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The Opposite Of Homeless (Full First Chapter)

20 Jul

“I got the idea when the rest of the kids went back to school,” James explains politely, his hair pulled back in a short pony tail in a little nod toward hygeine, as he chops onions and green peppers next to the stove.

Rose, clad in jeans and a UCLA sweatshirt, lingers in the doorway to the patio, the sliding glass door oiled and maintained so well she can nervously move it back and forth with only her wrist.  Behind her the late morning sunlight is blinding, and the suburban neighborhood chirps with perky music and baby talk, carried over the privacy fences by the pollen-scented breeze.

She dislikes the sun.  Dark-haired and fair-skinned – it does nothing for her.  She says, “Well that’s ironic.”

James is dressed like a rich kid at the mall – name brands and bright colors.  His shoes are nice, too, but old and brown.  Shoes are harder to come by, expensive and treasured and then quickly destroyed by use.

Rose steps out of her sandals and then back into them.  She says, “This is the kind of kitchen makes me sort of sick.”

And James laughs.  “The big, nice kind full of food?”

That’s what it is, all right.  The kind of kitchen with stainless steel appliances and a big refrigerator that crushes the ice for you. Gleaming pans like showpieces, hanging from racks over the island stove.

James consults a cell phone on the counter next to him – something he does a lot – and then says,  “Come on in and sit down, this will be another twenty minutes.  You want some coffee or some juice or something?”

Rose cranes her neck to look out at the wide back yard.  A woman two yards down sits on a garden stool with a blue bandana wrapped around her head, either pulling weeds or planting flowers, facing the other way.  Rose leaves the door open and takes a seat primly in a breakfast nook beside it.

She says, “What did the kids going back to school have to do with it?”

“What?”

“You said that’s when you got the idea.”

“Oh, sure.”  James clears the cutting board into a skillet, where the onions and peppers crackle in the hot olive oil.  “Okay, well, I had just gotten away from Kim and Brian.”

His eyes flick into contact with her own for just a moment as he mentions them.  She doesn’t know much about them, but she knows their names bring a darkness to his face, and that some hurt deep inside him – the same one which enables her to trust him at all – is attached to them.

Having her own terrible names to associate with terrible things, Rose doesn’t ask him any questions about them.  She only nods.

“They bought me some pretty nice clothes, so when I got on the bus I took it to this side of town, and I slept in the mulch along the library, and then I got up and found a McDonald’s.  Cleaned up in the restroom, and tried to get someone to buy me breakfast.”

Rose winces – panhandling at an upper class McDonald’s is an easy way to meet the cops, something all the kids on the street learn pretty fast.

James lifts a package of sausages from the sink with the tips of his fingers, presses them through the shrink wrap to be sure they’ve thawed, and then opens it and dumps the links into the skillet. 

“All they did was toss me out,” he tells her.  “I was dressed nicely enough I just said I’d lost my phone and was on my way to school, played dumb.  An old lady pulled up next to me in the parking lot and gave me some kind of breakfast wrap, made us both happy.”

“I don’t know what I’d do without old ladies,” Rose replies, surprising herself with a serious tone – it’s so true.

“Well, I ended up in a neighborhood just like this, just wandering along the streets because I looked surburban and no one would bother me.  And it wasn’t long before I saw something amazing – a really hot girl, bending over.”

“You’re gross.”

“I know, couldn’t help it.  That’s really what I saw, but it wasn’t really gross.  She was bending over along the path beside the front door of a really big house.  I mean a mansion, by my standards.  And what she was doing was dropping a key under a rock, with her back to me.”

“Of course she was.”

“I didn’t go inside that day.  I kept right on going and she was already on the phone when she drove past me, really laying into someone on the other end.  She had her window down, and state university stickers on the back window, and she smelled like peaches and cigarettes even while she drove down the street.”

“See, you’re being creepy again.”  Rose tugs at the sleeves of her sweatshirt, and then moves a piece of her hair.  She doesn’t like talking about attractive girls, or what makes them attractive, or what men want to do with them because of their attractiveness.  She pulls her knees up onto the chair with her and clasps her hands around them.

“But you did go inside?”  Rose wants to know.

James selects an omelette pan and a hard rubber spatula, then pauses to admire the label of a bottle of extra virgin olive oil before pouring a little into the pan. 

He pokes at the sausage links in the other skillet and says, “I went back to the library that night, and slept in the mulch again behind some shrubs along the wall.  That time I heard people hanging around, sounded like crackheads, and then a cop ran them off.  I stayed hidden and he went away, but I was in bad shape the next morning.  Kind of starting to lose it all ready.”

Rose knows how the walls and the ceiling – any walls and ceiling – can seem like the walls of her skull when they’re gone.  Out there in the cold without them, sanity scatters like mist in a hard wind. 

“I know,” she says quietly, still hugging her knees.

He takes a few moments to collect himself, so she watches him with her dark eyes, as he cracks eggs and moves the onions around.  He gets out the orange juice and the milk and pours two small glasses of each, and finally says, “I went to the same house at about the same time the next day, and there was the same Dodge Charger in the driveway with the state university parking stickers.  I walked around for a half hour and when I got back, it was gone.  It was about one o’clock in the afternoon.”

“So I said to myself, screw it, and I went inside.  I walked right up the walk, and bent down like she did and picked up a few rocks, and there it was.  A shiny key to the front door.”

The scent draws Rose from her chair, and she glances out the back door before stepping out of her sandals again and trotting up to the counter.  James is making toast now, a single slice each.

“So you just went inside?”

“Walked in like I owned the place.  There was some mail on a table by the front door, so I grabbed some of it and saw the last name and yelled ‘Mrs. Anderson!’ a couple of times.  Whatever the name was, I can’t remember.  Nobody answered, so I closed the door behind me.”

Rose wrinkles her nose but it’s hard to keep it that way, with the breakfast shaping up in front of her.  She says, “I don’t like trying to sell the stuff.  Stolen stuff.  I guess I don’t mind taking it.  It’s just that then you have to walk around with it and later at the pawn shops, the first thing they think is that you stole the stuff.”

“That’s true.”

“You have to switch shops, and carry this stolen crap all over town.”

“I know but Rose, that’s not what I’m saying.  You have to think more like a fox and a hen house.  Sure you can run in there and kill all the chickens, get chased all over the countryside by farmers with rifles.”

“Mmmm.  That looks good.”

He puts a plate in front of her with sausage and onions and green peppers on it, then pushes some scrambled eggs on top of it right out of the omelette pan.  “Or you sneak into the hen house every couple of nights, and just take a few eggs.  Give yourself a fish or teach yourself to fish.”

“This looks amazing.  Didn’t the Andersons have a security system?”

“I’m getting good at it making breakfast.  Yes, they did, it just wasn’t on.  I’ve found that at least half of people with security systems routinely do not turn them on.  You know what else they do?  They write the code on a piece of paper and put it on the fridge or something.  That’s where I found this one – it was too funny.”

“They wrote it on the refrigerator?”

“I guess the college daughter was always leaving without turning it on, like she did that day.  So there was a big note on the white board attached to the fridge, said, ‘Lindsey – be sure and turn on the security system!  7718!  Erase this board!'”

“No way.”

“Oh, yes.  So I stood there looking at it and I realized that as long as no one saw me here, I could come back anytime I wanted to.”

Rose starts making faces as she chews, muttering, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.  This is so good.”  She taps his plate with her fork, making him jump a little and says, “As long as they keep leaving that key out.”

“Well, I started wondering how long I had before they’d be back, so I thought about it for a minute and then I went and found the phone lying on the arm of a couch in the living room.  I picked it up and scrolled through the menu until I pulled up a list of outgoing calls.”

“What would that tell you?”

“No outgoing calls between one and five for the last week – as far back as the outgoing call log went.  Some pictures on the mantle showed a high school kid maybe a year younger than me in a basketball jersey, so he was probably at practice after school.  And the mom and dad were both so white and serious and normal-looking – it made sense that they wouldn’t walk in the door before five or six.”

Rose cleans her plate with her toast and says, “People don’t call out with their home phones.  Half the time they take out their cell phones out and use them just because they’re closer.”

“Yeah, I was worried about that too,” James agrees.  “But I was a little panicky from the night at the library.  The wrong crowd of guys finds you in a place like that, three o’clock in the morning…”

“So what’d you do?” 

“Well, I decided to make another key.  But just in case someone came home while I was off doing that, in case the whole thing came unravelled, I gave myself ten minutes to round up a little survival kit.”

Rose nods – all the housebreakers and burglars she knows are emphatic that you never want to spend more than ten minutes in a house.  It doesn’t matter what the outgoing call logs say – people mix up their schedules all the time.

“It wasn’t hard,” James goes on.  “They had a boy my age, and Lindsey in college – lots of food in the place.  I grabbed an old backpack out of the back of the hall closet, and filled it up with a little bit of everything – a sleeve of crackers, a couple cans of soup, couple of bananas, couple of apples, a can of cocktail peanuts.”

“So were you thinking you’d come back if they’re going to come home and find half their food gone?

“Well, that’s the thing.  They had Lindsey to blame and also a basketball player.  If they notice all the peanuts are gone, what are they going to do imagine a sneaky homeless burglar or imagine one of their kids scarfing them down and refusing to admit it?”

Rose cocks her head, thinking about it.  She says, “I’ll bet they had arguments about things like that long before you ever showed up.”

“Got that right.  Same thing with clothes.  I went up and helped myself to a pair of jeans and socks and a nice sweatshirt and two tee shirts.  Again, the kid might wonder where they went, but kids are always missing a sweatshirt or something.  He might stomp around looking for it, but it’s not going to occur to anyone that someone broke in and stole a single set of his clothes.”

“So you gave yourself ten minutes to grab enough food and clothes to survive a couple days if you had to.”

“Right.  Then I figured I should get to the Meiier’s out on the main drag and get a copy of the key made.  Get it back under the rock before anyone got home and noticed it was missing.  By then it was getting close to one thirty.  I made it back within an hour, walked right in again and yelled and no one answered, and so I went out and put the key back where it went.”

“Then what?  You left?”

James clears the plates and starts doing the dishes, stacking them carefulling in the dish rack as he’s finished.  Rose starts realizing, he doesn’t even have to put them back where he found them.  As long as several people live in a house, each of them will assume one of the others moved stuff around, if they notice changes. 

No one will come home and demand to know who dirtied two plates and two skillets, and then washed them.  He could probably leave them in the sink – nothing would be strange at all about both the teenagers swearing they didn’t do it.

“No, I didn’t leave,” James says, looking very proud of himself, a little mischevious.  “I spent the night.”

“What?”

“Come here and take a look at this.  These big houses, they’re a lot alike.”

He finishes wiping off the counter and the stove, and tosses the dishcloth in the sink, and opens the basement door but Rose says, “Hold on.”

“What?”

She gestures around at the kitchen, the open back door.  “I know you’ve been at this a while, and I’m not wanting to second guess you, but how can you be so sure no one’s going to walk in here while we’re in the basement, looking at whatever it is you want to show me?”

“Ah.”  James consults the cell phone again, and then hands it to her.  “Check this out.”

Rose looks at the cell phone and it’s gibberish to her – she hasn’t had a cell phone in a solid year.  “Check out what?”

James trots down a hall toward the front door and points into a small office at the front of the house.  He says, “Look.”

Rose follows him into it, and he gets on his knees by a computer desk and pulls up a cord from the back with a small plastic ring clipped to it like a key ring.  “These are passwords,” he tells her.  “These are passwords to all of Julie’s accounts – Julie’s the mom here, divorced one year, taking it pretty hard.  A lot of people keep their passwords written down and attached to the cord like this so they can get to them easy but hackers can’t, and then if the system ever crashes, they’ll still have them.”

“What good does that do you?”

James holds up the phone again.  “I’m tracking Julie’s cell phone with her GPS chip.  When she leaves work, this phone will tell me.  Takes five minutes to set up, if you have access to the phone number and the cell company’s password and login ID.  Some people use it to keep tabs on the teenagers or their employees or just their spouses, if that’s how it is.  But most people have no idea you can do it at all.”

James shows her the phone again and now the screen displays a street map with a small icon marking a spot on it.  He says, “See?  She’s sitting right there at work.”

Rose shakes her head, grinning.  “That’s crazy!  What about the kids?”

“Both teenagers,” James replies, pressing some more buttons and then showing it to her again.  “They’re on Facebook, foursquare, all these social networking sites.  I friended them both under a fake teenybopper ID and now they tell me where they are every fifteen minutes, practically, without even asking.  They just tell everybody for no reason – going to the library, eating a sandwich, doing homework at Bob’s house.  It’s nuts.”

“I don’t know much about those things,” Rose replies, and gets a strange look from James but he drops it pretty quickly.

He stands and leans against the computer desk, peering around the little office with a troubled expression looking odd on his smooth face.  His cheeks have a little bit of a pudge and a hue to them that Rose isn’t used to seeing on her peers.

Her hands move to her forearms, rubbing them absently as if cold, though the sunlight hitting the blinds emanates dull heat.  She leans against the wall, liking the rough feel of the painted drywall, and keeps her mouth shut, still watching him.

James says, “You must have left home pretty young.”

In the two days they’ve known each other, they’ve very rarely asked questions.  All personal information tends to be volunteered among their brethren – so many of them have people looking for them, parents and cops and drug dealers and pimps and worse.  Much, much worse.

Rose bobs away from the wall and wanders further into the room, peeking out the blinds for no reason in particular and then dropping into a large wicker chair that is meant to be more decorative than functional.  It offers a few creaky complaints beneath her whispery weight, and she runs the back of her nails up and down along the slats of a vented closet door beside her.

She folds her arms and offers no eye contact, a conspicuous thing in the small room, and says, “I was fourteen.  Just barely.  I’d been fourteen for three days when I left.”

No time to really learn about the things other girls learn about.  No carefree trips to the mall with her pals, no piling into Coldstone Creamery for candy bar ice cream sprinkles.  Rose knows what she’s missed, knows it all too well and she doesn’t want pity or understanding or empathy or even any attention at all.

All of those things come with a price, she knows, for a girl on her own.

James says, “You don’t have to tell me anything, Rose.  I’m just talking about these networking sites.”

She tilts her chin down, hiding her eyes behind her dark hair, a girl who has cried so much she can almost sniff the tears back into her eyes like snot.  Almost.  After a moment she has to somewhat angrily wipe a tear away, and then she looks up at him, moist and defiant. 

“I know,” she tells him.

James only nods, looking down like a funeral director speaking to the bereaved. 

Here is a moment when they typically try something, she thinks.  Right when they have you in tears, right when you’re tired and shaking, right when they’ve shown you that they’re strong and you’re weak.  I know what you need, they’ll tell you, and then start humping your leg like a dog.

Except it isn’t funny.  It’s just as disgusting, but without being funny. 

James shrugs and says, “Foursquare is a site that tracks your phone for you, posts on your profile when you walk into your favorite hotspots – certain restaurants, coffee shops, malls, that kind of thing.  Ashley is the daughter here – she likes to go to Starbucks after school.  And Colin is the boy – he’s thirteen, so he’s here when the bus drops him off at ten to four, like clockwork.”

“Wait, I thought you said something about Lindsey.”

“No, that was the first house I ever infiltrated.”  James gestures at the house around them.  “This is probably the twenty-fifth.”

“How old are you?”  Rose blurts out.

“Eighteen in three weeks,” James replies.  “I’ll probably get my own – SHIT!”

The last word drops to a hissing whisper and Rose’s blood freezes as a the square of slatted sunlight on the opposite wall darkens with the shifting shadows of a pair of figures walking past the windows behind her.  The sound of male voices, speaking in low private tones, drifts through the glass.

A set of keys rattles, clear as day.  The office is directly off the entryway, just eight or nine feet from the front door.

James moves quickly and decisively, yanking open the slatted closet door and tugging Rose out of the wicker chair, twirling her against his body like a dancer and collapsing into the cluttered darkness.  Their ankles twist as they try to find level ground among the shoes and barbells and stacks of books on the closet floor.

The keys make jingling and thumping noises as they turn in the lock and then the front door creaks open.  James takes advantage of the noise to pull the closet door closed behind them, shifting his shoulders so the coats and jackets on hangars settle around them, and Rose starts panicking, his body pressed against her.

“Hold still!” He whispers – an expert, homeless whisper just barely audible – as he half sits and half leans against the back wall of the closet, holding her as tightly to him as she can.  “Hold still, damn it!  Hold still!  Shhhhhhh.”

Rose retreats into her own head, the way she has learned to when the world at large, one way or another, has its way with her.  She lets the cold, soothing blankness spread through her body, noting that James keeps his hands on her forearms and nowhere else.  Noting that yes, he’s a little aroused, but he probably can’t help it.

And she is calm by the time the stillness reaches her feet, and she realizes she’s barefoot. 

Her whisper is every bit as focused as his was as she tilts her head back and tells James, “My sandals are by the table, and the back door is open.”

A male voice calls out, “Hello?  Ash?”

Rose wiggles her toes against a bowling ball bag at her feet, wincing at every creak in the darkness as her weight settles against James.  Stripes of light from the slats in the door are sufficient to exchange grave expressions with him; she nods as she pushes his hand away from her face, mouthing the words, “It’s okay, I’m okay.  I’m okay, let go.”

There are two male voices, another one is a little deeper than the first.  “The back door’s wide open, Terry.  You sure no one’s here?”

Their footsteps recede into the kitchen, and Rose tries to recall exactly how they left it.  A stroke of luck, the fact that James just did the dishes. 

“Ash!”  The first voice again, calling out the teenage girl’s name, then her brother’s.  “Colin!”

James’ mouth is already right next to Rose’s ear, his whisper as quiet as a heartbeat, maybe more so.  “Terry’s the dad.  He’s not supposed to be here.  He’s not even supposed to have a key.”

Rose cranes her neck to look at him – is he kidding?  No, he looks genuinely angry with the man’s interloping, even as he hides in a closet.  She tucks her chin down to her chest and snickers a little.

“Here,” says Terry, his footsteps returning from the kitchen, creaking into the computer room.  “The computer’s in here.  I’m going to run upstairs and double check, make sure the kids aren’t here.”

“Those have got to be her sandals,” says the deeper voice.  “Could she be over at the neighbors’?”

“Just play it cool.  Anyone comes in, I’ll just have to deal with it.  How long you need in there, twenty minutes?”

“Tops.”

She can see them now through the slats, a tall, dark and wavy-haired Dad in a blue, button down shirt and expensive tan slacks that somehow make his butt look good – hard to miss, when he practically presses it against the slats in the closet door.  The other fellow is a short, lean guy with a shaved head, a Captain Crunch tee shirt, and a large, plastic tool box.  He crouches down on one knee and peers behind the computer desk.

“Yeah, shouldn’t be any longer than that,” the smaller guy says.

“Okay, have at it.”

Terry leaves and Rose listens to him thump up the steps, calling out the kids’ names again.  He’s just going to try to blarney them if they’re home and ask what he’s doing here, she thinks.

It takes a lot of focus to remain perfectly still and quiet, with just a slatted door between them and the other fellow.  The air in the closet is stuffy and carries a lot of dust; Rose wrinkles her nose at it, trying to breathe in slow, steady streams of air drawn in between parted lips.  Each shoe, each box, each piece of rustling fabric seems deafening as they watch the man withdraw some cable-laden equipment and a laptop from his tool box.

There’s a sudden odor – mild but distinct, like slightly sour milk.  Rose cranes her neck again to glare at James.  He shrugs apologetically in the dark – at least it was quiet.

Then Terry’s footsteps thump back down the stairs.  “There’s no one here,” he announces.  “Ashley must have left the door open by accident.  You think I should close it or leave it how it is?”

“Close it,” the guy says, his voice strained as he crouches under the desk trying to plug something in to the computer tower.  “Close it up – she didn’t leave it open on purpose, so she doesn’t know she left it that way, so she won’t notice that it’s closed.  Won’t seem strange at all.”

There’s his butt again, right up against the cracks.  Will Terry be able to smell James’ untimely fart?  She has an urge to reach out and poke one of the cheeks through the slats with her pinky finger.

James tightens his fingers very slightly against her arm.  Stay focused, she tells herself.

“How’s it going under there, Wade?”

A relief to Rose for some reason, learning the bald man’s name.  Wade says, “Halfway done.  She’s got a little bit of security on this thing, but mostly just to stop hackers.  Being right here with a hard line changes everything.”

“Don’t leave any tracks,” Terry tells him.

“Yeah, right.  It’s pretty hard not to leave any tracks, but you’d have to really look for them.  I’m going to give you remote access – there’s no way to hide that.  We’ll have to come back in a week or so, whenever you’re through with whatever, and clean up.”

“What about the keystroke thing?”

“Oh yeah, well that’s installed and there’s a kill code – you can enter the code remotely and the keystroke recorder will delete itself.  She takes this thing to a tech guy, though…”

“I think we’re going to want to crash the hard drive next week, just clean the whole slate.”

“That’s cold, man.”

“You about done?”

Wade says, “I’ll let you know when I’m finished and yes, it will be pretty soon.” 

Really dwells on his consonants, Rose notices, letting Terry know how difficult it is to remain patient with him.  Terry puts his hands in his pockets and does what looks like a potty dance, twirls over to the window in a jittery pirouette and peeks out the blinds.  

Wade says, “Did you check the garage and make sure Julie’s not out there doing some yard work or something?”

“No, she’s definitely at work,” Terry says, but he leaves the room in short, hurried steps anyway. 

Rose becomes suddenly, acutely aware of James’ breath against her hair.  She gets the feeling he’s smelling it, and has to battle another intense urge to squirm, like an itch the size of her entire body that she can’t scratch.

Wade gets out a notebook and starts copying the passwords down from the cord, while Terry’s footsteps thump out to the kitchen, where the garage door creaks open then after a moment creaks shut again.  A few more footsteps and then they end abruptly – he must have gone out back to look around.

Rose thinks about the woman gardening a couple of houses down.  Does he know her?  Will he ask her if she’s seen anyone hanging around?

She watches Wade’s Captain Crunch shirt as he returns his belongings to his tool box, the room seeming suddenly very quiet without Terry in the house.  She holds her breath.  The remaining sound of James breathing in her hair seems like a lawnmower. 

Rose tries to pick up the sound of Wade’s breathing, to gauge whether or not her can hear James and is startled by how moist and loud it is – how did she miss it earlier?

Leather creaks beneath them, a distinct pop like a twig snapping the forest at night.  Rose closes her eyes, and when she opens them, Wade is on his feet, hefting his tool box with a sigh, and then he returns the wheeled office chair to its spot in front of the desk, and then he’s gone.

As his footsteps recede to the kitchen, Rose squirms away from James and glares at him, hissing, “Think you can do something about your stupid boner, James?”

“I can’t help it,” he replies, whispering into her hair.  “It’s not something you can just stop thinking about.”

“Think about dead puppies or something.”

“Shhh.”

Wade’s voice from the kitchen is faint; he’s speaking out the back door.  “I’m serious, Terry, you can’t leave it open so just pull it shut and let’s go.   Everybody lives here knows where the key is anyway.  Let’s go.”

Terry starts talking from the patio and they can’t hear him all of what he says.  “…effort getting a key made just to come here and find the back door open.”

“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”

So they go.  Right out the front door, the deadbolt clicking behind them, then two bobbing shapes pass the window, casting shadows through the slats on them.  Rose opens the closet door and rolls forward on to the carpeted floor of the office, pushing herself to her feet and then turning to grab James’ outstretched hand, pulling him up as well.

He looks out the blinds for a moment while Rose tugs at her clothes in various places, straightening her bra, taking care of a bit of a wedgie, fluffing out her sweatshirt like a pillow in the middle of the night. 

“There they go,” James says to the blinds, then turns to her, cracking a grin.  “Dead puppies?”

“You’re gross.  Sitting there talking to me with a boner.”

“I think I’ve been pretty well-behaved for a guy with a boner.”

Rose blinks at that for a moment; that’s actually quite true.  She shrugs and says, “We should get out of here, right?”

James looks at his phone and scrolls through a menu.  Beep, beep, beep.

“Well,” he says.  “I’ll offer the same thing as yesterday, but you have to make up your mind now.  You have a place to stay tonight?”

Looking right at her now, right into her eyes.  Rose looks back, cocking an eyebrow at him. 

“I heard you last night, Rose,” he adds.  “We’re friends and I’m just trying to be your friend.  The truth is I’m lonely.  I can keep you safe and help you and not be lonely.  That’s all.  I’m your friend, Rose.”

She aches a little, looking at him.  His face is so healthy and honest and frightened and hurt.  So much familiarity mixed with something hard to name it’s been so long since she’s encountered it.  Something she trusted once, and lost.  It hurts to look at him because she knows that it’s only a matter of time before the earnestness fades.

Her mother used to tell her that, so it isn’t just the streets that does it to them.  It’s just common knowledge, a fact of life.  Boys go bad like milk – a matter of time.  And when they’ve gone bad, they’re called men. 

She pushes her mother from her thoughts, but she’s been away from home for over two years.  The only male that she’s met the entire time who hasn’t eventually hurt her is right in front of her, and she’s only known him two days.

That’s sort of how it goes – you can only give them as long as you can give a gallon of milk, and then you have to keep moving.  Otherwise you’re suddenly a farm animal or a prostitute or a punching bag. 

“I’ve got kind of a job,” Rose tells him.  “Some things I have to do.  I can do what I want during the day, but I need to get downtown tonight.  I’m in sort of a…”

She throws her hands in the air and drops them against her hips.  “I have to work, James.”

He frowns.  “You’re not…”

“Hooking?  Dancing?  No.  That’s the point.  I’m doing what I have to do, to not have to do those things.”

“Doing what you have to do,” James repeats, his voice flat, his eyes wandering up to the ceiling.  “That sounds kind of ominous.”

“Grim,” Rose says quietly.  “That’s what we call ourselves.  The Grims.”

“We?  Who’s we?”

Rose cocks her head at him, not liking the sharp tone he uses all of the sudden – something else they all do.  Instantly hate the notion that anyone else ever talks to you at all. 

She says, “James, I’m just going to tell you right now, if you start acting like some kind of psycho I’m just going to disappear.  You don’t have any right to judge me or interrogate me or…”

“Protect you?  Do I have the right to care about you or protect you?”

“Why?  Because you got a boner, James?”

“No!”  He claps his hands to his forehead and runs them through his hair.  “Damn it, Rose…”

“No?  No you don’t?  Then did you have a little flashlight in your pocket in there or what?”

James drops his eyes back to hers and says, “Rose.  Let me show you this, just one night.  Let me show you how you can be safe.  I’ve got some money saved – hell, I’ll buy you dinner.  You want some dinner?”

“That’s charming, James,” Rose says, but she’s listening.  Not hungry at present, but dinner is always a question mark.  “You think I’m going to…”

“How’s this sound?”  James asks.  “We’ll watch a movie in a nice den, and have a pizza and some Dr. Pepper, and if you want to go downtown at ten o’clock, I’ll drive you there.”

Rose looks around and says, “You want to have a pizza here, after Terry and Captain Crunch just came in like that?”

“No,” James replies, looking out the window again.  “This place is a madhouse from about an hour from now until midnight, and it’s got teenagers in it.  All the good hiding places are being used by them to hide something.”

“So where?”

“First help me close this place up and let’s get out of here.  Just stick with me, and if at any point you want to leave, no problem.”

“No more closets?”

“Well,” James shrugs, his smile crooked and alive.  “I can’t promise anything – shit happens.  But next time, if it makes you feel better, I’ll sit on you.”

“You’re funny.”

They clear out of the computer room, and James takes Rose on up to Lindsey’s room and she turns out to be really close to Rose’s size. 

Lindsey’s room is a mess, and Rose gets a little weirded out again by how comfortable he is in it.  Does he hang out here, by himself, doing gross boy things?  What looking at her underwear, bras? 

James roots around in her comically cluttered closet and comes out with a tangerine duffel bag.  “I don’t know if you’re attached to that sweatshirt and jeans or whatever, but sometimes a pair of clean underwear is nice, and you could get away with taking pretty much any outfit you want out of here.”

“You don’t think she’ll miss it?”

“Oh, she’ll probably miss it, but nobody will care.  Teenage girls run around freaking out about outfits they can’t find all the time.  I literally wear clothes and then bring them back the next time, drop them in the laundry, wear something else.”

Rose peers into the closet, instantly liking Lindsey’s taste in clothes.  A green dress jumps out at her – very cute, but probably too cute.  She wouldn’t want to be too cute, not tonight.

James picks up a pair of sandals and says, “I’m going to go and put these by the table, just in case the dad says something to Lindsey about the back door.  Keep things confusing.  Pick something out and let’s go.”

Rose sticks with her jeans but adds a snug, gray top with Aeropostle written down the arm.   She puts her sweatshirt, a pair of plain white panties, and a clean bra – her size! – in the duffel bag and then on an impulse, she takes the green dress, too.  She won’t want to wear it around the other Grims, but maybe sometime…

Downstairs it takes her a moment to find James in the laundry room, where he’s going through pockets and coming out with a little cash.  He grins at her as she leans against the doorway, and he says, “House like this, the laundry room is like an ATM.  Also, you see any cash just laying around – take it.  Two kids in the house, all they’ll do is blame each other.  Just don’t steal anything valuable, and don’t go for the bedroom stash.”

“The bedroom stash?”

“Yes, most parents keep some cash – and sometimes other things, liquor, drugs, porn – in a stash in their bedrooms.  Number one spot is a shoebox or other small container, top shelf of the closet.  Sometimes right there in the nightstand.  Sometimes in the inside pockets of coats or suit jackets hanging up in the closet.  Ah!  Hello…”

James holds out a small wad of crumbled bills and some coins.  Rose examines it and says, “Eight bucks!”

 He shakes his hip and makes his pocket jingle.  “Got another three fifty in change here, some of it from right on top of the dryer, some of it from the coffee table out in the living room.  Again, you want to remember that people don’t suspect burglars of stealing little things like that.  They suspect each other.”

Rose says, “Aren’t we pushing our luck here?”

James consults his phone and says, “Why, yes we are.  Yeah, Lindsey will be home in like fifteen minutes.”

They hit the pantry, grab a couple of granola bars and bananas for the road, and then go out through the back door, Rose slinging the duffel bag over her shoulder like a backpack or a large purse.  The gardening woman has gone inside and faint music plays somewhere in the sunny back yards. 

They trudge around the side of the house.  James keeps his voice low, cocking his head and says, “This is the most dangerous five seconds of the whole trip, for me.  Getting out of the yard.  Can you imagine Lindsey pulling up and here we are walking through her yard with you wearing her shirt?”

“What would we do?”

“Act like she’s crazy.  Keep walking.  Not come back for a month.”

But Lindsey doesn’t come home, and once they are a quarter mile down the sidewalk, Rose is filled with the exhilarating knowledge that there is pretty much no way to get busted now, for what they just did.

“Unless they have a nanny cam,” she mutters aloud.

“I really look for those,” James tells her, startling her since she hasn’t realized she’s spoken.  “Also web cams.  People turn on their web cams remotely, check on their kids.  I go around closing lens caps on day one, every time.  Pick up all the teddy bears and look up their butts for cameras.”

“Ever found one?”

“A nanny cam?  No.  But I had a guy come rushing home because he was positive he’d left the lens cap open.  I’m lucky he didn’t call the cops.”

“Did he catch you?”

“No.  The first thing he did was call the house, I guess thinking maybe his wife was home.  I saw it was him – he called three times – and cleared out.  Saw him barrelling down the road five minutes later when I was walking away.  I think he thought his wife was cheating on him, and actually, I think he was right, just not that time.”

Rose realizes that she’s following him, off the sidewalk and down a path along a ravine.  She says, “Where are we going?”

“I thought we’d pick up a little more cash down on campus,” he tells her.  “I know a house full of waitresses, and hold on a second…”

He scrolls through his phone, beeping and frowning for a moment, and says, “And all three of them have to work tonight.  Great thing about waitresses, they keep their tips in big milk jugs or cereal boxes, right there in their rooms.  Pizza’s on them tonight.”

The path winds all the way down the river and hooks up with a paved jogging path; they stop to let a pair of serious runners – a black dude and a white dude, looking like scowling machines and smelling like a locker room – run past them, followed by a comically attractive Japanese girl in skin tight running shorts with the word “FINE” printed on her ass.

Rose says, “People live in different worlds, you know?”

“Yes,” James tells her.  “I know.”

It’s a long walk to campus, and a lot of traffic on the bike path, joggers and people with dogs.  The bicyclists call out, “On your left!” as they pass – there’s some kind of system for where you’re supposed to walk and where you’re not. 

Whatever the system is, they’re doing it wrong.  James and Rose eventually abandon the path altogether, walking instead in the grass among the pine cones and the turds. 

It’s getting breezy and the air starts smelling like rain, and the first of the leaves are already on the ground, still a little green at the stems.  They move along in no particular hurry, pausing to pet dogs and point at ducks and occasionally dodge out of somebody’s way.

The crowd is distinctly suburban, like a half-assed Gap commercial going on all around her.  Rose is surprised by how easily she blends into them, with just a single, nonsensical word down her sleeve.  This is a part of town she would normally avoid – they can smell fear in places like this.  It’s like a horror movie.

She normally hurries through an area like this, her arms crossed over her chest and she looks down while she walks.  It’s not a chicken-or-the-egg thing, either.  Sauntering around casually was the first thing she tried out on her own, and at first it worked.

But the time wears the normal off of you.   You don’t shower regularly, no one does your hair.  You’re scared all the time.  You don’t sleep.  Pretty soon no amount of casual sauntering will allow you to blend in with the civilized.  They simply reject you, like a bad organ or a virus.

So she also knows that it’s not just the Aeropostale shirt she’s wearing.  It’s James.

He wears their clothing.  Not just in style, but literally – he walks into their houses and puts it on, and leaves it there later for someone to launder.  He eats their food and access their computers and God knows what else, so they accept him.  Like they smell their own urine on him or something.

Whatever it is, he’s used to it.  He doesn’t merely walk among them, he walks like them as well.  The way they manage to sort of look around at the tops of buildings and glance at their phones and wink at each other as they stroll along.  Right there on the street, as if nothing bad ever happens there at all.

They stop on bench on the edge of campus and eat their bananas and cereal bars, and James springs for a Pepsi from the hot dog guy, with laundry money.  Then they hike all the way across campus to the clusters of apartments on the other side, where James pauses in front of a massive old Victorian house, gets out his phone and makes a call.

They stand their on the sidewalk trying to find things to look at for thirty seconds, then James puts the phone away and says, “Okay, let’s go.”

They climb the steps to the porch, where a mountain bike with no seat is chained to a metal railing, and then they walk right in the front door of the house.  James cracks up as they cross the entryway to a set of stairs.  He says, “That front door is supposed to be locked, but it only is about two thirds of the time.”

Rose frowns at a door on the first landing as they pass it.  As they mount the next flight she asks, “So, what were you going to do if it was locked?  Kind of a long walk.”

James turns and lowers his voice.  “I have a key.  I just didn’t at first.  Keep your voice down, the dude on the first floor is not too sharp, but he’s home.”

Rose concentrates on the next flight of steps and then at the top of them asks, “How’d you get the key?” 

James points to the door’s hinges, shaking his head.  “The hinges are on the outside.  Can you believe that?  They cut these old houses up into apartments, and they just don’t think it through or something.  I don’t know.  I just waited til they all went to work, then I came in here with a tool belt on, carrying a tool box.  Took the door off it’s hinges, pulled it out of the deadbolt.”

He fishes a key ring out of his pocket.  Rose gives him a flat smile until he looks up at her, and she says, “You some kind of janitor or something?”

“They’re numbered,” he tells her.  “Look.”

She looks, and indeed they are numbered, little roman numerals up into the twenties.  “What’d you use a Sharpie?”

He unlocks the door and leans inside, “Hey, Erica?  Kara?  You guys home?”

Then he walks on in, saying, “I spent less than a minute finding a spare key.  Almost always there’s one in the kitchen junk drawer, this one was on a giant Hello Kitty key ring.  I put the door back on, locked it, went down to get a copy made, came back and returned it.”

Rose tells him she’ll wait in the hallway and James says, “I’ll be right back.”

He disappears into the dim apartment, and creaks around in there, making some rustling and thumping sounds.  A drawer opens and squeaks as it closes again.  Then he returns, jingling his keys.

“A lot of servers keep their change in big milk jugs by their beds – they get tipped in change and it accumulates.  They probably don’t even know how much they have.” 

He locks the door and then takes her wrist and slaps her hand against his thigh, startling her.  Then she realizes his pocket is bulging with coins.  They thump back down the stairs and when they get outside James says, “So I just went in there and picked up five or six bucks in change from each of them, and three dollar bills from each of them.  They’ll never miss it, and if they do, they’ll blame each other before they’ll blame a stranger.”

Rose says, “It seems like it’s just a matter of time before your luck runs out, James.”

“It almost did today, but not quite.  Not quite.”

“Okay, so where to now?”

“Now we get on a bus.”

A city bus.  They catch one just a few streets over – James seems to have the bus schedule memorized – and he pays their fares in change and they ride the bus south, off campus and down into an older, undeveloped section of town.  They switch buses, heading east, and end up on and old, dreary street at the edge of town.

It’s dusk as they start walking, James leading the way, still looking confident.  A whole different neighborhood, and though his demeanor hasn’t changed, he still looks right at home.  Still blends right in.  How is that possible?

This is an area with a lot of vacant lots, and a lot of new construction.  They’ll have this place cleaned up and looking good in five years, but for now the old, vaguely seedy element still hangs in there.  Even the signs and storefronts are rusty, dingy, made for another era and never replaced.

The people have the same look, like they’re lost in time.  Something about affluence lends itself to graceful aging – maybe it’s the clothes, the health care, the peace of mind.  Out here the old folks walk bent over, their faces sucked in half the time, bulging the other half.  And they don’t look at you, not ever.

Rose and James pass a couple of toddlers in a wide, fenced yard, one of them shirtless and chewing on a pacifier, his face smeared with orange popsicle, the other a little girl who isn’t finished with her popsicle yet.  Hers is blue. 

The two kids are pretty blunt about the flat stares they give the passing strangers.  The kid with the pacifier has something in his hand – it might be a live toad.  Behind them, a tired-looking woman smoking a cigarette watches them from a lawn chair on a simple concrete stoop.

James picks up the pace a little, trotting across the street to a wide lane leading out of the city.  There’s even a sign, telling them they just left the city. 

It’s another half hour’s hike – across a vast field crunching with withered corn husks and then into a wooded ravine.  They finally emerge behind a single, two-story house with red siding, a lightpost bathing it in harsh light.  The woods are thick around them, the old trees clicking and tapping in the purple breeze. 

“That’s Debbie’s house,” James announces, scrolling through his phone.  “She’s a nurse at St. Catherines, works twelve hour shifts.  She just started ten minutes ago.”

He shows the phone to Rose; it displays a daily calendar showing Debbie’s schedule.  She says, “I see you.”

“We’ll just swing by the garage and make sure the Elantra’s not here.  She’s got a little Nissan truck, too, but she drives to work in the Elantra.”

“You have any idea how creeped out people would be if they found out even a little bit of what you do all the time?”

James shrugs.  “Well, Debbie shouldn’t get freaked out.  A few weeks ago she put a Lean Cuisine in the oven – her microwave broke – and then she forgot about it and went to work.  If I hadn’t come in and smelled it, probably would have burned her house down.”

They walk right up to the garage window, crunching across the gravel to peer inside.  “Nope,” James says.  “She’s at work.”

He takes out his giant ring of keys and jingles them around as they crunch back across the driveway to the back door, which has a small white patio table arranged around a single chair and a few gardening tools and a small clay flowerpot doubling as an ashtray, two thirds full of sand and cigarette butts.

“A chainsmoking nurse,” Rose observes.  “Nice.”

“I feel bad for her,” James replies as he unlocks the back door.  “Husband left her for an actual stripper, moved down to Florida.  That was three years ago, just her and the teenage daughter, Meggan.  Now Meggan’s in college down in Florida, the old man gets to see her all the time – and he still lives with the same stripper!”

He cocks his neck to look back at her, getting a pursed-lipped series of very slow blinks from her, for being creepy.  Then he pushes open the door, and a sudden noise gets a little jump out of her.

A beeping.  Some kind of regular, computerized beeping coming from inside the house.

“Is that a security system?”  Rose asks.

“It sure is,” James tells her.

Rose feels her body tense up; she bounces on her heels a few times on the concrete patio, ready to sprint back the way they came.  It’s an exhausting thought, running out into the woods just as night falls, the temperature dropping and the scent of rain heavy on the wind.

But James grins and walks casually into the the house, while Rose waits on the patio, her arms folded, looking around the yard.  It’s a secluded old house and she can see why James likes it – only one other house is visible at all, a big brick manor just a little down the road across the street. 

There are a few lights on in the other house, and the flickering of a television in a wide front window.  Rose wonders if the people who live there know Debbie, if they’ll notice lights and televisions, and if they know when she goes to work.

Now another noise starts up, the barking of a tired-sounding dog.  Rose takes a step forward, arms still folded, and peers inside. 

There’s James across a large, tidy living room, entering numbers into a wall-mounted keypad.  The numbers beep as he touches them, in the same electronic voice as the system alarm, and after four of them, the system falls silent.  Now the dog seems louder.

“Is the dog new?” Rose asks.

“No, that’s Skyler,” James tells her.  “He’s a good boy, we get along just fine.  She keeps him crated up so he doesn’t crap in the house, but I always let him out.”

He wipes his hands on the legs of his khakis and proceeds farther into the house, calling out, “Skyler!”  Then he looks back at her, his eyebrows up, and says, “Pull that door closed behind you, okay?”

So Rose closes the door and follows him into the kitchen, dimly lit by the light over the stove, where he opens the pantry and gets a bag of pig ears off the rack on the inside of the door.   Somewhere else in the house, the barking gets more rapid and excited and a metal cage clangs and thumps as Skyler moves around in it.

Rose looks around the kitchen, a tidy, autumn-colored area with frilly orange placemats at a little breakfast nook table, and crafty, decorative signs hanging up that read “Home Sweet Home” and “In This House We Serve The Lord.”   A bowl of fruit looks inviting – apples and bananas – but Rose isn’t sure what the rules are about eating the food in a house without teenagers.

Does Debbie know how many bananas she has left?  Rose peers into the sink at a single cereal bowl with a spoon in it, filled with soapy water, and she thinks that Debbie probably knows exactly how many bananas were here when she left.

She starts to ask James, but he’s already heading down a hallway, creaking across the floorboards.  He calls out behind him without looking:  “Don’t turn on any lights and don’t eat anything.  There he is – who’s a good boy?”

More clanging around and then a bunch of floppy dog noises, and then James creaks back down the hall, a small black lab mix at his heels, which trots up to Rose with the pig ear in his mouth and smells her, whining a little.  She leans down to pet him, telling him, “Hello, you good boy!”

He gets used to them pretty quick.  James leaves the two of them in the kitchen to get to know each other, creaking through the house to verify for certain that it’s empty, while Rose goes to the refrigerator to look at a few pictures of Debbie’s daughter, a bleach blonde wearing a cap and gown in one photo, a Cracker Barrel waitress outfit in another, a green prom dress in a third.  Also attached to the refrigerator door with a magnet is an admissions letter to Florida State.

When James comes back in, Rose tells him, “Debbie’s daughter looks like a whore.”

“You should see her Facebook page.”

“How did you get the security code, out of total curiosity?”

He opens the pantry again and motions her over, and when she leans in to look where he’s pointing, she blinks a couple times, shaking her head.  It’s a little Post-It, sticking to the wall next to some emergency numbers, unmarked except for the number 4506.

“Debbie goes running on her days off, takes her about a half hour.  She takes the dog with her, and for some reason she doesn’t lock the door or turn the system on.  She’s really diligent about it at practically all other times.  I watched her run a few times to be sure about the timeline, and then I came and tried the door right after she left one day.”

“No alarm, no nothing,” James goes on.  “I came in to look around and found the code on the wall in the pantry within about a minute.  Pulled open a junk drawer, and found a spare key in another minute.  Then I went right back out the door, right back across the field, down the road into town, and made a copy.”

“Then you brought the original back later, and you had another house,” Rose finishes for him, turning from the refrigerator to clap her hand together.  “Got it.  So you said something about a pizza.”

“Right,” James says, taking a cordless phone from its cradle on the kitchen counter.  He dials a number from memory and verifies a few toppings with Rose, then orders a large pizza and says he’ll be there to pick it up in twenty minutes.

“How are we going to do that?”  Rose wants to know.

James points at a handmade key rack on the wall by the window, little kitties painted on it.  A single black key on a pink plastic ring hangs from one of the pegs.  “We’ll take the truck,” he tells her.

So a few minutes later, they’re driving down the country road as the wind turns to a sprinkle and then into actual rain, just as they’re entering a small crossroad town a few miles away.  James swings the truck into the tiny parking lot of Angie’s Pizza, runs inside with the stolen waitress money, and then trots back out with a pizza and a two liter bottle of Dr. Pepper.

And it’s a pleasant night.  They sit around in Debbie’s living room with Skyler, eating pizza and watching a movie about some kind of giant monster stomping around New York.  It’s not one of the monsters she would recognize, like Godzilla or King Kong.  Still it’s a good movie, and she gets more stuffed eating the pizza than she has been in a long time.

They lounge on opposite ends of the couch as the rainy night grows dark and windy, and when the movie is over, it’s nearly ten o’clock.  Rose finds herself thinking about The Grims, and where she is supposed to be right now, what she’s supposed to be doing.

She says, “I have to get back into town, James.  You said you’d drop me off – are you planning on using the truck?”

James doesn’t answer at first, he just flips through the channels, looking for something else to watch.  At last he says, “I did say that, so if that’s what you need to do, I’ll take you there.  But we can get a decent night sleep here, head back on foot around seven, and get some breakfast at that diner by the bus stop, when we came out this way.”

Rose doesn’t remember the bus stop, but it still sounds good, another true, actual meal to be eaten off a plate, like normal people do.  She gets an inkling that maybe her job with the Grims isn’t necessary, when you can float around the way James does.  But believing it would mean trusting James, something she wants to do – really wants to do – but can’t.

She says, “It’s a job, James.  It’s a job and it sucks but I have to do it.  I start skipping nights and I lose the protection.  It’s different for a girl out there, James, and I don’t have twenty houses like you do.”

“I can protect you, Rose.  I don’t know what you have to go do, but I can see that you hate it.  I can see that something’s controlling you the way you’re afraid I will, except I’m not going to hurt you, Rose.  You have to know that by now.”

And it’s true – he hasn’t made a single move on her the whole night, despite her lying back on a couch a few feet away, despite his uncontrollable pants, despite the fact that he’s a boy and she’s a girl and here they are alone. 

What does he want from her?  She turns to look at him as he studiously pretends not to notice, still flipping through the channels.

Rose says, “James, you want to take me out again tomorrow?”

He keeps looking at the television, but the corner of his mouth curls up just a bit.  He says, “I don’t know, Rose, I’m kind of busy.”

“I’ll tell you what.  Take me back to campus, the south side.  Drop me off, and I’ll meet you tomorrow at three o’clock, down by the Pizzza-By-The-Slice shop.  This time, I’ll buy you a slice.”

James sighs and gets to his feet, starts straightening the room up.  “We need to put Skyler back in the cage and get this garbage out of here.  Then I’ll get the truck out of the garage, and get you where you want to go.”

It’s about ten minutes work, cleaning the house.  While they’re cleaning, James explains that he keeps the security system on if he sleeps there, so that the beeping will wake him up should Debbie arrive unexpectedly, giving him at least a few seconds to get up and run.

“How serious do we need to be about cleaning.  I guess pretty serious, with no one else here to blame anything on.”

“Well, yes,” he agrees.  “But nothing too crazy.  I’ve never been fingerprinted, so it’s not like you have to wipe everything down or anything.  But yes, Debbie will notice if there’s a glass of Dr. Pepper sitting on the coffee table.  She doesn’t drink carbonated beverages at all.”

“But she chain smokes,” Rose says.

“Yes,” James agrees.  “There’s that.”

They consolidate all of the garbage into the pizza box, and then James goes out to the garage and pulls the truck around, and they drive into town in it, listening to nineties music on the radio, not talking much as the rain rattles against the windshield.

When they get to campus, James is quiet, putting the truck in park at a parking meter, not looking at her, not looking at anything in particular. 

Rose says, “It’s been a great night, James.”

“What do you have to do?”  He blurts out, the desperation and jealousy as sudden and unpleasant as a serious fart would be, in these close quarters.

“There’s just a group of us,” Rose tells him.  “We watch out for each other.  Watch out for some other people.  Strength in numbers, I guess.  And it’s not pleasant, James.  We call ourselves The Grims for a reason, and it’s not as cool as what you have going, but at least I can keep my dignity.  You don’t know what I went through, James, before I joined The Grims.”

But James’ eyes tell her that he knows plenty about suffering and indignity and old-fashioned terror.  He’s a skinny guy, and he’s been on the street a while.  When he was sixteen, there probably wasn’t much of a difference between him and a girl.  Her heart aches for him, and yet she’s trained it so well.  She won’t reach out for him, won’t tell him that she feels anything at all.

Instead she says, “I’m sorry, James.  That wasn’t fair, I don’t know what you’ve been through either.  Kim and Brian, and whatever they did…”

He winces at their name, and shakes his face as if to dislodge their names from his ears.  He says, “Rose, I’m going to get out of this.  I’m going to have my own place within a month, and I’ll take you with me.  You can come with me.  You don’t have to be my girlfriend, just my friend – and it won’t be grim or awkward.  You can forget about all those people and whatever they make you do.”

“They don’t make me, James.  That’s the point.”

And he winces again, still knowing nothing, still operating entirely from his imagination.  “All right, Rose.  Whatever.  Just go do what you have to do.”

“James…”

“Just go, Rose.  Seriously, I’m tired of begging you to let me treat you with a little respect.  I guess you don’t care about that sort of thing.”

And there it is, they always start hitting you one way or another, once you failed to jump on their arms.  Failed to become an accessory like a scarf or a necklace.  She searches the cab of the truck for whatever it is that she wants to say to him, and she gives up, exasperated.  Gathers up the pizza box and the empty two liter, and the rest of the garbage, and opens the door of the truck.

She says, “I’ll drop this stuff in a dumpster.  Are you going to meet met at the Pizza-By-The-Slice place tomorrow?”

He stares ahead, his hand on the top of the steering wheel, not answering for several moments, then finally he says, “Yes.  Yes, I’ll see you there.”

Rose glances over he shoulder at the damp alley, the garbage blowing around it, and she longs for a stranger’s living room, for the sanctuary that James finds in the gaps of other people’s lives.  The alley seems very stark and lonely, and for a very serious moment, Rose believes she is about to get back in the truck.

Instead she turns back to James and tells him softly, “It’s not a boyfriend.  It’s not stripping and it’s not sex.  It’s just grim, James.  Grim, but nothing that would hurt you.  Nothing that you should feel threatened by.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” James replies, and Rose closes the door, and watches him drive off into the rain.

.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on July 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

2 responses to “The Opposite Of Homeless (Full First Chapter)

  1. Adele Dill

    July 20, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    Well, I’m curious and hooked. I’ve taught English and worked as an editor. If you’d ever like any input, no charge, just let me know. Can’t help but edit as I read stuff—found a few reallly minor things, e.g. like an “and” that you meant to be an “an”—looking forward to the next chapter! : )

     
  2. ecossie possie

    July 21, 2011 at 12:49 am

    eXCELLENT read Tom cant wait for more …O T though Garry Gillmour was not the last person to be executed by fireing squad in America there have been two more since him the last one as recent as 2010 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/7837003/Ronnie-Lee-Gardner-put-to-death-by-firing-squad.html

     

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