I think this story is close to a year old now, maybe a little older. I first got the idea for it when I was browsing the Google Arts and Culture website and happened to come across a few articles/galleries on Parisian street art. I wanted to write a piece that highlighted art’s power to inspire creativity and rebelliousness, all with an urban fantasy twist.
When I was ten years old, my only friend Kenna disappeared for three days.
No one would go looking for her. My parents said that orphans ran away all the time, that the government couldn’t waste its precious resources tracking down everyone who went missing. She was probably dead already, though they didn’t say it like that. They just said it was a bad thing that happened sometimes. Either way, it was nothing a boy like me should be troubling themselves with.
I didn’t believe them, and I sat up all three nights waiting for a sign that things weren’t what they seemed. Kenna was just hiding, I told myself, and she would come back home when she was ready. I would know. I knew her better than anybody. She wouldn’t leave like this unless she had a good reason.
I was right, of course, but I never could have guessed what that reason would be.
The day would be starting in just an hour or two, and I had spent all of that night staring at my bedroom wall. My eyelids were beginning to droop, and with a sigh, I let them close. Better to get what sleep I still could instead of being yelled at for sleeping in class again –
Tap tap tap.
Our apartment was ten stories up, and yet a blurry shape had suddenly appeared at my bedroom window. I nearly fell out of bed scrambling to find my glasses, and then again when I could make out a familiar dark face. Kenna merely grinned at me, waved and motioned for me to open the window.
“Where have you been?” I said under my breath as I helped haul her over the sill. “Everyone said you weren’t gonna come back!”
“I almost didn’t,” she said as she dusted herself off. “But I had to tell you about what I found out there.”
“What do you mean ‘out there’? Where did you go?”
Kenna looked around before leaning in closer. “The north district.”
I gasped. “You liar!”
“I can prove it!” she said. Her old instant camera was hanging around her neck, and the satchel where she kept all her photos was slung over her shoulder. She pulled one out, shook it a bit and then thrust it towards my face. “Look at this.”
I took it from her and looked. It was a grainy snapshot of an overgrown parking lot and a crumbling brick building, one of many in that part of the city. But there was something else that I couldn’t quite make out – a flash of red and yellow smeared across the brick, like a bird caught in flight.
“What’s that thing in the back?” I asked.
“Come back with me and I’ll show you.”
I thrust Kenna’s photo back at her. “No way.”
“It’s not like the grown-ups tell us it is,” she said. “There’s nothing dangerous out there – no soldiers, no bombs.”
“Why do they keep the north district closed off, then?”
“Good question,” she said with that crooked smirk of hers. “Let’s find out.”
“What if something happens to us out there? The police wouldn’t be able to find us!”
Kenna’s smile faded. “Did they ever try looking for me?”
I didn’t answer.
“That’s what I thought.”
“I don’t want to end up like Uncle Toby,” I blurted out. Uncle Toby had been caught out on the streets after curfew the year before. The police said he’d been going to some kind of meeting, but they wouldn’t say what it was. It didn’t matter; we never saw him again.
“Maybe we could find out what happened to him!”
“I…don’t know.” I didn’t think I wanted to know, but I couldn’t bring myself to say that.
“Fine,” said Kenna as she went back to the window and opened it. “I guess I’ll just go, and you’ll just stay up here and spend the rest of your life wondering what might have happened if you hadn’t been such a…”
She stopped and turned around, now with a smile on her face. “Yeah?”
“You know how much I hate it when you do that.”
“I’ll stop doing it when it stops working.”
I got off the bed. “This thing you want me to see, what is it?”
“Now I know you’re lying.”
“When have I ever lied to you?”
I paused. She had me there. “Can you prove that it’s magic?” I asked.
She shook her head. “You just have to trust me on this one. And,” she added, “I wouldn’t have come back if there was nothing out there worth showing you.”
“When do you want me to come, then?”
“A week from tonight,” she answered, opening the window. “Meet me at the bottom of the fire escape at eleven. I’ll be waiting.”
And just like that, she dove through the window and was gone again.
I didn’t get any sleep for the remainder of that night, or for several nights afterwards. I found myself struggling to keep my mouth shut every time I walked past the bulletin board of missing faces in the school hallway, with Kenna’s front and center. You really need to tell someone, I thought.
But then I would never see the thing Kenna wanted to show me, and the curiosity held my tongue. She couldn’t have planned it better.
On the night Kenna had set for our meeting, I told my parents goodnight and got into bed as always. Then I lay awake, watching and listening for a sign that it was safe to start moving. It was nearly eleven when the light in our hallway went out, letting me know my parents were finally going to sleep. I scrambled out of bed and dressed as quick as I could, then crawled through my window out on to the metal stairway.
Kenna was waiting for me when I reached the bottom, a green hoodie pulled tight over her head. “You were almost late,” she whispered.
“I had to wait for the right time! I couldn’t just…”
She placed a finger to her lips. She was looking at the watch on her wrist.
I peered over her shoulder just in time to see the neon readout tick over from 10:59 to 11:00. The last round of curfew warnings blared out over the city’s loudspeaker system a moment later. I shuddered at the low-pitched, droning alarm and resisted the urge to fly from the dark alley. I’d never stayed out past curfew before.
Kenna was a professional at this sort of thing, though. She gave my arm a squeeze and turned my head to face hers. I couldn’t make out the words she mouthed to me, but the way she nodded her head set me at ease. Nodding meant she knew what to do.
We stayed huddled under the fire escape for another twenty minutes, waiting for the movement on the streets to die down. It was the armor-clad enforcers, shining their flashlights into every dark crevice to make sure they were the only people left outside. Somehow they never saw us, even though a dozen of them must have walked past our hiding place. Eventually the patrols stopped coming, and I could breathe easy at last. But only for a second.
Kenna crawled out into the open and pulled me out after her. “You ready to go?” she asked.
“Do I get one last chance to back out?”
There was a camera on a nearby streetlight, trained on the spot where our alley met the sidewalk. Kenna fished around in the pocket of her hoodie and drew out a rock, which she flung into the street. The camera swiveled to follow the sudden movement, turning away from us.
“Go!” said Kenna.
And away we ran, down the sidewalk, heading north. It wasn’t long before we came to the spaces where the asphalt was broken up, where the paint-on-wood signs reading DO NOT ENTER were strung up over the street. We passed them all, traveling towards the crumbling city blocks where every light had burned out long ago.
The north district of our city had been closed off long before Kenna and I were born, during the war. Bombs had destroyed most of it, the government said, and radiation had killed what was left. It had been decided that no one could ever go back there: nothing would grow, and poison still hung in the air.
But that wasn’t what the two of us found when we passed the safety cones and vaulted over the low cinderblock walls. Long grass and healthy flowers grew from the cracks in the damaged pavement. Thick, leafy vines crawled up the remains of brick and steel buildings, trying to pull them back into the ground. I could hear cicadas buzzing all around us, and clusters of fireflies lit up our path. The air was crisp and cool, with a clear view of the starry night sky overhead.
“It’s amazing out here,” I finally said. It was all I could think of to say.
Kenna doubled back to stay near me. “Just you wait,” she said. “And look at those!”
She was pointing at a run-down brick wall, the same one from her photo. Painted on to its surface was a bird in flight, bright yellow with gold streaks and red-tinted wings.
“That isn’t all you wanted me to see, is it?” I looked around. “Kenna?”
Kenna was already racing further up the street, towards an archway covered in chalk drawings of vines and flowers. I stumbled along behind.
We passed underneath the arch into a large, round plaza walled in by more buildings. I stopped and stared, taken aback by the sudden change – there was even more color down here. The stone tiles were covered in strange shapes and lines that ran around with no pattern. They overlapped each other, spilling up on to the walls where they merged into larger pictures. Above our heads, blue galaxies and green ringed planets glowed in the dark. Long, jagged creatures with grinning faces scuttled along the edge of the sidewalk, as though they would nip at our heels if they could. On the longest wall, a line of faceless people holding hands stretched beneath a city skyline. My eyes followed the outlined skyscrapers up until they found the abandoned billboard perched atop the tallest building. Two bright eyes and a soft mouth smiled down at us from the blank whiteness.
I recognized Kenna’s lantern and yellow camping tent set out in the middle of the plaza. So this was where she had been staying. “Did you make some of these?” I asked.
“Just a few.” She led me over to the tent, and soon emerged with her arms full of paint canisters and brushes. “Now it’s your turn!”
“Me? But I can’t…”
“You have to!” She managed to grab my arm and drag me over to a bare spot on a nearby wall. “It’ll be easy. Just make a little picture.”
“I don’t know what to make.”
“You can make whatever you want.”
I could tell that she wasn’t going to let up on me, so I took some paint and faced the wall. What would the art teacher back at school do? With careful strokes I made a small, white stick figure. It was simple and unassuming – “according to regulation,” as the teacher would have said. I felt a weak swell of pride looking at it.
“Well,” I said, “how’s that?”
Kenna took one look at my handiwork and made a face. “Come on, Lee, you can do better than that!”
“But that’s what I’m best at drawing!”
“This isn’t about what you’re good at,” she said. “This is about what you should be drawing.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Close your eyes for me. Please?”
I grumbled but did as she said. “Okay, now what?”
“Think of something you want to see in front of you right now. It can be anything.”
My first instinct was to scour my memories of the last few days, but nothing leapt out at me. “I can’t think of anything.”
“Then think harder.”
I took a breath and decided to let my thoughts wander where they would. As soon as I let them go, they began to drift farther back, much farther back, until they found a picture I had somehow pulled up from my earliest glimmers of the world.
“A dragon,” I said. “Like the one in the storybook Uncle Toby gave me.”
Kenna smiled. “Then that’s what you’ll make.”
It turned out to be a big green dragon with deep blue wings and a stream of purple fire spewing from its mouth. It was blobby and cross-eyed, and the paint began to drip down the wall before I was done. But it was mine.
Kenna gave me a gentle shoulder punch of approval. “It feels nice, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah…yeah, it does!”
“And now,” she said, pulling me away from the wall, “now comes the really fun part.”
Kenna was looking at her watch, which had just ticked over to midnight. “You finished right on time, too. This is always when it starts.”
“When what starts?”
The clouds above us parted, spilling moonlight all across the plaza, and the drawings on the ground began to shimmer and twitch.
My dragon moved its head, turned its gaze upon us and blinked. Then it grinned with a mouth full of jagged teeth. Once it had puffed out the last of its fire, it began to beat its wings as though it was trying to escape from the confines of the wall. I jumped back as it broke away, leaping into the open air and flying towards the top of the building.
Kenna squeezed my arm. “Look around,” she whispered.
The shapes on the ground were twinkling and spinning as they swirled around the plaza center like colorful bugs. Tiny figures moved around on the surfaces of the glowing planets. A chalk rocketship sailed past our heads, carrying a little astronaut who waved to us. I felt something tug at my leg and looked down. The scuttling, laughing creatures had found us and were nipping at our heels. But now that they could move, they seemed playful and not frightening, like strange kittens. My dragon chased them away with puffs of smoke. On the other side of the plaza, the line of smiling people swayed back and forth while painted fireworks exploded in orange and blue above the black skyline.
I looked up. The rainbow eyes on the billboard watched everything that was happening. I started to tremble as they came to rest on me. But they did not glare or judge, and the lips turned upwards in a smile. Somehow I could tell they meant to welcome me here. And why wouldn’t I be welcome? I had earned that right. I had given this place a piece of myself.
“Are there more?” I asked Kenna.
“Lots more,” she said. “In the buildings and the old subway tunnels. They’re everywhere.”
“And they can all do this?”
She nodded. “Do you want to go see?”
I could feel my head beginning to spin. “Let’s just stay here for a while…”
We spent the rest of the night sitting near Kenna’s lantern, saying as little as we could and taking in as much as we could see. I was feeling like my brain might burst, and that all the questions I had would come spilling out in one breath. Finally I was able to let out just one. “How does it work?”
Kenna laughed. “I don’t think we’d believe it if we found out!”
I never bothered asking the other big question, the one I knew there was no clear answer to. Even I knew radiation couldn’t have made this happen, if it really existed out here. No, this was something the grown-ups in charge were desperate to keep secret from everyone else, and I couldn’t figure out why. The government liked to say we should be happy, that the world was healing after the war. Nothing had changed on the television for as long as I could remember. But wasn’t this proof of something incredible? Surely people would be happy if they could see what we were seeing.
Kenna touched my arm. “You know,” she said, “if everyone back home found out about this, I bet they’d wonder what else they didn’t know about.”
That was when I began to understand.
“You don’t have to leave,” Kenna said as we ascended the steps of my fire escape. “I’m not going to.”
“What will you do for food?”
“We can grow stuff, I guess. If we find seeds. But we don’t have to worry about that yet! I’ve got plenty of lunch packs. Plus people leave things lying around all the time.”
Her confident tone was wavering, and her words had lost their old sense of direction. I shook my head. “I want to stay here, Kenna.”
She furrowed her brows. “But why?”
“I don’t know how to do all the weird survival stuff you can do,” I said. “And I’d miss my parents.”
“What about the…”
“Maybe I can visit you sometime! Or you can visit me.”
Her slight anger melted into disappointment. “Yeah,” she mumbled. “Maybe.”
“…I’m sorry. But I just can’t.”
“I get it.”
She turned around, as though she meant for those to be her last words. But she paused, and then she turned back long enough to take a small packet of colored pencils from her pocket. “Promise me you’ll use these,” she said, pressing them into my hands.
Pulling up her hoodie, she ran back down the steps of the fire escape and along the dark sidewalk. I stayed on the landing and watched her until she ducked into an alley and vanished. Even then I knew it would be the last time I saw her.
Then I climbed the rest of the steps on my own, made it to my window and slipped into my bedroom as the moon set.
My first thought was to hide the pencils where my parents would never find them. No telling what would happen otherwise. But when I opened the lowest drawer of my dresser to throw them inside, I stopped. Lying there was an old, square book bound in leather. I picked it up and flipped through the pages – all blank. Where had this come from? Then I remembered the first birthday after Uncle Toby had gone, when my parents had reluctantly handed me his last present and told me not to show it to anyone.
Sticking out from the back of the notebook was a scrap of paper. I pulled it out, unfolded it and read the note it held.
I know you will put this to good use, it read. Remember that you are stronger than you believe. Love, Uncle Toby.
I didn’t get any sleep for the rest of that night; I was too busy filling up the pages of the book. I drew my dragon again, and then I gave him some friends. I drew what I could remember of the wonders and monsters from the plaza. I drew all the dreams I’d had but could never speak of. Our city, rebuilt and free. Kenna and I, happy.
If I worked hard enough, perhaps these pictures would come to life, too.