When I woke up it was gray outside, raining. Not like in Milan. The sun beating down on terra cotta walls. Things are gray here. It's the season, my father tells me. The sun shines in summer, but it's winter now. I don't believe him. He's lied before. Lied about everything—"the date, the time, where we were, what happened to the baby. I tell you what you need to know, my father says. It is our Protection.
I roll out of bed and close the blinds. Venetian blinds. The real kind, made by hand in Venice, by old men who work for our family. There are tiny gondolas carved into each of the slats, so small most eyes can't see them. But I see them. With a flick of my wrist the slats close, and the gondolas sail off. It's dark.
I'm standing in my underwear and nursing bra and I stretch out my arms for a long minute. I have to wear the nursing bra all the time now, to bed even, my breasts are so huge it's like they're going to explode. I get dressed, light a cigarette and walk out onto the balcony. I'm not here for the view. The balcony overlooks nothing: rusted metal, strewn tires, a couple of mean, skinny dogs sniffing around for something to rip apart.
Those dogs, they run after a cat, they run after her almost every day. The cat is smart though, she's playing a game. She walks out where the dogs can see her and looks straight at them, offering up her little neck to be snapped. They go crazy, run at her and she takes a couple hops to the top of a car, then the shed. The dogs jump as high as they can but they can't even get close. Once she's up there she turns around and starts hissing, showing her claws, fuck off dogs! That cat makes me laugh. I've been sitting out the last couple days watching her fuck with those dogs.
Why we're here: we're in hiding, or possibly, Shelter Proceedings. It isn't clear yet. The situation is…My sister, she's having the girl. I had the boy. They took him away.
Why here and not Milan? We have people there, people who could have sent us underground, new identities, new faces even, if we wanted them. I haven't asked. It must have been something political, something unstable in the political situation. The politics, the instability, the situations. There are so many situations that never make the newspaper, that only we know about.
Josie's room is next door to mine. I knock on her door. "Josie?" I can see her sitting on the bed through a crack in the door. She's picking at the zits on her thighs with a pair of tweezers. She's gained 70 pounds with the pregnancy and her thighs are flooded with fat, they overflow the bed.
"It's a good thing you're pregnant already because no one would fuck you looking like that." I say as I push her door open and walk into the room. "Jabba the Hutt."
She keeps picking at her thigh with the tweezers and doesn't look up. "I don't drool as much as Jabba the Hutt." Then she looks up and she's drooling all down her chin. We both laugh.
"I hate this place."
"Yeah." She goes back to tweezing.
"I wouldn't have come here if they told me it would be like this. Daddy didn't say it would be like this, sitting around in a dump. My tits hurt." I sit down next to her. I take a big drag off my cigarette and blow the smoke onto her thigh so it bounces off and goes into her face.
She inhales the smoke through her nose and looks up, "Give me one of those."
I hand her one.
"Dorals? You run out of the Marlboro coupons? You steal these from dad?" she asks and lights the cigarette. Josie isn't bad looking, long black hair and white skin, her eyebrows tweezed into perfect little lines, like the eyes of a Siamese cat.
"Those coupons ran out a long time ago." I glance around her room. No pictures, old matted carpet. Her dresser is in the corner, no sign of suitcases. Mine I've kept out, hoping I'd use them again, move out of this place. We've been here since the baby went into Protection. It wasn't safe for us to be together. That's the price you pay for having blood like mine, like ours.
"My tits hurt," I say again.
"Yeah." She's smoking now, holding the cigarette between her thumb and her index finger like she always does. "My back hurts. This fat is driving me crazy." She grabs her belly with both hands and gives it a shake. "Do you have any crystal? I'm moving so slow right now."
I shake my head. "No."
"Shit." She takes another long drag off the cigarette. "This place is killing me. No cigarettes, no crystal, baby," she looks at her belly. "No baby," she looks at mine.
"Yeah." I say. Suddenly I think about the baby really not being here. That I'm not carrying it around like Josie.
"I feel sad."
"Yeah," she stops tweezing for a minute but doesn't look up. "My back is fucking killing me." She looks around the room, doesn't make eye contact. "And I could use some fucking crystal. So could you, get your mind off that shit." She swings her arm out at me, the lit end of her cigarette almost going into my belly. I jump back.
"Fuck you, Jabba." I go back to my room. I can hear her laughing through the wall.
I look at my belly. Xavier Aleister Marquis du Chat. I miss him.
I bring a folding chair and card table out onto the balcony. The dogs are lounging under a shed, I can see their matted fur from here, their claws. I take the cards out from their silk bag. Silk, I sewed it myself as a final precaution. Silk protects their power: Spades, Diamonds, Clubs, Hearts. The Queen of Spades. Josie. To tell the truth, I have my doubts about Josie. She hasn't had her blood verified, and she's only half. Whether she's deserving, well, we'll see.
The cards, the cards tell me things my father won't. The Queen of Spades, the Suicide King, the Three of Hearts. I study the Queen of Spades then look down into the yard. It all makes sense. The cat is picking her way through the trash and barbed metal, so quiet and quick. The dogs don't see her, she goes right by them. The cards are protecting her. The doorbell rings.
"Who the fuck is that?" Josie yells.
"Shut up!" The stairs down to the door are dark, but still, they must know we're here.
I slide down the steps noiselessly, my back against the wall. I hold the banister and can just lean over and see through the peep hole without stepping onto the landing. On the landing they might see the shadow of my feet.
There's two of them. One man, one woman, the woman with a clipboard and the man with a briefcase. It's not leather though, it looks cheap and nylon, American. They're talking to each other, I can hear them through the door.
"They're here." The woman runs her hand over her face. "They're just not answering the door."
"Maybe they're on a walk." The man is looking at his watch, looks impatient.
"Would you go on a walk in this neighborhood?"
"Who is it?" Josie is at the top of the stairs. "Phil the Man is supposed to come by."
The Queen of Spades. It's all about her. Phil the Man, she thinks he loves her because he brings her the crystal. But I see the truth. She gives away to him, things that aren't hers to give. Half Countess, but half whore. I've tried to teach her. But she doesn't listen, doesn't learn.
I motion Josie back with my free hand. The couple at the door are too busy talking to have heard her. I recognize the woman from the hospital. She was there when the baby went into Protection. Not one of ours though, she works for The Department of Services, it's in her every move.
"We can come back later," the man says.
"The report says the sister's pregnant."
I suck in my breath. They know. Maybe it won't be so different for Josie after all.
"We can't do anything about that now anyway." The man is fumbling in his briefcase.
"We could get her into a program." The woman takes a step toward the door. "I'm going to ring one more time."
I swing back on the steps. The buzzer is loud on the landing, it hurts my ears. I wait a moment then work my way slowly back up the stairs. Josie is still standing there.
"They know about you." For the first time in days Josie looks me straight in the eye. "I heard them say they know about you."
"What do they know about me?" Her face contorts, like she's ready to spit.
"They can't do shit to me or the baby."
Defiant, as always. "They can't? They found out we're here, didn't they? They found me. They can find you."
She hesitates. "I don't give a shit about them."
"You don't?" Our eyes meet again. She doesn't know what it's like to lose everything. I could teach her. "Then go open the door."
"Fuck you." She says quietly, breaking away her gaze. She goes back into her room.
When the baby went into Protection I was in the hospital. I should never have gone, I know that now. I was bleeding, the midwife told me I had to go, my life depended on it. Later, I discovered what I should have known, she too referred to The Department of Services. The way she talked about my blood, it was a commodity to her. It needed to be tested, it required special medications. Was that her motive all along? Access to my blood? She took it away in buckets, mopped it from the floor when I had the baby. I wonder how much she got for it, how much I bring on those black, black markets.
They know we're here. I go back to the cards. We need to move on, move on before they come back. But where? I lay the cards out. I'm not listening to my father anymore. He said we would be safe here, he said the baby would be safe in Protection. But we're not safe here. And the baby…I can only pray.
The Four of Clubs, the Eight of Spades, the Four of Diamonds, the King of Spades, the Three of Spades. Josie. All about Josie. I rearrange, reposition the energy, wipe the table with silk. I lay the cards out again. It may take hours to find the answer.
Josie. When we were children we spent summers at my cousin's, the archduke's. She doesn't remember. She doesn't remember the slides or the orchards or how we were taught the importance of our blood, how we are the only people in the world born of the true blood. How we needed Protection.
The downstairs door, it's open, I can hear it from my room. I run down the hall and suddenly Josie appears, as if she has been here all along. But now she is holding the cat.
"Look at this cat, isn't he cute?" Josie says, scratching its head. Phil the Man is standing on the stairs, the door open behind him. It is all wrong. I realize now what the cards have been trying to tell me.
"What are you doing?" I yell at Josie. She's high, her eyes are like saucers. "Shut the door!"
"Isn't he cute?" Josie murmurs, rubbing her face into the cat's fur. She doesn't hear me. "Phil thought we should have a cat. And this one was right here, Phil found him. He's my other baby now, isn't he Phil?"
Phil's head lolls, and he makes a drowning sound. He still has a needle in his arm.
"Shut the door!" I scream again, but I'm invisible to them. I run down the stairs, but it's too late.
The man and the woman are back. There is another man in a uniform with them now. They are standing just outside the door.
"Hello, Marie." The woman is smiling like they do in The Department of Services, their regulation smile. "Remember me? I'm so glad you're here. And your sister…" she looks at Josie, face still buried in the cat, "we all have so much to talk about."
* * *
The phone is disconnected. I dial the numbers again, making sure I didn't misdial although I know I did it right the first time. The number you have reached is no longer in service.
"We look like cops in this car." Robert is sitting next to me chewing nicotine gum. He quit smoking two years ago but still chews the gum. He chews like a horse and he's got at least 3 pieces in there. "Where'd you get it?"
"It's my brother's car. He needed my van to move."
"He's using a minivan to move?" Robert blows a bubble and it pops, leaving little tendrils of gum on his lower lip. "Why didn't he rent a U-Haul?"
"He doesn't have much stuff." I snap the 238 Form into my binder and put my phone in my pocket. "Alright, the number's disconnected. We might as well go knock on the door."
The 238 listed the caller as the referral's neighbor, but there's only one actual house nearby and it's a block away and surrounded by a six foot chain link fence. The referral's building is an old shop of some kind with an apartment above. The front yard is broken glass.
"Why isn't the ongoing worker doing this?" Robert requested a transfer out of Intake. He's not thrilled to be here. He starts digging around in the little satchel thing he always carries and I realize he's about to put on lip balm. I get out of the car. The lip balm he uses is cherry-flavored and smells like crap, I don't know what's in it but as soon as he gets the lid off I feel like retching if it's anywhere near me.
"It's an Immediate Response and they don't do IR in ongoing, you know that." I click the lock button on the key and the car makes a high tech whirring sound as we walk away.
Robert looks back, raising his eyebrows. "Is your brother in the FBI?"
"No. Can you get your head in the game, please?"
"My head in the game?" Robert walks ahead of me to get to the door. "Are we playing baseball now?"
I glare at him.
"I'll ring." Robert flashes his shit-eating grin at me and hits the button.
I open my binder and glance through the 238 again. I'm not thrilled to be here either. I know the family from placing the baby in protective custody. It didn't go well.
"Nobody home. Guess we'd better head back to the office."
"They're here." I run my hand over my face trying not to let Robert's attitude get to me. "They're just not answering the door."
"Maybe they're on a walk." Robert glances at his watch.
"Would you go on a walk in this neighborhood?"
"We can come back later," Robert says breezily and turns to head for the car. "I've got a stack of things on my desk I need to take care of today anyway."
"Hold on." I grab his sleeve. "I'm in this unit for at least another year, okay? Can we at least pretend to make an effort?"
"Oh my sweet ingénue, this is an effort." Robert stretches out his hands like he's about to play the piano. "My fingers are already tired from all that ringing."
I don't know what ingénue means but it sounds insulting. I watch Robert wave his fingers around and suddenly it occurs to me that he might be gay. The way he talks, the exaggerated and delicate way he's moving his hands. The cherry lip balm. Not that it matters to me either way, I'm not prejudiced, but I start thinking about my biology partner in college. One day she mentioned something about being black, and I just sat there dumbfounded. I thought she was from one of the islands, the Caribbean or something, and the blackness wasn't an issue for me, but I had never thought of it in those terms before, that's all.
"The report said the sister is pregnant." Now I'm wondering about Robert and I'm the one that needs to get my head in the game. I need this job. I've only been here six months and I don't want to blow it.
"We can't do anything about that now." Robert's jaw is working hard on the gum. I follow the twitching muscles on the side of his face up to his temple. His eyebrows appear to be waxed.
"We could get her into a program. I'm going to ring one more time," I say. Robert never talks about his personal life, that's something I've noticed.
"I'm calling Jane and letting her know we can't find them." Robert's already walking back to the car when he pauses and squats down. "Oh hey little kitty, c'mere."
A little black and white cat comes out from the side of the building and rubs up against Robert's legs. He picks the cat up and starts scratching its head. "Kind of a rough neighborhood for a cute little guy like you, huh?"
"Do you need to get back to the office, or what?" I ask. Screw it. I don't really want to be here either.
"Oh come on now Rebecca, look at this little guy." Robert turns his body toward me as the cat bats playfully at his face. "Give him a scratch."
The cat is cute. I don't need any other distractions right now, but the cat is cute. He can't be much more than a kitten and has big green eyes. I give him a little scratch behind the ear and he wraps his paw around my hand.
"Take him home, the kids would love him." Robert hands me the cat.
"Yeah, right." I give the cat another little scratch and put him back on the ground. "I've got two cats and three kids already, I think we're full."
We walk back to the car with the cat following at our heels. I'm about to pull away when Robert grabs my hand. He's unwrapping another piece of nicotine gum and the foil scrapes against my skin.
"Huggy Bear. It's from Starsky and Hutch." Robert points out the windshield at a man walking down the sidewalk.
Starsky and Hutch.
"I know that guy. We call him Huggy Bear because of the hat. He's bad news. He's going for their apartment, check it out."
The guy is about 6 feet tall but can't weigh more than 140 pounds. He is wearing a ridiculous hat. His face is gaunt and even from here I can see the scabs on his skin. The pick marks.
"Interesting." Robert cracks his knuckles, puts the next piece of gum in his mouth. "Well, if they let him in we'll know they're there."
Huggy Bear walks up to the door and rings the bell. He waits a minute and then makes a call on his cell. A moment later the door opens.
"Whoa, she is pregnant," I say. I'm briefly distracted from studying Robert by the sister appearing in the doorway. She's huge, her belly protruding from the folds of a dirty terry cloth bathrobe.
"Either that or she's got liver failure." Robert starts to open his door, but then hesitates. "If we want to make contact I think we should get patrol out here. Like I said, that guy's bad news."
"Yeah," I say. "I'll call them." I dial dispatch.
The car is parked only about 50 yards from the apartment but they don't seem to notice us. "Do you remember the guy's name? What's his deal?"
Robert scratches his head and I notice his nails are manicured. "I think it was Phil something, I can't really remember. Deal is the right word though. He deals. Might be a pimp too, but I'm not sure."
The cat had apparently been hanging out by the side of our car because I see it run over and start brushing up against the sister's legs. I roll my window down, trying to hear what they're saying.
The sister is walking around in a little circle with her hands in her pockets, the terry cloth robe spreading like the wings of some strange bird. Suddenly she swoops down and picks up the cat. A few seconds later she screams, dropping him.
"He scratched me!"
The cat seems dazed for a moment but then tries to run, but Huggy Bear grabs it by the tail. He pulls the cat back to him, the cat's front paws digging wildly at the ground trying to get traction. Huggy has his other hand in his pocket and pulls something out that I can't quite see. He pins the cat to the ground with his knee.
"What a shit! Leave the cat alone, asshole!" Robert is clenching his fists. "You need to get yourself a new dealer, girlfriend."
"Robert, are you gay?" the question leaves my mouth before I can stop it.
Huggy Bear gets hold of the cat's neck and picks him by the scruff. In his other hand I see what he had taken out of his pocket. A needle. He pulls the cap off with his teeth and plunges it into the back of the cat's neck.
"Holy Shit, he just shot up the fucking cat!" Robert puts both his hands up to his head, palms pressed against his temples.
We watch the cat squirm for moment and then go limp as Huggy Bear hands him back to the sister.
"Holy Shit." I can't think of anything else to say. We watch the sister cradle the limp cat in her arms as they go through the door. "Did he kill it?"
"I don't know. There's patrol, thank God," Robert says, looking in the rearview mirror. A black Dodge Charger pulls up behind us and Robert opens his door flagging the cop. I get out and listen to Robert give him a rundown of why we're here and what we just saw. Robert's voice is steady, he's more focused and serious than I've ever seen him.
"We need you to accompany us to the door, and inside if they'll let us in." Robert says to the cop and then turns to me, raising his eyebrows in a "Ready?" expression.
I nod and walk around the car. The officer is walking ahead of us as Robert pauses and lightly grabs my wrist. "About your question..."
"I didn't mean to offend you."
"You didn't offend me." Robert spits out his gum into a piece of tissue. "I'm just saying don't be an asshole."
The door to the apartment is already slightly open as we walk up.
K.H. Cox lives in Southern Oregon. What seems like a long, long time ago she graduated from the University of Montana.