Read Nora & kettle Online

Authors: Lauren Nicolle Taylor

Nora & kettle

Advertising Download Read Online


 

THIS book is a work of fiction.  Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

NO part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission.  Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights.  Purchase only authorized editions.

 

Nora & Kettle

Copyright ©2016 Lauren Taylor

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-63422-136-8

Cover Design by: Marya Heiman

Typography by: Courtney Nuckels

Editing by: Cynthia Shepp

 

WARNING: This novel contains realistic portrayals of domestic violence.

For more information about our content disclosure,

please utilize the QR code above with your smart phone or visit us at

www.CleanTeenPublishing.com.

 

To John & Jeanne for finding hope in a lost place.

 

Table of Contents

 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Acknowledgements

About the Author

 

1. WINGS

NORA

 

If I had wings, they would be black, thin, and feathered. Not a flat color… but iridescent. Shining with hues of purple, green, and blue. Catching the light with the barest fingertips. And when I needed, I could fold into the darkest shadows and hide.

 

This time between the dark and the dawn is mine.

I roll from my bed and slip quietly across the floor, avoiding the creaks in a shadowy dance no one will ever see. My ears tune to the nonexistent noises around me and I sigh, ghostlike, with relief. Because in this time, he sleeps.

A snap of a memory flashes through my mind and body as I feel the sharp, short cracks delivered this time.Thistime.

I ease the dresser drawer out, holding my breath as tiny splinters catch the sides, and reach underneath the lace and silk to the boys’ pants hidden beneath. Quickly, I slide them on, my bruises objecting as I bend to fasten them. Tucking the ends of my nightdress into the waist, I pad to the window.

Across from our brownstone, one light shines dimly through a dirty window. Someone leaving for or returning from a shift; a refrigerator light; something simple and easy. I crinkle my nose and think,Of all the hundreds of people who live in that apartment building, how is it that only one solitary light shines?I quirk my lips into an unsure smile, a new split stinging as it stretches apart. This is why it ismytime.

Bending and flexing my legs, I take a deep breath and push the window ajar. It protests, groaning as I push my torso out and use my back to push it up. Settling on the windowsill, I close it down, pulling a small comb from my pocket and wedging it in the gap so I can get back in.

Perched like a bat ready to launch into the night, my eyes dart to the corner of the building, to the rickety fire escape that would be much easier to climb. A car light bends over the gaps in the iron and fans out like the punch in a comic book.Wham!I snigger to myself, the laugh seeming foreign, jarring. I’m not supposed to laugh. I’m a sad girl, with a sad life.

But it ismylife, and tonight… I’m going to fly.

I face my window and grasp the drainpipe that runs the length of the building. Staring up at the sky for a moment, I search out my destination. The one error in the building, which grates on him, invites me. One beam they forgot to trim sits out from the wall like a pirate ship plank. I dig my bare toes into the worn spaces between the bricks and climb.

I’m a shadow taped to the wall, scaling the pipe in solid but fast movements. Breathing hard and forgetting everything. The sky and the stars hang around just for me. They cling to the fading darkness, and I let them spark my senses. The night air closes in like the wings of a crow, folding over, protecting and gifting me something I lack. I pass the window of our sleeping neighbors and shake my head. They won’t hear me.

I breathe in deeply. Car exhaust films the air but it lightens, sweetens, as I climb. Overhead, the plank casts a cool shadow over the building, lengthening as the moon starts to dip away and the sun coaxes the sky into pinks and oranges.Mytime is only minutes.Mymind is only on the hands pulling me up and the legs stabilizing me.

I dig my toes into the brackets holding the pipe. It cuts in, but my skin is toughening through scars crisscrossing over other scars. I throw my head back, my hair wisping and sticking to my cheeks. Sweat makes my grip slippery. It takes more concentration, more strength to hold on, but that’s why I like it. This risk sends flickers through my heart; pinprick lights like the points of a star. It keeps something beating that could be dead, should be dead. But I can’t let it.

I won’t.

The pipe trembles under my weight, the screws wriggle in their brackets, and I hold tighter. Moving faster up, up, up, until I reach the beam. I link my hands together around the plank, the dry wood soaking up some of my sweat.

This part, the upside-down part… I love.

I hug the beam and creep my feet up the wall until I can wrap my legs around it, swinging like a raccoon on a telephone wire. My head drops down and I stare out at the inverted city, the skyscrapers hanging from the earth like stalactites, dripping their lights into the clouds and piercing the sky. One shake and the people would spill from their locked-in positions, sprinkling like pepper into the atmosphere.

Just float away.

Light as air… I want to be a speck carried by the wind.

My hair swings in coils and clumps on either side of my eyes, and my head starts to beat like a drum full of water from too much blood. I work my way around until I’m right way up, lying stomach to beam.

I push back to sitting, my legs dangling, my chest filled to bursting with cleaner air, the flames of sunrise singeing the top of my head.

If I had wings… They’d need to be strong enough…

Closing my eyes as the round edge of the sun pokes above the horizon, I spread my arms wide. I let the small breeze flutter under my limbs, cool my skin, and free my hair.

If I had wings, I could fly.

 

2. ACCIDENTS

NORA

 

Paths are usually stamped-out, well-defined things. They’re like that for a reason. They point toward a way through. They are hope in a lost place.

My path is patchy, indeterminate, and young. Thousands of feet have not walked this path. Although, sadly, I know some have.

 

The sun splits the willowy curtains into strands of green and cream, dancing over each other with the breeze. Groggily, I blink and watch the delicate performance, unwilling to move and waiting for the pain to set in. Branches tap out a Morse-code message on the window. I flinch, mistaking it for sharp knuckles rapping on my door. A dull ache courses through my stomach and pins itself to my back, wishing me good morning.

I carefully straighten under the covers, pointing my toes and testing my limbs. I’m okay. These wounds are ordinary. Nothing I haven’t dealt with before.

Through the narrow crack of my bedroom door sails the ordinary clatter of the morning—spoons rattling in empty bowls as they are thrown in the sink and a copper kettle whistling, high-pitched and impatient. That new Perry Como song plays on the radio, my mother’s humming sounding like nails on a chalkboard in my sore head. I wait. Sure enough, halfway through the song, his controlled, sharp-as-icepicks footsteps cross the kitchen and the radio squeals across the bands to classical music. I clasp my head with both hands at the squeal and then the twanging violins.

I want to sleep. I need to sleep. I won’t get to sleep.

“Nora!” my mother screams, matching the sound of the kettle with its impatient trill. Her loud voice pushes its way between the fingers holding my head together and vibrates inside my skull. “I need you downstairs and ready for school in five minutes!” I can almost see her pointing sharply at the tiles as if I should materialize that instant right where she’s indicating.

I release my hands from my ears and lay them in my lap, palms upward. Everything I do is slow because my body is trying to avoid the pain. I want to tell it not to bother, swallowing dryly at the state of my wrists. Fingernail impressions separate the thin veins that run across my pale skin. I pull the sleeves of my nightdress down and tie the ribbons tightly over the marks.

A loud groan rumbles up the stairs. “Ugh! Nora, I’m not kidding. We’re going to be late… again.” For someone so small, she can bellow like an overweight opera singer.

I sigh, pull the downy covers over my head, and am clouded in darkness.Just a few more minutes. I am afforded none as a scrawny, angular weight lands on top of me. Knees like shelf brackets dig into my ribs.

“Nora, Nora, Nora… Get up.” My name piles one on top of another without a breath in between. Thin fingers clamp onto my arms and shake.

I pull away. “All right,” I mumble, my voice muffled by the heavy quilt.

“Nora. Nora. Noraaaaaa.” Because she can’t hear me, Frankie’s poking continues. It feels like she’s taken two forks from downstairs and is jamming them into my sides. I curl down the covers carefully, squinting at all the lights she switched on when she entered my room.

Frankie shuffles back and smiles, gummy, three teeth missing. Her hearing aid is in her open palm. “Can you help me put thissss in, Noraaaaaaa?” she says, her Ss hissing through the gap. I sit up and tuck her long, straight hair, which is the color of autumn leaves, behind her ear. She giggles and rasps, a slight wheeze in her defective chest. Bobbing her head back and forth, she sings some unintelligible song as I wrangle with her hair and constant movement.

I clamp my hand down on top of her head. “Hold still, Frankie,” I plead through gritted, fuzzy teeth.

She lurches forward just to make it more difficult, but I manage to slip the aid into her tiny, peaches-and-cream-colored ear. I position the headband my mother lovingly wound with pink satin ribbon. The aid whining itches my teeth as I grab her clothes and still her while clipping the little black box onto her sash. Smiling, she glances up at me with dark blue eyes, yellow streaks streaming from the irises like the rays of the sun. “Tanks!” she whispers and licks my hand.

“Oh yuck, Frankie!” I roll my eyes and watch my ferrety little sister bound out of the room and tear down the hall, sounding more like an elephant than a seven-year-old.

The bathroom door slams. I know I’m going to be waiting a while so I slip down into the bed and cross my arms over my chest, resting like I’m lying in a coffin. The warm air and street noises flowing through the window tell me I’m going to be sweating in a long-sleeved, high-necked dress, but I don’t have another option.

My mother’s holler coasts over the dark brown banister and hits my ears again. “We’re going to be laaate!” Her voice is shrill and getting shriller.

I hear a plate slam down on the counter. Heavy footsteps approach, darker and more electric than a storm cloud.

“I’ll get her,” my father says loudly, knowing all he needs to do is threaten. I hold still, out of stubbornness, out of fear, I don’t know, but I wait until I hear him slowly and deliberately stomping up the stairs. One, two, three…

I stay clamped still until he’s at the top and then I scramble out of bed, grabbing my clothes from yesterday off the back of a chair and scurrying to the door. My heart pounds hard for the moments it takes to remember that Frankie is in the bathroom, and then it steadies. Because my heart has a memory. It understands the pattern, and it prepares me.

I gingerly nudge my door further ajar with my foot to reveal him standing proud, gripping the bannister and looking like a painting of one of our long-dead relatives. His eyes are an oily swirl of an amber brush. Not a man, a figment, and definitely not a father.

He gives me a flat, unimpressed smile and says, “Good girl,” as he tracks my movements. My gaze connects with his for a moment before I have to look away. In his eyes are the reflections of the beating I didn’t know how to stop, and even though my heart remembers, the rest of me would like to forget.

I pad down the hall, eyes down, hands clasped, just like agood girlshould, toward the bathroom door. He turns, clicking his heels sharply, and takes one step down. Agood girl. I snort at the comment and he hesitates, one foot hovering in midair. I sense the angry electricity charging his bones and tightening his fists.

I knock on the bathroom door, gently at first, but quickening with every bad thought that enters my mind. He wouldn’t. Not with Mother just downstairs. I stare at the carpet and nervously blow air through pursed lips.

The boards of the stairs creak, always in the same place, and he pushes his weight down on it—testing, warning, and playing with my nerves. My mouth tastes metallic, and my hands pump nervously.

“Christopher, let me…” my mother shouts from the foyer, her voice edged in trepidation. The top of her head nods up and down over a tailored jacket and an unfashionably long skirt. She is graced with the same autumn-leaved hair color as Frankie. Her clothes may be dated, but she still looks beautiful. I sigh stiffly and tuck my slightly frizzy, dirty-blond hair behind my unfortunately prominent ears. My father watches me, his eyes crinkling in disgust with my every movement. I have his ears, nose, and hair… and he can’t stand it. I wish I could scrub out my face and start again. Not because it would protect me, but because it would mean I wouldn’t see him in my reflection.

My eyes round as he takes a threatening step in my direction, fury building in his arms, coursing down into his fingers that clench into solidity. I feel them even though they’re yards away. I know how each fist feels as it strikes my skin.Knuckled like clam shells and as hard as rocks.I grab my stomach, nausea and pain swirling together inside, and tap on the door more urgently. “Frankie, open the door,” I plead. I give him a sideways glance, and there’s a sickening look of satisfaction playing across his face because he likes to see me afraid.

The door cracks and I get a glimpse of Frankie pulling her underpants up while walking away. She grins at me as she flushes the toilet, and then shudders when she sees Father’s shadow growing behind me. I watch her shrivel before him, and I armor myself.

Footsteps hurry up the stairs with the swish of thick material batting at slender legs.

I turn, breathing in the wordshield.

My mother climbs anxiously, her waned eyes on my father, her hands out in front as she rushes. Brittle hope rises, and I wonder if she’s actually going to say somethingthis time. If she’s going to saystop.

“Christopher,” she pants just before she reaches the top stair, her lip curling on the ‘pher’ part as she blows a loose strand of hair from her eyes. It floats up and lands back over her delicate brow. “It’s fine,” she says as she takes another step up, her long skirt trapping her leather heels and snagging her feet. “I…”

A loud siren wails outside. My mother’s attention abruptly snaps to the long, arch window over the landing, her face crossed with the black line shadows of the frame and the morning sun.

A collection of events. Each on its own is harmless. But together, one after the other, they change the world.

Startled and off balance, her hands grab at the air in front of her. Her eyes close and she falls backward. My father reaches out, but there’s endless space between them.

“Rebecca!” he sort of sighs and screams because he’s helpless. His voice is sucked away by the shocking sight of her body plunging downwards and her legs kicking like she’s riding an invisible bicycle. The shattering sound of her breath knocking from her lungs with every crack on the hardwood stairs pounds us both with airy hammers.

It’s just air. Air and tumbling. Pulling down, down, down. And as her body breaks, so does my very thin thread of safety.

There’s beauty in the fall, the weightlessness, the gravity fighting against the will. The curve of her body is a thin stream. And for one ridiculous, far-fetched moment, I believe she will fly. But there is no magic in my life. This world offers no pixie dust to lift our feet from the floor. So I watch her non-flight with detached horror and know that any chance I had just fluttered to the floor like a released pack of cards.

The landing is ugly. It’s hard and final. Weight catches up and she skids across the tiles in her slippery skirt. Her hair flounces out of its pinned updo, too much life to the curls bouncing over an ashen face. The view of her lying there spins up from the ground and hits me square in the chest. The pain is bigger than anything I’ve ever imagined. It keeps pushing, prying, trying to open me up right here in the hall.

Frankie shoves on the door, and my palm snaps to the panel to block her way. “I thought ya needed to go, Nora. Nora, let me out.” Her voice is panicky, high-pitched. She is unaware what exactly is wrong but she knows something is.

I brace the door as little, freckled fingers curl around the outside.

Shouldn’t it be slow when your world changes?It’s not my experience. It’s fast as lightning and stings as much. She was at the top of the stairs, alive, talking. A flush to her creamy skin from exertion. Now she lies on the black-and-white tiles of the entry hall, her body angled all wrong. Her mouth open. Her eyes still closed.

That hard, tumbleweed of reality is still pushing against my chest, trying to get me to release something. I pull at my clothes like they’re strangling me.I can’t breathe.

There were no words. There was no time. I didn’t get to say anything, barely opened my mouth before it was over.

It’s over.

I take a heaped breath in and hold it. My lungs bursting with numbing pain.

I turn to see my father perched at the top of the stairs, staring at me mutely for several seconds, the wail of more sirens gathering seeming otherworldly. The sky screaming for a take back. We move our eyes millimeter by millimeter to the body at the bottom of the stairs, neither one really wanting to see what we already know. Frankie’s tiny fists pound on the door like a heartbeat. “Nora, what’s wrong?”

Everything.

Everything.

Realization is heavy and it adds weights to my father’s shoulders until he sinks to his knees in a knight’s stance, mangled sobs heaving from his chest.

I think,He won’t move.

I think,He should run down and help her.

I know it won’t do any good.

She looks like one of Frankie’s dolls, a frozen sculpture, robbed of life, of grace. I almost expect her face to be cracked, shattered inwards like she was in fact shaped from porcelain. But she looks untouched. She looks like she was arranged this way, a mannequin that was never alive.

My father rotates slowly, still crouching, dirty-blond hair falling over his forehead. Hate waves creep toward me, pulling me to him. It’s a look I’m already very used to, but it darkens with every breath he takes.

Eyes half measured with tears and steely hatred, he whispers, “This is your fault,” and something inside me breaks, painfully pulled open with strong hands that hurt again and again. It’s my heart, my armor, my survival, all shattering and crashing to the floor.

Gently, I pry Frankie’s fingers from the bathroom door and close it carefully, ignoring her pleas. I don’t want her to see this. She can’t see this.Oh God, she can’t see this.Panic winds my breath tighter. I turn my back to the bathroom door, look up at the ceiling, which seems black and swirling with empty stars, and I scream.

 

3. SUPER

KETTLE

 

I like the way the metal of the fire escape creaks beneath my feet. The precariousness of it. It’s grating, rusty, and totally man-made. Ordinary people constructed these parts of the building for a practical purpose, and the outside is decorated with that commonality. It drags down the grandness of the stately brownstones, down closer to my level—in the dirt and oily puddles. But mostly, I like the promise of fresh air. The view from the top of a grimy building, an immaculate brownstone, or a department store is the same if you lift your eyes. Just sky, nothing else. When I’m up here, I can pretend. I can forget the outstretched hands, the hungry eyes, and the bellies that are never quite full. I can forget that five nights out of seven, I sleep wedged between a dumpster and a sewer pipe. Pretend that I can’t hear and feel the toilet flush every time one ofthemuses the bathroom.

This is my time to be alone. I don’t need long, but minutes where my mind can relax are precious.

Rocking back and forth on the platform, I put my hands on my hips and sigh, reminding myself that I’m luckier than most down there.

I swing my slightly too-big sneakers up over the concrete lip of the building and land with a thud on the roof. Dirt, leaves, and rubbish swish across the tiled surface. The pigeons don’t flee; they simply shuffle to a safer distance, huddling in a circle like they’re plotting something. A tunnel of warm air hits me in the face. It’s too warm. I put my hand up like I can touch it, scanning the sky and wondering where it came from. Rolling my shoulders, I feel a warm chill. It’s something odd and wrong that causes my skin to prickle, and my hair to fray and stand on end. It’s like anger rising. Steam pushing the lid of a pot up with frantic bubbling.

My nostrils burn. Singe. A smoky cloud slaps my eyes.

Fire.

I squint through the growing smoke, the black soot casting old pictures in front of my eyes.A small, blackened hearth in a flimsy, tar-papered building. Hands covered in calluses and needle pricks held out to warm themselves. The letters U and S not meaning what I thought they meant. Not ‘us’. Not us. Only them.

My head falls and I close my eyes, hearing the words, seeing the characters I’ve almost forgotten how to write, flaring black behind my eyelids.Head down. Prove your loyalty. Show respect.

Across the alley, the low-cost apartment building shudders with a chorus of screams and shouts as what was once a peaceful morning erupts into chaos. I snap back to the present and search the breaking structure before me.

Halfway down the apartment block, the fire escape groans and I watch as a mother, her baby tucked unceremoniously under her arm, scrambles down the metal rungs, her husband right behind her. Thick, black smoke physically shoves them from their home. She glances up at me briefly, opening her mouth but then closing it as her husband pushes her roughly in the back. Her eyes, her whole body, become focused on putting one frightened foot in front of the next.

I start toward the edge of the brownstone I’m on, realizing there’s nothing I can do from here. Taking a slice of the sky for later, I swallow what’s left of my peace, leaving an empty, unsatisfied feeling in the hollow of my stomach.

I breathe in deeply, wanting that taste of fresh air but savoring only acrid smoke. My ears are punctured by the gathering clamor of noise and panic. Plumes of blinding smoke pours from the windows of the apartments above as now, the fire really means business. The family carefully picks their way down the fire escape way too slowly. I pause, waiting for the sirens and lights.

It takes just five seconds for the first siren to scream.

Gripping the rails, I watch as a piece of charred cardboard floats lazily on the breeze, winding its way up into the sky like a spirit.

One long scream howls through the morning air and I turn to its origin, behind me in the brownstone. Confused, my head snaps back to the apartment building just as the cardboard shivers and disintegrates before my eyes, becoming part of the steady cloud that’s piping into the sky. The scream is crammed with pain and loss and all the things I know so well.

If I had time, I’d wonder why it is coming from the building not on fire. But I don’t have time. And wondering is for suckers. I blink, cough, and shake my head. I have to get out of here before the authorities arrive.

***

I jump over the roof barrier and land unsteadily on the metal staircase, wobbling and nearly falling straight over the edge. I hear Kin’s voice before I see his tiny form in the alley, shadowed by the smoke.

“They’re here!” he shouts with a hint of humor to his voice, like he enjoys the running. I want to roll my eyes but they burn from the smoke, and I settle for grunting.

Taking three steps at a time, I plummet through the levels of the building as fast as I can. My lungs burn and I can’t tell if it’s from lack of air or from the foul smoke that’s fast filling the atmosphere. The family keeps pace with me, floor by floor, and I watch them, distracted. My feet catch on a step and I hit the next platform hard, my cheek planting on the metal, my eyes on the couple and child. They are two floors from the ground when the mother stops. She doubles over and coughs uncontrollably. Holding her chest with her spare hand, she shakes her head ‘no’ to the father. She passes the baby to her husband.

Heat is building behind the thin, glass windows, the structure buckling above, my reflection vibrating like the surface of a bubble.

It’s so delicate. Our skin, our life. We’re held together by the thinnest of membranes.

The husband snatches the child to his chest and starts down, moving around herwhile she catches her breath. Not waiting.Don’t wait.The window explodes and shatters as he screams in panic. Like a waterfall we follow; the baby screams, I scream, and the mother screams as she is pelted with glass. The father hunches over the child protectively, his thick jacket shielding him.

I can’t hear over the sirens and shrieks. But I see the silent exchange, the mother telling the father to go on without her, his reluctant nod as he kisses her, clasps the baby tighter, and leaves. I grimace. They are so close that I can almost touch them. The mother lies still but for a burst of coughing as smoke wraps around her body like a blanket.

From below, Kin cups his hands around his mouth and yells, “Jump down!”

I shake my head.

To hell with it.

I walk away from the edge and press my back to the ruddy, red brick wall, cursing at my cramped position. A four-step run up is probably not enough.

“Not… that…” I hear Kin initially shout and then his voice peters out, “…way,” as I press off the platform and launch at the opposite building, my hands outstretched, my eyes watering from the smoke.

The mother lies wilted on the platform.

I land with a metallic thump, missing her limp arm by a millimeter. She is cut to shreds by the glass, but she’s still breathing.

Below us, the husband sobs. Safely on the ground, he stoops, unsure of whether to lay his baby in the filthy alley and climb back up or take the child to safety. Smoke soon obscures my view of them and they disappear.

I squat down and talk to the woman through my pulled-up shirt. “It’s going to be okay, lady. Just put your arm over my shoulder and I’ll get you to the ground.”

She mumbles incoherently but she manages to stumble to her feet. I pull her to my back and half run, half fall down the last two flights of stairs. Her blood seeps through my clothing and her hold on me loosens. I grit my teeth and drag her out of the alley and into the street, while the husband frantically talks at me in Spanish. I honestly can’t tell if he’s happy or angry or what, only that he’s beyond upset and talking at a mile a minute.

I lay his wife down on the sidewalk as carefully as I can, and the husband bends down to kiss her. I think he’s happy. He motions to the crowd of emergency vehicles that have swarmed around the base of the building, and I know this is my cue. Coughing tarry junk from my lungs, I hover in the shadow between the buildings, slightly dazed with my hands on my hips. I just want to make sure they see her.

Kin’s strong arm claps onto my shoulder and drags me deeper in to the shadows. We peel around the corner, and he shoves me against the wall.

“What the hell, man?” he asks as he quickly checks me over for injuries, patting my body down like a cop frisking a pickpocket. “You’re not a super hero. You can’t pull stunts like that!” He sighs, releases my shirt, and steps back. “You do realize you can’t fly, right?”

I shrug and grin, swiping my hand over my face, which comes away black and sooty. Coughing again, I feel the smoke coating my lungs. “I came pretty close.” I wink. “Besides, what was I supposed to do—leave her to die?”

Kin steps back from me, opens his mouth to say something, and then pauses, his dark brows knotted. He’s having a moment. I can tell. He’s trying to decide whether to be big brother or friend. “Yes. It’s whattheywould have done if it were you.” Big brother, then. I shake my head even though I know he’s probably right. “You’re nothing to them.” He points at my cap pulled low over my eyes. “You hide your face… why? Because showing them, reminding them of whoyouare and whattheydid, makes them feel bad. Or,” he says, shaking a long, dark finger at me. “They think you’re the enemy. Either way, they just want to pretend we don’t exist.” He winces at the words. He doesn’t like talking to me this way, I can tell. He needn’t bother. I know what people think I am. I don’t need reminding.

“Don’t talk like that,” I growl. “We’re Kings, you and I.” I pump my fist to the air.

Kin’s head slowly dips. “Sure we are. Kings of the Alley, Kings of the Dumpsters!”

I shrug. The sirens are still winding round and round. A red light runs across the wall and disappears repeatedly. Firemen unravel their hoses and attempt to put out the fire.

“We really need to get out of here.” Kin’s dark eyes are darting and counting all the possible escape routes. “Be invisible, remember?”

“I remember,” I say craning my neck to make sure the mother is getting medical attention. I made the rules after all. Kin pushes his sleeves up his hard arms that have seen too much labor for a seventeen-year-old and turns away.

I stall.

A slippered foot appears at the corner, the velvet shining under a thin stream of sunlight. It’s coming out of the building I just jumped from, the building that the unholy scream came from five minutes ago. A teenage girl in pretty, expensive-looking clothes hovers at the edge of the crowd. She doesn’t flee like the others, the sensible people who can see the building might possibly collapse into the street. It’s like she’s tied to the bricks. Each step seems painful. Her sandy hair flies all over the place, beating her spine like a fan. Her shoulders pull in, and they shudder. Fascinated, I take a step forward, then an annoyed hand grabs the back of my shirt and yanks me back.

“I think we’ve risked our lives enough for one day, Superman,” Kin mutters as he overpowers me into a headlock. “Leave the pretty, rich chick to grieve over her wasted morning.”

I blink, and she disappears behind the fleeing families. “You’re right. Let’s go home,” I say, elbowing him.

“Home? Ha! Good one,” he says sarcastically.

I don’t respond.

 

4. AFTER

NORA

 

We follow a stretcher covered in a white sheet, mountains and hills of cloth that can’t be my mother—it can’t—as it wheels out of the foyer doors. After what they’re calling ‘The Accident,’ we were evacuated from our building because of the fire next door. I carried Frankie down the stairs, holding her head against my shoulder to shield her from the scene, and we left Mother there, cold and alone, returning only when it was deemed safe.

I think I had hoped when we stepped back inside, she wouldn’t be there, but she was of course. She hadn’t moved, because she’s dead. The words catch in the back of my throat.She’s dead.Now the trolley squeaks on the highly polished tiles, carrying something that’s supposed to be her.

When the paramedics get to the brass doors, they shove the stretcher feet first into the glass, the whole bed bouncing as it goes over the threshold. I expect a gasp, arms to flap up in shock. Nothing.

I watch our reflections in the shiny surrounds of the door, long, languid beings with stretched faces. Another world. I glance at the sheet. I imagine lying there, my feet tucked in at the ends, my face clothed in heavy cotton, and I can’t breathe. Bringing a tightened fist to my chest, I suck in a breath as best I can although it feels as if I’ve swallowed a lump of coal. I have to keep it together. There’s a small child wrapped around my legs, and she needs me.

When they get to the stairs, the wheels fold up so they can carry it down. I cock my head to the side, wondering if she’s heavy. It seems like she should be heavier, like she’s set in concrete now, a statue.

Outside, the air should be fresh, clean, but it’s charred and wet. I look to my right at the burned-out apartment building. Maybe I should be looking to blame someone, the person who started the fire perhaps, but my mind is frozen, as blank as the confused expressions of the crowd watching a casualty being wheeled out of the wrong building.

They slide her into an ambulance. I rock back and lurch forward, an arm stretched toward the open doors. “I’m going with her,” I squeak. Clearing my throat, I say, “Please. Let me go with her.” My eyes search for any sympathetic face, but no one looks at me. They’re all looking to my father for answers.

His hand clamps down on my shoulder and shirks me backward. Frankie’s skirts fly up in a gust of wind as she struggles to hold onto me.Don’t let go.

“No,” he utters under his breath. “Get in the car.” He does it carefully, controlled-like, so it looks like I tripped as he flings me at the sleek, black car waiting to take us to the hospital.

“Where are we going?” Frankie asks innocently as she shuffles to the middle of the backseat.

I slide in next to her and pat her glinting, gold-and-crimson hair. Her head is on fire and I’m about to douse those flames, squash her little soul until she’s just a smoldering pile of crumpled ashes. My voice catches in my throat, humming and spinning.

Father is talking to the paramedics outside so I take this opportunity to tell Frankie in a way I can control, before he takes a hammer to the truth and slams her with it.

Deep breath, heart on fire, heart trodden and bleeding.

“Frankie, Mommy had an accident,” I start, each word stinging.

“I know.” She nods solemnly. And I get the sense she also knows what I’m about to say.

I straighten my dress and gaze at my shoes, slippers. I rub my feet together, hoping he doesn’t notice that I forgot to change my shoes.

“She’s…” My lip is doing this quivering thing, and I don’t know how to stop it. I bite down on them for a moment, my eyes on my father, who is rounding the car and about to step into the passenger seat.

“Mommy is dead,” Frankie says matter-of-factly, her small hands clasped in her lap, her little legs pumping round and round like she’s paddling in a pool.

“Do you understand what that means, Frankie?” I ask, my eyes wet. I wipe my nose on the back of my hand.

She shakes her head and sighs. “Like Grandma. Sleepin’ and not never wakin’ up.”

She’s jiggling in her seat, a ball of uncontainable energy. I nod. “Yes, Mommy can’t wake up. But it also means you and I need to stick together. It means that even though Mommy’s not here anymore, I am.”

I try to still her agitation, laying my arm across her legs, knowing how he’ll be if he sees her bouncing around in the backseat like this. “Please Frankie, try to calm down.”

“Where did she go?” she asks innocently, and I hear our driver choke back a sob.

I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.I’m waging a battle with my own panic here, and I have to win. I have to protect her.

“I’m not sure, Frankie,” I reply. “But I know that wherever she is, there’s no hurt or sadness. Mommy is at peace.” I really want to believe that’s true.

Frankie grabs the two front headrests, swinging back and forth like a monkey. “That’s good then,” she says, staring out the front window, her eyes, her brain, now focused on the commotion outside of this car. “Look at the firemen.” She points, grinning, and I think I might scream again. This is too hard, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.

I pat her arm. “Please Frankie, sit still,” I say again. I want to just let her be herself, but I can’t. Not here.

The car door snaps open and slams shut as my father smoothly takes his place in the passenger seat up front. “Mount View Hospital,” he growls at Sally, our driver.

“I’m real sorry for your loss, Mister Deere,” Sally whispers. She even almost touches his arm, but when he turns away from her and barks, “Mount View,” she retracts her hand and places it shakily on the steering wheel.

Her large, brown eyes blink sympathetically at us in the rearview mirror.

“What’d ya lose, Deddy?” Frankie blurts before I can stop her. Sally tenses, holding her breath. We both hold our breaths.

I brace myself for shouting, for a hand to whip out and slap her. My arm is already in front of her face as a barrier. But all he does is turn to us for one second, his eyes darker than malice, and then he crumples.

He lays his head on the dashboard and weeps.

The car swings into traffic and we roll away from it all, following an ambulance whose lights are as dead and dulled as my heart.

***

Sally drops us at the entrance and drives away. The hospital has always looked more like a castle than a state-of-the-art healing center. Its old, red brick walls crumble at the corners, dripping with ivy. Dark, barred windows glare down at us, absorbing the sunlight. I shiver as we walk under its beckoning shadow.

We follow our father’s sharp, certain footsteps to the reception desk, and I’m swallowed by a memory.

Metal bangs against metal, people ask so many questions, different questions, and then the same ones over and over. I run a hand through my hair, effectively smearing Frankie’s blood all over my face.

I was here four years ago. My eyes graze over the wide entrance hall, the grand arches, and the colored tiled floor. My mother’s anxious voice echoes, ghostly, through these hallways, and I shudder.“Who cares how it happened? Just help her, please,” she cries desperately.

“She fell down the stairs, she fell down the stairs, she… fell,”my mother coached me as we drove like demons toward the hospital. She put a hand on my shoulder. “Say it again.” Her eyes churned with regret and fear.

My voice cracked, and she flinched. “She fell… she fell down the stairs,” I whispered, my head down, my sister’s broken body curled into almost nothing beside me. Blood poured from her ears.

I laugh maniacally at the memory. The lie I had to tell that had now come true for my mother. And then I instantly feel sick. I fist the cloth at my stomach and run to the nearest bin, hurling nothing but water. Sweat beads on my skin and I waver as I stumble back to my father, who is staring at me with furious eyes. Frankie stands lost, leaning from leg to leg like she might run out of here. She might be better off.

She doesn’t remember. She was only three.

His low talking to the nurse is a bare mumble over the noise of my vivid memory.

My mother tears into this space, her face white with fear, my sister limp in her arms. Fluorescent lights light up the green marker Frankie had decorated her entire body with. Almost angry-looking, marks all up her arms and legs, her normally light eyebrows now a mossy green, a fantastic curly moustache drawn over her upper lip.

That was her crime—being three and believing she had the right to behave like a three-year-old.

He deafened her and attempted to silence her. Boxed her ears to the point where one was useless and the other barely worked.

They take Frankie to a trauma room and then a solid looking nurse pulls me away from the curtain and over to the vending machines. She cups her hand to my face, wiping some of the blood from my forehead with a neatly folded square of gauze.

“Are you all right, dear? Are you injured?” she whispers.

I cross my arms over my chest defensively, the bruises already starting to show on my skin from where he’d gripped my wrist to stop me from reaching her. “I’m fine,” I lie.

The nurse tips her head at an angle and gazes at me curiously, her eyes raking over my nightdress, my knees knocking, my body shivering. “What really happened tonight? You can tell me. You can trust me,” she says.

My lips lie. My brain tells me to do what my mother asked. My fear wins. My face blanketed in false calm, I say, “She fell down the stairs,” without slipping once. Each word feels false, without meaning, strung together to make a lie.

The nurse’s shoulders slump. She sighs deeply and shakes her head.

When she walks away I slide to the floor, leaning my back against the cherry red vending machine, the rattling refrigerator lulling me into numbness.

I was thirteen then. Things are different now. Now we are on our own.

My father beckons us with one stern finger. “The police have some questions and then you’ll be allowed to see her to say a brief goodbye,” he orders.

I nod stiffly and pull Frankie to my side. She’s holding me up as much as I’m supporting her.

He puts a hand to the small of my back and steers us down the hall. His fist wants to burrow to my spine for embarrassing him, I can tell, but he holds back for now. We walk slowly, following a bustling, flustered nurse. She stops at a door, opens it to check if anyone’s inside, and then ushers us in. The plaque on the door reads “Mourning Room”. I gulp at the stale, disinfected air. Everything feels dense and hollow at the same time.

“If you’d like to take a seat, a pastor will be here shortly,” she says somberly.

My father puts his hand up. “That won’t be necessary, Sister.”

She looks like she’s about to object but the look my father gives her is pure shadow, and she quickly leaves.

Five minutes later, two police officers enter the room. It is fast. There’s nothing much to say. She fell. My father and I confirm each other’s stories, our maid already made a statement at home. It’s over. The police officer mutters something about insurance on the way out, but my brain has left the building. I’m now waiting to see my mother. To say goodbye.

How do I even do that?

Other books
the doomsday testament by james douglas
starfist: a world of hurt by david sherman; dan cragg
story of my life by jay mcinerney
pavane by keith roberts
firebird by jack mcdevitt
a need so beautiful by suzanne young
the missing book by lois gladys leppard