Inside an audition room. It was small; in the back, there were chairs stacked against each other—perhaps the room was once used as a place of musical rehearsal. Now, three judges sat behind a panel, looking at the two blue-haired girls standing across from them. The girls were elkith—the hated elkith—which was obvious; their blue hair gave them away. The judges noticed this. The younger girl held a guitar. Gilly Sky, her nametag read. She was lithe, almost skinny, bare bones on a frame that looked as if it were built for far more beauty and fullness than it possessed in that moment. Her eyes—fear. Insecurity. Hope. She almost smiled.
Then the center judge leaned forwards and steepled his fingers.
“We’re sorry, but she doesn’t have what it takes to be a singer.”
The older girl—Mei Sky—smashed her fist down on the judge’s table.
“You haven’t even listened to her sing! How can you know that?”
Mei’s frosty blue hair swung forwards with the force of her motion. Anger. Rage. Disappointment. All of it exploded in her chest at once.
The adjudicator glanced at the lithe, skinny girl on the audition block.
“We’re sorry. We have to keep our target audience in mind when selecting new talent.”
“I paid two thousand credits to get her here! Are you going to pay it all back?”
“Didn’t you read the contract? No refunds, no liabilities. We’re sorry, that’s just the way it is.”
Mei moved her face close in to the adjudicator’s.
“You dirty human thug, you think you’re so”—
Fat arms gripped Mei from behind—she kicked backwards and her foot lodged in solid muscle. It hurt. Hands clamped over her mouth; she fought, swinging her arms and legs wildly. It was a motion born more out of desperation than aggression. Emotions welled up in her chest. She wanted to cry. Gilly! She thought. Please, accept her. She went limp. The security guard hauled her down from the judge’s panel and out the door. She didn’t resist. The guard whacked her on the side of the head with something hard--Mei’s vision blurred—the man tossed her out the door and into the alleyway. Mei didn’t have the emotional strength to resist. Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes. Her arms flung limp and then smashed against a wall. She slumped to the floor.
Gilly staggered out the door. She came up beside Mei and laid her head in Mei’s shoulder. The back door to the agency slammed closed. A sign read: no elkith, dwarves, or unauthorized personnel.
Mei wiped her eyes on her sleeve.
“What am I going to do to pay them back, Gilly? I promised you that you would get a chance to show the world how good you are. But what am I going to do to pay them back?”
Gilly grasped her guitar and held it close to her body. “The best you can,” she said. She fingered the fret board, touching a few strings. The sounds hung in the air, lilting, obviously filled with both talent and passion, sounding of many, many hours under the caress of her fingers. She strummed, opening her mouth, beginning to sing. Her voice echoed through the narrow alleyway, over piles of garbage and underneath cold steel fire escapes. It knocked at cold, barred windows.
Gilly sang of sadness. She sang of love. She sang of the cricket which hopped across the bare alley floor beneath her feet.
Mei closed her eyes and listened. She wished she had been born a human; she wished that her hair was a normal color, like brown. She wished she had the strength to dye it. She hated herself for wishing that. She wished that her sister’s voice would continue forever. Her thoughts spiraled, producing tears.
Gilly didn’t cry. Big sisters shouldn't cry when their little sisters don't cry, she said, without words, through her actions and her facial expression. So Mei sang, instead. She joined Gilly’s chorus. Her voice drifted alongside Gilly’s, the two sounds mixing and forming a wavering harmony.
The sound floated off into the distance and then disappeared. Cars sped by. Their whooshes mixed with the clatter of cooking. A plane droned, high overhead.
Mei got up first. She held out her hand, and Gilly took it. The two of them walked out of the alleyway and onto the street, where pedestrians ambled past, sometimes glaring at Mei and Gilly’s blue hair. Mei turned her head away and angled her body to keep Gilly out of sight. The road continued on.
They stopped in front of a dilapidated apartment building. Brown, black, grey, green creeper vines that had never been cut—the whole building looked about ready to fall apart. It was over a hundred years old. Mei led Gilly past a gate, which hung on broken hinges in front of a garden of choice weeds. They entered the lobby through two creaky wooden doors that had long since stopped being just “temporary replacements for vandalized structure.” The ceiling dripped, though it hadn’t rained for the past week. At the end of the lobby, Mei called for the elevator. The light didn’t come on. Eventually, the doors opened with a creak. The left one jammed an inch from its crevice. Mei pulled Gilly inside, making sure to touch her gently on the shoulder. Gilly relaxed as Mei supported her grip with her arm. The doors slid closed, just as Mei reached down for Gilly’s hand. They held hands.
Duct tape covered every numbered button above 31. Mei pressed 31. The elevator rose, slowly, with a rickety rumble echoing through the shaft above and below.
Gilly squeezed Mei’s hand. Mei glanced down at Gilly and let herself have a soft smile. After a long moment, she averted her eyes and looked up at the floor numbers.
The doors scraped open. Mei and Gilly walked out of the elevator and around the corner to the stairs. They were in an open shaft, coiled around a single column. Many bannisters were missing, leaving gaping holes in the handrail. Most of them displayed scraped concrete that could only have come from a crowbar—meaning, the handrails had been stripped for scrap by some unscrupulous person. Gilly sidled close to the edge, keeping her arms out for balance.
 The American credit is the world’s reserve currency, the political ‘coin of the realm.’ One credit will buy a box of candy at most grocery stores. Half a box at gas station stores. A quarter of a box at the movies.
© Zeppy, 2019. All rights reserved.