A Short Story
By Amber J. Keyser
Mara pushed through the glass doors of Escape from New York pizza and got in line. The demented, ballsy voice of Storm Large rolled out of speakers at the rear of the store. Mara twitched her head to the insistent beat. A lock of blue-streaked, blond hair fell in front of her eyes. She snapped it back in place with a skull and crossbones barrette.
C-R-A-Z. C-R-A-Z. Doctors, drugs, and sketchy thugs.
“You got that right,” she muttered to the voice on the speakers. Her thoughts, even as she tried to quash them, were making her crazy. Freaky things had been happening. Mara crushed the twenty she held in one hand. She wished she had someone to talk to. Her parents practically lived at their research lab and her friends were too busy partying to talk about anything serious.
Maybe I am cracking up.
How else could she explain the chunks of lost time that she was experiencing? Black-outs? Seizures? She didn’t know. Sometimes it was like she froze and everything else moved on fast forward. Other times it was the reverse. Things—rolling cars, cyclists, pouring coffee—paused and Mara kept moving, out of sync, until everything hiccuped back into unison.
From the speakers came a moaning whine: I’m afraid they’ll throw away the key.
“Hey, Mara.” Nate was ready to take her order for a slice. Between his olive-tinted glasses, skinny limbs, and green, pearl-buttoned Western shirt, he was more praying mantis than human.
“Hey, yourself,” she said.
“Glad to see you,” said Nate. “It’s been dead boring today.”
She grinned, a crooked smile with a twist of trouble.
Nate, like the rest of them, was a friend at arm’s length. She’d never had close friends. Maybe she was too rich. Or those girls at school were too stupid. Or maybe she herself wasn’t very good at the friendship thing.
The single, solitary bright spot was her little brother Max. He could always get her to crack a smile. Sure he drove her bonkers sometimes, but it was good to have a fan club even if it only had one member.
C-R-A-Z. C-R-A-Z. It’s lights out forever my heavenly creatures.
“You going out tonight?” Nate asked. Not that he needed to ask.
Lately, Mara had been going out every night, dulling the tension that buzzed through her with loud music, flashing lights, and a little of whatever Nate was scoring. She shrugged.
He turned to the next customer and Mara eyeballed the street kids, bristling with piercings and spiked-hair, sitting on the other side of the street. The guy had one arm around the girl, and she tilted her head against his shoulder like that was the spot she called home. A pit bull lolled next to them, sleepy and safe with his pack.
An aching rush of want swept through Mara.
To sit in the sun with someone who had her back.
Stupid. She berated herself. If anyone took the time to get to know her, they’d see what she already knew—that something inside her was off-kilter and wrong. Mara tore her eyes away from the street kids, shoved down the desperation, and changed her order to a full pie. At the register, Mara slammed the wadded twenty down with a smack that made the dreadlocked guy behind the counter flinch backwards.
“Hey, Girl,” Nate called from the pizza ovens.
“Sorry,” she muttered, cramming another ten in the tip jar. Mara pushed past the pizza line-up and stomped across the street. A black-suited man honked at her as she cut in front of his hearse-like Mercedes. She flipped him off and kept storming.
When she reached the opposite curb, Mara handed the dude with the dog the steaming pizza box. He gaped at her, revealing a round stud in his tongue. The dog yipped, nosing the greasy cardboard. The girl pulled a smoldering clove cigarette from between her lips and grabbed the box.
“I’m starving,” she rasped, smoke curling out from either side of her cracked lips. “You’re a god-damned guardian angel.”
“Yeah, thanks,” said the guy, but his words were lost in traffic noise. Mara shot across the street and kept going. She was crossing into Couch Park when a series of battering crashes rang out along the tree-lined street. She climbed up on the giant-sized wooden play structure to get a better look. Across the street, a squat man wearing a baseball hat skewed to one side smashed his fists on the door of a boxy house the color of dog poop.
He stood, legs apart, on the tilting porch. From her perch, Mara could see boxers sticking out above the waistband of his baggy pants. Everything about the house from the filthy, cracked windows to the dirt square in front of it seemed to glower at the new condos and perfect renovations on either side
“Whaddya think you’re doing, you stupid bitch?” he hollered. “Come out here!”
Mara’s heart raced. I shouldn’t be here, she thought but couldn’t turn away. Some hunch or twitchy feeling held her.
As the man continued to pound on the door, a wild-eyed woman in a pink sweatshirt and too-tight jeans slipped from behind the house and bolted for the corner. At first, the jerk on the porch didn’t notice her.
You can make it. Hustle, Lady.
He’d stopped banging long enough to cup his hands and peer into the front window, but the woman tripped on the fissured sidewalk where the roots of an enormous oak had shattered the cement. She let out a surprised shriek, and one of the pink slippers she was wearing flew into the air like a stuffed animal making a break for it.
The man on the porch turned. “Oh no, you don’t!”
“Lay off, Augie!” the woman called over her shoulder in a high-pitched, squeaky voice. She sped away from the house, leaving the slipper behind. The man loped after her.
Not my problem, thought Mara. Just another stupid woman who picked a stupid boyfriend. She should’ve turned away right then, but again the roiling sensation in her blood rooted her to the spot. Mara wondered if she was going to black-out.
“I’m done, Augie. I’m done with you!” The woman shouted, backing across the street from him. She was almost to the corner. It was only a block to the Quick Stop. She’d be fine, right? Mara wrenched her eyes away.
Time to go.
But as Mara leapt from the play structure down to the grass, she caught sight of movement on the porch of the house. The door had opened inward. Standing in the gloom of the threshold stood a scrawny thing, looking more like a wet cat than a child.
Augie had forced the woman in pink up against the stop sign on the far corner.
The girl on the porch stepped gingerly outside. Sunlight filtered through the oaks in the park, dappling her arms with gold.
Poor little thing.
Mara pushed that thought away.
Not. My. Problem.
But her heartbeat jacked up another notch.
The girl was maybe four or five. White blond hair puffed out around her elfin face like a dandelion gone to seed. The thin straps of a faded, purple sundress two-sizes too-big hung off her shoulders. Slender bones jutted off her chest like chopsticks. She reminded Mara of those dolls whose bodies seemed too insignificant to hold up their heads.
The yelling at the corner cranked up.
The girl stepped off the porch directly across the street from Mara.
“Mom?” she said, turning toward the fight.
It was then, as she stood in profile, that Mara saw them.
The whispered mantra—not my problem, not my problem—faded from her mind.
From the child’s shoulder blades, knobs of bone jutted out beneath the pale skin.
Like mine, thought Mara. Oh god, like mine.
Her blood raced into overdrive.
Mara’s brain offered a slide show of all the tank tops, bathing suits, and sundresses she’d left in heaping piles on dressing room floors, rejected because they’d left her ugly, bony spurs exposed.
Why doesn’t she hide the freaking things?
Augie had pulled the woman near double in a head-lock.
The girl screamed and raced toward her mother.
Mara threw herself into motion, hurtling down the ivy covered bank toward the street. Her feet caught in the tangled vines, and she pinwheeled her arms to keep from falling and skidded into the street. She heard the sick thump of a fist meeting flesh. The woman moaned. Another wild cry came from the girl.
“You’re gonna get it now,” Augie roared, raising his fist again.
Mara pushed herself harder, desperate to reach the corner.
The soundtrack thudded in time with her boots on the street. Her blood was a wild torrent of whitewater.
Not the girl. Please. Not the girl.
Yet, like watching a goblet plummet toward the floor, Mara knew exactly what would happen. The girl would reach the corner before she could. The enraged man would shatter her.
C-R-A-Z. C-R-A-Z. It’s lights out forever my heavenly creatures.
She needed time, just a little more time.
Now the sound of her pounding, furious heart blotted out everything else. Mara’s vision shook and wavered, the edges going dark, but her legs kept running.
Time! I need time.
As if on command, the child slowed and stopped. A glistening tear clung to her cheek like a pearl. Mara raced past her frozen form. Another howl erupted from the corner. Rage swept through Mara, all of it barreling straight for Augie. The twenty feet of space between her and him rippled like a desert mirage. The man flew backwards, dragging the woman along. His body plowed into the stop sign pole. It bent and rebounded, the red hexagon quivering with metallic twangs.
Mara stopped ten feet away, wobbling on legs that could barely hold her. A car squealed to a halt behind her. The woman wriggled out from underneath Augie’s limp body and ran, one foot bare, toward her daughter, who still seemed rooted to the sidewalk.
She’s okay, thought Mara. They’re okay.
Fury drained from her. Sun hit the tear on the child’s cheek and broke it into a thousand rainbow shards. The last thing Mara saw as she crumpled to her knees was the tear resuming its fall and the girl collapsing into her mother’s arms.
Then it was dark.
Mara felt a hand on her shoulder as she came to.
Someone crouched beside her.
The hand was gone, replaced by the sound of tapping on a cell phone keypad.
“We need at ambulance at 20th and Hoyt.”
Mara opened her eyes. Hard asphalt bit into her cheek, her shoulder, her hip.
Two joggers stopped to gawk. “What happened?”
“I didn’t see. I don’t know.”
Mara’s limbs felt like putty.
“Whoa! Check out the stop sign!”
Sirens wailed from behind the old, domed synagogue on the other side of the park.
Mara struggled to sit up. One of the joggers was staring down at Augie. He was out cold, but she could see his chest, rise and fall in steady waves. What the hell had happened? She hadn’t touched him.
“That guy’s a mess,” said one of the joggers. “Do you think they got hit by a car?”
Mara felt them eyeing her, wondering what it was she’d just done. She rose unsteadily to her feet.
“Are you okay?” one asked her.
“I didn’t touch him,” she stammered.
Mara turned away from the gathering crowd. That was true, right? She hadn’t touched him. But what had she done?
A crowd was gathering. The ambulance would be here soon and probably cops too. She couldn’t explain any of this. What if they tried to lock her up in some loony bin? Mara turned away from the crowd, forcing her legs to obey. She had to get out.
“Wait!” called a minuscule voice. The little girl darted forward and wrapped herself around Mara’s legs.
“I… I can’t stay,” Mara muttered.
The girl stared up at Mara with huge, luminous eyes and smiled. Mara lowered a hand to the girl’s back and ran her fingers lightly across the knobs. She felt the girl’s heart thrumming like hummingbird’s wings. She felt an answering hum from her own veins. She didn’t understand it any more than she understood what had happened in the street, but this connection between herself and the child felt right.
It felt safe.
Mara knelt before the child.
“You’re gonna be okay, now,” she said, hoping it was true for both of them.