Hey Baby wrung all the rings off her right hand before she slid it in between the iron bars of the security gate. She wiggled and twisted her whole body until her elbow popped free through the gap. Arched on tippy toes, she snuggled in tight, giving the gate a slow-dance reach-around that had me envious. She stretched for the lock, her fingers groping across the grating tickling each bar, and at full extension was just able to flip the latch.
“Finally,” I exhaled, looking up and down the block, but no one had followed us.
Cupping her rings in her palm, Hey Baby shook them like dice. She squeezed past the garbage bins and hop-scotched down the skinny breezeway between the two apartment buildings leaving a bloody half footprint every third step.
Me and Lima Bean bumped fists, hustled behind her to the rear courtyard. Hey Baby climbed the rickety stoop to the back unit, put her palms to the prints already smudged on the side window, slid it up. Doing a shaky chin up to the sill, she swam her arms through the pillow case curtain. As she tipped into the apartment, a delicate grunt escaped from under her breath and instantly I wondered — again — what she would be like in bed.
“Is there nobody home?” Lima Bean wondered.
“Come and find out,” she said, letting us in through the door.
“You’re a pro in a getaway,” I told her. “And a cat burglar too. All on a gimpy wheel.”
Hey Baby sat down on the carpet, folded her leg Indian style and put her nose to the pad of her foot like she was going to smell it. “Ooh. That’s deep. Gross. I think I see bone.”
I said, “That’s not bone. It’s skin.”
“Or a tendon or something.” She pried open the gash, poked her nail into it. “Ow. Nope. That’s freakin’ nerve!”
“Check how it’s turning black around the edges,” Lima Bean pointed.
“Probably it’s infected running barefoot like that.”
“Dude,” I said. “Her whole foot’s black, it’s called dirt.”
We both bent down to see.
“Oh yeah,” he nodded. “That is gross.”
Hey Baby made a pouty face. We helped her up and she peg-legged off to the bathroom.
Lima Bean watched her leave, gave me a look like, hey, who do you think she likes better?
And I was like, hey, man, who do you think?
We stood there in the living room shifting in our shoes, listening to water run in the tub, looking around. There wasn’t much to see. Show posters for bands nobody’d ever heard of slouched on pocked and dented plaster walls. Spackle and not quite matching patch paint traced the seams and cracks like some little kid learning the alphabet.
The next room over was the kitchen. Two guys were staring down at the stove, which had been yanked far out from the wall. The gas line was unscrewed, the curlicued hose poking out the back.
The taller one flicked a lighter and stuck it into the mouth of the oven. “He’s in there, all right. Gotta be.”
The other guy tipped a can of Blue Ribbon to his face, crushing it as he drank. “Ya think?”
Tall Guy pounded the stove top. “I know you’re in there, fucker! Ya’ hear me?” He pocketed his lighter, got down on one knee. “C’mon. Let’s take out the drip pan, have a look see.”
Blue Ribbon tossed his can at the trash, bricked it off the rim. “I dunno, man. Be easier if we just set some traps, let nature take it’s course.”
“Oh, sure, right. You wanna be all humane and shit meanwhile this thing’s buzz sawing through my Ritz Crackers and Coco-Puffs leaving turds for Thank You cards.”
“I ain’t sayin’ that, man. Look, what we got here is an instinctual burrower. It’s scared shitless. That mouse ain’t gonna be hangin’ out in the broiler waitin’ for you to kill it, get me? It’s hidin’ on the inside between the wires and piping and tubes and whatever.” Blue Ribbon cracked his knuckles. “What I’m saying is: forget the drip pan, man. You want at that? We gotta take this oven apart.”
“Scared huh?” Tall Guy crab-walked around the stove examining the screws that fixed the sheet metal shell to the framework. “Goddamn better be.”
“Hey. Hey, kid,” Blue Ribbon called over to us. We weren’t sure which one he was talking to, so we put our hands in our pockets and cocked our heads at him. “Yeah, you.” He meant Lima Bean. “You gotta flathead screwdriver on ya’? A pen knife? A long fingernail? Somethin’?”
“Here,” Tall Guy said, holding up a butter knife.
“Well, com’ere anyways.” Blue Ribbon steered Lima Bean to the center of the kitchen. “You just got drafted. Now, stand over here. No, there. Be the look out. You see it, you holler.”
“You see it,” Tall Guy said. “Stomp it, fuck yelling.”
Just then, Hey Baby came out from the bathroom. She’d changed into a punk rock t-shirt with a stretched out neck that hung around her like a life preserver and a pair of boy shorts that you could only imagine because the shirt dangled almost to her knees.
She leaned on me, peeked into the kitchen and we watched as they stripped all the screws to nubs until finally getting one side of the oven loose enough to pry off.
“Shee-it. You were right. Look at all that insulation. Betcha that fucker’s dug right up in there. This ain’t no hide out. That’s his home, man.”
“Wait a sec. Insulation? You sure that ain’t asbestos?”
The three of them bent down, cupping their mouths and pinching their noses shut. With a spatula, Tall Guy stabbed at the cotton candy wrap that heatproofed the guts of the oven.
“Uh, well, it don’t look funny. What color is it ‘sposed to be, anyways?”
“Jeeze, I dunno. Lemme remember. Hey, it was sprayed all over the ceiling of that warehouse we used to work at, right? What color was that? Grey? Grey, right?”
Hey Baby said, “I’m gettin’ hungry. Are you gonna know how to put that thing back together again — like tonight?”
Without bothering to look up, Tall Guy said, “One thing I do know, you ruin my Black Flag t-shirt and that’s your ass.”
“Relax. I haven’t gotten anything on it.”
“You got you on it. That’s enough.”
Blue Ribbon cracked another beer. “Grey, yeah. It was grey. I’m pretty sure. Heh. False alarm, man, sorry. This right here has gotta be some other kind of insulation. But, kid, crack that window, just to be safe.”
Hey Baby rolled her eyes, pushed up off the doorway. “C’mon,” she said to me. “You gotta put the iodine on. I can’t do it to myself. I’m not that kind of girl, you know.”
I followed her down the hallway, sat on the toilet the color of stained teeth. Hey Baby gripped the edge of the bathtub and put her foot on my knee. I poured iodine onto some wadded up toilet paper. I said, “So who are those guys anyway?”
“The annoying one,” she said. “Is my brother. Sorry. He’s got issues.”
I’d heard about him. “Did he really get expelled from school for sticking his knife in a guy’s ear?”
“No.” Hey Baby wiggled her toes. “It was somebody else’s knife.”
On the other side of the wall there was hammering. Somebody turned on the vacuum, drug it across the floor. The motor yo-yoed — wheeze and whine — and the hose sawed back and forth with the pebbly rattle of stuff choking up it.
“His food stash, betcha,” her brother shouted. “Stick it up there, that hole goes way back, we’ll flush ‘em out.”
“Yup, uh huh, uh huh, keep it coming… hey, look alive, kid.”
“I’m apologizing beforehand. Don’t hate me — but this is gonna hurt.”
I held her squirmy foot as tight as I could, scrubbed the medicine deep into the cut.
“Cuts on a foot are the worst. They take forever to heal unless you keep them super clean,” I said, but Hey Baby wasn’t listening. She had a fistful of my hair and was breathing through her teeth like girls do when things either feel really good or hurt really bad. I guessed it was the latter.
“All done,” I said, helping her up. “So, was it worth it?”
Hey Baby fished through the pockets of her jeans that were lying on the floor and pulled out the earrings. She took them out of their package, threaded them into her ears and did a few poses in front of the mirror.
“Eh.” She tossed the earrings into the soap dish. “They looked a lot better in the store.”
I put my hands around her waist, helped her saddle up onto the edge of the sink. I knelt down and taped on the biggest Band Aid I could find. “Well, I think they look cute, anyway.”
Hey Baby tickled her fingers through the cowlick on the top of my head. “I’ve never done anything like that before. That was exciting. Were you scared? I was.”
“I didn’t have time to get scared. I was just lookin’ around and next thing I know dude is jumpin’ the counter comin’ at us.”
“I want to do it again. That was a rush.”
“Well, you gotta warn me first, at least.” I stood up and felt her calves wrap gentle around my hamstrings. Then, she pulled my shirt off like hockey players do when they fight.
I like things spontaneous.”
We kissed, clicking teeth. Slowly, I ran my hand under her shirt all the way up past her stomach before I realized she wasn’t wearing a bra and blushed.
Hey Baby looked at the expression on my face then down my hand, still, under her shirt. “Have you ever done this before?”
“Of course, sure,” I said feeling red burn off the tips of my ears. But really, I never knew that girls went around without bras on. “I’ve got to second plenty of times.”
“What about further?”
But before I could answer, we heard a high pitched girly scream. The vacuum got knocked over and stalled. There was the scrambling of feet, the grunt of sudden, awkward motion, the hollow, wobbly clang of sheet metal hitting linoleum. Then, nothing.
We froze, startled. My hand was still stuck to her chest and I could feel her breath caught up in there, so I held mine too. Our ears sonared the silence for any indication that everything was ok, but there was only quiet.
Hey Baby exhaled into my face. “God. Perfect. Just when we were getting to the good part.” Her breath smelled like bubble gum and old milk. “I guess somebody should see if they’re ok.”
I figured with her foot and everything else, she meant me. “All right,” I said. “But don’t go anywhere.”
“You’re sweet.” She squished her lips together in a kind of smile. “I was just teasing you before, you know? I like the way you touch me. I mean it.”
In the kitchen, the stove was just an skeleton of stamped metal, veins of wire and tubing. The oven’s shell and stovetop lay fanned out against the wall like a fallen deck of cards. All over the floor were tufts of pink insulation, bits of burnt crumbs and ground up grit.
But the stove looked to be old news. Now, Hey Baby’s brother and Blue Ribbon were positioned on either side of the refrigerator. They nodded in a silent three count, then yanked the fridge violently from the wall.
Lima Bean had a broken broom cocked in his hands and jumped into the opening. “Hi-ya!” he said.
“Sneaky fuckin’ bastard musta got in ‘round back of them coils.” Her brother punched the fridge door closed. “Let’s tip this thing on it’s side, try and knock it out.”
Blue Ribbon bent over the back of the fridge. “Not a chance. Things’s holed up behind the compressor. Man, we’re gonna hafta take the motor out. Now what can we use as a ratchet?”
Going back down the hall, I reentered the bathroom and said, “Well, looks everybody’s all right —” But it was empty. She wasn’t there.
“In my room,” she called from somewhere deeper in the apartment. “Come find me.”
“Hold on,” I told her. “I will.”
Joshua Citrak loves the power of words, nouns and verbs, and the pen as the sword in the linguistic art of war.
This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket. It was first published in Oyster Boy Review #20 as “cut, on Oak Street” http://www.oysterboyreview.org/issue/20/.
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