can you see the stars where you are?
Isla Silver is playing at the bar on 2nd Street, and no one is listening.
Well, nearly no one. When David Byrne isn’t staring blankly into his glass of whiskey, he’s staring blankly at her fingers, plucking and strumming to a long-practiced rhythm. Sometimes she thinks she’s forgotten, but her fingers always remember.
The soft buzz of conversation nearly drowns out the acoustic of her guitar; while some glance over occasionally, they always return to their drink and their one-night lovers; it seems alcohol eases every pain, dims the world to a point where it’s finally bearable.
Bars are safe havens while the wars bang on the walls outside.
She strums the last chord and the buzz of the bar continues without her. She supposes it doesn’t matter. Mr Pine will pay her $50 regardless. It’s a good deal for two hours of ambience. Or less – Mr Pine’s not always around to check whether she plays for one hundred and twenty minutes straight. God knows the customers aren’t paying attention.
Isla sometimes wishes she came here to escape instead of to work. She slings her guitar off her shoulders and leaves it by the side of the small stage. It’s barely half a metre off the ground; two steps and she’s walking on concrete again. It’s solid ground, or as solid as you can get it. Sinkholes have been appearing more frequently these days. Barely anyone watches the news these days, but the tired reporter warns citizens to stay inside their homes.
If the population of the bar is any indicator, they don’t seem bothered at all.
Isla’s sitting at the bar, but she hasn’t ordered anything. She’s staring off into space like David Byrne when the bartender slides her a drink. It’s a glass of orange juice.
She looks up.
The bartender shrugs. “Flynn told me you don’t drink.”
Isla takes the glass and sips. She prefers apple juice, but the tang is welcome against her dry palate. “I don’t.” She takes another sip and swivels slightly to face the bartender. “Thank you.”
“No worries,” she says. “It’s on the house. You play good.” She screws up her face and mutters something about having “shit grammar”, and Isla notices a tattoo of a flying beetle behind her ear as the older woman turns to grab a rag. Isla fingers the black ring on her middle finger.
The bartender leaves the rag on the counter and offers Isla a hand. “Dean. Nice to meet you.”
Isla takes her hand. It’s rough on the palms, where Isla’s are soft, and soft in the fingers where Isla’s steel strings have calloused her digits night after night.
“You new?” Isla sips her orange juice.
“Relatively. Got transferred from the bar over on 5th.” Dean’s wiping a glass dry and her brow furrows. “Hired new blood and I got shunted. It’s not so bad here though.” Her eyes meet Isla’s. “You?”
“Been playing four nights a week for about six months.” Isla’s finishes her juice. “Pretty sure as soon as they find someone prettier they’ll kick me out too. Maybe then people will actually watch her play.”
Dean smiles. “It’ll be a while til that happens, then.” She puts the glass under the counter and starts wiping dry another. It’s a monotonous rhythm, punctuated only by their conversation.
Isla gets paid tonight. Eight hundred dollars a fortnight. Whenever she has free time, she’s doing finances in her head. Two hundred towards rent, two hundred for groceries, set some money aside for Maia’s birthday – it’s in three days and she still hasn’t bought anything – leave the rest to collect interest in the bank. Maybe then Mama will be able to afford college for Maia when she couldn’t do it for Isla.
“You’re a million miles away, guitar girl.” Dean grabs another glass. “The night is young, what’re you thinking about?”
Isla looks past the fluorescent lights and into the empty street. Streetlights glow a dim yellow; it’s a jaundiced ghost town and everyone is hiding.
She sighs. “Why do we say the night is young when it seems so old?”
Dean shrugs and shelves another glass. “When was the last time you saw sky? Like, honest to god, real sky? The blue of our childhoods?” She shakes her head and her beetle tattoo slips in and out of view. “Guess the night is old cos it had to grow up.”
She’s right, Isla thinks. Even at night, there isn’t a sky anymore. No endless black, no studded galaxies. The clouds have turned grey, cumulus and smog mingling indeterminably.
“Aged sooner than it should’ve,” Isla says quietly. She doesn’t say it for Dean, though she knows she can hear. We’re all weeping for a lost childhood, for the kind of idealism we grew up wanting.
Isla raises her empty glass. “To youth. The night may be old, but we are young.”
Dean raises the glass she’s cleaning. “To a blue sky.”
Empty glasses for empty hopes, but across the world, in a town far away from the abandoned cityscapes, two men toast to the future.
The days are hot but the nights are cool where they are, and they lie on a patchwork blanket poked through with as many holes as there are stars. One has hair as light as harvest maize, and the other has freckles that smatter his face and arms like dirt.
“A sinkhole opened up next to the homestead last night,” says the freckled one. His name is Ezra.
The blond one – Niall – takes another swig of his beer. “You didn’t lose Fig did you?”
“No.” Fig is the homestead’s kelpie. He’s everything to Ezra.
They don’t need to talk to know that everything is slowly falling down around them. They don’t need to talk to know that it could’ve been the homestead that sunk last night.
They lie on their backs and stare upwards.
The sky is black and it is beautiful.