This story is by Karen Crawford and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I shielded my eyes from a slice of blinding sun and looked around. My dad and I used to feed the pigeons up here. Now there wasn’t a bird in sight.
Vinny and I were on the roof, our fingers intertwined, sticky from the chocolate chip ice cream I bought with the money I took from my stepfather’s wallet. A moment ago, Vinny had been standing on the ledge, his arms outstretched while I held my breath, afraid the tiniest breeze would send him tumbling over the edge. Now he sat by my side.
His fiery eyes blazed into mine. “If you could get away, where would you go?”
I squeezed my fingers tighter around his. “Right here. What about you?”
A low roar of a plane rumbled across the tops of the time-worn brownstones. Vinny looked up at the sky. “Anyplace, but here.”
I pulled my hand away, blinking back the instant burn that stung my eyes. I brushed my arms, suddenly smothered by the humidity, and the thick black exhaust that had settled on the horizon. Coming up here had been our refuge every Friday after school. Before plates of spaghetti went smashing down walls. Before the whack of a belt cracked defiant skin. Before daydreams disappeared with the sinking sun.
I took off like a rejected filly, my brown mane flowing like a magic carpet as I flew down the stairs to the apartment where I lived with my mother and stepfather. The sound of a punch hitting the wall brought me to a halt. I heard footsteps behind me and turned around to Vinny’s beckoning hand. “Come on, Maddie, let’s get outta here.”
Our fingers locked, and we ran down the shimmering sidewalks that blistered from the acid yellow heatwaves descending from the sky. Ignoring red lights, we sprinted between the blaring horns of taxis and foul-mouthed pedestrians. When we got to the subway, a train was pulling into the station. Vinny yanked my arm. We jumped the turnstile, and boarded, while the men in blue were busy wrestling some old junkie to the ground. Pushing past a crush of passengers with failing deodorant and day-old breath, we held our own until we got to the open space that connected the cars. As the train sped through the tunnel, I tried to keep my footing on the metal plates shifting beneath my feet. Vinny let out a rebel yell above the thundering rails.
“Where are we going?” My voice was breathless.
The corner of his mouth turned up, along with his shoulder, and a tilt of his head.
The sun was dipping when we hit the boardwalk at Coney Island, glittering against the ocean like an amber gem. A rainbow of rides stretched along the beachfront like a playground from a happier time. Vinny bopped in and out of the candy-colored gift shops with a hole burning in his pocket before swiping two beach towels. He grabbed my hand, laughing, and we ran down to the sand. He jumped out of his clothes and into the surf, arms in the air waving me in.
I shook my head and watched him from the safety of the water’s edge while he fought the waves with an invisible paddle.
The stars began to sprinkle across a pomegranate sky. Vinny emerged like some Hollywood bad boy shaking water from his hair, body taut, and glistening. It wasn’t until I handed him a towel that I noticed the scars. He pulled me down onto the sand and leaned in close, the smell of spring on his lips. Our noses touched, and we stayed like that for the longest time, until he kissed me. My lips melting into his. I could taste the sun on his tongue, smell the sea salt in his hair. I was glowing like a firefly nestled in his arms. I wanted to bottle the feeling forever, to tell him I loved him, but all I could muster was, “I miss my dad.”
He grabbed my face with both his hands. I would have confessed a thousand sins to swim in the light and heat of those eyes.
“Sometimes, I crush up my mom’s valium and put it in my stepfather’s drink.” I stammered.
I felt a rush of steam push through his nose. I began to trace the scars on his body with the tips of my fingers. My heart felt heavy, and I wished I could crush valium in his father’s drink too.
Vinny’s skin turned shivery, and he pulled away, “I’m leaving. I’ve been thinking about it for a while.”
I felt my breath catch in my throat.
“Come with me, Maddie. Somewhere, anywhere. We’ll just keep riding until the last exit.”
I could feel his heart thumping against mine. He covered my neck in kisses and whispers until I laughed and nodded and felt like I could follow him anywhere.
“You’re crazy, Vinny. You know that?” My words scorched his lips, and I felt his breath hit my cheek.
“I can’t take it anymore.” Vinny clenched his fists, and I knew he meant living with the man and his belt.
I wanted to go with him. To flee like teenage runaways against the raging wind and ride a heatwave into the sun. But I was afraid. Afraid of lingering scars and open wounds. Afraid to leave, or worse, to be left. Afraid of hurting my mom or… I buried my face in his chest, “I can’t leave my mother alone with my stepfather.”
Vinny pulled away. “You can’t fight her fight.”
“It’s my fight too.” The words slipped out, along with my spirit. The truth was, we never talked about our families. I wished his father had left instead of mine.
Vinny stood and put his hands in his pockets. “One of these days, you’re gonna have to let go.” And we walked to the train station without another word between us.
I slipped inside the dark apartment, hoping to sneak into my room. But my mother was sitting in a chair by the door, inky drips streaking down her face. I knelt at her legs and put my head in her lap. My eyes forming tears of their own. “I’m sorry I stayed out so late.”
She reached up and switched on the light. “He’s gone.” I could hear the crack in her voice. See the hole in the wall.
I pulled her to her feet. “For good this time?”
She turned away, her shoulders inching into a tiny shrug.
“You can’t keep letting him come back, Mom!”
“At least he comes back, Maddie.”
I wiped my eyes. Whatever tears she had – they weren’t for me.
I grabbed my hoodie and ran to Vinny’s building. I stared up towards his bedroom. The window was dark and closed. With fingers tapping, I texted. With eyes praying, I waited. But the little bubble with three dots didn’t appear. I could see him riding between the subway cars, his hair blowing away from his face, and a smile wide enough to swallow all of our pain.
With my head down, I walked back home and up the stairs to the roof. I could feel the moisture of clouds covering the sun struggling to rise over the East River. I put the phone down and climbed onto the ledge. Standing tall, I raised my palms towards the sky, taking in the city beyond the tenement landscape. I stood there for the longest time breathing in the stillness of dawn, my mind a blank page. The air felt like spring. My skin smelled of him. The quiet caressed my ears until I heard the low sweet sound of cooing and the fluttering of wings. It had been a long, long time since I’d listened to those sounds.
“Where have you been?” I whispered.
I turned around when I heard a chime. An unmistakable ding that cut through the clouds, I stepped down and reached for my phone, my heart fluttering too.