C is for confession, and the worst confession he's ever heard comes, not from the lips of a kiddie fiddler or a family annihilator who'd locked his five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter in the hall closet and listened to them burn along with the body of their mother, but from behind a door left ajar in a run-down building with dim lights and filled with people living even dimmer lives. It's a confession never meant for his ears. He has no right to be here, skulking outside this warped and secret door and peering through the crack in the door at the unfinished faces inside. He's an interloper, an unwanted judgment, and he should've left as soon as he'd realized why she was there, should've turned around and retreated to his well-ordered life and waited for her to choose the hour and the means of her confession. He should leave now, but his knees have gone to water, and his chest throbs, laid bare by the jagged shrapnel of the words that he's so carelessly stolen and now cannot discard. He's afraid that if he moves, he'll waver and then shatter like so much distressed glass, and the noise of his dissolution will bring her to the door.
He doesn't think he could stand to see her eyes right now, not if they're anything like the voice drifting from behind the door like ground mist to curl around his heart and smother it with formless, frozen fingers. They'd be cloudy with booze, glazed with pain, and bright with the knowledge of everything he'd somehow missed. He doesn't want to look into her eyes and discover there's nothing behind them, that she's been hollowed out by the slow, patient burn of alcohol. To do that would be to see how badly he's failed.
They'd been close once upon a time, close enough to share a pair of headphones on family vacations. They'd sat cheek to cheek in the back of the family Corolla and listened to Peter Gabriel, bony, adolescent shoulders occasionally jousting for dominance as the old car lumbered around curves or labored up hills on the way to weekends in the Catskills or Rockaway Beach. Sometimes, Sam had initiated a good-natured shoving match in a bid to win the whole headset for herself, along with the chance to hear Peter in stereo. Not often, though, because their old man's patience had a habit of getting dangerously thin on long car trips, and they'd learned through hard experience that his threat to chuck "that fucking Walkman gadget" out the window if they didn't cut that shit out wasn't an idle one. Sam's first Walkman had met its maker on the unyielding shoulder of an interstate exit ramp on the outskirts of Beaverkill, catapulted from the driver's side window by his father's beefy fist. It had shattered like a hand grenade, shards of plastic and the slick innards of Peter Gabriel bouncing and rolling over the blurry asphalt like deadly, modern shrapnel, the vengeance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on a technological scale. He'd been fascinated in spite of his indignation at the loss of his favorite tape. Sam had been furious.
"Shoulda done like I told you and cut it out," was all their old man had said when Sam had protested her tape player's fate. Sam had sulked all the way to the family timeshare, slouched in the backseat with her skinny arms folded beneath her blossoming breasts. Dad had hummed Beach Boys tunes under his breath and drummed his thick fingers on the steering wheel.
Sam's Walkman hadn't been replaced until that Christmas, when Santa's little helper had upgraded it to a Discman and left it underneath the tree, wrapped with a Peter Gabriel CD. His folks had sworn they had nothing to do with it, but Sam had thrown her arms around their father's neck and spent the afternoon belting out "Red Rain" in her uneven contralto. When Don had asked to borrow the Discman for the subway ride to work, she'd smirked and flipped him the bird. Santa's little helper had gone to work in silence the next morning, ears protected from the December chill by a pair of secondhand earmuffs handed down from an older cousin.
He hadn't gotten a Gabriel CD to call his own until two years later, when he'd left home for the academy and traded his cramped but cozy boyhood bedroom for an equally cramped and decidedly uninviting room in the academy dormitories. That small, silver disc had been a comforting taste of home during the grueling rigors of his training, a reassuring touchstone whenever the weight of his father's gilded, golden boy legacy had threatened to smother him and drive him to the safer and secretly coveted occupation of chef. Peter had kept his nose to the grindstone and his shoulders in the harness, and he'd played "Red Rain" until the melody and lyrics had embedded themselves in his brain, been matched to his biorhythms and become a second heartbeat. On his graduation from the academy, "Red Rain" had been his "Pomp and Circumstance", an internal soundtrack that had carried him through the solemn ceremony on a wave of euphoria.
That's what I'm doin' this for, who I'm doin' this for, he'd thought as he'd stood at parade rest in his dress blues, gloved hands clasped loosely behind his back and his newly-affixed badge gleaming proudly on his chest. The song had reverberated inside his head as the commandant and the commissioner had droned endlessly on in a contest to see who could deliver the dullest speech. He'd kept his face to the front, but his eyes had been busily scanning the crowd in search of his family, his people, with whom he shared this busy, grotty, dirty, wonderful patch of earth.
It hadn't been hard to spot them. His father was a legend, after all, and what good was being a legend if you couldn't trade on it to get good seats to see your son make the ceremonial march to join the thin, blue line? They'd been in the middle of the third row of white, wooden seats, his father in his own dress blues and his mother in her church best, a camera clutched in blue-veined hands that had just begun to show the dark stains that would kill her two years later, the calling-card bruises of lymphatic cancer. But they'd been just bruises then, an inevitable consequence of aging, and her hands had been steady enough to snap more photos of him than he could count, steady enough to reverently place ninety percent of those snapshots into albums she'd cherished until she died. She'd been buried with one of those albums, in fact, had gone to the bosom of the earth with pictures of him cradled to her still, cold breast. His father had insisted on it.
Sam had been there, too, and it was Sam he'd really been looking for. There'd been no doubt his parents would attend; they'd had bells on for weeks, and his mother had been down the beauty salon three times that week in preparation, fussing over her nails and nonexistent hairs on her upper lip. But Sam had been seventeen going on eighteen, and the traditions of the job had held no magic for her. She'd been more interested in fast cars and loud music and shady guys in oiled bomber jackets. Her world had revolved around dates and gossip and whose voice was on the other end of the phone line, not spit-polished shoes and Glocks and a five-pointed star on her chest. He'd been worried that she wouldn't come, that she'd blow off the ceremony in favor of running with her girlfriends in Queens, sitting on the hood of a muscle car with the music blaring loudly enough to made the hood thrum with the power of a phantom engine. Maybe she'd sit on the hood in the shorts that Dad called trashy and that Ma called scandalous, offering passing badboy wannabes a glimpse of seventh heaven. But she'd been there, a young willow tree in the shadow of the brass-buttoned oak of their old man, dressed in her best and offering him a glimpse of the beautiful young woman she would soon become, that she'd been becoming that spring of '97.
He'd stood straighter for her, prouder. He'd wanted to be a good example for her. She'd been set to graduate high school a few weeks from then, to engage in some pomp and circumstance of her own and cross a cheap, wooden stage in a plum, satin cap and gown with a rolled diploma in her hand. She'd worked hard and earned that walk and the trip to art school that had waited for her at the end of it, and he'd wanted to show her how good she could have it if she just kept reaching for the stars. He'd wanted to inspire her to chase her dreams, even if they weren't the dreams their folks had dreamed for her when she'd been too young to dream for herself.
Eleven years on, and he's standing in the hallway of a flophouse, listening to his baby sister lay herself open to a group of strangers carrying their demons in their purses and hip pockets, and wondering if the proudest day of his life wasn't the day he'd knocked her from the mountaintop he'd meant to help her reach. The thought is a knifepoint in the center of his chest, and with every breath, it twists and burrows toward his heart. He blinks and swallows, and the saliva catches in his throat, stopped by a hot, glowing coal of guilt and shame.
He'd felt ten feet tall and bulletproof that day on the green, arrayed before the city as the embodiment of its courage and decency, white-gloved and resplendent and secure in the conviction that he could save the world armed with nothing but a service pistol, a baton, and a pair of handcuffs. His father had clapped him on the shoulder and shaken his hand and called him "Officer Flack" with such obvious pride that it had been all he could do to keep his eyes dry. His balls had been in the vicinity of his pounding heart, and both had been high and tight behind the badge. He'd grown hair on his balls at twelve, but his manhood had come to him on a handshake and a five-pointed star of copper and tin.
His mother had wept with joy and hugged him tightly, as though to reattach the apron strings the points of his newly-acquired star had so neatly and finally severed. Sam had cried and hugged him, too, though her tears had been more sedate and her embrace less frantic. At the time, he'd attributed her moist eyes and muted enthusiasm to adolescent hauteur and her desire to maintain her carefully cultivated air of world-weary disinterest in familial affairs. Now he's beginning to suspect that she'd wept, not for joy, but for sorrow. While their parents had celebrated his crowning achievement, Sam had quietly mourned his loss. He had gone where she couldn't follow, had crossed to the other side of the blue divide, and he'd done it without so much as a farewell or a backward glance.
And he'd been too giddy, too stupid, to see it. Oh, but he sees it now, sees it with a clarity that would be perfect were he looking into any other mirror but this one, and it burns, burns like acid and lye and the bits of shrapnel that Dr. Singh had so painstakingly plucked from his gaping belly two long summers ago. He should've seen it long ago, long before it came to this squalid flophouse light years away from the end of the rainbow. A voice in his head demands to know why he didn't, and the good cop in him wants to answer, fumbles for one in the clutter of his stunned mind, but the man in him only shrugs and drops his head in defeat.
Once, long ago, he'd apologized to Stella for being a bit thick. It'd been funny at the time, a shared joke between friends, but from where he's standing, there's nothing funny about it now. It's stupid and dangerous and as lethal as the bullets he dodges every day. He stands in the hallway with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his overcoat like stones and curses the thickness of his head and the unforgivable blindness of his heart. He wonders when the blindness began.
He's tempted to say it began that afternoon on the academy grounds, that the burnish on his badge dazzled him with its brightness and seared itself so deeply into the fabric of his mind that he could see nothing else, but he knows that's not true. It's a comforting, tidy lie, one fashioned by desperation and a hot, needling guilt. He's tempted to accept it anyway, to knead and tease and worry it in his aching, sweaty hands until it's close enough to the truth to soothe his raw, tender conscience, but he doesn't. That's what skels and scumbags do, and Sam deserves better.
The blindness might've reached its zenith on his graduation day, but its origins run through deeper waters. It'd begun far earlier, years before he'd pulled on cotton gloves and a wool uniform cap with a leather brim and marched across the academy grounds in perfect lockstep with hundreds of other fresh-faced graduates with adrenaline in their mouths like liquid ozone and their balls lodged painfully in their puffed-out chests. Its shadow had been spreading over his vision since junior high, when the divisions of gender and temperament had begun to manifest themselves.
He and Sam had been two parts of an indivisible whole once open a time. He'd been the dutiful and protective older brother, and she'd been the devoted and endlessly fascinated younger sister, all pigtails and Barbie dolls. He was three years older, a rambunctious kid with scabby knees and a dirty face, and she'd worshipped him. When they were little, she'd followed him everywhere, a tiny, sticky-faced shadow with lollipop-stained fingers who'd demanded to go wherever he went and to do whatever he did. If their mother gave him a quarter to ride the carousel in Pitkin Park, then Sam wanted one, too, and two quarters were even better. If he clambered to the top of the monkey bars to stand astride them, King Kong at the top of the Empire State Building, she climbed them, too, candy-sticky fingers coated with playground dirt and soot. Even then, Sam had never been content to be the damsel in distress.
The absolute adoration hadn't lasted for either of them. He'd graduated from Scooby Doo to G.I. Joe and the Transformers(though a round or three of Scooby is still his mental comfort food when the cold grey of winter has settled into his bones and browned his thoughts like the scarce leaves that cling to tree branches like wet and sloughing skin), and Sam had traded in her affinity for the monkey bars in favor of Barbies and bows and toy cosmetic kits. He can still remember her lording around the small living room of their Yonkers apartment one Christmas morning with a pink, plastic cosmetics case from their mother. It had been filled with light rouges and clear, flavored lipglosses. She'd spent hours in front of the mirror in their parents' bedroom, smacking her lips together to spread the flavored gel. God knows she'd probably eaten as much as she'd worn.
He'd gotten his first lacrosse stick that Christmas, and he'd booked it down the street to his best friend's house to show it off. He and a group of other neighborhood boys had flaunted their athletic prowess in various pick-up games of basketball and street hockey until dark, and he'd come home with the unmistakable smell of teenage boy rising from his clothes like smoke. Sam had been holed up in her room by then, fashioning the strange and unknowable lives of girls for her new Barbies, who smiled at her with their empty faces and smelled of Cherry Berry lipgloss. He'd shaken the snow from his clothes and stumped into the kitchen for a bowl of hot tomato soup, and it wasn't until he was thawing beneath the steady, pulsing fingers of the shower that he'd realized that he and Sam hadn't spent a single hour together. She'd vanished into her world, and he'd disappeared into his, and never the twain had met.
The ties that bind had begun to fray that year, Clothos' tightly-woven threads stretched by the persistent tug of Kronos' greedy fingers. He'd turned twelve that January, and Prometheus' fire had kindled in his belly and awakened in him the heady knowledge of the differences between boys and girls. His voice had cracked and deepened, broken and tempered by the enormity of his epiphany. Coarse hairs had made their appearance on his balls and around his restless cock, which had begun to twitch and shiver in the grips of an endless fever, and he'd begun to awaken in the night to a sticky, shameful wetness on his belly that had embarrassed and excited him. He'd discovered the clandestine joy of masturbation that February, had tugged himself to frantic, terrifying completion in the shower before bed, and the world had shifted beneath his spasming, inexpert fingers. The scales had fallen from his eyes, and childhood had swirled down the drain in a rush of soap and spent seed.
The complexion and texture of the world had changed. The egalitarianism and asexual fraternity of boyhood had dissolved in a maelstrom of hormones and burgeoning desires. Girls, previously little more than boys with long hair and finer features, had suddenly become exotic enigmas, creatures of lithe limbs and sleek curves that had tantalized him, made him ache and burn with the need to discover the secrets beneath their clothes. He and the neighborhood boys had still played pick-up games in Pitkin Park, but the heretofore friendly games had been fraught with an inexplicable tension that had tightened his belly with a dry-mouthed anticipation that intensified whenever gaggles of girls from the junior and senior high schools had passed, books clutched to their budding or well-developed breasts as though to shield them from avid, unwanted gazes. Elbows and shoulders had grown sharper, become lances and cudgels with which to batter the competition, and when the games were finished and the scrapes and bruises counted, the contented languor of sport had been accompanied by a nagging, heavy restlessness inside his shorts, a sense of undefined want that had settled beneath skin with the proprietary implacability of a remote itch beyond the reach of quelling nails.
Sometimes, there'd been no game, just a parliament of gangle-limbed boys watching the passing girls with magpie interest, attracted by the curve of a hip or the swell of a breast or the gloss of lipsticked lips. They'd watched and coveted, their desire unfocused and feverish even as the images it had conjured had grown sharp and piquant. He'd often perched on the hood of a parked car, his hockey stick or lacrosse net between his legs like a codpiece, and watched the girls sashay past. Sometimes, they'd smiled at him, and the blood had rushed to his cheeks and balls and turned his tongue to rubber in his mouth. Wonder had made him stupid and mute, and he could only wave at them or drop his gaze until they'd passed and taken their power with them.
Once he'd discovered the cult of woman, he'd had time for little else, certainly not for Sam, who'd been nothing but a child, a little girl devoid of curves or voluptuous swells, a figure of dull planes and uneventful straight lines that terminated in blocky feet and too-large hands on the bony stems of her wrists. She'd resembled a living doll with her caked-on lipgloss and obsession with bubble-gum pink nail polish, a thrift store mannequin with splashes of color on fingers and toes. She was his sister, yes, and therefore a girl, but she'd also been oddly asexual, not at all like the anonymous, remote creatures that had so stirred his blood. Familiarity had bred indifferent contempt.
And yet… The familiarity hadn't been absolute; the veneer of asexuality had grown thin with the passage of time, and sometimes he'd caught glimpses of her as she would someday be-a flash of insight trapped in a mirror along with the unexpected and heretofore unnoticed shapeliness of her calf, an unwelcome epiphany illuminated by the sunlight that had found its way through the kitchen window in defiance of the concrete jungle that had sweltered and loomed around the family apartment. Once, when he was fifteen and Sam twelve, they'd been wrestling over the remote, and his batting, grasping hand had accidentally grazed her budding chest. He'd drawn back as though scalded, and his hand had tingled where they'd touched. He'd curled the offending hand into a fist and conceded the battle, his face hot and his heart thundering erratically inside his chest.
"G'on, watch your stupid show," he'd growled, and tucked his clenched fist against his thigh to hide its trembling. Sam had crowed in triumph and stuck her tongue out at him, oblivious to his discomfiture. She'd changed the channel to some godforsaken teen drama and cranked the volume until the television's speakers had buzzed and crackled with alien, electronic voices. He'd known he should tell her to turn it the fuck down before she blew the speakers-Dad would have-but he'd been too stunned by what had happened, too preoccupied by the unwelcome message written on the skin of his fingers. So, he'd settled for tossing a throw pillow at her head in wordless rebuke. She'd casually flipped him the bird, her pink-nailed middle finger an absurdly cheerful flamingo poised above the blunt, white stumps of her knuckles, and he'd stumped upstairs to wash his hands and brush the sour taste from his mouth.
It had been a hard home truth, knowing that his little sister wasn't so little, that beneath her unrevealing child's clothing, she was undergoing a startling metamorphosis and becoming an object of desire. Thanks to the stash of Playboy and Hustler magazines that their father had kept in a wilted cardboard box in the basement, he'd seen what the baggy sweaters and strategically placed schoolbooks had hidden, seen bare breasts and the soft, curly thatch of hair between coquettishly parted legs. These visions had terrified him and filled him with a delicious, predatory ache by turns, and the ache-a delirious, cramping hunger that had sunk its teeth into the tender, overheated flesh of his guts and groin-had often sent him scurrying into the bathroom and the steamy, soapy-fingered sanctuary of the shower.
The hunger had been relentless, a primal, exhilarating forced that had often manifested itself at the most inopportune moments and left him sweaty and unsettled inside his skin while the bulge in his pants had threatened to expose his decidedly unholy train of thought to the harridan spinster nuns who'd presided over his education, rulers and pointers clutched in their blue-veined fists like weapons of war and crosses over their hearts like fragments of body armor. Much as he'd delighted in the hunger for himself, the idea that his baby sister could inspire it in others had appalled him. That the chubby toddler who'd once made mud pies with the contents of her diaper could be the object of some guy's jerkoff fantasy was a possibility he'd been unable to countenance. How could he when he'd known exactly the sordid stuff of those fantasies, had indulged in more than a few under the abetting cover of darkness, teeth gritted against the cry that had tickled his throat like a teasing finger? Not of his sister-Jesus Christ, he'd been a kid, not some pud-pulling pervert-but of the checkout girl at his favorite deli or the big-breasted junior who sat at the table opposite his in the cafeteria or a faceless dream girl of his own creation. He'd fantasized about everyone else's sister, but had never once thought that anyone would dream of his. His sister had been the antithesis of sex appeal, a child of snakes and snails and puppy dogs' tails in a body much too big and ungainly for her, and he'd wanted her to stay that way forever, a grinning little girl protected from the secret, midnight lives of boys.
But what he'd wanted hadn't mattered in the face of the truth underneath her shirt. She'd gone right on growing up. The sweaters had filled out and their mother had begun to buy enough tampons and maxi pads for two, and because he couldn't stop it, he'd avoided it and retreated to the safety of the familiar. He'd lost himself in sports and neighborhood friendships and the pursuit of other brothers' sisters, and Sam had receded to a familiar but distant speck on the periphery pf his vision. As long as he'd kept her at a distance, she'd still resembled the little girl he remembered, the child he'd needed her to be. It'd been easier for him that way, and he'd thought it'd been easier for her, too.
But maybe it hadn't been.
No, he thinks as he stands outside this godforsaken green door(and green is the color of sickness and of death, he thinks, or was until the hospitals went to white linoleum and wood-surfaced doors; hell, good old Trinity Memorial is glass in places. Green is the color of disease, and that's still true, he figures, because his sister and the rest of these terribly sick people are slumped and hunkered behind this warped, green fucking door, this green door left cracked to let a wisp of hope inside, or to let the poison seep out onto the hallway and into the bare floorboards of this tenement. Maybe it's the only traces of themselves they'll ever leave. Sam certainly thinks she's invisible, and maybe she is, for all he's seen of her over the years since they'd gone their separate ways, he by choice, and she compelled by the servitude of youth to remain behind for another three years.) No, there's no maybe about it.
A plaintive voice in his head whispers that it isn't his fault, this estrangement. He'd simply grown up, that was all, grown up and made his own life. It's nothing less than the way things are: you grow up and move out, and the orbit of family widens, though it never breaks. He wasn't Peter Pan, and he couldn't stop time and live forever in Never Neverland. He hadn't left Sam for spite, but for necessity, and if the roles had been reversed, she would've done the same.
Maybe you had no choice but to go, but you sure as shit had a choice on how far to go, points out a voice that's uncomfortably close to Gavin Moran, his second father and stationhouse rabbi. You could'a kept in touch more than you did once you ditched the apron strings, but you were a spit-and-polish cadet, obsessed with rules and regulations and desperate to live up to the impossible standards set by your old man, to exceed 'em where you could. You wanted to make him proud, yeah, but there was a small, shameful part of you that wanted to do better just so you could rub his nose in it a little, show him that he wasn't the only goddamn superhero on the block.
Sam was getting to be a liability even then, a hellion full of piss and vinegar who flipped off the cruisers as they glided by and who learned to hurl things at the windshields long before she graduated to beer bottles. A few weeks into your trainin', your dad got called to the one-nine because Sam and her buddies had been caught throwing milkshakes and sodas at the patrol cars. The commander let it go as a favor to a fellow officer, but less than a week later, she gets hauled in again, this time for liftin' a couple' Twix bars from a mom an' pop. The CO wasn't gonna let it go that time. A PD princess raisin' a little hell was one thing, but shopliftin' was harder to overlook. Your Pop managed to smooth it over with the store owner by makin' Sam apologize and payin' him twenty bucks in restitution, which was sixteen more than she owed. You've rarely seen your old man so pissed and embarrassed. Sam got grounded for three months, and you suspected, though she's never admitted it, that she got a spankin' for the first time in years on top of it.
None of it seemed to do any good. The more your Pop tried to rein her in, the harder Sam fought. She started cuttin' school, and her grades sank. Her favorite after-school activity was detention, and when your father wasn't runnin' interference at various precincts, your ma was getting on a first-name basis with the school principal. You called home twice a week and visited twice a month, and there wasn't a conversation that went by that didn't touch on Sam and her latest escapade. Your parents were at their wits' end, and you couldn't blame 'em. Sam had always been a wild child, as stubborn and strong-willed as the parents that'd created and raised her and the brother that had preceded her, and she'd discovered rebellion along with the opposite sex, but she'd never been stupidly reckless. And she'd never disrespected the PD. She'd come up in a house in the shadow of the badge and had known how dangerous it could be. You couldn't imagine that she'd piss on the institution your old man had served so well and at such cost. The institution you would one day serve. How could she flip off uniforms or pelt patrol cars when you were months away from risking your life on a daily basis in that same uniform?
Sam went on raisin' hell, and her exploits made the rounds at the academy. Your father was a legend, and the Flack name was held in reverence by many of the instructors. Zeus in the blue pantheon. They clucked and shook their heads in disbelief and speculated amongst themselves as to how such a celebrated cop and all-around solid guy could turn out such a disappointin' kid.
Worse yet, they started wonderin' 'bout you, wonderin' if maybe you weren't cut from the same substandard cloth, just another badge baby lookin' to coast on his father's laurels. They rode you hard, peppered you with the hardest questions during lectures and scrutinized every slip and wrong answer. Workouts and defense and restraint training were microcosmic hells. You got paired up with the biggest, meanest motherfuckers in the class and got the shit kicked out of you on a regular basis. You were a walkin' bruise for weeks on end, and more than once, you were treated to an "accidental" kick in the jewels that left you tryin' not to puke your cafeteria lunch all over the exercise mat. If they weren't kickin' you in the nuts, they were runnin' you until you were rubber-legged and nauseated, staggerin' to your dorm room and prayin' you could make it to semi-privacy of your room before your legs cramped and you wound up writhin' on the floor, a tweaker in the throes of a bad acid trip. Most nights, you studied with a book in one hand, a bag of ice in the other, and Ben-Gay smeared over your knees and calves in a greasy, pungent sheen.
It wasn't just the instructors who rode you about her, either. Gossip thrives within the walls of the academy, lichen on damp stone. Cops have more in common with the coffee klatches of elderly New York pensioners than they'd care to admit, and they're constantly chewing the fat in the locker room or shooting the shit in the patrol cars to pass the time. The cadets did most of their off-the-record bullshitting in the cafeteria over trays of limp salad greens and unidentified lumps of congealing, grey meat or in the classrooms before the instructors arrived to distract them with mind-boggling lists of departmental codes and a lexicon of cop talk written in chalk dust and marker. They might not'a been familiar with the chapter and verse of your old man's legacy, but they knew he was a big shit, and they knew you were supposed to be a chip off the old block, so they were only too eager to needle you about your wayward sister.
You laughed it off as best you could because you understood that getting pissed off would just be blood in the water, but deep down, you resented Sam for making your training that much harder. It wasn't bad enough you had to compete with the legend of the great Don Flack, Sr. Now you had to contend with the embarrassing exploits of your baby sister, who was earning her street cred stripes by chucking soda bottles at patrol cars and telling her new circle of friends that she loved the taste of a good BLT. You were caught between an impossible standard on one side and a sterlin' example of how not to do it on the other, and sometimes the pressure of livin' between the two made it hard to breathe.
Every black mark against Sam was another hurdle you had to clear. Good was suddenly not good enough. You had to be excellent, head and shoulders above the rest. You memorized the penal code until the afterimages of the text danced in front of your eyes like sunspots and polished your boots until your fingers reeked of bootblack. You practiced self-defense techniques until your already exhausted body threatened mutiny. You practiced with your roommate until he cried uncle, and when he'd had enough, you practiced in front of a full-length mirror, a crazed tai chi fanatic dancing with himself to the strains of The Pogues. And "Red Rain", of course, always "Red Rain", humming in your ears like a message from home.
There were times when you thought you weren't going to make it. You'd lie in bed with your legs cramping and your solar plexus a bruise that pulsated and throbbed with every indrawn breath and ask yourself what you thought you were doin'. You might not'a been some Ivy League genius, but you could'a gotten into SUNY, or maybe Rutgers. You could'a majored in Business or Finance or gotten a degree in English with your love of readin'. You could'a taught or started a caterin' business. Hell, you could'a gone to culinary school. You'd thought about it for a while when you were younger, before you got bitten hard by the blue flu. You could'a been doin' anything else, and some of it would'a paid better than your impending enlistment to the thin, blue line.
And then you'd think of your old man and the pride in his eyes whenever he saw you amblin' 'round the house in your academy sweats during a weekend visit, the meaty thump of his hand on your sore shoulders as he patted you on the back, the squeeze of his hand on your nape as he urged you to keep at it. You thought of the way he'd fire a question about police procedure at you as you shuffled downstairs for breakfast on Saturday mornin' or emerged from the shower, toweling the moisture from your damp hair.
You thought of your mother. She hadn't approved of your decision to join the academy, exactly; in fact, she'd quietly nudged you in the safer direction of culinary school in the hopes of keepin' her baby boy outta the devil's way, but she'd understood it, and once you'd made up your mind to take the more dangerous road, she'd squared shoulders that had already carried your father's heart and ambitions and carried yours, too. She was afraid, but she was rootin' for you, and you couldn't stand the thought of lettin' her down just because the road to bein' a manmade superhero had proven harder than you thought it would. You would rather die than disappoint her with your weakness. You wanted to show her she'd raised a son worthy of the eighteen years plus nine months she'd spent puttin' you together and the name your father had given you with a final, erratic thrust of his hips.
You thought of the people on the street, the ones you'd one day serve and protect. Right now, they smirked at you as you passed 'em on the street in your cadet uniform. You were nothin' but a punk kid playin' dress up to them, a wannabe with more enthusiasm than experience and more balls than brains. But you knew that come graduation day, they'd see you as somethin' else. The trainin' wheels would come off, and you'd be a cop, that guy, the unseen hero they ridiculed until it was their turn to cry out in the night. Some of the people would mock you, call you a doughnut-scarfin', coffee-swillin' prick who pulled his pud on the city dime and banged hookers in the property room in exchange for a walk on a solicitation charge. Some people-the dirtbags, drug pushers, baby rapers, wifebeaters, and killers-would fear you, and some of those would hunt you, blow out your brains and call it sport or chalk it up to the high cost of doin' business on the streets.
And some people would see you and number you among God's angels. The lost and downtrodden, the wayward and the wounded, all of them would look to you to make things right, to lift their heavy crosses from their shoulders, or at least make them a little easier to bear. They'd look at you like they looked at your father, as though you held the powers of justice in your hands, stowed them alongside your service pistol inside your holster or tucked them behind your badge. You'd seen that look often as a kid, when you'd gotten to missin' your old man and gone to see him at the stationhouse, where you'd perch on the edge of his desk, feet danglin' bonelessly above the scuffed floor, or sit listlessly in the vomit-green chairs of the break room, doodlin' on a legal pad with a dry Bic and waitin' to steal precious scraps of his attention from the desperate, sad eyes of battered hookers or the haunted, feverish gazes of mothers who'd turned their backs on little Johnny just long enough for the living darkness of the city to rise from the pavement like oily smoke and make him disappear forever. They were scarce, the scraps you managed to wrest from the mouth of human need. The pull of that look was too damn strong.
It was hope you saw in their faces, naked and savage in its brilliance, and it stirred in you a wide-eyed awe that made your heart flutter against your ribcage. That's the way they look at Superman, you'd think as you watched your father sifting through the wreckage of a human life with big, nicotine-stained hands that had suddenly become delicate and gentle. That's the way they look at Superman right after he saves the subway car from goin' off the rails.
Sometimes, it hurt to look at their faces because the hope in them simultaneously exposed and transformed them. It exposed the shadows of old bruises that had receded and submerged their lingering poison beneath the skin and illuminated the minute hairline fractures left behind by life's hardships. The light of hope was a roadmap to all that was unfair and unkind in the world, and it showed you truths no ten-year-old should see, but it also made those careworn faces beautiful, almost lovely. A twenty-five-year-old, smack-addled hooker would look at your old man with a Kleenex wadded in one shakin' hand and tears streamin' down her swollen face, and when the light hit her face just right, you'd catch a glimpse of a seventeen-year-old girl from Omaha who'd come here with big dreams of the bright lights of Broadway and had found only a sad handful of off-off-off-Broadway plays that nobody saw and a human leech in a bad suit who'd promised her the moon in exchange for a few small favors. You'd see them as they'd once been a lifetime ago, before anger and fists had worn them down. Hope was a gift, medicine for the soul that burned away the years of sorrow and bitter disappointment and let them believe, if only for a moment, that everything would be all right. Hope burned brightly and briefly in their haggard, tortured faces, and too often, it was extinguished by the cold, brutal fist of tough-shit reality, but it was beautiful while it lasted, and sittin' in a break room that smelled of salami and stale coffee with a crummy, dyin' Bic in your hand, you envied your old man. Envied and worshipped him.
That's what made you want to follow in his footsteps. You wanted that power for yourself, coveted it with a fervor that might'a tipped to dangerous obsession if you'd been wired differently. You wanted to bring hope to the broken and put them back together again so that they had a fighting chance at something better. From where you were sittin' a ten years old, it didn't seem so hard; your old man dispensed hope with a pat of his beefy hand and a few words in his gruff, smoke-roughened voice, and it never occurred to you that each pat of his hand or promise spoken over his desk blotter cost him a piece of himself, that the hope that buoyed them weighed him down with its silent obligation. Hope was light, but the promises that gave it were heavy, pressing stones tucked against your heart that often had a habit of rubbin' it raw when you least expected it.
Those lessons were for later, after the vivid ink of your childhood comic book collection had run to grey and left only blurry images of absolute right and absolute wrong behind. For adulthood and all its bitter heartache. Even if you'd had an inkling of how hard it would be back then, it wouldn't have stopped you because you still believed in superheroes. You were convinced that your old man was a Clark Kent who hid his true identity behind his father-face that sported grey at the temples, and who saved the world every day dressed in a suit and cheap sport coat. And since he was Superman, you were gonna be Superboy and save the world right behind him.
But mostly, you thought of Sam. She'd looked up to you when she was little, had toddled right behind you on her sturdy toddler's legs across the playgrounds and through the Queens Arboretum. You'd both loved that place as kids. You loved to pretend you were Indiana Jones on the last Last Crusade. You'd wear one of your old man's fishin' hats and use old shoelaces for a whip, and you'd run amok through the hedge maze, killin' cobras and punchin' out Nazi treasure hunters, a hero in your own mind, and no matter how outlandish your tales or improbable your feats, Sam always believed you. And she was always right behind you.
You'd grown apart as you'd grown up, but you thought that traces of her old faith remained. Bonds of blood were absolute, your father often said, forged by the shared experience of family, and while you questioned a lot of your old man's wisdom, you never questioned that because you carried the truth of it in your bones. Much as you'd fought with your old man durin' the hard, hot years of your comin' of age and strained against the apron strings your ma had so lovin'ly tied around your throat like a cotton umbilical cord, you knew you were your father's son and your mother's pride and joy, and you took comfort in that. A family had its own secret heart, one that only those bound by blood could hear. A family's heart bred its own magic, and that magic never died, no matter how far apart the people in it grew. So you knew that Sam could still hear you even if she wasn't listenin', could still feel the familiar pull of family magic in her veins no matter how desperately she was tryin' to sever the ties that bound. Hell, you still know that now, or else you wouldn't have turned up on her doorstep with "Red Rain" in your hand like the keys to a time machine. She might not have answered the door, but you know she heard you because she's in that dirty little room with the green door, pourin' out her heart to a roomful of strangers with whiskey on her breath and bitterness and regret on her teeth and gums like plaque.
You thought of Sam, and you stayed despite your achin' ribs and knees and bruised soles because you wanted to be her hero before you were anyone else's. You wanted to show her what was possible for her if she just stuck to her guns and followed her dreams. She didn't have to waste her time hangin' out on street corners with losers and future skels. She could drop them like so many bad pennies under her feet and be whatever she wanted to be. She'd never wanted to be a cop-her contempt for the job had started long before the fires of teenage rebellion had heated the blood in her veins, and you'd shared that hatred, too, once upon a time, when the tempestuous storms of youth had raged and blotted out the sun-but she loved art, loved the smell of graphite shavings and delighted in the fine grit of charcoal on her fingers. She imagined herself the next Grandma Moses or Andy Warhol or Pablo Picasso, with pictures from the canvas of her mind transplanted to the galleries of Soho or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and because you were her older brother, you wanted to stand with your classmates from the academy and shout that it was all possible if she just set her goal and followed you up the mountain. You thought that was your last, best gift to her as her brother, to be a living example to whom she could turn when life got hard in the center and rough around the edges. You thought that was what big brothers did, and you wanted to do it as well as you'd done everything else.
He could laugh now if it weren't for the hot, throbbing constriction in his throat, the one that stings and needles and makes it hard to breathe. Turns out the joke is on him. He's spent the past eleven years patting himself on the back for a job well done, so sure that doing right by the job was doing right by Sam, and all the while, Sam's been smothering under the weight of his success and cursing his name with the breath she has left. He isn't her goddamn hero, after all, and probably never has been. He's been her burden instead, an albatross of unreasonable expectation strung so tightly around her neck that no amount of tugging and clawing at the ties that bind her to him can cast him off. While he'd thought he was leading by example, she'd sought comfort from the burning, poisonous kiss of a liquor bottle, its cool glass beneath her fingers as soothing and reassuring as the clack of rosary beads in the dark silence of a church. He's fancied himself her guardian angel, but as far as she's concerned, he's a demon to be driven out with another sip of Beam or Four Roses.
His mouth floods with a sour, oddly medicinal tang, and he remembers the nasogastric tube he'd woken up with in the hospital after Lessing had lost his mind and blown his guts wide open with a little help from a goddamn copy machine. It had been jammed down his throat like a flaccid, rubber cock, and he'd gagged against the intrusion, mending stomach heaving and spasming in revolt. The bile that had risen to coat his sandpaper tongue had tasted like this, rubbing alcohol and latex gloves. The thought makes his leaden stomach roll dangerously, and he closes his eyes and breathes deeply through his nose. If he pukes out here, someone will come to investigate, and he's too naked to face Sam now. He rocks back on his heels and retreats to the center of the hallway, where it's easier to breathe. He doesn't know why; the air is just as thick with dust and the damp, fetid odor of mildew and old plaster. Maybe it's because he's no longer so close to an open wound.
Not rubbing alcohol and latex. He swallows against the taste and scours his teeth with his tongue. Not that pure. Nope. This is a deeper bitterness, a whiskey bitterness. This is what Sam's mouth tastes like every morning when she wakes up and every night when she goes to sleep or passes out in some squalid nightclub bathroom with her face over a filthy toilet. Rubbing alcohol and latex would be a blessing, unless, of course, she's picklin' her liver with that, too. Legend has it that Kitty Dukakis tipped back the nail polish remover when the booze ran dry. Any port in the storm, I guess. This is fire water and ash, the incense of an exorcism performed one sip at a time.
I'm the family screw-up. Every family has a black sheep. In mine, I guess it's me. The words echo inside his head and rise in his throat like bile, and he knows they could suffocate him if they chose, could slither past him lips and lodge in his throat like gristle or well up from his belly in a noxious tide and plug his esophagus with a hot, sour clot of guolt and revelation come too late. His head swims with them, and when he closes his eyes to avert another dizzying wave of vertigo, they're emblazoned in the darkness behind his eyelids like the diseased neon proclamations of flophouse motels. They even blink and flicker in time to his pounding heart, and there's a persistent, insectile buzz at the far edge of his hearing, the snap and hiss of electric voices in the night.
Out, insists a frantic voice inside his muddled head, right now. If you don't get out now, you'll never leave.
He's sure he won't be able to obey the imperative, sure that Sam's words have robbed him of the ability to flee, that if he tries, he'll simply sink to the filthy floor, boneless and hypotonic until she comes into the hallway and discovers him there, a Pinocchio in reverse who's been turned into a wooden puppet as punishment for his folly. He's also sure that only Sam will be able to break the curse. He'll stay that way, stiff-legged and dead-eyed, until she releases him with the touch of her hand or the magic words to break the spell. And if Sam chooses not to utter them, to hold them in her heart until her anger is spent, then he will be Pinocchio forever.
Maybe Pop will slip me into Sam's casket when she drinks herself to death, her very own Don dolly to escort her to heaven and keep the demons at bay.
And then he's lurching down the corridor, making a desperate beeline for the thin strip of light thrown by the streetlight just outside the front entrance. If he doesn't reach that thin, flaccid patch of light, he will drown here, smothered by guilt and dust and the rotten, dead-rose stench of ruined lives. Sam's words follow him as he stumbles and staggers toward his sickly, arc-sodium savior, coil, sharp-nailed, pleading fingers around his arms and snatch and claw at the fabric of his coat and pants. His calf sizzles and burns with sudden heat. That one got me, he thinks. They're nipping at my heels, and their teeth are sharp and potent.
Ba-ba, black sheep, have you any wool? he thinks crazily as his feet blunder nervelessly over the threadbare carpet and pound the rotten wood beneath, telegraphing his intrusion with every thundering step. He holds his breath and waits for the door to fly open and disgorge Sam, who will pursue him like an avenging angel, eyes alight with righteous fury and raw with yet another disappointment from her big brother. Then, before he can stop it, a rancid, cynical voice answers. Yes, sir, yes, sir, one-fifth full.
His breath leaves him in a rush. It's almost a sob, and he's so intent on curling his numb, trembling hands around the cold solidity of the door handle that beckons him that he nearly misses the three steps of the buiding's tiny, miserable landing. His feet find nothing but air, and for an instant, he's suspended in defiance of gravity, Superman frozen in mid-flight by a Kryponite dart. Then, self-preservation overrides his bewilderment, and he scrabbles for the bannister with clawed fingers. The railing is smooth beneath his fingers, oiled by years of anonymous hands. He has time to think that his sister's hands have touched it, too, perhaps in the very spot upon which his nails now dance. Then his fingers find purchase, and he pulls himself upright. The center of the world settles into its rightful place in the soles of his feet, sinks into the hypersensitive flesh like nails, and he grimaces. He clings to the banister and hiccoughs and pants until the newly-restored sense of equilibrium floods his limbs like a shot of Demerol, and then he releases his sweaty grip on the railing and totters through the door and onto the street.
The autumn wind is crisp and cool on his overheated face, and he closes his eyes in mute gratitude and gulps it like water. It burns his throat and stings his cheeks, and it feels so good. He tilts his face skyward and lets the air wash away the grime and despair trapped imside the building like asbestos. He wishes it could wash away the guilt, but Sam's awful declaration clings to his clothes and skin with the quiet tenacity of spidersilk. He doubts even soap could scour him clean. He suspects he'll carry it with him for the rest of his days, a subtle stink beneath the kinder smells of his aftershave and cologne. Most people won't smell it, he supposes, preoccupied as they are with the quiet putrefaction of their own failures; even his friends will miss it, like as not, turned aside by the gaudier reek of decomposition and blood spatter. He'll smell it, though, bitter and pungent as greenbark. And Sam. Always Sam. She's been smelling it for too long already.
He can't be here, but he doesn't know where to go. It would be perverse to go to Sullivan's now, to drown the knowledge of his sister's alcoholism with glasses and shots of that which is killing her by the liquid ounce. He could talk to someone, he supposes, but he doesn't know who. Danny is burdened with his own ghosts and busily banishing them with Lindsay's warmth, and he'll be damned if he'll expose his sister's weakness to Mac's absolutist scrutiny. He needs a friend, not a judge. There's Stella, but there is too much of Mac in her when you least expect it, too much confidence that everything can be fixed if you just apply enough science. He has no appetite for science now. Now he needs a handful of magic and a goddamn miracle.
Neither waits for him on here, and so he walks blindly, away from Sam and her secret confessional. He walks for the simple, cathartic sake of motion. He loses himself to the rhythm, to the swing of his hips and the mindless slap of his feet on the pavement. He never uncouples completely--the cop who patrols the base of his brain won't let him; his brain catalogues each flash of movement, and his ears hum in white-noise anticipation of strange sounds, but he ltes his mind drift, momentarily forgets the faces of the victims currently seeking his solace. He lets his obligations to the city slide from his aching shoulders like a wet mantle.
He even lets Sam go--at least the Sam he left behind in that crumbling tenement. The Sam she'd been once upon a time stayed with him, clung to him with candy-sticky fingers and pouted at him with gloss-smeared lips. The ghost of Cherry Berry gloss wafts to his nostrils, and the pig-tailed Sam of his memory grins up at him.
Here, Donnie, she crows, and holds up a tube of Cherry Berry out to him as though it were a grand prize and not a tube of cheap, dimestore glycerin. You should try this. Maybe if ya wear it, you could actually kiss a girl. She sticks out her tongue at him.
I could if I wanted, he thinks wistfully.
Nu uh. Could not. You got beaver lips, she retorts with gleeful venom, and dances from view with a haughty swish of pigtail.
He pursues her into the darkness, searching in vain for the sister and the innocence he's lost, but no matter how long his strides, she's always just beyond his reach, a shadow child that flits on the periphery of his vision. He walks until his legs are sore and sprung, until his feet ache from pounding the pavement. He walks until he's spent, and still his mind races. He knows he won't sleep tonight. Odds are, he'll lie on the couch, watching Mythbusters until the explosions on the screen merge with the recollection of his world turning to dust and ash on a sunny Sunday morning in May and he scrambles for the bathroom with his churning guts flooding his mouth. Penance is best performed on his knees, he's found.
He isn't trying to go home, but he isn't surprised when he finds himself across the street from his apartment building. He is surprised to see Angell waiting for him, leaning against the side of a department-issue Taurus with her hands in the pockets of her overcoat. She smiles when she sees him, and he freezes where he stands, because she's so beautiful, a goddess of the city, and it makes his chest hurt to look at her. He's not sure what she's doing there at first, and then he remembers. He'd asked her to pick him up in exchange for dinner. He'd hoped for a quiet dinner and some conversation to help him forget today, but no words exist to expunge the memory of Sam's flophouse cofession, and the thought of food prompts a mutinous gurgle from the pit of his stomach.
I can't let her touch me, he thinks dumbly as she approaches with a lovely feline swagger that makes his heart lurch and his cock stir even as the thought forms. I've got to protect her, keep her clean.
They're face to face and inches apart, and he quashes the urge to retreat. This close, he can smell her perfume and her warm, clean skin, and it intoxicates him. It's so wonderful, so sweet after the stink of stale whiskey and lives gone sour that he wants to bury his nose in her hair or the soft crook of her neck, but he doesn't dare. He's not sure he's earned the privilege of such intimacy yet, and he can't stand the thought of passing his failings to her like secondary transfer.
"Hey, you still need that ride?" she purrs, and twirls her keys around her index finger.
His mouth goes dry. "I think I'm gonna have to walk this off," he says, even though his legs feel like malleable lead beneath his skin.
"All right," she says, and disappointment flickers in her eyes.
He doesn't want to hurt her, doesn't want her to end up like Sam, hollow-eyed and bitter and ruined and cursing his name to a roomful of fallen angels. She's too sweet, too rare a miracle to end up like that. She doesn't deserve to suffer for the folly of letting him into her world. She deserves better, and so, he touches her retreating arm and cups her face and pulls her into a kiss before he can stop himself. It's the simplest apology he knows. Kisses are the magic mothers use to make wounds better, and if he moves quickly enough, maybe she won't rot from the inside out like Sam.
Her lips are spring, and her mouth tastes of winter, and it's all he can do not to tremble as he cups her face. She's too delicate for his clumsy hands, and a stentorian, unforgiving voice hisses that he has no right to this beauty, this pleasure, not after what he's done. It's true, but he can't stop. He has to make it better, to stop his poison before it spreads too deeply and her brothers come knocking at his door with vengeance in their fists.
"Thank you," he says quietly when they part. For the first time since he staggered out of the tenement with his purloined secret, he can breathe.
Angell just smiles and jingles her keys at him. It's an endearing gesture that makes his chest ache, and he's tempted to change his mind and go with her, to forget Sam and cocoon himself in Angell's effortless warmth, but he's forgotten Sam too often and too easily already, and now he's faced with a duty he cannot shirk. So he nods in farewell and turns away from the shelter of home and back to the yawning darkness of the city. His feet hurt and his legs burn. He wants to stop, to curl in on himself and sleep like Little Boy Blue. But Sam is still out there and Peter Gabriel is inside his head, and so he suares his shoulder and resumes his search.