The last time the city burned, my brother didn’t stay for cake. Soon as we finished dinner, he pushed his chair out from the table and came back smelling of cologne. “I’m going out,” he announced.
Dad glanced at Mom, who tried to keep her face from falling. She’d already pushed the candles in. Black cake showed in rings where each had plunged through the vanilla, like soil under snow. I’d been playing with the plastic lighter, but now Dad took it, tossed it down beside the stack of paper plates. “Out where?” he demanded.
“Out.” Daniel scowled and drew his hood over his head, his parting gesture anytime he left the house. Dark fuzz lay like a shadow between his nose and lip. Around his neck a gold chain glinted. He’d told Mom it wasn’t real, but I knew where he’d gotten it: at a pawnshop. The TV was on in the next room, and on the screen a news reporter wearing puffy gloves stood before a bungalow where flames licked out boarded windows. They cut to a helicopter shot of black smoke billowing from a forsaken factory I remembered seeing from the freeway.
Every birthday of my brother’s life, the city burned and our parents bade us stay in. When we were little, we made masks out of cardboard, painted to look tribal and fierce, and wore them watching from the window for suspicious activity. Specifically: people on foot, people with no business being here, darting stealthily between trees, carrying battered cans of gasoline. Our house was in a suburb seven miles from the city limits, and though we’d kept the cordless with us on the carpet, a girlish twin to Daniel’s bat, we’d never had to dial 911. The next night we could celebrate; the next night was Halloween, and we’d be giddy, the neighborhood ours again. We roved the streets as rowdy bands of shiny, store-bought superheroes, clutching clean pillowcases full of loot.
This was what I thought of as tradition, but how long had it been like this? There was a gap between us of five years, a space that could have accommodated the birth of other siblings. In recent years Daniel sat sulking in the living room, sneaking out for surreptitious smokes, and I watched the street alone. Now he was sixteen, one step closer to adult. Looped in his thumb was a clinking new set of keys.
“Don’t go anywhere stupid,” Dad said, meaning south, into the city.
“There’s only stupid places to go,” Daniel muttered and banged out the door.
As Mom got up to watch the car back out of the driveway, I swiped a swoop of frosting from the cake. That afternoon I’d helped her bake it, piped the border on myself. More for us, then, I thought. By the time Mom returned, bolting the lock, Dad had punched the volume up and turned his chair.
Without looking at Mom or me, he said, “We should never have gotten him that car.”
“Can I light them?” I asked.
* * *
In life you’re rarely granted notice that a year or night or instant will be a last, but looked at close, there’re little ends. You only turn sixteen once.
That evening the TV droned. As on election night, they’d keep a count, and in the morning we would know the final score: how many fires had roared and structures been destroyed, how few culprits apprehended. The firefighters never won. They rushed to nearly every scene too late and while a dozen other vacant structures, miles apart, took a spark. Mom worked her needles at her knitting, growing a blanket in her lap. Dad sat jogging his foot in a steady constant beat, thrumming the couch. Trying not to mess up, I did my toes.
In the middle of the night I smelled him, the cologne just as strong as when he’d put in on, and yet it hovered over some new, more pungent scent. I strain now to identify it. It wasn’t weed or gasoline. I couldn’t tell if his murmuring with Dad down the hall was a fight. I was just glad he hadn’t ended up in jail or an accident.
In the morning I was running so far behind that Dad threatened to leave me. I hadn’t known what to expect for the sixth grade, but after many consultations over the phone the week before, I had confirmed it would be safe to draw a pair of whiskers and black my nose, don a set of ears—a black bodysuit and jeans being best underneath.
Daniel wasn’t dressing up. He was in the same metal band t-shirt that he wore twice a week. One of his eyes had popped a vessel, the bloody fleck like a spattering from somewhere else. “If you hurry, Beth,” he said, “I’ll take you.” A peace offering to us all.
“No, she’s going with me,” said Mom, the only one who, if she wanted, if we didn’t need groceries, could spend the day in her pajamas. Dad and Daniel met eyes briefly, as though only in passing milk for the cereal. It was like her to take a burden on herself in punishment of another. “I’ll just be a minute,” she said. “Finish my coffee and put on my face. Won’t be cute as yours, Beth.”
Once Dad and Daniel left, one car after the other, I poked through the discarded paper. This year, in addition to the totals, they had this figure: 34% percent of the city touched by fires. That was the word, touched—as by an angel—not scorched, not consumed, not reduced to ash. Remarkably, it stated, no one had died (apart from an unrelated east side homicide). Can Only God Stop the Devil? a headline asked.
The statistics in the paper seemed to argue so, but already, behind the doors of a few small, private rooms, the solution must have been under discussion.
Mom was quiet on the way, absently tapping the horn in an assured succession of honks as we sped past the picketers outside the fence that wrapped the plant. The strikers raised their signs in an extension of their arms and waved to us.
When I enrolled in driver’s ed, four years later, I’d be surprised this custom wasn’t mentioned. Neither was the admonishment that, if you were going to cruise, at least cruise major strips, nor was the urban legend that a cop would never fault you for not stopping at a red light in the city, because it was safer not to, and cops had no time for such minor violations, anyway. Instead, they just warned that on the country roads, it was easy to forget how fast you’re going.
“Your tail!” Mom exclaimed as I hopped out from the car. She thought I’d lost one.
“It’s okay, Ma. Only skanks wear tails.”
* * *
A skank was a girl who’d had sex more than once with more than one partner, or with one only once. By my own estimation, I was like any other middle-schooler, except I didn’t do drugs and I didn’t have sex at all. So far I’d roamed in packs so large it was easy to pretend I declined a pull or hit because I’d already had one. There wasn’t much to go around. It was only October; we were still making our connections. On Fridays, we either went to Universal Skate or to the movies at the dead mall. I liked to think that Daniel was proud of me for fitting in, but I knew that at a certain point, fitting in would mean getting into trouble. Soon my friends would ask if I knew who could hook us up.
That night at the rink, they played Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and turned the lights down so the chemical inside our plastic necklaces would glow. A boy with a darker shadow between his nose and lip than Daniel’s asked me for the second time to couples skate. Because I’d gotten out of it the week before by being in the restroom passing lip gloss with some girls, I said okay. His hand was slick with sweat, and as we took the curves, our arms pulled taut between us. Gliding past his friends who watched, one mouthed out, “Pussy.”
When I got home, a few minutes shy of my 9:30 curfew, Daniel had just gone out. Dad was cracking a beer, Mom already sleeping in her chair.
“Did we get many trick-or-treaters?” I asked in hopes that there would be some candy left.
“The neighborhood’s not what it used to be,” Dad said ambiguously.
In the bathroom mirror, my whiskers had faded but my nose was black. I missed Daniel like he’d been gone for years already.
* * *
Each year before the snow fell, and for some time after, the city worked on demolition. What hadn’t burned to a foundation would be leveled; and with the spring, would rise up saplings. Long stripped of copper, buildings awaiting final destruction were further pillaged for metal scrap by roaming pick-ups. The only way the city could afford to pay for bulldozers and wrecking balls was through an annual federal grant.
“It’s disgusting.” Mom said one night, turning off the TV as we all sat down to dinner. “Instead of giving us this grant, they should apply more to social services. Food stamps. Planned Parenthood.”
“Balance the budget,” said Dad, who was less liberal.
“Defense,” Daniel said definitively beneath his hood. He had taken to wearing it even before he went outside. We all looked up from our plates in surprise. “Tanks, right? Bombs. Uzis. Agent Orange. Think of all the foreign civilians we could be killing.”
“Daniel,” Mom said in disappointment, but I liked where he was going.
“Yeah,” I said. “If we take all the abandoned buildings away, where is anyone supposed to smoke their crack?”
“Elizabeth,” Mom said, with a clink setting her fork. Dad had stopped chewing, the food paused in his mouth. Daniel started to laugh so hard he had to spit his food into a napkin.
“What is this?” he said, examining the masticated bolus.
“I thought we’d try the generic,” Mom said, sounding hurt. “I didn’t think you’d notice.”
The cordless rang. Dad handed it off without saying hello. “Tell your friends to stop calling during dinner.”
I took it down the hall. Daniel never got calls because he had a pager. It was Meadow. In elementary she’d been called Cindy and gone home with lice, and now, with her ratted hair, she’d come out on top. Nobody knew which was her real name.
“I heard you won’t skate again with Jay.” She paused to crack her gum. “Don’t you like him?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I couldn’t tell if she was asking because she did. I took the risk that either way would gain me points. “I guess.”
The line crackled in the quiet, Meadow snapping her gum. Then the real occasion for her call was introduced. “Some of us have been wondering,” she began. “Couldn’t your brother hook us up?”
* * *
On Saturdays Daniel didn’t get up until one. By then I’d finished with my homework, even with the TV on. First he’d pour himself a bowl of cereal so he could gather strength enough to make a fast food run. This particular afternoon, Mom was at a baby shower, and Dad was out raking leaves. We couldn’t see him where we sat, but we heard the endless scraping of the rake. When we were little we would have gone to jump in the pile, Daniel face-first, grabbing a fistful for my head. Through the blaring of commercials, I felt our silence. I turned to him and asked straight-out. I said it wasn’t for me.
“Why do you think I could get it?” he said, flashing a grin that showed his filling then quickly faded. He got up and rinsed his bowl, leaving it for Mom to load in the dishwasher. He came back in a hoodie and jeans that hung so low they showed his boxers. I picked the polish from my toes as he studied me over me the sink.
“I’m not gonna do it. You’re innocent. You’re gonna stay that way if I can help it.”
He said it like a promise, and I would have been relieved had I not known what sight I’d see at school on Monday morning, the consequence of failing Meadow: her brushing past me in the hall, Jay towed close behind with a finger hooked in her belt. It wasn’t him, but what it’d stand for.
“Hey,” said Daniel. “I’m hitting Telly’s—how many sliders can you eat?”
Innocence gets shed in fluffs, sudden then steady, as by a shearing. It was that night, of the first fleeting flurries that didn’t even slick the streets, that my brother was arrested. The final charge would be trespassing, not possession. Downtown at the courthouse, the cop would say to our parents, “We can tell he’s a good kid. What’s he doing wearing all those baggy clothes?”
* * *
For over a month, my brother didn’t come to the table. Evenings and weekends were spent in his room, his car parked beneath the maple, battered first by the last of the leaves, and then blanketed by snow. He didn’t even join us at Thanksgiving, when we drove upstate to our cousins’, the freeways ceding to a highway then to a mazelike turning of dirt roads. Our hippie uncle, who organic farmed and left his sheep out in the cold because they did it in New Zealand, chuckled and referred to our parents’ days in reggae clubs, but Mom got tight-lipped and Dad told him Daniel was the one being so hard on himself. He wasn’t grounded from dinner or family events.
“It was just pot?” asked my cousins, who were Daniel’s age and a year and a half younger. We all wore jeans, but I felt self-conscious in my scoop-necked bodysuit, and cold any time we were six feet from the wood-burning stove. They had on flannels and frayed sweaters from the thrift store, both because and not because it was cool. Their Timberlands sat in the mudroom, functional for the farm.
“It’s my parents,” I said. “They took away his car.”
“That sucks,” said Philip. “At least he gets one,” added Anna. “I know!” I said, like he was the only one of us two who got spoiled. In the kitchen their mother was kneading bread, while mine was popping open fancy wine.
He gave in for Christmas over at Grandma’s, her whole house sparkling in tinsel and lights, smelling of honey ham and marshmallows, an angel blank of facial features atop the tree. Among his gifts was a set of shiny rims I’d helped my parents pick. “Thanks,” he muttered to their direction. He still had a couple weeks more to ride out on his punishment and hadn’t gotten them or me anything. He sat and watched while Mom gathered up the paper at his feet, until Grandma asked if our arms were broken. Then even Dad put down his new handheld blackjack game to help.
“Sorry, Grammie,” I said, kissing her on her head, dyed to match mine and Mom’s. “Just be good to your mother,” she said, holding her neck up stiffly. “Then no one needs to be making apologies.”
After we ate and everyone was milling around before dessert, I put my coat on and followed Daniel to the porch like I couldn’t stand it any more than he could. Mostly he held the cigarette and watched it drifting smoke.
“I owe you,” he said. “I couldn’t get to the store.”
“It’s okay,” I said. I was jumping on Grandma’s shoveled steps to keep warm, feeling proud for not coughing from the smell. Meadow had caught me fake-inhaling from a cigarette she’d stolen from her mom’s purse expressly for me, and before her teasing got too mean, I’d told her how my grandpa died of cancer and emphysema. “Aw,” she’d said, briskly rubbing my back. Her mood set the temperature of our crowd, and we’d been on shaky ground since she’d started going with Jay.
“It’s not okay.” Daniel turned, stubbing out the cigarette. In the grayness of the day, his eyes looked dark as a basement. In the sun they flickered between brown and green. “I want to give you something really awesome, something that even if you grow out of, you’ll always remember.”
I clutched my coat close, smiling, almost afraid to show the way warmth flooded my chest. Afraid because he was my brother, so I maybe shouldn’t have held him so much higher than all others. No boy who asked me to skate made me feel anything but sealed-up like a block of ice.
* * *
After the New Year, the city council had a look at the proposal, put together by the mayor’s office on the advice of several independent contractors. They compared it to the budget and held a quick and quiet vote. The solution was that the demolition, paused by the subzero temps in winter, wouldn’t stop. Instead it would take a brief hiatus, pick back up in spring, and ratchet into summer. By Devil’s Night, the arsonists, the addicts, the vandals, the murderers, all would have to call a new place home.
The day we heard that the entire city was going to be razed, top to bottom, every corner, even along its borders shared with suburbs—no square inch spared—my brother wasn’t with us. Part of his truce with Mom and Dad was getting a job and using it to pay his fine and the note on his car. He delivered pizzas three nights a week and always smelled of it, the garlicky tomato sauce and pepperoni.
No one had told me. Not during breakfast, when I’d been fussing with the tight roll on my jeans. All day at school it’d not been mentioned, not by one teacher in any class. Meadow had been crying in the bathroom, over a fight with Jay, and I’d sat on the sink, just listening.
“A long time coming, I suppose,” said Mom, whose parents grew up in the city and left for the suburban plant, just built. Her voice was distant and dry, as though carried on a wind.
“Same way they handle wildfires,” said Dad. “Make a control line. Remove the kindling.”
A map was shown on the screen, with arrows indicating the plan of attack: they would start from the north, the east and west, and work their way in, down to river. The wreckage would be sent on a barge out to sea. Much of the scrap would go to China.
“But it can’t all be empty,” I said.
The mayor concluded his remarks and stepped back from the mic. The room exploded in shouting. Reporters waved their hands and raised their fists, stood on top their seats. One stood still then tore his press badge off, kicked his folding chair flat, and held it high to rush the podium. The screen went black and returned to a white-faced anchor, whose partner held between her decaled nails a shaking sheet of paper. “You heard it,” he said, seeming to fumble for words. “There just aren’t enough residents. Those tens of thousands will be displaced.”
“Turn it off,” Mom said in disgust. Dad turned it off. With a whir, the VCR stopped recording.
* * *
I’d been asleep about an hour, not yet dreaming of anything, when a mix of pizza delivery and cologne flooded my room. Daniel was standing above me, hood over his head. “Get dressed,” he said. “Come with me.”
My only hesitation was in what to put on. My heart beat wildly. Finally I chose a hoodie I hadn’t worn since the year before, in elementary. For jeans I kept my usual, tight-rolled and slim-fitting.
I followed him to his car, which he’d parked far from the maple, off down the street. I made the same steps as he and missed the worst of the mud and melting ice.
I trusted Daniel. When he was born, I was five years from existing. I’ve often wondered, why are we more terrified to think of dying than to contemplate how we once just did not exist? They are the same. Maybe because death can be so sudden, the person disappeared but the body lingering, whereas coming into being is a slow process, cell by cell. My brother had always been there. He’d shown me what it was to deal with Mom and Dad. That night, he showed me the city.
“Buckle up,” he said. He wouldn’t start the car until I did. Crumpled fast food bags and empty Mountain Dews littered the floor. He pressed play on a mix tape that was part metal, part rap, and we exited the subdivision, passed through the stoplights heading to the entrance ramp, and wound our way up to the freeway. The southbound lanes were fast and empty. It was like traveling through outer space with billboards.
Without turning the music down, he told me how, a few hours before, he’d been held up for his tips at gunpoint. He was delivering to an apartment that was the kind with stairs outside, like an extended-stay motel. “I was creeped out even before I saw the barrel.”
The gun greeted him at the door. The guy was short and wearing a knit cap and diamond earrings. He grabbed Daniel by the collar and yanked him inside, leaving the door open wide. Daniel wasn’t going to make a sound, and no one was walking by. The apartment was dark except for a fish tank lit by fluorescents, and cloudy with marijuana.
“I was like, dude! I’ve got a joint and enough to make change for a twenty—that’s it. He sure got his pizza free.”
Hearing it as a story made it unreal. I wondered if to Daniel it had felt any less like a movie or a dream. He wasn’t acting like it. He cracked the window and with his knee against the wheel, lit up a cigarette.
“He was pointing the gun the whole time?” I was embarrassed of my voice, which sounded shrill and disbelieving, like Mom’s when she was upset. “Did he have it to your head?”
“Nah. It was down by his side. He just wanted me to know it was there.”
The guy also took his keys. He pushed Daniel from the apartment and tossed them over the rail. They hit metal, then the asphalt. When the door slammed shut, the number blurred into nothing. It was on the order, but Daniel didn’t want to remember. He was late getting back because in the dark it took a long time to find his keys.
“I’m fired,” he said and shrugged.
“Can they do that? What did the cops say?” Daniel looked over, one hand on the wheel, his expression patient and pitying. I steadied my voice the way I had to when I was called on in class. “Didn’t you have to make a report?”
“Why give police the satisfaction?” Before I could ask what he meant, Daniel added, “The guy was black.”
That got me quiet. I’d thought we weren’t supposed to talk about that, the color that someone’s skin happened to be. On either side of us, dilapidated homes bore down. The freeway, elevated in the suburbs, had receded below the level of the street. Off in the distance, the tall buildings of downtown shone metallic. Few lights were on in the offices. The electric bill would be enormous, just to set aglow the vacant floors.
Daniel veered off right for an exit. The residential streets were empty, storefronts on the corners graffitied, sidewalks cracked with weeds and glittering with broken glass.
“Doesn’t anybody live around here?” I asked.
He glanced over. “Of course.” His eyes were dark, but as we passed beneath a working streetlamp, I saw them flickering brown-green. “Look, forget I ever told you. I’m fine. I’m free. This’ll be fun. This is an adventure.”
The train station stood alone, towering almost as a rampart, in fortification of itself. Its Beaux-Arts facade, columned and arched, was the only part that looked 3D. We parked around the back, outside the fence that marked it off. There, the barbed wire hung loose and looping from the side. Everywhere, signs told us to stay out, warned of guard dogs and video cameras. I pointed one out and almost tripped on a crumbling of bricks that seemed to have been dumped from somewhere else.
“You see any cameras?” Daniel said. I smiled and shook my head. “Hear any barking dogs?” I tipped my head back to the moon, a waxing gibbous. At school we’d been studying the phases. “Woo-woooo,” I called out softly. Daniel laughed and climbed up first. With a hand out to bolster me, he helped me down. For some reason, I didn’t wonder about where and how he’d been caught before, what would happen if he got caught making trouble again.
I don’t know what I thought we’d find inside. A party. Electronic music we somehow hadn’t heard or felt. A circle of friends Daniel knew well, a secret girlfriend who’d look upon me as her own relation. He’d make the introductions, and I wouldn’t have to do a thing I didn’t want. I’d be a little sister, off-limits, safe.
We stepped through a gaping absence where there might once have been a door. It was like a cathedral or some place in Europe: the vaulted ceiling, the mosaic tile work. Daniel shone a flashlight around. Puddles potted the marble floor from snow that’d blown in and melted. It was holy in a human way; you lit candles not to talk to God but for company. The vastness seemed to contain something lonely and eternal—not ghosts or memories, but maybe time, if it could keep a pulse. And if the beating could accrue, with no one living it. Daniel touched my shoulder so as not to startle me when he cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered out, “Hellooo!” His voice echoed into the void until it stopped sounding like him. When I raised my hands to do the same, he thrust a hand to stay me. “Just listen.”
Nothing. No: water dripping in syncopated rhythms. In some dank depth, an animal scuttering. Through the absence where a door had been, the whistling wind.
* * *
That week at school, I held the secret of what Daniel had shown me inside like a new dimension—one that, because I had it hidden from everyone else, remained a mystery even to myself. Friday I went with my pack of friends straight from school to a triple feature, which entailed buying tickets for one show and slipping in to two more. Already, they cost only a dollar-fifty. The first was half cartoon, half reality, one we’d all seen before; the second was a horror flick I fell asleep for. When I woke, they’d all left me for another row, snickering. I pretended not to care, moving to sit beside them, crossing my legs. Meadow had said all us girls would wear skirts, but when we got there everyone else’d changed into jeans. The third was about a man obsessed with a teenage girl and had a fingering scene on a rollercoaster.
At nine Meadow said we had more time before her mom would pick us up. I was not supposed to leave the theater, in the west wing of the mall. The only operational anchor store was just closing at the other end of the mall, but the ice cream shop and the arcade in the middle were, like the movies, open late. I foresaw that even if I got dropped off first, I’d miss my curfew, and I felt a kind of drifting, like when I squeezed my legs at night beneath the sheets.
The deadness of a dead mall after close was no more than during the day. Passing the rows of for-lease stores, their illumined emptiness beyond the rolling gates, there was a sense we owned it all. When we came to one gaping partway open to a darkness, Meadow dared someone to go inside. I surprised them all by squatting down in my skirt and ducking in. Jay’s friend Kyle, who had spiky hair and preferred skateboards to skates, followed behind. The yellow sale signs were still up on the walls: 70% off, no returns. The racks displayed no merchandise, merely skeletons. Kyle spun one around like they were dancing. Then he kicked it down. Behind the counter, his hand brushed my skirt. I knew that he wanted to enact what we’d seen on the screen.
At first I was ice, and just when I began to feel more like a floe, gliding over a series of pops sounded out in the mall, followed by screams.
“Get down!” Kyle cried hoarsely. His hand was gone so fast, pulling me to the floor, it was like it’d never been there. Already, I knew it’d never be again.
“Fuck! That was a fucking gun!” We heard Meadow amid the other, more girlish shrieks of our friends, Jay’s high and cracking.
We waited under the counter, not talking, until a rent-a-cop came to clear the scene. Bullets had only shot up toward the ceiling. It’d been a gang. “That was weird,” Kyle kept saying as we speedwalked to the theater, a foot apart. “I wasn’t really scared, though.” I stayed quiet, wondering was this what Daniel had felt, just before he’d been arrested—exhilarated and invincible, because of danger, not despite it. Was this the lesson he’d tried to teach me in telling me about his mugging, in taking me to the city—when I’d felt snug beneath his wing, safe because he had been saved? That for a minute, your life could feel more real than anything that was happening. Usually I felt the opposite. I’d been far from Kyle even as he touched me, and the shots woke us up. We’d been playacting: me no better than a mannequin, he that that could ever fake fun or carelessness well enough.
We caught up with Meadow and the others as her mom was pulling up, and I got in at 10:10: Dad the one asleep in the chair, Mom rinsing cans out at the sink for the deposit. She didn’t look at the clock.
“Your father lost his job today,” she said. “The company’s going under.”
“Oh,” I said, and as she didn’t explain what this meant for tomorrow’s dinner, or my field trip next week, or our summer vacation to see Daddy’s parents in Florida, I asked, “Where’s Daniel?”
“I guess he got the pizza place to take him back.” She turned the tap off and came and hugged me, her breasts soft inside her sweater, her frizzy hair scratching my neck. I felt she could smell everything, but her embrace was as complete as it’d ever been. “Watch TV with me, Beth. Keep me company.”
* * *
We watched night after night that spring into summer. Helicopter shots showed the city shrinking in wide swathes from all three sides, a large-scale mowing. On the empty acres, they were going to be planting corn, plus a few small organic farms, an apple orchard. The center from which we’d spun would be the country. Like my hippie uncle, we were getting back to basics.
“So we’ll drive Japanese cars? Or horse and buggies?” said Daniel, heading out in his hoodie. The nametag attached low, to its pocket, read simply Dan, but the letters had been scratched to spell out Dawg. I doubted he had told the pizza place about his mugging, but I didn’t know for sure. Just as though he could sense somehow my need to digest alone what had happened at the mall, we hadn’t seen each other much lately.
“Finally, we’re hiring!” Dad mocked the evening news from his chair, sipping beer. Not many locals took the jobs on wrecking crews. Most had come from the rural south and Mexico.
Officials were giving housing vouchers to the homeless and the soon-to-be displaced, but instead of moving to a suburb where no one wanted them (flashes of protests, thrown rocks), many were just packing up and squatting deeper in the city. They cleaved closer and tighter to the heart. Tents sprung up in vacant lots, fires burned in barrels. Together, people cooked, barbecue and pots of beans. At night they danced in the street. Anyone who laid themselves on the ground before their house, their business, was picked up and forcibly removed by police. An old man doused himself in gasoline and lit himself with a match. The living room was stiff and silent. I had to talk about it all with someone. I called Meadow.
I remember as I was hanging up the phone one night Daniel hadn’t had to work, he’d thrown open his door. “Don’t talk to that girl anymore.”
I whirled around. He was angry, white-knuckled where he held the jamb, his hood slipped off his head. “What? Why?”
“Don’t think I can’t hear your inane conversations. You’re smarter than that.” He slammed the door shut in my face. That made me cry, not the man engulfed in flames. Not the way, once he’d been toppled and clapped out, strips of skin hung from him, black, and pink underneath.
Later I got that my friendship with Meadow and the others had been doomed from the start, but for a long time afterward I told myself it was because Daniel had asked that we’d stopped hanging out.
One of the last nights we all met up at Universal was for my birthday in July. Daniel surprised us rink-side with a stack of pizzas—his way of telling me, I guess, we could be as close again as we’d been that night in the city, when he’d taken the shears to my innocence himself and tried to prune it gently back. From his pocket he produced a gold charm bracelet, dangling dice and baby shoes. He clasped it to my wrist and walked off, jeans slipping down past his boxers. “Oh my god!” my girlfriends squealed. “Your brother is such a baller.”
It was then, I thought, I’d stopped being forgiven for standing on the edge of what everyone else was doing. With a brother like him, I should have been more at ease with them. Kyle must’ve never told them I was a skank.
* * *
By late summer, crews were closing in on the center. All the displaced who hadn’t gone away were gathered in the park on the riverfront. Different groups had organized and pooled their guns, built stockpiles of rubble. It wasn’t families anymore, no single mothers with kids; they all had gone. It was men, mostly, mostly young. Routinely raided and searched, they held their hands up in the air, got slammed down on the ground.
“They’ve got to learn,” Dad said at dinner, not without regret. “This can’t be stopped. No one can admit till something’s done it wasn’t right—just look back at history.”
“What if that was me?” Daniel demanded.
“It’s not,” Mom said quietly. I knew why it couldn’t be, and that the shame for what we were and hadn’t chosen, but still would choose—caught in our throats—was the real reason we didn’t speak. We scraped our forks along our plates and refused to meet his eyes, setting on us each in turn.
Our relief that Daniel was with us was cause enough for him to take off in his car. After all, he was nearly seventeen. But there was more. All his life, my brother must have felt that same flickering heat of a city set aflame inside him. Maybe, simply, Daniel didn’t see himself as outside it. Maybe the burning was misunderstood; it wasn’t just rage or rebellion, but vitality, a light. He stepped inside the hollowed train station, plumbed gutted factories with his beam, for more than the thrill, the risk: to call out, in his own way, those who kept away, precisely in search of what, exactly, those signs and fences named unsafe. Those buildings once were filled and stood as proof that shoulders brushed, and they were being sacrificed. Year after year, their burning rose in intensity: See me. I’m hungry. I’m alive.
* * *
The night before school was set to start—Daniel’s senior year, and for me, seventh grade—cameras were standing by to film the final raid. Filling airtime, they interviewed one man, middle-aged, who said he’d been a felon and lost everything he had long before he lost his halfway house, his job washing dishes in a downtown Coney dog joint. The TV cut to a rolling tank, crushing the debris of some anonymous part of the city that might’ve been mere blocks or miles away. It could’ve been anywhere, another country. Inside, the park was bristling with young men who paced, touching their waistbands, lifting the caps from their heads to swipe at sweat. They broke from huddles to show the camera stores of brick, broken cement; on one such pile sat a young woman with eyes that seemed to glint back gold. Along the park peripheries, cops were lining up in riot gear, their shields one enormous wall.
Daniel stood by the door. A separate patch of dark hair had grown in on his chin. He said, “I’m going.”
We all knew what he meant. He suddenly seemed to have been waiting for just such a demonstration as this. I sat between Mom and Dad, frozen on the couch, Mom’s knitted blanket draped on our laps. Dad’s leg stopped jogging. Mom set down her glass of wine. Nobody could think of what to say to stop him. Only once the door had softly shut did my heart leap with delinquent replies: hide his keys, slash his tires. My parents should’ve never gotten him that car.
Mom ran from the room with a hand on her mouth. Without a look or a word, Dad passed his beer to share, and I held it without sipping. We watched the crowd surge forth from the park, flooding the empty streets. We watched as a rock was thrown, and then a brick. The wall of shields pushed in, closing the space between. A policeman shot the first fizzing canister into the swarm, sending up a cloud of gas. A face streamed tears.
Teenagers, I understand, still drive the dirt roads on starry nights, looking for a lost tribe who’d learned to live off the land. At eleven, at twelve, I believed in afterlife, an up above or down below. People had to end up somewhere. They didn’t just disappear.
My brother was among those smoked out into the wasteland, where cops were waiting with their paddy wagons and their sticks. In the chaos, some managed to fan out and find refuge in the wreckage. Eventually, it all was gone, and in its place acre after acre of rowed-up corn.
Excerpted from Man and Wife, available May 10, 2016 from A Strange Object
Katie Chase is the author of the story collection Man and Wife (A Strange Object, 2016). Her short fiction has appeared in the Missouri Review, Narrative, and The Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has also been a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Steinbeck Studies. Born and raised outside Detroit, Michigan, she lives currently in Portland, Oregon.