The cans rattle like ghosts’ breath as my arms flash through the evening gloom in wide arcs, indistinct in this other dimension I’m transported to as if part of that world of thin air and endless stretch above the clouds. It’s only when I step back I notice the group’s jittering hearts reaching out to me across the cold air, causing it to spark and jump like the horses that rode the waves.
We discussed keeping me anonymous and the street art a mysterious rip in the Outer Zones aesthetic that would simply appear each morning, but I didn’t want ‘the artist’ to become the everlasting idea. I wanted me, Red, to be exposed as one of them, and for the idea to be shared among the people as theirs. Isn’t that the freedom we’re grasping for? So I started creating earlier and in increasingly public spaces, the balaclava hiding me only from the cameras, never the people. They found me and came to watch. They started asking questions, tentative at first like sparrows watching from a distance, only to join our skein of geese upon hearing our answers.
In just a few days after gate crashing their meeting Mags and I had cleaned up the website while Davey sniffed out some trustworthy family and friends to run the Eight and Nine news sections. Will was running Five, Alice spent hours every day taking photos for Six and Hunter and Art worked together to provide the biggest range of stories for Seven – all while holding down jobs. Any spare minute they had, I sat Mags and Davey down and showed them what I knew about form and structure and editing based on what I’d read every day in the tabloids. Now that Mags had some direction she had a chance to put her hugely able coding skills to work, and the site had relaunched as a polished vault of information.
‘I know what to do if you tell me, like. I just dunno what it should look like on me own. Ain’t no pictures up here,’ she’d said, tapping a nail against her forehead.
‘Where did you learn?’ I hadn’t bothered to hide the surprise in my voice.
‘Hospital. Was too ill to get outta bed but I can’t be bored so’s I convinced the wankers to give me one of their fancy screens to play on. Didn’t have games so I sat in bed learning to code.’
‘Jesus, Mags, most people would have just watched TV.’
‘Wasn’t allowed,’ she’d grinned. ‘In case sumfin triggered me.’ At that, I’d kissed her beautiful head that sat a little too big on her frail shoulders.
The site had attracted attention only a day after the sections for each Zone went live. We hardly dared to believe when the traffic grew organically and people began emailing in of their own accord asking how they could get involved, if there were meetings. So we set them up - three meetings a month in each Zone and one big monthly meet for everyone held in Six. A lot of emails asked about the artist after they saw the pictures of me working online and at every meeting the question of my identity was raised. We told them where they could find me.
Now, here they are, at least eighty of them watching me paint the wall of a high school before our first meeting for all Outer Zones. I’ve covered ten feet of the wall in a horrible scene: in the middle is a large grey machine with a green and a red light atop it, a list of numbers running on its large screen. To the left, a conveyor belt feeds an assembly line of blindfolded children into the machine. On the other side, the conveyor belt splits in two, one feeding some of the blindfolded into the jaws of the distant City while the other fork deposits the remaining children onto a derelict street among broken glass. They are no longer blindfolded but we see they had no eyes to begin with, anyway. I hear mothers groan as the painting comes to its miserable, stark conclusion. There is a reason I chose their children tonight as my subject.
I finish just as the meeting is due to start and we file into the school hall offered up by a brave head teacher at the first Zone Seven meeting. I stand by the door ushering everyone in and see a young boy up close to the painting, reaching out to touch the black holes of the child whose face is level with his. His father calls him sharply and he runs to him. When they both slide through the door I see the same sharpness in his cheekbones and snarling in his eyes that I see every day in my new friends. He looks at me fearlessly and I hold his gaze through my balaclava, only removing it when the door is shut.
Inside the hall, Will, Mags, Art, Davey, Alice and Sammy are trying to settle everyone, amazed at the sheer volume of people filling the hall. Word must have travelled before tonight because the Zone meetings have been much, much smaller so far, and filled with silent individuals. But here, I can hear the high-pitched babble of infants rising up over the vibrant hum of their parents like pink clouds of sherbet popping above a gathering raincloud.
My friends move among them trying to settle the members of the group whose eyes are wide like deer and quiver near the exits. When I enter last we all make for the podium at the front.
‘Where’s Hunter?’ I ask Will, falling into step beside him.
‘Late.’ He shrugs. But his lips are pressed thinly together. I look to Art who can always be relied on to bequeath a warming smile, but all I can see is Kathy stuck between his gleaming white teeth.
Will hops up onto the podium and turns to face the ready group. He raises a hand in the air, much like he did that first night at the young boys playing football, and the hubbub quietens almost immediately. The more time I spend with Will the more I understand just how hard he fights to withhold this presence and authority in most other situations, unwilling to enforce his force. But when he does unleash it, as he is now, he is magnificent.
‘Friends,’ he calls in the rumble of a giant, ‘before we begin it’s important you all understand something - we are just as excited to see you all here as you are to see us.’
’E’s got a ’ard-on so ’e ‘as!’ Mag yelps with a grin. Will turns his body slowly towards her and she flips him a middle finger; their double act relaxes the stiffness in the room and a half-laugh, half-cheers ripples through the group. Will goes on to introduce us all with a smile, but the tension noticeably coils around my name - I haven’t been present at any other meeting yet, not wanting Red to become synonymous with anything else beginning with ‘R’.
Shrewdly, Will grants me the same attention as anyone else, being careful not to make a link between myself and the missing broker, as discussed. He somehow manages to sound both matter-of-fact and rousing, as if anyone and everyone should be an artist painting the streets with rebellion. His face reveals nothing but, like the statue of a god, still inspires awe and faith in the knowledge of its transformation hewed from natural rock; something in Will reveals the grit and determination that dragged him into being, the same which keeps a mason chipping at his marble through blistered fingers to uncover something magic. But there is nothing cold about his solidity - we never speak of it but if I wake up in the middle of the night, sick from the abruptness of my severance from my past, he pulls my head to the warm flesh of his chest and curls himself around me like a twin in the womb.
We each take a turn on the podium trying to stamp out the fear that keeps their right and justified beliefs from becoming steel wrecking balls. Rather than lecture, our format is more of an open debate that encourages the group to jump in with their own stories and anecdotal evidence from each Zone, which they respond to with increasing vigour. Mags does her best to censor her language, managing to only drop a couple of ‘fucks’ throughout, Davey shares his not unsound theory that the police spend more time marking out the boundary between Four and Five than they do tackling crime in the Outer Zones, citing Will’s experience as a Zero chased through One almost three months ago. A middle-aged woman speaks up from the back that she saw police officers beat a Zero-people in the middle of the night from the window of the office she was cleaning in Three.
When Davey steps down I try to catch Will’s eye, nervous of the mounting hatred directed against the Inner Zones, but he is looking over my head at Art who moves away from the front and into the group, asking them to gather around his tall figure. He soothes the hate, telling him of the people torn from their families in both worlds and insisting the universality of human pain. When he is scoffed at by an angry young man he tells them about his dying mother and how one day, when he was visiting her in hospital, he saw the limp body of a woman be rushed through A+E as doctors ran alongside the trolley trying to resuscitate her. Later that day when he was leaving, he saw the junior doctor who had been leading the charge sitting on the wall outside and weeping. As Art comforted him, the doctor told him the girl had tried to commit suicide by throwing herself in front of a tube in Oakwood. He had found a note in her pocket that explained she couldn’t sleep or eat with the pressure of the upcoming DVTs and she was convinced she was going to lose her job in advertising, anyway. She would never see her thirtieth birthday. Her family had to travel from Two to Five to switch off her life support.
When he finishes and the group melts apart to let him through, humbled, I can see he, too, has tears painting his cheeks. Still, when he looks up at me, he smiles encouragement. It is my turn. I am going to tell them I can see. I am going to tell them to refuse the injection. The last week has gone into researching every potential medical and legal problem; I presented myself with every doubt, every question, in order to arm these people with honest answers. To arm their children with the truth, just as my parents armed me. So three weeks after my disappearance from Pride, I went to see him.
The door was unlocked when Will and I knocked wearing stained overalls, so I let us both in, calling his name from the hallway. He would recognise my voice if not my new person. Sure enough, he was in position in his armchair with a book balanced on the arm, the corners of his downturned mouth trembling when I walked in.
‘Your door’s unlocked,’ I had smiled at him.
‘It’s a Sunday. You always came on a Sunday.’ Humbert’s voice broke as waves do over rocks and he sobbed once, twice, through the widest smile I had ever seen on his face. Behind me, Will appeared in the doorway and the professor’s smile faltered, announcing the silence. I didn’t introduce them - Will would do so himself if he wanted Humbert to know his name. Humbert seemed caught in Will’s sight like a gaping fish, unblinking in his stare. The tension in the room was like that of the strung-out gut of a slaughtered animal. Finally, Will let him go and the professor’s eyes glazed for a moment before settling on me. He gabbled some questions at me but I silenced him with a raised hand.
‘Please don’t. Just trust me in whatever it is you think I’m doing.’ I smiled again. ‘I need a few things from you.’
‘Books, of course.’
‘Take anything,’ he whispered. ‘But why?’
‘I’m sure you can think of a few reasons, Professor,’ I said gently. ‘I’d just be grateful if you didn’t mention those reasons to anyone.’ He mimed zipping his mouth shut and I bowed my head in universal thanks and then turned to the bookcase nearest to me. Will didn’t say a thing, moving towards the piles of books that littered the stairs. He was silent when I said my hurried goodbyes after we’d loaded his van with some of the professor’s thickest and heaviest books. He remained silent until the next morning.
The tiny print in the medical journals stole my days from me with ease, and it took endless hours for the research to come together and carry the evidence with any recognisable format. I had only got it up online the night before this meeting.
Just as I square my shoulders and take a step towards the podium a loud bang interrupts the stillness in the hall as the outside door is flung open and Hunter runs in.
‘Wait!’ She yells and points at me. ‘You spoken yet?’
I shake my head.
‘Great! I’ve got some mates who want to hear this.’ She looks over her shoulder and motions with a hand, stepping back to hold open the door with a foot. Three girls walk in, all around the same age as her. She directs them towards the fringe of the group and then runs to the back of the hall to grab some chairs. Heart hanging in the back of my throat, Mags catches my own wide eyes and we share the same thought: Hunter’s a fucking genius.
All three girls are pregnant.
They eye us through narrow slits with the defiance and fearless arrogance of any group of teenagers. Hunter skips towards me at the front with a grin and slots in next to me, whispering.
‘They’re almost sold so don’t fuck it up, yeah?’
I know the future lies with our children but I hadn’t even considered it could start with the children of those who are still children - of those who haven’t yet been beaten or broken or scared. Of those who spend their days saying ‘fuck you’ to everyone, anyway. Genius.
Fighting the urge to high-five Hunter, I hop up onto the podium and look around the expectant eyes, each their own individual, perfect shade.
‘My name is Red.’ My gaze settles on the three girls and my heart bursts forward onto my face in a smile with the same energy as lightning.
‘My name is Red and I can see.’