This week on Writers Island the prompt is – faithful.
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It’s a great way of challenging yourself.
Here is my story.
The city looks French-washed from the rooftops; brushed with white by the mist of early morning. We sleep on roofs now. There’s less hassle that way, but the cold, the cold hangs in the air, dropping on the rooftops like snow, seeping into our skin till we feel weals rise like ice.
At night we watch the stars, wrapped in newspaper and sacking we steal from fruit shops. Some of us drink, plotting the constellations, seeing what we think is Alpha Centauri and Orion; wishing we were far enough north to see the Aurora Borealis. We have heard it is like a glimpse of heaven.
Boz stays up all night. He is the self-proclaimed leader. Ambitious, adamant, shameful. We look up to him. We fear him. We love him. We are the faithful.
When I was a kid I dreamed of this time. My sweet sixteen. I planned the dress and the party for years. Three shades of pink with hand-stitched beading and fruit punch in crystal bowls with extra strawberries in every glass. And maybe an ice sculpture, preferably a swan.
I never dreamed I would end up on the streets. I never thought things would fall apart so suddenly. It’s like an earthquake came but only hit my life, turning everything to rubble. I try not to think of it, of how I got here, but sometimes at night I cry as if I am mourning someone who is dead, except the person who has died is me; and actually, I am still alive.
Ceece helps. She is my best friend, my sister. She hates sleeping on the roof because the cold gets into her bad leg and aches all night. She is 17. Her Dad shot her in the leg and the bones never healed properly because Ceece was afraid the people in the hospital would put her into care and she ran down the fire escape stairs when the nurse wasn’t looking. Sometimes it hurts so bad she wails like the poor little stray cats you hear down by the river, calling for their mothers. Then I steal painkillers from convenience stores and heat pads that I warm on the air conditioning units of the big offices round the corner – and orange juice because Ceece needs her vitamins.
Boz thinks Ceece is a liability. ‘She can’t run like the wind,’ he says. ‘My faithful need to run like the wind to back me up. A general needs his soldiers with him at all times, not limping along like an old granny.’
Boz wants to let Ceece go, to leave her floundering down by the docks where the drunks holler and trade insults. ‘Over my dead body,’ I say. ‘If Ceece goes, I go.’ ‘Don’t push me,’ says Boz, throwing bricks onto car windscreens and laughing in the high-pitched, whiny way he has that gets on your nerves. It is his favourite sport. To throw things.
I can take liberties with Boz, give him cheek, because I am valuable. I am a good thief. Exemplary. Penultimate. I have techniques no one else has. I can walk silent as a ghost. No one knows I am there. And I can run like the wind just the way Boz likes.
The other night I was mad. Really mad. Boz cornered a young guy on his way home from work and stole all his money. Two hundred in cash. We can eat for a month on that. But Boz couldn’t stop there. He had to teach the guy a lesson. That’s his thing, his mantra – teaching people a lesson, as if it’s their fault he’s living on the streets. He and his main thugs – Hanny and Sid – worked the guy over. The guy’s eye puffed up like someone had poured tomato pulp all over his face. Blood was pouring out of his mouth. Ceece and I were screaming at them to stop but they wouldn’t. The guy whimpered, desolate, like he could feel his life slipping away from him and I felt like I was going to throw up. I grabbed a piece of wood from a dumpster and hit them with it. I knocked out one of Hanny’s teeth and put twelve splinters in Sid’s face but I didn’t care. I wanted them to stop.
They ran off, dragging Ceece with them. I used the last bit of money I had to call an ambulance. I hid behind a stack of bins while the paramedics examined the guy. Their faces were grim. They didn’t speak to one another. I knew what that meant.
Now Boz wants me to think about what I have done, to re-examine my position. Ceece is in tears thinking of how she’ll get by without me. She doesn’t know that no matter where I go, I’ll take her with me.
I am in a bit of a sweat. I am used to this life. The streets aren’t so bad when you have a pack to run with, but on your own it’s a different story. Or with Ceece. She has no outstanding survival skills, she just tags along and hopes for the best. Sleeping with one eye open is only fun when you’re pretending you’re in a movie – like James Bond or The Bourne Identity. When you’re sleeping with one eye open for real it means days, weeks of no sleep. And the world becomes shrouded in fog.
Sometimes I have a waking dream where I dream with my eyes open. I call it my oasis dream like I have been stuck in the desert for days with no water and suddenly I see a shimmering lake surrounded by palm trees where I can drink gallons and gallons of exquisite water, sweet and cold. An oasis dream can never come true because it is an illusion. I know that but it doesn’t stop me from dreaming it anyway.
I dream of a mother who looks and me and smiles. And a bedroom with clean sheets and pillows as big as the span of my arms. There is roast chicken and chocolate pudding for dinner. And hot cocoa with cream.
My mother knows I am cut and bruised, that much of me is frayed at the edges. She sees my struggles to put myself back together, to fill in the cracks and the chips. ‘Don’t give up,’ she says. ‘I am with you.’ Then I shake my head and she is gone. So is the lake. It was just an oasis, after all.
Ceece has come to sit beside me. The lights are amber in the darkening city. We can see all the way to the waterfront, see the beacons on the tug boats. We talk about the joke we have where we stowaway on a ship all the way to the South Pacific. We would get jobs cleaning hotel rooms in some big holiday resort and live in a little house on the beach. It is a dream we share.
‘Boz says we’re out,’ says Ceece. ‘We’re useless, both liabilities. That we’re on our own.’ There is a slight tremor in her voice. She is afraid. If I were to tell the truth right now, right this minute, I would admit that suddenly the night seems too large. There is so much space out there in the dark. But I lie because Ceece needs me to. ‘We’ll be fine on our own, ‘ I say. ‘We’ll get our own little flat with a TV and proper beds. We’ll even get some books, bestsellers. It’ll be the life we’ve always wanted.’
Ceece sighs. She is happy. She snuggles against me and quickly falls into sleep. I am dizzy, resolute, exposed. I am no longer one of the faithful. I am just me. I knew that one day it would come to this. I knew that there is a danger the present can be just like the past. But I know that the future is unmapped, untrammeled; ever-changing like the sea. And that is enough for me.