Act I: Cinnamon Girl
She wore a paper flower in her hair. For a moment it fluttered so softly that Ari thought it was a live bloom. He wondered how she had come by such a thing in this city of stone and smoke, but then he saw it for what it was. A pale parchment rose.
He couldn’t see her face clearly in the waxy glow of the cellar room. Just limbs jerking like a puppet on strings. The rest was bright, blinding music. It came from a stocky man with a big, crooked nose and a cheap, breakaway guitar.
When the dancers spotted the Guards, they didn’t quite stop but fell out of rhythm like gears spinning loose. Ari thought the one with the paper flower shouted, but there was already too much noise in his ears to be sure.
The musician swung the guitar in a wide arc as the Guards closed in. Ari dodged back, but the instrument caught a sergeant in the ribs. A steel string snapped and screamed in protest.
Ari lunged beneath the musician’s arm and dragged him down. They rolled through stools and stomping boots before Lieutenant Highmore caught the man’s collar and dragged him off. Ari saw that his corporal, Cap, held one of the dancing girls and that the other was among the last of the scattering people, the paper flower disappearing up a back stair.
Ari’s feet moved before he realized it. He could have let her go. The guitar man was what they’d come for—the playing of music was a hanging offense in Chemical City. Still, dancing was outlawed as well. The girl might only be sentenced to Camden Jail, but it wouldn’t hurt a new lieutenant’s reputation to catch her.
So Ari chased her up into the evening. He followed her out of the tangled heart of the New City to where fog swam in with the thick oily smell of the river. Ari didn’t know where the girl was going, but he knew it wasn’t over a bridge to the quiet avenues of the Old City. The island was where the factory owners and shipping magnates built their fat granite homes. New electric lights laced every street there, and the peace was well patrolled.
Ari thought she might slip upriver toward the clatter of Quarter Quay. The docks would be bursting with bargemen just beginning their search for tonight’s entertainment and territorial dockhands scuffling over misappropriated goods.
He took a few steps in that direction, his boots spattering mud. Then something caught at the corner of his eye, and he turned in time to see the flower swing out of sight with a long rust-colored braid. Ari pressed into the stream of hands heading home from the factory mile, breathing air heavy with the tang of sweat and metal.
Shoulders brushed him roughly on both sides, and despite his height he could only see a few cloth-capped heads in front of him. Men grumbled and laughed and lit cigarettes. Women scolded from doorways and hurried children in to supper. Ari had been born not far from here, on Tobacco Row. He’d only been back in the City six months, after four years fighting in the Foreign Wars. The huddled brick houses were familiar in the disorienting way of old memories.
The Backlot Ballet had always been an annoyance for the Home Guard. The rabble had formed, dissolved, and reappeared several times over the last fifty years, plaguing the dark corners of the docks and the basement bars with their illicit performances. But they had always been silent, as far as Ari knew. Lately, though, the Ballet had grown bold, finding banned musicians to play for them in direct defiance of the Upright and Umbrage Acts.
Something rattled behind him, and Ari spun on his heel. It was only a little girl losing her hold on a bucket of coal almost half her size. Ari ran a hand through his dark hair with a sigh and bent to pick up a few scattered lumps. He dropped them back in her bucket, and she scampered away with a squeak that might have been thanks.
Ari rubbed at the coal stains on his fingers as he continued along the edge of an abandoned lot, then gave up, brushing his hands on his black jacket. Tobacco Row was just ahead. Ari had played here as a child with Cap. He stopped to look at the tumbled blocks of concrete with their twisted fingers of iron. Once he had stood on tiptoe to see over them; now they barely reached his hip. He kicked a jagged piece of brick, and something else crunched in the gravel ahead of him.
Looking up, Ari saw a woman standing beneath a lamppost on the other side of the lot. He wouldn’t have recognized her, except that the gaslight washed over the paper flower, tingeing it green. Ari remembered desert sands and the tough vines that only revealed their bright blooms to the moon’s soft light.
Ari stepped into the open lot. The mist shifted, and the woman vanished as if she’d never been.
Cinnamon Tye didn’t hate the Old City the way she was supposed to. All those great stone heaps didn’t scare her. As a child, when the Sisters had talked of heaven, she’d pictured the Old City, with its unearthly quiet and clean, gloriously wide streets begging to be run through—though it was a place where such things were forbidden.
Most days she could see some beauty amongst all that wasted potential. But today her mouth tasted like she’d swallowed the last dregs of a teapot. She was moving too fast, springing along on the balls of her feet, her heels never striking pavement.
Crossing the Old Stone Bridge so early, amid all the crisply pressed housemaids on their way to work, made Cinnamon in her patched coat and big boots feel shabby. At least it was a distraction from her destination, a place known in the New City as the Cellar. Half the small building had been dug out of the cool clay of the island. It was where the Guards kept bodies in need of claiming.
Though she arrived just after the pale sunrise, the Cellar’s stone benches were nearly full. Cinnamon leaned a shoulder against the gray wall, tugging on her braid. She’d rather stand anyway. She waited over an hour, watching red-eyed women and lock-jawed men being led into the building one by one. Most returned with cheeks wet and shoulders shaking. Some possessed such an empty look that it seemed they should have been left lying with the corpses below. One man’s eyes held a glint of grim satisfaction.
When Cinnamon’s turn came, she forced her breathing to remain even as she went down the wide clay steps behind a Guard with an oil lamp. The lamp surprised Cinnamon—she had thought everywhere in the Old City had gaslights; some homes, she’d heard, were even being wired with the new electric light. Maybe they kept using oil here for the effect: flickering shadows on walls carved with deep shelves, sheltering shrouded forms.
Cinnamon followed the Guard to an opening cut into the back wall of the room. She tried not to look to either side, tried not to count how many dead were waiting for someone to take them home.
“You’re their sister?” the man asked, frowning at some papers in his hand.
“Grant and I grew up together,” Cinnamon said.
“Where was that?”
“The Three Sisters Home for Immoral Children.”
The Guard shook his head, but a scarf obscured half his face, so Cinnamon couldn’t tell if it was with disgust or pity. “Here they are. Have a look.”
This room was smaller, with only two walls of shelves, most of them empty. The Guard put the lamp down, making Cinnamon’s shadow bulge. She leaned in and drew the cloth sacking from one face, then the other.
They had been hanged. Their faces were swollen and their necks purple.
Grant had never been handsome. His nose had been broken at least three times, but he’d smiled easily enough, even in the orphanage. His square, blunt face weathered death decently. But Petra Cinnamon barely recognized. Her fine features were bloated, and her light hair was matted down, clinging to her skin as if trying demurely to hide the awful bruise.
Cinnamon swallowed hard. She didn’t know how many nights she’d spent dancing with Petra, laughing through sprained toes and missed steps. She could remember tromping over the Old Bridge a hundred times with Grant as a child, trying to learn to pick pockets with Grant grinning down that humped nose of his, demonstrating again and again the nimble movements of his big fingers that she could only properly match in her toes.
“Did you know he was a musician?” the Guard asked.
“I knew he was a pick-pocket,” she said.
The Guard snorted, and Cinnamon dug her fists deep into her pockets.
“What about her?” The man flicked Petra’s lank hair to the side, exposing the bruise creeping up to her ear.
Cinnamon wondered how long the man had been assigned here. His eyes were too bright in the weak light.
“Pretty. It’s a shame.” The Guard looked Cinnamon up and down. “You’ll want them on the ferry tonight?”
“Two’ll cost you.”
Cinnamon drew out a heavy purse and dropped it onto the man’s reaching hand. He nearly fumbled it, recovered quickly, and weighed it in his palm.
“That’ll do, I suppose.”
She had borrowed it from Jack Straw; the Ballet could never raise so much money. It was another favor she owed him. He had laughed and called her a fool as he counted out the coins. Whether she claimed them or not, the bodies would be sent down the river to the crematorium just outside the City walls. All she had bought was the return of their ashes in two small steel boxes.
“All that trouble and a rope in the end,” the Guard said, pulling the cloths back over their faces. “Hardly seems worth it.”
Cinnamon bit her lip and nodded. The room smelled like mud—not rotten like the river muck but a damp, living smell. That wasn’t right, Cinnamon thought, as she took the chits to show the bargeman for the ashes.
She left, throat tight, the taste of clay still in her mouth. There was nowhere to hide in the Old City. After a few blocks, Cinnamon just sat on the pavement, her back against a smooth stone wall. Someone would come along soon and make her move, but until then she turned the numbered cards over in her hands, staring at them while her eyes blurred, feeling as if she’d just made an order for steel girders at a factory.
His name was Benson Martin, but people had been calling him Cap for so long that he couldn’t remember why. It was short for Captain, which he was not and doubted he would ever be. Even if he’d had the gumption, he doubted he still had the time. The army doctor had said it was just bad air in his lungs and would pass off. But Cap felt in his bones that he would not be growing old in this world.
He found he minded more than he expected. The idea of dying hadn’t bothered him when Ari convinced him to march off to war. And now that he was home, he was reminded of just how few charms Chemical City had to offer. Yet, in unsuspecting moments, his chest grew tight, and cold sweat rolled down his cheeks until he clamped the fear back down in the pit of his stomach.
His lungs, heavy and damp, woke him with coughing. He slipped out of his bunk and went wandering along the quays. There were craggy old women and lean young men down there, claiming to sell panacea. None of them struck Cap as being worth tuppence. But he liked the noise, the blur of accents and thumping crates. If he didn’t look too hard at the tawny faces of the men who spent their lives on the water, he could almost imagine he was still somewhere foreign.
Most of the barges came down from the North Country. They were made of real wood, rolling with smells of pitch and pine. Chemical City churned out a million tons of steel every year but boasted precious little wood. No trees grew within sight of the City walls. Everything made in her factories would sink to the bottom of the sluggish river.
Ari would be angry if Cap was late for their morning patrol, but he wouldn’t report him, even though Cap was his subordinate. They had chased pigeons together as children on Tobacco Row. Later they had gone to the factory together, skinny, nervous boys trying to imitate the hard muscle and empty stare they saw in grown men. Ari had joined his father stoking furnaces, Cap his smelting steel. And then they had shouldered their guns and marched off to war together, thinking it would be the adventure of their lives.
They fought together and survived. After four years of blood-soaked sands and gunpowder-lit nights, they returned home to smokestack skies and a clinging mist as persistent as the desert heat.
Cap’s hands itched. He ducked into a tobacco shop. Large steel barrels flanked the door, and a tin sign in the same shape creaked overhead. During the wars, Cap had grown fond of a particular spicy blend of tobacco. To his surprise, the round man behind the counter had an ample supply of it. He bought a large twist, happy to have something to show for his trip after all.
A dice game was being played atop one of the barrels outside. Two rangy bargemen and a broad-shouldered blonde man stood around it, their laughter mixed with the dice tumbling across the metal—a small pocket of ease amidst all the dockside hustle.
Cap tried to hurry back, but the streets were full of carters hauling loads to and from the docks. Women gossiped on their way to the market in Stone Grove Square. Children darted back and forth and melted away at the sight of his black jacket. Cap rolled a cigarette as he went, savoring the bitter aroma of the dried leaves. In the Foreign Cities, he had seen shanties built on the flat roofs. There was too much smoke here, he supposed, so people clung to the gutters and alleys instead. He didn’t know anymore which seemed more pathetic, the beggars elsewhere baking in the sun or the ones here drowning in rain and smog.
“Where were you?” Ari growled, when Cap found him outside the barrack gate.
Cap proudly twirled his fresh cigarette in one hand, striking a match on the brick wall with the other.
“You could have said.”
“I’m here now.” Cap blew a cloud of smoke at Ari.
“I thought you smoked the last of your store,” Ari said, with a deliberate cough.
“I found some more,” Cap answered, grinning.
“Gods help me.”
“I doubt it.” Cap slapped his friend’s shoulder. “Let’s get on.”
Cinnamon sometimes wondered if any of them would have taken to dancing if it hadn’t been outlawed. Was it only the risk that tantalized them so, that shrank the world to the space of their bodies and a few drumbeats? But if that were the case, why did none of them think better of it on nights like this?
The twin boxes were mirror bright, sitting on the bar. A tallow candle sputtered beside them, occasionally catching unwary fingers with a burning drop. Upended copper mugs stood vigil by each, their round bodies reflected in the steel.
Cinnamon drained her own mug, the warm whiskey sliding down her throat and through her shivering blood. The mist had thickened and fallen into rain as she waited on the docks. Her clothes were still heavy with it; even her hair hung like a weighted rope down her back.
Someone passed her the bottle. Cinnamon splashed the straw-covered floor before she filled her mug again. Such behavior was customary in this basement bar, under a stable near Carter Bridge. The man who ran it had lost a hunk of his jaw in the Foreign Wars. He never spoke and could encourage silence with a look. People called the place Chapel. It was where they went to light candles and pour out a last round for departed friends.
There were twelve of them now. When Cinnamon had joined the Ballet four years ago, there had been twenty. Two had married and now considered themselves too responsible for such things. Four were serving sentences in Camden Jail. One had simply disappeared. And now Petra was dead.
It had been years since a dancer was actually hanged. Cinnamon had been a child then, tiptoeing past dawn prayers and sneaking away to watch the spectacle with some of the older children. She had closed her eyes at the last moment, clutching one of the bigger boys’ hands. It might have been Grant.
Grant’s voice had been smooth and deep, even when they were young. It poured out of him in stories that turned to songs, as if he couldn’t help it. The Sisters punished him, of course, but once his lips stopped swelling, his voice would be heard whispering again round the dormitory late at night, clear and cool as fresh water.
The two girls caught last month in a bar raid had been given nine years in Camden Jail. But they weren’t Ballet girls, just day-maids with too much drink in them skipping around. And, of course, no one had been playing a guitar there.
If Grant hadn’t been with them, Petra might be in a cell now. Camden Jail was better than the box that felt so horribly light in Cinnamon’s hands. But Petra had danced beautifully when Grant played. They both had.
Cinnamon took another drink and tried to remember how Petra flew when she leapt, how Grant’s voice warmed winter-chilled rooms. But she’d already forgotten their smiles. All she could see in her mind were purple bruises.
Cinnamon blinked in the candlelight, searching for Mariah’s small frame. Mariah was easily the Ballet’s finest dancer; only Petra had come close to her. She had been in the Three Sisters home with Cinnamon and Grant, always finding new corners to hide in, where they could spin each other in circles until they were sick. But Mariah had found the courage to run away long before Cinnamon did. She’d joined the Backlot Ballet at thirteen. Cinnamon hadn’t seen her for five years, until one night the familiar heart-shaped face appeared, whirling around a basement room where Cinnamon was serving bootleg for Jack Straw.
The two had taken up their friendship as if they’d never laid it aside. And it hadn’t taken much for Mariah to convince her old friend to join the Ballet. Cinnamon was beginning to regret it now. She kept thinking of how that Guard had stared at her across the empty lot. As if she were already a ghost.
Mariah stood alone in a corner. It was unlike her not to be in the center of a room.
“It’s too quiet,” Cinnamon muttered to her, ignoring the narrowed eyes of the mute barman.
“It’s a wake,” Mariah said.
“Grant would want us to make some noise.” Cinnamon flexed her feet inside her boots; her knees were cramped. The room felt too small, musty with damp straw and the nearby river. “He deserves a song,” she whispered.
“That’s poor taste.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why did you let him play?”
“Petra loved his playing.”
“And now they’re both dead.”
“That’s not my fault.”
A sharp rap from the barman made them both jump. He glared, tapping a mug against his palm. The sound was no less menacing for being muffled.
“Quiet,” Mariah hissed. She moved across the room to the other dancers. Cinnamon downed the rest of her drink, letting the whiskey burn the fire out of her. She made for the stairs without looking at anyone, but she paused on the shadowy landing. The Ballet clumped below.
Mariah was starting to smile, a small hard smile. It was a familiar, cold look that Cinnamon remembered from their last days together in the orphanage.
In Chemical City, music is outlawed and dancers are hanged. Its factories pour out steel and smog, and even the trees are made of stone. Cinnamon Tye gets by selling bootleg whiskey, but her bosses are beginning to attract extra attention from the City Guards. And when she’s nearly caught performing with the fugitive Backlot Ballet, a young Guard named Ari, just back from the never-ending Foreign Wars, becomes determined to discover her secrets.
But Ari has another problem. His best friend, Cap, is dying of consumption, and a potential cure has just been stolen from the elite Richman Sanitorium. Ari and Cap’s desperate hunt for the thief leads them into Cinnamon’s world of smugglers, prizefighters, and hidden dance halls. As the story alternates among Cinnamon, Ari, and Cap’s perspectives, it becomes clear that each has a difficult choice ahead: Cinnamon between her lucrative life as a bootlegger and her passion for the dangerous Ballet, Ari between the woman he is beginning to care deeply for and his oldest friend, and Cap between living out his last days as a soldier or taking a chance in the chaotic New City.
I grew up in Buffalo, NY, in the shadows of abandoned grain elevators and the shuttered Bethlehem Steel plant. These haunting images were the inspiration for the setting of Chemical City. In recent years, the people of Buffalo have been reclaiming these industrial spaces, filling them with art, music, and the occasional brewery. In writing Chemical City, I wanted to show a world that isn’t beautiful despite the rust but because of it. I wanted to explore the many ways in which our heritage shapes us and in which we may shape our heritage.
It is also, at its heart, a story about music. It began because of a song, and the story ends with one. I could recite the lyrics and try to explain what they’ve meant to me, but my explanation would fall short. I wrote Chemical City to share what those songs gave me. And I hope it has not fallen short.
B. B. Garin is a writer living in Grand Island, New York. She holds a BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College and is currently a student at the GrubStreet Writing Center in Boston, where she has developed a series of short fiction pieces and is readying her novel for agent queries.
Embark, Issue 6, October 2018