I don’t know her name, but she looks familiar to me. She’s a tight package in a short skirt that makes me imagine the curves under her plump little ass. That skirt is made to draw attention, and she has all of mine. I’m so hard I can’t get up from behind the table where I’m drawing a tat for a client on paper. I reach down and adjust my junk, the metallic scrape of the zipper against my dick not nearly enough to calm my raging hard on. I shouldn’t have gone commando today. I hope Paul did some laundry this morning.
Her nipples are hard beneath the ribbed shirt she’s wearing, and she pulls her sleeve back to show me something. But I can’t take my eyes from her tits long enough to look at them. She shoves her wrist toward my face, and I have to jerk my eyes away. Shit. She caught me. I would tell her I’m a guy, I can’t help it. Or at least I would if I could talk.
I see her mouth move out of the corner of my eye. She’s talking to me. Or at least she’s mouthing something at me. No one really talks to me since I can’t hear. I haven’t heard a word since I was thirteen years old. She’s talking again. When I don’t answer, she looks at my oldest brother Paul, who rolls his eyes and smacks the center of his head with his fist.
“Stop looking at her tits, dumbass.” He says the words as he signs them and her face flushes. But there’s a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth at the same time.
I roll my eyes and sign back. Shut up. She’s fucking beautiful.
He translates for her. I would groan aloud, but I don’t. No sound has left my throat since I lost my hearing. Well, I talked for a while after that. But not for long. Not after a boy on the playground said I sounded like a frog. Now I don’t talk at all. It’s better that way. “He says you’re beautiful,” he tells her. “That’s why he was ogling your tits like a 12 year old.”
I flip him off and he laughs, holding out his hands like he’s surrendering to the cops. “What?” he asks, still signing. But she can hear him. “If you’re going to be rude and sign around her, I’m going to tell her what you say.”
Like I have another choice besides signing. You never heard of a secret code between brothers? I sign.
“You start whispering secrets in my ear, dickhead, and I’ll knock your head off your shoulders.”
You can try, asswipe.
He laughs. “He’s talking all romantic to me,” he tells her. “Something about kissing his ass.” She’s grinning now. The smile hits me hard enough I’d be on my knees, if I wasn’t stuck behind that table. She brushes a strand of jet black hair back from her face, tucking it along with a lock of light blue behind her ear.
I watch her open her mouth to start to speak. But she looks over at my brother instead. “He can read lips?” she asks.
“Depends on how much he likes you,” my brother says with a shrug. “Or how ornery he’s feeling that day.” He raises his brows at me, and then his gaze travels toward the tabletop. Shit. He saw me adjust my junk. “I’d say he likes you a lot.”
This time, she closes her eyes tightly, wincing as she smiles. She doesn’t say anything. But then she looks directly at me, and says, “I want a tattoo.” She points toward the front of the store. She’s still talking, but I can’t see her lips move if she’s not looking at me. I want to follow her face, to jump up so I can watch those cherry red lips move as she speaks to me. To me. God knows she’s speaking to me. But I don’t. I force myself to keep my seat. She looks back at me as she finishes talking and her lips form an O. “Sorry,” she says. “You didn’t catch any of that, did you?” She heaves a sigh and says, “The girl up front said to see you for a tattoo.”
I look over at my brother who just finished a tat and isn’t working on anything at the moment. Friday – really, that’s her name — laughs and signs, “You’re welcome.”
I scratch my head and grin. Friday set me up. She does it all the time. And sometimes it works out well. She sends all the hot girls to me. And the not so hot girls. And the girls who want to sleep with the deaf guy because they heard he’s amazing in the sack. I’m the guy they don’t have to talk to. I’m the guy they don’t have to pretend with, because I wouldn’t know what they’re saying regardless.
If this girl is just there to sleep with me, we can skip all the tattoo nonsense.
“Don’t even think about it,” my brother says. “She wants a tat. That’s all.”
How do you know what she wants?
I just know, he signs. This time he doesn’t speak the words. Don’t try to lay this one.
I hold my hands up in question asking him why. “She’s not from around here,” he says, but he signs not our kind.
Oh, I get it. She’s from the other side of the tracks. I don’t mind. She might be rich, but she would still love what I can do for her. I reach for her hand and squeeze it gently so she’ll look at me. I flip her hand over and point to her wrist. My fingers play across the iridescent blue veins beneath her tender skin, and I draw a circle with the tip of my finger asking her Here?
Her mouth falls open. Goose bumps rise along her arm. Hell, yeah, I’m good at this.
I stand up and touch the side of her neck and she brushes my hand away, shaking her head. Her lips are pressed tightly together.
I look directly at her boobs and lick my lips. Then I reach out and drag one finger down the slope of her breast. Here? I mouth.
I don’t even see it coming. Her tiny fist slams into my nose. I’ve had girls slap me before, but I’ve never had one punch me in the face. Fuck, that hurt. The wet, coppery taste of blood slides over my lips, and I reach up to wipe it away. My nose is gushing. Paul thrusts a towel in my hands and tilts my head back.
Fuck, that still hurts. He presses the bridge of my nose, and I can’t see his mouth or his hands over the bunched up towel, so I have no idea if he’s talking to me. Or if he’s just laughing his ass off. He lifts the towel but blood trickles down over my lips again. I see her standing there for a brief second, her fists clenched at her sides as she watches me suffer.
Shit, that hurts.
Then she turns on the heels of her black boots and walks away. I want to call out to her to get her to stay. I would say I’m sorry, but I can’t. I can’t call her back to me. I start to rise, but Paul shoves me back into the chair. Sit down, he signs. I think it might be broken.
I see a piece of paper on the floor and it’s crumped. I take the towel from Paul and press it to my nose, pointing to the piece of paper. He picks it up and looks at it. “Did she drop this?” he asks.
I nod. It’s damp from her sweaty palms. I unfold it and look down. It’s an intricate design, and you have to look hard to find the hidden pictures. I see a guitar, the strings broken and sticking out at odd angles. And at the end of the strings are small blossoms. I turn the picture, looking over the towel I’m still holding to my nose with one hand. Paul replaces it with a clean one. My nose is still bleeding. Son of a bitch. I look closer at the blossoms. They’re not blossoms at all. They’re teeny tiny shackles. Like handcuffs, but more medieval. Most people would see the beauty of that drawing. But I see pain. I see things she probably wouldn’t want anyone to see.
Shit. I fucked up. Now I want more than anything to know what this tat means. It’s obviously more than just a pretty drawing. Just like she might be more than just a pretty face. Or she might not be. She might be a bitch with a mean right hook that will eat my balls for lunch if I look at her the wrong way.
I spin the drawing in my hands and look around the shop. It’s late and no one is waiting. I punch Paul in the shoulder and point to the drawing. Then I point to the inside of my own wrist. It’s the only place on my whole arm that’s not tatted up already. I have full sleeves because my brothers have been practicing on me since long before it was legal to do so.
“No,” Paul signs with first two fingers and his thumb, slapping them together. “You’ve lost your mind if you think I’m going to put that on you.”
He walks toward the front of the store and sits down beside Friday. He’s been trying to get in her pants since she started there. It’s too bad she has a girlfriend.
I get out my supplies. I’ve done more intricate tats on myself. I can do this one.
He stalks back to the back of the shop, where I’m setting up. “I’ll run it,” he says. “You’re going to do it anyway.”
I hold up one finger. One change?
What do you want to change? He looks down at the design and his brow arches as he takes in the shapes and the colors and the handcuffs and the guitar and the prickly thorns. And I wonder if he also sees her misery. That’s some heavy shit, he signs. He never speaks when it’s just me and him. I’m kind of glad. It’s like we speak the same language when we’re alone.
I nod, and I start prepping my arm with alcohol as he gloves up.
It has been two days since I punched that asshole in the tattoo shop and my hand still hurts. I’ve been busking in the subway tunnel by Central Park, and it’s somewhat more difficult to play my guitar when my hand feels like it does. But this tunnel is one of my favorite spots, because the kids stop to listen to me. They like the music, and it makes them smile. Smiling is something left over from my old life. I don’t get to do it much, and I enjoy it even less. But I like it when the kids look up at me with all that innocence and they grin. There’s so much promise in their faces. It reminds me of how I used to be, way back when.
I’m considering singing today. I don’t do it every time I play. But I am seriously low on funds. The more attention I get, the more change I’ll get to take home with me. Home is a relative term. Home is wherever I find to sleep that night.
I’m sitting on the cold cement floor of the tunnel; back a ways from the rush of feet, with my guitar case open in front of me. In it, there are some quarters, and a little old lady stopped a few minutes ago and tossed in a fiver while I played Bridge Over Troubled Water. Old ladies usually like that one. They haven’t seen troubled waters.
I’m wearing my school girl outfit, because I get more attention from men when I wear it. It’s a short plaid skirt, and a black ribbed short sleeve top that fits me like a second skin. Ladies don’t seem to mind it. And men love it. I sure got a lot of attention from that asshole two days ago. He was hot, I had to admit. He had shoulders broad enough to fill a doorway, and a head full of sandy blond curls. He towered over me when he stood up from behind that table, at least a head and shoulders taller than me. Tattoos filled up all the empty space that used to be his forearms, and it was kind of hot. He had lips painted on his left arm, and I wanted to ask him what those were. Were they to remember someone? A first kiss, maybe? Or did they mean something the way the tattoo I wanted did?
I dropped my tattoo design as I ran out of the shop, which pisses me off. I thought I had it clutched in my hand and when I’d stopped to take a breath, it was gone. I almost expected the asshole to follow me. But he was still bleeding when I left him.
I shake out the pain in my hand again. A towheaded boy stops in front of me, his hand full of pennies. He is a regular, and his mother stopped to pray over me once, so I switch my song to Jesus Loves Me. Jesus doesn’t. If He did, He wouldn’t have made me like I am. He would have made me normal. The boy’s mother sings along with my tunes and the boy dips his face into her thigh, hugging it tightly as she sings. When the song is over, he drops his handful of pennies into my guitar case, the thud of each one hitting the felt quiet as a whisper.
I never say thank you or talk to the kids. I don’t talk to the adults unless they ask me something specific. I just play my music. Sometimes I sing, but I really don’t like to draw that much attention to myself. Except today, I need to draw attention to myself. I had saved up three hundred dollars, which would pay for a place to sleep and that tattoo I thought I needed, but someone stole it while I was asleep at the shelter last night. I’d made the mistake of falling asleep with it in my pocket, instead of tucking it in my bra. When I woke up, it was gone. I don’t know why they didn’t take my guitar. Probably because I was sleeping with it in my arms, clutched to me like a mother with her child.
I wish I’d gotten the tattoo yesterday. It was a useless expense, but it was my nineteenth birthday, and it’s been a long time since anyone has done anything for me. So, I was giving it to myself. And trying to free myself in the process. Who was I kidding? I’ll never be free.
This city is hard. It’s mean. It’s nothing like where I came from. But now it’s home. I like the noise of the city and the bustle of the people. I like the different ethnicities. I’d never seen so many skin colors, eye shapes, and body types as I did when I got here.
A girl reaches her chubby hand to touch my strings, and I smile and intercept her hand by taking it in mine, instead. Her hands are soft, and a little damp from where her first finger was shoved in her mouth just a minute ago. I toy with her fingers while I make an O with my mouth.
Her mother smacks her hand away with a sharp, cracking blow to her forearm, and her eyes immediately fill with tears. You didn’t have to do that, I think. She didn’t mean any harm. But the mother drags the crying child with her toward the subway and picks her up when she doesn’t move quickly enough.
I draw a small crowd between subway arrivals, and one man yells out, “Do you take requests?”
I nod, and keep on smiling, playing with all I’m worth. He calls out, “I think you should suck my dick, then.” One of his buddies punches him in the shoulder and he laughs.
College kid. His mama never taught him any manners. I let my eyes roam over the crowd and no one corrects him. So, I start to play All the Wishing in the World by Matt Monroe. The irony is lost on the jock, and they walk away as the train pulls in behind them.
The platform fills with new people getting off the train, so I switch to some more familiar tunes. Money drops into my case, and I see a dollar float down. I nod and smile as the person walks by, but she’s not looking at me.
A big pair of scuffed work boots steps up beside my case. I look at them for a minute, and then up over the worn jeans and the blue T shirt that’s stretched across broad shoulders. And then I’m looking into the same sky blue eyes as the other day. My pic stumbles across the strings. I wince. His eyes narrow at me, but he can’t hear my mistake, can he? His head tilts to the side, and I turn my body to face the other direction.
My butt is freezing and my legs are aching from sitting on the cold floor for so long. But I don’t have anywhere else to go. My three weeks at the shelter were up yesterday. So, I have to find somewhere new to sleep tonight. I look down into my case. There’s enough there for dinner. But not for anything else. So, I keep playing.
Those boots move over so that he’s standing in front of me. I scoot to the side, and look everywhere but at him. But then he drops down beside me, his legs crossed criss-cross-applesauce style in front of me. He has tape across the bridge of his nose and that makes me feel competent for some reason. There are very few things in my life that I can control, and someone touching my body is one of them. I say when. I say where. I say with who. Just like in Pretty Woman. Only Stucky would never get to backhand me. I’d take him out first.
He leans on one butt cheek so he can pull out his wallet, and he throws in a twenty. He doesn’t say anything, but he points to my guitar and raises his brows. I don’t know what he wants, and he can’t tell me, so I just look at him. I don’t want to acknowledge his presence. But he’s sitting with his knee an inch from mine.
When I don’t respond, he puts a hand on my guitar. He points to me and strums at the air like he’s playing a guitar. I realize I’ve stopped playing. But he did put a twenty in my case, so I suppose I owe him. I start to play I’m Just a Gigolo. I love that tune. And love playing it. After a minute, his brows draw together and he points to his lips.
I shake my head because I don’t know what he’s asking. Either he wants me to kiss him, or I have something on my face. I swipe the back of my hand across my lips. Not that. And the other isn’t going to happen.
He shakes his head quickly and retrieves a small dry-erase board from his backpack.
Sing, he writes.
I have to concentrate really hard to read it, and there are too many distractions here in the tunnel, so I don’t want him to write anymore. I just shake my head. I don’t want to encourage him to keep writing. I read the word sing, but I can’t read everything. Or anything, sometimes.
He holds his hand up to his mouth and spreads his fingers like someone throwing up. I draw my head back. But I keep on playing.
Why does he want me to sing? He can’t hear it. But I start to sing softly, anyway. He smiles and nods. And then he laughs when he sees the words of the song on my lips. He shakes his head and motions for me to continue.
I forgot he can read lips. I can talk to him, but he can’t talk back. I play all the way to the end of the song, and some people have now stopped to listen. Maybe I should sing every time.
He writes something on the board. But I flip it over and lay it on the concrete. I don’t want to talk to him. I wish he would go away.
His brows furrow and he throws up his hands, but not in an “I’m going to knock you out” sort of way. In a “what am I going to do with you” way. He motions for me to keep playing. His fingers rest on my guitar, like he’s feeling the vibrations of it. But what he’s concentrating on most is my mouth. It’s almost unnerving.
A cop stops beside us and clears his throat. I scramble to gather my money and drop it in my pocket. I’ve made about thirty two dollars. That’s more than the nickel I had when I started. I pack up my guitar, and Blue Eyes scowls. He looks kind of like someone just took his favorite toy.
He starts to scribble on the board and holds it up but I’m already walking away.
He follows after me, tugging on my arm. I have all my worldly possessions in a canvas bag over my right shoulder and my guitar case in my left hand, so when he tugs me, it almost topples me over. But he steadies me, slides the bag off my shoulder in one quick move and puts it on his own. I hold fiercely to it, and he pries my fingers off the strap with a grimace. What the heck?
“Give me my bag,” I say, and I plant my feet. I’m ready to hit him again if that’s what it takes. But he smiles, shakes his head and starts to walk away. I follow him, but getting him to stop is like stopping a boulder from rolling downhill once it gets started.
He keeps walking with me hanging on to his arm like I’m a Velcro monkey. But then he stops, and he walks into a diner in the middle of the city. I follow him, and he slides into a booth, putting my bag on the bench on the inside, beside him. He motions to the other side of the bench. He wants me to sit? I punched him in the nose two days ago and now he wants to have a meal with me? Maybe he just wants his $20 back. I reach in my pocket and pull it out, feeling its loss as I slap it down on the table. He presses his lips together and hands it back to me, pointing again to the seat opposite him.
The smell of the grill hits me and I realize I haven’t eaten today. Not once. My stomach growls out loud. Thank God he can’t hear it. He motions toward the bench again and takes my guitar from my hand, sliding it under the table.
I sit down and he looks at the menu. He passes one to me and I shake my head. He raises a brow at me. The waitress stops and says, “What can I get you?”
He points to the menu, and she nods. “You got it, Logan,” she says, with a wink. He grins back at her. His name is Logan?
“Who’s your friend?” she asks of him.
She eyes the bandages across his nose. “What happened?” she asks.
He points to me, and punches a fist toward his face, but he’s grinning when he does it. She laughs. I don’t think she believes it.
“What can I get for you?” she asks me.
“What’s good?” I reply.
“Everything.” She cracks her gum when she’s talking to me. She didn’t do that when she talked to Logan.
“What did you get?” I ask Logan. He looks up at the waitress and bats those thick lashes that veil his blue eyes.
“Burger and fries,” she tells me.
Thank God. “I’ll have the same.” I point to him. “And he’s buying.” I smile at her. She doesn’t look amused. “And a root beer,” I add at the last minute.
He holds up two fingers when I say root beer. She nods and scribbles it down.
“Separate checks?” she asks Logan.
He points a finger at his chest, and she nods as she walks away.
“They know you here?” I ask.
He nods. Silence would be an easy thing to get used to with this guy, I think.
The waitress returns with two root beers, two straws and a bowl of chips and salsa. “On the house,” she says as she plops them down.
I dive for them like I’ve never seen food before. Now that I think about it, I can’t remember if I ate yesterday, either. Sometimes it’s like that. I get so busy surviving that I forget to eat. Or I can’t afford it.
“How’s your brother doing?” the waitress asks quietly.
He scribbles something on the board and shows it to her.
“Chemo can be tough,” she says. “Tell him we’re praying for him, will you?” she asks. He nods and she squeezes his shoulder before she walks away.
“Your brother has cancer?” I ask, none too gently. I don’t realize it until the words hang there in the air. His face scrunches up and he nods.
“Is he going to be all right?” I ask. I stop eating and watch his face.
“Oh,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
“Is it the brother I met? A the tattoo parlor?”
He shakes his head.
“How many brothers do you have?”
He holds up four fingers.
“Older? Or younger?”
He raises his hand above his head and shows me two fingers. Then lowers it like someone is shorter than he is and makes two fingers.
“Two older and two younger?” I ask.
I wish I could ask him more questions.
He writes something on the board and I sigh heavily and throw my head back in defeat. This part of it is torturous. I would rather have someone pull my teeth with a pair of pliers than I would read. But his brother has freaking cancer. The least I can do is try.
I look down at it and the words blur for me. I try to unscramble them, but it’s too hard. I shove the board back toward him.
He narrows his eyes at me and scrubs the board clean. He writes one word and turns it around.
You, it says. He points to me.
I point to myself. “Me?”
He nods and swipes the board clean. He writes another word and shows it to me.
“Can’t,” I say.
He nods and writes another word. He’s spacing the letters far enough apart that they’re not jumbled together in my head. But it’s still hard.
My lips falter over the last word, but I say, “Read.” Then I realize that I just told him I can’t read. “I can read!” I protest.
He writes another word. “Well.”
He knows I can read. Air escapes me in a big, gratified rush. “I can read,” I repeat. “I can’t read well, but…” I let my words trail off.
He nods quickly, like he’s telling me he understands. He points to me and then at the board, moving two fingers over it like a pair of eyes, and then he gives me a thumbs up.
My heart is beating so fast it’s hard to breathe. I read the damn words, didn’t I? “At least I can talk!” I say. I want to take the words back as soon as they leave my lips. But it’s too late. I slap a hand over my lips when his face falls. He shakes his head, bites his lip and gets up. “I’m sorry,” I say. I am. I really am. He walks away, but he doesn’t take his backpack with him.
While he’s gone, a man approaches the table. He’s a handsome black man with tall, natural hair. Everyone calls him Bone, but I don’t know what his real name is. “Who’s the chump, Kit?” he asks.
“None of your business,” I say, taking a sip of my root beer. I fill my mouth up with a chip, and hope he goes away before Logan comes back. And I hope deep inside that Logan will come back so I can apologize.
Logan slides back into the booth. He looks up at Bone and doesn’t acknowledge him. He just looks at him.
“You got a place to sleep tonight, Kit?” Bone asks.
“Yeah,” I reply. “I’m fine.”
“I could use a girl like you,” Bone says.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” It doesn’t pay to piss Bone off. He walks away.
“You all right?” I ask Logan.
He nods, brushing his curls from his forehead.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. And I mean it. I really do.
He nods again.
“It’s not your fault you can’t talk. And…” My voice falls off. I’ve never talked to anyone about this. “It’s not my fault I can’t read well.”
“I’m not stupid,” I rush to say.
He nods again, and waves his hands to shut me up. He places a finger to his lips like he wants me to shush.
“Ok,” I grumble.
He writes on the board and I groan, visibly folding. I hate to do it, but I can’t take it. “I should go,” I say. I reach for my bag.
He takes the board and puts it in his backpack. He gets it, I think. I’d rather play twenty questions than I would try to read words.
He opens his mouth and I hear a noise. He stops, grits his teeth, and then a sound like a murmur in a cavern comes out of his mouth.
“You can talk?” I ask. He put me through reading when he can talk?
He shakes his head and bites his lips together. I shush and wait. “Maybe,” he says. It comes out quiet, and soft, and his consonants are as soft as his vowels. “Just don’t tell anyone.”
I draw a cross over my heart, which is swelling with something I don’t understand.
“What’s your name?” he asks. He signs while he says it. It’s halting and he has to stop between words, like when I’m reading.
“People call me Kit,” I tell him.
He shakes his head. “But what’s your name?” he asks again.
I shake my head. “No.”
He nods again. The waitress brings the burgers and he nods and smiles at her. She squeezes his shoulder again.
When she’s gone, I ask him, “Why are you talking to me?”
“I want to.” He heaves a sigh, and starts to eat his burger.
“You don’t talk to anyone else?”
He shakes his head.
He shakes his head again.
We eat in silence. I was hungrier than I thought, and I clear my plate. He doesn’t say anything else. But he eats his food and pushes his plate to the edge of the table. He puts mine on the top of it, and looks for the waitress over his shoulder. I’m almost sorry the meal is over. We shared a companionable silence for more than a half hour. I kind of like it.
He gets the waitress’s attention and holds up two fingers. He’s asking for two checks. I should have known. I pull my money from my pocket. He closes his hand on mine and shakes his head. The waitress appears with two huge pieces of apple pie. I haven’t had apple pie since I left home. Tears prick at the backs of my lashes and I don’t know how to stop them. “Damn it,” I say to myself.
He reaches over and wipes beneath my eyes with the pads of his thumbs. “It’s just pie,” he says.
I nod, because I can’t talk past the lump in my throat.
Black shit runs down from her eyes and I wipe it away with my thumbs, and then drag my thumbs across my jeans. She’s crying. But I don’t know why. I want to ask her, but I’ve already said too much.
I haven’t talked since I was thirteen. That was eight years ago. I tried for a while, but even with my hearing aids, it was hard to hear myself. After the kid on the playground teased me about my speech, I shut my mouth and never spoke again. I learned to read lips really fast. Of course, I miss some things. But I can keep up. Most of the time.
I’m not keeping up right now. “Why the tears?” I ask, as she takes a bite of her pie. She sniffs her tears back, and she smiles at me and shrugs. This time, it’s her who won’t talk.
Hell, if pie will make her cry, I wonder what something truly romantic would do to her. This is a girl that deserves flowers and candy. And all the good shit I can’t afford. But she likes to talk to me. I can tell that much, so she’s not with me simply because I wouldn’t give her bag back.
She asks me a question but her mouth is full of pie, so I wait a minute for her to swallow. She gulps, smiles shyly at me and says, “Were you born deaf?” She points to my ear.
I point to my ear and then my cheek, showing her the sign for deaf. I shake my head.
“How old were you when it happened?” Her brows scrunch together, and she’s so damn cute I want to kiss her.
I make a three and flick it at her.
“Three?” she asks.
I shake my head and do it again. She still doesn’t get it. So, I put one finger in front of the three and she says, “Thirteen?”
“What happened when you were thirteen?”
“High fever one night,” I say, wiping my brow like I’m sweating, hoping she’ll understand.
She opens her mouth to ask me another question, but I hold up a finger. I motion back and forth between the two of us, telling her it’s my turn.
I can’t figure out how to mime this one so that she’ll understand, so I say very carefully, “Where are you from?”
She shakes her head and says, “No.”
I put my hands together as though in prayer.
She laughs and says, “No,” again. I don’t doubt she’s serious. She’s not telling me. I have a feeling I could drop to my knees and beg her and she still wouldn’t tell me.
“So, Kit from nowhere,” I say. “Thanks for having dinner with me.”
“How do I say thank you?” she asks. “Show me.”
She looks at me, her eyes bright with excitement. I show her the sign and she repeats it. “Thank you,” she says. And my heart expands. Then she looks at her bag beside me and says, “I should go.”
I nod and stand up, and then I put my backpack on, and throw her bag over my shoulder.
“I’ll take that,” she says as she picks up her guitar case.
But I throw some bills on the table and wave at Annie, the waitress. She throws me a kiss. Kit is following me, but Annie doesn’t throw her a kiss. I laugh at the thought of it. Annie loves me. And she’s known my family since before our mom died and our dad left.
I stop when we get out to the street and light a cigarette. Kit scrunches up her nose, but I do it anyway. I take one drag from it, show it to her, pinch the fire off the end, letting the embers fall to the ground, and throw it in a nearby trash can. What a waste. But I can tell she doesn’t like it. My brothers don’t like it either. At least now they’re in good company.
She holds her hand out for her bag, and I position her under a street light so I can see her mouth.
“Where do you live?” I ask. “I’ll walk you home.”
She looks confused for a minute. She glances up and down the street. Cars are rushing by and she’s looking at me like she’s suddenly lost.
“I live around the block,” she says. “Give me my bag.” This time, she stomps that black boot of hers and gives me a rotten look. She shakes her hand at me like that’ll matter.
I lean close to her, because I’m kind of scared someone I know will see me talking to her. My brothers would be hurt if they thought I could talk and just chose not to. I let them think it’s a skill I unlearned, instead. “You can’t walk home alone. It’s not safe.”
She glares at me. “I’m not taking you home with me, you perv,” she says, and she tries to take the bag from me. But I don’t let her. She’s tiny. And I’m not. I win. She balls up her fist, and I know I’m in trouble.
I lean close to her. “I don’t want to sleep with you,” I say. “I just want to make sure you get home safe.” I hold up my hands like I’m surrendering. I draw a cross in the center of my chest like she did before and say, “Promise.”
It’s pretty late. It was already dark when we left the subway tunnel. Now it’s really late. Later than she should be on the streets by herself. Particularly in this neighborhood. This is my neighborhood. I’m perfectly safe here. But she’s not from here. This I can tell without ever hearing her voice. She’s not my kind of people.
I put my fingers down, and pretend they’re someone walking. “Let’s go,” I say.
She stands there, and crosses her arms in front of her. “No.”
There’s one thing I’m already sure of and it’s that this chick means no when she says no.
Suddenly, the guy from the diner, the one she called Bone, walks up beside us. “Need some help, Kit?” he asks.
His lips are dark in the night, and I can barely see them. But I can see hers. She smiles what I know to be a phony smile at him, because her real smile will drop a man to his fucking knees, and she says, “Fine.”
“This your guy for the night?” he asks.
She looks at me and steps forward, running the tips of her fingers down my chest. I go hard immediately, and I catch her hand in mine. She startles for a second, but then I cover her hand with mine, pressing it against my heart, tight and secure. She looks up at me and bats those brown eyes. I hadn’t realized how dark they are. But they’re almost black in the darkness of the night. “This is my guy,” she says. But I can tell she’s talking to him, and not to me.
The hair on her arms is standing up, and so is mine. But it’s probably for very different reasons.
Bone walks away, looking over his shoulder at her ass. I want more than anything to punch him in the face. But I have a feeling that wouldn’t be a good idea. “I’m your guy?” I say to her.
She deflates, and lifts her hand from my chest. “He’s gone,” she says. She slips her bag off my shoulder and puts it on her own. She stands up on tiptoe and kisses my cheek, her lips lingering ever so briefly. I want to turn my head and catch her lips with mine, but she’d run if I did that. I’m sure of it. Thank you, she signs. My heart leaps when I realize she’s speaking my language. I just taught it to her, but still.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“Home,” she says with a shrug. Then she turns on her heel and leaves me standing there. I shake out a new cigarette and light it, and I watch her walk away. She doesn’t look back. Her black bag is bouncing against her leg, and her guitar case is in her other hand. She hunches down against the wind. Does she own a coat? I wish I’d given her mine.
I follow her. I can’t help it. I need to see where she’s going, or I won’t be able to find her again. Not to mention that her being alone in the night in the city scares the shit out of me. She’s not hard enough for this place or for these people. If I let her get away from me, I might not ever find out what that tattoo means to her. And I sort of need to know now that it’s on my arm. I might be able to find her in the subway tunnel. I realized when I saw her today that must be why she looked so familiar. I’ve seen her in the tunnel, busking for change.
She crosses the street and goes toward the old bank building, the one that was turned into a shelter for the homeless a few years ago. There are people in a line outside, and she gets in line with them. She doesn’t have anywhere to stay. She’s going to a fucking homeless shelter? But before she can go inside, they close and lock the doors. The people in line stand and protest. But they’re full.
The throws her head back, her long dark hair falling even longer, reaching her ass. She’s frustrated, I can tell. But she doesn’t complain. She picks up her case, and starts down the street. There’s another shelter a few blocks over, but my guess is that it’s full, too. The shelters sprung up around here like fast food restaurants when the city began to change. But there are too many homeless and not enough places for them to stay.
I follow her, finishing my cigarette while I do. But instead of going to the next shelter, she stops and sits down on a bench, dropping her face into her hands. She’s tired. And I feel weighed down by her burden, too. I approach her and sit down beside her. She looks up, her brown eyes blinking in confusion.
“You followed me,” she says, looking up and down the street like she’s not sure where I came from.
Her chest bellows with air, and I’m guessing that was a heavy sigh. “You don’t have to sit with me,” she says.
I look at her, and I make sure to use my voice. “Come home with me,” I say.
She looks into my eyes, hesitates for a moment, and then says, “Yes.”
He’s going to expect me to sleep with him. They usually think they can get in my pants if they give me a bed and a meal. He’s given me food, and now the bed is the next part of it. He wouldn’t be hard to sleep with. He has those dreamy blue eyes and curly locks of blond curls spring about in wild disarray all over his head.
I retrieve the money he gave me earlier from my pocket and try to give it to him. “For the place to sleep,” I say. So he’ll know I don’t plan to sleep with him.
He shakes his head, looking at me like I have lost my mind. He slides my canvas bag off my shoulder again and puts it on his. His building is surprisingly close. All this time, I’ve been staying at shelters right around the corner from this guy. And I didn’t even know he was there.
He opens the door and motions for me to step inside. “Do you live alone?” I ask.
He shakes his head no.
I stop him and press on his shoulder. “Who do you live with?”
He does that thing again where he shows me two people taller than him and two shorter than him. He lives with his brothers. Shoot. I’m not going to an apartment filled with men I don’t know. “I can’t,” I say, but he rolls his eyes at me. Then he bends at the waist and drives his shoulder very gently into my midsection. He hefts me over his back like I’m a sack of potatoes. I’m still holding on to my guitar, and I knock him against the backs of his legs with it, because I know I could be screaming at him right now and he would have no idea. I can’t talk to him. I can’t tell him to put me down.
He carries me like that up four flights of stairs, and he’s huffing a little when we get to the fourth floor. I expect him to keep climbing, but he doesn’t. He stops and opens a door, and we’re suddenly in a hallway.
My struggling has ceased, because it’s no good. He can’t hear me. He can’t respond. So, I brush my hair out of my face with one hand and hold on tightly to my guitar with the other. He opens a door and steps inside, closing it behind him.
Four men turn to look at me, flopped there like a sack of potatoes over his shoulder. I’m turned to face them as he closes the door, so I wave. What else can I do? The one I met at the tattoo parlor gets to his feet. “Who’s that?” he asks.
The tattoo guy bends over to look in my face. “Shit, Logan, that’s the girl who clocked you.”
The other men get up and walk over, too.
One of them says, “Dude, she’s got Betty Boop on her panties.” I can’t even reach back to cover my ass.
Logan lowers me to my feet. I stumble as he sets me upright, when all the blood rushes back to my head. He reaches out to steady me, and he smiles. I realize that they could all see my panties when he had me upside down, not just the one of them. The rest were just nice enough that they pretended not to look.
Logan points to each of his brothers in turn, e smiles.
stumble a little as he sets me upright, when all the blood rushes back to and motions for them to talk. “Paul,” the biggest one says, as he extends his hand.
“I remember you,” I say.
“I’ll never forget you,” he says, with a laugh as he smacks Logan on the shoulder. “And neither will his nose.” He feints as Logan makes like he’s going to punch him. But he doesn’t. He stops right before he gets to his face.
The second to largest one, and they’re all big boys, sticks out his hand and says, “Matthew.” Matthew looks tired and a little green. I look at Logan and he nods subtly. This is the one who has cancer and is going through chemo. Paul slaps Matthew’s hand away and says, “You’re not supposed to be sharing any germs right now.”
“Fuck you,” Matthew says, and then he walks toward the hallway and goes in his bedroom and closes the door. He doesn’t look back at me, but I don’t mind.
The last two brothers have to be twins. They’re younger than Logan, and they look identical. “Sam and Pete,” Paul says.
They huddle around me, and I end up sandwiched between them, which they think is hilarious. They jiggle me around for a minute, until Paul barks at them. “Let her go,” he says. He pops them both on the backs of their heads and says, “They don’t know how to act when company comes over.”
Company? That’s what I am? “Nice to meet you,” I say. I’m a bit overwhelmed. This is a lot of testosterone in one room. There’s shooting and fighting blasting from the television and I look over at it. I know Logan can’t hear it, but there are subtitles playing at the bottom of the screen. I don’t know why, but that makes me smile.
Logan motions for me to follow him and I do, presumably toward his bedroom.
One of the twins (I can’t tell them apart) calls out for us to wait. But Logan can’t hear him. I follow him down the hallway, and the other of the twins is standing at the end of the corridor laughing like hell. Something is up, but I don’t know what. Logan opens his bedroom door, and steps inside. I follow him. And that’s when I see a form move in the bed.
“Who the fuck is that?” a female voice shrieks. Logan turns around and slaps at the light switch, and the room goes bright. A book flies across the room and hits his shoulder just as the light comes on. I step back out of the room, because whoever that is in his room is throwing shit like crazy. She’s blonde. And she’s naked. Completely and starkly naked. Shoot.
She jumps out of bed and starts grabbing for her clothes. Logan swipes a hand down his face and sticks his head out of the room. He motions toward Paul, who is leaning casually against the wall, a grin on his face. Paul walks down the hallway, his stride full of swagger, and he removes me from the doorway and goes in himself. The door closes with a thud.
“I thought you knew she was coming!” Paul says with a laugh. I imagine him doubled over, because that’s how the twins are, they’re laughing so hard. They’re high fiving each other and listening to what’s going on behind the door.
Logan must have signed something to him. Because he says, “She said she was going to surprise you.”
Well, she did that, apparently.
Paul heaves a sigh and says, “He wants you to go.”
More thuds in the room make me think she’s throwing stuff again. Good God.
“He doesn’t want you to surprise him again,” Paul says quietly, but I can hear it. I want to press my ear against the crack in the door, because things have gotten quiet. I can hear her sniffle.
“You don’t have to worry about that,” she says with a loud inhale. “I’ll never sleep with you again.” The door flies open and she steps out it, and then she attempts to crowd me back against the wall. The twins freeze, their mouths falling open. She’s almost six feet tall. I’m not.
“Oh, shit,” one of them says.
I tolerate her until a piece of spittle flies out of her mouth and hits me in the cheek. “You better back the fuck up, bitch,” I say. And I draw my fist back. I don’t hit like a girl. I never have. I never will.
Like one of those hooks on the gong show my grandma used to watch, Logan wraps his arm around her waist, picks her up and spins her away from me. He shakes a finger at me. He better be glad he caught her, or she’d have my fist up her ass.
“Don’t shake your finger at me,” I warn. I’m pushing against him to get to her. “I’ll rip every extension from your head.” She actually has nice extensions. I’d love to ruin them. “I’ll wrap them around your skinny neck and strangle you with them.” I’m still reaching for her, and Logan can’t sign, because he has her on one side and me on the other. I swipe at my cheek. The bitch spit on me. He hands her to the twins, who try to calm her down.
He holds up one finger at me. I think he wants me to wait. Wait for what? That skinny little no account whore just spit in my face. He shakes that finger at me again. I grab it and bend it back, until he winces and makes me let go. He’s stronger than me and I know it. But it felt good. I could get tired of that finger really quickly.
He bites his lips together and sets me back from him. Then he walks to her, takes her by the elbow and escorts her to the door. She slides her shoes on as she goes, and her pants are still unbuttoned. She’s going to be doing the walk of shame and she didn’t even get laid. I take a good bit of joy in that. I’m more content than a cat in a windowsill. Logan signs something to Paul.
Paul turns to the twins and says, “One of you walk her home. It’s late.”
They both volunteer by raising their hands and jumping up and down. He calls on the one on the left. “Pete, you take her.” He glares at him. “Don’t stay long.”
“Asswipe,” the other one grumbles as he stalks back to the couch. “Pete gets to do everything.” He clunks his feet down on the table. Then he changes his mind, stomps down the hallway and slams the door to his bedroom.
“Pete’s not a man whore,” Paul calls in the wake of his departure, deadpan.
“Since when?” Sam complains, sticking his head back out his door. “I’ll have you know-” But he shuts his mouth when Paul glares at him. The door slams closed behind him again.
Logan swipes a hand down his face and then grabs my arm, leading me into his room. He closes the door behind us. “I didn’t know she’d be here,” he says. His voice is halting and slow.
I pout, crossing my arms beneath my breasts. He looks down at them. He is such a guy. “When was the last time you slept with her?” I don’t know why I want to know this.
He holds up three fingers and points behind him. He’s not quite meeting my eyes.
“Three days ago?” I clarify.
He nods. “But I didn’t invite her tonight.”
“Is she your girlfriend?” I ask.
He shakes his head. He holds up that finger again and I roll my eyes.
He leaves the room and comes back with a stack of clean sheets. He jerks the slut sheets off the bed and throws them in the hallway. He motions for me to walk around to the other side of the bed, and then he snaps the sheet open and makes a movement like he wants me to help him. I might as well.
I work quietly with him to make the bed. Then he crosses to me and tilts my chin up. I think he’s going to try to kiss me and I’m balling up my fist to deck him again. But he just looks into my eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says. His voice is clear. Halting, but clear.
“I’m not sleeping with you,” I say.
He jerks his head back, clearly surprised. He steps back and shakes his head, and I think he’s biting back a smile. “I brought you here to keep you safe. Not to have sex with you.” He smiles again, and then he walks out of the room.
I follow him, because I don’t think we’re done yet. He goes to the fridge and pulls out a beer, pops the top of it and offers it to me. At the last second, he takes it back. “How old are you?” he asks, his brows drawing together.
“Nineteen,” I admit. He puts the beer back and hands me a cold bottle of water. I take it. It’s cool. And I’m thirsty. “What now?” I ask. He takes a sip of his beer.
He shrugs, and goes to sit on the couch. I look around. The place is a mess. There are pizza boxes everywhere, and dirty laundry piled up in the hallway. There are dishes in the sink, and the counter is full of clutter. There hasn’t been a woman in this place for a really long time.
“Can I use your shower?” I ask. It has been a few days since I had a shower. It’s hard to protect my stuff when I’m wet and naked, but I’m not too worried about it now.
Paul looks over his shoulder and then signs something to Logan. Logan looks at me and nods, pointing down the hallway. He makes a two with his finger and points, and I assume he means the second door. So, I grab my bag and head that way.
I open the door without knocking and I find Matthew hunched over the toilet. I move to step back and he looks me in the eye, his watery and red. “Don’t tell my brothers,” he warns. He starts to wretch again, and I step in the room and close the door. I open the cabinets and find a wash cloth, wetting it with cold water. I pass it to him and he wipes his face. He closes the toilet, flushes it and sits down on it. “Fucking chemo,” he says. “It’s a bitch.”
“Do they know you’re sick?” I ask.
He shakes his head and flushes the toilet again when it stops running. “Please don’t tell them. They have enough to worry about.”
“Did you need to use the bathroom?” he asks. He doesn’t look like he has enough strength to stand.
“I was going to take a shower,” I say. “But I can wait.”
He gets up, groaning. “I think I’m good for now.” He smiles a watery smile. “But I might have to barge in on you.” He removes a towel from the cabinet and lays it by the sink for me.
“You’ll be here to puke and not to look at me naked,” I say.
“I don’t mess with Logan’s women,” he says. Then he goes on to say, “Ever. It’s a brother thing.” He burps and I worry that he’s about to toss up his cookies again, but he doesn’t. He smiles at me and walks out, closing the door behind him.
“I’m not Logan’s,” I say more to myself than to him.
He opens the door back up, startling me. “Yes, you are.”