Sugarplum’s Gift

“What’s that sound? Is it the cat? She sounds like she’s having a hairball!”

“That’s not her hairball noise. She probably saw a bird at the window. Go back to sleep. I have to shower.”

Gary pushed back the covers. Emily settled back and began to drift toward sleep. Down the hall, Sofie was already moving around; she didn’t hear Logan yet, but he always was the last up. Just ten minutes more.

She heard the shower go on and began to drift.

“Hagggh. Hagggh.”

She heard the sound again. It didn’t sound normal at all. Maybe something had gotten into the house. She didn’t know what kind of creature made that noise. She hated living out here in the woods. Sometimes she felt under assault by all the critters that wandered the perimeter of her home. She liked the city. Concrete, car exhaust, people. She understood those things. Ticks, raccoons, foxes, deer, and all the other things that inhabited their property were aliens; moreover, since they were there first, they seemed disinclined to give way to the people who came to live there. Emily didn’t blame them.

She wished the land had stayed house free.

Sugarplum trotted into the room, her head down, shoulders hunched. She began to play in the corner, and Emily settled back under the covers. In the bathroom, she heard Gary turn off the shower and knew she’d have to get up. He always drove Sophie, while she took Logan. Emily hated mornings. She closed her eyes. Five more minutes.

Sugarplum jumped on the bed and slowly walked up toward her. Sugarplum loved to cuddle, and Emily smiled.

“Hagggh.”

Something dropped on her shoulder, something small and furry, and alive. Emily heard herself screaming before she recognized the field mouse scambling through the covers. Sugarplum was on it at once.

Emily heard the pounding of feet. Greg stood in the doorway, water still running down his face. “What the hell happened?”

“Sugarplum has a mouse! Just get it!” She could still feel the damn thing dropping down on her bare shoulder.

“Jesus Christ, I thought someone attacked you,” Gary said. She could see he was trying not to laugh. He grabbed Sugarplum who still had the mouse clamped in her jaws. “Well, it’s dead now.” He held it up by its tail and walked downstairs in his towel.

Sophie popped her head in the doorway, eyes wide. “Eww, a mouse?” She looked at Sugarplum who was circling the bed looking for her prize. “Well, I guess Sugarplum brought a gift for you, Mom.” She glanced away. “Dad really needs to hurry up.”

Logan pushed past her. His hair stuck out in all directions; his eyes were blurry from lack of sleep. “Mom, I never even knew your voice went that high,” he said. That was impressive.”

“Everyone get dressed,” Gary said as he came back into the room. “We’ve got to get moving.”

Emily pulled herself out of bed. She wanted a shower, but now there wasn’t time. She’d do it when she got back. In fact, she’d drive Logan to school in her pajamas. She just needed to brush her teeth and scrub her arm. Her skin crawled, and for the hundredth time she wished she lived someplace else.

She glanced down at Sugarplum who still prowled the sheets. Sugarplum looked up. Her orange fur bristled, and her green eyes glittered. It was her hunter’s posture.

“Hagggh. Haggggh.”

Emily backed away and went to the bathroom to get ready.

 

Lulu

They gave him her favorite toy, and he tore at it until the corner ripped and bits of catnip spilled over the kitchen floor. Now he looked up at her with his eager eyes as if asking her to play. The fur on her back rose, and she moved closer to the edge of the counter.

Lulu doesn’t play.

In another room, someone said, “I’d better check the puppy. I can’t find Lulu.”

She leaped.

Lulu doesn’t share.

Someone pulled her off the whimpering intruder and carried her into the bedroom.

“Bad, Lulu. You scared the puppy.”

Lulu doesn’t care.

Ken’s Bad Day

“Damn it, Ken, the city says we need permits for the building. They shut down construction.” Ralph stormed around the room, his face red, his hands waving. “What are we gonna do?”

Ken wanted a martini extra dry, but he knew he’d spend the rest of the day hunting down the right people in the city to begin to process of getting the permits quickly. “I’ll expedite the situation.”

“You should have seen this coming,” Ralph said.

Ken resisted the urge to tell him that he had seen it coming, and he had warned Ralph in writing. It wouldn’t matter. Life was cruel that way.

It was close to five, and the city offices were closing. But it didn’t matter. Ken still had to go over all the plans for the building site. He had to talk to the architect, the engineer, and the construction manager. When he left at seven-thirty, he figured the roads would be clear, but there was a Phillies game and a rare Thursday Night Football game. Traffic was a mess. It was as if all the mystic forces in the universe were conspiring against him tonight, along with Ralph, the city, and every motorist in Philadelphia. He let a string of curses fly when a taxi cut him off.

When he pulled into his driveway, it was almost nine.  In the gloom of the solar lights he could see a bunch of deer roaming through the back lawn munching on the bushes, and he wished he had a crossbow. The damn things had overrun the area. They looked pretty, but they were dumb and destructive. He was tired of dealing with dumb and destructive things and people.

The front door jerked open, and wife greeted him. “You missed dinner.”

“Yeah. We had a problem with the permits for the site.”

Caroline’s mouth tightened, but her voice remained even. “It would have been helpful if you called.”

He didn’t answer. He pushed past her and dropped his briefcase on the bench by the door. With the kids away at college it was just the two of them, so at least it the house would be quiet.

The kitchen smelled like burned chicken, and he wondered why she hadn’t kept a better eye on it. Then he decided he didn’t care because he didn’t feel like chicken, burned or otherwise. He just wanted that martini.

He dealt with morons all day; he didn’t have any obligation to satisfy them at night. He wasn’t a goddamn fireman there to solve every single catastrophe in the world, but when he wasn’t around everything went to hell. All he wanted was some peace and quiet and a martini or two, but he heard the continual unspoken accusation from Caroline radiating in his ears.

You’re late. You’re inadequate. Why don’t you get a better job?

It was always there running like a counterpoint to everything. He wanted to tell her, “If you hadn’t let yourself get pregnant so fast, if you hadn’t insisted on three kids, maybe I could have got a master’s and got a better job. If your job paid more, we wouldn’t always be short. If you didn’t spend so much on the kids, we could go on vacations. If I got a break one in a while, life would be easier.”

He glanced around to see if she was behind him, but she wasn’t. He mixed himself a martini, heavy on the gin. He dropped in three olives, brought the shaker, a glass, and the bottle of olives, shuffled into his office, and slammed the door. He settled into his recliner and put up his feet. Lately he hated coming home, but tonight, he thought he might turn on the television and settle in here and relax to the mayhem of Thursday Night Football. Dallas vs. the Eagles. Sweet.

After all, Caroline had taken over the bedroom, decorated it in fluffy white with pink flowers, and that stupid cat of hers always slept in the middle of the bed. God forbid he should try to come between Caroline and her goddamn Sam. He was a big bastard too, half Maine Coon and half alley cat. She rescued him from the SPCA, and he loved Caroline and only Caroline.

Ken swallowed his drink. Damn he hated that cat. He poured a second martini. He finished that drink a little slower and thought about mixing a third, but he felt a little woozy. Where the hell was Caroline that she couldn’t fix him something to eat?

He shuffled out into the hall. “Caroline!”

When she didn’t answer, he didn’t bother with the lights; he just started up the stairs. Goddamn Caroline. He felt his foot collide with something soft, and an unearthly screech sounded in his ears. Two glowing green lights launched themselves at him and he stepped back into air.

Ken hit his head against the wall then rolled limply to the bottom of the stairs. The cat stood on his chest hissing furiously.

“What the hell!” He heard Caroline, but her voice seemed far away.

The hall light snapped on. Feet clattered down the stairs. He felt the cat leap off his chest and land on the floor with a thud.

“Oh my God! Are you all right?” Caroline’s voice barely penetrated the fog. “Oh, darling. Oh baby, that was a bad, bad fall.”

Ken waited for her to lean close, but she didn’t. He opened one eye to see her cradling Sam and kissing him as if he were the most precious thing in her life. For a moment, just before everything went black, he swore the cat winked.           

 

Game Theory

She sat on a bench in the Public Gardens, legs tucked beneath her. It was too cold for the swan boats, so tourists weren’t crowding around with their squawking children to ride the ridiculous boats in a circle around the water. As if the Boston experience wasn’t complete without sitting in a crowded boat with a bunch of loud, sticky children and fat, stinking adults.

 

Bobby worked a swan boat last summer, and he used to mimic the tourists. “’Ooh, Martha, get a picture of little Tyler waving,’” he’d say. “’Peter, don’t cry, and Mommy will get you another ice cream.’” He made fun of them, but somehow never sounded mean. She didn’t know how he managed to pull off that trick. “They’re just people,” he’d say. “Didn’t your folks ever take you to parks?”

 

She’d get a flash of her mother in her red capris and tight tee shirts and her father in his jeans with his stomach jutting over the top and his collection of horrid Hawaiian shirts. Her mother’s hair was almost white at the ends, and it darkened to black at the roots. Her father had a tattoo of a snake and a sword on his bicep. They never went anywhere, but she did. In her mind. She told Bobby that.

He said she was like him: a traveler without papers. She wasn’t sure what he meant, but it sounded interesting.

When she wasn’t working, she liked to sit on the grass at the Public Gardens and watch him. He looked golden in the sun.

Bobby would smile and give his “Welcome to Boston” spiel to the tourists and act so polite with his “Yes, ma’ams and no sirs, and I’d be glad to recommend a good, cheap restaurant.”

 

Often a big spender would even slip him a dollar or two. “Thanks, he’d say. I’m working my way through, MIT.” Sometimes it was Tufts or BU or Northeastern–not Harvard because he said that turned people off.

 

Most days she worked at Great Rocks in Cambridge, selling overpriced, polished stone jewelry and knick knacks to hipsters. It was easy work, and she could fake the talk. She had cultivated a faint British accent. When people asked her where she was from, she always smiled and said, “All over, really.” She had gotten invited to a lot of parties that way.

Bobby was the only one who saw through her act, but he liked it, probably because they were two of a kind. He moved in with her that first night when they met at an almost-end-of-the-year MIT frat party. Chi Piss-Off or Delta Up-Yours. It was easy to crash those parties. You just had to show up if you were a girl, and she had a fake BU ID. Bobby didn’t need to crash. He was the man who handed out party favors in little cello bags to those with the means to afford them.

“Tell me your thoughts about game theory,” he said with that big white smile.

“I’ll tell you mind if you tell me yours.” She could always throw off trite lines.

“I don’t know much about game theory, but I know a player when I see her.”                       

They left the party and walked down Bay State Road. It had been one of those cool spring nights, and he offered her his jacket. He seemed so gallant. No guy ever treated her like Bobby. She told him things she hadn’t told anyone. She said she was only a year short of her own degree when she left Philadelphia and wanted to see the world, but she only had enough money to get to Boston. It was cheaper than New York and farther from her parents. She felt a longing to do something, but didn’t know what. It was like she was tied by some invisible tether and needed to break free.

 

He said he was a student of life, and they’d break free together.

She so wanted to believe in him. But now she understood happiness was just a short, dazzling flight until you crashed back into the dirt.

She should have known that Bobby was a golden bird, and she was a crow.

 

That summer her boss promoted her to store manager and offered her the apartment over the shop at reduced rent. “It’s a little noisy with all the college kids, but the neighborhood’s great. You’re a hard worker. You got a future.”

 

She put down her payment and gave notice to her current landlord, who didn’t care as long as he got his last month’s rent check. She figured she’d surprise Bobby. They had a good life. She paid rent; he paid for food and extras. She just had to find the right moment because she didn’t want him to think she was being too pushy, but for the first time in her life she felt content. He was the missing part of her. He gave her a necklace he said he made in an art class. It was two entwined brass circles on a simple chain. “It’s not much,” he said, “but I almost burned off my fingers making it. I wanted to give it to someone I really cared for.” She swore never to take it off, even though somewhere in her mind it registered that he had no burn scars.

 

She didn’t question his love until she saw his cell phone. It was an accident. He was in the shower, and she pushed a button and saw another golden bird, a fiancé named Bryn. She wished she hadn’t looked, but it was like trying to unspill ink. The blot was there.

 

Did he know? Maybe he wanted her to see. She told herself it didn’t matter, that he really loved her, but she felt the lie mocking her when they lay together at night. She wanted to talk to him about the golden bird and the new apartment, but she didn’t. She couldn’t get the words out. Sometimes when he went out, she wondered if he’d call her from the airport and tell her he wasn’t coming back, and she’d touch his things: his clothes, his grungy backpack, trying to hold on to him.

 

Two weeks before they were supposed to move he didn’t come home.

 

Three days later, it hit the news. “Robert Richfield Ford Jensen III was identified as the shooting victim in Thursday nights’ East Cambridge robbery-homicide. He was shot at point blank range with a .9 mm semi-automatic, and the police are asking for your help in identifying the killer.” They showed his Yale University graduation picture because he’d been shot in the head three times. The police said it looked like a drug-related killing. They found some cello bags of cocaine under the body.

There were no witnesses, and no one connected Robert Richfield Ford Jensen III to the girl who lived in the tiny South Boston apartment on the edge of respectability.

She wasn’t sure what was worse: that he never told her who he was, or that he was planning to leave her at the end of the summer. His parents flew his body back home to Colorado for a private burial. The police never did find a suspect; all they got was a bunch of half-assed descriptions of a thin black male in a baggy tracksuit. She heard they picked up a couple of guys just to keep the parents happy but had to let them go.

The whole thing almost made her cry.

 

She gave away that tracksuit to Goodwill and dropped the necklace and the .9 mm semi-automatic into the Charles River a month later.

 

She’d stolen the gun from her father before she left home because a girl needs protection from the wrong type of guy, even if he looks golden. She also threw away Bobby’s grungy backpack, but kept the twenty-two thousand she found sewn into its lining. She was going to flush the rest of the cello bags down the toilet, but instead tucked them into the pockets of an old pair of jeans she threw in the bottom of the laundry hamper. Those bags might come in useful once the fall semester was underway. Rich kids were always looking to get high.

 

The new apartment wasn’t too large, but it had a washer and dryer, and she could look out and see the red bricks of Harvard rising up just beyond her. Cambridge was trendy, and she liked hearing the noise and chatter below. Maybe she’d take some extension classes or an on-line course or two. Maybe she’d get her degree. Lots of people were getting their degrees these days.

She had a nest egg now.

                      

One Little Pill

In the end, Celine supposed, all love stories ended in tragedy. 

She brushed a piece of lint off the sleeve of her black Chanel suit, grateful that the day was cool. The long sleeves covered the fading bruises on her arms. She peered one last time into the mirror to satisfy herself that her cosmetics covered the discoloration under her left eye. Perfect. She was ready to receive her guests.

Really, the viewing and funeral had been taxing enough, and the long ride to the family mausoleum ghastly. All those people offered such banal words of comfort; she, of course, received them graciously.

When the Hollander woman appeared—in church, no less—with her vulgar mink coat and too tight, too short dress and caterwauled like a beast, it had been an absolute circus.

“You killed him! You killed my Matthew!” she bellowed. Thank goodness Mr. Bishop and Mr. Davis had immediately and quite firmly shown her the door. Celine reminded herself to slip a substantial tip to the undertaker and his assistant for their efficiency. Celine believed in rewarding service well done.

At the time Celine had clutched her pearls and leaned back against James, who caught her arm and murmured soothing words into her ear. “Don’t worry, Moms, she’s gone now. Dad was an idiot. A rotten idiot.”

“He was your father, darling,” she said.

Matthew died because the arteries to his heart were more than eighty percent blocked. After forty years of red meat, alcohol, cigars, and women who were far too young for him, his blood was like wet cement. He was one week from an operation to replace three of his heart valves when a massive coronary struck him down. That was the decree of his doctor. Who was she to argue?

If only he’d been able to get to his nitroglycerin pills in time, he might have been able to call out for help. But no, he thrashed in his bed gurgling and choking and begging, his face turning from red to blue to purple as he choked for air. In the morning the tiny white pills lay scattered on the floor, and the bottle lay in the middle of the rug. It had been over in less than five minutes.

Her bedroom was down the hall, too far away for her to hear or help, Celine explained to Matthew’s doctor when he came personally that morning to fill out the death certificate. Though she was completely serene, she delicately dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. He patted her back and said she mustn’t blame herself.

She thanked him with all due sincerity. Matthew deserved far worse.

In the recesses of her dark heart Celine had always known Matthew had married her for her parents’ old money prestige, but even understanding that, she had loved him once. He was handsome and witty, and she had lovely memories of their honeymoon in Paris when he charmed her with his French, his appreciation of Monet and Matisse, his knowledge of the city. He had seemed charming and sophisticated then, so much so that she’d overlooked his arrogance, his rudeness to waiters and those he thought beneath him.

His temper. The temper he let loose with increasing frequency as the years passed. She’d grown tired of wearing long sleeves in summer and extra make up to cover the damage, but she was too proud to admit she’d made a mistake. He wanted her connections, and she enjoyed living in splendor. Everything in life came at a price.

Eventually his other women didn’t bother her in the least as long as they kept him out of her bed. She didn’t care about his rudeness or drinking as long as he directed it away from her. She would go and soothe the hurt feelings Matthew left in his wake. His deliberate cruelty was another thing entirely. She began to make a tally of every incident, every outrage, but Celine had allowed a tough shell to form around her heart. She was also patient.

Three years ago Matthew had deliberately run over her favorite cat, Montgomery, as the old fellow lay sunning himself in the driveway. Though infuriated, Celine said nothing. She had Montgomery cremated and enshrined his ashes in a sterling silver urn that she kept in her bedroom.

After Matthew’s own cremation, she collected his remains from Mr. Bishop and told the undertaker she needed to spend one last evening with her husband before he was forever entombed. Celine dumped his remains in the trash, and returned Montgomery’s silver urn over to the undertaker the next morning. She mixed in some cat liter to balance the weight.

Now Celine took a cleansing breath as she descended the marble stairs to greet her guests. It felt like a celebration.

She nodded sagely when Matthew’s law partner said, “My God, we just played eighteen holes at Merion the day before he died. He seemed fine, better than fine. But I guess you never know. The doc says if he could have gotten to those pills . . . ” His voice trailed off in a haze of scotch and regret. Matthew’s beloved Bunnahabhain 25. Celine never cared for scotch.

Celine nodded solemnly. It was such a small thing, that one little pill.

 

Olivia

That week after graduation we headed down the shore for Senior Week. In those days “down the shore” was the place to go. With its huge boardwalk, mile-wide beach and tons of hotels, Wildwood was the preferred place for the thousands of kids spilling from the Catholic and public high schools. We weren’t the rich prep schoolers. Our parents couldn’t afford trips to Cancun or Florida or the Bahamas, and it didn’t matter. The drinking age was eighteen; the pot was easy to get; and we were without parental supervision.

Our house sat four blocks back from the beach. Ten of us had paid one hundred dollars, but fifteen to over twenty-five kids would end up crashing there at night.

I remember the cloudless sunny days when we would head for the beach to bake ourselves. Even though I was a natural blonde, I never burned and slathered my skin in baby oil. I knew how good I looked in my bikini. Jake told me every day I was hotter than the sun.

 

I wasn’t like Olivia. I wasn’t sure how Olivia had managed to get in with our group, but she just showed up in her pink flowered sundress with a suitcase. Everything about Olivia was big and squashy. She never wore a bathing suit, just shorts and a tank top that stretched across her huge breasts. She had long dark hair and a big smile, so no one bothered her, especially since she volunteered to make breakfast.

When you’re hung over or coming down, it’s kind of nice to have someone to make you breakfast, even if it’s just dry toast and tomato juice. We decided to let Olivia have the small back bedroom because no one really wanted to share a bed with her. Jake said it was kind of like having a maid.

 

We all had our routines. Get up eat, head to the beach or wander the boardwalk, maybe grab some pizza, and start drinking. I don’t know what Olivia did. Sometimes she came down to the beach and sat reading a book. She always looked like someone’s mother because in addition to the shorts and tank top, she always wore a big floppy hat.

Some of the guys called her “Orca”, and the rest of us kind of laughed. I don’t know if Olivia heard or not.

 

The last night I saw her we were hanging on the boardwalk, and I was standing with Jake. It was a little breezy and he put his arms around my waist. I remember cuddling into him, hearing the beat of his heart. All around all people laughed and screamed, and I could smell cotton candy and buttered popcorn, the meaty grilled odor of hot dogs; tinny carnival music played while people yelled from the roller coaster and tilt-a-whirl. In the circle of Jake’s arms, though, I felt safe and protected.

He said, “Look, there’s Orca.”

A couple of people started to laugh, and I glanced up.

She was standing near the fudge shop with a guy who was kind of in the shadows, but he looked pretty big. I couldn’t see his face, but Olivia was smiling. I thought for a moment she had a pretty smile.

A bunch of our friends came up then, and when I looked over at the fudge shop Olivia was gone. I thought I glimpsed her walking away with the big guy, but the crowd swallowed them up.

I never saw her again.

 

A lifeguard found Olivia under the boardwalk two weeks later. She’d been strangled and raped and lay naked in the sand. I thought she’d be so embarrassed to be seen naked.

A few of us went to the funeral at St. Anastasia’s. It was closed casket because after two weeks, I guess she was in pretty bad shape.

I remember that it was stinking hot, and the stained glass windows sent gashes of garnet light across the floor. In my black dress, I stood in line and sweated and wondered why I felt I had to come to this service. Jake held my hand, his face screwed up in puzzlement. He didn’t quite understand why we were here either.

“It’s not like we were friends with her,” he said.

“We were with her at the shore, Jake. She was in our class. Please.”

He kissed me. “Whatever you want, baby,” he said. “But it’s kind of weird.”

I remember Olivia’s mom stood stone faced by the coffin as Jake and I approached her.

“I’m really sorry about Olivia,” I said, and Jake mumbled something similar.

She just nodded. “We’re you her friend? I don’t remember you.”

“We had some classes together. She was a very nice person,” I said. “We were all staying at the same house.”

“Yet not one of you knew who she walked off with.” Olivia’s mother looked like she wanted to say more, and I felt Jake’s hand tighten over mine. “Well, thank you for coming.”

I went up to Olivia’s coffin and knelt down to say a prayer, but nothing came out. All I could see was the round girl with the shorts and tank top walking down the boardwalk hand in hand with a guy whose face remained a shadow. He was never caught.

Any one of us could have been Olivia that night, except we were a group, and she was alone.

I couldn’t get it out of my head. Jake and I broke up a month later because he said I was obsessed.

Olivia walked with me for a long while. I felt her beside me when I set off for college and met many of her sisters on campus–the kind of girls I always mocked in high school—chubby and smart. When I tried to be friendly, they were polite and distant.

“The sorority girl wants our notes,” one girl said.

They liked to call me a dumb blonde, sometimes when I was in the same room. I told myself I didn’t care because I was still pretty and popular. I went to parties had boyfriends, and still got good grades, but none of the really smart people wanted me in their study groups.

When I graduated and went on to law school, the smart girls surrounded me. I felt a kinship with them, though now they excluded me even more as if I was a reject.

“Our group is filled,” one of the girls told me. “Try one of the guys’ groups. I’m sure they’d love to have you.” When I walked away, I heard her say, “Could you feel her draining your IQ or what?”

“It doesn’t matter,” someone else said. “She’ll be fine. She’s just here to grab a husband.”

Over the year, though, they began to soften toward me because I worked hard. In the middle of my second year, one actually invited me into a study group. I learned we weren’t so different. We were all trying to do something important with our lives, and if I was the girl they hated in high school, they were the girls who intimidated me in college. I don’t know if I would have realized it, if I hadn’t been for Olivia.

At graduation the girls congratulated me. When I hugged them and wished them luck, I did so sincerely. They were women of substance and had made me better by forcing me to excel. Many of them went on to powerful law firms, two are federal judges, and one works for the Secretary of State. I went to work for a mid-sized firm and do pro bono work for a non-profit that’s fighting to stop a proposed oil pipe line. We all keep in touch.

I did marry another lawyer. The girls were right about that.

When I finally greeted our daughter, I held her in my arms, felt her warm breath against my cheek and touched her tiny perfect fingers. It was as if I held my own redemption in my hands.

“She’ll be as pretty as her mother,” the nurse said as she left the room.

Later that day I dreamed Olivia was standing in the doorway in her too tight shorts, tank top, and floppy hat. She gazed from me to my daughter lying in the bassinet beside my bed, her face frozen into a mask of indifference.

“She’ll be different, I swear,” I whispered, but my voice came out hoarse and raw. “She’ll be clever and good and kind. She’ll be better than me. Please don’t let anything happen to her.”

Olivia just turned away.

 

Night Games

Red. Stop. Watch. Wait. Breathe in and out. Streams of light. Music and laughter inside the Tapas bar. So many pretty faces with red-lipped smiles and strong white teeth. She glances at me and smiles. I smile back. She takes a sip from her second glass of dark crimson wine.

See me sitting by the window. My eyes stare back at me. Hungry.

I swallow black beans and small beef strips. I gnaw at a chicken thigh grilled in green chili sauce. I touch a tart apple foam with my tongue. Not enough. Never enough.

Yellow. Caution. I pay my bill and step out into the steamy night. Too crowded. Many people roam about. Car horns honk. Across the street a boy vomits while his friends cheer. I walk to the alley down the street and pull on a black hoodie.

Green. Go. The restaurant door opens, and she is alone. She walks away from the noise. Four streets up. Two streets over. I am quick, quick. I am a shadow.

She reaches the house  and walks up the steps. She doesn’t fumble with the keys, but I am super fast. I force her through the door. We crash to the floor.

“Ouch,” she says. “This is the last time for this game, George. It’s gotten old.”

She is correct. It’s the last night for games.

I whisper, “Goodbye, Marie.”

Tonight is good.