Avins snatched the handbill from the light pole, wondering as he did so when the last time was that anyone had bothered to light the gas light up top. Not that the new electric lights in some parts of town would have been any better. Electricity became unpredictable during war. He’d been a little boy when they were last lit, it seemed—but everyone had been a child before the war, no matter their age.
Now they were all old—those in their twenties, like himself, as well as his parents’ generation, and even the little children who hardly knew what it was to play without fear in the streets. Old in a way those who lived in peace never were.
The handbill was cheaply made, the letters bleeding into the rough paper from printing type that had been used too many times. No one cast new letters in the midst of a war, or if they did, then the people of the city of New Irlads certainly weren’t taking the time to buy them. Hiding from the ever-present artillery was a higher priority these days. The notice promised what it always did—the illusion of hope. Every month they came out, announcing a concert or a play or some other performance, an opening for an art exhibit, or as this one did, a sporting event, a football competition that invited the citizens to participate in hope of winning a prize.
Hope. Was there ever a time when that wasn’t simply a sarcastic word?
As always, at the bottom of the page was the line, “Conditions permitting.” They never were. Artillery shells were the city’s precipitation, and it always rained. Troops adjusted their positions on the night of the play, or changing restrictions limited the citizens of New Irlads, forcing them indoors when the dance was supposed to take place. Always the promised event was canceled. “Postponed!” handbills showed up at the theater, the playing field, the opera house.
And the people returned to their shell-marked houses dejected.
Avins crumpled the paper into a bullet and threw it down on the cobbles. Then he walked across the broken stones of the street, kicking spent shells out of his way. He should probably sneak along in the shadow of the buildings, darting from one abandoned storefront to the next, but he didn’t. No one did that anymore. The artillery caught those sneaking as often as it caught those who moved openly, so why bother? The years of war had taught them a brutal pragmatism.
No one really remembered the time before the war. They said they did, but they didn’t, not really. What they remembered, Avins thought as he stepped over a pile of rubble and into a maze of buildings, was their former selves, different people who had known a time without war. Those people no longer existed, all killed as if one magic spell had wiped them out, replaced them with the people of a city at war, people that only remembered peace at two removes.
The maze was Avins’s one concession to protecting himself. Here he could walk easily behind walls from building to building, crossing under the streets in ancient access tunnels. Where he wanted to go now demanded that bit of protection.
People lived here, crammed into the shadows of abandoned office buildings and warehouses. Many of them, like himself, opposed the war, all wars, and refused to send their young men and women to fight in the hills around the city. Avins passed by blankets strung up for an imitation of privacy. He could hear people behind the blankets as if they stood in the passageways right beside him.
Turning a corner, he saw an open space, what had been a warehouse floor and was now the closest these kids had to a park. Children climbed over abandoned forklifts and up and down the high shelves. Parts of broken steam engines littered the edges of the room. In the open space in the center a group of kids was kicking a ball, playing furiously. And talking.
Avins slowed down to listen.
“You see the new announcement?”
“Yeah, and I’ll beat you like this.” The boy talking cut back then changed directions again and slipped by his defender.
“No, man,” a girl said as she got the pass and moved toward the goal. “My family will win it easy. It’ll be enough to get us out of here.”
Avins sucked the air between his teeth at that. The constant empty promise of the city was that with just a little more money the family could bribe their way out through the narrow strip of protected road in the south, start a new life where there was no war. No war, what a joke. He’d heard so many parents tell the story to their children, yet none of them ever managed to leave. It was always just out of reach.
“You can’t just win and leave, girl. You win, you gotta defend yourself, and I’ll take your prize right back. Like this.” The speaker tried to take the ball away from the girl, but she stepped over the ball neatly, pushed it between his legs with the other f -- [End of Preview.]