Caged Within Clouds: “Nobody notices the missing people”

By Jamie DeMotts

Nobody notices the missing people. If they did, I wouldn’t be doing my job right. I am required to notice them. Take the block I’m sitting across from. I watch the second floor.

At 4:50 a.m. every morning, the shopkeeper gets up to relieve himself. Reliable bladder clockwork. Below him, outside of the shop, the hopeful brown bird pecks at scraps of sheet metal, hoping for crumbs. It hasn’t learned yet that the shop sells nothing but pulpy, stained pages. Maybe it’s hoping the paper, a better buffer against the wind than scrap metal, will be enough to create some kind of nest. Maybe it’s just a f—ing bird.

But there is more to this city than bright chirping and the slapping splash of the shopkeeper’s emptied chamber pot.

I know that the scrappers of the West District work in shifts of three, slinking out from their high, windblown apartments the moment a sliver of sun appears to warm their rags. I mark them one by one as they exit. My hand feels cold against the hilt of my knife. My legs are cramped, tingling. It won’t be long now. She’s part of the second shift. Freckled face, ragged shirt with too many pockets. As rail-thin as the rest of them. The first comes out, then the second.

It takes me a few minutes to be able to confirm. Of course she’s not coming. Of course she’s not there. At least now I can hop down from this freezing ledge.

I walk towards the stairwell. The bird’s insistent song follows me as I climb the stairs. It’s colder the higher up you go. The sound feels eerie combined with the creaking of the rusty metal building. Only 20 flights to go. I’m no stranger to the long flights of stairs, but I’m still not used to the noises I hear in the quiet. My sister used to fill the silence.

I reach the top floor. The warped wood beneath me groans as the wind screams through the cracks. Ahead of me sits a brown door, splintered and reeking of rot. The decay shows that I have found the nest of the street rats. It’s the only entrance. I want to pause, to find and strangle the idiot bird that seems to have followed me up the steps. But no, I’m already behind schedule.

I open the door. The room is filled with gradients of gray. The windows are barred, so no escape route there. I can’t fight my body’s automatic tensing, but it’s unnecessary. The rat is sleeping.

She almost fades into the floor. She might’ve, if it weren’t for the tiny glint of sunlight captured and fractured in a piece of metal curled up in her palm. Grab the piece. Kill the girl. This job is too easy.

Or it would be, if that brainless bird and its idiotic song would stop interrupting my silence. That damn song. An insistent presence that shouldn’t be here anymore. Its twittering voice mirrors my sister’s, but her song had ended long ago, quietly and abruptly, with a whispered winter wind. Ended in an emptied cell filled to the brim with iced-over breath.

I’m close now, and I see her in the echoes and shadows of this stranger’s face.

The song stops as the girl stirs, and I realize I’m just standing here. I’m clutching a useless knife, still crusty with the detective’s blood, with a head full of nothing but memory.

She looks, she sees, she notices. “What do you want with a street rat like me?” she asks.

I pause, then lower the knife. With a short slash, I could end this. I know how close to the surface our tethers are. We live in the sky, but we float away just as easily.

The bird chirps and I sheathe my knife, offering a hand instead.

“Some people call us rats. I only see sparrows.”