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The Dead Forest

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They’ve taken down the elevated subway lines.

They’d started to before the war, of course. Shutting down stations seemingly at random. Dismantling the 6th Avenue El before the subway’d even been dug to replace it. The stations had been lovely, and their component parts were dumped unceremoniously in the garbage; Steve had rescued beautiful panels of stained glass and sold them off for ten dollars apiece. But it’d dragged on, like most things do in New York, drawn out by labor squabbles and the city dragging their feet about this and that. Even when it’d been Steve’s turn to ship out there had still been spurs and steel pillars that dotted the avenues, like tree stumps from a dead forest.

Now the face of Manhattan is bare and unmarked; he walks down the avenues with the sun peeking down in glimpses through the canyon of skyscrapers.

On the fourth day his handlers take him to a museum over on the west side of the city, where the streets are still cobblestone and the squat brick buildings still bear the names of butchers and meat packers. They call it a park, but he knows it’s a museum. He remembers when the West Side Line had opened. He’d been sixteen, and had argued for days with his Ma about quitting school and seeing if the railroad would hire him. Now it’s overgrown with grasses, ornamental trees, and tourists. The ties beneath his feet are rusty, and corroded with age.

“When did the Third Avenue El come down?” he asks, and then clears his voice so it’ll sound less thick.

Wright looks heavenward, and sets her cappuccino down on the bench to pull out the little box she keeps in her pocket. She’s warming up to him, he thinks. The day he’d been introduced to his handlers, she’d pushed a piece of paper across the table to him. “These are a list of words we don’t say anymore,” she’d said, firm - and then added, like she’s daring him to do it: “You can’t call me any of these names.”

Steve had looked down, traced the list with his eyes. Column A: the words we don’t say anymore. Column B: helpful substitutions. Negro was on there, along with other words Steve had never said anyway, which maybe was why Wright was staring him down, the emphasis of her words: you can’t call me this. Kike was on the list too, and so is Fairy. The corner of Steve’s mouth twitched: he thought of bloodied knuckles and the kind of fights that didn’t end until someone was hurt real bad, until they’d been paid back for having started it. But mixed into that thought was pain, heavy and wet and clogging up his chest, so all he’d said was, “Thank you.”

“They took it down in,” she says now, staring at the - computer, or phone, he knows it’s both, accepts it the way he’s accepted everything they’ve shown him in the last four days: because he has to. “1955. Wow.”

“I didn’t know there was an elevated line right through the city,” Applebaum says, taking the computer out of her hand to look at whatever’s on the screen. Wright lets him do it.

“Didn’t you grow up here?” she asks, and he shrugs. Applebaum is - thirty, maybe. Older than Steve. Or -

There’d been elevated trains on 2nd Avenue, and 6th Avenue, and 9th Avenue too. Getting anywhere crosstown in Manhattan had been like walking through a jungle of iron and wood, trains clattering overhead, the rails dripping snow and rain down the back of your coat, summer sun slanting beams of light through the pillars so thick they looked solid. They’d ridden in the front car of the Els as children, peering through the window as Brooklyn or the city unfurled below them. As men they’d looked coolly into their neighbors’ windows as the train went rattling past. Steve never saw any naked ladies through the curtains, though Bucky swore up and down he’d -

They’d given Steve the folder, too. The first day he’d met his handlers, after he’d looked at the list of what not to say, they’d laid a folder out on the table. When he didn’t say anything, they started telling him about the provisions SHIELD was making for him. They’d set up an apartment for him, a few blocks away. He’d be able to go there in a few days, after he’d let the doctors there run a few tests. There were people available for him to - speak to, should he need to. Director Fury was monitoring his case personally.

Steve had nodded where it seemed he should, and said nothing, except to ask, “Speak about what?” Mostly he’d stared down at the table where the folder sat, unopened. The black bird that was SHIELD’s logo at the top. The military-vague words underneath, describing the contents. His hands were sweaty, where he had them in his lap, his fingers twisted together.

“You can look through that later,” Wright had said, and Steve imagined pity in her voice. “If you need some privacy.”

“Thank you,” Steve had said, again.

After they walk the length of the Highline, Applebaum and Wright escort him back east, through unshadowed avenues. His new quarters - his new apartment - is a few blocks away from SHIELD’s headquarters. Applebaum apologizes for how small the place is. It looks enormous, to Steve. A whole bedroom, all to himself. A living room, with an old wooden table set up across from a narrow sofa. An entirely separate room for the kitchen. There are two closets. The coffee Wright had bought him on the Highline had cost four dollars; he doesn’t want to ask how much the rent is.

There’s a mannequin in the bedroom with a dress uniform set up on it. The medals and ribbons are regulation straight, straighter than Steve had ever managed by himself. There’s a low, wide dresser full of impossibly casual clothes. He hasn’t seen anyone wearing ties or hats, and there are none to be found in the apartment. They haven’t left him in any books, either.

He’d brought everything from the SHIELD facility stuffed into a single pack. “It’s made of nylon,” Wright had said when they’d given it to him, and laughed. “Actually, they invented it back in your day, when they couldn’t get enough silk for parachutes.”

Back in your day. Yesterday, Applebaum had asked if he’d like to go over to Brooklyn, see his old neighborhood, maybe where his last apartment had been. It had been torn down in the sixties and replaced with an office building. “Don’t worry,” Applebaum had said, “it’s a nice area now.”

It’d been nice when Steve had lived there. He’d felt like he was moving up in the world, and he’d shared a bedroom, and there’d been no closets at all.

“We’ll see you in the morning,” Wright says, and after he shuts the door behind them they walk a few steps to the next apartment, and let themselves in quietly, like he’s not supposed to know they’re there.

They’d shown him how to use the laptop they’d left with him, but he doesn’t touch it. He pulls the folder out of his nylon pack, and sets it on the table. When he opens it, the first picture he sees is Peggy’s face. He closes the folder and goes to lie down.

He lies awake and stares at the ceiling for a long time.

The bed they’ve given him is soft as a marshmallow. Two years he’s been sleeping in cots and in tents or even on the ground, he and his men tucked around each other for warmth, rocks poking through the thin sleeping bags they’d had.

The apartment’s quiet, too - tucked away on a tree-lined street, grander than he’d thought existed in midtown, barely even the noise of cars driving by on the street below.

No snoring, farting Dugan.

No Dernier, who kicked in his sleep.

No Morita, who would pace on his watch and smoke endless cigarettes.

No Bu -

He falls asleep somehow and wakes up thrashing. He tumbles onto the floor and stays there, his heart pounding, spitting the taste of saltwater out of his mouth. He doesn’t want to open his eyes, in case Schmidt is still there - sitting in the little chair in the corner, watching Steve while he’d slept.

The room is empty. The apartment is empty.

He stares at the chair in the corner for a long time anyway, in case Schmidt is hiding - fuck, in the closet, waiting for Steve to go back to sleep -

But that’s empty too, and abruptly Steve realizes he’s gripping the door frame so hard it’s splintering under his hands. Staring into the shallow closet, empty except for a leather jacket Nick Fury had presented him with on the second day, along with a set of clothes he kindly told Steve would help him fit in. Staring like he’s expecting to find the boogyman in there.

Steve yanks the coat off its hanger and goes out.

He takes the stairs quietly. His heart’s still thudding away in his chest. His hands are numb. His feet are numb, stuffed into the cheap little shoes they’d given him. He needs a drink. It’s late, some no-man’s hour between nighttime and sunrise. His body must have woken him for a change of the watch, only there’s no one to take over from. The apartment was empty. He needs a drink.

God, he needs a drink.

It’s been seventy years and he’s got money in the wallet SHIELD gave him, it has to be enough to get him drunk. He’ll go to - he’ll go to the Bowery, there’ll be a place he can go to get a drink. He can catch the IRT down to Bleeker, and find what he needs on the Bowery. It won’t matter that he’s dressed in work pants. He’ll -

There’s no one at the booth to sell him a token. He can hear a couple people on the platform, out of sight. He looks, helpless, at the bright yellow machines along the wall, but there are no buttons to press, no keys to strike.

Maybe he should walk. It’d be forty blocks or so. He could walk that. He could run the whole way, even. He could -

He reaches one finger hesitantly out, and touches the screen, right over the big yellow button that says START.

The machine asks him if he’d like to buy a Metrocard.

He fumbles a bill out of his pocket - two seventy five for subway fare, Jesus Christ, it used to cost a nickel - and it spits out a little yellow card. All he can hope is that it works the same as tokens, and after a few false starts it does. He has just a minute to spare before the train comes rumbling into the station, this is a Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall bound train, making local stops it tells him as he boards, and he stands in the corner of the car with his hands in his pockets. At least everyone still minds their own damn business on the subway.

By the time the train pulls into Bleeker Street station he’s shaking out of his skin. He’ll get a bottle of something, maybe two or three, just something to get him through the night. Maybe he can find a gun, something that’ll be more permanent than the ice. He takes the steps two at a time, minds his wallet and the keys in his jacket pocket, shoulders up so maybe none’a the drunks’ll mess with him, but maybe it’d be better if they did -

When he gets to the corner of Houston and Bowery he doesn’t recognize it. They’ve shaved off the thicket of fire escapes and rickety signs advertising cheap rooms that used to hang off all the buildings. The streets are empty, or nearly so - but the people hurrying past him look clean and neat and sober. No one is sleeping in doorways, or out on the sidewalk like they’d fallen down and never bothered to get up. No jealously guarded pushcarts line the alleyways, half full of whatever garbage the owner couldn’t sell during the day.

They’ve taken down the elevated line, and without it the Bowery stretches wide and open like a razed country, smelling like nothing in particular, quiet and peaceful.

Steve takes two staggering steps up Bowery and then sits down heavy on the sidewalk, staring up at the clean faces of the buildings that line the street. A few cabs rush by, hushed on the slick streets. A woman crosses Houston, turns up Bowery and passes a few feet away from him. She doesn’t look at him, and he doesn’t look at her, lost in the colorless heavens above his head.

“Is this a test?” he asks God, but like every other time he’s asked lately, there’s no one there to answer.