It finally stopped raining today, not that it matters much since we stay indoors all of the time – Aiden’s rules. But it means I get to go to the roof, or the fire escape, and not get drenched. Neither of those options are all that freeing – they are both, in fact, quite limited spaces – but staying inside all the time makes me stir crazy. Getting fresh air when I can helps.
So now I am heading for the fire escape, beer and book in hand. It is the best way to end another stuffy day here, and I’m almost giddy with excitement. But I am instantly mellowed back down by the realization that to be this excited is, to be rather blunt with myself, pathetic.
“Jamie?” a voice comes from behind me. Kennedy.
“Oh hey, Kennedy.” I stop and turn around to face her.
“Where were you the other day?”
“What do you mean? Here, as always,” I lie, poorly.
She raises an eyebrow at me. “Don’t give me that. I covered for you – I said you were napping and you were nowhere to be found.”
“Oh, you know, I was-”
“You were out, weren’t you?”
I sigh and look down at my feet. I’m caught.
Her eyes light up. “I knew it!”
I turn away from Kennedy and start walking down the hallway again. I can hear her footsteps as she starts running to catch up with me.
“So, anything interesting? What do you even do out there?”
“I don’t – I don’t know, Kennedy! I just, go. I walk around, explore. Breathe. Scavenge.”
I push the door to the stairway open and don’t wait for Kennedy. She catches it just as it is about to close in front of her, and throws it open again. By the time this happens I’m already halfway up to the next floor.
“Scavenge?” She’s breathless in her excitement as she chases after me. “So you like, go into buildings and people’s houses and take their stuff?”
“No, you are describing burglary.”
“I don’t see the difference.”
I roll my eyes – she can’t see me do so, but I wouldn’t care if she did. “People left a lot behind, it tells a story. That, and, there’s some cool stuff to be found. Keeps things interesting around here – something this place could definitely use.”
I step out onto the fire escape and Kennedy follows. “You can say that again!”
Sitting down, I uncap the beer, click on my flashlight, and open the book – Animal Farm, by George Orwell. Maybe Kennedy will take a hint and go away.
The fire escape is my place. I come here to clear my thoughts, to look out over Portland, smoke a cigarette or have a beer, to get away from the hopeless conversations that have become part of our daily ritual. Mostly, though, I come here to be alone. It is the only place I can breathe my own air, not crammed in this derelict apartment building. Living in this building every second of every day with the same seven other people gets very suffocating, very fast. I go to the fire escape to do just that: escape.
But Kennedy has recently taken to joining me, which is okay, sometimes. Other times, like this time, I think she doesn’t understand that some people enjoy time to themselves – need it, even. Perhaps she thinks I want her to follow me outside, though I can’t imagine how she could manage to distort my intentions that much. She is 18, five years younger than me, and doesn’t appreciate thoughtful silence the way I do.
She doesn’t take the hint. “Mind if I have a sip?” she asks. I say nothing but hand it to her anyway. She is quiet for a moment, and I think maybe she’ll stay that way. Maybe she’ll think we’re sharing one of those quiet lovers’ moments, where nobody talks but everything is said. I don’t care what she’s thinking, so long as I have enough peace to read.
She leans forward over the railing and gasps, “Jamie…look!”
I peer over my book and see what’s caught her attention. I sat down in such a rush I hadn’t even noticed; from twelve floors up, we can see one of the suburban neighborhoods burning. Block after block, homes are engulfed in flames. I figure it must be soldiers trying to ensure there’s nobody here: run out of your burning home and be shot, or stay inside and be incinerated. It is a disgustingly efficient method of clearing out towns.
Without meaning to, I think of that naked girl. I don’t think about her because she was naked, she just happened to be. I didn’t look anywhere but her eyes anyway. But I think of her now because that was her neighborhood, that was where I saw her, bathing in the rain. And now she is dead, she must be. If anyone was there I don’t see how they could have made it.
I’m brought out of this depressing train of thought as Kennedy rests her head on my shoulder. I don’t shrug her off, but I don’t respond by resting my head on hers, as I’m sure she is hoping.
“Think anyone was living there?” Her voice is thoughtful and gentle, but I’m not buying it – I know Kennedy, and this is fake.
I pause and debate how to respond. “No,” I finally decide, and immediately regret it. But if I had responded yes, she would have asked why I thought so. And I didn’t want to tell her about the naked girl. I wish I could refer to her some other way, the fact that she was naked is inconsequential, and calling her “the naked girl” just sounds so sexualized. I guess I could just call her “the girl,” but that’s too ambiguous, too vague.
“I guess that’s good,” she muses, staring into the distant flames.
She nestles into me, and I do my best not to flinch. I don’t want to hurt her feelings, but we’re going to have to address it eventually. Tonight, tomorrow, next week. Maybe I’ll tell Johnny she likes him, and he’ll start hanging around her and flirting more – maybe she’ll forget all about me. He’s just a year younger than her, I don’t see why they couldn’t work out.
And suddenly this idea seems ridiculous to me; I feel childish. What a trivial problem to have; I am sitting, watching a city burn, and yet my mind is on matchmaking and petty schoolgirl crushes.
Kennedy turns to look up at me. She’s actually a pretty girl, and in the darkness of the night her face is illuminated only by the glow of the distant fire. Her giant green doll eyes look into mine, and I prepare to reject a kiss when we hear shouting from the street below.
I jump up, unintentionally pushing Kennedy away, and look over the railing. Aiden is down in the street pointing a gun at a group I’ve never seen before. Well, I guess that would be any group, since I know of no others outside my own. They came in a pickup truck, and it looks like there are a good number of them, more than are in our measly group. Catherine, Link, and Gus are quick to appear behind Aiden – at least that’s what it looks like from up here.
“Oh I’m not missing this!” I say, already halfway through the door back into the building. I don’t really say it to Kennedy, but she up and follows me inside anyway.