Writing Catalog

Gabriella Polin

Grade: 12

Mayfield High School

Instructor: Kari Beery


Short Story


Dex lives life on the edge, they say. I've heard he's mugged a whole grown-up before with nothing but his daddy's old boy-scout pocket knife. Chris told me he got all up close to this poor man on the sidewalk, slipped his skinny little arm around this guy's neck with the knife's edge against his skin, and asked nice and slow for his wallet. (Mia Jonas asked him about it once, if the rumors were true. He just laughed and walked away. She swears up and down that she saw a red leather wallet poking out of his back pocket.)

I never doubted the story, you know. Just a look at his knuckles, all purpled-up from who-knows-what, tells you this kid is a repeat offender, and a successful one, at that. Which is exactly why I asked him for help.

Now I'm staring at the back of his head while he tugs a ski mask over his mean little face, shadowy and brooding in the night. He takes a long drag off his cigarette before turning to look at me, eyes narrow and calculating. I shy away from a cloud of black smoke as he exhales into my face.

"You sure you're in, pipsqueak?" His pretend-adult voice from the inside of his mask is like a toddler in his daddy's work shoes. I clear my throat and adjust the fabric clinging to my face with an awkward nod. (It's unbearably itchy, this mask. I wonder if the last person to wear this thing had lice.) Dex coughs out another cloud of smoke before adding, "Once we get in, we see the mission to the end."

"Yuh… yeah," I force out, still itchy, and nod again. He makes an involuntary little noise like a nervous dog, then real fast he takes an even longer drag than before and flicks the cigarette into a puddle. We watch the orange tip fade into nothing, both silent, very still, before he shakes his head and turns back to me with a toothy grin.

"Good. Let's get your ma's rent."

We begin our climb up the fire escape, old tennis shoes squeaking against the slick metal steps. Dex's trusty pocket knife is sticking out of his dark-wash jeans, metal casing gleaming in the light of passing cars. A siren wails in the distance, and for a moment I think I catch him losing his balance, but the climb resumes with a compensational double-step. The reflection on the knife is shaking a little.

The wind cuts around us, loud and violent, as we reach the designated window. Dex turns to me, all sneaky-like, and leans close to my ear.

"The Milsons, my friend cleans for 'em. She did us a lil' favor." With a low snicker, he places both hands firmly on the glass, which begins to fog around the heat of his fingers. "See, rich folk don't worry 'bout checking their window locks. It's almost like they're askin' for it."

Watching him slide the pane up, silent as a snake, I begin to wonder if ma locked our windows. (Ma, sleeping all sound in our little studio apartment. But maybe in a few days, we won't even have that anymore.)

With no hesitation, Dex slithers into the darkness, carrying himself with a sort of practiced stealth from countless heists in the past. My entrance, though a bit more clumsy and noticeable, is cushioned by a thick carpet. Dex helps me to my feet, and after one glance around, I'm paralyzed with awe.

I'm standing right near things I've only ever seen in the movies - exotic hanging plants, towering shelves packed with books, a wall of fine wines. Dex is frozen as well for about ten seconds before he nudges me with his shoulder. I shake myself out of the trance and begin scanning the apartment for pawn shop meat. Dex is already halfway to the kitchen, creeping around like a Hollywood spy. My eyes drag across little glass tables, big fancy rugs, tangled white cords, old painted vases. The people who live here even have a collection of seashells.

(Back when daddy was still with her, ma would spend hours and hours painting the ocean. I never saw it in person, but she said it's the most beautiful place on the planet. Said it smells like life.)

I tiptoe over to one of their monster book cases and behold the shells. The shop won't buy these, but I grab one anyway, a little one they won't possibly miss. (Maybe if we can't pay our rent, we can live by a beach, and fill our walls and shelves with thousands of shells. Maybe ma could paint every day again. Maybe I'd see her smile.)

Turning the fragile shell round and round in my palm, tracing the ridges with a finger, I wonder if this family would ever even look at my ma with any other emotion than disgust.

As I pocket the shell, I realize that Dex, my only asset, is nowhere to be found. I follow his path to the kitchen, then track to the next room, but the apartment is too massive to find him with a quick walkthrough. I'm in the middle of the labyrinth, one hand still on the shell in my pocket, when I hear something fall onto the floor with an echoing thud.

The air is still, like the world stopped spinning. Five, ten seconds pass: no sound. Then the creak of someone climbing out of bed and the unmistakable click of a handgun.

Shaking, I peer around the corner to see Dex frozen in front of a bedroom door, staring blankly at a laptop at his feet, hands still out from his failed attempt to catch it. Somewhere else in the maze, a door slams open, succeeded by fast, heavy footsteps. Dex, snapping to his senses, grabs the nearest doorknob and fumbles with it for a second before it swings open. The footsteps are getting faster and faster. Something begins to roar, low and raw. It's a rapid, incomprehensible muttering: "Makids. Maikeds. Getway…"

(Ma once told me she would do anything to protect me. She would kill for me, she said. She'd kill anyone who even thought about laying a hand on me.)

Dex is standing there, frozen, palm still hovering over the doorknob, looking into the room with wide eyes. I dip out of sight as the man rounds the corner. His voice grows in clarity, and his snarl finally makes sense.

"Get away from my kids!"

Dex's high-pitched real voice begins to plead, but before he finishes the first word, there's a decisive bang, click, another bang, and a child crying. After a second, his body slides down the wall, a slow trail of wet fabric scraping against plaster, and meets the floor with a quiet thunk. I peek into the hallway, a mess of dark red on the walls, graffiti around a limp figure. The only thing untouched by blood is the pocket knife, a few inches from the body, undrawn.

Another pair of footsteps rounds the corner, and in my peripheral I catch a wiry little woman half-hidden in the dark. Her toothpick arms bring her skeleton hands to her face, and, louder than anything I've ever heard before, she begins to scream.

(I spent all of Sunday in my bedroom after ma told me we might have to move. She sat with me after coming back from work, and held my face with one hand, still in her grease-stained uniform. "You're still a kid," she whispered, running her other hand through my hair. "I'll take care of all the grown-up stuff. You just worry about bein' a kid for now, alright?")

Stumbling past the hard furniture and too-tall shelves, I can feel the heavy footsteps beginning their pursuit. The woman wails next to Dex's body, harmonizing with her shrieking kid.

"Mike! It's a child." Her high-strung voice cracks into something more animalistic. "You- you shot a child!"

I take a corner too fast and slam into a metal-framed chair, throwing me onto my stomach with a sharp crack. I can't breathe for a second, and as the room spins around me, I catch the city lights through a window. Body heavy as lead, I crawl until I find my footing, only half-standing when the killer turns my corner.

"Stop!" (The only way I'll stop is with a bullet in my spine.) He lumbers closer as I limp to the window. "Kid, please. Stop."

The shell in my pocket is broken into a hundred little pieces, cutting into my thigh, sharp and hot and wet. (It's worthless now. Ma won't smile when she sees it in that condition.)

"I won't shoot you," he tries, all shaken up like a little kid. Still creeping closer to the window, I hear metal meet the glass tabletop, gentle and slow. "Kid, look. I put down the gun. Stop walking."

I'm almost there now, glass-paned freedom. I reach out my hand, stretching and stretching forward until I can almost touch it. The man swears under his breath. In the distance, his wife continues her wailing.

"Kid, stop." My hands meet the cold metal frame, and I pull myself up to the window, popping up the latch. After it's unlocked, this one slides up even smoother than the first one. Hands braced against the inside, I stick my head out to survey my escape. Nothing separates my face from the concrete but five stories of night air.

(Back when ma still painted, when she still smiled, she would hold me in her lap and tell me all about her dreams. "Life's all about taking risks, I think." Her eyes were focused far away, hopeful. "You won't get anywhere unless you take a jump.")

"Don't jump. I promise I won't shoot. Look at me." I pretend I can't hear him. The woman's shrieks have subsided into stretched sobs, interrupted with uneven gibberish. The man steps closer, and I respond by throwing my right foot on top of the sill. He's silent. I'm still.

A crumb of sea shell flutters out of my pocket, onto the frame. The man takes a deep breath, trying to come up with something to say. My eyes are fixed on the ground. With my head outside, I can't hear the crying, only sirens.

"You're still so young," he says after a minute of thinking. "You can turn this around. You don't have to live like this." The sirens are so loud I can barely understand him, but I do understand how wrong he is.

(I can almost see ma, waking up to the sirens speeding past. She'd whisper a little prayer for the poor souls involved, just like she always does. I wonder what would break her more - her baby boy being a criminal or a corpse?)

I turn to face the man, still ready to jump at a second's notice. In the darkness, I can barely see his silhouette. His eyes are the easiest to see. And they're wide, and white, and nervous, just like daddy's.

"No," I whisper. "You don't get it."

(Ma can't afford a lawyer. She can't afford to take time off of work. We're in a corner, and all I did was seal off any hope of escape.)

He's talking now, all serious, tripping over his words. He almost moves closer, but remembers my position and steps back. I'm staring at him with big empty eyes, all-too-aware of the police outside the door, not even half-listening.

(I can't even imagine it, ma staring at me through the bars. Heartbroken. What do I say to her? I didn't even get anything to help her out. But she'd forgive me, right? She'd forgive me because that's what she does, even if I don't deserve it.)

I turn back to the window. The man's babbling speeds up, a broken VHS tape. Telling me it'll be okay. Making promises he can't keep.

("You won't get anywhere unless you take a jump.")

The wind flows past my nose, lapping against my skin like waves on the shore. I close my eyes, and it's like I'm at the beach, toes touching the water. (The police are in, yelling like they own the place. Telling me to freeze. Watching my second foot swing onto the sill.) I open my mouth, and I can taste it - that perfect air, the flavor of life. (The man's footsteps resume, getting louder and louder. His hand is almost on my back as I bend my legs in preparation.)

The smell of life, of freedom, fills my senses as I leave the window. And maybe this mask is too itchy, maybe our home won't be home anymore, maybe nothing can truly be fixed, but right now I'm just thinking about what's left of the shell in my pocket, both of us flying sixty feet above an ocean of misery.