2017 Polaris, New York
“You’re trying to fix the problem all at once,” Victoria said. She sanitized the worn Formica tabletops, which had taken on a lot of food during the lunch service.
Brida wiped down the water wells. “What’s the problem we’re fixing?”
“It’s nothing,” I said from the corner I currently swept.
“He’s got that look,” said Victoria.
“Oh, that look.”
I paused and held the broom upright. “What look?”
“He asked if there was more we could do for the community.” Victoria dunked her blue cloth into the red bucket of sanitizer.
“There’s always more,” said Brida. “Are you bored, Jon?”
I made a face. “I didn’t say I was bored.”
“Who’s bored?” Kyle strode in from the kitchen carrying a stack of clean trays.
“Jon’s bored,” said Brida.
“He’s got the look?” asked Kyle.
“He’s got the look,” said Victoria.
I glared at all of them. “What. Look?”
“The one that says you wish this were faster.” Well great. Now Peter was out here chiming in.
I sighed. “Is there anyone in back cleaning the kitchen?”
“We are,” said Kyle, glancing at Peter.
“Doesn’t look like it,” said Victoria.
I leaned over my broom. “Thank you.”
Brida laughed, shaking her head as she moved to scrub the water stains from the next well. The two young men returned to their duties while I resumed sweeping.
My task brought me to Victoria’s current table. She pulled out the chairs so that my broom could reach beneath.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight,” she said, this time just to me and not the entirety of our staff. “We just keep doing what we’re doing, and we hope other people will notice and give a damn.”
“I could make another donation,” I said quietly.
“I appreciate that, Jon, but throwing money at the kitchen isn’t going to help our folks in the long run. Yeah, it’ll keep our shelves stocked for the next day, but it only treats the symptom, not the cause.”
“What will make it better?” I asked.
“Bankroll a few dozen politicians,” she snorted. “I don’t know what you want, Jon. You’re already about to fall asleep on that broomstick.”
“No I’m not.”
“Then how about you actually sweep under that table there instead of staring at that pile of crumbs?”
“Oh.” I blinked. Apparently, I’d stopped sweeping. “Maybe I’m more exhausted than usual.”
“This work is exhausting. Maybe you should take a day or two off.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“Oh, it’s very necessary especially since you volunteered to take on so many shifts this month. It’s wearing you thin.”
I made a conscious effort to actually sweep this next batch of crumbs and mud out from beneath the next table. “You don’t take time off.”
“I most certainly do. I just haven’t in a while. But I don’t want to see you getting used to that sort of life. If you’re not with it, you can’t help them. Remember that. Kyle was looking for another day anyway.”
“So it’d be no trouble to reschedule us?”
“It’s my job. And it’s yours to take care of yourself. Maybe you could spend time with friends, rejuvenate. Or…” Her eyes pointed to Brida. “Maybe just one friend in particular. Who also happens to have tomorrow off.”
“I don’t have tomorrow off.”
“You do now.”
I stopped sweeping on purpose this time. “Victoria, please.”
She gave me a stern look and, without breaking it, shouted, “Kyle? You wanna work dinner tomorrow?”
Kyle popped his head through the door. “Tomorrow? Yeah, I can do that. No problem.”
“Great,” she shouted, still staring at me. “See you then.”
I could hear Sam in my head, telling me to stop being so stubborn and accept Victoria’s gift. There were no shortcuts to redemption. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now finish up so you can leave. I’ve got a dinner to serve.”
I did as I was told, and already I felt that rejuvenation Victoria had mentioned. Enough to text Brida on the walk home.
I have tomorrow off. Are you busy?
It took a few minutes for her to reply.
nope! got anything in mind?
I might have been missing Jemier, but now that he was here, he had become part of the routine. Did I have to use every free moment I had to entertain him? We never left the apartment, and I needed to see something else aside from the kitchen and walls of my abode.
I haven’t seen much of the city since I moved here. Okay to walk around town and grab lunch?
love it. meet at ur place? café? my place? somewhere else?
The café is fine.
plans = made. see you tomorrow. 🙂
I put my phone in my pocket. As I rounded the final corner to my home, I wondered how I would explain this to Jemier. I still didn’t know what to make of his reaction to Armand. Jealousy? Caution? How could a human I’d known for a few weeks destroy a friendship I’ve had for centuries?
I thought about this dilemma on my way home and found a solution. I would invite him to come along. He’d already met Kyle and had an alias, after all.
I entered the apartment and started speaking before I even closed the door. “I want you to meet a friend of mine from the kitchen. We’ll be touring the city tomorrow and—”
“Solin.” Jemier had been waiting for me, his boots on and his bag over his shoulder.
“Where?” is all I said.
“Cydrithenna” is all he said.
I waved him away and walked right past him without a word. He left. I picked up my tablet and researched abandoned hospitals in the city.
Brida and I stepped onto the sun-warmed sidewalk outside Star Café.
“He’s into you,” she said as we wove between a couple who couldn’t choose between sitting indoors or out.
I caught her whimsical smirk over the lid of my takeout cup. “Armand?”
“Yeah. Seems like it.”
“What makes you say that?”
“The way he flirts with you and had your drink ready before you ordered.” She leaned into my view. “You’re smiling a little.”
“Yes, but only a little.” I gave her a mischievous grin. “Testing my politics, or are you jealous?”
She let out a high-pitched hmm and said, “Both, but only a little.”
“You have nothing to worry about, Brida. I only have eyes for…” I gazed longingly at my cup. “This latte.”
She laughed and toasted me. “He does mix a good drink. Permission to gently tease you about this in a friendly manner?”
“Permission granted.” We’d stood in front of the café far too long. Now we looked as indecisive as that couple. “Where to, my humble tour guide?”
“How about…” She pursed her lips in thought, swiveling her head left and right. She pointed right. “That way.”
“Toward Saint Mary’s?”
She beamed widely and cackled. “I knew it! You finally looked it up, didn’t you?”
“I admit, I did give in to curiosity.”
“Do you wanna go?”
Yes, but not with her. More and more details pointed to the presence of a Daemon. I doubted any encounter would be dangerous—Daemons were as ordinary as any other sentient being, albeit more ethereal—but she didn’t need to be involved in my quest to reconnect with my magick, and I didn’t want to shock her senses.
“Come on, Jon. Let’s just go for it. Then we can tell Peter and Kyle how we didn’t die just because we took two people instead of three.”
“That part of the legend can’t be true.” I hadn’t seen any corroborating evidence of that story online.
“It’s not. Please? I really have always wanted to go. It’s supposed to be really pretty and kind of stable for something so old.”
Kind of stable? I’d have to be careful without my magick to break any falls. “And if we get caught?”
Couldn’t be that hard to hide from the police in a large, abandoned space like that. I pulled my sunglasses down to my eyes. “Sure. Let’s do it.”
“Okay. Follow me.”
We walked a few blocks, chatting mostly about the places we passed before turning onto a familiar street. The one where I’d committed a few acts of petty theft to survive when I’d first arrived. I could still hear my own breath as I escaped the first man who realized I’d stolen his wallet. I pushed my sunglasses up the bridge of my nose as far as they could go.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Just sad that I’ve already gulped down so much of this latte.”
“You have to savor a drink like that,” she said. “Especially when it’s made by someone so cute.”
I should have memorized the map when I’d looked at it. I only knew the general direction of Saint Mary’s from my home, and thus Star Café. This block took forever to traverse. Could she not see everyone looking at us?
“Oh, hold on a second.” She bopped over to a stand of sunglasses—Oh seriously? The same one these came from?—and twirled a display.
I took a deep breath. How had my hair been that day? Messy. Clothing? Unkempt. The clerk nodded and smiled at Brida, then to me.
“Oh, no thanks,” I waved, glancing aside. Anything to keep him from seeing my face.
I took another deep breath. If I focused hard enough, perhaps…
I conjured the image of who I wanted to be. An older man, graying hair. Thinner brows. Deeper eyes. Could I even do it? Could I put up a mask that only the clerk could see? That Brida couldn’t?
The crackle of internal electricity never came. What sensation did I even hope to feel? How familiar had magick become to me that I only knew its loss but not what it felt like when it was there?
I checked my reflection in the windows of the opposite storefront. Nothing. Just me, long-haired Solin, waiting for Brida to stop looking at sunglasses.
“Thanks,” she said to the clerk, buying a pair of sunglasses with lenses even larger than mine. She put them on and nodded at me.
I withheld the hefty sigh of relief pent up in my chest. “They suit you,” I said as we resumed walking.
“Do they cover up my eyes enough?” she said. “You know, just in case.”
“As good a disguise as any,” I said. “Shall we?”
“Yeah, let’s do this.”
We left that terrifying block and, it seemed, the usual urban crowd. Now we passed more dogs and strollers on the sidewalk whose concrete had been narrowed by grass and gardens. The buildings shrank in height but gained in grandeur. Trees whose leaves had begun to yellow lined the road.
“This is a historic neighborhood,” Brida said. “That’s why all the houses are so pretty. Victorians, I think.”
I knew the style from film and television. “They are nice.”
“Expensive too. Rich people live here. Oh!” She nudged me with her elbow. “That’s the street. Come on.”
Two blocks over from this green avenue were streets with more potholes and homes with shabbier siding.
“Well this is stark, isn’t it,” I stated flatly.
Brida arched her brows. “This is why we have so many kitchens around town. You know the district lines for voting are cut right along the backyards of those big houses, right?”
I had no idea what she referred to. I’d have to ask the tablet to give me a civics lesson later. “That doesn’t surprise me.”
“It gets worse once you pass Saint Mary’s.”
“Because people are assholes.” She shrugged. “Though it wouldn’t surprise me if the people who bought the hospital are going to gentrify the whole neighborhood around it.”
Now this I understood. It was a contentious topic in Heartwing, mostly discussed in the core of the city, and rarely within the walls of the royal palace. “I don’t doubt it.”
The homes made way for a massive structure, fenced in by barbed wire and overgrowth. Saint Mary’s. The faded brick and boxy exterior looked exactly as it did online. A Daemon could easily live here undetected by the authorities, but what would drive them to do so? Why live in such squalid conditions on a planet so far from home? The only Daemons who knew Gaia’s location were the generations of those who had pledged to keep the portal at Shadowfall safe.
A deserter? One who failed to support the Alliance’s coup of operations?
We crossed the dilapidated, empty street until we made it to the perimeter proper. Brida poked at the overgrowth. She snapped her hand back and wiped it on her jeans. “Oh god, spider web.” She tested another spot of leaves and smiled. She pulled them apart. “I can’t see a good spot to get in.”
I checked the length of overgrown fence in either direction, but questions about the Daemons unsettled me. What had become of those Daemons who had given their oath to protect Gaia since the rise of the human-led Shadowfall Alliance? Who was here?
“See anything?” she said.
Right. The fence. “There’s an indent in the patch down there.”
She leaned back and checked it out, then monitored the street for onlookers. “Let’s see.”
We made our way to the indentation in leaves. The rusted fence furled around the stump of a bush. Tiny flies hovered around the leaves. Brida grunted and swatted at them before using her foot to test the tension of the metal.
If a Daemon were close to us, they could commune with us, sensing our thoughts and feelings and using those to suss out our location. It would explain the sense of paranoia that the amateur ghost hunters had reported online. Still, why here of all places? Sent to watch me in my exile?
“It’s stuck.” Brida fussed with the fence. The overgrowth held it in place. “Anyone yet?”
I surveyed the street for witnesses. “No one.” No. My father wouldn’t send a Daemon to watch me. The online reports alleged that the paranormal phenomena had been occurring long before I’d arrived. No way my father would send our allies instead of one of his personal guards to monitor my activities anyhow.
It was more likely that this was a Daemon displaced. Or disgruntled. The deserter theory.
“Got it!” She freed the fence from nature’s green clutches and scurried inside.
I yearned to be a man of faith then, because I desperately needed to send a prayer to any deity who listened. This had gone on long enough. Even if a disgruntled Daemon spared me based on my species, they could annihilate Brida with but a single magickal whim. Killing a Gaian wasn’t as egregious of a sin to Daemons as it was to Drakons.
“Wow, this is so cool.”
I ducked into the hole, trying to squish myself into the same shape the shorter Brida had made herself into. I willed the fence away from my back with telekinesis and failed. Would that habit break, already? The fence snagged on my shirt—thankfully not my hair—and a rip told me of its fate. I pressed my knees to the ground to flatten my body, but failed at that too.
“Are you caught?”
I gazed up at her pathetically. “I’m too tall.”
“Hold on.” She bent over the furled fence and grabbed it. “Yep. You’re caught. Can I touch your back for a second?”
Her cold hand pressed against me to release the sharp hook of the broken fence. “Sorry about your shirt. One…more…second.” She pushed me down and my knees bent obediently. “There.”
I pulled myself up, dusting my pants of dirt. “How bad is it?”
She examined my back. “Not bad. It didn’t get your tank top, er, undershirt. Whatever they’re called. But you might wanna patch this guy up and only wear it underneath things from now on.”
“I’m sorry about that, I should’ve helped you get through. Hold still.” She pulled a leaf from my hair and displayed it to me before letting it float to the ground.
“I should’ve asked for help instead of assuming I could fit.”
She grinned. “You’re not one of those guys who has trouble asking for help, are you?”
“I asked you. Sort of. Eventually.”
She laughed. “You’re secretly a mess, aren’t you, Jon?”
“Oh, very much so.”
We shared another laugh, then quieted, overtaken by the majesty of the hospital. Stiff vines held tight to the weedy foundation. Graffiti painted the rotting plywood boards that served as windowpanes, although not all windows had boards; some seemed to have been removed by humans, others by nature. Around the hospital, sticks and gravel kept the brown-green patches of grass from spreading too far. Critters darted across the mottled grounds—one chipmunk and two squirrels thus far—while birds landed on the branches of a dead tree. A tire dangled from a thick, fraying rope wrapped round the tree’s thickest branch.
“A tire swing!” Brida darted over to the tree, hopping from gravel patch to gravel patch as though the grass were lava. She tapped the tire with her foot and water spilled out. “Thought so.” She tipped it to release the rest of the water. “Maybe it’ll be dry by the time we get out of here.”
“You want to swing on that thing?”
She laughed. “Why not? It’s been forever. Did you ever go on one of these as a kid?”
“Today’s your lucky day.” She shook her hands of excess water before dragging them across her jeans.
I tested the resolve of the rope. “Who put this here?”
“I dunno, kids probably.”
I couldn’t imagine a Daemon setting up a swing for themselves. “I wonder how they got the tire in here. It’s huge.” Heavy too.
Brida shrugged. “Never underestimate a bored kid.” She glanced at the hospital. “Okay, I’m ready to go in. Do you see the entrance?”
I had an inkling of its whereabouts from the online stories. “I don’t. Do you?”
“No. Let’s walk around that way and see if we can find it.”
Taking us further from where we entered, and closer to fences without clusters of shrubs and greenery to shield us from the authorities or a rogue Daemon. “What about the other way? There are more trees over there.”
“Hm, yeah, that might be safer. Let’s do that.”
We returned to the break in the fence before following the line of once-decorative trees that wrapped around the building.
“Look!” Brida pulled down her sunglasses and squinted. “You know what that looks like?”
“Not just a dumpster, but a door! You know who needs to throw out regular trash all the time? Kitchens!”
“Brida, I think we should—”
She paid me no attention and dashed beneath the trees toward the cracked pavement. She skidded to a halt beside the rusted dumpster while I remained at the line of trees, confounded and worried.
“Jon!” she shouted to my dismay. “They even have a brick in the door to keep it open!” She clapped twice and bounced on her heels before disappearing behind the dumpster. Door hinges squeaked, followed by a gentle smack against rock. I sighed and ran after her. These were not shoes made for running. What the hell had I been thinking? We should’ve stayed at the café.
I yanked on the door and immediately inhaled a plume of potentially hazardous dust. “Brida?” I called out. Not as dark as I’d expected it to be for a place with so many boarded-up windows, but where was all that light coming from?
Her head poked out from what I’d thought was just a shadow. “Over here.”
I joined her in a space where the mysterious light source could not penetrate; Brida had to use her phone to light it. I shoved my sunglasses on my head, then fumbled with my own phone and lit up its screen.
“Just use the flashlight,” she said.
I had no idea how to activate the flashlight on this primitive device. I didn’t even know it had one until now. Maybe I was the primitive one. “Right, about that…”
She snorted. “Permission to gently tease you about this?”
“Not granted this time, sorry. How do I do this?”
She gave me a quick tutorial with her own phone as an example. “Then to turn it off you just…go backwards like…that. Yep, you got it.”
“A mess, really.”
“I don’t often find myself in need of a flashlight,” I said, examining the massive room. “How is this kitchen better equipped than ours?”
“Because it is, that’s why.” She spun around and beamed light in my eyes. “Sorry!”
I winced and rubbed my brow until the light’s afterimage faded. “This pillar doesn’t look very stable. We should go.” There. I said it officially.
“Can we at least find the atrium first? That’s the place where all those pretty photos are taken.”
“Are you scared?”
“No.” Not of the ghosts, at least. Spider silk cut across my face and into my lips. I spit it out with a puff of air to no avail. “I’m starting to think you brought me here so that I could clear all the webs for you.”
“You got me, but you missed that first one in the bushes. That cost you some brownie points.”
I’d have to ask the tablet to define that later.
We left the kitchen and made our way toward the brightest source of sunlight. A loud slam pricked our ears.
“You heard that, right?”
“I heard that.” I scanned as far ahead as my measly flashlight would allow. Just more cracked flooring and chipped walls. “Someone else is here.”
“Or it’s the ghost.”
“I think we should go.”
“The atrium is right there.” Sunlight poured into the room ahead of us, illuminating old gurneys and plants that had invaded years earlier. “A few more minutes?”
I inhaled deeply, only to catch some dust in my throat. I couldn’t even sigh begrudgingly without something happening, it seemed.
“I’m sorry, Jon,” she said as I coughed. “Your shirt ripped, you ate a spiderweb, and now you’re choking to death. We don’t have to stay.”
“I’m all right,” I said as I regained my breath. “I’m more worried about you, actually.”
“Are you now?”
She let out a subdued giggle and grabbed my uninjured hand. “Okay, you tell me then. If you want to leave, we will leave.”
I shook my head. “No. A few more minutes. We’ve made it this far.”
“And then we’ll leave.”
“Yes. Although make me a promise—if we see anything glowing, I don’t care what you think it is, we run. All right?”
“You read those stories too, huh.”
“I’m serious, Brida. I’m drawing the line at glowing.”
“All right. Glowing things and we run.” With my hand still in hers, we walked. I kicked aside an empty box, probably something brought in after the place was condemned, judging by its early stages of decomposition.
“Glowing things,” Brida muttered. “What do you think that’s a sign of, anyway? A full-body manifestation, maybe?”
“No, I think it’s—” The atrium and all its glory opened before us. Paneless, boardless windows dumped light into the hexagonal room. A bird’s nest tangled with sticks and a candy wrapper sat on the ledge just below the windows. Crawling ivy covered an entire wall and hung from another window. Water dripped nearby. Footprints, both human and animal, covered the floor. An old fountain along one wall held leaves and dirty water that glistened gold in the sunlight. Hallways joined in this forgotten, arched nexus. Ornate inlays of snakes coiling around staves adorned the walls of each hexagon. Three of the four abandoned gurneys were overturned, and some of their dismembered wheels were scattered across the floor, which I only now recognized as marble.
“This is beautiful,” uttered Brida.
She made a circle around the space before taking photos with her phone. “What were you saying before?”
“That I think glowing means fire. Hang on.” I ventured toward a striking set of scorch marks on the wall. “Something burned here.”
“Huh?” She tilted her head from across the atrium. “You think someone set a fire in here?”
“Yes.” I examined the windows above. “Of all places in here, I suppose this would be the safest, given the lack of wood and the ventilation.”
“But all this ivy…” She stood closer to the marks. “Do you think that’s what happened here? That someone burned some of the ivy?” She rubbed her finger against a mark, smudging its fractal pattern. “These are really weird burn marks for whatever kind of stone this wall is. Something against it must have burned this way, don’t you think?”
“They are unusual.” I’d seen this kind of scoring before.
A bang, followed by an unintelligible, but unmistakable sound. A voice.
“Jon, I hear someone. We should get going.”
“I’ll be right there.” These could’ve been made by burning ivy, but they could’ve been made by magick too. I touched the scores as Brida had, feeling the fine carbon dust against my fingertips.
“Are you ready?” she said in a stage whisper. Her ears had homed in on the hallway with the source of the sound.
“Yes.” I stepped back from the scoring to admire its patterns. “I’m ready.”
We froze. Looked down the hall. Saw the two men in hard hats and reflective orange vests.
“That’s a radiant orange,” I whispered.
“Would you say that it glows?” she whispered back.
“Yes, yes, I would.”
We eyed the hallway to the kitchen.
“Run,” I said.
We took off, our feet slapping heavily against the marble floor, made all the more slippery by our escape. Behind us, work boots thudded. Brida had gotten a swift start, but I soon gained on her. No matter how cursed I was, centuries of military training always kicked in.
“Permission to grab your hand?” I said.
“And run like hell?” She huffed out a few breaths. “Permission granted.”
She gripped tight, and I winced, having offered her my bandaged hand, but nevertheless, the connection between us aided in our escape if only to help us navigate through the dark and understand our relative speeds. I slammed into the squeaky door with my shoulder, and we burst out into unimpeded daylight.
The men behind us shouted again. Brida kicked out the brick from the door and slammed it shut. I willed the dumpster in front of it—no use—but Brida put the brick back down.
“Maybe that’ll hold them for another second,” she said. “Do you think they called the cops?”
“Let’s not find out.” We threw on our sunglasses and ran for the gap in the fence. We followed beneath the cover of trees and turned the corner.
I skidded in the grass. “Shit.”
“Fuck,” she said.
More construction workers had arrived on site and were examining the fence.
“This wasn’t supposed to get torn down yet,” she gasped between breaths.
“You all right?”
“Yeah, no, just catching my breath. What do we do?”
“I don’t know. Maybe this is preliminary work.” Which meant the workers would soon be faced by the Daemon, or worse, scare the Daemon away before I could ask them to break this curse.
“We can’t go back.” She wiped her brow. “What if we just follow the edge of the building and hope they don’t see us?”
“We could lie and tell them that we’re here to meet them, and that they’re late,” I proposed.
“That only works on TV.”
That’s where I had stolen the idea from. “Then…” My eyes scanned the grounds. The men behind us spotted us again.
“They have walkies,” Brida said. “Oh my god, they’re radioing the other guys.”
“Hold on. Do you think we could climb that tree and hop over the fence?”
Brida pulled down her sunglasses and looked at the canopy above us. “Absolutely not.”
My heart pounded. “Do the police really have facial recognition?”
“I think so.”
“We’re going up the tree.”
“I can’t climb.”
“I’ll boost you.” I made a foothold with my hands and launched her up the tree. She let out a little yelp but managed to grab hold and get the correct limb. “I’ll meet you up there.”
Yes, I lacked the assistance of telekinesis, but I could still climb a tree. It might have been a few centuries since I’d done it without magick, but…
“Jon, hurry. You, uh, kind of fit a profile, and they one hundred percent definitely called the police.”
“I fit a what?”
“I see the red and blues across the lawn.”
I took a few steps back then ran for the tree, scurrying up it without an issue. We crawled along the branch until we were only feet above the sharp fencing, but overgrowth obscured the ground.
“Fuck it.” Brida let herself dangle off the branch, bending it lower to the ground. I crawled closer to assist with her descent. “One, two, three.” She dropped. Her shoes scuffed the ground before she fell forward on her palms. “God damn it!” She stood and looked up at me, then stepped away. “It’s gravelly. Careful.”
I did as she did and swung down before letting myself drop. Pain shot through my knees, which I’d failed to bend at the right moment, and I, too, fell to my palms. I rose. The cut from my no-longer-favorite mug had been agitated, either by the climb or the fall, and now bled through the bandage. Brida saw it and sucked air through her teeth.
“Forget it,” I said of my palm. “Keep running.”
“Not the way we came,” she said. She nodded down the next block. “We can lose them up there. Short street.”
We flew down the sidewalk. My lungs burned. Brida’s face turned bright pink.
“Why would they call the police on trespassers who were already leaving?”
“Because you fit a profile,” she said. “And by the way…”
She never finished the sentence. “We need to stop so you can rest.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine. Just…hard to…talk…and run.”
The quick whip of a police siren sounded.
“They’re looking for us,” she panted.
If only I could mask!
“Keep going,” I said, unbuttoning my shirt.
“What’re you doing?”
I stripped the shirt from my torso and handed it to her. “Put that on. Now.”
“While I’m running?”
“Yes.” I removed my belt and waited for her to finish her buttons. “Here. Over the shirt. Fashion statement.”
She smiled. “I got you.” We rounded a corner, our pace slowing while a warning siren whoop-whooped a block away.
“They’re looking between houses now, I bet,” she said.
I signaled to her to take refuge beside a parked SUV. “Pull your hair down into a side ponytail and rest it on your shoulder.”
She used the windows as a mirror. “Wow, I look good.”
“Take these.” We swapped sunglasses. “There. Now walk as though you had to park here to go somewhere on the rich street. You’re not in a hurry, but you’re not aimless.”
“I look so…classy.”
“Okay, okay, I’m going. But what about you?”
I dropped to the curb. I had to flatten myself this time. “I’ll be fine.” I rolled beneath the SUV, staying close enough to the curb to be out of sight from the street. “Wait. Roll up the ends of your jeans. Nice and flat.”
She did so. “Oh, now I look real classy.”
“Okay, now go.”
Space was tight beneath the SUV, but I preferred that to the alternative. If I were caught, I could fight. Probably.
Brida’s footsteps grew softer, but the rolling police car and its whoops grew louder. I tensed, trying not to pass out from the oily smell of my protective vehicle. The road vibrated and crunched as the squad car crawled over it. I could sense the heat from the engine and hear the static of their radio.
“Probably some kids,” one of the officers said.
“Yeah, but them Dondal guys don’t give a crap.” He said something else, but the car rolled too far for me to hear.
They did not turn down the road that Brida disappeared down. I waited there, pebbles digging into my back, some mysterious fluid leaking from above next to my ear until the sirens ceased and several other cars had driven down the road. I endeavored to get out but worried for Brida. My phone vibrated in my pocket. I shimmied it out of there and turned my head to read it.
On rich ppl avenue. plan worked
With one thumb, I hastily texted back.
be right there.
I edged toward the curb. I could only see so much, but I couldn’t hear any witnesses, so I climbed out from beneath the SUV and checked down the street. All clear. I caught up with Brida on Rich People Avenue and was met with a smile and a crinkled nose.
“You smell like a garage.”
I groaned and wrung out my hair. “The car was leaking something, and it got in my hair.”
She pulled out her side ponytail and gave me the hair tie. “Here. To keep it out of your face.”
She chuckled. “You’re a real mess. Like an actual mess.”
“I try.” The low ponytail helped with the smell. “I think this is a new look for you, Brida.”
“Maybe. Who knew you were a fashionista?”
Former master of disguise, actually. “I watch a lot of television these days.”
“And by the way, cool as hell move back there. I didn’t know you were a free runner.”
I lifted the edge of my undershirt to my face and wiped my skin clean. “A free what?”
I pulled the shirt down. “Sorry, it felt like I had oil all over my nose.”
“Not complaining.” She shook her head. “Anyway, parkour. That whole jumping up the trunk of a tree all graceful-like. Where did you learn to do that?”
I’d revealed too much of myself to her. “I used to climb trees as a boy.” Plausible enough.
“You could be on American Ninja Warrior.”
I’d seen the show, and she was incredibly wrong. Flattering though. I took a deep breath and stared down the road, yearning to be amongst taller, unabandoned buildings and away from this neighborhood. “Shall we get lunch?”
“We just went into a haunted building and got chased out by the cops.”
“And construction workers.”
“Yeah, them too. I think we deserve lunch. Here.” Her fingers swept over the buttons of my shirt. “You’ll need this back.”
“Keep it. It suits you.”
“Seriously?” She studied the sleeves. “Dude, this brand? This is like a hundred-dollar shirt.”
“Surely it’s been devalued by now. It has a tear in it,” I smirked.
“That wasn’t a denial.” She unbuttoned it. “Take your damn shirt back and get presentable for lunch.” She threw it at me, and I laughed. I was fully redressed by the time we made it out of that dreadful neighborhood and back onto the section of street that was now my second-least favorite section of this city.
I stopped after we crossed at a light. “Damn it.”
“I forgot to take a photo of the atrium for Armand.”
She cackled. “Don’t worry. I’ll send you one of mine.”
“And help me win the heart of your competition, dear Brida?”
“What can I say?” She winked at me. “I’m classy like that.”