Above L.A. the sky was bluer if you looked straight up. Early in the morning that was the first thing she looked for. She’d lie there wrapped in her blanket and fix her eyes on it, that bluer blue.
She heard something over by Pete. A kid was messing in the pocket of Pete’s field jacket. Pete was out and didn’t notice. He liked that spot by the drainpipe because it covered his back against the wind blowing down the channel. The problem was that sometimes he would slide down the embankment into the water. He’d had two turtles settle on his boots once.
The kid got what he was after and stared at it like it was a piece of pie. She bumped Tommy lying beside her.
“Kid stole a gun off Pete.”
The kid was tip-toeing toward the guardrail, half the size of what would have filled his clothes. Black knit Raiders hat. Oversized camo hoodie and purple Lakers shorts, yellow stripes down the sides.
“What was Pete doing with a gun?”
“How do I know? We should get it back.”
“Let Pete if it’s his.”
Pete had his beard over his forearm to make a pillow. Not getting anything back any time soon.
“We could sell it.”
“But if it’s Pete gun.”
“You think Pete paid for it?”
They saw where the kid was heading so they headed at an angle over the drainpipe toward where the guardrail ended.
“He’s like, what, eleven?” Tommy said.
“If,” Maybeth said.
Tommy always worked age into things because he felt unsure of himself thinking he was three years younger than Maybeth, but she always cut him off because she’d lied to him about her age. Age was nothing; it was the time inside it that counted.
They ran some traffic and crossed the boulevard median. The kid had no idea they were behind him because he had his hat pulled down so low. Another block, they had him. Maybeth took his knees. Tommy got his neck. They wrestled him down on the sidewalk, but the kid got the gun out of his hoodie pouch and had it right in Tommy’s face.
“Let go you dead.”
His hat had come off his shaved head. He was pissed about that, too. Grabbed it up as he jerked free and pulled it down tight.
“Both you walk.”
Maybeth said, “Point that off him.”
He turned the gun on her. “Like that?”
“Go ahead. Who cares?”
His small eyes widened with outrage. “Walk!”
Tommy said, “What do you want with us?”
“Take my fuckin’ gun?”
“You took it off Pete.”
“No more his ‘n mine. Saw him dive it out last night.”
They began walking. The kid had the gun back in his pouch crotch-high, pointing at them like a little hard-on. No one around. Nothing open. Cars only beginning to load up the streets.
“Left,” the kid said when they came to an alleyway.
Almost immediately they came to a stop.
“Boy, you open that door.”
The door was stuck.
Tommy kicked. The door twanged open onto a gloomy apartment. A naked woman stood at the kitchen countertop. Big butt and boobs. Fat belly laddering down to her pubic puff.
“Harold, where’d you get that gun? Who these people?”
“Hostages? What you talking about hostages?”
“After my gun.”
“Put that gun down!”
Maybeth and Tommy’s eyes slid together. Harold saw this.
They put their hands up.
“Over in that bedroom over there.”
“That’s my bedroom!” the naked woman said, “Look at me. I ain’t dressed!”
“Don’t want to look at you.”
“You better look where you come from because it’s going to be just as dark inside when you dead. Give me that gun!”
The woman swatted at Harold. She got his arm. The gun fired. The woman shrieked. She grabbed at a hole between her collarbone and left breast.
“You shot me!”
Harold turned on Tommy and Maybeth. “Knees and out your pockets or I shoot you, too.”
The woman grabbed a dishtowel and pressed it over her wound. “Oh, my God, I’m hit!”
“Shut the fuck up!”
“Help! Help! This little bastard shot me!”
The door to the alley was still open. The woman headed that way. Harold shot her in the back. She stumbled and dropped to the floor. Harold screamed at her to get up. She didn’t get up. He began crying and shaking and suddenly put the gun under his chin and blew a wad of his head up into the ceiling. Even so, he stood there a moment, and Maybeth feared that his still upright remains would manage to shoot them too. But his remains dropped to the floor.
She grabbed Tommy. “We saw him take Pete’s gun and were getting it back, hear me?”
“But he put the gun on us and then this,” Tommy said.
“Exactly like it happened.”
“We never touched the gun!”
“Don’t move. We didn’t do anything. This is how it was.”
They couldn’t have run anyway. Tommy pissed himself. Maybeth kneeled with her eyes closed, wanting the day back where it began, looking straight up, not over at Pete.
Pete told the cops he never had no gun and didn’t know what anyone was talking about. That’s what the cops told Maybeth and Tommy in their separate interrogation rooms. Still, Maybeth insisted she saw the gun come out of Pete’s pocket, and she said exactly the same things as Tommy said about how they ended up in the apartment and what happened there, which fit with how things were when the cops came and found the kid and his mother near the door and Tommy and Maybeth on their knees, Maybeth eyes closed, Tommy wet.
Then it was all day until they stopped sending different cops in to talk to her in a windowless room, pushing a story that she was lying, that she and Tommy had broken in with their gun, that the kid snatched it away—surprised them somehow, or the mother knocked it loose—and the kid started shooting, killing his mother and himself, too. Meaning she and Tommy were guilty of unlawful possession of a firearm, breaking and entering, armed robbery, and accessory to the manslaughter of the mother and son. Except the cops didn’t understand that she could sit there all day; that’s all she did anyway; and they could talk trash at her, which is all anyone talked at her; and they could pretend to be on her side, which is what everyone did except Tommy—pretend, not mean it. Because nothing made sense except what she said. It was true, and she kept saying it, counting on Tommy to do the same. She wanted to get the gun back for Pete and the kid wouldn’t let it go and he led them to the apartment and shot the woman when she put up a fuss and then himself because the woman he killed was his mother. They didn’t have any gunpowder on them, but the kid did, right? Their fingerprints weren’t on the gun, were they? What about Pete’s? Had they checked for Pete’s?
There were two detectives who switched off and on, men, and a lieutenant, a woman. Sometimes they poked at where she was from, who she was—first name, last name, middle—and who she hung out with besides Tommy and how long she’d been in L.A. Mainly they stuck to what happened. Let’s go over it again, they’d say. And she’d say, why should she when it’s exactly like she said before? And they’d say, tell us again what you said before, make us understand, let’s get this right.
Just before they got a magistrate to let them put her in a holding cell for the night because she had no fixed address and they still had more questions, the lieutenant said no, she couldn’t see Tommy. Maybeth would be dealt with. Tommy would be dealt with. But they weren’t a team anymore. They weren’t showing up in an alley apartment with two people dead at 6:30 in the morning anymore. The lieutenant always spoke that way, saying something and then repeating it with an additional point, like she was hammering the same nail and wanted Maybeth to understand she was the nail and the nail was getting stuck deeper and deeper in the wood, letting Maybeth know cops weren’t stupid, Maybeth was the stupid one, stupid to be on the streets, stupid to be with a piss-pants like Tommy, stupid to know Pete, stupid to not have all her teeth, stupid to smell of no shower, stupid to think, if it was true, she could snatch a gun off anyone, even a kid, stupid as you could get.
She knew they’d have to let her go because they weren’t charging her, kept saying this was questions, never threatened more. So she didn’t need a lawyer, hadn’t done anything, but what then? Pete would be after her if she got anywhere near him. No more sleeping by the channel. Tommy might go back to St. Louis. He only held onto her because she let him fuck her, which was like being lit on by a fly. He used his dick while the rest of him was always ready to take off, scarcely touched her. And on account of her teeth, she was too embarrassed to make him really kiss.
Next morning, a bald fat cop led her to where she’d spent the day before. Still no windows, but it must be morning even if nothing told her that except she’d slept. Flourescnt lights and drop ceiling tiles overhead.
“Look,” he said, “when the victim is dead and the perpetrator is dead and the witnesses agree on what happened and the scene corroborates it all, you qualify for something we’re starting up because you can say you’re twenty ‘til the cows come home, but we know you’re not twenty. You’re a kid. So, I’m going to take you over there and they’ll consider this right away because the whole thing has to happen fast or it doesn’t happen at all.”
“What happens fast?”
“The thing you qualify for. Aren’t you listening to me?”
“Forget him and go with what I’m saying.”
“I’m not forgetting him. He’s really a kid, too.”
“Says he isn’t.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Forget about him. You go your way, he goes his. That’s how this works.”
The bald fat cop led her back out into the corridor and eventually over a skywalk across the street and down some steps to a tall woman with a floor mop hairdo in another windowless office.
“Are you feeling needs?” was the first thing the woman said. “Bathroom, tampon, coffee?”
“Really? You witnessed a murder and a suicide and you’re good?”
“What’s this about?”
“Here, at least have some water then.” The woman had a Brita on her desk and a stack of Dixie cups. Filled a cup and pushed it to Maybeth with two fingers. Then she wanted to know how old Maybeth was, and Maybeth said twenty, and she said, “I think we could scrub you until you were sixteen.”
Maybeth had seen Youth Services signs on doors and walls, in its way worse than the worst things on the street because Youth Services was jail outside the walls. “No, you couldn’t.”
“How old then? I can’t help if you don’t tell me the truth.”
“I don’t need help. I didn’t do anything.”
“Just tell me. Seventeen?”
“I don’t keep count.”
“All right, where are you from?”
“Here in L. A. the last four years.”
“Along with 50,000 other runaways.”
“Never counted that, either.”
“Well, that’s what we think, 50,000. So, again, where are you from originally?”
“St. Paul. I said that yesterday.”
“They move around. St. Paul was the last place.”
“Mom, Dad, siblings?”
“In four years?”
The woman pushed her glasses back on the bridge of her nose and said L.A. had a new pilot program. “We give kids like you a plane ticket home instead of putting you in our social services system. All we have to do is contact your family to receive you. No need for foster parents when you have real parents, is there, Maybeth?”
The thought of her parents hadn’t crossed her mind in such a long time that she wasn’t always sure she could picture them. Had to think but couldn’t right now. “No thanks.”
“An alternative would be inviting your parents to come get you. We could keep you a few days until they could get here.”
“They wouldn’t come get me.”
“Because nobody’s telling you how to reach them, and I don’t have anything that says who I am. I got rid of it. I’m nobody. I don’t exist.”
She didn’t get rid of it. Someone took it, a red notebook where she’d written who she was, where she was born, and where she had come from.
“We could probably match you through the St. Paul police and missing children, don’t you think?”
“Why don’t you just let me go? I live here, and I didn’t do anything.”
The woman took off her glasses, letting her overworked face and deep-set gray eyes convey the fact that she didn’t like doing what she had to do. “The truth is we don’t want you here. We are in a crisis.”
“So, you deport me?”
“That’s not the way to look at it.”
“If you sent me to Mexico, at least I could get my teeth fixed.”
“With what? You have no money.”
“Maybeth, please, we don’t want you to whore. We want to get you back where you might find some support.”
“I ran away from that.”
“I know. What did it get you?”
She thought of what it got her and what she could say for it. “I’m not addicted to anything. Like, who else can say that?”
“That’s good but it’s not much of a positive.”
“No one tells me what to do.”
“If you end up in jail, people do get told what to do.”
“I’m not afraid of jail. I’ve got friends there.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“In St. Paul, I don’t know anyone.”
“Except your family, but okay, since you’re a minor and a vagrant, we can put you in a secure group home until we get this sorted out. We have those. Bars on the windows. Classrooms in the basement.”
“Well, you get to choose that or a plane ticket to St. Paul. Those are the options. Or, no… we also can sit here and keep talking.”
“What’s there to talk about?”
“You let’s talk about what you want in life. How would you put it?”
Maybeth realized something. The woman never said her name and didn’t have a nameplate on her desk. Why was that? Because she was the one with the airplane ticket, and that’s all she was? Maybeth had never been in an airplane. She wondered about what you would see up there. She didn’t answer. She sat thinking about pushing out a window, climbing onto a wing and getting swept up toward that far away spot of blue. Maybe that’s what she wanted in life. Her and it, blue and far away, probably cold but quiet, very quiet.
So, the woman kept things going on her own. “Actually, Maybeth, we already know who your parents are. Richard and Cynthia Powell, right?”
“I’m sure they don’t forget.”
“Have you been in touch with them?”
“We’re going to be.”
“We have to.”
“I don’t want you to.”
“There’s no choice. You’re a minor. L.A. doesn’t want you. You need to understand that.
“What about Tommy?”
“You’re my concern, not him, and here’s what I know: You’re Maybeth Powell. You’re seventeen. You’re a runaway.”
“Yesterday they took me for a thief and a killer.”
“Yesterday’s over, just like Tommy’s over.”
“No, he’s not.”
“He’s gone, Maybeth. We sent him yesterday so he’ll get what he needs like you’ll get what you need, starting with decent nutrition and sleeping in a bed again.”
“I’ve been in plenty of beds.”
“I mean a bed by yourself with soft clean sheets and a nice pillow and blankets in a city that’s every bit as nice as L.A. I’ve been through St. Paul. It’s lovely.”
“Why not come to St. Paul with me?” Maybeth said. “Take a break. You look beat.”
The woman put her glasses back on. Maybeth could see it was to hide her worn-out face. She could tell you a lot of things about people that they wouldn’t care to tell you themselves.
“We’re talking about your life, not mine.”
“Some life, dealing with scumbags like me.”
“The day will come when you wouldn’t say something like that about yourself.”
“I doubt it.”
“Maybe it will take years, but you will. Now come with me to the airport. There’s a flight you can make.”
“I don’t want to make any flight.”
“A group home then?”
“That’s the alternative because the third one, talking, doesn’t seem to be working. You don’t want to do it and neither do I.”
The traffic was heavy, and the woman wasn’t a good driver. Jerky like every other driver in L.A. Maybeth clicked the button to lower the window so she could stick her head out and look up. The woman clicked her button to raise it.
“I have the air conditioner on,” she said.
“I was just saying goodbye,” Maybeth said.
Maybeth wouldn’t say. She hadn’t been able to get a good look anyway. You had to be still and you had to be on your back and you had to look straight up. Otherwise, you couldn’t see it. People in cars and buildings never saw it. A roof over your head completely blocked it out. You only saw it if you were by the channel or in a park or around the train yard. Places like that with nothing in between.
Robert Earle has published more than 100 stories in literary magazines in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and New Zealand. His latest collections are She Receives the Night (Vine Leaves Press) and Nowhere is Always Somewhere (Wordrunner eChapbooks). He also has published a nonfiction account of a year in Iraq, Nights in the Pink Motel (Naval Institute Press) and a novel, The Way Home (DayBue). He lives in Durham, North Carolina.
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
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