Aidan got to his feet, still holding the scooter and pulled his brother up. The empty peach can fell to the ground with a clatter.
“Get in the house,” he whispered and pushed Sammy hard between the shoulders.
“I could put it back,” Sammy said. “Or leave it out here. Someone else will snag it. End of problem.”
There was a pleading note in his voice.
Aidan shook his head. “Too late for that. They’ve seen you with it already.” One of them must have been tracking him through the streets before calling in his cronies. They might even have planted it to trap some poor sucker. He knew that kids were often tricked or blackmailed into joining the gangs.
There weren’t rules like in the old days. There were still cops, and, he guessed, government people but none of that stuff seemed to filter down to regular day-to-day life. There was more crime. Incidents, the TV news guys called them. As in, an unfortunate incident occurred today. Usually that meant someone had gotten hurt. You had to watch your back out on the streets. People took stuff if they wanted it. But there were repercussions. And there was a new set of rules. Sometime it reminded Aidan of a zoo. But a zoo where the hyenas and the lions shared the same enclosure as the antelopes and zebra. Actually it was kind of like high school, brought to the streets.
He closed the door, slamming all three of the dead bolts home. The locks were strong but one good kick would bust the door. He squinted through the peep-hole at the street outside. He wasn’t sure but it looked like one of the groups of people had gotten bigger. They stood in the shadows of an overhanging porch about twenty yards away. He caught the gleam of cigarette ends glowing.
It was hard to believe that they were gathering just because Sammy had swiped a board, but he couldn’t discount it. The Eyes were the predominant authority around here. People used to say that a leaf couldn’t fall without Boss Flowers okaying it first. Aidan remembered hearing about the man a couple of years ago when the climate first turned strange. Back then he’d been pretty innocent about how things worked around the neighborhood. He’d laughed at his name, made some wisecrack, loud enough that everyone in the corner store had heard it. Gail had clapped her hand over his mouth and with her other hand she’d gripped his upper arm with so much force he’d carried the imprint of her fingers on his skin for about a week. Then she’d hustled him inside the house. Gail was their foster mom but he’d been almost 9 when he came to her and they’d both decided it made more sense to call each other by their first names. Sammy, almost two years younger than him, had made the switch recently as well but most of the time he still slipped and called her mom. Sammy and Aidan were brothers for real but neither of them really recalled their blood parents. There was some blurry sense in his memory of his mother’s tilted blue eyes and his dad’s coffee breath and baggy cardigans but nothing detailed he could swoop in on. Traumatic amnesia was what they called it. For as long as he could remember there had only been Gail and her husband, George.
George was a big, tall man but hunched from spending so much time at his workshop fixing broken things. Everyone in the neighborhood brought him their appliances, and mechanicals and he could take a wreck and make it work. He was short-sighted from long hours and close work and his eyes were always blood-shot. Aidan knew he could tell him anything but wished he were around more.
He squinted trying to see along the periphery. There was a narrow alleyway directly across the street that cut all the way down to Chelsea Park. People called it the walk and it was one of the places to avoid. The view through the scuffed peephole was distorted but there was definitely a group congregating over there. He counted cigarette glows—six.
He straightened up and thought. He could maybe brazen his way through. Some of the kids went to his school. They knew him from way back, remembered when he led the basketball team to the quarter-finals. Or he could just wait and see how things played out. Talk to George later tonight when he got back from work.
He stared at the board and tried to decide if he should shove it out the door or hold on to it as a precaution.
The hallway was cramped and smelled like mouse shit and boiled potatoes and garlic from the chain Sammy still wore around his neck.
Sammy slumped against the wall chewing his ragged thumb nail. Aidan looked at him and straightened his shoulders. “I’ll deal with it,” he promised. He concealed the board under a bundled pile of newspapers by the door, and gave his brother’s shoulder a squeeze.
“Aidan, is that you?” a voice called from the kitchen.
Aidan exchanged a glance with Sammy. “Don’t say anything to her,” he whispered. Sammy nodded. Basically their agreement was never to upset Gail with anything.
“Yeah, Gail,” he called back. They walked down the narrow hallway with its water stained walls and drooping wallpaper. From somewhere up above their heads they heard muffled shouts and thumps. Malcolm and Freddie must be home. Their favorite activity was reenacting wrestling matches.
Gail was in the kitchen, by the stove, tilting a pan with a slick of oil. Their little sister, Hannah, sat at the table, surrounded by scratch paper and stubs of crayon. She was drawing orange stripes on one chubby hand, and singing a nursery rhyme under her breath.
Her head lifted. Aidan stifled a laugh. There were curls of paper and colored wax around her mouth. Hannah wasn’t a baby anymore but she still ate her art supplies. Crayons and white glue were among her favorites.
“We’re having pancakes for dinner,” she said in an excited voice. She scrambled over to Sammy’s legs and raised her arms to him. He picked her up. She buried her nose in his shoulder and snuffled. “You smell stinky,” she told him. Aidan saw his brother smile a little. He removed the string of garlic from his neck and slung it over the back of a chair.
She nuzzled closer. “You’re still stinky.”
“Pancakes, huh?” Sammy said, “Must be a special day.”
“Yeah,” she said, and then her face fell.
“But no syrup.”
“No jam either,” Gail said.
Aidan shot her a quick look. She sounded really tired, and her shoulders were slumped as if she was weary just standing. Gail worked as an ER nurse at the hospital. Her shifts were usually ten or twelve hours long, most of them spent on her feet. He walked over to her and gently took the pan from her hand. She smiled at him gratefully and pulled out a chair. “Long day”, she muttered. “Seems like we just finished with flu season and it’s back again with a vengeance.”
“What about the shots?” Immunizations were mandatory at school now. For avian flu, swine flu, and a bunch of other stuff he had no inclination to remember. Sometimes he felt like a pin-cushion.
She shrugged and rubbed a hand over her eyes. “Different strain, maybe? I’m thinking it’s just this city. The rains and the heat just cultivate all kinds of weird bacteria.”
“Germies and nasties?” Hannah said, making a face. She spread her fingers wide and wiggled them. “Wash your hands!”
“That’s right, sweetie,” Gail said, leaning over and dropping a kiss on the top of her head.
Aidan poured puddles of batter into the hot pan. The good smell of pancakes filled the kitchen. How could something made out of just flour and water smell so amazing?
“I’ve got this,” he told Gail, noticing that she had slumped even more. “Why don’t you go up and rest?” She looked awful. Pale with a ring of whiter skin around her mouth, and dark circles pitting her eyes.
“Just for a little while,” she said, ruffling his hair as she passed by. She had to reach up to do it now. Aidan wondered when she had become so small. He listened to her heavy, slow tread on the stairs. The creak of her bedroom door. If Malcolm and Freddie kept up the rough-housing he’d send Sammy up to shut them down, but Gail could sleep through pretty anything.
He flipped the pancakes and turned the heat off.
Sammy was sketching, Hannah on his lap. “Put a sunflower there,” she said. “Right by the front door.” It was exactly what a kid’s picture should look like—blue sky, fluffy clouds, sun-rays and flowers. Hannah was only four. The first major earthquakes had hit New York a little over a year ago. Then the floods and tidal waves had followed and most of the Upper Eastside, chunks of New Jersey and all of Coney Island was covered in water from the rising rivers and sea. Aidan wondered if some part of Hannah’s subconscious remembered the time before or if it was just something she’d picked up in daycare.
“And an ephelant right here,” she ordered, pointing to the tree. Sammy sighed but he started drawing a lumpy elephant. Hannah might be the littlest but she pretty much bossed everyone in the house around.
Aidan pulled a stack of plates from the cupboard, jostling a half empty jar of white sugar. He knew Hannah liked sweetness on her food. His hand wavered as he tried to recall the last time she’d had fresh fruit or any kind of a treat. The thought of her happy face decided him. He’d sprinkle her pancakes with just a little. The rest of them could do with nothing.
The memory of those canned peaches stung his conscience just a bit. He should have shared them with everyone but at the time he just wanted to console Sammy.
He tipped a couple of pancakes onto a plate and added the coating of sugar. The other four pancakes he split between two plates; one for him and one for Sammy, and then balancing them on his arms, brought them to the table.
“Can you grab forks and a glass of milk for Hannah?” he asked Sammy. “If there is any?”
“Powdered,” Sammy grunted, getting to his feet and putting Hannah back into the chair. She was busy coloring her elephant yellow. Her face was a little sweaty and her hair clung to the back of her neck.
Aidan thought about opening the window to let some of the heat out but then he remembered the Eyes. Home invasions had become pretty common. Gail and George had discussed getting a dog for a while, but they were so expensive to feed.
He didn’t think the Eyes would approach the house. Even if they got the order they’d still wait until Sammy was alone somewhere. On the way to or back from school most probably; waylay him along the walk. Would they just intimidate him or would they beat him up? Sammy had a sarcastic sense of humor and a big mouth and some people just didn’t get it. Aidan had spent so much time protecting his younger brother, fighting the fights for him or more often talking him out of any perceived slights. It had probably been the wrong decision he admitted now. Sammy had gotten resentful. He’d gone out looking for trouble. It was only recently that Aidan felt he’d gotten back his brother’s respect.
He noticed Hannah wasn’t eating and she’d climbed back onto Sammy’s lap, tucked under one lanky arm. His brother shoveled his pancakes into his mouth, barely stopping to breathe. In the last 6 months he’d shot up half a foot. All of his jeans hovered around his ankles and the sleeves of his jacket barely covered his wrists.
Aidan pushed his food from one side of the plate to the other. Pancakes were filling but they sat like a lead weight in his stomach and they didn’t give him any energy.
“What’s wrong, little egg?” he asked Hannah. “I made them special for you.”
Her mouth twisted. “They taste funny.”
“Drink your milk then.”
Sammy lifted the glass to her lips. “Come on,” he coaxed her. She took a tiny mouthful and then batted his hand away. Her lower lip was beginning to jut.
Aidan forced himself to eat his food. Up above the roofs, a patrol plane did a couple of laps, out scrutinizing the city edges for flash floods and breakout fires. Thunder grumbled in the air. He watched his brother, his mind whirling. Sammy’s face had relaxed back into its usual good-natured expression; nothing phased him for long. They were unalike in that way. Aidan couldn’t help imagining different worst-case scenarios. It meant he was always prepared. He could pretty much bet the Eyes were still out there, watching, waiting. He just wasn’t sure what their move would be. Part of the problem was there was no clear leader at the street level. They were like a loose group of vigilantes. Boss Flowers controlled them but for something like simple theft, any one of them could choose to act, and maybe just to impress the Boss and rise up in the hierarchy. People in the neighborhood went out of their way to avoid trouble and yet here it was; practically at their front door. He felt a spurt of anger at his brother. How many times had he told him just to keep his head down and not make waves? He hoped George would come home early for once but he couldn’t count on it.
Upstairs someone ran down the hall. Aidan heard the sound of retching and then the toilet flush. And at the same time he realized that the Malcolm and Freddie’s thumps and thuds had ceased. Frowning he turned to face his brother who cradled Hannah in his arms. Her face was flushed and pale at the same time. Her eyes half closed so the blue irises peeped out from under her lids.
“She’s burning up,” Sammy said, moving his palm to her forehead.