Blood was nothing new on that boulevard. Trails of it appeared on the sidewalks about once a month, shed we assumed by someone beaten or stabbed during the night. Sometimes the blood looked like rust. Other times it was redder and fresher, perhaps dripped on the concrete just as the sun rose and the asphalt began to hum with the vibrations of the waking city.
Some people called Billow home. Some people called it hell. They were usually the same people. As for me, I had made my peace with the city. Billow asked just one thing of the citizens that infested it: Don’t try to be what you aren’t. If you’re Rise-born, don’t slum it. If you’re from down in the Boroughs, remain there. If you’re a criminal or a doctor or one Sworn to Protect, never play the hero. And if you’re ignorant, stay quiet and keep it that way.
It wasn’t that we in the Boroughs were afraid to talk about the blood. That industrial ring, after all, was the part of Billow City hit hardest by the Great Dampening. When whole economies collapse, where do you suppose the wreckage lands? On streets like ours. We knew what horror was. We’d seen the worst. We weren’t afraid.
And yet the red smears and freckles on the sidewalks were never discussed. We never found out whom they belonged to. No one ever came up missing. No one knocked on doors or alerted the Sworn. It just didn’t matter.
“Anyone who goes out and gets himself stabbed in the middle of the night,” my father once said when I was little, the only time I ever heard him acknowledged the blood, “must have done something to have it coming.”
Armed with that sharp sense of morality, I became a thief. I still lived with my family as an adult — who in the Boroughs could afford not to? — and I think my father knew of my nocturnal occupation. He wasn’t stupid, after all, and there was no way that my meager hours at the quicksilver refinery earned even the small amount of money I brought home each month. But he never said a word about it.
Not that I was extravagant with my thieving. I burgled or mugged maybe once every two weeks. I always stuck to the Boroughs, even if there wasn’t much to steal. I only murdered when I had to.
I knew what Billow expected of me.
Very early one morning, at the tail end of a moonless and dreamless night, I stepped out of our small row house and noticed a trail of blood on the sidewalk. I had never seen one look so red, so fresh. It hadn’t even soaked into the surface yet. Instead, each blob and puddle bubbled up from the asphalt like an inverted meniscus. It was splashed across bird droppings and candy wrappers. It glistened in the light of a flickering streetlamp working up the courage to extinguish itself for the day.
I stared at the blood with curiosity, as if I had never seen such a thing. It was the same curiosity I remembered feeling in school, in the libraries, when Billow could still brook such luxuries. I’d spend long hours there as an adolescent, deciding whether I should devote my nights to studying or stealing. The audacity of such a dilemma! No such choice was available to me, or to anyone in the Boroughs, any longer.
The street, still asleep, grumbled and burped steam. I crouched down closer to the blood on the sidewalk. I touched my fingertips to it.
It was warm.
I got up and started to follow it.
From the way each drop of blood had burst and flowered, I guessed from which direction the trail had started. It took me deep into the spleen and bowel of the Boroughs. Houses and tenements gave way to aluminum shacks and vacant lots still smoldering from the pollution buried there decades before. The sun rose. Buildings stirred then shat people. They entered the street, sleep still in their eyes, to sell meat, scrap metal, drugs, each other.
I walked past or rather through them all. It was as if they didn’t see me, and they in turn were no more than phantasms to my senses. I kept my head down and slid through the plasma of the crowd as if by osmosis, all of us intangible to each other, my gaze on the trail of blood.
After noon that day or perhaps the next, the trail ballooned into a pool of red, a resting spot, and then arced abruptly into an alley. The sun flung long and monstrous shadows across the walls. I walked their length. After a while, so gradually that I barely noticed at first, the alleys began to resemble the streets, and every street I passed began to resemble an alley. Block by block the streets shriveled, and the width of the alleys grew. Soon I was in a city within the city, a topography tucked into itself. Not hidden, just slightly askew, like two graphs superimposed by a sloppy geomancer.
Faces peered out of dark windows at me. They were sleeping faces, yet their eyes were open.
“Hello,” came a parched voice out of the congealing dusk. It echoed up the canyon-like walls of the alley to the rooftops. Cheap weathervanes of beaten tin spun around and pointed at me, laconic and coy. “You are a follower, yes?”
A woman stepped out of everywhere and stood in front of me. At the same instant, the alley grew a canopy. Brass and sod and rotted plaster clambered up the walls and swung in clumps in the breeze, eclipsing the leaping Hunter’s Moon.
The woman’s face was made of scabby plastic and flaked zinc with a halo of aerosol smog limning it. Her hair was a corona of frozen sparks, like those that spurt from trolley brakes or alchemical transformers at the tops of streetlamps.
“You haven’t spoken, follower.”
I tried to swallow. My tongue tasted of dead skin. I looked down and realized I had wiped great amounts of blood on my clothes as I’d paused to refresh my contact with the trail over the course of the past few days.
“That’s alright,” she said. “I know. You want to ask me a question. But it is I who must ask questions of you. First: Why don’t you do as I ask? It is so simple, what I ask. Also: Where do you suppose your gutters are voided, your drains and pipes, your toilets and abattoirs, if not here? And last: When was the last time you gave offering to me?
Finally I found four words. “What is your name?”
Her voice rasped like barnacled clockwork. “I was once called many names, many noble names,” she said. “That was before I was nailed to this glass and shit and steel, before it ate of me and became my flesh. Now you may call me whatever you wish. It doesn’t matter anymore. It will be forgotten.”
She stank suddenly of piss and electricity. The alley’s fey light, born of neither night nor day, began boiling around us. “All who have bled,” she said, “will be forgotten.”
I stumbled down the sidewalk in the predawn calm. I was shivering, and my clothes were stuck to my skin, slick with fluids. The fluids were my own. I had screamed at first, but the woman had forced plumbing and tubing and wiring down my throat and into the fat above my breastbone until I could no longer make sounds. The rest was far worse. But it was over, and I could still walk, barely.
The street was blank and silent, an emptied eggshell. The wind scoured it. I limped passed the corner apothecary, Mr. Breene’s, where I used to filch ginger syrups and tar candy when I was young. I held him up once, too, with a bread knife, when I was 12. But I had a mask on then, and I didn’t cause him pain.
As a grown woman, I only went into Breene’s to pick up my father’s tinctures once a month. But Breene always remembered me. “It’s the Gholin girl,” he’d say, “come to rob me of my sweets once again.” In fact, the old chemist’s jesting always embarrassed me, and even annoyed me, especially if the two of us were alone in the shop with the bell on the door still tinkling faintly from my entry. He’d fix me with that look of his, a look lined with sadness and fear and pity. The look you give a rat when it’s caught in a trap, and you take the knife in your hand and you know what you have to do.
But that was before, long ago. With a trail of fresh drops like red gems glittering down the sidewalk behind me and the sun thrusting its ulcerous crown over Billow’s jagged, cracked-tooth skyline ahead, I pressed my eyes shut and wished I could hear him again.
Jason Heller is the author of STRANGE STARS, a book about science fiction’s influence on ’70s music (David Bowie, P-Funk, Hawkwind, Rush, Kraftwerk, Devo, and everything in between). It was published in hardcover and paperback by Melville House Publishing and is available everywhere books are sold. Jason is also the author of the alternate history novel TAFT 2012 (Quirk), the Goosebumps book SLAPPY’S REVENGE (Scholastic), the Pirates of the Caribbean book THE CAPTAIN JACK SPARROW HANDBOOK (Quirk), and numerous short stories in magazines and anthologies. He’s the former nonfiction editor of CLARKESWORLD and won a Hugo Award in 2013 as part of that editing team, and he also penned a chapter of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s THE TIME TRAVELER’S ALMANAC (Tor). He’s written about pop culture for THE NEW YORKER, THE ATLANTIC, ROLLING STONE, PITCHFORK, NPR, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, THE A.V. CLUB, and many others. His next two books will be published in 2021: REPEATER, an urban fantasy novel set in the ’90s punk scene (Saga Press) and EXTRATERRESTRIAL SUMMER, a memoir about being a sci-fi-obsessed kid growing up in poverty in the ’80s (Melville House). His most recent band was the post-punk outfit WEATHERED STATUES (Svart Records), and he lives in Denver with his wife. He is represented by Eddie Schneider, Vice President of JABberwocky Literary Agency. You can reach Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org.