Unapologetic

“I’m sorry about the fight.”

“Yeah. I know. Me too.”

They sat in companionable, relieved silence for a minute.

“It’s just that it’s your fault.”

“What? You started the argument.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Okay. If you say so.”

“Whatever. It’s not like it really matters.”

“Sure. Of course not.”

They sat in spiky, broiling silence for a minute.

“I have to go.”

“Bye.”

“Yeah. Bye.”

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Maybe

It was Tuesday that it happened. Or actually, maybe it was Thursday. I know it definitely wasn’t Sunday though. Anyway, it was sometime in the morning and I had just gotten out of the house. I saw Mr. Rowland when I was walking down the street, and he waved at me. Or Mrs. Rowland. One of them had the little girl trailing along like a little piece of cotton, caught on an adult’s hand and dragging a bit on the snarls in the road. Megan, I think her name is, right? She waved at me with her free hand in kind of a desperate grab at the air, though I think I’m a stranger to her. I waved, saluted back in a way I guess.

I didn’t see anyone else I knew til I got to the school to pick up Patrick, early, because he was sick. He had a headache. Or a stomachache. Wait, no, I definitely saw Ellen running home with all her grocery store bags slung over her arm. She always walks, because the store’s only a block away–two blocks–and then she piles herself with cans and bags and hobbles home, trying to get everything unloaded before she strains something. She was so harried and shiny that she didn’t even kiss me on the way, just gave a bit of a nod. Though she might’ve said something.

When I got to the school, there must have been at least two police cars in the lot, their lights all flashing. Four cars. Lots of police officers. They were all milling about like ants swarming on something sweet. You could practically see their mandibles clicking. Do ants have mandibles? Anyway, I edged past them and tried to go inside, and someone stopped me, a policeman. A policewoman, and she said–he said, “Excuse me, this is a crime scene. We can’t let you past.”

I felt the ground waver under me and I said, in a voice gone high with fright, “You don’t understand, my son is inside. I have to get in. You have to let me in, my kid’s in there. Please.”

She shook her head, but she was uncertain. I said “Please,” again and she turned to ask. I ran in, like I was sneaking in, my heart pounding too fast and my brain blurred with panic. I shoved through the doors and ran, and my feet pounded as fast as my heart down the linoleum hallways of the school. I could hear the buzz of voices in some nearby corridor, down the English wing. Or math. It must’ve been science, actually, I think I remember the wasp wings or frogs and skulls or whatever it is in lacy tufts and clunks of bone, all caught in jars that lined the shelves running down the hall.

I rounded a corner and there was a whole gaggle of people crowded around a body on the floor, my god there was blood streaking the cheerful dull tiles and limbs crooked and there was Patrick’s face in the crowd peering over and my god, my heart skidded and thumped and then picked up its ragged rhythm. I thought all my bones might just let go and clatter on the floor. He saw me and he ran to me. He elbowed his way through the crowd of kids and teachers and the shrill words, “Everyone, it’s okay, he’s going to be fine, it was an accident. Back up–Sarah get back right now or you are staying in detention for a week. Back up.” Patrick landed in my arms and I don’t know what they were all saying or what the other kids were doing or what was happening with the kid on the floor or the cops who were filtering through, saying things like “The ambulance is on its way, ma’am, has someone heard from his parents?”

My kid’s arms were locked around my neck and he was shaking a little, just a tiny shuddering in his shoulders, and I held him while he tried not to cry and I felt so immensely hugely scared and relieved and certain, for a moment, that holding onto Patrick meant everything was going to be okay. I remember that.

Richard Thinks About Everybody

Did you ever think about what it would be like if you were a thirty-seven-year-old man named Richard who lived in Queens and who spent most of his time with his aging terrier? Probably not. Nobody thinks about Richard. Richard thinks about you, though. Richard thinks about everybody.

He likes to sit at his window, the chair pulled right up to the wall so that his legs are caught right beneath the sill, with the cold threatening at his knees. He stares out of the window at the rows of houses and the street leading around a corner until he can’t see it any longer. The odd passerby bustles or ambles or teeters down the block, and Richard watches them go. He can’t stop thinking about people. He looks at the old woman walking her shopping cart down the sidewalk, one deliberate concrete square at a time. He knows that her name is Maria and she is going to pick up some eggplant at the store, because it was Joseph’s favorite meal and so she still makes it every year on his birthday and for one solid moment she can close her eyes and pretend he’s taking a bite too. She can almost hear him curse when the cheese burns his tongue, like it always does, because he is too eager and eats before it cools. The moment when she has to open her eyes and realize that she is alone in her house with too much food for one person crushes her every time. It’s almost worth it for the long minute when she can pretend, once a year.

Richard doesn’t just think about the people he sees on the street. He thinks about everyone. He thinks about the young woman, Anna, who kisses her lover before she gets on the train out of Chicago, and she doesn’t let herself cry for a long time because he doesn’t know she isn’t coming back. Richard thinks about the man who picks up fast food burgers for his kids on the way home and watches them eat, their tiny ferocity, and feels a dull ache that he knows must be love. Richard thinks about the sisters who live on opposite sides of the country and waver, every week during their scheduled catch-up phone call, between the bitter biting slips they let their tongues make for them, and the wistful sound that slides along their words when they talk about their father. Richard thinks about everyone, you see. He just likes to sit at the window, because then he can focus on the people in front of him instead of all the ones far away.

Sometimes there is a group of children on the street. They walk solemnly and hold hands with an adult, who always looks harried. More often, though, they are free of grown-ups and they waft down the street, wandering and scudding with the wind. Their voices wind up to Richard where he sits watching on the second floor, and he breathes in the relief of children. They are so much easier to imagine. The tall one, Richard watches him, his name is Daniel. His curly hair is always flopping in his eyes but he has trouble sitting still for long enough to let his mother trim it. He wants to be the leader of the group, but he knows that Frankie isn’t about to start being quiet, so his voice won’t get heard. He’s resigned to that. He’s still better than Frankie at soccer and hockey too, so when they play in the streets he’s king for a brief beautiful time.

Richard doesn’t really mind that he has to think about everyone. There are some stories he likes among all the mess that is everyone. It is a little calmer to stare out his window at the people scurrying about under the steel sky and listen to their lives, the sound of it muted past the glass. When he puts dinner in the microwave or makes his morning cup of coffee, he is overwhelmed.

There are too many people to think about. He thinks about the baby being born in Switzerland and the twin brothers, in some tropical country he’s never heard of, who race to the tops of trees. He thinks about Lila and Peter and José and Tim and Nicole, Rebecca and Greta and Roger, Max and Hope and Josh and Francisco and all the others whose names and faces and lives and voices build in his head until there’s just a cacophony of people scrambling for his attention and then he takes his dog for a walk and concentrates with all his might on the people he sees going past him. They’re late for work or finally going home, wrapped up in their day and sparing him barely a glance.

Survivor

Oh god, sometimes I wake up at night seeing the gleam of his teeth in the shadows lurking in my bedroom and my throat is too tight with terror to scream. He’s coming closer and I can’t make him go away, I’m too afraid, my blood is running cold and my muscles all seize up and my heart is beating a rapid message, telling me that this is new, this is wrong, all of a sudden I’m prey. The adrenaline surges and tries to make me leap into a run but he’s already on me, already lacing his cold cold fingers over my shoulders and drawing me to him. His mouth is cold on my skin but then blood spurts and it’s hot, burning against my skin with his icy lips like brands clamped on me.

I knew it was wrong when I saw that shine. He was already baring his teeth, the monster, already unsheathing the fangs when he slunk closer. He got excited, I guess, he made a sound, a growl that rumbled and muttered in his throat and then he pounced. He grabbed me and just bent me back, like I was a doll or a rabbit or something small and helpless that he could just throw about. Like a packet of ketchup. I was, I guess. I was small and helpless to him. I’ve been small and helpless ever since.

He let me go before I died. They must have to do that, otherwise the people wouldn’t survive, they’d all be left as cold bloodless corpses in the alleys and the corners of the city and the beasts would have to start feeding on rats and pigeons until there was no life left anywhere, and then I don’t know what would happen. I don’t go anywhere by myself anymore, I’m too scared. The next one might let me die. Even if he didn’t, I’d rather he did. I don’t want to be limp and hurting on the ground again. I don’t want to be clasped in freezing hands that dig into my flesh like something human, almost, except that doesn’t know I’m a person. There are more of them these days, stalking the city. They spot a flash of exposed flesh of a pulse beating in someone’s throat and then they hunt. They follow you, soundless in the shadows, until they can smell your fear because you know that you’re being followed in the part of your brain that knows it’s prey. That’s when they come for you. When the terror is rising, they shuffle closer. They slip through the dark and put cold hands on your warm living flesh. When you are afraid, when they can see your eyes go round with horror, when the shivering crawls in murmurs on your skin and your breath is coming short, they get you. Then they bite.