In Gran’s town, the streets don’t care if you are desperate or sad – the streets, like the dark houses, like the faraway sky, like the trees, do what they’re gonna do. They keep quiet. They keep calm – each intersection on auto-light: red, green, yellow. Stop, go, slow. Green, yellow, red, green. Go slow, stop, go back…or go home.
I can’t sleep here. It’s not Gran’s fault. She wants this to feel like home, but it just doesn’t. Some nights I hear my sister – even though she’s not here. I got Ruze stuck in my head or something, stuttering up my sleep, speaking her usual truth to the untrue. I used to believe her every word. Once, walking the bathtub rim like a tightrope, she told me: you can’t keep what you can’t hold, so for years I held on to nothing.
Tonight I’m measuring the words out when I hear
I’m sure it’s Ruze, looking to pull me outside. Ruze doesn’t care that Gran worries.
She doesn’t care that Gran put me on last call. That I’m better off keeping in.
But it isn’t Ruze.
Sibley on the sidewalk, Sibley under the light.
Sibley tossin’ rocks with all her might.
I think I’m dreaming, but when I hold my hand up to the window, she holds hers up, too.
I haven’t seen her since the day I got kicked out of the regular high school.
But here she is: her hair all golden and her head down. I ghost it past Gran’s bedroom and creep quiet as crime out the front door.
When I get to the sidewalk, she barely looks up. She is wearing jeans and a big sweatshirt. She is disappearing in her clothes, in the night – only her voice is there but even that is starlight quiet, miles away.
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” she asks
“You don’t want to know….” I laugh to bring her closer. It works.
“I need your help.” Her hands flutter – bone thin and quivering. But the half-moons of her nails glow in the light – clean and new – not like some girls. Not like Ruze, who gnaws on her hands out of habit and leaves the tips chewed and bloody. No. Sibley is nothing like Ruze.
We head down the street in the dark, each same-same house in Gran’s neighborhood struck by the streetlamp’s dim glow. I see a cop turn down the street, all slow like, lookin’ for trouble, I know he’ll peg me. Tag me: You’re it. So I take off running. I can’t wait for Sibley to catch on – but she does. She is laughing, skipping behind me – not knowing the cold of getting caught, called something you’re not.
“Where do you think we’re going?”
“I don’t know. Show me.”
Sibley is golden; she is light. The moon or something more. I want to hold her hand, run with her out of reflex, not fear. But I don’t dare.
I tell her she must be an angel
but only soft like
……….unheard under my breath.
I know how flat that sounds
……….in the beat between dark n light
out with a girl who needs you
……….(but won’t say why)
We run ‘til Sibley stops front of a house on Crestmont Court. It has arches and a big covered porch with a wide front door I pictured her skipping into it as a kid, slinking into it now with me (if I’m lucky) half-a-step behind.
“Are you in trouble, Jarret?”
“Not yet.” I laugh. “We going in?“
She doesn’t answer. Instead she walks down the side of the house to a low wooden gate. Even in the dark I can see it has all kinds of vines and ivy growing over and around.
“Can you pick a lock? Slide a window?” She looks at me hard. It is not a dare. She knows I can.
“Where are we?”
“Ms. K’s house.”
“She lives in this place behind. I know the girl who housesits for her.”
“Wait. Our English teacher, Ms. K? Yours now, I guess. I’m out at the Hold.”
“I don’t get it. We’re breaking into Ms. K’s house? Is she in there?”
I look at the window jambs, try the door. It opens on the first twist.
“You coming?” I ask Sibley.
She steps back and looks up over my head at the roof or the stars or heaven.
“So, this why you came for me?”
“What do you mean?”
“like I’m the guy for your job and not – what – what’s his name?”
“There you go – why don’t you get him?”
“What do you need from here anyway?”
Sibley twists her hair around her finger. She twists and waits but she doesn’t say anything.
“You stealing a test?”
“What – no!”
“Good – you don’t seem that type.”
“It’s just – I mean. It’s gonna sound crazy.”
“It already does.”
“I need something from in there. A paper. It’s mine. It isn’t even stealing. Not really.”
“Like, an essay?”
“Breaking and entering for – – an essay?”
“But it’s more than that. I – can’t say. You know sometimes you think a word will…”
“This is about words?”
“I thought you would understand.”
“Nah, I mean, I get it. Words hold…. everything. I know that. It’s only a word but yeah, it’s your whole life.”
“Look, I saw Ms. K put all the papers into the bag. She didn’t say she was going to enter them in a contest.”
“Just tell her you want yours out – I don’t think we need to be all going in to her house at night, Sibley.”
“ Maybe she already read it. Maybe she already knows.”
“Look, I made it all up, I swear, but no one will understand then…”
I want to love her the way you’re supposed to love someone who needs you – all open and eager – but I don’t wanna go in that house. I move closer even as Sibley moves back. She is shaking so I reach my hands out to touch both her arms and its like she’s not even there, in that big sweatshirt – she’s disappearing cuz she wants to be gone.
“I want to help you, I do,” I say but she is shaking her head, she is walking away, she is saying forget it, forget it, forget everything I said.
I follow Sibley back to her house to make sure she is okay. Moon distance from her I watch the way she keeps her head down – out this late on a mission she can’t fulfill. Must be pretty bad – whatever it is she needs – still can’t believe she came to me. She walks up the front steps to her door, opens it with a key.
Things in life should be that easy.
But they aren’t, so I go back.
Ms. K’s house house smells like candlewax and cigarettes. It is small, crunched up with stacks of books and plants growing all over the place, hanging down and sticking up, clinging to the walls. She has all this art in a cluster on the wall: no-name paint shapes and photos of empty windows, sketches of colorless chairs alone in a room. She has an old box T.V. and one of those two person couches my gran calls a love seat. Who’s lovin’, Ms. K I wonder, but shake the thought.
I walk over to the humming fish tank and turn on the tank’s light. The fish is nothing fancy. Nothing tropical or rare, just an old goldfish with long scraggly fins, one of those feeder fish you can get for two bucks. She’d probably had it forever, grown old like her with age and algae. The fish is busy, pushing around all the small rocks at the bottom of its tank, rearranging the surface like it is nothing.
Around the tank, Ms. K has all kinds of shells and statues – religious ladies and dancing elephants. There is a desk piled with papers and books and a photograph of what coulda been a younger Ms. K, years ago, holding a black kitten.
I look over at the small, covered table, two chairs, one pushed all the way under. Ms. K eats alone. I pictured her as a salad and water person, but the top of the table is littered with a crumpled bag of Sun Chips, a Diet Coke can and an ashtray full of cigarette butts.
I look for a stack of papers, a bag with folders, something that might hold the curves of Sibley’s script. Nothing here, so I go into the back. The bedroom is tiny. Only room for a bed pushed up against one side of the wall and a long low dresser.
It takes me a second to notice:
There is a body in the bed.
There is a body sleeping.
Asleep on her back with her hands on the covers, mouth slightly open, dark curly hair on her pillow.
I watch Ms. K breathe the deep-sleep breaths of the unwatched. There is a stack of books on the table next to her. I lift the top three but it’s too dark to see what they are. I’m sure this isn’t want Sibley is looking for, still, I hold on to them even after Ms. K starts to shift in the bed and I quick like make it to the front door
I stay there under Ms. K’s window. I don’t know why. I’ve got a stack of Ms. K’s books. I should just leave them on the porch and run but a mangy cat slinks forward, meowing. It rubs on my legs then scratches madly on Ms. K’s door, practically throwing itself at the house. A light goes on. I start to stand up, but then I hear Ms. K’s groggy voice – a scratch away from sleep.
“There you are! I was worried sick.”
She picks up the cat and closes the door. I half want her to be speaking to me – her chaos and the scratch of her voice is like my mom – but not. So I stay there, under her window – holding my breath – and wondering if Ms. K will leave the aquarium light on. If she’ll stay up, light herself a cigarette and zone out to her fish floating around. Or if she’ll invite me in. That’s when she turns and sees me.
“Jarret?” She kinda blinks and shakes her head, like I am a ghost or a dream or something. She has on these baggy sweats and a long shirt. “ Jarret?” she says again and takes a step toward me. “What are you doing here?”
I put my hand up. Kinda like don’t shoot and kinda like oh, hey. Then I give her the smile Gran says doesn’t work anymore.
“What in the hell – “ Ms. K starts to say. I scramble to my feet and book it out of there.
“See ya!” I call back and she sort of laughs but it isn’t like she is happy or anything.
I run all the way to Sibley’s house – waiting for the sirens or the silence or for something – someone – to come.
If you think I see Sibley, if you think I see Ruze, if you think I see Gran or my mom or Ms. K – sorry, you lose. In Gran’s town, the streets don’t care if you are desperate or sad – the streets, like the dark houses, like the faraway sky, like the trees, do what they’re gonna do. They keep quiet. They keep calm – each intersection on auto-light: red, green, yellow. Stop, go, slow. Green, yellow, red, green. Go slow, stop, go back…or go home.
Lisa Piazza lives in Oakland, California with her two young daughters. Her work appears in Cicada, Cleaver Magazine, West Marin Review, Animal Literary, the Young Adult Review Network and Brain, Child Magazine among others. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize as well as for the Best of the Net award. She is currently at work on a young adult novel told partially in verse.