San Francisco, California, Spring 1984
He stares in the mirror and thinks about how he’s aged.
It’s not in his face so much. He’s thinner, so his face is thinner, too. But that’s only made his features finer. His cheekbones stand out like blades. A pimp in the Tenderloin broke his nose last month. He caught the bastard threatening one of the girls he knows and called him on it, which was stupid because the bugger was armed and could have done him worse damage if he’d cared to. He’s broken other people’s noses before, but never had it done to him. The pain had shocked him. His first thought was, I’ll be more careful of doing that in the future, and his second was, Aye, but it makes a good weapon. He’d stepped back and wrenched the thing into place, which hurt worse for a moment before giddy relief rushed through him. By the time his head cleared, the pimp had drawn on him. He’d stood there with the gun at his head and blood streaming down his face, wondering if he were about to die and thinking, Next time leave the nose alone until the fight’s done, you fool. But the pimp had only said, “I teach you to keep your nose out my business, kid. You live longer that way.”
Aye, he’d thought as the pimp withdrew the gun and sauntered off. At least until I’m better at this. Big cities are different from small cities, and California is far different from the Pacific Northwest; it’s a fact I need to bear in mind. But I’ll remember you.
Anyway, his nose healed with a ridge of scar tissue on the bridge. It gives him a rakish air he didn’t have before, but it’s not what ages him. He still has fine, fair skin, not much prone to adolescent spots, which is a blessing. His hair is longer than he’s used to; it brushes his shoulders now. He’s grown his beard. He did it for the most part because he doesn’t have the means of shaving on a regular basis, but he’s decided he likes it. It’s not much of a beard yet. It’s thin, even patchy in places. If he’s honest with himself, he has to admit it’s more of a thick shadow than an actual beard. It’s all right, though. Apparently women find that kind of thing attractive.
But it’s not the beard that ages him, either. It’s the eyes. The things they’ve seen. The things he’s done since leaving…leaving home. He had thought he’d seen so much. After all; he’d run before. He’d been on the streets for weeks at a time. He knew.
What an innocent he’d been. He’d seen nothing, known nothing at all. Compared to the last six months, even his previous times on the streets look like holidays. Which, come to think of it, they had been. Brief vacations from a life to which he’d eventually return.
The holiday’s ended now. This is his life. And all of it shows in his eyes.
The mirror is large enough to show him his torso. Despite irregular meals and sleeping rough more often than not, he’s done his best to keep fit. Strength counts in this life, and he’s needed it more than once. So he hasn’t lost much muscle. He supposes he has a good chest; he doesn’t really have an eye for such things. A scattering of dark hair high up, a line between his pectoral muscles all the way down to below his navel and the “happy trail” women seem to find so fascinating. He’s gained a lot of experience with women in the past months, starting with the blonde in the Mustang, who’d given him his first ride away from Oregon. Sex is a comfort. It soothes his soul, helps him relax as much as he can, and he accepts it wherever it’s willingly offered.
He is four months away from his fifteenth birthday.
A sound from the next room startles him, and he stiffens before he remembers he’s someplace safe. Then he recalls that he’d come to take a piss, before his reflection distracted him. So he goes about his business. Washes his hands, splashes some water on his face. Perhaps he’ll be able to have a shower. He does not look in the mirror again.
The bedroom is bright with early morning sun. When he walks in, the girl—the woman—in the bed arches her back and smiles at him.
“God, you’re so beautiful.” She stretches out an arm languid with sleep.
She’d picked him up at the Cannery, the old packing plant converted to shops, where he’d gone to busk the day before. Between his music and his growing skill at shooting pool, he does better for money than many of the kids on the street. On the lean days he still has to panhandle, but he hasn’t yet had to commit a serious crime. The Cannery is a prime location for buskers, and the end of March is a good time for tourists, what with so many families coming to San Francisco for spring break.
He’d noticed the woman several times over the course of the afternoon. Average size, average height, average body, but with a waterfall of shining black hair down her back and beautiful brown eyes, like a doe’s. She might have some Native blood way back. Anyway, she’d come back again and again, each time slipping a few bills into his hat. And at the end of the day, she’d asked him out for a beer. He’d known well enough where it would lead: back here, to her apartment in Berkeley, where she’s a PhD candidate in something or other; he can’t remember what. But he hadn’t minded. It would mean a solid roof over his head, a decent bed. He’s not completely mercenary. He’s learned he likes women, almost all women. And if they like him, and they can share a night’s pleasure, what’s the harm?
“Quite the hunk,” she says.
She hadn’t asked his age. Big and tall as he is, they never do. He has an ID that says he’s twenty-two. He thought he’d need it to get into the bars where the good pool games are. No one’s ever asked to see it, though.
“A hunk, is it?” He lifts an eyebrow, and she giggles. “I dinna believe I’m familiar with the term.”
He lets them believe he’s a more recent arrival to this country than he is. He plays up his accent. It makes them feel exotic, and it’s not hard. His burr always has gotten thicker when he’s on edge, and he’s nearly always on edge these days.
“Oh, you must. A guy who’s built well. A stud. A sex god.” She reaches toward him again. “Come back to bed.”
“Aye, I expect I could sleep another hour,” he teases. He couldn’t though. The sun is too high; it unsettles him. However late in the night he’s awake, his inner clock rouses him at sunup. It always has, and he hasn’t had any luck changing it.
She gives him a seductive smile.
“I didn’t mean to sleep,” she purrs.
“Aye, well.” He slides into the bed beside her, kisses her. “I expect I could do that, too.”
Warm brown skin, pink-tipped breasts, hair like silk under his hands. For now, this is his world.
The woman cuts him loose around noon. She has to go to her lab and check on an experiment she left running, she says. It may be true, or may not. Perhaps she just wants to get rid of him. Sometimes the women who pick him up feel guilty after the night’s over. He doesn’t mind. He got the shower he wanted, though not alone. It was a more athletic process than he’d anticipated, too. But it’s all right.
He takes the BART over to the Embarcadero stop and walks up the waterfront. The stiff wind from the bay blows his hair into a tangle, so he fishes his busking cap out of his bodhrán case and sticks it on his head. Early afternoon on a Sunday, not much is going on. The tourists who clogged Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square yesterday are absent. Perhaps at a nice brunch somewhere, or perhaps on the way to the airport, to catch a flight back to wherever they came from. A few of the licensed vendors are out along the streets. He greets the ones he knows by sight. None of them is doing much business.
He had thought to busk a bit more, but it isn’t the day for it. He doesn’t feel up to the effort, either; it was a long night and he didn’t get much sleep. So he turns down Polk Street and heads away from the bay, into the city. His stomach is rumbling; the woman gave him coffee but he hasn’t yet eaten. After checking his pocket to make sure yesterday’s earnings are still there, he stops into a bakery for a day-old pastry, which he nurses through the next mile. By that time he’s getting close to the Tenderloin, where his squat is. He supposes he should go there and crash for a few hours. But the thought of the run-down room in the condemned hotel casts a pall over the day; he doesn’t want to see those walls just yet. Instead of taking the left turn, he goes until he hits Golden Gate and heads over to Alamo Square. Then he keeps on without any focus or direction, walking because it eats time, because he has nothing better to do. It’s the hardest part of street life for him: the lack of occupation, the lack of a place. He’s never liked empty hours, and here there are all too many. Even if he spent some of his busking money on sitting down in a restaurant and having a real meal, he’d be wasting time, renting space. Marking the hour or so until he’d used up the privilege of being in one spot and had to move on to the next.
In the late afternoon, he finds himself on the corner of Divisadero and Haight Street. He thinks he’ll perhaps go over to Golden Gate Park; it’s a clear day, without the fog that’s so common in the spring, and he knows a few trees over that way that might put him up for an hour or two, so he can get off his feet. He turns west for Haight-Ashbury, which is still an interesting part of town despite its heyday being almost twenty years in the past. He’s not far from the famous intersection when he starts picking up a distress signal. Some creature is lost, afraid, lonely, hungry. The feeling’s indistinct; he can’t pin it down. The creature isn’t hurt, though. He would have known that right away. Still, the call is strong enough that he wants to look into it.
The girl is panhandling outside a smoke shop. She’s young and pale-skinned, with long, dark hair she wears in a single braid that falls over her shoulder and down to her breast when she turns her head. She can’t have been there long, because the beat cops are strict about enforcing the ordinance against begging in the Haight. And she can’t have been long on the street, either, or she would have known better than to panhandle in that spot. She’s a bit too clean, in a spangled brown gauze skirt and a denim jacket that look like someone’s idea of what a Hippie should wear. Some cheap, chunky jewelry completes the costume. She’s got a yellow shawl tied around her, hanging from a knot at her shoulder to make a pocket at her hip, and it’s from the shawl that the distress call is coming. As he gets closer, he makes out the signature better. Feline, young, terrified. He touches the little mind from a distance and sends it some reassuring thoughts. In a minute or two, a tiny striped head pokes out of the shawl, and the kitten mews. It’s a loud sound to come out of such a small beastie. The kitten can’t be much more than four weeks old. Its ears are still a bit rounded and its eyes are still blue.
The girl notices him looking at her, catches his eye.
“Spare some change so I can feed my cat?”
There’s hope in her voice, but none in her face, which interests him. He can’t tell what’s behind the mask; unlike creatures, humans are opaque to him.
“That wee mite’s far too young to be away from his mother.”
Another exchange with the kitten has told him that it regards the girl with more love than fear, so he speaks more gently than he had first intended. But she gets defensive in spite of his tone. Her mouth hardens, and he notices the deep pain lines on either side of it. She’s seen things she should not have seen at her age, which he guesses to be fifteen or so. And no doubt that’s why she’s here. The only strange thing is that she didn’t get here sooner.
“I found him in the garbage,” she says. “A whole litter. He was the only one alive.”
His own mouth goes tight at the cruelty of it. Seeing it, the girl flinches. It’s an automatic response; she’s learned to fear anger. Male anger. He sees it in the hunch of her shoulders, and he curses himself. He should have known better than to approach her the way he did, but the kitten’s distress muddled his thinking.
“Och, the world’s a heartless place.” Deep in his center, he finds a well of sympathy. Forcing himself to smile, he projects it at her, wanting her to relax and trust him. It’s a thing he’s learned he can do sometimes, not too different from putting on a good face for the audience when he’s busking. It doesn’t come as easily as communicating with creatures, but most times people respond.
As the girl does now. The wariness goes out of her stance and she gives him a tentative smile in return.
“May I see him?” he asks, and she plucks the kitten out of her shawl and hands it over. It nestles into his hands at once, trying out a purr. He checks it over, determines that it’s male and unhurt. But,
The girl grimaces. “I know. I’m trying to find the money to feed him. It’s a him?”
He nods. “He’ll not want too much solid food yet.”
Her face falls. “I don’t know what to do,” she admits in a small voice. “But I couldn’t leave him to die like the rest.”
He hesitates. He knows what to do, of course. But he isn’t sure he wants to do it. It’s hard enough taking care of himself on the streets, without assuming the responsibility for someone else. But then, he thinks, perhaps I can set her on the road and she can go on without me. And I can’t let that wee thing die, either.
“Come on,” he says, passing the kitten back to its human mother.
The girl picks up a knapsack from the shadow of the smoke shop wall and follows him down the street and around the corner to a little market, the kind that stocks a bit of everything. After some hunting, he finds some infant cereal and canned milk. He adds a couple bottles of drinking water and a jar of meat baby food, and on the way to the register he lifts a paper cup and plate and a plastic spoon from the self-service ready food counter. The girl’s looking hungry, and he hasn’t had all that much himself, so he picks up a couple sandwiches too. He has enough left from yesterday’s busking to cover it all and still be good for a meal or two, so he doesn’t mind.
In the alley behind the market, he makes a thin gruel out of cereal, water, and canned milk, with a bit of the minced meat. It looks awful and smells worse, but the kitten doesn’t have to be told what to do. It walks straight into the plate of food and sticks its nose in.
The girl sighs and leans back against the rear wall of the market as if, now the kitten is taken care of, she has no reason to hold herself up.
“Thank you. I really didn’t know what to do.”
He passes her a sandwich. For a minute, it seems she might refuse it out of pride. He sees her remember her situation. Right now, she has no recourse but to depend on the charity of others. Despair flashes across her face for an instant and vanishes. She takes the sandwich, sits down on the ground, and unwraps it. He squats and unwraps the other.
“So.” He jerks his chin in the direction of the kitten, which is still busily lapping up the nasty mess in the paper plate. “Does the wee one have a name?”
“Milo,” she says through a mouthful of turkey and cheese. Like the kitten, she can’t seem to get the food down fast enough.
“And you?” he asks after another minute, during which he makes a slow start on his own sandwich. Ham, a bit stale. He’s no right to be picky, though. “Do you have a name?”
She pauses with the last few bites of sandwich halfway to her mouth. He sees her wondering what to say, and knows that whatever comes out of her mouth, it will be something she’s made up on the spur of the moment. But that’s fine with him. Lots of people want to leave the past behind.
“Gypsy,” she tells him at last. Her eyelashes flicker at the lie, but he pretends not to notice.
They finish their food. The kitten decides it’s had enough, too, and makes a go at washing its face. It doesn’t do a very good job, so he wets a corner of his shirttail and takes care of the worst spots before Gypsy tucks the creature back into her shawl. He checks in with it once more, but doesn’t get much from it. It’s fed and sleepy, and the girl smells like home and safety. Well enough, he thinks.
“So Gypsy, d’ye have a place to stay?”
The words are out of his mouth before he realizes it, and he curses himself again, both because he had no intention of going in that direction and because the simple question has brought the fear and wariness back to the girl’s face. Shite, she thinks I’m asking for sex, he thinks, and almost laughs because sex is honestly the last thing on his mind and, anyway, he can get it anywhere he likes without playing Good Samaritan. But she looks so genuinely distressed that he swallows the laugh. No one likes to be laughed at, or to have her fears laughed at, either.
He sees her getting ready to make up some story, so he speaks first.
“It’s just, I’ve not seen you before today. So I expect you’re new at this.”
She narrows her eyes at him. “New at what?”
He shrugs. The gesture takes in the detritus of their meal, the alley where they’re sitting.
She glances down at her lap. A rueful smile crosses her lips. “It’s that obvious?”
“Aye, it is.”
There’s a silence. He can sense the thoughts churning in her brain as she mulls over what to say and how much to divulge. He lets her be, knowing everyone has things that need to stay hidden. Finally, she looks up. He can see in her face that she’s decided he’s all right.
“I don’t have a place to stay.”
He gets up and holds out his hand. She takes it, and they leave the alley together.
It’s a couple of miles at least back to his squat. He sets out at a good clip before he realizes Gypsy can’t keep up. She has the kitten and her knapsack to juggle, and her feet drag from fatigue. He wonders how long it’s been since she’s had a chance to sleep. If she came from a good distance away, it might have been a while. When he’s run, he’s always had the advantages of his size and his maleness on his side. It hasn’t been dangerous for him to take rides from strangers, or accept the offer of a night’s shelter. Not as dangerous. Not like it would be for a pretty girl.
He slows down and, without a word, takes the knapsack from her. She doesn’t resist or protest, which gives him another measure of her weariness. All at once, he finds himself apologizing.
“I’m sorry it’s so far. I dinna think much of distance anymore.”
“It’s all right.” She gives him a tired smile and adjusts her shawl so the kitten is nestled against her breasts. “If you hadn’t offered….”
She shrugs and lets her words trail off. He can’t help but wonder what brought her into the city so ill-prepared. Lots of kids run away, but most of them think they have some kind of plan. They have enough money for a few nights in a hostel, and they believe they’ll pick up decent work somewhere, despite youth and inexperience. Some give up when the money runs out; they call the home they left and beg to be taken back. The ones with serious reason to stay away don’t. Of those, some learn the ropes and some become prey.
“I was going to spend the night in the Youth Hostel,” Gypsy says, as if she’s read his mind. “But the bus cost more than I thought it would.”
He notices she does not mention where the bus started out. “Did ye have a plan for after the hostel? D’ye ken anyone in the city? Have family, perhaps?”
He already suspects what her answer will be. Her mouth gives him confirmation, shaping itself into a line at the mention of family.
The word, the expression tell him two things about her. She’s been hurt enough, or she was afraid enough, to bolt on an impulse, with no idea where to go or what she’d do when she got there. And she comes from money. She hasn’t had to learn what things cost, and she’s never had to worry about tomorrow. It’s a bad combination, panic and ignorance. To the people who target street kids, it will make her look like a victim.
“Gypsy,” he says, then stops, and shifts the knapsack from his hand to the shoulder with his bodhrán case, and shoves his hair out of his eyes, sighing. She’s in no condition to absorb a lesson about life, and he hasn’t the heart, at the moment, to give her one.
They take Haight Street to Market and Market to Hyde. By the time they hit Turk Street, dusk has fallen and the Tenderloin has begun to light up. Gypsy casts a frightened eye at the “Live Nude Girls” sign, and another at a pair of working girls who are already out. It’s a pair he knows slightly, so they don’t hassle him, which he counts as a blessing. He’s in no mood for whores’ banter, and he doesn’t think Gypsy would understand. They go by an old woman asleep in a doorway, and a young tough peddling drugs. Then they’re on Ellis Street, outside a four-story building with a boarded-up ground floor that might once have been a grocery. There are smoke stains on the upper walls, and most of the windows are gone. He leads Gypsy to a gap at the side that proves to hide a staircase, and they go up.
“Watch your step and keep to the side. It’s more solid.” He takes Gypsy’s elbow and pulls her to the left, glad for the dimness. He doesn’t think the girl is ready to see the kind of trash that collects in the stairwell. The dark doesn’t hide the smell, though. He’s not the only one who squats in this building, and some of the others are less fastidious than he is.
He leads her all the way up to the fourth floor. The stench of the stairwell clears a bit as they climb. The lower floors are more habitable, and most of the other squatters stick there. He likes the feeling of being up high, though. It seems safer. More defensible, if that’s ever needed. There are only a few rooms fit to live in up here, and he claimed the best of them when its last resident vanished back at the turn of the year. Sometimes he wonders what happened to the chap, and has to remind himself that it’s better not to ask.
His place is at the end of the hall, next to the stairs that would have led to the roof if there had been more than four of them left. The door locks, which is part of what makes it the best room on the floor. It lets him leave his few things there without worrying too much that they’ll be stolen. He learned early that the best way to be picked up for vagrancy is to carry all your possessions about on your back. Or perhaps it’s the second best way. The best way might be to pass out in public. At any rate, he can’t risk getting picked up for anything, what with having skipped out on his bail back in Oregon. So he’s glad to have a place where it’s relatively safe to stow some stuff.
There’s never been a key, but that’s not a problem for him. He’s been able to pick locks since he was ten years old and wanted to use his father’s power tools. He gets the door open in a few seconds, takes a minute to make sure no one’s waiting to jump him—which he doesn’t expect since the door was locked, but it pays to be careful—and lets Gypsy inside.
The room’s at the back of the building, and it has an intact window: another thing making it the best on the floor. There’s a street light outside, low enough down that it doesn’t shine directly in, but close enough to alleviate the gloom. It shows a space about fourteen by fourteen feet, a solid floor, a lumpy mattress pushed up against one wall. Gypsy heads for the mattress right away, as if it’s all she can see. He takes a pack of matches out of his pocket and lights the row of candle stubs he’s affixed to a warped board resting across a pair of cinder blocks, which also serves for a table, of a kind. The candles reveal the stains on the mattress, the water damage to the walls, the old paper hanging down in strips, graffiti. Gypsy doesn’t seem to care about any of it. She’s already let the kitten loose and closed her eyes.
She trusts him, he realizes. She trusts him more than she should. He charmed her into it, to get her to talk to him, to get her to let him have a look at the kitten. Now he wishes he hadn’t. She needs to retain some wariness, or the street will eat her.
On the other hand, he’s possibly the single person it’s safe for her to trust.
With a sigh, he digs the remains of his convenience store purchases out of Gypsy’s knapsack and stirs up another mess of cereal slop for the kitten, who has let him know it could stand to eat again. He could stand to eat again himself, but it’s not going to happen tonight. He’s not about to leave Gypsy alone while he goes out scrounging. It would have to be scrounging. With the girl to look after, he may not get a chance to busk again soon, and it might not be a good idea to take her to any of the places where he shoots pool until some of the shine is off her. He never counted on having to support another person, but he’ll have to do it, at least for a little while. If he turned Gypsy loose, someone else would snatch her up within a day. Someone who had no qualms at all about setting her out to earn his drug money for him. No; it’s better she stay, until she knows the ropes, at any rate. At least he doesn’t have a drug habit to worry about. And he’s not going to kill the kitten, which most others would do.
As if it’s noticed him thinking of it, the kitten climbs up his knee and curls up on his thigh for a nap. He scratches its ears without paying it too much attention, his mind on dumpsters. The local ones never have much to offer; they get picked over too often. Chinatown is only a couple miles away, though, and it has good pickings most of the time. It’s best to get there in the small hours of the morning, after the night businesses have closed down. He decides he’ll let the girl sleep a couple of hours and then they’ll set out. It should be safe to leave the kitten behind. Although, it would be best if he could contrive some kind of sandbox for it beforehand.
He doesn’t plan on protecting Gypsy forever. Just a little while. Time enough for her to learn what’s what. Someone needs to teach her, sure enough. And no one else will.
He dozes off, sitting on the floor on the opposite side of the room from the mattress, because he wants to give the girl her space. His legs are crossed, his back is against the wall, and the kitten is asleep on his thigh. He starts to dream of a place he knew once, a forest on a mountain where a larger cat spoke to him. But before he can figure out where he is or what he should do there, the screaming wakes him.
He sits straight up, blinking and wondering why the sound is so close. Sometimes there are screams; all too often, in fact. He’s never learned to sleep through them, although he supposes he might in time. He can usually tell where they’re coming from: out on the street, downstairs, another building over. But this time, it seems they’re right in the room with him. And then he realizes they are right in the room with him, because he brought a girl back from Haight-Ashbury, and she’s on his mattress, and she’s having a nightmare.
He goes to her, bringing the kitten along because it’s woken up and he thinks it might help. Gypsy is sitting up, her arms straight down at her sides like bars of iron with fists at the end of them. Her eyes are open, but she doesn’t see him. She’s still asleep, still in the nightmare. Her mouth is open, and the horrible sound keeps coming out of it, a sound of pure terror. He sets the kitten on the end of the mattress and crawls up beside the girl, wanting to calm her. But at the pressure of his body beside her, she goes nuts. Her screams turn to gasps, and she flails out at him with those iron fists, trying to beat him away. He wonders for a moment if he should let her. It might help, if fighting him off in the physical world allows her to defeat whatever she faces in the dream world. Then one of her fists connects with his nose, and he hears the half-healed cartilage go crunch again. Tears of pain spring up in his eyes and blood starts to stream down his face, and he decides that letting Gypsy beat on him is not a good idea. He takes her wrists in as gentle a grasp as he can manage against her struggles and croons to her, keeping his voice low and soothing.
“Hush. Hush now. It’s all right. You’re safe here.”
Little by little, she calms down and stops fighting him. The panic recedes from her eyes, and she closes them with a sigh of relief. In another minute, when he’s sure the nightmare isn’t going to return, he lets go of her wrists. She lies down and curls up with her back to him. He blows out the breath he’s been holding and leans against the wall, stretching out his legs in front of him. Gritting his teeth, he wrenches his nose back into place. It hurts just as much as he remembered.
He’s sitting there, pinching his nose to stop the bleeding and wondering if he should chance lying down where he is or if he should go back to the other side of the room, when Gypsy speaks.
“It was my father.”
He isn’t sure what to say. Every word that comes to him seems hollow.
“It wasn’t bad enough that he abused me from the time I was six,” the girl goes on. “I have to have nightmares about him, too.”
Well. That explains why she came to the city. He opens his mouth to ask why she stayed with her family as long as she did, why she left now, but shuts it again before asking. People have their reasons.
“I got too old for him. So it was better for a while. Then he told me he has a buddy who likes teenagers,” she says, answering the question he didn’t ask. She rolls over and squints at his face, trying to make out his expression in the dark. “Why don’t you say anything?”
“What would ye like me to say?”
“It’s not about what I’d like you to say,” she snaps, and he guesses he deserved it. He thinks a bit, then says,
“I’m sorry that happened to ye. It’s a terrible thing.”
“You don’t think I’m lying?”
His eyebrows shoot up. “Why would ye lie about something like that?”
“I could be crazy.”
Before he can help himself, he laughs. “You’re not crazy. I’ve seen a few crazy folk out here. You’re nothing like any of them.”
It seems to reassure her. She relaxes and comes out of herself enough to notice the blood on his face. “What’s that? Blood?”
“Aye.” He lifts his shirt to wipe his face. It doesn’t do much good that he can tell; he’ll have to find some wash water in the morning. “Ye broke my nose.”
“Oh my god. I’m so sorry.”
He shrugs. “It makes no mind. D’ye believe ye can sleep again?”
She nods, and he starts to get up to go back to the other side of the room. Before he can move, she grabs his hand.
“Stay with me, please?”
He lifts an eyebrow. “I’d think the last thing ye’d want would be a man in bed with ye.”
“You’re not going to do anything, are you?” she asks, and he shakes his head. “I thought not. I’d really like it if you’d stay. I’d like….” She clears her throat. He thinks if it were light in the room, he’d see her blush. “I’d like it if you held me. Okay?”
“If ye like.”
She puts her back to him again. He settles down beside her, and she nestles against his chest. He puts an arm around her. It never occurs to him to think of her as a woman. She’s a hurt child who’s had a fright, and she wants the comfort of someone stronger nearby. He’d no more take advantage of her than he would of one of his sisters.
The kitten curls up in the crook of his knees. The girl is warm at his front. It doesn’t take him long at all to fall asleep.
He sleeps longer than he intended and wakes after first light, too late to think about dumpster diving in Chinatown. Gypsy is still sleeping, and the kitten has made a mess at the end of the mattress. He gives it a stern look, but he can’t keep it up long. The poor wee thing didn’t know any better, and he hasn’t provided for it properly. Besides, it’s only a small mess. He cleans it up as well as he can, and promises to come up with an alternative as soon as possible. The kitten has its face in another plate of slop and doesn’t thank him.
He checks his funds again. It’s become a reflexive action in the last few months. His family never had much to spare and he’s always earned what he could, but even when he’d left home before he’d never gained so fine an understanding of how a few bills might make the difference between life and death. How a good day busking or a win at pool can tide one over a lean week, and how a bit of cash in the pocket means freedom from people who take advantage of kids like him. He’s lucky to have a few skills he can put to use, and that’s a fact.
Anyway, yesterday was a good day. He took in almost a hundred dollars. In the normal course of events, he could have made it last a couple of weeks. But he bought a few beers for the woman last night after she fed him dinner. He needed a BART pass to get back to the proper side of the bay. That was a luxury; he could have hitched it, but he’d been tired. And then the sandwiches and the food for the kitten. So he has less than a quarter of his take left. And he needs to rig a cat box, and the wee mite will need more to eat before long, and there’s the girl to feed.
Sighing, he thrusts the wad of small bills back into his pocket. This taking care of others is a complicated and expensive business. It’s not what he signed up for, when he came to San Francisco. He just wanted space, time to himself to get his head on straight without the pressures of his family, and Mitch, and the law, all telling him what to do. What he was supposed to think and feel. Space to breathe.
He hasn’t found it. He keeps hoping he’ll stumble into it someday. Someday when the burdens of life let up for a bit, when everything around him stops feeling like such a tight fit. If that ever happens.
Or perhaps he’s lying to himself. Perhaps he’s simply running to run.
He can’t think of that right now.
Leaving the girl asleep and the kitten exploring the space under his makeshift table, he goes out. It’s early yet, he judges about seven-thirty by the light, though it’s a hazy day and difficult to tell. The working girls are stumbling back from their nights and the folk who’ve slept in alleys and doorways are stirring, gathering their possessions into bags, getting ready for another day of consciousness. None of the drug dealers are out, and the streets smell almost fresh, the way they do when the dark has cleared away the omnipresent stench of urine and smog and human misery that lingers in the gutters. He’s thinking about the best way to provide for the kitten’s needs and remembering a public works project, some kind of community garden, a few blocks away from which he might liberate a box of soil, if he can find a box. So he doesn’t notice the cab pulling up to the curb or the petite woman getting out of it until she hails him.
“Hey, Pretty Boy! What you doing out so early?”
He stops, recognizing the voice. It’s Teena, the whore whose pimp he took on last month. She’s a light-skinned black woman with straightened hair dyed red. From her looks she could be any age from eighteen to forty, though something about the way she carries herself makes him believe she’s on the near side of thirty. Though she hides it well, he’s fairly certain she’s a junkie. He’s seen her with one of the dealers and, well, lots of the girls go that way. She’s been kind to him, as much as anyone is to anyone else in the grey society of pimps and whores and addicts and all the rest who have thrown themselves through the cracks in civilization and landed here.
He shrugs and thrusts his hands into his pockets, waiting for her to come to him. “I’ve things to do.”
She totters up on her five-inch spikes. They give her enough height to stand as tall as his collarbone.
“You look rough, Pretty Boy.” Her nose crinkles as she takes him in. “You pick a fight with Dandy Sam again?”
He manages a smile. “Not me.”
“Uh-huh.” She reaches up to his freshly broken nose. He flinches away before she can touch it. “Who done messed you up, then?”
He doesn’t want to tell her. He needs to keep Gypsy’s presence a secret as long as he can, especially from someone who might tell a pimp about her. So he just shrugs again.
Teena’s mouth pulls in at the corners. “Fool boy. You come on with me now, get cleaned up before some cop spots you and hauls your ass in. You hear me?”
He doesn’t think anyone’s apt to haul him in for a broken nose and a bloody shirt, not from the Tenderloin, not at this hour of the day. But he would like a chance to wash his face, and Teena has running water at her place. So he allows her to steer him to her building and up the stairs to her room in one of the weekly-rate hotels. He’s been there before. Teena gave him floor space once or twice before he found his own squat. It’s a large-ish room with a kitchenette built along one side and a couple of painted paper screens defining the corner with the bed. Teena keeps the place scrupulously clean, and a vague scent of bleach hangs in the air. He’s never seen any evidence of her work lying about, either. In this squalid world, Teena’s as close as anyone comes to a class act, and she can avoid bringing the johns back to her own digs, most of the time.
She kicks off her heels and drops her faux leopard jacket before heading to the bathroom. He uses the kitchenette sink to dunk his head, drying his hair and face on his dirty shirt, being careful not to knock his nose about. When he straightens up and shoves his hair back out of his eyes, Teena is emerging, wearing a cheap chiffon robe, a dreamy, vacant look replacing the tired lines around her mouth. She’s had a fix, he guesses. Enough to keep her going but not enough to put her under, because she’s remembered inviting him in and she’s holding out a roll of adhesive tape.
“Sit down and let me fix that,” she orders.
He hesitates, then complies, taking a seat on her vinyl sofa. Though he’s vain enough to resist the idea of walking around with tape holding his nose together and practical enough to understand that such a visible sign of weakness will make his life harder, he also knows he’ll heal better for some attention. Sitting opposite him, Teena stretches tape across the bridge of his nose, smoothing it into place with gentle fingers. He winces at the contact, but it’s more from reflex than pain. She hardly hurts him at all.
“Not gonna tell me how you did that?” She shakes her head at him. She hasn’t yet taken her earrings off, and they wink in the sun coming through the dirty window.
“Not just yet.” He lifts an eyebrow. “Why d’ye care?”
“Who says I care?” she snaps, then sighs. “You’re a good kid, Pretty Boy. You don’t belong here. Why don’t you go on back home?”
He just looks at her. She scrubs her fingers across her face, and her false eyelashes come away in her hand. She tosses them onto the cluttered table at the end of the sofa and makes a shooing gesture at him.
“Go on, get. I need my beauty sleep.”
He pulls his filthy shirt back on over his head and leaves without another word. He makes it a practice not to ask any of the girls for more than they offer, ever. They have too much else to cope with. And some things they offer he won’t accept, either. It would only get everyone in trouble if he did.
When he gets back to his own squat, bearing a shallow cardboard carton he found in the alley behind one of the area’s cheap booze dives, which he filled with sandy dirt from the garden project he remembered, Gypsy is awake. For a minute or two he berates himself. He shouldn’t have left her alone, without any sign where he’d gone or when he’d be back. She might have been frightened. But she doesn’t look frightened, only a bit pale in the face, as if her night’s sleep hasn’t done her much good. She’s sitting up against the wall, stroking the kitten in her lap, and her eyes are distant. He supposes she has a lot on her mind. He knows how that can be, when you finally get a rest and all the cares that exhaustion has pushed to the back of your brain start clamoring for your attention again.
“I’ve a box for your wee cat.” He sets it down in a corner.
The girl doesn’t say anything. He goes over to her and scoops the kitten off her lap, plunks it down in the box to show it where to conduct its business from now on. It responds by squatting and screwing its tiny face into an expression of intense concentration. Good enough. He likes that about cats; they’re quick on the uptake, especially where personal hygiene is concerned.
“Are you hungry? I’ve enough to stand us breakfast.” He works to keep his hand from twitching toward the wad of cash in his pocket, checking how much he has left. He wouldn’t mind spending some of it to feed them. But he has no idea where he’ll get more when it’s gone. With his nose broken his voice has a clog in it; he knows from before that he’ll be no good for busking for at least a week. The injury is limiting in other ways, too; panhandling is tough when you look too dangerous. Gypsy might do well enough in the right place. He’ll have to start showing her the ropes soon, or they’ll be in trouble unless he can rack up a pool win or two. At this point, with the game still new to him, he’s not sure he can.
“Not really.” Gypsy shrugs, then sighs. “I don’t need you taking care of me.”
“You need someone.” The words sound over-brutal coming out of his mouth, as if he’s judged her and found her wanting. He tries to soften them. “At least for a time.”
The corner of her mouth goes up in a smile that does not reach her eyes.
“You’re a good guy, Timber. I didn’t think there were any, anymore.”
It’s a sad comment on the world from a girl of fifteen, but having heard the little she told him about her past, he can’t fault her for making it. It embarrasses him, though. He thinks about Teena telling him he’s a good kid and he doesn’t belong in the Tenderloin, on the streets, and he wonders what it is two such different women have seen in him, to give them the same impression. For all of about thirty seconds, he allows himself to consider the idea that they may be right. He could have made the wrong choice, leaving home. And he could go back, take his lumps and do his time. There’d likely be time to do, since he skipped his bail and all.
And after, then what? He knows the answer. The old man, and the magic, and the path he does not want to walk. The path he didn’t choose. Riddles and darkness. The old man might be able to help him sort out the riddles, it’s true. But he’s fairly certain the answers won’t hold any light.
“Och, ye dinna ken me.” He turns his back on the girl and strips off his shirt. It picked up a few more stains while he was searching for the materials for the cat box, and what with the blood and the dirt he doesn’t think it will ever come clean again, or anywhere close. The flannel’s still good, though. He expects it will make a nest for the kitten.
“I know enough.” He feels Gypsy’s eyes between his shoulder blades. “Only a good guy would pick up a girl like me, and feed her kitten, and not expect anything.”
He hangs the shirt over a protruding wall stud to consider later and opens up the cubby he made in the plaster for a place to hide his things when he’s out. There’s another flannel in his backpack. He’s down to the one, now, and it doesn’t fit very well. He’d thought himself done growing, but he shot up another couple inches over the winter. And that’s another place he’ll have to spend a few bucks: the Salvation Army. The handouts from the local churches are never big enough to fit him.
“Aye?” He pulls the shirt over his head and rolls up the sleeves. “I beat a bloke to death with my bare hands.” Not quite true, but it might have been, and Gypsy doesn’t need to know the details. “Does that make me a good guy, then?”
Her gaze doesn’t falter. “Everyone makes mistakes.”
“It was no mistake. I walked straight up to him and stuck my boot in his teeth. And I kept kicking him when he was down, because I could.”
He shoves his pack back into the hidey-hole and knocks the wall boards into place, then stands, leans on the wall, and crosses his arms over his chest. His stray lock of hair falls into his face, and he doesn’t brush it back. Instead, he glares at her from its shadows, warning her not to trust him too far or believe in him too much. Because he’s like anyone: flawed and apt to fail. A reed that turns out to be hollow just when you think it’s solid. She frowns a little, thoughts moving behind her brown eyes. For a moment or two they stare at each other.
“Why is it so important to you that I think you’re a bad guy?” she asks at last.
The question throws him. It’s not one he ever thought to have to answer. It’s not the kind of thing people ask. He blinks, breaking their eye contact, and when he looks up again Gypsy grins at him. The expression changes her from a waif to a seductress. He can see the woman she will become.
“Or maybe it’s just important to you to think of yourself as a bad guy.” She cocks her head to one side, examining him the way a tropical bird might examine a questionable piece of fruit.
“It isna!” He wants to tell her that he doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him, that he’s just being honest. But he can’t get the words out.
“Everyone wears masks, Timber. Until they get tired of them.”
“Is that so? Do you?”
“Sure.” It doesn’t seem to trouble her to admit it. “With my dad boning me three times a week since I can remember? Are you kidding?”
Gypsy’s voice is light, almost cheery. She could be talking of a book or a television program, a comedy. He remembers the way she screamed in the dark and thinks, things look different in the daytime. Terror and helplessness become smaller. A person can laugh, and have hope. It strikes him as bizarre that she can hope after the things she’s experienced. But people do find ways to survive.
“Is that why you’re here?” she asks. “Because you beat a…bloke to death? Running from the law?” Something in her tone tells him she wouldn’t have expected it.
“No.” He slides down the wall until he’s sitting on the floor with his knees folded before his face. For a moment he rests his forehead on them.
He raises his head. “It’s not your business, is it?”
“I told you my deep, dark secret.”
Without a thought he’s on his feet, storming across the room to the mattress where she sits.
“I didna ask it, did I? I didna poke and prod and beg until ye couldna take nae mair!” He’s shouting at her, he can’t help himself. “I brought ye tae my place, asking naething in return. D’ye ken how few blokes would do such a thing?” In the back of his mind he recognizes his words as confirmation of her opinion: he’s a good guy, not one to take advantage. The truth only makes him rage the harder. “I didna force myself on ye, or pimp ye out, or sell ye tae one who would! And if ye wake screaming, and then spill your guts tae the first stranger who comes along, what’s it tae me? It’s no gift I should repay. Ye’ve no claim tae me!”
He looms over her. She sits motionless, as if his fury means nothing at all. Soon, he spins on his heel and stomps away, hands scrubbing at his hair. In a minute, her quiet voice follows.
“Do you want me to leave?”
His hands drop to his sides. His shoulders slump.
“No.” It wouldn’t be wise, he wants to tell her. You wouldn’t last five minutes on your own. The words curdle in his throat. “But let me have some peace.”
He stands for a long time, staring down at the cracked toes of his boots, trying not to feel the way they pinch. On top of everything, he needs to replace his footwear; his big feet are constricted, the same way his big body is constricted, and his mind, and perhaps his soul too. Tight, everything is too tight. Too rigid. There’s too much to consider: food and shelter and cat boxes and the girl, and he didn’t ask for any of it. He has no need for more pressure, more questions he can’t answer, more problems. How is he going to care for them all? He can’t even take refuge with an older woman the way he does sometimes, because he can’t leave the girl on her own.
The soft sound of his name makes him lift his head, but he doesn’t turn around.
“Come on, sit.”
Against his will he slouches back to the mattress. Gypsy budges over, and he throws himself down beside her, flat on his back, arms crossed beneath his head. He senses her eyes on him.
“Is that why you’re here?” she ventures after a time. “For peace?”
He snorts. “Funny place to look for it.”
The mattress ripples as she slides down to lie next to him. Her fingers trace a line down his face from forehead to jaw, her hand coming to rest on his chest.
“Would it help to…” There’s a catch in her voice. “I mean, some guys… It could help you relax.”
When he gets her meaning, he sits bolt upright, aghast.
In the moment before she looks away from him, he sees her face: beet red with shame and wounded pride. He grabs her hand.
“I’m very honored you’d offer. But I dinna think it would be right.”
Her hair curtains her face, but he catches a glimpse of lips twisted in a wry smile.
“Where on earth did you come from?”
“Skye,” he blurts without thinking.
She laughs, the first honest laugh he’s heard from her. Merriment makes her younger, turns her into the carefree girl she would have been if…if her life had been different. The sound is so wonderful, so full of light, that he can’t help but smile too. It’s an absurd situation he’s got himself into, and that’s the plain truth.
When the laughter fades, they look at each other. Somehow, without words, they’ve reached an understanding. Without meaning to, they have become partners. It may last or it may not. But for now, for now they have each other.
“You said something about breakfast?” Gypsy says, and he takes her hand, still smiling, and leads her into the growing daylight.
They have some good weeks together. He takes her around the city, shows her the ropes. Where to go and where not to go. The safe places to panhandle, the restaurant dumpsters with the best foraging if you get there before anyone else. The day programs where you can grab a shower and maybe a hot meal if you don’t show up too often. Become a regular and they think they’re entitled to ask questions. Some people believe they have a mission to save kids from the streets, and those are the people you need to avoid.
“They’ll try to talk you back home,” he tells her. “They think kids should go back to their families.” And they will not hear, will not believe, that for most of the kids out here the streets are far better. He learned this the hard way, in his first month here. Lost and confused, before he’d found a place to squat, he’d frequented one place far too often. He can’t go back there now, not ever.
He tells Gypsy about the bad places, too. The alleys better not entered, the doors better not opened. The people one should take care not to cross. The ones a pretty girl should veer to the other side of the street to avoid. And, above all, how to tell the good from the bad out here. How to know when to trust a kind word—almost never—and when to run away. Right now she has him to watch out for her, but they’ll not be together forever. She needs to learn these things for herself.
It’s the best few weeks he’s had in a long, long while. Perhaps ever. Always solitary by nature, he’d never made friends after his family had moved to the States. Not true friends. He’d forgotten how good it feels.
And then Gypsy gets sick. Something she ate, perhaps, although they share everything and his stomach is fine. She gets paler and paler. She can keep nothing down at all, and when they’re out on the streets she has often to run off and puke in an alley. He’s beginning to get worried and to wonder if he should drag her to the free clinic in the Haight when, in the half light of one early morning, she comes out with it.
“Timber. I’m pregnant.”
He’s in the middle of mixing up food for the kitten. His hands pause in their work; he should have known. He saw the signs in his own mother often enough. Not for years, true. But enough he should have been able to give them a name.
“I…. Uh. I’m not sure.”
He thinks, Do you know nothing about your own body? But he keeps his voice level. It takes an effort.
“When did ye bleed last?” She doesn’t answer. He turns around and sees her blank expression. “Your last period? When was it?”
Her face goes red and she looks at the floor. She’s never discussed her intimate functions with a boy. Considering her history, she may never have discussed them at all.
And now it’s April. Four months. Moving with exquisite care, he finishes mixing the cat food and sets it on the floor. Stands up. Faces her.
“Ye should hae told me before this.”
She flinches. They’ve hung together long enough that she understands what it means when she hears his burr thicken.
“I wasn’t sure.”
“I hoped I was wrong.”
“Ye’ve been here a month, Gypsy.” He’s still speaking quietly, infusing the words with pointed calm. In truth, he’s as angry with himself as with her. Living as close as they have been, he should have noticed when she didn’t bleed. “Ye must hae kent something before this.”
“I…” Flustered, she looks at the ceiling, at the mattress, at the walls, anywhere but at him. “All right, I thought I probably was! It’s why I left home, okay? Because my dad gave me a present the last time he fucked me!”
“Ye should have stayed there. I expect Daddy would have bought you an abortion.”
Her face goes dead white. “That is the stupidest thing you’ve ever said.”
“So I’m stupid now, am I? Ye’ve thought me smart enough the last month I’ve been helping ye survive.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re stupid!” Somehow she’s on her feet, screaming at him. “Do you really think I could tell my dad what he did to me? He’d never cop to it, never! If I was lucky he’d beat me bloody for whoring around and then he would have forced me to have it!”
“Well, you’re going tae have tae have it anyway!” He shouts right back at her. “You’re too far along tae put a stop tae it! If ye’d told me right off we could have found a way, but it’s too late now! Too late because ye wasted time hoping it wasn’t true!”
“I won’t have it! I’d rather die!”
“Ye might well die anyway! And it’ll not be an easy death! I’ll not help ye do something daft!”
“Fine!” She heads for the door. “I’ll find someone who will, then. I expect Teena can…”
Before she can finish he strides after her, catches her arm. The working girls do have their ways, he knows. He doesn’t want Gypsy exposed to any of them.
“I’ll not have you do any such thing.”
Her voice is deadly. “It’s none of your business.”
“Haven’t I fed ye, then? Haven’t I kept ye safe and taught ye what’s what?”
“It doesn’t mean you own me!”
They stare at each other. She’s right, so right. He has no claim. If he’d put the child in her, perhaps, but he didn’t; they’ve never been together that way, never wanted that comfort from each other. It would have made things easier if he had, because then she wouldn’t be so far along. Likely enough she wouldn’t yet know and they wouldn’t be having this fight.
“Let go of me.”
Releasing her, he scrubs his hand over his forehead, through his hair. He can see only one way of stopping her risking a visit with the bloke the whores use, and that’s to help her. Somehow.
“I won’t have it, Timber. I can’t.” She’s whispering now. He can see the beginnings of tears in her eyes.
“Aye. Aye, I ken it.” He pulls her into his chest, strokes her back. “We’ll find a way. It’ll be all right.”
To calm down a bit, they go to breakfast at a cheap diner over on Polk Street. Money’s tight, but he figures they both need it. He has to get some decent fuel in him before his brain will be up to making a plan, and Gypsy…. Gypsy needs to keep her health up to meet whatever is coming. Which means no dumpster diving for the time being. She’s already thinner than she ought to be.
After, they hitch over to Berkeley. In his rambles—in the time before Gypsy, which seems so long ago—he found a Planned Parenthood clinic there, not thinking he’d ever need it. But the location stuck with him, and it seems a good place to start. To his relief, no one asks any awkward questions neither of them wants to answer. It seems they have a good idea why two young people might want to keep secrets about an unintended pregnancy.
They sit holding hands in a waiting room full of bowls of condoms and leaflets about the dangers of venereal diseases until someone calls Gypsy’s name. She doesn’t want him with her for the exam, so he sits for another half an hour, too agitated even to pretend to read a magazine.
The news is both good and bad. Good, because Gypsy’s not as far out of her first trimester as he assumed, so the procedure isn’t out of the question. Bad, because a D & E, which is the procedure they must use at this point, will cost three hundred dollars. It might as well be a thousand. They make an appointment for the next week anyway.
It’ll have to be busking, he thinks as they walk down Telegraph Avenue with their thumbs out, trying to snag a ride back across the bay. Pool is too chancy; he simply doesn’t have the skill, yet, to count on winning. But the weather is good and the weekend’s coming. The tourist spots will be crowded, and he already knows that he can get people to empty their pockets. Give him three days, perhaps four, and he can get what they need.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” Gypsy whispers as they make their way back to the squat in the growing twilight.
“Just take care of yourself. And no more talk about going to Teena for help.”
The next days are some of his most difficult since leaving Portland. He has too much to think about, too much to do. Both of them must eat somehow, and he’s determined Gypsy, at least, should eat well. He forces fruit on her, and cereal with milk, and meat when he can get it. He gives her everything they can afford, and finds his own meals in garbage cans. In the early mornings, they go together over to The Cannery, where he sings and drums until both throat and hands ache with exhaustion. He won’t let Gypsy out of his sight, but he can’t let her help him, either. She has a sweet enough voice, and they’ve tried duets before. But he learned early that a single man with a bright blue eye and a winning smile will find much more in his hat at the end of the day than a boy and a girl who might be a couple.
Nights, he lies awake with the girl curled on his one side and the kitten, now growing into a gangly adolescent, curled on the other, and burns. He’s not been with a woman since Gypsy came into his life, and he could never have predicted how much he would feel the lack. Turning down invitations he gets while busking gets harder with each passing day, but he wouldn’t feel right about leaving Gypsy to fend for herself while he cooled his lust, not even for an hour. He expects she’d accommodate him if he asked, but he will not ask. It wouldn’t be decent for him to put that on her. When it gets too much to bear, he creeps into the dirty stairwell and takes care of himself. Then he can sleep. And in the morning, there’s everything to do again.
His one comfort is the growing wad of bills in his pocket. Those bills mean food, and safety, and a solution to the problem the two of them share. At the end of each day, he gathers them out of his hat and smoothes them flat across his knee: lots of singles, a five or three, the rare larger bill from a woman with a roving eye who likes his looks. He gives Gypsy the change to look after; she carries it in a little purse she found in a second-hand shop in Chinatown. He expects she’s safe with it. But the major money is his responsibility. She’s still a girl, likely to become a target. He’s big enough it will take someone truly desperate to mess with him.
Of course, he’s forgotten how many desperate people live on the streets.
At last, late Sunday evening, they have what they need. For the first time since Gypsy told him of her condition, he feels as if he can breathe. Her appointment isn’t until Wednesday, but he expects he can keep them until then without falling short. They celebrate with tacos from a cart and a bus back to the Tenderloin because they’re both tired out. And maybe it’s because he’s tired, or because he’s weak with relief, that his guard slips, so that when the junkie steps out of an alley a mere block from the squat he hasn’t a clue what’s coming until he’s staring down the barrel of a gun.
“Gypsy.” He doesn’t take his eyes from the cold metal in front of him. “Run. Do it. Run away.”
He can’t look to see if she’s obeyed him. The gun fills his vision. It points at his chest, no more than two feet away, but it seems distant and small, a toy viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. The junkie’s hands are shaking, and he thinks, Fuck, the thing might go off whether he means it to or not.
“Hand it over,” the junkie says.
He risks a glance at the fellow’s face. It’s a bloke he’s seen about, a thin chap—but they’re all thin, aren’t they?—with lank greying hair and sores at the corners of his mouth. No one he’s ever considered a threat. Certainly no one he’d ever expect to be armed. If he’d thought about it at all, he would have said the bloke spent every cent he came across on what went into his veins, could never have scraped together enough at one time to buy a gun. Perhaps he stole it. But he doesn’t look like he has the stones. Robbing a defenseless lad has him quaking like a leaf with sweat popping out on his face. Some of that is needing a fix, but not all. So he’d be unlikely to steal from someone stronger and better armed. Perhaps he found it, then. Or stumbled on it somewhere and pocketed it on the sly. Its owner could have left it lying about a drug house while on the nod. Stranger things have happened.
The seconds stretch, every thought they contain as clear as a drop of pure water. The junkie waves the gun at him again, and the gesture, meant to be threatening, causes a surreal bubble of laughter to expand in his throat. He swallows it down. Laughing would be a bad idea.
“Hand it over!” the junkie demands a second time.
“Hand what over?”
“Your money, asshole!”
“What money would that be?” His eyes flicker back and forth between the gun and the fellow holding it, weighing and measuring. He’s several inches bigger than the junkie. Stronger too, he thinks, and in better condition. But a bullet would make nothing of any of that.
“I seen you and the chick. You come and go all the time, and you always got stuff. Struttin’ up the street like you own it. I gonna get me a piece of that. What you got, buy me some fine China White. Last me a while.”
The words trail off into an incoherent ramble, as if the bloke’s lost track of his purpose, and the gun drops a bit. He takes a step forward, and the gun jerks back up.
“Back off! Gimme your money or I’ll take it off your body!”
All the moisture evaporates from his mouth, leaving it with the texture of sandpaper. He busted ass for the bills in his pocket, and he has no intention of giving this filthy drug addict one red cent. Even if he didn’t need the money for Gypsy, he wouldn’t do it. Because then everyone would hear how the big lad with the pretty face had gone belly up the first time someone pressured him, and he’d be a target as long as he lived.
He’s been stupid, though, keeping all the cash on him. He thought it wiser than trying to hide it at the squat, but he was wrong.
The junkie’s hands are shaking worse than ever. Perhaps they’re shaking so hard he’ll not be able to pull the trigger. And still the gun looks so small. It seems it would be easy, simply to wrest it from the junkie’s grip and toss it aside. Such a tiny thing, with such a poor character behind it: surely it won’t be able to hurt him.
“I’m not going to give you anything,” he says, and takes another step forward, hand reaching to snatch the gun away.
A huge boom like the crash of thunder right overhead ruptures the sky. Something hits him hard, low on his right side. The next thing he knows, he’s on his knees, blinking stupidly down at the bright welling redness soaking his shirt. His hand finds the source of the color, warm and sticky, like honey that’s been near a fire.
He fucking shot me, he thinks, and falls onto his face. He feels no pain, only a kind of heaviness. Once, somewhere in a time that seems as remote as the memory of a dream, he read that you don’t feel the wound that kills you. Perhaps it’s true.
The notion that he might have got his death, here at the mouth of a stinking alley, hovers at the edge of his consciousness, vague and uninteresting.
Hands on his ankles drag him into the alley, accompanied by grunts of effort coming from over his head. He feels himself being turned onto his back, the better for the hands to rifle his pockets. They find his clasp knife and toss it aside. The clink of it hitting gravel is followed by a scattering of smaller sounds like the rattle of hailstones: the remainder of his pocket junk following the knife. The hands search his other pocket, find the wad of cash and withdraw. Rapid steps retreat down the alley, heading toward its other end.
Then everything goes dark for a time.
“Timber! Timber!” Someone screaming his name.
“Shit, what you bring me here for? That boy be dead meat.” A man’s voice, high-pitched, familiar. The timbre of it reminds him of pain.
“No, he’s not! He’s breathing. Timber!” Someone small tries to shake him; his head lolls on his neck, the back of it banging into the ground.
“I’m gone.” The man again. “I gots no time to be hanging in an alley so’s you can feel up a corpse.”
“You stay right there. We have a deal.”
“Bitch, your ass ain’t worth that much.”
“It’s the only way you’re getting a piece of it.”
The words float around him like soap bubbles on the point of bursting. Just as they seem about to make sense, someone slaps him across the face.
“Timber! Come on! You need to wake up!”
His eyes flutter open, and he sees a girl’s tear-streaked face quite close. He hunts for a name and, after a time, finds it.
“Gypsy….” He has something to tell her. Something important. “I lost…I lost the money.”
“Don’t worry about that. You need to get up. Come on, give me your hands.”
Small, strong fingers grip his. She drags on his arms, hauling him half upright. The alley whirls around him. He catches a glimpse of stained cement walls, rubbish and broken glass. A figure in yellow standing in the halo of light spilling from the street lamp beyond the alley’s mouth. Then the pain he hasn’t felt until now sets fire to his side, and he goes over.
“Timber! Stay with me!” Another shake, another slap. “Help me, dammit! I can’t get him up; he’s too big.”
“I ain’t gonna carry that boy and get blood all over me. This is a new suit.”
“You worthless piece of shit, you fucking help me or I swear to God I’ll kill you myself.”
“Bitch, I oughta bust your teeth for that!”
“Yeah? Then what? Word is you need fresh meat. I wouldn’t look so fresh with teeth missing.”
“You better learn your place when you work for me,” the man grumbles. But Gypsy must know what she’s talking about because soon bigger hands grab him and make him sit again. The arm on his good side is lifted and draped across a set of wiry shoulders.
“On your feet, Pretty Boy. I don’t get the bitch if you die here in the alley,” Dandy Sam says.
He’s up, swaying. Gypsy scoots to his injured side, gets under his other arm. They begin to drag him. He blinks from one to the other, the mean, dark pimp with the elaborately-styled curls on his left, the steel-souled waif on his right. The pieces of conversation he’s heard solidify in his head, filling him with horror.
“Gypsy…dinna make a devil’s bargain.”
He’s not sure whether he got the words out or whether he just thought them. The girl understands him, either way.
The shake of her head sends a jolt of agony all the way down his spine. Before he can protest, the pain takes him under once more.
* * *
Images in pieces. Now he’s lying on his back, his side ablaze, as if imps are pulling him apart with hot pincers.
“Roll him on his side in case he vomits.” A rough male voice he doesn’t know.
Someone shifts him, sets a compact warmth against his back. A sudden shock of cold air on his naked ass, then the prick of a needle in his hip, distinct from the agony elsewhere. He retches and gags, bile rising in his throat. In a bit the nausea ebbs, taking the pain with it. Hands prod him but he can’t feel them. Everything has become remote. Nothing tethers him: not his body, not his thought. Cares that have seemed so urgent no longer have an impact. Even the idea of his own death doesn’t disturb him. For the first time he can remember, his head is full of silence.
It’s the best thing he’s ever felt.
“He got clipped good, but it didn’t hit anything vital. Maybe nicked his liver. Hard to tell.” The rough voice again. “Went right through him, see? That’s good.”
Pressure on his skin. A tugging sensation.
“There was so much blood.” Gypsy, sounding frightened.
“Nah, nah. I seen way worse in ’Nam. He’ll be fine once I get him stitched up. Maybe he won’t be walking around for a day or two, but…” A wheezing laugh. “All for the best, right?”
Floating in soft darkness.
“Give him this for the pain and remember not to let him lie on his back. And you come see me tomorrow. Sooner we take care of your problem, sooner you can start paying off your debt.”
He thinks what he’s heard should upset him, but he can’t hold onto it.
A door slams. A girl lies down beside him and pillows his head on her shoulder. A cat curls behind his knees.
Sleep steals over him like soft-footed a thief. It robs him of all he is, leaving nothing, not even a dream to mark its passing.
* * *
The pain’s return rouses him toward morning. For a time he tries to bear it, pressing his lips together and telling himself it’s less than it was. With his mind clearer than it has been since the shooting, he has a good idea what the street doc gave him, and as good as it felt he doesn’t want to rely on it too much. As long as he doesn’t move, perhaps he can stand it. But the torment increases with the growing daylight, and at last he can’t help letting a grunt of discomfort escape.
Gypsy’s eyes fly open at once. “Are you hurting?”
He thinks about lying and doesn’t. “Aye, a bit.”
She crawls out of his line of sight. He hears the small sounds of her preparing another shot, and soon she returns, syringe in hand. Before she can stick him, he grabs her wrist.
“What is it?”
“Morphine.” A tremor in her voice. “The Medic gave me a bottle. Hospital grade, he said. It’s okay, he showed me how.”
He stares at the needle, wanting and not wanting the relief it will give. “Help me sit up.”
“I’d rather do it myself.”
“Timber, I can….”
“I’d rather do it myself, I said.”
She sets her mouth in a line, as if to refuse him. He glares at her until she sighs and lays the needle aside. With her help, gritting his teeth, he manages to sit and leans against the wall, sweat popping out on his forehead.
“Give it here.” He holds out his hand for the syringe. Still looking grim, she hands it over. “Vein or muscle?”
“Last night he stuck you in the butt.” She giggles, then sobers. “But he said the vein will work faster, if you need it.”
The idea of quick relief appeals, and he glances down at the bend of his elbow. His fingers flex; the vein pops, even without his arm being tied off. The sight sickens him.
“It’ll have to be the muscle.” Without giving himself time to think about it, he jabs the needle into his biceps. Depresses the plunger. Removes the needle and casts it aside. The muscle shot doesn’t take him the same way; there’s no nausea, and relief is slower to come. He concentrates on breathing, in and out, deep as he can stand. Gradually the remote sensation creeps over him and the pain of his wound ebbs. He takes a last deep breath, lets it out on a sigh, and closes his eyes.
“Better?” A cool hand brushes his hair back from his forehead.
“You’re warm. I think you might have a fever. I hope you don’t get an infection. There was all kinds of crap in that alley.”
“I’ll be all right.” He suppresses a shiver, not wanting to worry her. From helping with his siblings, he knows well enough that hot skin and chills are a bad combination. “Fetch me a shirt, will ye?”
She does, and he gets it on without too much trouble. Then she asks if he’s hungry. It takes a bit to convince her he isn’t. He needs to piss, though. She offers to bring him a bottle. He insists on going out to the stairwell despite her fear that he’ll tear his stitches, or pass out and she’ll not be able to get him back to the room. The walk down the corridor seems to take hours, and on the way back he has to lean on Gypsy’s shoulder. At last she gets him to the room and settles him on the mattress. The cat comes up to him, curious about his wound. He gives a lethargic scratch to its ears.
He’s staring at the door and thinking how he locked it before they went out yesterday, the way he always does, and how someone—Dandy Sam or one of his flunkies—must have picked it to get him inside. At another time this proof of his vulnerability would have bothered him. In the dreamlike haze of the morphine, it has ceased to matter. So much of the trouble in his life has come from things mattering to him. From caring too much about people, about events, about his own future. Forcing himself to fit into places that chafe his soul. Trying to be good. Even on the street, he’s tried to be good, be responsible. Be pleasant to people who don’t give two shits whether he lives or dies. And it almost got him killed.
Perhaps it would have been better if it had got him killed. He’s smart enough to know the detachment he feels now is from the drug. When it wears off, all the pressures will return. He’s not sure he can bear it. In a dim, distant way he hates himself for that weakness. But again, the morphine makes it hard to care.
He’s so tired of caring.
Gypsy clears her throat. “I have to go out for a while. Will you be all right?”
“Aye.” He knows where she’s going. Along with distance, the morphine has given him a kind of brutal clarity. He remembers the street doc telling her to come see him, to get “her problem” sorted out. Since he failed her, she’s had to take matters into her own hands. To save him from bleeding to death in that alley, she made a deal with Dandy Sam. Now she’s going for a dirty abortion, from someone who might or might not be qualified. Because he lost all their money. Because he couldn’t keep her safe. And he has nothing at all to say about it. He forfeited that right when he let the junkie get the better of him.
“Are you sure? I don’t know how long I’ll be.”
Her face is white with anxiety; she understands the risk she’s taking. He wants to tell her not to go, they’ll figure out something else. But he’s far away from her, and he can’t get the words across the gap.
“Aye. I’ll be fine.”
She finds the morphine bottle and the syringe, sets them within reach. Shows him the dose and how to clear the needle, things The Medic taught her while he was out. Kisses him on the cheek and gives the cat a last pat on the head. And then she’s gone.
Time oozes around him. For a while he measures it in the slant of light through the grimy window. Dust motes sparkle and swirl, lazy dancers. Without being aware of it, he nods off sitting. Wakes to Gypsy’s absence and the renewal of worry, the throbbing of the wound in his side a dull counterpoint to the pulse in his brain. More to silence his thoughts than because of the physical pain, he gives himself another shot, in the muscle again because a creeping disquiet warns him he likes this stuff too much and he can cling to the idea that a muscle shot is less dangerous, more clinical. Now he’s staring at the ceiling; he’s slid down the wall and stretched out on the mattress unknowing. Bile in his throat reminds him he’s not to lie on his back, and he manages to roll onto his side before nodding off once more.
When next he comes to, she’s back. He hears her moving about the room, lighting candles and feeding the cat, the sounds hesitant and heavy, as if she walks on knives. In the dim recesses of his brain he understands the reason for this, but not wanting to face it, turns aside. Soon she settles next to him, hissing with discomfort as she arranges herself at his back. At first he pretends to oblivion, but he can’t keep it up.
“How are you?” he asks the dark. “You were gone a long time.”
“All right.” Her shaky tone gives her words the lie. “He doped me up pretty good. But it took me a while to walk here, after.” A sigh. “I’m glad to be home.”
Home. The two of them and the cat curled on a dirty mattress in a stinking, abandoned hotel, candlelight making the room flicker and spin. Funny how, even here, a person can crave a place to call home, and find it the smallest things. A place to rest the head. The comfort of another body. A cat’s purr.
It takes him a moment to realize she’s crying. With an effort, he rolls over to face her, onto his bad side. The pressure on his wound causes him less pain than the sight of her face, pale and sad.
“I’m sorry.” She sniffles and wipes her nose on the back of her hand. Her voice is weaker than he’s ever heard it. “I had to…it had to be done. It was just so…but it’ll be okay. He’s helped a lot of Sam’s girls. Teena told me. I just need to sleep.”
Then she notices his position, and finds the strength to chide him. “Should you be lying that way? You might hurt yourself. Do you need…”
“Hush.” He strokes her hair away from her glistening eyes. “Never mind me. Lay your head and rest.”
He gathers her in with his arm. She nestles against him with a small sound of contentment. Home, the two of them together in this moment.
Though he means to stay awake to watch over her, he sleeps again, the morphine dragging him under like deep water. He drowns until daylight and the fire in his side rouse him. Gypsy is still and silent, turned a little away from him. Needing relief but not wanting to disturb her, he reaches across her for the morphine bottle. As he retrieves it, shaking and awkward with pain, his arm brushes across her.
“Sorry,” he says automatically, before realizing she hasn’t woken. Hasn’t moved.
His gut lurches, the way it has when he’s missed a step or when his feet have slid on unexpected ice. It’s nothing, he tells himself. She’s exhausted. She’s had a hard time of late, and yesterday….
The cat is crouched by her head, back stiff, eyes wide, unblinking.
Yesterday she got an abortion from someone who might or might not have been equipped to do the job safely.
Swallowing fear, pain forgotten, he lays his hand on her arm. Shakes her. Speaks her name, quietly at first, then, receiving no response, louder.
She flops onto her back. Her eyes stare at the ceiling, wide and unblinking as the cat’s.
He sees the dark stain soaking her skirt, soaking the mattress where she’s lain.
“Gypsy!” Shouting now. “No, fuck, no!” Shaking her again, feeling for a pulse in the blue-white column of her throat where no blood beats. It’s all run out of her to puddle on the bed they’ve shared, sticky and already clotting. Mad with terror and grief, he straddles her, breathes into the mouth he’s never kissed, pumps her frozen chest with hands that have only ever touched her as a brother. And even as he does so, he knows it’s useless, too little, too late. If she’d said, if he’d known last night, he could have done something. Found the strength to heal her, as he healed Jay back in Portland. But she kept her trouble to herself, if she even knew of it, and he was too stoned to see there was something wrong. Her soul isn’t hanging around, waiting for him to put it back. Sometime during the night it fled, freeing her from her short, troubled life in this world that eats innocents alive. As, of course, it would.
It’s his fault. He failed her.
A single jagged sob escapes him; he grinds the heels of his hands into his eyes, forcing it down. In the darkness behind his eyelids, something cold takes him by the throat. He levers himself off the body, noting in passing that his shirt is stained with his own blood as well as hers; he’s torn his stitches. It’s nothing to him. He straightens the cold limbs as best he can, covers her with their one tattered blanket. Rises, stumbling as his feet find the floor. Pain almost pulls him back down, and he clutches his side thinking, This is no good. I can’t function through this. I have to function.
He finds the morphine and the needle where he dropped them. The bottle is near empty, no more than a single dose remaining. He takes a half shot, enough to keep him going, not enough to put him out. Then he leaves the room and descends the stairs, floating into the dim, reeking light of a spring morning.
He doesn’t know where to go, but he knows who to ask. Halfway down the block he finds the transient hotel where Teena lives, climbs up to her flat. Knocks, praying she’s home. In a minute, the door opens a crack and her chocolate eyes peer out, suspicious. When she recognizes him, the door closes again, then opens wide.
“Hey, Pretty Boy. Shit, you look like hell.”
“Aye. I tore my stitches.” He doesn’t explain further. He expects she knows how he came by them. He expects everyone in the Tenderloin knows. “I need to find The Medic. Can ye tell me…?”
Teena drops her eyes to his bloody shirt, raises them back to his face. “Yeah, I can tell you. But you don’t look like you can make it that far. Boy, ask me, I don’t think you should be walking around yet at all.”
“I’ll do. Just tell me.”
Still frowning, she gives directions to the tenement The Medic calls his office, adding several places where the street doc hangs out when not at home. He nods and thanks her, turns to go.
“Hey, Pretty Boy.” Her voice halts him. “How’s your friend doing?”
He finds a wan smile and casts it her way. “Sleeping.”
For some reason, perhaps the drugs in his system, his voice doesn’t catch on the word.
It’s over a mile to the place Teena told him about, on Grant, almost to Chinatown. Ten minutes on a good day, but today is not a good day. His feet drag on the dirty pavement, and he keeps losing his focus, wanting to drop his body into a doorway and rest. Take refuge in sleep from the reality driving him. Then he remembers Gypsy stretched out dead in their squat. He thinks of her covering these same blocks alone, step by painful step, the act of walking perhaps causing the very damage that killed her. He thinks, The Medic should have known better than to let her, and rage fuels another stride or two before he starts to drift again. By the time he turns the last corner, the sun stands a good deal higher than it did when he set out, and he can’t quite think how it came there.
He hears The Medic before he sees him: the rough, wheezing voice belonging to the hands that stitched his wound, the same voice he remembers telling Gypsy to come get “her problem” sorted. It’s not speaking English, but some Asian language, and when he finds the right building, the fellow is sitting on the front stoop, smoking a cigarette and rattling away to an old man with almond eyes and golden skin. Telling a story, from the sound. The Medic’s hands describe pictures in the air, and the old man chimes in, laughing.
For a moment he stands there, watching the hands, the blue curl of smoke rising from the butt between The Medic’s lips. The hands have very long fingers, but the last two are missing from the one on the right, and the middle finger is a mere stub. He thinks of speaking, but the words die in his throat, as if the hands have hypnotized him, commanded him to silence. Another long minute passes, with the two men on the stoop unaware of his presence. Then he gives his head a shake and coughs. The two men glance up, and The Medic’s story trails off into silence. Eyes the color of chicory blossoms fix on him without recognition.
“Whaddya want, kid?”
The Asian man grunts something. The Medic lowers his gaze. Sees the blood and understands. The eyes flash, sharp and angry.
“Holy Christ, kid, what the fuck are you walking around for? Don’t you got the brains God gave birds? You coulda killed yourself.”
Still, he can’t bring himself to speak. With a curse, the Medic grinds out his smoke on the step and rises. Takes him by the arm.
“Well, you’re here. Better take you in and patch you up again.”
A tug on his shirt sleeve and he’s walking, up the steps and down a dark corridor to a flat at the back that smells of alcohol and lemons, and something smoky and herbal he can’t identify. The Medic steers him through the front room and into another off the tiny closet of a kitchen. Makes him sit on a cracked vinyl-covered table that looks like it must have been part of a real doctor’s office long ago. Perhaps the same table where the fellow did what he did to Gypsy.
And suddenly, he isn’t sure why he has come there. The place isn’t what he expected. It’s clean and cared-for, as much as it can be; the street doc has done the best he can with what he has. The man isn’t what he expected, either. His jeans and army-issue jacket are worn, his hair and beard untrimmed, but he also is cleaner than many in this life, and his hands and voice, though rough, are kind. What happened to Gypsy didn’t happen through negligence, or even inexperience—he knows it as surely as if an angel trumpeted it into his ear. It happened because sometimes things just happen.
“Take your shirt off, kid,” The Medic demands, and when he does, takes a long look at the wound, both entry and exit, and frowns.
“Yeah, you got some stitches need fixed. But it looks clean, and it ain’t enough to account for all that blood on your shirt.”
At last he finds his voice. “It’s not all mine.”
The Medic straightens up slowly, a question in his eyes.
“It’s Gypsy’s.” Blinking away the image of her still form stretched on the mattress, he takes refuge in numbness. It doesn’t come easily; the drug is wearing off. He should have taken more. “She…she died, in the night.”
The eyes sharpen, as does the man’s tone. “What did you do with her?”
He’s too tired to take offense at the question, too drained for curiosity. “Nothing. Left her at the squat.”
Swearing, The Medic runs to the window. Throws it open and sticks his head out, craning his neck. Shouts what sounds like a hail, followed with a long string of words in that foreign language. A reply drifts up on the breeze. Presently, The Medic shuts the window and returns. He offers no explanation, just opens a cupboard, finds sutures and a curved needle, and sets to work repairing the damage to his patient’s side.
“Damn shame,” the man mutters after a while. “But it happens.”
“You killed her.” His voice cracks, making him sound about ten years old. “She came to you for help and you killed her.”
The Medic makes no reply, but finishes with his task. Knots the last stitch and thrusts the bloody shirt back into his patient’s hands.
“That should hold, but for Christ’s sake, don’t strain yourself. You want to end up like your girlfriend? Now go on, get out of here. You need another pain shot to get you home?”
He doesn’t move. “I came here to kill you.”
The words hang in the air, childish and pathetic. He isn’t at all surprised when The Medic snorts in amusement.
“Yeah, with your bare hands and high on dope. Course, I’ve seen junked-up people kill folks before. Both here and in ’Nam. Usually they’re armed, though.”
His eyes drop for a moment to the wound he’s just stitched. Then he sighs, giving his head a slow shake, and wipes his hands on his thighs before turning his back and walking away. A battered dresser stands beside the window; The Medic hitches his butt onto it and folds his arms on his chest.
“You ain’t been in this life long, have you, kid.” It’s not a question.
Another snort of amusement. “I’m surprised you made it so long. But you got a pretty face.” The man shrugs. “I guess it might help. I guess maybe people might look after you.”
It stings, and he starts to protest: no one’s looked after him. He doesn’t need them to. Then he thinks of the women who pick him up, and the whores who treat him like a little brother. Of Dandy Sam, who broke his nose but didn’t kill him. Even of Gypsy, the hard edge and no-nonsense attitude that came out when he was shot. He holds his peace.
“You gotta learn to pick your battles, ’stead of running around half-cocked. Be smart. Me, I’m not a good target. Too many folks need my services. Including you. Now put your shirt on and run along.”
He drags the filthy garment over his head, wincing as the wound pulls. Seeing it, The Medic grunts, drops off the dresser, and rummages in the cupboard again. Comes to his side holding a syringe.
“I dinna need that.”
“If you want to make it back to the Tenderloin under your own steam, you do.”
The chicory eyes hold him in place until he gives in. The Medic doesn’t say what’s in the syringe, and he doesn’t ask, but he knows it’s not morphine. Whatever it is takes care of the pain, but doesn’t fill him with the dreamy remoteness of a narcotic. Instead, he gets a boost of energy and everything takes on sharper lines, as if the world is carved out of crystal. He hops off the table feeling awake and alert, as if he could run all the way back to his squat and keep running until he outdistances his troubles and loses his nightmare life in the dust of his passing.
As he reaches the door, The Medic says,
“Just a heads up, kid. Your girlfriend owed Dandy Sam. Now she’s gone, he’ll be wanting his price. Death don’t pay no debts out here.”
He pauses to glance back over his shoulder. “What about you?”
The Medic lifts his shoulders and lets them fall. “Dandy Sam hired me to fix you. I’ll do the job he paid me for. But I ain’t gonna patch you up forever, so stop being a damn fool and get on back where you belong.”
Back where he belongs. On the way to the Tenderloin, flying on whatever shit The Medic pumped into him to keep him on his feet, he wonders where that is. He’s done all right here, kept himself afloat better than most. But he’s beginning to see the ragged edge of the way he’s been living, how one false step can lead to a fall. How the cocky assurance of youth and good looks betrayed him into thinking this life is other than it is. How he never believed, deep in his soul, that anything bad could happen to him. Before he took a bullet. Before Gypsy.
So what? Go back to Portland and throw himself on his parents’ mercy? Spend a few months in juvenile detention and promise to straighten up and fly right? He thinks about walls, and bending to senseless convention, putting a slick part in his hair and a neat crease in his jeans and trying to blend in, and he knows he can’t do that, either. So, what?
He climbs the stairs to his squat without paying attention, starting to come down now and feeling broken and tired. Opens the door at the end of the hall and goes inside. The cat rushes across the room and scales his leg. He detaches it and gathers it into his arms. Its thoughts are all in a whirl with nothing in them he can turn into sense, so he stands there for a bit, scratching its head to calm it. Then his eyes fall on the spot his mattress used to occupy, the spot where he left Gypsy’s body, and he realizes that both mattress and body are gone. Someone came for them while he was over at The Medic’s place. He remembers the man shouting out the window in that foreign language, and he understands. No one would want the wrong people to find the body of a girl who died from a botched, illegal abortion. So The Medic got a message to someone who could deal with the problem, and that someone came here and took Gypsy, and all evidence of her death, away.
It’s for the best, he supposes. He wouldn’t have had the first idea what to do with her. And perhaps it’s a kindness he doesn’t deserve, to have been spared another sight of her lying there.
The cat lets him know it hasn’t been fed since night, so he sets it on the floor and follows it to the chipped cup and saucer Gypsy salvaged from some dumpster to hold its food and water. The gallon jug they fill every day at a tap in the alley still has some liquid in it; he tips it into the cup. Finds a jar of baby food half full and mixes it with cheap kitten kibble from the grocery on the corner. Even when they couldn’t feed themselves, they made sure the cat had enough to eat.
As he watches the creature dive into its meal, something warm trickles down his face into his beard. He wipes it away, trying not to sniffle. The turn of his head brings his eyes to the board and brick table on the floor nearby, beside the empty space where the mattress once lay. The morphine bottle and syringe are right where he left them in the morning. The people who came for Gypsy didn’t rob him. Or perhaps, with a job to do, they simply didn’t see it.
He scoots to the table on his butt. Picks up bottle and syringe and draws the last shot. Needle between his teeth, he rolls up his sleeve. The vein inside his elbow pops with a flex of his fingers, just as it did before.
He shoves the needle in.
A rush of wings in his head and a sudden sickness in his gut. A moment of retching.
Then, merciful blankness.
The next day, he gathers his knapsack over one arm and the cat into the other and moves back down the hall, to the squat he used when first he arrived. A portion of his life has ended with Gypsy’s death, and he can’t bear to stay in the same room they once shared. Nor can he find it in himself to care that the door to the new-old place is warped and doesn’t close properly, or that obscene graffiti covers the walls, or that someone else has used the room and left behind the stinks of pot smoke and vomit and urine. It’s shelter, and there’s a pile of long-ago salvaged sofa cushions relatively free of reek where he can lay his head. He doesn’t ask for more.
The cat doesn’t much like it, though. It’s spent most of its short life in a single room with familiar smells. For the first hour it prowls its new surroundings stiff-legged, fur on end, hissing at shadows in corners and skittering crabwise away. At length it settles, curling onto one of the cushions. Its ears twitch at sudden noises, but it’ll be all right.
He’s not so sure about himself.
The lack of morphine itches him; he wishes he hadn’t run through it so fast. He didn’t use it long enough to develop a physical habit, but he misses the quiet in his mind, the distance that gave him the ability to take things one at a time, instead of every little thing crowding his brain at once. His wound still hurts him, too. Every time he moves too quickly, without thought; every misstep makes him gasp and clench his teeth against the pain. He supposes it’s the body’s reminder that it’s been damaged and he should take it easy for a time, rest and heal. The problem is, he can’t. He still has to live, somehow. Still has to scrounge, to stand on the corner in the April rain with his hand out, begging passers-by for change. It becomes more and more difficult. He’s lost his winning smile, and he hasn’t the energy for banter. He doesn’t look as pretty as he once did, either. Catching sight of himself in a shop window, he sees how thin he’s grown and how dirty, how lank and ragged are his hair and beard. When he busked, he could always count on some woman or other letting him clean up, but he hasn’t busked since the mugging. The walk to the waterfront is beyond him. He can’t shoot pool, either. Once or twice he tries, but the wound in his side makes using his right arm painful and he can’t hold the cue steady.
Mostly, he panhandles enough to keep the cat fed and to buy himself a sandwich every once in a while. He spends the remaining hours of the day lying on the pile of cushions in the new squat, considering his options. Because, like it or not, he can’t go on this way. Something has to change.
Perhaps it’s time to give up and go home.
It would be better for the cat. He does the best for it that he can, but it’s a Tom and won’t be content in a single room much longer. If he can’t get it fixed, it will want to roam. And roaming cats don’t last long around here.
He’s not sure how long he can last around here, himself. So far, Dandy Sam hasn’t come looking for what he thinks he’s owed, but one day he will. He’ll take it in flesh if he can’t get it any other way.
Perhaps he should make one more try at being good, at fitting in. Perhaps if he sets his mind to it he can make it stick this time.
He’s all but decided that yes, he’ll scrounge up the money for bus fare—because he doesn’t think he’ll have much luck hitching the way he looks now, and because even at this point he can’t bring himself to call his father collect from a pay phone. So, he’s all but decided to go back to Portland when he runs into a junkie in the stairwell.
The same junkie who shot him.
Almost, he pushes on past. Yet something, some indistinct energy, makes him pause and lift his head. Even then, he doesn’t see it right away. Just another junkie, The Tenderloin is full of them, so full they all look the same, with the same stringy muscles and the same lank hair. The women indistinguishable from the men.
But this junkie flinches away with a spark of fear in his eyes, and that spark tells him everything.
Before he knows what he’s doing, he slams the junkie up against the stairwell wall, one hand digging into his shoulder, one arm across his throat. It isn’t hard. There’s nothing to the man, and though he’s lost weight he’s still the stronger. Plus, rage has sent a surge of red electricity from his heart to his brain, and it gives him power. After the drag of the last weeks, he didn’t think he had such rage left in him.
“Ye fuck! What d’ye mean coming here? Did ye think I’d never see you? Or did ye think to rob me again?”
The words are the snarl of a demented beast, all but incomprehensible. His mind fills with one idea: if not for this bastard, Gypsy would still be alive. He pushes hard against the trapped throat, and the junkie begins to gasp and whimper.
“Please, man! It wasn’t me! Look, I got shit.” One hand flails at a pocket and snags a dirty baggie of brown stuff. “Take it! Take everything! Just don’t kill me, all right?”
He grabs the wrist waving in his face and squeezes. The baggie falls to the ground. He kicks it aside.
“I dinna want your filth. D’ye believe ye can pay me for what ye did?”
“It wasn’t my fault! I just did what he told me! Man, you’re alive, aren’t you? Let up, I can’t breathe!”
Sense begins to penetrate his fury. “What ‘he’ told ye? Who?”
“That pimp. Dandy Sam. He had eyes on your girl.” The words tumble over one another, urgent and garbled. “He was looking for someone to put you out of the way. I figured, a green kid, it’ll be an easy score.”
A moment of absolute stillness stretches between them before the truth hits like a sucker punch to his gut. He staggers backward, dropping his arms, head spinning. The junkie, freed, scurries away down the steps without looking back. He barely notices. The next stair catches him behind the calves and he sits down, hard.
Set up. Dandy Sam set him up. And he didn’t ever see it coming.
After a time, he gets to his feet and continues up to his squat. There’s something in his hand: the balloon of Mexican Tar the junkie dropped. He must have picked it up without thinking. It falls from lax fingers onto the plank and board table as he crosses the room; he hasn’t any attention for it now.
For a long time he lies on his pile of cushions, staring at the ceiling. The cat comes to curl on his chest; he strokes it without paying it any mind. He thinks of all the things he’s seen in his six months on the streets. The things he’s learned. The things he once knew, but forgot during the month he played house with Gypsy. The danger of caring. The way some will use it as a wedge to pry you open to your soft core. He used to understand the dominance games. He used to know the most important rule: if someone cuts you, cut them right back and don’t stop until they’re on the ground.
It’s what sent him here, after all.
The next day, he speaks to the fellow who runs the newsstand on Turk Street. After, he heads over to the Greyhound Depot and feeds a pocketful of change into the coin-operated shower. When he gets out, he takes stock of himself. Not as bad as he feared, be he still needs to build himself up before his looks will get him far. Decent food will go a long way; he needs to stop eating out of dumpsters. The hard work will be in regaining his charm, the inviting twinkle in his eye.
With a pair of pliers he found in the gutter, he pulls the stitches out of his side. The wound healed better than he had any right to expect. And it’s likely that women will find the scar fascinating.
On the way home, he speaks to the fellow at the newsstand again.
He goes back to busking in the tourist spots. The first few days are terrible. Covering the distance to the waterfront leaves him scant energy for performing. He has trouble putting his heart into the music, and his voice is rough from being so long away. Still, he takes in enough to feed himself, with some left over to stop at the Salvation Army for a whole pair of jeans and a couple faded shirts good for a month or two of wear. Being able to change his clothes gives him a boost he sorely needs, and in the next days he does better. At the end of the week, he catches the eye of a busty redhead who offers to trim his hair. He pleases her enough that she cooks him breakfast in the morning.
In between times at the Cannery, he works on his pool game, haunting joints in disparate neighborhoods so no one gets to know him too well. Busking is all very well, but it takes too long to bring in the cash he needs. Because he’s young and inexperienced, and pretending besides to be eager and stupid, he can count on old hands buying him games. They teach him more than they intend. Within a short time he’s winning more than he’s losing, and he starts to bet, cautiously and not very often. The first time he rakes in a hundred for a game, he thinks, A man could make a living at this. But for him it’s no more than a useful skill. A means to an end, and sometimes a way to let off steam.
He doesn’t keep his money on him anymore; he’s learned better. Early on he built a niche in the floor of the new squat, working the boards until he made the seam invisible. His worst times come when he has to carry his take home, walking through dark streets with a bulging pocket. Until it’s safely cached he can’t draw an easy breath. But he’s lucky, and no one robs him again.
And as always, three times a week Dandy Sam comes around to check on his girls, collect his cut, and look for new prospects. He watches the pimp from a distance, and watches the pimp watching him. Noticing the way he carries himself, the brittle gloss he’s worked to develop. The way eyes follow him, both women’s and men’s.
Aye, he thinks. Any time now. Any time, you’ll remember you paid for this body and no one ever paid you back.
In the first week of May, he asks for a particular magazine at the stand on Turk Street. The news-seller retrieves it from behind the counter and hands it over in a plain brown wrapper. He pays three dollars and walks away, forgetting the bag from the doughnut shop he had set aside while examining the wares.
The next part is the hardest. He explains it to the cat, and the creature understands, but he can’t help feeling awful about it. On an afternoon in the middle of the week, when he knows she won’t be working and will have had her sleep out, he knocks on Teena’s door. She opens it right away, as if she’s been expecting him.
“Pretty Boy.” A long, long look, up and down. “You look good. All healed up?”
“Aye. May I come in? I’ve a favor to ask.”
Her eyes narrow. “You can ask it here.”
“I’m wondering…” He clears his throat, reluctant to speak the words and put another piece of his life behind him. “I’m wondering if ye can take my cat.”
“Your cat.” Whatever she expected him to ask, it wasn’t that.
“Aye. I’ve things to do and…” He blinks, and his voice catches. “I canna look after him nae mair.”
She sighs and rolls her eyes. “Pretty Boy, I ain’t got time for no cat.”
“He’s nae trouble. Just, if ye could give him a place to stay, look after him a bit…he’s a comfort, sometimes.”
To his horror, he starts to cry, tears he hasn’t had time to shed trickling down his face in silent rivers. And he never meant to manipulate Teena, but it does what his words didn’t. She throws up her hands in surrender.
“All right, all right. Damn, I never could stand to see a strong man broken up. Fine. I s’pose I could use some company. Bring him on around. Does he have a name?”
“Milo,” he sniffles, remembering Gypsy answering the same question. “Thank you.”
So that’s taken care of. He collects Milo, and the bits and pieces he’s accumulated for the creature over time—the dishes, a couple old shirts with a familiar scent, a toy he fashioned out of fluff and string, half a bag of kibble—and hands them off to the whore the same evening. Milo takes to his new home right away, and Teena, despite a practiced frown, seems to like him, too. He leaves them exchanging confidences and goes back to his empty room.
And now he has nothing to do but wait.
The time comes sooner than he wished and not soon enough. On a warm Saturday night three days later, he’s walking down Ellis on his way to nowhere in particular when a skinny black man in a lime green suit falls in beside him.
“Pretty Boy,” says Dandy Sam. “We got some unfinished business.”
“Aye?” He has to work to keep his voice level. Now the moment’s here, he’s uncertain. The palms of his hands break out in a slick sweat. Pretending unconcern, he thrusts them into his pockets. “What business would that be?”
“Your girlfriend promised to pay me back for getting you fixed up when you got shot.”
“Ye mean, when ye paid that junkie to shoot me. I dinna believe ye got your money’s worth there, ken. Was I supposed to survive?”
The pimp doesn’t break stride. “Woulda been easier if you didn’t. It woulda left that poor little girl all alone. But then she up and died.” He sounds affronted, as if Gypsy did it on purpose. “And I never got what she owed me. Pretty Boy, I done left you alone six months. But lately I got to thinking you could turn me a profit. Lots of folks might pay for a fine ass like you got. And I think I own that ass. Me having dragged you out of that alley and all.”
They’ve come to a vacant lot full of trash and rubble from a building that got torn down in some past no one remembers. It’s as good a place as any. And having arrived, he’s no longer nervous. Emotions have run out of him like water from a broken glass, and all he has left is a single, focused intent.
“Ye put me in that alley,” he says. “And Gypsy died because of it.”
Dandy Sam affects not to hear. “It’s not a bad life, working my string. A pretty boy like you can go places.”
He thinks of what Sam does to the girls who don’t earn out their keep and goes cold all over. Not a bad life. A few months ago such a bald lie would have sent him into a rage. But rage won’t serve him anymore.
“Well, I’ll give you a couple days to think things through.” The pimp smiles like a feral dog. He has a small diamond set into one of his front teeth. “But I’m gonna have what I’m owed, one way or another.”
“I dinna need a few days. I’ll not work for you, Sam.”
The smile turns into a threat. “Then we gots us a problem, Pretty Boy.”
“No. We don’t.”
His hand goes to the small of his back for the Saturday Night Special he’s been carrying under his shirt since the news dealer sold it to him. When he pulls it out, Dandy Sam stares for a minute. Then he laughs.
“You ain’t thinking you gonna shoot me!”
“Aye. I am.”
He pulls the trigger. The bullet, a .38, makes a small hole going into the pimp’s cheek just beneath his left eye and a much bigger one coming out the back of his head. He waits just long enough to watch the body fall backward, a look of astonished amusement fixed on its face. Then he turns and walks away, not in any hurry. In this neighborhood, no one rushes to investigate the sound of a gun, the police least of all. For all the law cares, he could pop all the pimps in the world. They’d likely count it a favor.
* * *
In the way of things here, everyone knows and no one tells. It doesn’t make much difference. A few days after, another pimp takes charge of Sam’s girls and business goes on. No one troubles the big young man with the pretty face. He carries something strange in his eyes, and people start to give him a wider berth than they had before.
One day, Teena comes by to ask if he wants his cat back. He tells her Milo is better off where he is.
He’s out all the time, sometimes busking, sometimes haunting the bars where the good pool games are, every night with a different woman. They seem to find him more attractive than ever, as if killing a man has given an extra spice to his scent and they can’t get enough. But no matter how many take him home, no matter how many hours he spends pleasing and being pleased, he can’t get warm. They tell him his body is like a furnace, and still he feels the chill in his soul.
He can’t rest. Shooting Dandy Sam doesn’t haunt him, not exactly. It was something he needed to do, and he did it. But in the rare times he returns to his squat, thinking to grab a few hours of sleep, he can’t settle. The old feeling of being too large for his own skin sets him pacing, looking for a way out, a release. He takes to walking the streets at all hours, returning exhausted only to lie awake watching the plaster flake from the walls.
It’s one such night, a month from his fifteenth birthday, that he finds the balloon of Mexican Tar he took off that junkie. For a while he fingers it, remembering the relief of the morphine when he was shot. Wondering if he wants to go down that road. He knows well enough where it ends. But he can’t go on as he is.
Just the once, he tells himself. Just one night of comfort. Of warmth. Of peace.
It’s the same lie junkies have been telling themselves since time began.
He still has the syringe. It’s there on the plank and brick table in a jumble of odds and ends. It seems like fate, that he never got around to throwing it away.
He knows how it’s done. The ball of heroin in a spoon he picked up somewhere, because he’s always pocketing random objects that might be useful later. Water from a bottle he keeps handy. Cooking it over a lighter until the junk dissolves and the liquid bubbles. Almost before he notices, he’s drawn it into the needle. As if he’s already in that distant, dreamlike space. As if he’s done it a thousand times before.
The prick of the vein and the rush of blood to his head. Swallowing the urge to vomit. And, finally, the plunge into soothing dark. Into the void. In the last moment, he knows he’s gone so deep it will be years before he breaks the surface again.
If he ever does.