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The usual morning fog had lifted. Out of every rooftop smoke and steam billowed out, and a slight drizzle brought freshness to the thick air. In a view of the city, there could be seen broad century-old mansions. Then, popping out of nowhere it seemed, were the modern houses. One would have thought a small child had decided to use its unproportional building blocks to make a tower (each block as one floor). Most of the towers had no less than six of these blocks.
Looking out over the city, through a window of one of the block towers, was Vasile Tomlinson. His eyes moved over the streets of Atlantis (named for its consistent rainfall) and gazed pointedly down at the people down below. Most were not as well-dressed as he was, in his tailored suit and polished shoes. Many were slouched or just not poised, whereas his suave posture was impeccable. Yet he remembered when he was as dirt poor as anyone down there, but walked with more swagger and confidence than anyone around him; as if the world was his. In actuality, it was. He had been free to roam its wonders and beauty to no extent. He had lived in utter humility and had never felt prouder. As the people in the streets carried on with their lives he wondered if life had been as giving to them as it was to him, just to take it all away in one swift moment. Recalling that moment, the thumb of his left hand instinctively reached the palm of his right. He traced the scar that his thumb had found.
Then springing back to the present, he clenched his fists. The memories were buried once again.
“Time to work.” He said as an order to himself. He grabbed his hat and checked his two guns in their hidden holsters. He strode out of the room.
Eleven years earlier…
Vasile Tomlinson stood in front of his mirror. He didn’t feel like he could force himself downstairs to the party, so he would wait until his father came to drag him down. He looked at his watch. Five minutes late. He still had five minutes to spare.
He turned away from the mirror and sat down in the lounge portion of his bedroom suite. Only a few months ago he’d loved nothing more than these parties; working the crowd, showing off to the girls, playing the stupidest games with his friends. Now look at him, seventeenn years old and his heart felt as aged s an old man’s.
“Still stubbornly sulking I see.” Aurelian Tomlinson, the older mirror version of Vasile, strode into the room. He stood near Vasile, hands in pockets, waiting for him to respond.
“Can you really blame me?” Vasile calmly retorted. He ran his fingers through his wavy copper-blonde hair.
“No, son, I went through the same thing when your mother died.”
Vasile was instantly on his feet. “Sera’s not dead!”
“Her blimp was found crashed on the outskirts of the city.”
“Her body wasn’t found!”
“Because it was burned to ashes when the wreckage caught on fire!”
Vasile turned away and began to pace the room in order to get his emotions under control. This had become a habit of his over the past few months.
“For goodness sakes! Vasile, we’ve had this argument dozens of times.” Stated Aurelian wearily, “Serafina was a special girl, but you’ve got to move on with your life.” Vasile stopped and looked at his father curiously. “Are you saying I should forget her? Forget she ever existed?”
“No, of course not, what I ask is just the opposite. Let her be a memory, not a ghost, otherwise she’ll haunt you forever and you’ll never move on.”
“But you never moved on.”
Aurelian sighed and gave a slight smile. “But I did. You see, Vasile, when moving on in love it doesn’t necessarily have to be the same type of love you’re moving on from.”
Vasile raised an eyebrow, “I don’t understand.”
“See, when your mother died,” Aurelian continued, “I still had you. In raising you, I was able to ‘move on’ from your mother.”
Vasile sat back down. “So what does that mean for me? That I should depend on you while I mourn?”
Aurelian folded his arms and leaned against the wall. “I don’t really think it works as a co-dependent relationship.” His smile became reassuring. “But I’ll always be there for you.” Then he checked his watch and clicked his tongue. “Now let us drag our feet through another one of these things.”
“One more thing,” Vasile called before Aurelian reached the door. He looked back at his son, “Until you find that person to help you ‘move on’, how do you deal with the acquaintances and strangers at these things that you don’t really care about?”
It was a moment before Aurelian answered, “Not everyone understands what you’re going through, and there’s really no way to discern the ones who do. Be polite and you can get some important acquaintances, be cross and you can make enemies. Flash that Tomlinson smile, keep the charisma flowing, all in all put on a good show.”
And with that, the two men went down to the party. Neither of them really knew what it was for or that it would be the last one Vasile would go to.
Aurelian and Vasile descended the grand staircase into the snobbish swarm that was being called a party. Aurelian gave Vasile a slap on the back and jumped into the swarm to do his duties as a host. Vasile followed his father’s advice and produced the famous Tomlinson smile. He made small talk for an eternity it seemed. That is until two men grabbed him from behind and dragged him to the billiard room.
Naturally they were Vasile’s best friends, Roger and Mitchell.
Vasile let out a laugh, “Up to the usual schemes, I’m guessing?”
“Yes,” Roger answered, “Brilliant schemes that you missed out on.” Mitchell began putting the balls into the triangle.
“I hope you don’t miss out on any future ones.” Mitchell said, “It’s only a year until we have to start working with our fathers.”
Roger picked up a billiard cue. “Only one year left to be diabolical.”
Vasile rolled his eyes, “Oh please! We’ve grown up seeing how our fathers handle their business. We’ll most likely still have to be diabolical when we take over for them.”
Roger and Mitchell laughed. “Yes,” Mitchell agreed, “But how often will we do schemes together. Most likely we’ll be doing them against each other.”
Roger lit a cigar. “Enough about the future, are you back in the game or not, Vasile?”
“Maybe,” Vasile grabbed his own cue, “It might be good for me to get my mind off things.” He made a shot and missed.
“Alright, then.” Roger poured some drinks for the three of them. He handed out and raised his glass.
“To our last year,” Roger cheered.
Vasile raised his glass, “To diabolical schemes.” He smirked.
“To Sera,” Mitchell said. Vasile snapped his head to Mitchell and Roger wanted to slap Mitchell for being so stupid. Again. “For being the only girl wild and clever enough to join us on our escapades.” Vasile nodded. They downed their drinks.
A sullen mood settled on Vasile. Would he ever find another girl like Sera? The answer was obviously no. He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten about Sera always tagging along with them. Now even getting involved in childish schemes wouldn’t help him move on.
Vasile’s mind went back to the conversation he had with his friends. One year left before the life ahead of him was completely set in stone, and what was he doing? Trying to live the life he had before. He thought about his father. Such a good man! Vasile may not have been the only one who knew that, but he was certainly the only one who appreciated it. The world his father lived in was no place for a good man. If that what a person is then, like his father said, you have to put on a good show. Convince everyone you’re willing to do anything for profit. Pretend to be, like Roger and Mitchell said, a diabolical man.
Vasile did not think himself to be a diabolical man. He was the mirror image of his father, and that was true in almost every way. Like his father, if he went on the road that was intended for him, he forever would be living a double personality. Also like his father, it would have been perfectly bearable if the woman he loved was there to stand by him. The only thing in which he was not like his father was that he had no one else to help him through it. His friends meant well, but the enjoyed being diabolical. To help Vasile and understand him, they needed to be good.
One year, Vasile thought, one year to find someone to help me find meaning in life again. Otherwise Vasile Tomlinson, the good man, will vanish forever.
He’d already established that his friends couldn't help. He needed to think more. He made no excuse; he just walked out of the billiard room, out of the party and out of the house.
One of the things that make a person unique is their point of view, and changes in a person’s state of wealth alter their point of view drastically. For thirteen year-old Zela Coralie, this was a truth she witnessed every day, living on the streets of Atlantis.
She was at the edge of the roof of an old building, kneeling on one knee and resting her arm on the other, looking out over the sunrise. It wasn’t much of a sunrise. Basically it was just the overcast clouds getting a few shades lighter. Nonetheless, for the working class of Atlantis it was enough of an alarm for them to wake up and start the day. Since Zela always slept in down in the Underground, she had only her body clock to rely on. Today it had failed her. When she emerged from her rabbit hole (as she liked to call it) it was still a full hour until sunrise. So here she was waiting for the rest of the city to wake up so she could start the day’s work.
Only two years before Zela and her band of street urchins had been typical pick-pockets. Until they stole a few wallets from some of the Gypsy venders (something she had specifically told them not to do. They were caught and taken before the Gypsy Queen. Queen Narilla had been about to send them off to an orphanage, but Zela, anxious for the other urchins (or nimrods as she called them), had pleaded with her majesty that her street savviness might be of some use to her. No one knew Atlantis better than her.
The Queen had consented and this was the job Zela was given: “Many people of late have lost their jobs and have taken to the streets.” She’d said, “they get drunk at night and sometimes even during the day. They plague the streets. You’re very knowledgeable about life here and you obviously know how to take command of people. I’d like you to make sure that these people are taken care of and learn how to live on the streets. Teach them that way of life.”
At first Zela was too thrilled with this idea, “You want me to be your charity giver?” Now you see where points of view come into play.
The Queen had merely smiled and replied, “Think of it this way, unless these people are, well… tamed, they make the streets dangerous. We have enough problems with the gangs giving us trouble.
That was the way Zela continued to view the situation. Usually the daily workload consisted of making rounds to every homeless person in her area, checking that they know what to do when they need something. Most people are initially threatened by her when she starts showing up, but after a few weeks they’re settled to the way things have to be done if they want to survive. After that, Zela is usually only there to listen.
Sometimes she’d take one or two of the nimrods with her on her rounds, but they usually spend their days in old abandoned buildings playing war, freeze, hide-and-seek and the like. Even so they still considered Zela to be there leader. They owe it to her that the Queen takes care of them.
Zela’s stomach grumbled. Time for breakfast. She climbed down the fire escape and jumped the last ten feet. She silently thanked God that she was alone. If any of the nimrods were around they’d have the brilliant idea to try the exact same thing.
She ran two blocks down to Marcus’ Bakery. Marcus would always give her two sweet rolls and milk for breakfast. She never ate both of the rolls. Then she ran another block east to the old bank that had been shut down ten years earlier. Charlie, who was once a thriving violinist, had made a home in the vault there, at Zela’s suggestion.
The fifty year-old was still snoring. So she gave him a gentle kick in the ribs. Zela could usually be
“Breakfast, old man,” She announced.
Charlie did not stir, but gave a low chuckle. “How long have you been up?”
“Too long,” Zela sat down against the wall.
Charlie sat up as well and took his roll. Zela was careful not to devour hers, taking small bites so that her stomach would get fuller.
The vault was an eight by eight by eight foot cube. Charlie had managed to accumulate a worn out cot, a blanket, an old pillow (so he had a full bed). Then there was a small stool and a tall desk which served as a desk. On the desk was a small stack of paper, a quill, and an old bottle of ink (Charlie had started to write music again a few months before). And in a corner there was a small chest which contained his violin. The one thing he’d kept from his old life.
“Zelalie,” her nickname, “I want you to know that last week I wrote something other than music.”
Zela blinked, “Okay.”
Charlie smiled, “It was a letter to my brother. I asked him to come get me.” Zela stopped chewing and gaped at him. Charlie continued, “I’m going home. He’ll be here this afternoon. This is our last breakfast together.”
Zela continued to stare at him in silence. Charlie stood up and walked over to the desk. “I’ll only be taking my violin with me. I want you to have the writing set.” He gathered the set in his hands and handed it to her. She gingerly took it.
“I’ll tell someone they can move in.” She mumbled. Charlie sat back down.
“This wouldn’t have been possible without, Zelalie, I hope you know that.” He said with a far away look on his face. He had that look whenever he imagined being on stage again.
Zela smiled, “It wasn’t charity I hope you know that.”
Charlie smiled back, “Of course. I’m too proud to take it and you’re too proud to give it.” He took a swig of milk. “And by the way I saw someone I once knew.”
For the second time that day, Zela looked at him in surprise, “From society? Here on the streets?”
Charlie nodded, “Well, I know him at least. I doubt he knows me. I performed at his fourteenth birthday party, I think it was.”
“Do you know what he’s doing here?”
“He looked deathly depressed. If he was drunk, then he’s a calm drunk. He was just sitting there still as a statue. Poor lad, he’s still a teenager.”
Zela raised an eyebrow.
“Society teenagers usually take a full decade longer to become mature.” He explained.
Zela scoffed, “If he doesn’t have a reason to be here, I’ll send him on his way. Don’t worry. I’ll be gentle if he really is broken. Where is he?”
“I saw him under the overpass near the metro.”
“Shoot! That’s bordering on gangster territory. If he goes a quarter mile the wrong way, he could be shot dead.”
Zela stood up to leave, “See you in heaven or hell, Charlie.”
“What happens if we don’t end up in the same afterlife?”
“Then I’m sorry for leaving you alone, burning in hell.”
“Say,” Zela said, “What’s this immature society teenager’s name?”
Are we all our one self? Or Are we all our own trinity, split into who we are in the past, the present and the future? Maybe that’s the reason for Deja’vu. But are we actually experiencing something that’s happened before, or is it our future self, recognizing a moment that defined our future fate? Vasile would ponder this regularly in the years to come.
Vasile hardly remembered a thing between leaving the house and sitting down at the overpass. Maybe it was fate guiding him. He certainly wasn't in upper-class Atlantis anymore. For a moment he questioned if he was even in the same city. Most of the buildings were run-down, there was a stench coming from somewhere, and more than once he saw some mounds of trash move. Eventually he sat down under the overpass, and before he knew it, it was dawn.
Then a head popped down from the overpass above. He jumped back, but then he relaxed. It was just a curious little boy, his scarf hanging below him.
The boy then dropped, did an impressive flip mid-air and landed on his feet. The boy surveyed Vasile’s suit as if it were a unicorn. “You know you don’t belong here.”
My goodness! The boy had a very high voice for his age. And he really should fix his scarf- wait, that wasn't a scarf that was swung over his shoulder; it was a long black-brown braid that looked at least two feet long.
Vasile fought hard to not laugh at himself. “Indeed? I thought this place looked a little off.”
The girl cocked her head. “You don’t look drunk, but you've had too much of something.”
Vasile smiled. “You’re rather observant, aren't you? And curious. Don’t you know that curiosity killed the cat?”
The girl knelt down on one knee. “It wasn't its curiosity that killed it. It was the thing it uncovered.”
“Then should I call you ‘Cat’ or do you have another name?”
“I call myself Zela.”
“A curious name for a curious girl, and your last name?”
“I don’t have one. I have only a first name and a middle name. My middle name is Coralie.”
“But a middle name has to go between two names. If there’s nothing after it, wouldn't it be your last name?”
“No, a last name is meant to state where you’re from. I don’t know where I’m from, therefore I don’t have a last name.”
Vasile grinned. This girl, Zela, was clever. The likes of which he hadn't seen in a long time.
“If you’re so clever,” he said, “why are you talking to a suspicious stranger like me?”
“You honestly look more like a calm drunken idiot to me.”
Vasile broke out in laughter.
“I’m not that kind of drunk, little Missy.”
“I feel drunk on life, I’ve simply had too much of it.”
Zela chuckled and rolled her eyes. “You’ve had too much of it, my prince?” At the look on his face, she wanted to slap herself. She knew better.
She sighed. “I suppose the first tragedy is always the hardest. Do you want to tell me about yours?”
Vasile’s gaze seemed to go somewhere far away. “I’m sure my story is one you’ve heard a thousand times. It’s interesting to imagine life from your point of view. I suppose tragedy is a muse you know all too well.”
Zela raised an eyebrow. “Indeed I do. In fact, she forms many of the souls here. But I rarely hear her described as muse.”
“What do you mean?”
“The muses are triggers for inspiration. What inspiration has Melpomene aroused in you?”
Vasile leaned his head back against the wall. “I won’t try to say something dramatic like ‘my whole life I been living as someone I’m not’. That is simply not true. Until Sera –the first girl I ever loved- died, I loved the world I grew up in and I was perfectly suited to it. I relished in all the fun I was having in my adolescence and couldn’t wait to play the business game when I became a man. And that’s just it! I don’t believe life is a game anymore. None the less, that’s the life I’ve always lived, but now I’m not suited to it anymore. I have no idea what life I belong to now, but I want to find out. I guess that’s why I ended up here.”
Before Zela could respond with some profound guidance or whatever, a noise caught her attention her attention. A hovercraft. Zela’s mind went into a panic. Only a select group of gentlemen had hovercrafts in this area.
Zela swiftly stood up and held out her hand to Vasile. “Well, your highness, in case you didn’t know, you ended up remarkably close to gang territory for comfort.”
Vasile grabbed her hand and stood up, obviously perplexed.
Zela’s panic got the best of her, “In other words, run you life-drunken idiot before we get shot!”
Zela broke into a run, dragging Vasile behind her. He tried to head for a dumpster to hide but she wouldn’t let him. Right now the most important thing was to get as far away from gangster territory as possible. So she ran and ran. If she wasn’t holding onto luggage she wouldn’t have even broken a sweat. They wove through the alleys and empty buildings, until finally they were well inside the streets. Only then did Zela look back at Vasile- but she then had to look down because he was on all fours and panting like a dog.
She let out a breathy laugh and patted his back and let him drink out of her water flask. She then helped him over to a bench so he could rest. You would think she’d taken her great-grandfather for a run!
After a minute or two he was able to speak. “Noted for future reference: evidently being near gangster territory is a bad idea.”
Zela was silent as she was too busy glaring at the people who were staring. There were quite a few.
“So what is this neighborhood called?”
This time Zela responded, “Ivory Gardens.”
“Hmm. It doesn’t really suit, does it?”
“That’s why no one here calls it that. We call it the streets.”
“I have to ask,” Vasile leaned in, as if he was about to ask something important, “The way you speak, it’s very formal. Is that just because of me or do you always talk like that.”
Zela looked at him pointedly, “I talk that way because here, no one will argue with me because I sound like I know everything. Also, the adults respect me more than your typical street rat.”
Vasile then leaned back and surveyed the hustle and bustle around him. That feeling of ice piercing his lungs was subsiding and he could finally focus on the world he had literally stumbled into. Many of the people stared at him, then quickly looked away. He supposed that was due to Zela’s stone hard glare. Vasile decided he had discovered quite the anomaly: A girl who did not like attention.
In fact there were so many things about Zela that her different from any girl he’d ever known. The most obvious thing was that she was wearing boy’s clothes. Then there was her blunt yet profound way of speaking, her athleticism was also a big one, and her maturity could not be overlooked. But when they were running away from that hovercraft, he couldn’t help but notice her excitement in the chase, in the challenge of pulling him along, in the fact that they might be shot dead. There was a sort mad thrill inside of her at the world she lived in, a crazed passion for maneuvering her way through life. The very thing he’d lost.
“Well,” Vasile said, “I wanted to see a different world, and here I am.”
Zela chuckled and gave him a sly grin. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”
Vasile cocked his head, “What are you talking about?”
“Oh you blue bloods, you’ve probably never even heard of the Underground, have you?”
“Um, why? What is it? Other than the obvious.”
Zela’s sly grin turned devilish. “It’s the gypsy community of Atlantis. Yes, Atlantis has gypsies. They all congregate in the old railroad tunnels and stations. It’s amazing! It’s like a whole underground city! Minus the skyscrapers. It’s full of merchants, musicians, storytellers, artisans, dancers and fortune tellers. It’s like living inside a live circus! You’ve never seen anything like it.”
Before Vasile could respond that that he wanted to see it, Zela was dragging him once again to an unknown location.
People speak of visiting another world as if it is a near impossible feat. They are completely unaware of the different worlds constantly revolving around them. Going down through Zelalie’s rabbit hole, Vasile was certain that he was entering a different world. Probably even a different universe.
At first it was just a light at the end of the old subterranean train tunnel. For a moment, Vasile became convinced that he had died under that overpass and that Zelalie was an angel of death leading him toward the afterlife. Then, just as he was thinking about how his father would mourn him, he began to hear voices and music and the small speck of light started to expand until he standing in a magical world of color and music and laughter.
The Underground was everything Zelalie described and more. There were people everywhere and they were surrounded by brightly colored tents that seemed to be set up in an ever winding maze. Vasile looked up to see where the light, though dim, was coming from. The ceiling hundreds of feet above them was a dome and there were string lights cris-crossing midair. Vasile leaned down and asked her how on earth they had electricity and she replied that they used the steam generator originally used for the train. He was about to inquire more but Zelalie curtly asked if she looked like an engineer and proceeded to drag him to yet another unknown location.
There was a constant tune in the air. Different instruments would join in and others would fade out. There were storytellers charismatically telling their tales to the different groups of people gathered around them. There were craftsman sitting inside their tents, going about their trade as if it were easy as talking. There were throngs of children running about and playing games. In the occasional space that was big enough, there were dancers gliding and moving to
the sound of music drifting through the air. Here, Vasile stomped his feet down. He was, after all, stronger than a thirteen year-old girl.
The sudden and forceful stop yanked Zelalie back and she landed against Vasile, who quickly apologized. She shrugged it off and watched the dancing with him. Except he was no longer beside her. She quickly spotted his suit jumping, skipping, and clapping along with the other dancers, catching on impressively. Nonetheless, she doubled over with laughter.
A few minutes later, Vasile broke away and came sweating, panting, yet grinning like a fool.
“Like a butterfly, my prince.” Zelalie commented. Vasile had taken his jacket off and now whacked her with it. Laughing, she put both her hands on his forearm and once again led (not dragged, you understand) him through the maze of tents.
* * *
The “castle” was all the offices and rooms of the old main subway station converted into the residence for Queen Narilla. Every single wall was covered in woven tapestries or painted in vibrant patterns. The floors were covered in carpet that was equally vivid and colorful. All of the fluorescent lighting was gone, replaced by twinkling string lights hanging from the ceiling. The furniture and cabinets were covered and hand-carved by some artisans in her kingdom just outside her door. The entire effect was that of kaleidoscopic labyrinth. It was beautiful, if a little gaudy.
Queen Narilla lied down on her couch and breathed a sigh of relief. She closed her eyes and let her mind go blank. For once she wanted to forget everything she had to do, and everything would have to continue to do.
Before Narilla, her people were of the many migrants into the city. They were on verge of losing their culture and maybe even becoming criminals. She formed the Underground out of nothing. Many people didn’t even know it existed and hopefully they never would. It would end in… well it would probably just end. It was why she made sure that only the right people in uptown knew. Those kind of people can always be… convinced to look the other way. It didn’t matter how they were convinced, as long as they were.
“Beg your pardon, your Majestic Holiness.”
Narilla chuckled at the sound of her frightfully sarcastic fourteen year-old ward, Gitano. She had found him while he was one of Zelalie’s crew (“nimrods” she called them, the devilish girl). Narilla had considered making Zelalie her ward when she saw her talent for talking to (and convincing) just about anyone. Zelalie was as good a people reader as the queen herself. However, when Narilla found out that Gitano was a self-taught reader, she decided to test him on it. While he’d read the textbook she had given him, his eyes never lingered on a page for more than five seconds. Then he could recite every word exactly from memory. So, Narilla took him in and brought in some old scholar friends who gave him lessons every day of the week. That was two years ago. When she had spoken to his teacher a couple weeks before, they had said that Gitano was as smart as the students graduating from the university. All that was definitely best. Perhaps the Underground no longer needed a leader who was sole versed at surviving and convincing people.
“What is it, Tano?” Narilla replied.
“Did your errands go well?” He asked, sitting in the chair across from her.
Narilla’s smile faded to a half.
“Yes, they did. Did anything interesting happen while I was away?”
Gitano pulled out a book and started to read while responding, “Well, Zelalie came back early. And with a new friend. He was wearing a tuxedo.”
“What?” Narilla exclaimed. “Show me.”
They both stood and Gitano led her to the balcony overlooking the maze of tents below. It was a feature that was added after they claimed the station.
After looking for a few minutes, Gitano pointed out Zelalie at a food tent, standing next to a rich-looking teenage boy. Rich-looking, but not clean. There were smudges all over his face and tuxedo, and his hair looked like a bird’s nest. He actually looked a tad familiar to Narilla, which bothered her.
“Bring them to me, will you, Tano?” she ordered.
Gitano nodded and left to make his way over to them, his eyes still glued to his book.
* * *
Vasile was arguing with Zelalie about the significance of milk while eating from a bowl of meat and cabbage.
“It makes your bones stronger.” Vasile offered.
“I’m sure when I’m dying of hunger because I spent my money on cow excess, I’ll be thinking, ‘at least my bones are made of steel.’” Zelalie countered.
Then a gypsy boy around Zelalie’s age, with a book under his arm, approached the bench they were sitting on.
Zelalie looked up from her bowl. “Hey, Git!” She shouted. The boy rolled his eyes. Zelalie gasped, “Well, hold my braid! Don’t you look even fancier than my friend here!”
Given all the dirt Vasile had on him, that was not a hard feat. However, Vasile had to agree. The boy had on as fine of clothes as Vasile would see on boys in uptown.
“Good to see you as well, Zella.” The boy had a gypsian accent, but otherwise his speech was as good as Zelalie’s.
Zelalie looked back to Vasile and gestured to the boy. “Git used to be one of my nimrods.” She explained with an obviously fake smile.
“Oh, used to be?” Vasile responded with interest.
“He’s super smart so Queen Narilla adopted him.” She ruffled the boy’s curly black hair. He opened his mouth to retort when Vasile interrupted.
“You have a queen?” He asked in awe. “How does that work?”
“Well, she’s not actually a queen, persay.” Git answered before Zelalie could. “She’s our leader. She helped organize the Underground twenty years ago and has helped keep the gangs and the city government from touching us since then.”
Git shrugged. “And by the way, Zella only calls me ‘Git’ because she’s an idiot.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “My name is Gitano. Call me Tano.”
Vasile nodded. “I’m Vasile. If this place has been here for twenty years, how have you not overpopulated this station?”
“Oh, it grows. It shrinks. Gypsies don’t stick around for long. There are maybe a dozen people who’ve been around since the beginning.”
Vasile asked Tano if he would like to join him and Zelalie as there was still more to see.
“Well, I can show the castle. Narilla would like to speak with you two.”
Zelalie shot to her feet. She gestured to Vasile to follow her. He did whilst mumbling about his arm getting a break. Tano fell into step beside him and asked him questions about uptown as they made their way to the castle.
* * *
“I don’t think your mom likes me.” Vasile said to Tano as they waited in the foyer.
They could see Queen Narilla and Zelalie arguing in the living room. The queen looked like an angry boss. Zelalie looked like she cared as much as a teenage girl would.
“She’s not my mom.” Tano responded with a sigh. “She’s like an Aunt I live with permanently. Anyway, you two haven’t even met yet. We were- what? Ten seconds behind Zella? And they were already arguing when we came in.”
“This is just a guess, but I’m assuming that her majesty doesn’t like the upper class.”
“Well, you’re not wrong.”
Vasile decided to amuse himself by looking around. “You’re older than Zelalie aren’t you?” He asked while studying a mural of a forest.
Tano smiled. “You’re wondering why I used to let someone younger than me boss me around.”
“Well, believe it or not, at least half of the orphans she and I ran with were older than her. But it was still easy for her to take over once she had enough of our stupidity.”
Vasile chuckled. “For such a young girl, you make her sound like a tyrant.”
Tano laughed. “You know the story I hear of Narilla rising to power is very similar.”
Zelalie came back into the foyer alone. She didn’t look triumphant or defeated. “It’s okay that you’re here as long as it’s not permanent.”
Vasile looked at the floor.
“You didn’t want that did you?” Zelalie asked.
Vasile gave a half smile. “I’m a little torn. I don’t think I could live here, but I don’t think I can go back.”
Zelalie studied him. “I think going back will help you figure it out.”
Vasile nodded. “Want to be my escort? I’ll get myself shot if I go back alone.”
Tano looked at his watch. “Not already. The day’s only half gone. You said there were thinks you still hadn’t seen.”
“He’s right.” Zelalie agreed. “I’ll take you tomorrow morning. We are definitely not done yet.”
Zelalie strode out the door as if on a mission. Vasile and Tano didn’t follow immediately.
“Are you two jerks coming?” She shouted.
The boys broke into laughter and ran after her.
Whenever Vasile started to think that the Underground had all been a dream or a hallucination, he would look at the leather cuff he had bought as a souvenir. He kept it hidden under his sleeve.
Evidently his father had done a good job of keeping Vasile’s disappearance under wraps. It was, after all, a job that he had done many times. Vasile gallivanting off on stupid adventure was more common than the sun shining in Atlantis. The thing that was different now was the fact that Vasile looked as homeless as the company he had kept by the time he came home. There was also the fact that Vasile had a fragile psyche for the past six months, and now his mental health seemed vastly improved. The latter proved the most distressing.
So Vasile sat through many appointments with many doctors, but never conveyed exactly what happened to him. He would simply say that he had needed to clear his head and was victorious in that feat. He was also tested for narcotics and brain damage.
“But what exactly did you do?” His father would ask.
“I wondered around mostly.” Which was true.
“And when you weren’t?”
“I would sleep in the most dank of places.” Which was also true.
When Roger and Mitchell stopped by, thinking that they had missed out on something awesome (which they had), Vasile told them the exact same thing.
Now he was in the library with his father. Vasile was standing at the window looking out at the city below. Aurelian was sitting in his chair, reading a book.
“It’s not a very appealing city, is it?” Vasile observed.
Aurelian looked up, “To the eye, you mean? No. Too much rain and smoke. But it’s an industrial city. You can’t really expect it to be ‘appealing’.”
“Yes, it’s all about money in Atlantis.” Vasile responded. “No room for culture.”
“Did your wondering also give a sense of aesthetics and culture?”
Vasile smiled and resisted the urge to say “yes”. He had resisted telling his father about the Underground because Zelalie had told him not to. Even she wasn’t sure why.
Vasile was sure Queen Narilla thought as he did: there was no room for culture in a city of industry.
At least not in Atlantis.
Vasile had always loved to travel because of that very reason. But it had always been with blimps and restaurants and hotels and clubs. Way to immerse yourself, Vasile, he thought to himself.
His friends had once again tried to recruit him in to coming up with more schemes. But the more they talked, the more Vasile longed for Zelalie and Tano. It had been a week since he had seen them, and it had taken every once of his strength to not just go back down there to see them. The thing was that he still did not know whether he belonged there either.
So he stayed in the house and read and thought and drove his father crazy with worry in doing so.
“Excuse me, sirs?” The maid poked her head through the door. They looked to her.
“There’s a man here to see Mr. Vasile, he said he wants to talk about the overpass?”
Both the maid and Aurelian looked to Vasile for an explanation. Vasile only said that he would speak to man alone in the drawing room.
Vasile felt nervous. His first thought went to the gangsters he and Zelalie had run away from. But he did not think that they would track him down to his house.
Vasile walked into the drawing room to find a man his father’s age rise to greet him. The man was tall with long grey streaked hair pulled back into a ponytail. He was wearing a brown tweed suit and a trench coat.
“Hello, Mr. Tomlinson, my name is Charlie O’Toole.” He stated in a gravely voice. “I don’t know if you remember, but I was a violinist at your fourteenth birthday party.”
Vasile vaguely remembered a string quartet at the party, but he waited for Mr. O’Toole to continue.
“You see, I fell on hard times not long after that, and I was actually homeless until about a week ago, when I decided to move in with my brother. And the night before, I saw you loitering under the overpass. So the next morning, I asked a peculiar young friend of mine to help you out.”
Vasile’s eyes widened with surprise. “You knew Zelalie?”
Vasile asked him to sit down and poured them some drinks. He handed Charlie the scotch, and Charlie did not bother to ask if Vasile was eighteen yet.
They sat and talked for hours about the streets, the Underground and Zelalie. Only when the maid rang the bell for dinner did Charlie stand up to leave. Vasile was sorry to see him go.
Vasile and Aurelian sat through a quiet dinner together. Vasile knew that his father’s patience was running short, but he was not sorry that Charlie had come. He felt better than he had in a week because of it.
“Just tell me one thing, Vasile.” Aurelian said. “Will what happened at the party happen again?”
Vasile opened his mouth to give another vague answer, but immediately shut it. He thought it over.
“I think so.” He answered.
Aurelian nodded and stared at the table. “Is wondering the city really so entertaining?”
Vasile smiled. “Actually I was thinking of traveling. Seeing the world. ‘Finding myself’, as they say.”
Aurelian studied him. “Is this really what you think you need?”
Aurelian sighed. “Then go with my blessing. How much funds do you think you’ll be needing?”
Vasile was about to state some low, reasonable sum, when he had an idea. He grinned at the thought. It was completely brazen and stupid and his heart started racing at the thought of it.
“Well?” Aurelian pressed.
“I-um, don’t think you’ll have to transfer me funds.”
Aurelian raised his eyebrows. “You’ll pay your own way?”
“Yes.” Something like that.
“Alright, then. When do you think you’ll leave?”
“Next week, I think.”
“How long do you think you’ll be gone?”
“I’m not sure.”
Aurelian stared at Vasile, slowly realizing what he was saying. Vasile was leaving home.
Vasile suddenly felt guilty. “Father, I-.”
“No, Vasile. Look, I know how dreadful it has been for you, but surely it doesn’t warrant something like this? For Christ’s sake! You’re only seventeen!”
“I know that. I know you understand better than anyone. But I really do need this. I can’t just flash the Tomlinson smile and act like I’m okay until I actually believe it. I don’t want to be who I was. The thought makes me sick. I don’t want to be-.”
“Like me?” Aurelian asked, his face unreadable.
The question broke Vasile’s heart in two. Because it was true. He stood up out of his chair and began to pace.
“Father, I wish there was another way. Really, I do. But I’ve over this over an over in my head and-.”
Aurelian held up his hand and nodded. Vasile stopped pacing and was silent.
“I understand.” Aurelian said finally. “I think no more has to be said. I think I’ll go to bed.”
He stood up and walked out of the dining room.
For a moment, Vasile could not move. Then he slowly made his way up to his own room. He hardly slept that night and could no longer bring himself to feel excited.
* * *
A few days later, Vasile’s good mood was back, though he avoided talking about leaving with his father. He went though all his things and only picked out a few things he wanted to take with him. He knew how much he stood out when he wore his suit in the Underground, and his regular clothes were not much better. So he paid the old made, Cynthia, to go down to the donation center to get him a shirt, pants, shoes, jacket, and a satchel. When she raised an eyebrow at him, he told her they were for a costume party. He knew that she did not believe him (no smart person would), but she came through.
So that his father would not suspect anything, Vasile still had all his things packed up, although, when the day came, the trunks would all be going to a storage unit.
He did not bother saying goodbye to his friends. They would just suggest following him.
When they day came for him to leave, he was dressed in his usual high-end clothes, and there was a taxi waiting for him. Vasile told his father that he would write to him. He thought that he would once again try to convince Vasile to stay, but Aurelian just smiled and hugged him goodbye.
Vasile took the cab to the area just before Ivory gardens. He went into a public bathroom and changed into his used clothes. He threw his rich ones away.
He began to walk towards the Undergound, slightly recognizing his surroundings. He knew that this day would likely end with him going back to the house, but he could not hurt for trying. His old life was gone for the time being, and he felt more alive than he ever had.