We fucked up. We all know it, despite the fact that the others don’t want to admit it. The whole night was a series of fuck-ups, starting with Kerby and his stupid bottle of Latvian tequila – it didn’t occur to him to wonder why the stuff was in the discount bin, did it? (Dumber than a sack of hammers, as grandpa used to say.) And then we had Demetria and her chemistry experiments, and the rest of us fool enough to swallow whatever she handed us. (Demetria always acted like she was smarter than everybody else, which was annoying enough, but the kick of it was, with this bunch, she was probably right.) Plus there was that kid in the ratty jacket, Zack or Zacky or something, who’d started hanging around with us for no reason I could figure, who hardly said anything, and always looked like he either wanted to cry or fall asleep. He didn’t touch Kerby’s counterfeit tequila, or any of Demetria’s assortment of shit, but he was fucked up plenty without outside help. Something about his eyes. He looked at things too closely. Idiotic things, like an ashtray or a tube of lip balm. Like he expected them to do something, change colors, sprout fangs and leap at his throat. (Clearly a mental case.) Then Hannah showed up, pissed off at her brother, and after that there was nothing between us and total upfuckery except our own good sense, and we didn’t have any.
Except maybe that Zacky kid, when we found the old man. But that was later. He went along with the rest of it the same as all of us, even after the cats showed up.
“The cats were real,” he said to me the next time I saw him, a week, maybe ten days after that night. “If nothing else, the cats were real.” He didn’t ask me what happened once he’d left. I didn’t tell him. I’ve seen him on the street since, in passing, but I only talked to him that once.
I’m not excusing myself from any of it. I was the one who said to Hannah, about her brother, “You ought to do something to get him back,” and I didn’t raise any objections when she got all quiet for a minute, and then all excited, and then started jabbering in her mile-a-minute manner: Yeah, yeah, yeah, she knew exactly what she was going to do, listen, guys, listen, this is great, we’re going to go to his place, listen to this, it’s perfect, you guys gotta come with me, we’re going to get him good.
I can’t even remember for sure exactly why she was pissed off at her brother that time. Hannah was always getting into it with him, screaming at him on the phone, complaining to us about shit he’d done, or she thought he’d done. Once we were in the park and her brother came walking up on the bike path and Hannah picked up a rock and chucked it at him. Missed. Which I guess was a good thing. He just laughed at her and kept walking. Her brother was pretty much a douche bag as far as I could tell, but it wasn’t like Hannah was getting any prizes for interpersonal communication. That night, I think it was something about a box of their mother’s stuff that he was supposed to give her, but which wound up with their cousin or some shit, because the cousin had a house and could store it, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Anyway, it was the same flavor of crap he always pulled on her, promising this or that and then denying he’d ever said any such thing, breaking commitments, brushing her off.
“Okay, okay,” Kerby said. He was sprawled out on the sofa, taking up the whole damn thing, like he usually did, so that Demetria and I got the crappy chairs. The kid with the ratty jacket was sitting on the floor, in the corner, arms around his knees, as still as a gargoyle. (This wasn’t unusual for him.) “Your brother’s a dick.”
“You want anything?” Demetria asked. She was laughing at Hannah without letting it show big, just quirking her lip a bit. Demetria did that a lot. Used to do that a lot. To all of us.
“Listen!” Hannah’s eyes blazed. She was pacing, and had her hands up like she was about to catch a basketball. “We’re going to go to his place, right?”
“I’m not beating him up for you,” Kerby said.
“Like you could take him,” I said.
“Nobody’s beating up anybody,” Demetria said. “Come on, we’re not in fucking high school.”
“We’re listening,” I said, because Hannah was starting to get pissed at us, now. “You want to go to his place.”
“Yeah. I know how to get in.”
“Yeah. Yeah. I got that part. Trust me. He’s not going to be home, anyway. It’s Saturday night.”
It was. It was, indeed. I’d only had a little of Demetria’s new stuff, but my head was buzzing, and even before Hannah showed up, I was telling myself that I was going to be sorry tomorrow. And that was a factor in what happened. We all knew we were going to be sorry tomorrow anyway, and being sorry for two things didn’t seem that much heavier than being sorry for one. Real smart thinking, that. “So this is breaking and entering?” I asked. Not protesting, merely wanting to be clear on the particulars.
“No breaking,” Hannah said. She grinned. “Just taking. We’re going to take his shoes.”
“Not all of them. This is the best part, listen. We’re going to take all his left shoes.”
I looked at Demetria. She quirked her lip again and said, “I guess I was wrong.”
That zoomed right past Hannah, who had gone straight on to picturing the scene when her brother returned and discovered this. “He’ll freak. He’ll absolutely freak. He won’t know what the fuck happened. He’ll be running around going, ‘What the fuck? What the fuck?’ He’ll be looking for his left shoes everywhere. Nobody’s touching anything else, okay? We’re going to leave the place exactly the way it is. He’ll go mental.”
“Hah,” Kerby said. He was grinning. Hannah was grinning. Demetria rolled her eyes a little, but she nodded and showed her teeth, too. I thought, why not, it’ll be a funny story to tell someday. The kid in the corner didn’t smile, but then I don’t think I ever saw him smile once the whole time he was hanging out with us.
“And even if he figures out it was me,” Hannah rattled on, “what’s he going to do? Call the cops, say all his left shoes got stolen? They’ll think he’s a nutjob. It’s perfect. And if he doesn’t figure out it was me, I’m going to fucking tell him. Right to his face. Like, ‘Yeah, how do you feel now? How do you like getting fucked over, you fuck?’ Right?”
“Calm down,” Demetria said.
“You guys are going to come with me, right? You’re going to help me out, right? Come on, come on you guys, you’re going to do this with me, right?”
“Yeah, okay,” Kerby said. He tried to sit up, and had a bit of difficulty until he remembered that it would be easier if he got his feet off the armrest of the sofa and on the floor first. “Man. Right, Hannah, right. It’ll be great. We’re with you.”
Demetria said, “Sure,” and so did I.
And the kid in the corner nodded.
That’s when we fucked up the first time.
And this is just how fucked up we were when we fucked up the first time, when we all agreed that Hannah’s junior high school, forget high school, junior high school prank was, okay, not a swell idea, maybe, but something the rest of us could get behind, without voicing a single doubt, without investing even thirty seconds into talking her out of it – nobody thought to bring a bag. Any kind of bag. Not even the one from the liquor store, with the big yellow smiley face on it, that was lying there on the floor in plain sight. We were going to go steal a bunch of shoes. We didn’t think about where we were going to put them, how we were going to carry them. We all just got to our feet, more or less – Kerby had the most trouble – and followed Hannah out the door, and down the stairs, and out of the building.
The darkness surprised Demetria, who shook her head, then got her phone out to check the time. She muttered something I didn’t catch. The kid with the ratty jacket said, “Time’s funny, sometimes,” and she gave him this narrow-eyed look, like she thought he was making fun of her. He didn’t say anything else.
“I’ll drive,” Hannah said, and Kerby had his head straight enough to not even try to argue; he just handed her the keys. Five people in his little shitbox was a squeeze, but we were only going about a mile. I was in the middle of the back seat, and Demetria managed to stick her elbow in my ribs, but the Zack kid got the worst of it, just about flattened against the left-side door. In the front, Hannah kept burbling, and she ran a couple of stop signs, but no red lights, thank fuck. Kerby just laughed.
Hannah’s brother lived in one of two identical buildings, the sort of old heaps you didn’t see a lot of any more, six-floor walkups, eight apartments on each floor. The two buildings were separated by a narrow courtyard, where the super kept the garbage and recycling bins, and in which the smaller kids whose parents had washed up in one or the other crumbing structure rode tricycles or kicked a ball around. Hannah parked two blocks away. I’d forgotten until we got to Consolation Boulevard that her brother’s building was across the street from the police station.
“There’s never any parking by his building,” Hannah said. “We’re walking, okay?”
“Which one’s his? 2221 or 2223?” I asked.
Demetria poked me. “You’ve been here before?”
The kid in the ratty jacket glanced up and down the street. Saturday night, there were only a couple of cop cars parked outside the shop, the rest of them being on patrol, or down by the river where the condos and the taxpayers lived. But this street was quiet. There were a lot of older folks, if I remembered right from the previous occasion Hannah had dragged me there. Something to do with her brother, naturally. She wanted to give him something, that time. I had no idea why, or what, even. She was clutching this manila envelope with a lump in it, and all she would say was, “It’s his, so he should have it. It’s only fair.” We rang the bell, and rang the bell, and then we waited on the steps outside for over an hour, until I got fed up and said I had other things to do, and left her there. A couple of old people went in or came out of the building while we were waiting, and they smiled and nodded at us, real pleasant and friendly. In front of the twin building a few steps down, a mother with three kids, one of them in a stroller, chatted to a friend of hers, something about their trabajo.
You know. The sort of people who didn’t mind living across the street from a police station. Who didn’t mind the occasional siren, or the cop cars sometimes parking on the sidewalk, because they figured if any street in town would be avoided by burglars and old-lady-bashers and kiddie-snatchers, it had to be that one. I wondered how Hannah’s shithead brother had fiddled his way into the building in the first place.
The kid Zack kept looking around. Demetria must have thought that he was nervous about the cop shop, because she gave him a shove and said, “Be cool.” But he hadn’t been staring across the street. He’d been looking up and down this one.
“You said you knew a way to get in,” I reminded Hannah.
“Yeah.” She was buzzing, almost vibrating. She started to giggle. “Numbnuts hides his keys behind the library when he goes out drinking. I saw him.”
“Up the street.”
It was news to all of us that there was a library up the street, but we trailed along after her, and sure enough, there was the public library, and a pretty damn massive one, too, built in the old show-off style, with brass do-dads and do-dahs on the doors and stairs going up forever, and plaques all over the façade to immortalize the names of the politicians in office when the freaking thing was built, and dedicated, and rededicated, and all that crap.
Hannah disappeared into an unlit space between the library and the next building. Not an alley, exactly. More of a gap sort of thing. The rest of us looked at each other and stayed put, though that Zacky kid frowned. We heard her rooting around behind a big metal container that it took me a moment to figure out was the box you were supposed to put books in when you wanted to return them and the library was closed.
“You know,” Demetria said, quietly, “it’d be better for her if she could just let it go. Walk away. Forget about her brother, forget she even has a brother. Decide he doesn’t exist, and just get on with her life.”
“People can’t do that,” Kerby said.
I remember that she said that. It stuck with me, because Demetria never talked about her family. If somebody, I mean someone who didn’t know her very well, tried to push her on the subject, she’d go all stony. The rest of us had learned a long time ago not to go near the topic.
Forget them. Walk away.
“Ha!” Hannah shouted, from behind the book return box. “Got them!” She ran out, jingling the keys over her head, and grinning all over her face.
“It might be a good idea not to draw attention to ourselves,” Demetria muttered.
It was too late for that, though we didn’t know it yet.
“Right,” Hannah said. “Okay, you guys, just follow me.”
“We’re going to make this quick, yeah?” I said.
“In and out,” Kerby said.
“Hannah?” I prodded. She was grinning too much.
“Right, right. In and out. Quick.”
The kid didn’t say anything. Meanwhile, we were all walking back toward 2221. I was already thinking that when we were done with this little caper, Hannah was going to talk our ears off for hours, rehashing every single second a thousand times. Hours? This was going to become one of her favorite stories. She was going to be bringing it up every time we got together. But you had to put up with crap like that from your friends, even if it made you crazy sometimes. Why the hell else were we all there with her in the first place, doing this dumbass thing? Because we were her friends.
The cats were already pacing us. I didn’t notice the first one. Or the second one. Who pays attention to a couple of stray cats? The kid in the ratty jacket, though, he saw them.
We were between the buildings, between 2223 and 2221, just about where the street entrance to the courtyard was, when Zack stopped. Of course we didn’t pay attention to him, either. He was just this strange kid who always wore the same clothes and stared at commonplace things with a lunatic intensity. When he wasn’t giving the impression of either being just about to fall asleep, or burst into tears, that is. I never did figure him out. Once, I asked Kerby how come that kid had started hanging around us, anyway, and he said he’d tagged along after Demetria one day, but Demetria said it was Kerby who met him first, in Adams Park.
“Wait,” Zack said. “Wait.” And he said it louder than any of us had ever heard him speak before, and so we did stop, and swiveled our heads to glare at him, because who the fuck was he to tell us to wait?
And then we saw the cats. Dozens of them. Behind us, in front of us, on all side of us. And above us as well, on ledges, on fire escapes. And they were all eyeballing us, every single one of them.
“What the fuck,” Demetria said, softly.
One cat slinked forward, into the little pool of grainy light from the street lamp a couple of yards away. The kid eased forward, too, sliding between Hannah and Demetria, so that he and the cat were facing each other, so to speak. The cat didn’t look at all special. Black and white, skinny, a bit on the small side. Hannah made to move on, to the steps leading up to the front door of 2221, but I put a hand on her arm.
“Take care,” the cat said.
Swear to crap.
The kid said, “Should we leave?”
The cat blinked, and repeated, “Take care.”
And then in an instant all the cats were gone, vanished, into the shadows, under cars, into alleys, who knows where. They moved so fast all I caught was a couple of blurs.
“What the fuck was that?” Kerby yelped.
“Come on,” Hannah said. “Come on, you guys, let’s do this.”
And that was the second time we fucked up. Talking cats? Anyone with sense would have run like hell to the car, gone back to Kerby’s place, and finished off his crap tequila. Plus everything else Demetria still had on her. But sense was something none of us possessed that night. Zack said, “That wasn’t about Hannah’s brother. That was about something else,” so clearly he had some kind of a clue, but he came with us up the steps, and waited silently while Hannah worked out which key unlocked the front door, and the which key fit the inner door, while Kerby and Demetria kept cursing under their breaths and telling her to get a move on.
Once we were inside, Hannah put her finger to her lips. The stairs were at the far end of the corridor. “Fifth floor,” she whispered. Kerby groaned. Demetria pinched him, which only made him go, “Ow!” loudly.
Of course it was a walkup building. All those old piles of shit were. And of course we stumbled and swore and bumped into each other, and all of us except the damn kid were out of breath by the third floor, and once Hannah dropped the keys. They clattered down almost an entire flight before Zack, who was bringing up the rear, caught up with them.
I was surprised nobody poked their head out of any of the apartments to ask what the blazes was going on, or even yelled out from behind a closed (and barred, and deadbolted, I bet) door to keep it down. Maybe they were all quietly speed-dialing the nice cops across the street. Or maybe they just figured we were Hannah’s dickhead brother and some of his friends, staggering home somewhat earlier than usual for a Saturday night.
We made it to the fifth floor without Kerby having a heart attack, or me passing out, or the neighborhood watch (probably two old ladies and a guy with a cane and a yappy dog) swarming us. Hannah was panting, but still grinning. She waved us on. “This is it, this is the one.” The doors on this floor were all painted an ugly shade of green that reminded me of the color of plastic limes. They all looked the same, except for the numbers. No decorations, nothing personal on any of them. We had a couple of moments when we thought Hannah had mixed up the apartments, because the first key she tried didn’t work, and the second one didn’t, either. But then she got the bottom lock to turn, and eventually, by an extensive process of elimination (trying every damn key on the ring, including the ones for the outside doors, including ones she’d already tried three or four times) that made Demetria not only roll her eyes again, but start tapping her foot, Hannah hit on the key that opened the top lock.
And we were in. Mission accomplished, or almost. One thing left to do – grab the shoes and get out of there.
Hannah switched on the lights, and we all hustled inside. Zack shut the door quietly behind us.
Her brother’s place was a lot nicer than Kerby’s. Bigger, art on the wall, an entertainment center, furniture that hadn’t been salvaged from curbsides. He wasn’t the neatest guy in the world, though. Dirty plates on the table, mail tossed on the floor, stains on the walls and dust in the corners. Filthy windows. I went over to look out. Since the lights were on in the room, I had to put my nose against the glass and shade my eyes in order to see anything. His windows faced the courtyard. The first time I looked out, I didn’t see anything but garbage cans and shadows.
“So, the shoes,” Demetria said. All business. All, let’s get this over with.
“Don’t touch anything,” Hannah said. “Right? Don’t mess any of this shit up. We got to make it look like nobody’s been here. He’s going to go nuts trying to find the shoes. He’s going to be thinking it’s impossible anybody took them, right, when the place is just like he left it. It’ll be like a mystery.”
“I thought you were going to tell him to his face it was you,” I said.
“Right, yeah. Later.”
“The shoes,” Demetria repeated. “Where does he keep them? Closet? Under the bed? Shoe rack? What?”
“And how many pairs does he have, anyway?” I asked.
“I don’t know how many pairs he has. Lots, okay? He likes shoes. He’s got tons. Every time I see the fucker, he’s wearing a new pair.”
Just about that time, it finally occurred to me that we hadn’t brought anything along to haul the shoes away in. “We’re going to need a bag,” I said. “I’ll check the kitchen.”
“Don’t touch anything!” Hannah insisted. “None of you, okay? Just stay where you are.”
Kerby said, “Why did you want us to come along, if you’re not going to let us help?”
“You’re the only one with a car,” Demetria muttered.
“You’re going to help. You’re going to help, okay? Just let me think a minute.”
“You ever been inside your brother’s place before?” Demetria asked.
“Sure I have. Plenty of times.”
Which probably meant once. Twice, tops. When we entered, we’d stepped directly into the living room. From where I was standing by the windows, I could see the kitchen, which was separated from the room with the couch and the flatscreen and the natural-wood table and the matching straight-backed chairs with matching blue cushions on them by a counter that ran three-quarters of the length of the room, topped with tile that was meant to look like marble. I couldn’t see any doors, but there had to be at least two – the bathroom and the bedroom. “Okay, Hannah,” I said. “Why don’t you check the bedroom. I’ll just go over there to the kitchen area, and look for a bag. He’s got to have some. I won’t disturb anything, I promise.”
“The bedroom,” Hannah mumbled. “Right. The bedroom.” She wasn’t grinning anymore. She wasn’t pacing around, acting out basketball moves. She gazed at the entertainment center, with its stereo and iPod cradle and TV and X-box and stacks of DVDs and games and even CDs, all jumbled up together, and an expression came over her face, very much like the one dogs get the second before they spring at you. “I bet he loves this stuff more than he loves his shoes.”
“You’re the one who said no smashing,” Demetria said. “You wanted to make a mystery, not a mess, remember?”
“Right,” Hannah said, barely above a whisper. She was still staring at the entertainment center.
“Do you know where the bedroom is?” I asked.
“The bedroom. Right. The bedroom. Sure, of course I know where it is.”
“All right, then,” Kerby said. “Let’s get moving. I’ll help.”
“You stay here,” Hannah said. Louder. Almost in her normal voice. “I got this.” She turned away from the entertainment center, glanced at the kitchen, then moved left, around the counter. Past the cabinets, there was a narrow hallway I hadn’t noticed. No, I’d noticed it, but I’d thought it was an alcove, a breakfast nook type of thing. Hannah disappeared down the hall, and after a moment another light came on.
“It wasn’t the car,” the kid said.
“What?” Kerby said. Demetria pretended Zack hadn’t spoken.
“It was the dark.”
“We all want companionship in the dark.” He stared at a spot on the floor. Looked like a cigarette burn to me. “Mostly.” He kept guard on the cigarette burn while we listened to Hannah thump around in what I hoped was the bedroom. I hoped Hannah hadn’t gotten detoured and decided to dump out all her brother’s shampoo and aftershave and whatnot into the bathroom sink.
“A garbage bag or something would be a good idea,” Demetria said. She glanced at the kitchen area, but didn’t move toward it.
“Hannah’s getting a little over-agitated. Even for her. Once she gets the shoes, we’re hauling ass out of here,” I said. “Everybody agree?”
Nods all around. Kerby had his grin back on his face. Demetria looked bored, but then Demetria enjoyed looking bored. Used to enjoy looking bored. Even the kid bobbed his head. For a minute there, I thought everything was going to work out, we were going to get the shoes and boogie, and Hannah was going to call her brother and laugh at him (probably before he even got home; she had the patience of a grasshopper on meth), and that would be that.
Then Hannah came stomping out from the back, with three shoes under one arm and two under the other. She marched straight up to me and said, “Open the window.”
“Open the goddamn window!”
Kerby said, “Come on, Hannah, that wasn’t what –”
She slammed her forehead against the glass. Really hard. I jumped. I think we all jumped. “Shit, Hannah!”
“Open it up!”
“All right, take it easy!” She had the same look in her eye she had the time this perv in a car, a station wagon, really, waved her over, acting like he needed directions, and then asked her if she’d like to come over to his place to make a video. Hannah punched the guy’s windshield, then reached in through the driver’s side window to try to grab him by the throat. The perv tore out of there like there was an army of zombies after him, and Demetria and me had to take Hannah to the ER to get her hand X-rayed. Kerby missed that little bit of drama. When we told him about it later, Hannah with her hand wrapped up in an ace bandage and shit, me and Demetria still shaking slightly from the adrenaline OD, he laughed like it was the funniest thing he’d heard in his life, little Hannah hulking out on some asshole in a station wagon.
“Hannah,” Demetria said. She was trying to keep her cool, at least. And at least act like some serious shit was going down. “Let’s just stick to the plan, okay?”
“Open. The. Window.”
I opened the window. Twisted the latches, shoved the window up. I knew if I didn’t, Hannah would hurl herself against the glass again. And again. Until she broke it. Saturday night in the ER, I was thinking. Not the most appealing place to wind up. So yeah, I was thinking more about me then, not her, not her brother, not the stupid shoes. I wanted another hit of Demetria’s new recipe. I wanted to be home in bed. I wanted to zip back in time and take back what I’d said to Hannah about getting even with her brother. The only one of those things I had any chance of getting was more of Demetria’s stuff, but that was going to have to wait.
Hannah threw the shoes out the window. Even from the fifth floor, I could hear them thud and thunk as they hit the concrete of the courtyard below. Then she strode back through the kitchen and into the narrow hall.
“Somebody’s going to call the cops,” Demetria said.
Hannah came back with another armload of shoes. I couldn’t tell if they were all left ones. She dumped them out the window, too.
“Are you done?” I asked.
Off she marched again, through the kitchen and into the hallway.
“How many shoes does this shithead have, anyway?” Demetria said.
“Take care,” the kid whispered. Kerby and Demetria ignored him.
“What?” I looked at him. “I thought you said that wasn’t about us.”
“I said it wasn’t about Hannah’s brother.”
“Then what is it about? Come on, man, it’s not every day a cat tells you to be careful.”
“No,” he whispered. “It isn’t.”
Demetria and Kerby seemed determined to pretend that the encounter with the cats hadn’t happened. Later, Kerby claimed that he didn’t remember anything after we all got into his car. That might even have been true, since when we got back to his place, he immediately killed the rest of the bottle of knockoff tequila in three long gulps.
He and Demetria both stared at a picture on the wall, some swirly-doodle thing that looked more and more like dancing penises the longer you gazed at it, and said nothing.
Hannah came back with more shoes, and hurled them out.
“Are you done now?” I asked.
“I’m going to throw his underwear out, too.”
“No,” I said. “No, you’re not. That’s it. Fun’s over. Come on, you guys. Let’s go.”
Me, the voice of reason. It wasn’t exactly a first, but it was rare enough. The kid nodded, and Demetria stepped toward her, lifting her hand, like she was going to try to take Hannah by the arm.
That was when the cry came from the courtyard.
It was human. I never had any doubt about that. It was a human voice, a man’s voice, high and wobbly. It wasn’t a cry of pain. Not physical pain. It was a cry of despair. It went on for a full minute, or at least it felt like it did.
The kid got to the window before me, then backed away fast. “We’ve got to go now,” he said.
“What’s down there?” Demetria asked.
Zack shook his head, and kept backing away. Hannah pushed past him, grabbed the window sill, and leaned out. “Hey,” she shouted. “What’s your problem?”
“Don’t,” I said. I don’t know why. Maybe the look on the kid’s face.
“Fucker!” Hannah yelled. “You better not touch anything!” Then she pulled her head back in, and ran toward the door.
“Shit,” Demetria said.
We followed her. We had to. She had the damn car keys.
Hannah had a good lead on us, though, and what with Kerby more than a little wobbly and Demetria and me not tremendously eager for a confrontation with some tenant who was probably going to call the law down on us, we didn’t exactly hurry. The kid came with us, bringing up the rear. I turned to look at him once. Even when we were all hanging out, just fucking around and bullshitting, half the time he looked like he was on the verge of crying. When he didn’t look like he was about to fall asleep. But that time on the stairs, he had for-real tears in his eyes.
We knew Hannah was heading for the courtyard. Where else was she going to go? And it didn’t really matter that she got so far in front of us that we lost sight of her; we could hear her footsteps clattering on the steps as she ran down. The concept of stealth had taken a leave of absence from her brain. And still nobody cracked a door to see what the ruckus was about, and nobody, except for the man who’d cried out in the courtyard, seemed to care that a bunch of idiots were in the building at all. Even at the time, that struck me as strange. Hannah had made a hell of a lot of noise chucking those shoes, and she was making even more noise now on the stairs. Where were the insomniac old ladies, where were the busybodies with the yappy little dogs?
Kerby paused on the second floor landing to catch his breath. Or to stop his head from spinning. Or both. “Don’t you dare puke,” I said.
“I’m not gonna puke.”
He didn’t sound all that convinced. Or convincing.
“I’ll tell you what you are going to do,” Demetria said. And she sounded real sure. In charge. The way she liked to act. The way she used to like to act. “You’re going to get hold of Hannah, and we’re going to get the keys. Your car keys, and her fuckhead brother’s keys. And you’ll carry her to the car if you have to. And if she kicks and screams, you’re just going to take it, got that?” She glanced at me. “You okay to drive?”
“Yeah.” I probably wasn’t, but we sure as hell weren’t going to let Hannah get behind the wheel.
“Why me?” Kerby whined.
“Because you’re the biggest.” Demetria’s tone could have sliced glass.
So that was the plan, and it wasn’t a bad plan. It was a pretty good plan, really, for a bunch of fuckups who hadn’t any real clue how to live like grownups to come up with while trying not to trip over their own feet, or vomit, or pass out from hyperventilating. That last one would be me. We were all in such crappy shape it wasn’t funny. I didn’t look at the kid again, but I knew he was behind us. Didn’t hear him panting. Didn’t hear him crying, either. I figured that when we got to the courtyard, it was going to be him, not Kerby, who would actually be able to grab hold of Hannah and keep her pinned long enough for us to get the keys.
Didn’t work out that way.
We made it out of the building, and we got to the narrow entryway to the courtyard, with the stupid little arch over it. We couldn’t hear Hannah anymore. Or anything else. Nobody yelling. No cats yowling. Or giving advice. Not even the wind. It was like the world had stopped.
Demetria went in first, like the leader she thought she was, then me and Kerby. Zack was behind us. He was with us up until we spotted the old man.
It was hard to see anything at first. There were no lights in the courtyard, and all the windows that faced out on it were dark. Except for the windows of Hannah’s brother’s place. Nobody had remembered to turn the lights off when we went after her. But a couple of illuminated windows up on the fifth floor didn’t help for shit.
We saw Hannah at last, because she moved. Jumped, really. Backwards, a good eight inches at least. The way you spring back when you realize you’re about to stick your foot into something with teeth. Kerby giggled.
I didn’t see what she’d leaped away from. Couldn’t see any of the shoes she’d thrown out the window, either, though she must have chucked more than a dozen. The light was really bad. Worse than it should have been. The two buildings blocked the street lights, but there should have been some light coming in from above. Lights from taller buildings. Or even some fucking starlight.
“Hannah,” Demetria called. Not loudly, but loud enough that Hannah had to have heard her. “You okay?” Hannah didn’t answer. She had her back to us. She was shaking her head. Naturally we assumed she was shaking her head at us.
Demetria tapped Kerby on the elbow. “Okay, we’re going to do this now.” She gave him a shove to get him moving, and we all advanced into the courtyard.
Kerby wasn’t super-enthusiastic about the role assigned to him. He kept trying to hang back, and Demetria kept pushing him forward. Again, I figured we were going to need the kid to step up when Kerby flubbed it, so I jerked my head around to check his position.
He’d stopped walking.
“Hey,” I said. “Come on. Help us out here.”
“I can’t help him.”
I thought he meant Kerby. Who else? But Zacky had seen the old man. Thinking back, it’s possible he might have seen him from the window of Hannah’s brother’s apartment. That kid had weird eyes. And weirder shit going on behind those eyes. From five floors up, had he really seen the old man crouching on what was not concrete anymore, but dirt? It took me a damn long time to realize the courtyard had changed. I don’t think Kerby and Hannah ever did notice. Had he seen that the old guy was holding something in his hands, hunched over it like a little kid trying to protect his most favoritest toy from being snatched away?
Maybe he had.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Kid,” I said. “Zack, Zacky, whatever your name is, get your ass over here.”
Hannah was sort of jumping up and down, like she was trying to shake ants off her legs. Demetria shoved Kerby again, and he took a step, but then stopped. Demetria stopped, too. They’d caught sight of the old man. I hadn’t, yet. I was too busy being pissed off at the kid.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. He sounded utterly miserable. Not that I gave a shit at that point. I just wanted to grab Hannah and the car keys and get the hell out of there. “I can’t…I can’t do it. It hurts too much.”
And then he was gone, out of the courtyard and away, and I only ever spoke to him one time after that, when he said that the cats had been real. By then, I didn’t blame him for running.
But I think, now, it was all real. Maybe not all of it was real in the same way, but it was all real in some way. That’s how I manage to get my head around it, to deal with what happened. Kerby says he doesn’t remember anything, and Hannah just goes evasive if I bring up the subject.
“Shit,” I said, when the kid ran off.
“Who are you?” Demetria said, and of course I didn’t know what the fuck she was talking about. When I turned back to them, she’d moved a few steps in front of Kerby. Hannah was still doing her twitchy dance. Kerby was just standing there like a lump.
“Hannah,” I said. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Kerby, she’s got the keys, remember?”
Neither one reacted to me. They were looking at what Demetria was looking at, what she was moving toward.
“What are you doing?” Demetria said, softly.
I heard the old man before I saw him. Later, naturally, I realized it must have been him who’d let out that long shaky cry that we’d heard on the fifth floor. But the first words I heard him speak were, “Can you forgive me?”
I moved closer, circling around the others. For some reason, I didn’t want to get too near any of them. I think it was then that I noticed the dirt. I knew the floor of the courtyard hadn’t been dirt before. The first time I’d come along with Hannah, a little kid had been riding his tricycle in there, on concrete. Tonight, when I’d glanced in through the entryway, before we’d even trailed Hannah up the block to the library, I’d seen the garbage and recycling bins lined up against the interior wall. I didn’t see them now. I didn’t see any of the shoes Hannah had thrown, either. This was something different than it just being dark in the courtyard. Something had changed, or something had…stopped hiding. Stopped concealing itself.
Of course we were all fucked up, still fucked up. You couldn’t have trusted any of us to operate heavy machinery, or add up a column of numbers with a piece of paper and a pencil. Hannah was blind with rage, and the rest of us were just blind stupid. Except the kid, and he was gone.
And except, maybe, Demetria.
“What have you done?” she asked, quietly. Gently, almost. Which was not her usual mode at all. “Why do you need forgiveness?”
I could see who she was talking to now. The old man, kneeling on the dirt, holding something in his hands, hunched over it protectively. It was so dark in the courtyard I could barely make out Demetria’s face, but I saw him clearly. White hair, white hands, shabby brown clothes. I shouldn’t have been able to see brown. I shouldn’t have been able to see the cracks in the leather of his boots, or the creases like old scars on his skin. But I did.
“I wasted my life,” the old man said.
And if it had been me talking to him and not Demetria, I probably would have said something empty and meaningless, like, I’m sure you haven’t. Because that’s what you do, right? People tell you some desperately awful thing, and you go, There, there, it’s not that bad, you’re making too much of it, it’s probably nothing. Even when, like with that old guy, it was most definitely something. I wished I couldn’t see him so clearly. Naked despair makes you want to turn away. Makes you want to close your eyes. Or say something stupid to pretend it isn’t there.
Demetria said, “A lot of people could say the same thing.” She wasn’t being sarcastic, or flip, or superior. She spoke to him gently. Compassionately. And Demetria never did that.
“I used to have a friend,” the old man said. “She would come to visit me from time to time, to make sure I was all right. Sometimes she brought me food. Little cakes from that bakery on Hinson Street. I liked those cakes. She doesn’t come anymore.”
Hannah had quit hopping about so much, but she was still wired. Confusion just generated more fury in her. “You weren’t here before. What are you doing here? Where are the shoes?”
“I’m always here.” The old guy looked down at whatever the hell it was he was holding in his hands. I could see him, I could see every wrinkle in his skin and every stain on his tattered brown clothes, but I couldn’t see what he held. “I’ve been here since I was young. I used to have a friend.”
Hannah made a lunge toward him, and finally Kerby remembered what he was supposed to do, and grabbed her. She flailed, and kicked him, but he got his arms around her and squeezed her tight enough that she stopped struggling.
Which was when we all should have gotten the fuck out of that courtyard, and found the car, and just fucking left.
Take care, the cat had said.
Take care means be careful. Take care also means look after. Tend. Nurture. Or it could. But that was take care of, though, wasn’t it? The cat had said Take care. As in watch out.
Watch out for the old man. Be careful, tonight is a night when he can be seen.
Did the cat mean, Don’t bother him? Stay clear?
I think so. Or else, Be careful if you see him. Don’t get too close.
Would the cats have stalked us, stopped us, talked to us, if Demetria had not been in our group? We all saw the old man, but Demetria saw something more. I wish that kid Zack would quit avoiding me. He might not have all the answers, but I figure he’s got some of them. The way he kept staring at things, like he expected them to change. And he said the cats were real. I want to ask him why the cats gave a crap. I want to ask him if it was us who brought the old man and the dirt floor of the courtyard and the strange darkness into our reality that night by messing around with the stupid shoes, if the cats were warning us that our nonsense was going to have consequences. Or if they just knew that Demetria was vulnerable.
I keep thinking that the next time I see the kid, I’m going to follow him. See where he goes, see where he’s hanging out now. Make him talk to me.
That night, the third time we fucked up was when we didn’t leave as soon as Kerby had bear-hugged Hannah. He just stood there, holding her. I was just as bad. Just as stupid. I should have moved. Should have gone to Demetria, pulled her away. I didn’t. None of us moved, or did anything, or said anything.
“Your friend probably died,” she said. But not in a mean way, or a nasty way. Not the way she used to talk to us.
“Why do you stay here?”
“What else can I do?” The old man glanced down at his hands again. I never saw what he was holding, but I think Demetria did. “I promised. It’s all been a waste, but I promised.”
“And if you put that down and walk away, what’ll happen?”
“Probably nothing. My whole life, for nothing.”
“A lot of people can’t keep a promise for a day. Almost nobody can keep one for a lifetime.”
“I threw away my life. I’ve done nothing, nothing but this. And this is worthless.”
“Probably.” The old man dipped his head. “Can you forgive me?”
“Why me?” Demetria asked, gently.
“Anybody. Anybody.” He jerked his head up then, and looked at each of us, and we said nothing. I took a step back. His head sank again. “I used to have a friend,” he mumbled.
“You have another one now,” Demetria said.
Why? What the fuck made her say that? What the fuck made her do what she did?
I don’t know. I’d met Demetria when we were both doing time at the community college, but I had no real idea of who she was, under the sarcasm and the attitude.
She moved forward.
Did we still have a chance, then? One second, one instant, when we could have grabbed her and hauled her out of the courtyard?
I think about that a lot. I think that it had been too late for a long, long time, but we still should have tried.
The old man shook his head slightly.
“What’s your name?” Demetria asked.
“Will you bring me cakes from the bakery on Hinson Street?”
She eased toward him, the way you might approach a scared child, though he wasn’t moving; he hadn’t moved once all the time we had been in the courtyard. Only his head, nothing else.
She knelt, facing him.
She put her hands around his hands. “There is no bakery on Hinson Street,” she said.
“There used to be.”
“I believe you.”
“Demetria,” I said. My voice sounded strange. The air smelled strange. I was still standing on dirt, but just to the right of me, the courtyard floor was turning back to concrete.
She didn’t look at us. She didn’t say goodbye. She and the old man went into the darkness together, and when the starlight returned, there were shoes scattered all over the courtyard, and garbage bins along one wall, and a cheap-jack soccer ball some kid must have left behind, and nothing else.
I’ve been back since. Hannah’s brother spotted me once, and started yelling about breaking into his place, but that was the only trouble I’ve had. The stray cats don’t give me a second glance. The courtyard is always an ordinary, narrow courtyard between two old buildings. Kids play in there.
There is no bakery on Hinson Street. There isn’t even a Hinson Street anymore; the city council changed the name years ago.
Nobody’s come to talk to any of us about Demetria. Not officially. Not cops. Not family. (That was no surprise.) Some folks, yeah, they ask, what happened to that chemist chick, she skip town or something? Kerby just says he doesn’t know, and Hannah goes, yeah, she moved, too bad, right? She used to cook up some amazing shit.
I can just about believe that Kerby really has no clear memories of that night. Hannah’s such a flake she’s convinced she put a good one over on her brother, and that’s the major thing she remembers. She got her brother good. It was a famous victory. Like that. If I try to get her to recall the cats, the old man, the fact that Demetria never left the courtyard, Hannah gets all vague. Yeah, there were cats, but so what? There are always cats. Old man? Yeah, there was an old guy that yelled at us for throwing the shoes out the window. Demetria? Yeah, she…she went somewhere. She didn’t come back with us. And that’s as far as Hannah will go. That Demetria went somewhere.
I go to the courtyard. In the daytime, I just glance in as I walk by. Or if there doesn’t seem to be anybody on the street, or looking out the windows, I step in quickly, but I don’t linger. Cop shop across the street, after all. Any tenant could call me in as a trespasser. It’s easier to sneak in at night. I pace the length and breadth of the area. I run my hands over the interior walls, over the littered concrete floor. Sometimes I call Demetria’s name.
We fucked up. We fucked up so many goddamn times. And each time led to the last time, when we left her there.
So the old man wasted his life holding something, protecting it. Something that he believed was probably pointless to safeguard, but he had promised to do it. What the thing is, who made him promise, why he said yes…I want to know this stuff. That Zacky kid might not be able to tell me, but I figure he can point me to someone who can.
Demetria never liked sweets. Cakes, cookies, not her sort of thing. Pretzels, nuts, that was the kind of shit she liked. Salty crap.
Forgive me, the old man had pleaded.
She’d fucking joined him.
I wasted my life, the old man had said, and Demetria had answered, A lot of people could say the same thing.
Meaning us. Meaning her.
Can’t say she was wrong about that. About us.
She saw what the old man was holding. Did it matter? Did she think, right, sure, guarding this is not a waste of time, a waste of a life, or was it more: well, waste my life one way, waste my life another, what’s the difference? Did she flip a coin in her head?
I don’t forgive her.
She left us. Yeah, it was our fault, going there to do such a stupid thing in the first place, not listening to the cats, not getting the hell out when the kid bailed, not stopping her when she went to the old man. We left her there, but she left us first. For a stranger.
I used to have a friend, he had said.
We were Demetria’s friends. She was our friend.
I don’t forgive her, but I want to find her.
Waste your life one way…or waste your life another.
The old man isn’t going to last forever. Maybe Demetria didn’t think she needed a friend. Maybe she thought she’d be better off on her own, free of losers like us. I think she’s wrong. I think she’s going to want a friend soon, someone to visit her once in a while, to bring her pretzels and nuts, to have a bit of conversation with.
I’ve got them, in my bag. Pretzels. A can of mixed nuts. And cupcakes, for the old man. Though he probably won’t like them. Store bought garbage, just lumps of artificial flavors and preservatives. I carry them around with me anyway. So the old guy won’t feel left out, when I find them. Because it feels like shit, being left out.
I haven’t told Kerby and Hannah what I’m doing. They wouldn’t understand. Or they wouldn’t care. No, I’m wrong. And they wouldn’t care. I still hang out with them. We still waste our time getting fucked up and talking bullshit. Though Hannah says I’m quieter than I used to be. And that I sit and stare at nothing. She laughs at me sometimes, though she says no, it was only that she thought of something funny. Which could be true, but not all of the time.
Cats, the courtyard, and the kid.
I do my best to make eye contact with every cat, stray or otherwise, that I encounter. I visit the courtyard. I keep an eye out for Zack. The next time I see him, I will follow him and make him talk. One way or another, I am going to find Demetria again, and get her to understand that however much of a fuckup I may be, I am her friend. I don’t want her to be kneeling in that courtyard some day, all alone, not even muttering that she used to have a friend.
It’s as good a way to waste my life as any other. I can think of worse ways. I just have to look at Kerby and Hannah, and dozen or two other people I know, for examples.
Can’t help but wonder if the old man’s friend had the same thought.
“Hey. Hey. Did you hear what I said? Man, you’re always in dreamland these days.” Hannah’s playing solitaire on her phone. She’s so out of it she’s dropped the thing twice already. Kerby’s sprawled on the sofa, like always. I thought he’d been talking, not Hannah. Must’ve lost a minute or two. I look at her and shrug. I guess she’s bored with her game, because she shrugs back, exaggeratedly. Mimicking me. Mocking me.
“I was only thinking about something,” I said. I’m not going to get mad. There wouldn’t be any point.
“Cats,” I say, and Hannah laughs.
Copyright 2014 Patricia Russo