| Kory let her mind wander as she stood at the edge of the water. Small pieces of garbage and long ribbons of seaweed pulled at her toes as each tiny wave lapped over her feet. It was strange to be under this bridge, standing on a beach of cement, graffiti taking the place of palm trees and music from the bar behind her replacing seagulls. It was a place where bums slept and teenage boys shot heroin up their veins, but Kory felt there was a kind of beauty in it that most people didn’t see.
If she closed her eyes and titled her chin up to catch the mist and cool breeze on her neck, sunk her bare feet into the cold water and drowned out the sounds of the city surrounding her, Kory was no longer hungry or dirty or lonely. She was anywhere she wanted to be.
A woman’s scream cut through the music and echoed under the bridge like a gong. Kory’s eyes flew open and she grabbed her chest in surprise, the torn shirt thin and damp in her hands. Two men tumbled down the cement stairs and fell into the water wrapped in each others arms. Kory moved up against the wall and watched as the bigger man straddled the other, pushing the man’s head under the waves. Blood was sprayed all over his face, falling into his mouth, his eyes swollen almost shut.
A woman was running towards them in a dress and heels, her screams high pitched and frantic. When she reached the man on top she leapt on his back and started hitting him with tiny closed fists. He didn’t notice her so she reached for his short cropped hair, taking whole fist full’s and pulling back as hard as she could. The man noticed now, turning his body towards her with one hand still on the man struggling underneath him and the other reaching behind him, fingers flexing as they searched for her slight frame clinging to his back. As he did a brown wallet fell from his jacket pocket and sat unnoticed at the edge of the water.
Kory’s heart raced as she focused on the wallet laying next to them, sometimes disappearing under an arm or a leg as the fight moved back and forth along the place she was just standing. Soon the cops would be here. Soon the fight would be broken apart. Soon the man would see his wallet, bend down and pick it up, put it back into his jacket and walk away. Kory twisted her shirt into a giant knot, biting her lower lip as she watched the man with the broken nose swing blindly at whatever might be in front of him.
Then Kory walked forward, leaving a trail of wet sandal behind her, and grabbed the wallet. She turned and ran up the stairs, past the group of people hurrying to the scene, past the bar entrance with it’s smoky air and loud music escaping the open door, and past the parking lot with its yellow booth and chain link fence. She turned a corner and slowed to a walk, passing shops that were closed for the night, passing cafes full of college students that stared as she walked by, and passing pretty girls whose arms were linked with men who guided them like children.
Kory gripped the wallet with white knuckles, looking behind her every couple of steps. After a while she found a bench outside a gas station and sat down. She exhaled and stared down at the wallet with a fear that burned her stomach. It was heavy and swollen. It smelt like new leather and had beautiful designs carved into the skin. She slowly opened it and found an ID for a Charles D. Kaiser, a couple of credit cards, a business card with a woman’s handwriting, and three one hundred dollar bills. Blood pumped through her arms and legs and made her feel dizzy, her fingers shaking as they ran over the crisp edges of the freshly printed bills.
She closed the wallet and turned it over in her hands, shifting the weight back and forth, rotating it with her thin fingers. She sat this way on the bench as the moon made its steady climb into the sky and the stars disappeared behind city lights and pollution.
A shadow crossed her body and she recoiled, bringing the wallet into her stomach and guarding it like an angry dog. The boy didn’t even look at her as he passed, his dark hood pulled tight over his head, his hands shoved so far into his pockets Kory could make out the shape of his knuckles through the fabric. He walked right up to the glass door with it’s Open sign, but instead of going inside he turned and began pacing in front of the entrance with tense shoulders and nervous movements. His sneakers, and the buzzing of a yellow light behind a set of bars over the door were the only sounds in the remote part of Seattle that middle class people prayed their cars didn’t break down in.
A nervous flutter started in Kory’s stomach and worked its way up her throat. Living on the streets has taught her the art of invisibility; from catty rich women guiding their fat babies away from her general direction, from cops who felt they served a special duty in harassing the ignorant rat slimes of society, and especially from men. Men who look at her with a disgust that did nothing to hide the desire behind their eyes. And boys who circles her in front of a run down gas station like a shark closing in on the attack.
The invisibility act seemed to be playing in her favor. Kory wasn’t really sure if the boy knew she was sitting there or not, propped up against a Bud light poster on the other side of the glass window, also behind bars. He just kept pacing, twitching his shoulders like a horse behind the starting gate. Then he walked in. Something inside Kory told her to follow. It felt more like a tiny pull in her stomach, or a twisted flutter in her chest. Without thinking she shoved the wallet deep into her pocket and slipped through the glass door before it closed, the orange rectangle of light disappearing from the sidewalk outside as Kory walked down the first isle. When she was sure she couldn’t be seen she peaked around the corner and her eyes met the back of the boy she followed inside. The same boy who was now aiming a gun right into the tall shape of an old man behind the register.
The boy’s shaking hands, both gripping so tight around the small black gun that Kory could trace every vein in his paper thin skin, made the barrel dance in front of the man’s impassive face. Kory was suddenly aware of everything around her. The smell of the hotdogs burning under their heat lamps, beads of grease like sweat on their plump skin, the display of chips with their bright colors and price tags, the row of magazines bent and out of date knee level to the boy, who was now yelling impatiently at the man who stood like a stubborn bulldog too stupid to know when he was about to lose the fight.
Kory’s need to talk to the boy frightened her, and tiny beads of sweat broke out all over her skin that had nothing to do with the warm day and muggy gas station. She didn’t know the owner with his plaid button up and black tie hugging his chin, or the boy with the cracking voice and dirty sneakers. She could turn around and sneak out the door unnoticed, or hide in the back until the situation died down. Instead, against her will and without any explanation that she could come up with years later, she stepped out from her hiding spot and spoke.
Her voice was stronger then she meant it to be, and it startled the boy, who whipped his head around like a snake, tiny bubbles of spit gathering in the corner of is mouth, his eyebrows tight together in a panic that Kory prayed she would never feel.
“Stay back!” The boy’s voice was high, breaking as his panic rose, and his gun still shook straight ahead of him. Kory imagined she could roll a ball off his shoulder and it would move in a straight line down his arm, right to the tip of the gun.
“Ok. Im not coming any closer. I just wanted to ask you what you are doing.”
The boy had returned his attention to the old man, who hadn’t moved an inch, and who hadn’t looked at Kory once. She wondered if he was the kind of old man who had served his youth in the army and fought in many wars. He had the unwavering face of a man whose hands were already stained red, and who was no longer afraid of the skeletons piling in his closet.
“Move where I can see you. Behind the counter, now!”
Kory’s legs walked her past the chips and the magazines and hotdogs, right to the other side of the hallow barrel.
“I said open the register!”
His head kept darting back and forth between the man, the register, and the door. The tick of the round faced clock hanging on the wall behind the counter matched the tick that came back into his small framed shoulders, the slight jerk of his head, the quick blink of his eyes. He was drenched in sweat and his face was bright red but he didn’t look like someone falling from a week long high. He didn’t have the stance of someone so far from themselves that they were probably watching it all from his above the counter, wondering what the poor guy would do next, small signs of the withdrawal already pushing them too close to an edge they never would have stepped to years ago.
“What’s your name?” Kory asked.
The boy seemed surprised. She could tell by the wide eyes he shot towards her that anything other then the scene he played over and over in his mind pacing outside the door would happen never crossed his mind. He was silent, shifting his small frame from one foot to the other.
“Ok…something simple then. Why do you think that standing here pointing that gun at this man is the answer to any problem you might have?”
His eyes narrowed in defense, his voice a forced laugh.
“You have no idea what’s going on in my life. Don’t judge me lady.”
“Of course I’m going to judge you. I’m on the stupid side of the barrel buddy. I just wanted to buy a candy bar.” Kory lied. Her hands were slippery with sweat and she dug the fingers of her left hand into her right palm. Her knees shook and she gripped her toes around the sandals that were two days from falling apart. But her face was calm, pleasant, and her voice was steady. Kory spent her life avoiding people and talking to no one, and suddenly she had to talk to this one boy, someone who for once was more desperate and pathetic in his pain then she was.
“Yeah well I don’t want hurt anyone okay? If he just unloads the money instead of staring at me I wont have to shoot anyone! Why can’t you just give me the money? I’m going to shoot you!”
“No you aren’t. You aren’t going to shoot him.” Kory said, little beads of blood under the nails that dug into her tiny palm.
“What?! You think I’m playing?”
There was a small movement next to her behind the counter and she saw that while the boy was staring at her with wild bloodshot eyes, the man was slowly moving his right hand to a place under the counter none of them could see. His eyes never left the boy, the muscle in his jaw flexing under his lose skin.
“Well I’m pretty sure you would have done it already.”
His hands shook more then ever.
“You just came in for a candy bar? Is that what you said?”
“Yeah? Well my wife is at home right now, needing chemo. Except there’s no money. Ten thousand dollars a chemo treatment and who the Hell has that kind of money right?”
“But there’s probably only a couple hundred here, why risk jail time?”
“I just need some money.” His voice was choppy, frantic. “ Ill get it however I can. No one’s going to tell me how much my wife’s life is worth. I’m not going to just sit there and watch her die. Ill rob a million gas stations.”
The old man’s arm disappeared up to the elbow in dark shadow, his back bending slightly. The boy never noticed.
“It’s not worth it, there has to be a better way.”
The boy looked nervously out the window again. Shadows danced across the windows and through shapes all over the sidewalk outside.
“There is no way! She’s dying!” His voice stuck in his throat and he choked on his pleading.
“Do you think she would really want this for you?”
A tear rolled down his face and he made his first mistake. He didn’t look back at the old man whose hand pulled back one of the biggest shot guns Kory had ever seen in person. Later she imagined she could see her horrified reflection in the shiny wood that his left hand shot up to hold. The light above their heads blinked at the same time the gun fired right into the shoulder of the boy who held his weapon like a drowning man held a life preserver. He hit the ground five feet behind where he was standing and Kory couldn’t tell the police what happened after that because she couldn’t remember anything but darkness.
Later that night the old man stood in front of his bathroom mirror the same way he did every night. He brushed his teeth, washed his face, patted his skin dry with a powder blue towel with his printed on the bottom. In bed that night he set his water cup on the night stand next to the paper back book he was in the middle of reading. He pulled the covers up to his hips and set the book on his lap.
“How was your day sweetie?”
His wife’s voice was tired and quiet. Her soft white curls covered the pillow next to his.
“Good. It went good.”
“Your son called and left you a message. He said you wouldn’t answer the phone. He was worried about you.”
“He thinks old people can’t take care of themselves.”
His wife snickered.
“Maybe he’s right.”
“No he’s wrong. I may be old but I’m a damn strong man and I can take care of myself.”
His voice rose and his wife sensed the tension.
“Just today I taught a young punk a lesson. I taught him that lesson good too.”
“He tried to take advantage of an old man, but he underestimated me. He tried to make a fool out of me Marie, but I showed that punk.”
Marie put a small frail hand on her husbands arm.
“That’s good.” She whispered. She rolled over and fell asleep. The old man stared at the pages of his book for hours that night, not reading a single word.