Skye Blue (excerpt)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The first chapter of Skye Blue, a novel about a young girl whose fierce love and loyalty for the older brother who raised her sometimes puts her in danger.

Submitted: September 11, 2012

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Submitted: September 11, 2012

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It’s drizzling and gray when we get off the train in Wheaton. I wish it wasn’t, because rainy days are the worst days to see a town for the first time. Jimmy says we lived here once before, but I don’t remember it. There’s a White Hen Pantry across the street, and a mechanic’s shop where nobody is working on cars. It’s only September but the rain is ice cold, not cool and refreshing like a summer rain.

Jimmy knows exactly where to go. He leads the way with quick, long strides, his black work boots leaving momentary prints on the wet pavement. I’m always a few steps behind him, trying to keep up. “Things are gonna be different here, Skye,” he tells me without looking over his shoulder. The rain makes his hair look darker than it really is. It makes everything look darker.

We turn the corner and there’s this big church, with stained glass windows and everything. The Catholic churches always have a bunch of buildings, instead of just one building. There’s usually a school part, and the office part, and the house where the pastor lives, and maybe a building where the nuns sleep. Or sometimes monks, who are like the boy version of nuns.

Me and Jimmy walk down a narrow path between two of the buildings.  It’s like a secret passageway to the chapel.

Jimmy opens the door for me. He closes it very quietly behind me. I hate going into churches, but still, I’m glad to be out of the rain. Jimmy motions for me to sit down on a bench in the small lobby, right outside the room where the people go to pray. He sits down next to me. He smells like wet leather from his jacket. Pushing strands of wet hair away from his forehead, he tells me, “The way I see it, Skye, it’ll only take me a few days to find a job. We’ll find a place to live. An apartment. And you should really think about going to school.”
“No!” I protest.

Jimmy frowns, making the “shut up” signal at me.

“No school,” I whisper.

“We’ll see what happens.”

The part where people pray is separated from us by a row of glass doors. But we can still hear them… all the old people, In Mass at 8:00 on a Wednesday morning. They kneel in the pews and pray rapidly in low voices. I try not to listen. Being in churches always makes me feel guilty.

“Stay here.” Jimmy gets up, leaving his duffel bag for me to watch. He goes in through one of the glass doors.

My stomach feels fluttery. Maybe it’s because I haven’t eaten in a while. I stare at my reflection in the door across from me. I have brownish-blond hair, a few shades darker than Jimmy’s. He calls it peanut butter colored. I used to cut my hair myself and it would stick out every which way, but while I lived with Dacey she said I should grow it out, and she would comb it for me every night to make it get longer. Now it hangs just above my shoulders. People still sometimes mistake me for a boy though.

Reflected in the door, my eyes look dark and hollow. I know they cannot be that dark for real. My eyes are hazel like Jimmy’s, although they don’t flash green the way his do when he’s angry. I study myself for a minute longer, taking in the way the door reflection makes things look different, the way it makes the freckles on my nose disappear and the way it makes my sneakers look black instead of purple. The way it sort of makes me look see-through, like a person could come up and stick their arm right through me and not feel a thing. Maybe this is what I will look like when I die and become a ghost.

I hear a door open somewhere, and drop my eyes quickly so Jimmy won’t see me staring at my own reflection. If he sees me, he’ll make fun of me. He’ll say, “Whatcha staring at yourself for, Skye? What, you got a boyfriend I don’t know about?”

Jimmy doesn’t appear, but I keep my eyes away from the strange reflection anyway.  I try to concentrate on a bulletin board on the wall across from where I sit. It’s covered with ads for babysitting services, and religious groups you can join. One time when we used to stay with Craig and them, we went into a church somewhere and the pastor there said there was a youth group and that I should come to it. He said there would be snacks, and singing, and a movie. Craig asked me, “Would you like that, Skye?” and I said “yes”, and Craig told the pastor he would bring me back that night. But I knew he wouldn’t and I only said yes because Craig would want me to, to make him look good in front of the pastor. By the time the youth group started, we would have been long gone from that town.

Jimmy comes out, with an old lady. “I’m not so worried about myself,” he’s telling her. “It’s just that my little sister needs to get back to Chicago. She’s missing school right now.”

“Yes, yes,” the little old lady agrees. She looks sympathetically at me. “The pastor just left for a meeting, otherwise he’d help you I’m sure,” the old lady muses. “The only other thing I can think of is, you can come with me to my apartment. I have twenty dollars I could give you. Would that be enough?”

Jimmy breathes a huge sigh of relief. “Oh, that would be a life saver. Thank you so much.”

“I live right across the street.” The old lady heads for the door.

“Go with her. I’ll be right there,” Jimmy mutters.

I want to argue but the old lady is still by the door, listening. I pull on my backpack and follow her.

We are alone for a second, the old lady and me, out in the rain. I hate being alone with people I don’t know very good. I never know what to say. I dig my right thumbnail into the flesh of my left hand, making white half-moons.

The old lady smiles at me. She has a worn, wrinkly face. She looks sort of like the grandmother in the “Tweety” cartoons. Except she’s not a cartoon.

“What town were you in when you had the accident?” she asks me.

I look at her blankly. I almost say, What accident? It is lucky that I figure it out in time to keep my mouth shut.

“I bet you don’t even know,” she says.

My brother comes outside and I ask him, pretending to be confused, “What town were we in, when we had the accident?”

“West Chicago,” he replies. He names an intersection I don’t know of.

“Then you walked a long way,” the old lady says.

“Right? All I want to do is go home, take some Tylenol, and get some sleep, and then I’ll start worrying about getting the car fixed and everything else,” says Jimmy.

We are all walking across the street, and my brother walks slow because even he knows that an old lady can’t be running to keep up with him.

We get to the apartment building across the street from the church, and we all go up the stairs and down the dim hallway that smells like fresh paint. The old lady stops and opens the door to her apartment. Me and Jimmy hang back, expecting to wait outside. But she holds the door open for us. “Come on in.”

The apartment is tiny. The walls are decorated with pictures of Jesus, and plaques with Bible verses or prayers inscribed on them. I want to leave. The old lady goes into the bedroom.

Jimmy looks at me and grins.

I raise my eyebrows, and point to the ground, to show him where he’s headed.

Jimmy shrugs. “Shit happens,” he whispers.

The old lady comes back and hands Jimmy a twenty-dollar bill. “I hope this will be enough, young man. I don’t know how much train tickets cost. I don’t ride the train.”

“It’s fine. Thank you.” Jimmy beams at her. I am no good at doing math in my head, but I have a feeling we could both get to Chicago and back on the train twice if we wanted to, with twenty dollars.

“Can I get you a cup of coffee?” asks the old lady.

“Coffee would be great,” says Jimmy. He never turns down free coffee.

She starts pouring him some. “What about you, sweetie? You’re too young for coffee. How about milk?”

I say, “No thank you.” But she pours me a glass anyway. So, feeling guilty, I sit down at the kitchen table. She gets plates out and serves Jimmy and me each a slice of cranberry coffee cake, which she tells us she made from scratch. I am hungry, and it is sweet, and I eat it fast while the old lady and Jimmy are still talking about the accident we supposedly had in West Chicago, and about where we supposedly live in the regular Chicago. When the old lady isn’t looking, Jimmy trades plates with me so I can eat his too.

“We’d better get going,” Jimmy finally says, “so we can get on that train. Come on, little one.”

The old lady walks us both out to the entryway of the building. She shakes our hands. “Good luck. God bless you kids,” she says, and watches us leave.

We walk across the street in the general direction of the train station. It’s raining harder than before now, and the rain soaks my purple sneakers. It soaks through my jeans jacket and freezes me to the bone

“That old lady shouldn’t be letting strangers into her apartment,” I say. “She could get killed one of these days.”

“I know. That’s why I was gonna wait in the hallway. I didn’t think she was gonna invite us in like that,” says Jimmy.

“You’re bogus, anyway, Jimmy. Scamming poor old ladies on their way out of Mass.”

“Poor, your ass! That lady probably has fifty million dollars stuffed under her mattress. All these old people do.”

“But still…” I say.

“Shut up, Skye. God, you talk to much.” Jimmy rolls his eyes, all disgusted with me. He starts walking faster, like to get in out of the rain, only we got no place to go to.

*****

My mother named me Skye because when she got pregnant with me she lived in San Francisco, and she did a lot of acid and had friends who named their kids things like Sunshine and Moonbeam and River. My mother wanted to be like them and have a baby with a nature name. She wasn’t a hippie though. Not really. She didn’t care about the environment or nothing like that. She just liked the drugs. That’s what Jimmy says, anyway. I don’t remember her. Not at all. 

I am fourteen years old and Jimmy is twenty-three and he is the one who raised me, mostly. When I was a baby we all lived together, my mother and Jimmy and I. In California. Then we moved to Illinois, and that’s when we lived in Wheaton, except I don’t remember that. Then came Rockford, where we had a stepfather too. Our stepfather was a mean man. That’s why, when Jimmy was sixteen, he told our mother that she could either tell our stepfather to leave, or he was leaving and taking me with. Our mother decided that it was fine, Jimmy and me could leave, and the stepfather could stay. Jimmy says she used to love us once, but by the time we got to Rockford she was on really bad drugs, way worse than the ones she did with the hippies in California. Jimmy says our mother didn’t even love our stepfather so much, and that’s not why she kept him and not us. She kept our stepfather because he had the drugs. That’s what Jimmy says.

Jimmy has raised me, and this is what we do. We go to churches and Jimmy gets the people to give us stuff. They always believe him. He could tell them that the earth is shaped like a cube, and people would believe him, because everyone loves Jimmy. Not just me. Ladies especially think he’s great. The ones who are close to his age think he’s hot, and the ones who are older think he’s a sweet young man. I don’t know why. Maybe it has something to do with the way his high cheekbones make him look sort of tough and sad at the same time, or the way he swings his arms when he laughs. Or the way that, whenever we stay in shelters, he’s always playing with all of the little kids, and he’ll make sure their parents had money to buy them McDonald’s once in a while. People used to say Jimmy is kind of like Robin Hood, because he acts so tough and he’s been in prison and everything, but if you know him there’s nothing he won’t do for you. Except I saw the cartoon of “Robin Hood” once, where Robin Hood is a fox and Little John is a bear. In that movie Robin Hood steals the king’s money so he can give it to Friar Tuck for the poor box. But I seen Jimmy take money out of the poor box of a church before. He used a screwdriver to pry it open. I was keeping watch, that day, to make sure nobody came.

I am fourteen and I have learned a whole lot, for someone who doesn’t go to school. When I was little, I went to school, and the people said I was retarded. Not retarded, exactly, but something like it. They said I didn’t sit still and I didn’t listen and I didn’t do the work and I didn’t play with the other kids, and then they gave me all these tests which they said had no wrong answers, except apparently I got all the answers wrong anyway because they made Jimmy come in for a meeting and they told him I was retarded. They wanted me to go to a special classroom. So I went to their special classroom, but I kept getting the Time Out Room there, and I came home crying every day, and finally Jimmy told the school people he was going to try home schooling me. Which he did, for about a month. After that he said I could learn a lot more by just living life, and maybe going to the library when I felt like it. I never went to school again. We lived in Waukegan back then, and after we moved Jimmy just never registered me for school anywhere else. It is perfectly legal to be home schooled, same as it is perfectly legal to be homeless, and perfectly legal to move a lot, and perfectly legal to have a guardian who goes to jail sometimes, which is how Jimmy got away with keeping me instead of having me go to a foster home like some people told him to do.

Lots of people still think I’m retarded, but Jimmy says not to listen to them. In whatever town we go to, I look for a library right away, and Jimmy says I’m smart because of that.

Jimmy says I worry too much. I’ve worried a lot for as long as I can remember. Jimmy always says, “Why you so down-and-out, Skye? Now I know why Mama named you Skye… because you’re so blue!” When I’m happy, he calls me Sunny Skies. But mostly I’m Skye Blue.

*****

There’s an old house with tiny rooms that some guy rents out for real cheap to homeless people like Jimmy and me. Jimmy went to visit some pastor he knows, and he got the church to pay our rent for the whole week. This is supposed to give Jimmy time to get a job so he can pay the next week’s rent himself.

Our room here is about the size of a closet. There’s a bed, a TV, a dresser, a short little refrigerator, and one chair. There is a bare light bulb that swings from a string on the ceiling, and when you pull the little chain it turns on and gives you just enough light so you can find your way across the room. I guess people here like it dark because most of the windows of the house have cardboard or plastic taped over them. Ours has a big paper Aldi’s bag taped over the window. If we stay here, maybe we’ll get curtains. Or one of those white things that you can pull down at night and pull up in the morning. Whatever you call those things.

Everyone in the house shares one bathroom. It’s pretty gross, and I try to only use it in emergencies. I’d rather hold it until I get to the library or someplace. I’d rather pee in the backyard, even.

I already unpacked all my things. I like to unpack my things, even when we are staying in a motel, even when I know we will only be there one night. I like to pretend that I will be staying. Jimmy thinks I’m silly to unpack every single time we go someplace, but he doesn’t make me stop because I don’t own much anyway so it doesn’t take long for me to pack up if we have to leave fast.  At this place, I put all of my clothes… two pairs of jeans and three T-shirts and a hooded sweatshirt, plus my socks and undies… in the bottom drawer of the dresser. We don’t have shelves here so I keep the rest of my stuff lined up neatly along the wall beneath the window. There is my CD player and my headphones, and the storage folder with all my CD’s. I have lots of CD’s, mostly ones Dacey used to bring me when she worked at Tower Records. Listening to my CD’s is my second favorite thing to do. My first favorite is reading.

Then there’s a stuffed raccoon that I got when the Chicago cops visited one of the shelters and talked to all of the kids there about why you shouldn’t be afraid of them. The raccoon is wearing a yellow T-shirt that says “Chicago Police” on the front.

I also have a pocket-sized Bible some pastor somewhere gave me, a bunch of Marti Gras beads Jimmy brought for me from a bar one Marti Gras night, a bunch of Happy Meal toys, one token from Chuck E. Cheese that I found on the ground outside the Motel 6 last week, and a sheet of pictures Dacey and me got taken together in a photo booth at the mall when I was ten. Plus I have a Chicago Public Library card, but I keep that in my pocket at all times. I found the library here. It’s only a few blocks away. I can walk straight down the Prairie Path and get there, and check out books and CD’s to bring home.  If we had a VCR, I could bring movies, even.

There’s also a center, way far down the road, where homeless people can go hang out and get food. Jimmy and I went there for lunch on our first day in Wheaton. It was lasagna and fried chicken. I have been there five times since, and lunch has been lasagna and fried chicken three times out of the five. Maybe they think homeless people love lasagna and fried chicken as a rule. (I do love it, luckily!)

There’s a guy upstairs at our house, who Jimmy knows from before. The guy’s name is Martin. Jimmy has asked him to watch out for me, when he’s not around. Martin is nice and sometimes when he goes to the store he brings me a pop or a chocolate milk.

Jimmy leaves here every morning. He doesn’t bring me. He says he’s looking for a job, and it would look weird if he had some weird kid tagging along. That’s what he always says.

Jimmy likes me to stay in the room while he’s gone. He’s afraid if I go out a lot during the day, the nosey people around here will ask questions about why a fourteen-year-old isn’t in school. He says all these people here are very religious and they’ll probably try to adopt me or something, to do a good deed and help get themselves closer to Heaven.

But I can’t stand just sitting around all day. So I wait until Jimmy goes out, and then I leave too. I go to the library almost every day, and to the homeless center for lunch. I wander in and out of the shops downtown, or sit on a bench by the fountain and watch other people walk around. Sometimes I go to the Billy Graham Museum, and sometimes I explore the campus of Wheaton College. Once I got onto the train and rode one stop over to Glen Ellyn to see what their library was like. If anyone asks me questions, I can say that I am a home schooler on a field trip. There is a kind of home schooling you can do, called unschooling, where you do whatever you want to do and just figure out a lesson to learn from it. I read a whole book about that once. If anyone ever asks me, I will tell them I am doing that. But so far, nobody ever has.

At night, though, the town gets cold and the streets get empty. So at night, I stay up in our room, reading and watching TV and listening to my CD’s.

Our house is right across the street from the train tracks, and every time a freight train goes by the TV gets all fuzzy and messed up, and the whole house shakes like we’re having an earthquake. One time a freight train came by in the middle of the night, and I woke up screaming because I thought I was about to get run over by it. I guess you get used to it, after a while.

*****

Jimmy has disappeared and I don’t know where he is, He has been gone for days. He just went off one morning like always, and didn’t come back. Before he left he told me he got our rent paid for another week, and I get plenty of food to eat at the homeless center, and at least when Jimmy’s not here I don’t have to lie perfectly still in the bed which is way too small for the both of us but which we share anyway because nobody wants to sleep on the floor where there might be cockroaches or mice or who knows what else creeping around in the dark.

This isn’t the first time Jimmy has gone off and left me for a few days. So I shouldn’t be worried. I should be used to it, by now. But I’m not worried, exactly. I miss him. Jimmy’s all I got.

On the fourth day of Jimmy being gone, I get the people at the homeless center to let me use the phone, and I call everyplace I can think of. I call all of the hospitals in the area, and the police station, and DuPage County Jail. I even call Cook County Jail, on the chance that Jimmy went to the city and got busted for something.

Nobody has seen him.

The volunteers at the homeless center look at me with concern in their eyes, and ask me if everything’s all right. You’re not even really supposed to come in here if you’re under eighteen. Not without a parent. But they like my brother Jimmy. They remember him from when we used to live here, even though Jimmy was pretty young then. A lot of the homeless people went to high school with Jimmy. The director even said, “Jimmy Vaccarro is a legend around here!”

The inside of the center looks a little like the inside of a school cafeteria. There are these rows of long tables, and everyone sits there all day long. If you want to leave for a while, you have to get a staff member give you a pass. You have to keep the pass, and not lose it, or you cannot come back in until the next day. At noon they serve lunch, and that’s the biggest activity of the day. Everyone lines up for their lasagna and fried chicken and Kool-Aid.

There is also an overnight shelter, which gets set up in the basement of a different church each night. You have to get the schedule and travel from church to church. Me and Jimmy have stayed in shelters like that before. It is usually okay. There are a lot of rules. If you break a rule you get a checkmark, and if you get three checkmarks you get a strike, and that means you’re kicked out of the shelter. But the rules are easy. No fighting, no being drunk, no stealing. Stuff like that. (Although we did get kicked out of a shelter like this once because Jimmy sneaked vodka in and got drunk and got in a fight with some other guy that was drunk too… so maybe the rules are harder for some people and easier for others.)

Once in Aurora me and Jimmy stayed at a shelter that was run by a church. It was called a Mission. They call it a Mission because even though they say they just want to help homeless people, they are on a Mission to make you be Christian. At that Mission you lived there all the time, not just at night. The guys were downstairs and the girls were upstairs, so me and Jimmy had to be separate. Everyone ate together in the cafeteria, but girls and guys weren’t allowed to talk to each other or even look at each other. If I wanted to talk to my own brother, I had to sneak. Plus, they made us sit around and study the Bible six or seven hours a day. I was going crazy there. We got up out of there after only a week.

If Jimmy doesn’t come back next week to pay the rent again, I might have to find a way to sleep at the overnight shelter. If they let me into the day shelter alone, maybe they’ll let me into the night shelter. That would be okay, I guess.

*****

One of the volunteer ladies here comes and sits down next to me, while I am trying to think of how to find the phone number of the morgue. “Where’s your mother and father?” she wants to know. “Can’t you stay with them?”

“My mother has a lot of problems, so I live with my brother,” I tell her.

The lady shakes her head. “I just don’t see how any mother could let a little girl go like that. Couldn’t you go into a foster home or something?”

“But I like living with Jimmy! We need each other! We’re a family!” I brace myself to run, in case the lady decides to personally call the social service people on me. But she just looks at me and shakes her head some more.

I don’t feel like answering any more questions. I just want to find Jimmy. I close my eyes and pretend that I’m invisible.

*****

Someone knocks on the door in the morning, when I am still half-asleep. I have been sleeping with my headphones on, and Soundtrack Of Our Lives is blaring “Instant Repeater 99” into my ears, so I don’t know how long the door pounding goes on for before I realize it is not part of the music. I don’t even have to get out of bed to reach over and open the door.

Martin stands in the hallway, looking solemnly at me. “Maybe you should walk down to College Avenue,” he says.

“What for?” It’s too early to go out walking anywhere. I rub the sleep out of my eyes.

“Your brother’s down there,” Martin says. “He wants to talk to you.”

I put on my sneakers and my jacket as fast as I can, and go out, locking the door of my room behind me because Martin says some of these people are crack addicts and will rob you blind if you don’t lock your door.

At least it’s sort of warm out today. I walk fast down the Prairie Path, in the opposite direction from the library and the homeless center. I nod hello to the yuppies jogging past me in their shorts. People on the Prairie Path always nod at each other, like they’re in a secret club together. But they have no way of knowing that I don’t really belong.

I go down a couple of blocks to President Street, cross the train tacks, and cut through the alley behind the Convenience Mart and the laundry mat. In the train depot, there’s all the usual well-dressed commuters sitting primly on the benches, reading their newspapers and sipping their espressos and waiting for the train to the city.

Then there’s my brother, passed out sprawled all over the floor.

“Jimmy!” I kneel down to nudge him. He doesn’t move. “Jimmy! Jimmy!” I gotta keep hitting him until he wakes up.

The commuters don’t even look over at us. They act like we’re invisible, or like it doesn’t matter anyway because they see this kind of thing every day.

“Jimmy, wake up! What the hell, Jimmy?” God I hate it when he does

this!

One time last summer, me and Jimmy got lost from each other for three whole weeks. This was due to Jimmy getting arrested and me getting kicked out of where we were staying. When you don’t have some sort of home base, it is nearly impossible to find someone once you get separated from them. We had been staying in the city, and after Jimmy went to jail I just stayed wherever I could and tried to stay out of the way of any nosey adults. Even though it’s legal to be homeless when you have kids, it’s not legal for kids to be homeless by themselves.

Anyway one night I was walking along, and I saw some bum passed out under a bridge, right next to the Irving Park “L” station. I probably would have kept on walking, if I hadn’t noticed the guy’s shoes. He had black Converse high-tops. They looked just like Jimmy’s high-tops. So I climbed up there to look at the guy. He looked a little like Jimmy. Except this guy was real thin and pale, and dirty, and he even looked like he was going bald near his forehead. And he was wearing some corny-ass T-shirt with a picture of a barn on it. Something I knew my big brother would never wear.

But he did look a lot like Jimmy.

So I put my hand on his head and opened up his eyelids to check for Jimmy’s blue-gray eyes. I lifted up his arms and checked to make sure all of his scars were in the right places.

It was Jimmy!

I started pushing him and hollering at him, trying to wake him up. People kept walking by, looking at me like I was crazy for trying to wake up some bum who could, for all they knew, freak out and strangle me when he opened his eyes and saw me looking down at him. Some bums really will do that, because they’ve had really bad things happen to them before, like being in wars and jail and stuff, and if you wake them up when they don’t expect it they get scared and try to kill you. Never wake up a sleeping bum.

Since this particular bum was my own brother, it was okay. I kept on trying to wake him up any way I could think of. I sat on his stomach and kicked at his shoes and shook his arms around and made him smack himself in the face with his own hands. Finally I sat down next to him and said, “I’m gonna call nine-one-one then.”

He opened one eye and said, “I’ll kill you, little girl.”

We stayed together, that night under the bridge. It was summer so it wasn’t that dangerous to sleep outside. At least you knew you wouldn’t freeze to death.

And now, here I am, doing the same thing all over again. Trying to wake up my drunk brother out of a dead sleep.

After a few more minutes, Jimmy sits up really slow, like a zombie waking up in a graveyard. When he looks at me, his eyelids droop like he’s stoned. He says, “Huh?”

His face is completely blank. He gazes at me in sleepy wonder. “Skye? What’re you doing here?”

“Martin told me you were here. How much you been drinking?” I demand.

`“You mad at me, Skye?” he asks.

“Naw.” There’s no sense in getting mad at Jimmy.

“You go get me a sandwich?” He gets a bunch of change from the inside pocket of his leather jacket. He tries to count it, but ends up handing it all to me, a mixture of quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. “Get me a meatball one, okay?”

I run down to the Convenience store where the Indian dude is just opening up the sandwich shop. I get the meatball sandwich and two Dr. Peppers. There’s still some change, and I stick it in my coat pocket, so Jimmy won’t see it.

Jimmy is asleep again when I get back up to the train depot. He’s asleep but he’s sitting up, leaning against the wall. This time I just gotta shake him a little bit to wake him up. He looks around and says, “What?”

“Here’s your sandwich and a pop.” I set the food in front of him.

“Skye? What’re you doing here?” Jimmy mumbles.

“I been here for a while, remember? I sat here and had a conversation with you!”

He just stares at me. “How you know I wanted a sandwich?”

I give up. “I’m fuckin’ psychic, Jimmy. Just eat it.” Maybe it will sober him up a little. He probably hasn’t eaten much since the last time I saw him. Food sometimes soaks up alcohol.

My brother grabs the sandwich and starts to devour it. I sit down on the floor next to him and lean back against a grimy window. The gates are going down on President Street, and the bells are clanging. The commuters are starting to get up and shuffle outside. Some of them leave their newspapers behind, and I think of looking for the funnies and the horoscopes, but for once I don’t feel like reading. I open my Dr. Pepper and take a long drink, to get the caffeine flowing in my blood. I watch my big brother, still wearing the clothes I last saw him in, his hair all greasy and sticking out in every direction. He looks like a little kid.

“I love you, big brother,” I say, real quiet, so quiet I almost think he won’t hear me.

But he does hear me. “I love you too, Skye Blue.”

*****

It’s Wednesday and the old man who owns this house will be coming around, looking for the rent money. That means we will have to go to churches today. Jimmy says.

I hate going to churches. I hide under the covers and pretend to be asleep, until Jimmy picks me up out of the bed and stands me on my feet. I try to tell him I don’t want to go because I’m too tired, too sick, too scared, too…

“Too bad,” Jimmy interrupts. “We got to, Skye. You don’t gotta say nothing, even. Just stand there and look dumb. You know… be yourself.”

I punch him, hard, for that one.

We walk down the Prairie Path towards downtown Wheaton, where a lot of churches are. Jimmy smokes a cigarette as we walk. The smell of cigarettes and his cologne mix with the crisp fall air. It is a familiar smell to me. It gives me a sad feeling. I don’t know why.

“I’m not saying anything at all,” I remind Jimmy.

“You don’t have to. That’s fine. I told you.” Jimmy is irritated.

“Just tell them I’m deaf and mute,” I say. “And blind.”

Jimmy chuckles. “I’ll tell them the truth… Here I am, twenty-three years old, trying to raise up my little retarded sister…” He grins wickedly.

“Jimmy!” I holler.

Soon as we get near the church, though, all our joking stops. We walk in, somber, side-by-side. Through the lobby and into the little office, where a lady in spectacles is typing at a computer. We have to stand there and wait for her to stop typing and look up at us. She doesn’t look up for a long time. She knows we’re there.

Jimmy clears his throat loudly.

The lady’s head snaps up. “Can I help you?”

“Yeah, is there a pastor here who I could talk to?” asks Jimmy.

“This is regarding…”

“We just need to talk to the pastor. It’s sort of personal. I’d rather not talk about it right here.”

“Okay. Fine.” The lady rolls her eyes. She knows why we’ve come here. “I’ll get Father Thomas.”

The lady goes away. She comes back right away, with a pastor.  The pastor sees us, and grins.

“Jimmy Vacarro?” says the pastor. “Is that you?”

“In the flesh,” says Jimmy. I look at him, surprised. Jimmy didn’t tell me he’d been here before.

“What brings you out this way?” asks Father Thomas. “Last time I saw you, you told me there was no way in hell you were ever coming back to Wheaton!”

I grin. A pastor just said “no way in hell”.

“I just moved back here,” Jimmy explains. “To get Skye. Have you met my little sister Skye? Skye, this is Father Thomas. He helped me out when I was just a little older than you.”

“Good to meet you, Skye,” says Father Thomas. “I can tell you’re Jimmy’s sister because you have the same eyes.”

“Our mother just kicked her out of the house,” said Jimmy, putting a protective arm around me. “Can you believe it? Mama hasn’t changed much since I’ve been gone.”

“Really?” The pastor looks at me with concern on his face.

Jimmy nods. “The poor kid’s been crashing at her friends’ houses for a week. She called me up crying hysterically. I got out here as soon as I could, you know? Had to quit my job and everything. I had to. This is my little sister we’re talking about!”

“Oh, of course!” Father Thomas believes every word my brother says. They always do. “So what now? Are you taking her back to California with you?”

“Actually, I decided it would be better if I stayed out here with her,” says Jimmy. “She’s in high school and I don’t want her to get disrupted even more than she’s already been.”

“Oh yeah, I agree with you there.” The pastor looks at me. “What school do you go to, Skye?”

I stare at him.

“Tell him, Skye. Wheaton North. She’s shy,” Jimmy apologizes. “Here’s the problem. I rented a room, over on Crescent Street. The problem is I’m out of money! I just got a job and I’m supposed to start on Monday, but I won’t get paid for a few weeks. I gotta pay the rent today, or we get kicked out.” He sighs, shaking his head. “I would go to the shelter if I had to. But I don’t want to bring Skye there. She doesn’t need to be around there.”

“No, you’re right about that,” says the pastor. “So how much do you need, Jimmy?”

“Well, ninety dollars a week, and I’m definitely not gonna get paid for another two weeks,” Jimmy replies. “And is there any way you could help us out with some groceries? We’ve been living on ramen noodles.”

“Of course. Just wait here a minute.” The pastor goes back into another room.

Jimmy leans over and mumbles into my ear, “He gave me two hundred bucks for a plane ticket to California when I was sixteen. Keep your mouth shut.” His breath tickles my ear.

Father Thomas comes back and hands my brother an envelope. “There’s some grocery certificates in there, too. I hope that will help.”

“Oh, thank you so much, Father. You know I appreciate it. I wouldn’t even ask, if I didn’t have my little sister to take care of,” says Jimmy. “Maybe we can come back this weekend and do some work around the church, or something?”

“You’re always welcome, Jimmy.” The pastor winks at me. “It was nice to meet you, Skye. And nice seeing you again, Jimmy. Good luck to both of you.”

We walk out of the office and down the steps of the church. Jimmy opens the envelope and counts what’s inside. “Three hundred dollars, Skye. And fifty dollars in grocery certificates.” He looks up at the sky and laughs. “Aw man! We should have come back to Wheaton a long time ago!”

*****

We maneuver a grocery cart up and down the aisles of the Jewel, searching for bargains. We get stuff like milk and eggs and fruit and bread and butter and soda. Other stuff, like jars of peanut butter and boxes of macaroni and cheese and things in cans, we can find at a food pantry any time.

I grab a Dr. Pepper out of the cooler in the back of the store, and drink it as we walk around. Dr. Pepper is my favorite. When we are too poor for anything but Kool-Aid, I dream about Dr. Pepper.

I leave my empty bottle on a shelf with the canned vegetables, before we even get to the cash register. Jimmy pays for our groceries with the certificates. He lets me have the change. I guard our groceries while he goes next door to the Osco for a six-pack of Bud Ice and a box of smokes… things he couldn’t live without.

We go back to the room long enough to put the groceries into our tiny refrigerator, pay the landlord for two weeks’ rent, and knock on Martin’s door. Martin’s not home, and nobody wants to sit up in the tiny room all day, so Jimmy puts the beer and soda in my backpack and we go down to College Avenue.

The train depot is empty except for some old guy, one of the lifers from the shelter, passed out on the bench. Me and Jimmy sit down on the other end of the bench and Jimmy opens his first beer. I pop open one of my Dr. Peppers.

“See how good we got it, Skye? We got food, drinks, a place to stay… all for free.” Jimmy knocks back a long gulp of his beer.

“We’re con-artists,” I point out.

Jimmy grins at me. “Why you gotta say it like that?”

“We are.

“Well, it’s better than some things we could be doing to survive,” says Jimmy. “We could be like some people and start doing returns.”

I scowl. He’s talking when he was in prison, and I was staying with Craig and Dacey. Craig used to bring me to some store like Target or Venture, and steal something worth at least thirty or forty dollars. Then he’d make me take it back to the service counter and return it for cash. I would tell them that my mother had lost the receipt. That was a few years ago, when stores still gave you cash without a receipt. Now they just give you store credit. That’s mostly because of Craig.

Some guy rides up on a bike and poles his head into the door of the train depot. “You seen Christa?” he asks, like we even know who Christa is.

“Naw,” says Jimmy. “Hey, man, you want a beer?” My brother is always sharing his alcohol. He likes to be social.

“Sure!” The guy brightens up instantly, forgetting about Christa. He comes and sits down next to me, taking the beer from my brother. “Thanks! I’m George.”

“I’m Jimmy,” says my brother, “and this little squirt is my sister Skye.”

George starts talking about how he works in Aurora, and how he rides his bike from here to there, and back, every day.

“We used to live in Aurora,” Jimmy says.

“You did? Where?”

“By the casino.” He’s talking about the Mission, I guess. Jimmy always makes it sound like we’ve had all sorts of apartments and houses in different towns, even though we’ve mostly been homeless.

George tells us about how he likes to steal bikes and paint them and sell them to people for pocket money. He tells us that Christa is his wife, and that she makes him so mad because she’s always out running around instead of staying home and taking care of things. He says sometimes he gets so mad he just has to smack her around, to put her in line. Like he’s going to do today, as soon as he finds this bitch.  He’s fittin’ to give her a couple good bruises on her face, so she’ll be too embarrassed to go out for a while

Jimmy and I exchange glances.

“Hmm,” I say.

“Yeah. Well, it’s been nice talking to you, man,” says Jimmy.

“Right? Thanks for the beer. You know, I might as well stick around for a little while with you guys. Christa will probably show up around here.”

“Actually, if you don’t mind, I gotta finish talking to my sister. I live in the city, man, and I just came out here to visit her. I don’t get to see her much and I wanna spend some time…”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” says the guy. “I got a little sister too. She lives in Ohio. I only see her once or twice a year. She’s sort of a bitch, though.”

“Right, man. I’ll see ya later,” says Jimmy. “Take it easy.”

Finally the guy gets the point. “I guess I’ll get going then.” He stands up.

His cigarettes are lying on the bench. When he stands up, before I even realize what I’m doing, my hand snakes out and grabs them. I stick them under Jimmy’s jacket.

George turns around and glances at the empty bench. He looks confused, and pats his pockets. “Hey, you guys seen my smokes?”

“No… maybe they fell under the bench,” says Jimmy. “Skye, look under the bench.”

I get down and search under the bench, and on the windowsill, and behind the garbage cans, and everywhere else I can think of that a pack of smokes might be if they weren’t under my brother’s jacket.

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” says George. “It’s no big deal. I can just go buy a new pack.” He looks hard at me.

“You sure?” I ask.

“Yeah. Don’t worry about it. It was good meeting you guys.” He goes outside and gets on his bike, and rides of in search of his girlfriend and a new pack of smokes.

“That was weird, huh,” I say.

“Right?” says Jimmy.

“At least we got his smokes.”

Jimmy laughs. “You’re bogus, Skye.”

*****

On the way home we stop at another church where there’s a food pantry. I like food pantries the best because there’s no questions asked, no lying involved. You just get your boxes of “nonperishable food items”, and nobody is any worse off.

Martin has one of those electric frying pans that are against the rules in our house but nobody ever pays attention to the rules here anyway. Martin brings the thing down to our room, and he and Jimmy make some prison stew with their nonperishable food items. Prison stew is a popular meal among people in prison. You just take everything you own… like ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese and hamburger meat and chili and spaghetti-o’s and whatever else you can find… and you cook it and mix it all together. There’s always more than enough for everyone. In prison all the inmates bring one or two things and they use a garbage can as a serving bowl. For real. Even ask Jimmy.

Martin brings down plastic cups and silverware, and we all sit around our tiny room and eat it, while Martin and Jimmy talk about prison. Jimmy went to prison for fifteen months when I was eleven, and he always tells me he hated it and it was hell there. But when he talks about it with other people who’ve been there, he acts like it was the best time of his life. Him and Martin laugh and make jokes and talk about people they both knew in prison, even though they were in different prisons at different times. In a weird way, with me and Jimmy and Martin all sitting around and eating together, it sort of feels like a regular family.

“The Simpsons” comes on the TV and I climb up on the bed to watch it. But it is a re-run, the one where Homer goes to the mental hospital and meets a guy who thinks he’s Michael Jackson. I’ve seen it three times already. I end up closing my eyes and lying back on the bed, letting the sound of Jimmy’s and Martin’s voices lull me to sleep.

When I wake up later, it is dark in the room, but the TV is still on and I can make out several people standing near the doorway. One of them is Jimmy, but the others I don’t know.

I call out, “Jimmy?”

Jimmy steps into the room, “It’s alright, shorty. Go to sleep.”

I’m already half-asleep, and in a few seconds, I’m dreaming. I dream about a house with a green carpet and a TV bigger than ours. I dream that people are shouting at each other and it scares me. I somehow know that I’m dreaming, and I try to yell in my sleep so that Jimmy will come wake me up, but no sound will come out of my mouth.

When I finally do wake up again, a little bit of sunlight is fighting its way around the Aldi’s bag taped over our window, and Jimmy is gone.

*****

Jimmy doesn’t come home and I cut myself because I miss him. I sit on the bed with my back against the wall, and I put on my headphones and turn my radio on and let “Bittersweet Symphony” sooth me as I scrape the jagged edge of a bottle cap across my forearm. Back and forth, harder and harder, until it starts to sting. Until the familiar little dots of blood pop up

Until I feel better.

Then, satisfied, I fling the bottle cap across the room. It hits the wall above the refrigerator and falls to the ground.

Now I’ll have another scar.

I been making cuts on my skin for as long as I can remember. One time a counselor at one of the shelters tried to get me to remember the first time I made a cut, but I couldn’t think back that far. I remember I used to do it in the Time Out room at school when I was little. They throw you in a little room, like a closet, with mats all over the walls and the floor, and I would be screaming and crying. I remember lying down on my belly and running my fingers through the crack between the floor mat and the wall, until I found something… a paper clip or a used staple or something else sharp that the janitor had missed when he’d last cleaned the room. If I couldn’t find anything, I’d just use my fingernails or my teeth. It was the only way I could calm down.  My arms and legs are covered with the scars and scabs I’ve put there over the years. Like battle scars, each one has its story.

When Jimmy went to prison he gave me to his friend Dacey who we knew from the shelter. I lived with her and her husband Craig for the whole time Jimmy was away, and when he came back we both lived with them. Craig was a crack head and I hated his guts. He had a bad temper. He used to get in fights with Jimmy all the time. But Dacey was always nice to me. She was older than Jimmy, and she was probably old enough to be my mother although she was too young to be Jimmy’s. I used to pretend she was my mother.

The only time Dacey ever got mad at me was when I used to do crazy stuff, like running off and hiding when things got bad, or cutting myself. She used to grab me and holler at me and shake me until even Craig would yell, “Get away from the damn kid!”

“But don’t you see what’s going to happen to her?” Dacey would shout back at him. “If anyone finds out she does this shit, she’ll get put away! You hear me, Skye? They’ll lock you in the nut house!”

I don’t see what everyone gets so upset about. Dacey drank just as much as Jimmy did, and smoked pot too, and Craig used to smoke crack right in front of me, and I know Jimmy did it with him too sometimes. That’s their way of escaping from the world. But I don’t do any of that stuff. Cutting is what makes me feel better. And it’s better than what they do, because it doesn’t make me act like a fool, the way people act when they’re drunk or high. It doesn’t cost any money. It doesn’t hurt anyone else. It doesn’t even hurt me that bad. It just makes me feel better. It makes me breathe different, or something. It makes the pain inside of you go away. 


© Copyright 2017 NickiMann. All rights reserved.

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