It was the one place I always knew I could go. I hid there most afternoons, waiting until the first few stars arrived in the twilight sky before heading home, hoping to have avoided the transfer of power.
Frankie should have been off to work by then, and mom would be hovering over the kitchen sink, washing the dinner dishes. My belly was full when I’d walk in, and I’d tiptoe into the hallway, craning my neck to see if she noticed. But her head was always somewhere else.
Belinda played in her room with some old dolls, and I slithered past her door and slipped into my bedroom, gently shutting the door behind me.
In my backpack, I’d pull out one of the many books she’d lent me and a baggie of warm chocolate chip cookies. She left me a note this time: “Don’t forget to make your wish tonight.”
I closed my eyes and imagined her warm embrace, the smell of her chamomile tea brewing in the pot on the stove and the tickle of Chester, her tabby, brushing against my leg. I smiled. That was my wish.
“I saw your little fingerprints you left all over the counter, smeared with chocolate!” she screamed. He cowered, wide-eyed in the corner, shaking his head in defiance.
“I didn’t eat them, I swear, I swear!”
“Then how did they disappear? I should just pump your stomach now, get the evidence I need!”
“No!” The boy jumped up and bolted from the kitchen, running to the bathroom and locking the door behind him.
He heard her loud footsteps approaching and he started to cry. She banged her fist on the door.
“Let me in you little conniving thief!” She heard his sobs through the door. “You won’t get any sympathy from me with those tears. Those cookies were for church group!”
“I didn’t eat them!”
“Marjorie,” a deep voice descended the stairs. “Honey, is that you?”
Victor entered the hallway and patted his wife on the shoulder.
“Not now, Victor. Your son is in big trouble.”
“What he do this time? Oh, those cookies were great. Thanks for making them. What a treat! I totally pigged out.”
Margot lay in the dark awake. The noises in the wall grew louder. Unable to barely blink, scared to move more than a twitch, Margot’s imagination took over.
A rat, perhaps, running on its tiny and quick feet, scampering through the tunnels in the wall. Or a bat? Does a bat run? Or perhaps it beats its wings against the two-by-fours.
Something small, feisty, nocturnal.
The critter scurried along the wall, its little feet scratching against the structural innards. Then the patter stopped. Margot trained her ears toward the spot in the wall where she last heard the scuttling. She dared not turn on the light. Better to imagine the cause of the noises rather than be faced with a room full of rats or mice.
She waited patiently, her breath slow and controlled so as not to stir any other animals in the dark.
It moved again. Margot stiffened in her bed. Then the sound of another came scurrying along the same wall. Then another, and another. She heard them as they ran past the wall at her head, then down toward the entrance to her closet, where they stopped.
Must be nesting there, she decided. Call the exterminator in the morning.
He stood there watching from the peephole high in the center of the door. They stood over the other man, swinging their arms, throttling him with kicks and punches.
The only light came from a distant streetlight, and he couldn’t see anyone’s faces, but he knew who they were. He shamed the man who’d been caught in their circle for being out past curfew. There was no one to offer protection at this hour.
He felt a stirring in his belly, a fire, a restlessness. He clenched his fist as his eyes widened. They were yelling at the man, who now resembled a dark ball, crouched on his knees, head to the ground.
Another man casually walked toward the group. His cigarette glowed in the dark. He passed through the stream of light cast down on by the streetlight, and his face was briefly illuminated. It was Herbie Gray. He tossed the cigarette into the street and gave terse directives to the other men, who then scattered into the dark.
Gray bent over the balled-up man, spit out a few words then offered one final swift kick to the ribs. The man on the ground let out a squeal, then fell silent.
Through the peephole, he squinted at the sound. Gray turned and slowly walked down the sidewalk and disappeared into the night.
He pulled his gaze from the peephole and grasped the door handle. He glanced at the phone hanging on the wall, wondering who was left to call. Moving to the view from the kitchen window, he saw the man stirring. He’d be OK. He’d be OK.
She soared through the air, her eyes shut, prayers rushing through her head. It had been only three days since the fall, and her confidence was slow to return.
Her heart thumped in her chest. She gained speed on the downswing, then glided up toward the rafters. She felt gravity pulling at her insides, and she knew exactly where she was, even though she chose not to look.
Sergei would be mirroring her across the way. He’d be ready to catch her in a few seconds.
As her body surged upwards, she opened her eyes and the fear caught hold. Instead of letting go of the bar with her hands, letting her knees keep hold, she took another swing backward. Marco bellowed from below.
She closed her eyes again, trying to remember the safety she once felt. She once thought of herself as a bird flying from tree to tree, weightless and free. She had never known fear like this.
“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” she heard herself whisper. As hard as she tried to push the fear aside, to remember her love of flying to remember the joy and rush of flipping and soaring through the air, her legs now felt like stone blocks, and her hands were wet with sweat as they grasped the chalked bar.
She swung back and forth, losing momentum, slowing with ever return. Marco continued to scream 30 feet below. A lone tear ran down her cheek and dropped the distance to the concrete floor. She grabbed the landing, dismounted and ran down the steps into the solitude of her dressing room.