Tonight, the spray can clattered like a warning. The trolls had to work fast; the train would start rolling any moment.
Mac ran a blue hand over the train car and got a feel for it. Smooth and sun-baked despite the night air, a solid pang to the palm. Nothing like those paint-eater concrete slabs under the bridge. Lifting the bandanna over their face, Mac sprayed. Their blue skin, swoop of green hair, knuckles wrapped in leather- it all faded away into the furls of the paint. Just them and the design. Their eyes smiled as color rushed over the car’s black surface. Honestly, the people designing the trains should paint them something other than black. Black was just begging for color. The graffiti was a favor, if anything. Mac alternated colors- orange to pink to yellow- to give the backjump dimension. Shaking each can, they watched the sheen disappear as the paint dried.
While Mac couldn’t see the other trolls, they could hear them. There was the crackle of Rhodey running car to car over gravel, red hair whipping in the wind. It was all about the numbers for him. Solid white lines, criss-crossed beams and hard angles arranged into his initials, “RDR.” Tagging at its simplest.
There was cackling from Barbie over by the train’s orange engine car. Mac could see her bubblegum pink skin, yellow hair, the loose basketball jersey hanging off her shoulders and electric blue heels even in the dark. She traced out a tongue on a bomb, and despite the bandanna, Mac knew she was sticking out her own. After finishing the tag, she took a step back and pulled down her bandanna revealing a smile like daggers. Her yellow teeth were as long as her manicured nails.
Bowie was harder to find because he wasn’t painting yet. He’d probably be running a yellow hand through his white mane. Pinned to his hip in a leather sheath hung his fixed-blade knife and if he was distracted enough, he’d bring the knife out and run his thumb along the flat.
The whistle blew. Mac’s blue frame froze against a peach backdrop. They grabbed their backpack and jetted towards the alley. Without looking, Mac knew the other three were close behind, but they glanced around regardless. The trolls flooded into the nearby alleys and creases of the city they called home. The darkness enveloped them like a warm blanket, and as the train screeched by, they settled into the calmness of their living room under the large and looming Punks Bridge.
Mac peeked into their bag, gauging a quick inventory. All cans accounted for.
Rhodey didn’t seem as lucky. “Bowie,” he whined as he pawed through his bag. “Did you grab one of mine?”
He flicked his lighter open and waved his thumb through the flame “Why ask me? You know I don’t work with that cheap generic garbage. Mac’s right over there. She always-”
“They,” Mac corrected.
A scowl screwed up Bowie’s face as he snapped his lighter shut. “You still in between? How long you gonna take to switch?”
Mac clenched their blue fists, but their expression remained stony, unreadable in the way only Mac’s was. “Maybe I don’t want to switch.”
Bowie cocked his head back and stared down at Mac from over his chin. Eventually, he looked off down the alley and said ”Fine by me. Like I care if you’re both.”
Overhead, a neon light buzzed like a swarm of mosquitoes bounced around in its boxy backing. The neon tubes twisted and wiggled into their pre-programmed shapes. “Open,” it said, then it blipped out as the tubes reworked themselves into the words, “Come on in.” But the trolls knew the sign wasn’t referring to them.
After a quick break, the trolls pulled themselves off the ground and walked deeper into the dark, narrow alleyway. The alley was made up of the backsides of squatty brick buildings standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a collective shun. Their legs were tattooed with layers of graffiti so deep, the designs melted together into a technicolor implosion. Blocky letters, back glow, liquid gradients and shadows that took multiple cans were displayed equally next to scrawling text with half a thought behind it. There were winking eyes, fluttering angel wings, and bubble letters that wiggled, bounced and changed color. There was contact information for plugs that only appeared when cops weren’t around and cartoon pigs that only appeared when they were.
The designs splattered onto the exposed pipes and wires clinging loosely to the bricks, dripped onto the dumpsters, all huddled against the walls, until they finally oozed into the eager reflections of the rainy puddles that never dried out completely. One graffiti puddle rippled as a crow dropped an apple core into its sheen surface. Mac watched it fly into the clear sky where the stars were hardly visible over the light pollution. August had been kind, far kinder than July’s pervasive glare, and the hot breeze whipping through would have been pleasant if it didn’t carry the smell of surfer, fish and rancid cabbage.
As the alleyway approached the main roads, posters speckled its walls. Posters on every brick, every cranny. Posters on top of posters. Magenta tigers, two-headed pin-ups, indie shows over seasons ago and bands long since broken up. In the gutters were candy wrappers, cigarette butts, bits of debris broken down into faded confetti. It was beautiful. It was sad.
The alley opened to a main road. In just a few hours, the entire street would be swarming with the city’s annual Blackberry Festival. But for now, it lay dormant and the lush patch of grass across the road was as inviting as a warm bed.
Part giggle, part shriek, Barbie took off and Rhodey followed soon after. Bowie took his time- too cool to run- and Mac trailed a step behind to avoid talking to him. There wasn’t anything to say, as far as Mac was concerned. Mac had waited to switch because it felt right to be in between, but Bowie never understood anything he hadn’t experienced himself.
Barbie glanced back as she sprinted towards a wooden picnic table. Her dandelion hair curled on the sides as the wind ran its fingers through it. “I call the bench! I call the bench!”
“I call the table!” Yelled Rhodey, as he pumped his carrot orange arms to catch up. She had over a foot on him in height giving him the clear advantage, but he wasn’t wearing platform heels. They arrived at the same time and threw themselves onto the table hard enough for it to rock in the cold, damp grass.
“I got the bench.”
“I got the table.”
“Well, I got the bench!”
Bowie took a glance at Mac and stepped onto the unoccupied side of the bench. Then he turned, sat on the top of the table facing away from Barbie and Rhodey, and rested his crusty combat boots on the bench. Mac shoved their hands in their hoodie pockets. They never knew what to do with them when they weren’t working- that’s what it was to them. Tagging might not earn Mac a livelihood but it gave them life. Instead of sitting next to Bowie, they laid on the grass and their green swoop of hair fell back out of their eyes. The stars were clearer here in Lemming Park. Mac could almost make out the lines of constellations in the dark spaces.
“Hey,” said Mac. “You ingrates heard of Pictor?”
Rhodey crossed his legs and began tapping his shoes together. “Nah, but should I? He sellin’ cheaper weed than Fremont?” Bowie snorted, giving Rhodey the only encouragement he needed. He laughed and wove his fingers together behind his head even though the ego boost was cushion enough.
The laughter fell and the sound of a single cricket song filled the space instead.
Pushing her lower lip out in a pout, Barbie sat up on her elbows. “Tell us, Mac,” she said quietly.
Mac pressed their lips together.
“Tell us, tell us, tell us-”
A faint smile pulled at Mac’s mouth. “Okay, okay. You see that bend of stars right there?” Mac squeezed one eye shut and pointed to the heavens.
“Right there, Barbie. Right where I’m pointing. It looks like this.” Mac drew a check mark in the air.
Barbie looked at Mac’s hand and threw her head back at the sky. She scrunched up her face until her pink nose wrinkled up. Finally, she said, “They all kinda look like that to me.”
“What’s so important about it?” There was a metallic click as Bowie flicked open his lighter. The flame drew a sepia circle around Bowie’s narrow, banana-yellow face. He ran his thumb through its heat before snapping it shut again.
Mac kept their eyes on the sky. “It’s named after the easel and the palette.”
Bowie continued to flick and snap his lighter without turning around. “There a story behind it?”
“Nah, just some guy namin’ it. I just think it’s cool that it’s named after painting. You could pretty much make the same constellation with any three stars so it’s like the whole sky is a painting. Or like, you can paint with the sky.”
“Hey,” said Barbie, holding out the long “a” as a sharp grin stretched across her face. “I like that. Stars that paint.”
Rhodey scratched his elbow. “Me too. I think that’s cool, Mac.”
Mac balled up their fists in their pockets. They were describing it poorly. Pictor was like an open book resting pages down, if one cover was shorter than the other. It was a bird in a child’s drawing, a crowbar to all the passion Mac boxed away, a boomerang they kept coming back to. It was a small mountain in the landscape of the sky, and there wasn’t anyway for Mac to convey that in words. Their fingers itched to wrap around a spray can.
“Rhodey,” said Barbie, tone sweet enough to cause a cavity. “I need to ask you a favor.”
Rhodey stopped tapping his shoes. “Yeah, sure.”
“I haven’t seen enough red for a while. Could you turn red for me?”
“But my hair’s red.”
“I know, but I want even more red. You’re the best at color. I love watchin’ you switch.”
Uncrossing his legs, Rhodey took a deep breath and held it. A second passed, then a cloud of red crawled up his neck, his jawline, his hands and when it reached his hairline, he let his breath go. “That good?”
“It’s perfect.” Barbie sighed with satisfaction and closed her eyes like she wanted to fall asleep. A minute later, she flicked one open. “Say, you’re probably pretty hungry after that, aren’t chya?”
“Yeah, you know how hungry switchin’ makes me.”
“‘Cause I’m pretty hungry right about now.”
Mac smiled. So that’s what Barbie was playing at.
Bowie snapped his face towards Barbie’s. “You’re always hungry.”
“Yeah, well I’m really hungry. Like, I’m gonna die if I don’t get somethin’ right now.”
“Wow, that’s a tall order. You wanna bet?”
Rhodey laughed and Barbie crossed her arms. “Guys, I’m serious.”
“You know what?” said Mac, perfectly content to play along, “I’m feelin’ pretty hungry myself. How does Donna’s sound?”
Bowie shot an entire armory’s supply of daggers at Mac, but it was meaningless: a squeal from Barbie had finalized the decision. Mac shouldn’t be pushing him this hard but something about setting Bowie off always made it worth it. Besides, no matter how broke the trolls were, they could always scrape together enough change for a boat of fries at Donna’s.
The trolls trotted through the wet grass until their shoes hit concrete. The houses this close to the track drooped like flowers growing in sidewalk cracks. Thin stripes of mildew marched the edges of their bleached siding. Each wore a “No Trespass” sign like a name-tag. They loomed over the trolls with their sad, window eyes and watched them shout and laugh and push each other playfully as if they were children on a school playground instead of children on the streets. After passing a few strip malls and a couple more worn-out houses, the neon glow of Donna’s flickered before the trolls like a beacon from heaven. The bell above the door rang, the waitress gave them a nod and she went to the back to let the cook know they had arrived. A few minutes later, a fresh, picnic-print boat of fries sailed to their table. Just as soon as it arrived, it was almost gone.
Hunger still gnawed at Mac but it’s edge had dulled. It was the best they could ask for. Mac dipped the last, flimsy fry of the night into a red blop of cold ketchup before dropping it on their tongue. A cool red, the ketchup. How much green would they need to add to red make that shade? Mac rested their chin on their folded arms and stared at a paper sauce container. The oils from the ketchup had started to seep through its white folds. What texturing would get that grainy feel of the paper?
Rhodey licked the salt off his fingers. “We made some real art, today.”
“I don’t know if I’d call what you do art.” Bowie set a blue creamer in the middle of the mint-toothpaste table and stacked another on top of it.
“I would.” Mac laid their head sideways added a creamer to Bowie’s tower.
“Why?” he added another.
“‘Cause Bowie,” cooed Barbie, adding a fifth creamer. “Art’s what you feel!” She slapped the creamers and cackled as they rolled across the table.
After brushing the creamers aside, Bowie crossed his arms. “I don’t care what you feel if your technique doesn’t deliver that message.”
Rhodey grabbed a creamer and peeled back the lid. “Yeah, but what’s technique without a message? If I had to pick one or the other, it wouldn’t be skill. Who cares about oil paintings and marble statues?” Rhodey tossed back his head and downed the creamer. His eyes landed on a spot on the window and as he crunched up the creamer container, he pointed at it. “That’s art.”
The other trolls glanced up. Barbie squeaked as she leaned forward. “The “OPEN” sign?”
“Yeah. ‘Cause when I see that sign, I think of all the times we’ve been here and all the talks and that one time you ate a cold nugget off the ground and didn’t get sick.”
Barbie giggled. “That was a good nugget.”
“And that sign makes me think of all that. What do I care if it’s been mass produced or if it’s hangin’ here shop since before we were born? It means somethin’. You know what else means somethin’?” Rhodey sucked the salt off his other fingers before running his pink tongue across his palm. “I got twenty-three today. Almost end-to-end. Woulda made it if Bowie lent me another can.”
Bowie turned and stared down at Rhodey. “Have I ever given you any paint?”
He rubbed his slick hands together and wrinkled up his forehead. “No.”
“What makes you think I’ll change?”
“You switched last week,” said Barbie. She grabbed the ketchup bottle and squeezed a stream onto her outstretched tongue.
Mac picked up the paper ketchup container and smooshed it between their thumb and forefinger. It was tempting to say something real colorful, but they held their tongue. Now wasn’t the time for an argument. Not after food. The ketchup ran over onto their blue palms.
Bowie popped a crusty combat boot up on the open booth space by Mac and turned to Barbie. “I mean really change. You think too much, kid. You gotta just live and let live.”
“That’s rich comin’ from you.” Rhodey slapped Bowie on the arm.
“Oh, shut up. Like you don’t got enough problems to be freakin’ out about mine.”
“My problems don’t require me to carry a knife.”
“I carry a knife because you don’t have one, idiot.”
Rhodey opened his mouth to say something before squinting his eyes. Then he leaned forward, mouth open again, but it was fruitless. He had run out of ammo. Bowie, one and Rhodey zero.
“Hey,” said a booming voice from the back kitchen. “We close in ten minutes.”
“Yeah, yeah,” snapped Bowie.
A large, swamp green orc glared through the service window. “I mean it.”
They dumped all their change on the table and organized it into dollar groupings. Then they shoved their trash into the boat and left it close to the table’s edge so the waitress didn’t have to stretch to clear the table. The bell rang again on their way out. Uphill and onward, the trolls headed to the crest of the hillside where their half of the bridge rested. It was even darker than it had been in the park, but the stars were hard to see in this part of town. Hemlock West offered its own interpretation of heaven. Mac looked up at the underside of the bridge with great envy and even greater admiration. Stretching across the entirety of the bridge’s belly were glowing, swirling marks from graffiti artists brave enough to scale it. They couldn’t reach the stars so they had made their own.
In the elbow of the bridge was a red Volkswagen Beetle. A curtain of ivy wrapped through its wheels and a thick layer of gravel dust clung to the car’s chipped body. It wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but the troll leaning against it wasn’t either. He was a gaunt, ragged troll with a long algae beard, tree-knot knuckles and iridescent eyes that crinkled as he eyed the young trolls approaching him. He reached into the car and turned down his radio.
A smile stretched ear-to-ear on Rhodey’s face as he shoved his hands in his hoodie pockets. “Fremont! My dude, my man.”
“You lookin’ for anythin’ in particular?” He said, hands in his jeans.
“Just the usual.”
Fremont and Rhodey removed their fists from their pockets and shook hands. Rhodey cupped his fingers as he slid his hand out and quickly pocketed his hands once again.
Leaning against the Beetle, Fremont stared down the alley. “Say, you guys hear about the train wreck?”
“The hell you talkin’ about?” said Bowie.
“Just an hour ago, an oil train crashed right outside of town. It was uh, you know, one of the long ones with the big, black tanks.”
Barbie crossed her arms and glanced at the other trolls. “We didn’t hear nothin’. We went to the park and Donna’s.” Bowie shot a look at Barbie and she shut her mouth.
“Radio says one of its wheels popped off. They got a bunch of cops there investigating it. Found an aerosol paint can.”
Rhodey’s eyes widened. “They did?”
“Yeah, it was crushed up in its under-carriage. You know what I think? Can seems like it was placed in exactly the right spot to put the train off the road like whoever did it knew what they were doing. Ask me, it’s all a conspiracy. Just the government trying to drive up oil prices so they can make more tax money. Make it harder for the average Joe to up and leave to Canada. Keep the people down, you get what I’m saying’?”
Rhodey smiled hesitantly. “Yeah, that makes sense. So, uh, see you later, man.”
“See you later.” Fremont reached into his car and turned the radio back up. Sixties rock rattled through the old speakers. “You kids be careful out there.”
The trolls rushed back into the alley and walked in complete silence: no pushing, laughing or jumping in puddles.
After they had a fair head start, Rhodey started breathing heavily through his mouth. “What am I gonna do?”
Barbie glanced at him and frowned sympathetically. “Maybe it wasn’t your can.” Her voice was quiet and she still had her arms crossed.
“Who else could it have been? I left a can. They got fingerprint testin’ and stuff.”
Bowie scowled. “You didn’t wear you gloves?”
“I forgot, okay?”
Mac stopped. The other trolls walked a few more steps before slowing down and turning. “Guys, you gotta be calm about this.”
Rhodey balled up his red fists. “How can I be calm? I’m eighteen. They’re not gonna let up ‘til I’m locked up for life.
“A can didn’t derail a train and even if it did, that just means they should’ve built a better train. How does somethin’ that big fly off the rails ‘cause of a little can? You know it’s just Fremont bein’ an idiot.”
“But if they got the can, they’ll know I’m the one that did the graffiti.”
“You’re not gonna be locked up for graffiti.”
“But they’re gonna fine me and I won’t be able to pay the fine. Then they’ll press charges and I’ll get a lawyer with fifty other cases goin’ on. They don’t got my best interest. They’re gonna lock me up.” Rhodey grabbed his red hair. He crumbled over, rocking on his worn tennis shoes, and stared at a puddle in the middle of the alleyway. “They’re gonna lock me up,” he said to his reflection.
Barbie put a hand on Rhodey’s shoulder but he shrugged it off. Hunching to his level, Mac glared a hole in his direction.
He sniffed. His face buried in his knees and his voice cracked when he spoke. “I’m a coward, Mac. I’m a coward.”
Never deterred, Barbie put her hand on his shoulder once again. He didn’t fight it this time. “Come on,” she said. “We gotta move.”
They returned to the strip of alley near the tracks. There was a boarded-up back door to an abandoned office building along the stretch. It had been home for the last two weeks and after the train scare, nothing sounded better than a nap on its gray carpet. Bowie started to round the corner, but he jumped back. The trolls froze. Glancing over his shoulder, he rested a hand on his sheathed knife and jerked his head to point down the alley. Slowly, the other trolls peeked around the corner: two cops. One pried off the boards from the office building. The other held a radio up to his mouth. His head swiveled as he glanced around the alley. He hadn’t seen them yet. The trolls backed up from the corner and dashed away.
Bowie cursed under his breath. Barbie dug her nails into her arms. Rhodey grabbed fistfuls of his hair. “They know,” he said, voice shaking. “They know, they know, they know.”
Up against the wall was a dark green dumpster. Mac lifted the lid and checked -it was mostly empty- then waved. The trolls climbed in without hesitation. Mac jumped in last, glanced around and eased the lid down slowly.
It was dark. It was wet. It reeked. And it was their best chance.
The trolls huddled together in that awful, rancid darkness. The air was thick with putridity and every position was uncomfortable. An unknown liquid seeped into Mac’s sneakers and they squeezed their eyes shut as if the act would waterproof their entire body. Even with their bright colors, Mac couldn’t differentiate skin from the slick garbage bags. Rhodey sobbed quietly. The others respected his tears by saying nothing.
Wrapping their arms around their legs, Mac thought. Mac thought harder than they had in a long time. And after their socks were soaked to the bone and their toes began to wrinkle, Mac whispered, “I’ve got an idea.”