The rain fell like an avalanche of stone, a mass of brown-gray beating down the occupants underneath with a fury. My grandmother used to tell me the old stories, which were old even when she was a little girl. They were the stories of a bygone era when scientific explanation were wanting, and we turned to our imagination over experiments. She told me of a woman with long, white curls who rested in a bed of blue. She said her son was the sun. When the sun would hide, the white woman would cry and cry, with big tears of grief thundering on the ground like the daggers through her heart. Sometimes she would scream and shake the world with her flashes of anger at how her son was taken from her.
It was a much more romantic story than gaseous water condensing on soot particles. Perhaps those times were more romantic. Perhaps ignorance is inherently romantic, and in this era where all our answers came readily to our fingertips, ignorance and its romance had been lost.
The puddles were slick with oil, refracting the bright, piercing glow of a thousand LED lamps into a dirty rainbow across the brown surface. I had heard that the upper levels of the city were much cleaner, but passes into them were expensive, and I was only to stay here a night, my last night of freedom and perhaps my last night alive. Dirt didn’t bother me.
I sometimes traced the path that led me here as I stared up into the starless sky while a background concert of grumbling voices, mechanical whirring of vehicles, and gasping generators streamed noiselessly across my ears. It was simple really. There was a war far away, across the expanse of space. The distance could not eclipse its importance. The nobility of the crusade was poured through every media, only matched in quantity by the pressed gray uniforms returned to families instead of the person inside.
It had happened to the family next door of grandmother and I last week. In another war (or perhaps the same war a decade previous; it was difficult to demarcate the passing of one war to the next) it had happened to my parents. Now, it was my turn to take the gray uniform so it might be returned to my grandmother one day, politely folded.
It was a warm night. The teardrops of the white woman traced the curvatures of my face tenderly, as if my own mother could see me now and bemoaned by end. It trickled pass the collar of my jacket. It was probably too warm for a jacket, but I kept it on anyway. It marked my fate, but it still smelt of home where I had unpacked it the week before with a note of my calling. My grandmother had taken to washing it carefully, fixing a loose seam at the cuff. It was as if she wished it to be in perfect condition when it returned home without me. Now, it would smell of pollution, with dingy stains across the shoulder from whatever this rain carried with it.
I should turn myself into the barracks, out of the rain and out of this phantasm of reality, for this moment could not last. It would melt away with the hours, and leave me back toward the specter of death with all my gray-clad comrades. It meant nothing.
I could write a note to my grandmother, although I did not know what I could say. We had spent the last week in silence, for words no longer held any power to my fate. What would happen would happen.
I did not turn back however, as logic dictated. Instead, a low building with a red, glowing sign and a large corrugated awning welcomed me. The structure was nigh empty and quiet. Although I had never had one before, I suppose now I could use a drink.
The inside was dimly lit, and the few occupants seemed likewise dim. There seemed a heavy film over everyone and everything, as if some cosmic maid forgot to dust this corner of the universe and had left it to accumulate the grime of life. That is, everyone except one.
A young woman sat on a barstool. Her hair was an electric blue, her skin a burnt umber. A tribal tattoo wound it’s way around her bicep and another at her thigh, which her short skirt and holey tights allowed vision of, but was almost obscured by her thigh high boots. She had a bright smile, that seemed to light the place more than its faded lamps.
She did not look up from chatting with the bartender, all smiles and jokes. I went around her to the right, well within the shadows to which I now belonged. My separation from them was temporary, my rejoining impending.
“At ease, soldier.” I turned. She stood behind me, saluting with a facsimile of a hard frown. She broke into a laugh. “Are you one of the recruits?”
I nodded. She sat beside me. Her eyes matched her hair. The antihelical fold of her ear had a trio of stars carved out of it so that I could see the blue locks tucked behind it. A silver wire twisted across the rim of her ear.
“How come you guys are always so grim?” she asked.
“I suppose we know our fate,” I returned quietly.
“Higgs, get this kid a drink,” she called out, shaking her head. “Where are you from?”
“Does it matter?” I asked.
“Um, yeah. You’re not from around here, so that means you’re from somewhere different. Different is cool,” the woman said.
“Amazonia, you know, on Earth,” I said.
“This your first time outside the planet, soldier?” the woman asked with a smile.
“My family never had much money,” I explained.
“Well then, merde, I should show you around,” the woman said. The drink the woman had ordered for me arrived along with another for her. It was colorless and came in a thin, tall glass.
“Bottoms up, soldier,” the woman ordered with a smile. I took the glass and she held hers up at the same time. I do not know why, perhaps the belief that nothing I did tonight would matter if my end were so close, but I listened to her.
I sputtered, coughing. She laughed like lightning, bright and electric. She grabbed my hand, wiping her mouth with the other. “Come on, soldier.” She pulled me away from the bar with my eyes burning. My brain seemed fuzzy in face of such untarnished optimism. It could not object.
The rain met us. She smiled and let go of my hand for a moment. She spun in it, puddles splashing against her boots and coating them with muck. She seemed abuzz with a strange joy that seemed to have no origin. She looked at me; with radiant teeth exposed, she laughed. The laugh hit me like a physical force, as if her spirit had enraptured my mind.
She grabbed my hands and spun with me, laughing all the more at my expression. Then, we ran. She pulled me through the streets, past the huddling crowds and faded buildings.
“Where are we going?” I asked her as we ducked around a signpost.
“I don’t know!” she replied breathlessly. The exertion cleared my brain of extraneous thoughts.
We stopped at a fountain, an old fixture from when the city was new. It was no longer working. There was once a green around it, but all that remained was rocks and mud. In this dingy part of the city, no one had taken the time to repair it. I doubted anyone cared when so much of this borough was gray and dirty.
She sat against the fountain, panting and radiating. Her blue hair seemed luminescent, brightening up the area with impossible light. She was a candle in the dark. She looked at me and laughed.
“Take off your coat, soldier,” she said. “It’s hot.”
“I’m not hot,” I lied. Sweat was creeping down my brow, but my earlier assertion to keep my jacket hung on to me. Perhaps I considered it my grandmother’s last gift. Perhaps I had an irrational fear of losing it because of its loss was so closely associated with death. Only death could take it from me. If the woman could see my grim thoughts, she gave no notice. Instead, she batted her bright eyes and laughed.
“Of course, you’re hot, soldier. Anybody with two eyes can see that,” she smiled. “Hey, what’s that over there?”
She pointed to an old shop with multicolored lights. She didn’t wait for a response, not that I could provide one. “Come on, soldier. Let’s go see.”
She grabbed my hand and pulled me over. Inside was a candy shop and gray-haired man with a beard like the candy floss that sat to his right. The shop gleamed with the colors of the rainbow; candies were displayed on archaic wood shelves with great care. The lower shelves were polished with a thousand, tiny, eager fingers, but the upper stood untouched, with dust mites dancing above them in the overhead fluorescent lighting.
There were still children in this dark, dank level of the city, children who so few people cared about that they hadn’t taken the time to repair the fountain in which they could play. But those children had a few that could still care, that would take them to get candy, a momentary diversion from a dark fate.
“I love cotton candy,” the woman declared. “My dad used to get it for me when I was little. You ever had it, soldier?”
I shook my head, my dark thoughts scattering with her words and smile. She seemed to flash across the darkness around her like a shooting star. She pulled a cone of candy floss down, swiping her card across the counter.
“The blue matches my hair, don’t you think?” the woman said, pulling the confection close to her head for comparison’s sake. I found words a little awkwardly.
“Almost,” I said. “But, I think your hair is a little brighter.”
She laughed. “You should get the pink!”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I said so, soldier!” she smiled, paying for the second cone of candy floss. She thrust it into one hand and grabbed the other, pulling me impatiently. “Come on.”
Trying to save our confections from the pouring rain, as impossible a task as trying to save the lives of soldiers in war, we ran forward into the night. She laughed as the candy stuck to her fingertips, as brilliant as blood but of an opposite color. Likewise, her expression betrayed the opposite emotion.
She brought us to a stop, as she held her ribs aching with laughter. “You have cotton candy on your face,” she said.
“Where?” I asked. The candy floss had melted in the rain, like I feared my life would soon. I felt upward at my face, trying to find the location of the misplaced sugar.
“There,” she said, leaning in next to me. She licked my cheek. My brain went numb. I stood stock-still, unsure of how to respond.
“Now, you match your cotton candy,” she laughed. “It’s all wet now though. Come on, soldier!”
She threw our candy flosses away, and pulled me forward into the dank, dark cave of a mall half way through closing down. We ran up the stairs until we reached the atrium. A glass ceiling stood above us, and through it, you could see the glimmering buildings of more prosperous people. It was like the film that dissociated condemned soldiers from reality. It was for those people above that I gave my life.
Absent-mindedly, I took off my soaked jacket and folded it under my arm.
“Did you see the stars back on Earth, soldier?” she asked.
“I did when I was little. I lived way away from the city with my parents. They died though, so my grandma and I had to move back into the city so she could work,” I said. I could picture our perfect little house so clearly in my mind before death had taken its hold over my life. Yet, death was still not done with me.
“Did they sparkle like everyone said? Were they really so bright that they looked like milk spilt across the heavens?” she asked, forgoing the normal apologies people usually offered when hearing the passing of my parents.
“Not quite like milk, but there were a lot of them on clear nights,” I said. Sweet memories made bitter by the fate of their occupants danced across my cerebrum. “My mother knew their names.”
“Names don’t mean squat, do they, soldier?” the woman said. Her eyes sparkled with the understanding she had no desire for my name, and I should expect none from her. She laughed, and stole my jacket from underneath my arm. She placed it over her own shoulders and grabbed my hand. “Come on. There’s more to see.”
We ran out of the building and into the rain once more. She smiled and laughed, as if the rain were a glad song only she could hear. We stopped at a toy cart, and she bought bubbles and a red balloon with a swipe of her card.
She handed me the balloon and spread a ring of bubbles around us as she laughed. The punctuated quickly with the oncoming rain, but it didn’t seem to matter for the woman. She smiled and laughed with the mirth of child a third her age. It was as if the bubbles were filled with hopes and dreams. “Come on, soldier!”
We left a trail of bubbles as we ran, and as the night passed, the rain lessened then dispersed. The bubbles lasted longer, iridescently refracting light into a thousand tiny rainbows as beautiful and poignant as any artistic masterpiece. They were like will-o-wisps that guided its followers toward dreams. Perhaps they were crafted from the fabric of dreams themselves, like this mysteriously mirthful woman with blue hair.
We found ourselves back in front of the low building with the glowing red sign. She grabbed the balloon from my hand, kissed it once, and then thrust it into the air where we watched its ascent through the high reaching towers into the upper echelons of society. It was like watching a representation of the dream we all dreamed come into reality.
She swept her arms around me and kissed my cheek.
I was smiling. I did not know when it had happened, but there was a smile I found somewhere in the last few hours that I had thought I lost many years ago.
“This is where I leave you, soldier,” she said.
“What?” I asked. The world closed and narrowed. The possibilities drew back darkly toward the sucking black void of reality. “I thought-.”
She smiled. “You’re beautiful, soldier, and so am I. Sometimes, the most beautiful things are temporary, like bubbles.”
She turned to leave.
“Wait!” I said, running to catch her.
She smiled. “What is it, soldier?”
“My jacket,” I said. She took it off and placed it around my shoulder. With her hands behind my neck, she pressed her lips to mine. They tasted of sugar.
She laughed. She placed her lips to my ear. “Bubbles, soldier,” she whispered. She ran off into the night, still leaving bubbles behind her.