth.