(Note this is a work of continuous fiction. The first twelve parts are at these links: Part One, Part Two, Part Three , Part Four , Part Five , Part Six, Part Seven , Part Eight , Part Nine , Part Ten ,Part Eleven , and Part Twelve)
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.”
“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.
(Note. This was the first chapter in an ongoing work of fiction. The second chapter will begin soon, and I will link to it here.)