City of Devils
She walked through the alley, her shoes crunching over a layer of garbage. She scanned through the mess, glancing for anything of worth. The footsteps of a stranger scuffled closer. She abandoned her search, tucked her head down, and hugged the wall. The man hurried past and she didn’t register his red skin, for his hue matched hers; everyone’s skin matched a variation of hers. Some shades resembled the fabric of brand new boxer gloves, while others looked like the blood crusted on the edge of sidewalks.
Though the streets glowed red, no one truly knew why. Some said the skin alteration resulted from chemical injections, others from environmental toxins. Most said it had something to do with the devil. Religion or no religion, the people who crawled her streets committed sins: harassment, lies, theft and rape were only a few, so everyone came to understand what red skin portrayed about the character beneath, about the soul beneath. Her kind was now secluded to the cities where they worked the grunt of labor, while those whose skin glowed pink resided in suburbs, and the rare whites resided in gated towns, where they controlled society from safe schools and safe homes.
She remembered the first time she saw a pure white person. For a class field trip, they were brought to a charity event to interact with some of the—as they call them—angels. Of course her class was placed under tight security, for even as children, all of them had enough experience to defend themselves or attack others. When they reached the classroom none of them complained: the classroom contained no dirt piled into corners, no peeling paint, especially no lack of supplies as each desk overflowed with pencils, crayons, notebooks, and folders. All were gifts for them.
In one moment, the entire class halted when they saw her. The teacher stood at the front. Dressed in flowing blue, the only aspect of her appearance they comprehended was her white skin and radiant smile, which beckoned them closer. After that experience, she dreamed of being a teacher who donated pencils and folders to the less fortunate. But reality shattered her dreams when the next day she returned to school and the older kids stole her supplies.
She continued to school, weaving through the alleys to avoid most people. Being a light blush red in this city, she had to know which alleys were safe. If only she lived in the outskirts, but the city hadn’t deemed her fair enough to live there. So she stayed with her family and hoped her skin never verged pink and hoped the weird tingles of warmth she got from helping others wouldn’t lighten her skin. The government wouldn’t notice her transformation to pink, but others would; others that stabbed, raped, and murdered people because they could—and worse—because they enjoyed it.
Already late to school, she ambled. She let her eyes wander when she spotted a cracked wooden box, spilling out chipped beads and broken chains. She squatted and searched through the mess. She found success! She untangled her prize from the clump to examine its quality. Grime covered the chain, but that could be polished. Otherwise, the necklace’s pendant, angel wings, remained intact with no damage to its design beside the weird color transformation to a faded orange. She stashed it in her pocket.
The last alleyway contained the back entrance of her school and the home of a man. His skin blended with the dark red bricks, but she could always distinguish him. His tattered clothes shone with the most absurd combination of colors and his home consisted of woven rainbow blankets. Each day he inspected every person who passed his territory as if someone wanted to steal his imaginary home and belongings. However, he never bothered anyone, so the school hadn’t bothered to evict him. Today, though, when she turned the corner, she paused.
He was sunk into the blankets, shielding what she thought was his skin—until she realized he caressed an object beneath the blankets. She crept forward. The man’s head snapped toward her, and the item, along with the soft features of his face, disappeared. “What are you looking at, kid?”
She didn’t respond.
“Are you looking at me? Do you think I’m just a pathetic old man?” He reached his hands out of his blanket, placed them on the ground, and shifted his weight, but she interrupted.
“I was just wondering…what your name was.”
“None of your damn business is what it is.” He stopped getting up. Instead, he sat and crossed his arms. “You think you can just ask me that?”
She rolled her eyes and continued to school. During the day she thought about the man. She wondered what he stroked and protected with—dare she say—compassion? She doubted it. He radiated dark red. Only hatred could fill him. But what if he harbored a secret passion? More importantly, how? She kept thinking about him. Her fingers pulled at the seams of her pockets and she remembered the necklace. She rubbed her thumb against its angel wings. It probably wasn’t worth much, yet for some reason, she wanted to give it to him. Despite his harsh words, she knew he needed a gift like the teacher had given her, even if it wasn’t much.
When school ended, she left through the back and the man’s attention rushed to her as she walked down the stairs. She’d just drop the necklace by him. He wouldn’t say anything. He’d probably pocket it.
As she approached him, he observed her every movement. He inspected the clothes that clung to her body and accented her curves. Then his stare went to the only functional pocket of her tattered jeans where she clutched the necklace.
She pulled out her hand. The man jumped up with a knife. She raised her hands, and the necklace trailed, untangling from her fingers.
“What’s that?” The man nodded toward the necklace as he squinted.
“A-a necklace. I’m going to slowly bring it forward.”
“Ok,” he grumbled.
She placed the necklace in her palm and stretched it forward. He leaned toward it but continued to squint. “Not bad. Not great either.” The man backed away to his home.
“Yeah,” she sighed, “it’s not that great.” Despite his glares, she didn’t interpret any immediate danger; she could hold her own. “I probably won’t get anything for it.” She tossed the necklace next to the man and immediately regretted it.
“I don’t need your damn charity.” The necklace rocketed at her. Pain ignited in her elbow and it spread fast down her arm. It landed among the trash and sunk into a red Solo cup.
“Are you kidding me?” She scrambled down to pick it up. “Why don’t you just take the damn necklace? You probably ruined it throwing it at me!” She scanned it quickly but no damage had been done. “You’re so selfish. Just take the damn necklace.”
“You will.” She waited as he settled into the trash, wrapping his blankets around his body. She waited, and waited. Then she sighed. She shoved her necklace back into her pocket.
The next day she approached the alleyway clutching the pendant. With each step, she thought about how she’d coerce him to accept her gift. As she marched closer, a spell took over her body. She sped past the man, dropped the necklace, and rushed to the back entrance.
She heard a low-pitched whistle. She forced herself to look back. The necklace hovered over the drainage hatch, dangling from the breeze, clanging against rusted sewer bars. The man raised his eyebrows. She called his bluff. The necklace dropped. She dashed toward him. She’d wrestle him into that sewer if—she stopped. She spotted the chain still wrapped around his hand. Only the pendant hung inside the gutter. Snatching the necklace, she stormed inside.
Every chance she got she forced her gift upon him. Each time, he found creative ways to get rid of it. He gave it to another person. He shoved it in an old plastic bottle. Once he even tried to swallow it. She screamed at him for that, almost strangled him.
Every attempt failed and she couldn’t understand why. He needed money, craved money. When a dollar had fallen from a student’s bag he leaped from his nook and pounced on the bill. He lived in the comfort of rainbow blankets. A mere couple bucks could upgrade his shelter to cardboard boxes, yet he still threw her money away. It made no sense. What perplexed her even more was how any man of that color might possess a shred of kindness.
* * *
It had been four days, eight tries, and if he didn’t accept the necklace tomorrow that would be it. Her feet crunched over abandoned junk and she breathed in the released toxins. Even though she ran late to class, she didn’t fret. She had a mission to complete.
He huddled with his knees tight against his chest, back rounded against the wall. He wore the same colorful tattered clothes but his blanket lay on the sidewalk, exposing his red shoulders to the sun and an item in his lap to her sight. She stopped at the entrance of the alley, hid her body behind the brick wall, and peered at the item the man coddled: a metal sculpture. His hands rubbed against the metallic surface whose molded contours created small, layered shadows. She couldn’t tell what the sculpture formed, so she crept closer, doing her best to avoid the water bottles littering the ground, but a crunched exploded underneath her feet.
He spotted her and retracted his sculpture. She tiptoed closer. He watched her inch forward and didn’t protest her curiosity, at least not yet. Feet away from him, she slowed to a stop. She backed against the wall opposite him, checked the ground for glass, placed her jacket on the ground, and sat. The man continued to stare at her but neither of them said a word. She clutched her necklace in her pocket and he held his sculpture beneath his blankets.
He didn’t look at her but he responded. “Mort.”
She pursed her lips. “What are you holding?” She indicated to the sculpture that created a large bump underneath his coat.
“None of your business.”
She nodded and remained seated. Fiddling with her hands, she lost track of time. Maybe she had missed ten minutes of class, or maybe she had missed the entire period.
“How long are you going to stay here?” Mort asked.
“Until you take the necklace.”
The man grumbled but didn’t move toward it. Instead, he shifted his body away from her, raising his jacket as a shield, and took out his metal sculpture.
She adjusted her body so she could sneak glimpses. She couldn’t see much but she figured out what the sculpture formed. He stroked each one of its scales. “Nice dragon,” she muttered to herself.
“It’s mine,” he snapped, “and if you dare try to steal it—”
“I won’t. Promise.”
He glanced at her and mumbled to himself before he turned so his chest faced hers and placed the dragon on his lap. “I made it myself. As a child.”
“It’s very beautiful.” The words slipped out. At school she’d be pounced on and tormented for that little comment. However, Mort simply nodded. She tried to hide a smile and he noticed.
“What you smiling at?” He barked.
“Nothing. It just feels weird saying something nice.”
“Yeah,” he murmured, “its been a while since I’ve heard a compliment. This world...it’s so horrible now…this is the only thing I have left from then.”
“You were alive back then?”
“Don’t insult me, but yeah. I wasn’t the nicest of kids but I still had a future back then. I wanted to be a metal sculptor, but when the change happened I got angry and hateful and shipped off to this city. The monsters who turned me into this and who took me away from my family.” He clutched the dragon closer to his body. “I’ve only got my dragon to remind me of how it used to be. I polish it every day.”
“But how can you be so—how can you care so much about your dragon with your skin such a, um, dark color?”
“You can still care about things, you just have to know how to mask the kindness by fueling up the things you hate to disguise it. Life’s better with a bit of kindness.”
She nodded, looking down at her necklace. He gestured for it. She reached across the alley and dropped the necklace into the man’s hands, clothed in knitted gloves.
“Good metal. Where’d you get it?”
“Found it on the ground.”
He rubbed his thumb against the metal. Pulling it closer to his eyes, his squint disappeared and he aligned the trinket of the necklace level to his vision. One second he inspected the necklace, the next it flew through the air and landed back on her exposed thighs.
“It’s expensive rhodium,” he said. “Old but valuable. I’d trade it in for nothing less than one-twenty but if you’re a skilled negotiator you could get two hundred out of it.”
She couldn’t respond. Dared not to ruin the moment. She had been thinking about throwing away the necklace, a two hundred dollar necklace. She could rush home right now and sell it, get some new clothes, a proper meal, put some money towards her rent.
But it wasn’t hers to keep. It was his.
Despite what everyone else in this city would do, she wouldn’t go back on her promise. She offered it to him as a gift. Maybe she’d be wandering these alleys her entire life, avoiding devils with red masks, but that didn’t mean she had to be like them. She could still be an angel in a city of devils, and she’d start with this gift.
Paris Cipollone is an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She has been honored to receive awards from Scholastic Art & Writing and will be published in The Apprentice Writer.