This was written in August, 1996, as part of the "Susan's Birthday" (for Susan Garrett) challenge on FK-FIC. You see, Susan said she didn't want birthday presents, or cards, she wanted fiction! So I dug out a story I had started working on about six months before, but had never finished, and decided that this time, I was going to by-god finish a story. I did finish it, and posted it just barely before the deadline for the end of the challenge. I have since been amazed at the response I've received from it. Wow. So, read, enjoy... and if you feel inspired, write a story! You never know how it will turn out.
The streets taught me silence. It was a survival trait. Silence has kept me out of trouble many times. As it turned out, however, it became a liability, since words became my only grace. My saving grace...
He's been following me for two days now. He's very clever, and keeps back far enough so that I haven't been able to get a clear look at him, but not so far back that I can lose him. I thought I'd finally ditched him in the stacks at the library, and happily lost myself in "Jane Eyre" until closing time. But when I left the library and walked down toward the bus stop, I could tell that he was still there behind me. I walked a twisty path around to my hidey-hole, and I don't know if he was able to track me all the way. He hasn't done anything yet — maybe he's a looker, not a toucher?
I woke at my usual time, at dawn, when the light of the rising sun crept through the cracks in the boards of the crate I call home. I crawled out, looking around cautiously to be sure there were no watchers. I pulled my backpack out, and made sure the catches were securely fastened before hoisting it over my shoulders, grunting slightly at the weight. I was going to have to get rid of something soon — it was becoming too heavy to carry easily. I sighed, knowing that what I should throw away were my old journals. I couldn't yet bring myself to trash the last three years of my life, but I knew I would have to sooner or later. Without a safe place to stash stuff, I had to limit myself to what I could carry, and old notebooks were not essential to survival.
I spent the day in my usual way, panhandling to get enough money for a meal, then got on the bus to the Blake Street Gym. I still had the pass that I'd found a couple of months ago. I could swim for a while, get a good hot shower, and, if they still hadn't fixed the lock on the laundry door, I might be able to get my spare clothes washed. The worst thing about living on the streets was never feeling clean. I indulged in some wishful thinking briefly, then shook myself and reminded myself what the alternative was. Since that didn't bear thinking about, I got myself busy at what I had to do.
I felt better after my swim. I'd managed to snitch someone's lunch at the gym, and the luxury of an unpaid meal made me almost cheerful. I couldn't decide which library I wanted to spend the day in. It was easier to hide in the University Library, since no one paid any attention to yet another kid with a backpack, and it was open later, but the city library had a better selection, and it was closer to my hidey-hole. As I walked down the street, for once not really looking at my surroundings, someone ran past me, carelessly knocking me aside in his hurry. I heard someone yell, "Stop!" but I was too busy trying to stay upright to pay attention to what was happening. The weight of my pack held me off-balance, and I was desperately trying not to stagger off the sidewalk into the busy traffic, when hands grabbed me and pulled me back from the curb. That kept me out of the street, but completely destroyed my balance, and I toppled to the sidewalk. My backpack struck first, and burst a seam, spilling everything out under the feet of the pedestrians.
I groaned, seeing my just cleaned clothes trampled on. And of course, my underwear had to fall into the only puddle on an otherwise dry sidewalk. I glared up into the contrite brown eyes of the man who had grabbed me. "Oh, geeze," he said. "I'm real sorry..." He broke off to talk into the radio he held in one hand. "The suspect's heading north on Waller, toward Greenleaf — all units, try to intercept him there." He turned back to me, and I realized with a tight feeling in my stomach that he was a cop. I avoid cops. They're bad news for someone in my situation.
I started grabbing things at random and pushing them back into the wreckage of the pack. He bent down to pick up some of my notebooks, and I grabbed them before he could, stuffing them far down in the pack. He said, "Geeze, I didn't mean to knock you down, I was trying to keep you from falling into the street. Are you okay?"
I grunted and nodded, still grabbing things, trying to get them to stay in the pack. He picked up a notebook that had fallen behind a lightpost, and handed it to me. "You sure have a lot of notebooks. You must be a good student — I never took very many notes in class."
I nodded again, and stood up with the pack in my hands, ready to flee. He reached out a hand to steady me, then pulled it back when I flinched away. "Hey, I'm not gonna hurt you." He looked at me, and seemed to notice the holes and tears in my clothes, and the threadbare quality of my jacket, for the first time. "Uh, I'm sorry about the backpack. Maybe that can be fixed...?" he said, thoughtlessly reaching toward the ripped seam, again pulling back when I backed away from him. "Maybe not. You know, that was really my fault, and I feel bad. If you'll tell me your name and address, I'll see that the Police Department buys you a new one. My name's Detective Schanke," he said, pulling out his badge, "and I'm with the 5th Precinct..." But I'd heard enough. I turned and ran down the sidewalk toward the alley. "Hey!" he yelled, startled. "What's the problem...?"
I ran down the alley, heart pounding, expecting to hear him running after me. When I realized he wasn't chasing me, I slowed down, looking behind me. No one was there. I stopped, breathing hard. That was a close call. When the cops start asking you for your name and address, juvie detention centers are the next stop.
There's another one on the prowl. Three women have been found dead, slashed with a knife. Two prostitutes, and a street person. Why do the monsters always kill us? Because we're easy to kill? Or because they know the police won't look too hard for our killers? We don't count — not to the killers, and not to the police. That's why I've learned to take care of myself — you can't count on anyone else to take care of you. Look out for number one, that's the golden rule.
I did my best with the one spool of thread I had, and some strategically placed safety pins, and got the backpack put back together — at least well enough to hold everything in, even though it looked like shit. I frowned at it. It wasn't going to hold together long, and it was going to take me forever to panhandle enough to buy a new one. And in the meantime, it was going to make it more obvious that I was homeless. That was bad. Most of the time I could pass for a poor student, which made me a lot safer from the sharks on the street. If they knew I was homeless, they'd mark me for easy prey. I sighed, and thought about where I might be able to steal a backpack.
I tried to steal a backpack from one of the students at the University Union today. He'd just left it on the steps, and ran up to talk to some friends. There it was, big as life, and twice as sturdy, just waiting for me to come along. Like a gift from the gods, if there were such a thing as gods. I was about to grab it, when I noticed a sticker on it — "I'd rather be reading Jane Austen". I had to smile — she's one of my favorites, and I love getting lost in the halls of Pemberly. I had to leave it. I just can't steal from a guy who likes the right books.
It was when I was panhandling on Younge Street that I saw the cop again. I'd noticed the big turquoise car idling further up the street, and when it started to cruise slowly down the street again, I decided to move on. It looked like a pimp-mobile to me, and I preferred not to attract the attention of a pimp looking to build up his stable. I started to walk across the street, and the car stopped and the detective got out of the passenger side.
"Hey, remember me?" I tried to ignore him, and started walking faster, but he got in front of me, forcing me to stop. "Hi! You remember me, don't you, the guy what ruined your backpack?" he said, looking at the repairs I'd made. He smiled at me, saying, "I don't know if you caught my name before — I'm Don Schanke," and stuck out his hand for me to shake. I just looked at him, wondering what he wanted, and eventually he pulled his hand back and stuck it in his pocket. "So, what's your name?"
I tried to get around him, but he wasn't moving. He was obviously not going to leave me alone. Okay, I'd play his game for a while. "Grace," I said grudgingly.
"Hey, that's a pretty name. I know someone else named Grace." He waited for me to reply to this, but I had nothing to say. "She doesn't look anything like you, though — she's a pretty big woman. You look like a strong wind would blow you away." He laughed, stopping when I didn't join in. He sighed. "You don't talk much, do you?"
The answer to that was obvious, so I didn't say it. "Well, anyway... nice to see you again," he said finally. "Maybe I'll see you around." I started to walk then, figuring he'd had enough and would let me go. "Oh, by the way..." he said, and I stopped, waiting for him to say 'You're busted,' or something like that. I knew it would come down to that in the end — it always does, with cops. Imagine my surprise when he asked, "Are you hungry?"
I looked at him, too surprised to know what to say to that. He looked uncomfortable, and added, "I'm asking because I have a couple of souvlaki that I'm not going to eat. You know, eyes too big for my stomach. I couldn't finish them, and it's a shame for them to go to waste..." he trailed off, looking at me uncertainly.
I was tempted. My mouth was watering at the idea of hot, fresh food. "It's just over here in the car," he said, moving toward the door of the vehicle. I stood where I was, afraid that it might be some kind of trap, not sure what to do. "Why don't I just get the bag for you," he suggested, "and if you decide you don't want it, you can feed it to the pigeons or something, okay?"
He opened the car door, and I saw the guy at the wheel looking at us. Schanke grabbed the bag up from the floor of the car, and handed it to me. It was still hot, and it was all I could do not to open it right there and then and start wolfing it down. He looked at me, waiting for a response, then, not getting one, he shrugged and got in the car and started to shut the door. "Thank you," I managed to squeak out.
"Hey, de nada!" he said, smiling again. "I just hate to see good food go to waste." The other guy (it had to be his partner; cops always traveled in pairs, like nuns) started to say something, but the Schanke guy elbowed him in the ribs and he shut up. He smiled at me again, and finished closing the car door, then they just drove off, leaving me standing there, confused, holding a bag full of food.
The souvlaki was delicious.
It would sure be nice to trust someone for a change. Like this Schanke guy. He seems nice enough, but how can I be sure? Yeah, he gave me his dinner, but so what? He probably got it free — cops are always getting things free. It doesn't mean anything. He looks like a big old teddy bear, but looks are deceiving. I saw a picture of that Ted Bundy guy once, and he looked perfectly ordinary. You just can't tell.
It happened the next night. I'd managed to sneak into a movie theatre, one of those old theatres that still has a balcony. I'd sat through four shows, hiding in the bathroom between movies so the ushers wouldn't see me and throw me out. It was really late when the last movie ended, and I realized as I left the theatre that I'd have to walk to my cubbyhole, since the last bus had already gone. I started toward the main street, then I noticed a familiar-looking car parked down at the end of the block. That's the cop's car I realized. I hesitated, tempted to go down there and say hello. What, are you crazy? You don't know anything about this guy! Survival instinct still intact, I decided to get as far away from him as possible, and turned around and headed the other way down the street.
I'd gone a couple of miles, and was getting really sleepy, when I realized that my follower from the other day was back there again. Faint sound of footsteps that slowed when I slowed, speeded up when I speeded up. Damn! I'd almost gotten to my home-sweet-crate — I would have led him right to where I lived! I thought as I walked, trying to decide how to get rid of him — through the alley by Thompson, then up the fire escape ladder? No, if he caught up to me, he might be able to pull me off the ladder before I could get to the top. Find some place to go to ground, then — hide, and hope he gives up and goes away? I considered the territory, and decided the best place was the dumpsters behind the meat market. They smelled so bad even the street people stayed away from them. They should be sufficient to drive away a casual stalker.
I came up to the entrance to the alley that led to the loading bays behind the market, moving slowly. Let him think I don't know he's back there... As I reached the head of the alley, I suddenly darted into it, and raced to the closest dumpster, squeezing between it and the wall, and crouching down. I held my breath, and listened. Nothing. Had I just been imagining it? Was there really no one behind me? I gave it another couple of minutes, waiting breathlessly, then decided that I must have overreacted, and shuffled back out into the alley, brushing the dust off my jacket.
I turned to head back to the street, and there he was. The follower, the one who had been trailing me for the last three days. He'd taken his time, moving quietly into place so I wouldn't hear him. He just stood there, watching me, making no move. I almost started to relax. Ordinary height, ordinary weight, ordinary clothes — this guy doesn't look like much of a threat.
We stood there for what seemed an endless time, just looking at each other. Finally, he smiled at me. There was something a bit... off about that smile. I tensed up again, trying to figure out the best way to get out of that damn alley. I shifted my weight, and he noticed. He shook his head, and said, "You don't want to do that." Quiet voice. He continued, still quietly, "It's your turn now, you see." He smiled again, and said, "And I know that you, at least, will go quietly." Then he took out the knife.
At the sight of the blade, I went rigid with terror and shock. Stillness has always been my response to fear. It's a bit of sympathetic magic; if I don't speak or move, then I can't be heard or seen, and I'll be safe. It's a fallacy, but my body still believes it. Foolish body.
He continued, still very calmly and quietly, "The others, they were very noisy. Screaming, fighting. One of them bit me." He paused, then said, "I didn't like that," and his voice was no longer calm. "But you," and he smiled again, "You're quiet. That's good."
He stood there, smiling, holding the blade, and I knew that he was going to kill me. He was the monster, he was the one they were talking about on the streets. Three women, or more, he'd killed, and I was going to be the next one.
Someone else appeared at the end of the alley. Another one? Are they hunting in packs? The figure cautiously came closer, and yelled out, "All right, what's going on here?" I realized it was the cop — Schanke. I would never have believed I could have ever felt so relieved to see a cop. But my relief was short-lived. The monster moved before I could, and then he had me, and was holding the knife against my throat, tight, almost breaking the skin. I froze again. Don't move, don't breathe, don't make a sound...
"Back away, just back away, or I'll cut her head off!" the monster snarled at the detective, putting my body between him and the cop, denying Schanke a clear shot at him. "Go on, get out of here, or I'll do it, I'll do it now!" he continued, his voice no longer calm and quiet.
Schanke held out his hands placatingly, and started to say something, but the killer started rocking the blade back and forth, back and forth, on my neck, and Schanke stopped, seeing a thin line of red appear beneath the moving blade. "Okay, okay, no need to do anything stupid, I'll go..."
Another figure suddenly appeared to the right of the killer and, startled, he swung the blade out to point it at this new threat. I barely had time to notice that it was the other cop, before I used the moment of distraction to run, my pack bumping against my back, breathless and sobbing in my desperation. Run, hide! Where, where...? There! A door open... I swung through it, not caring where it led. As I reached for the doorknob to close it behind me, I looked back. He was there — too close! I hastily pulled the door closed, and ran down the hallway. I burst into a huge room, full of large, noisy machines. I stopped, blinking at the light, trying to get my bearings. What is this...? The pumping station? I started to worry about getting caught by a maintenance worker; the lights were on, the door was open... there had to be people around. I gasped and swung around again as I heard the outside door rattling violently. I backed away from it as it continued to rattle, loose in its frame. He might get through. I have to hide! I ran into the room, looking for somewhere to hide, something to conceal me.
I tried to climb up on one of the machines, only to lose my precarious grasp with a startled gasp as I heard the outer door bang open. I scuttled under it instead, desperately hoping it was deep enough to conceal me. He was there, in the room, taking the same path I had through the room, almost as if he could smell my spoor, like a wild animal.
He was nearing me, closer and closer. I squeezed my eyes shut, and pushed myself as far under the machinery as I could get. I waited, hardly breathing, for the monster to find me, and cut me as he had the others. I waited, but there was no pain, no sudden slashing. I opened my eyes, looking for him. He was past me! He hadn't seen me. My beath came out in a gasp, as, relieved, I started to breathe again. I watched him as he continued to move down the aisle between the pumping machinery. He was still stalking.
But I suddenly saw that it wasn't me he was stalking now, it was the detective. The blond one. He must have come in the door when my eyes were closed, but had moved to the wrong end of the huge room, casting back and forth, searching for the monster. I watched, frightened again. The monster had cleverly hidden behind another of the big machines — the detective wasn't going to be able to see him until he was close enough to strike — then the knife would be cutting into him, hacking, slicing... I shut my eyes again, not able to watch. He was a cop, and therefore not to be trusted. But he'd been with the other one, the one who'd been so nice. They were partners... and partners looked out for each other.
I opened my eyes again, and looked for the monster. There he was, closer to the cop. Why didn't the cop hear him, sense him? The floor shook and rumbled, and I realized that the machinery was too loud. The detective wouldn't be able to hear him until it was too late. Maybe I could warn him? But how? The monster was between me and the detective, and there was no way to sneak past him. There was no way — it was impossible.
Maybe not... I could yell. No, no, I can't, I can't! I huddled back into my hiding place, squeezing my eyes shut, shivering. No noise, be silent, or he'll hear you... ! I choked back a sob, trying not to think of the knife cutting into flesh, ripping, tearing. I can't! No noise, keep quiet... It's been too long, I can't do it!
It seemed like forever had passed, and surely it must be over. I forced my eyes open, looking, hoping, dreading. The monster had stopped! Maybe... but no, he was just waiting for the detective to move toward him, standing still behind the shelter of the machine. He turned slightly, and I saw his face. He was smiling. Smiling, as he waited to kill another human being; smiling, enjoying himself. Monster. They were all monsters, the killers, the destroyers. They made the world what it was, they made me what I was. Silent, in a hidey-hole, waiting for someone to die.
I couldn't. I had to do something, or I was a monster, no better than this other who stood with his gleaming knife. I pulled the backpack off my shoulders, tucking it far under the ledge where I huddled. I stood up slowly, willing the monster to not look my way, bracing myself, readying myself.
I was ready, I couldn't delay any longer. I opened my mouth, took a deep breath, and screamed hoarsely, "Look out! He has a knife!" The monster turned, and looked at me. Oh, no, oh no! I turned, and ran like the devil was behind me, for indeed he was. Twisted, and turned, and turned again. Blocked! I turned around, to look for another way out, but he was there. No, oh no. He raised his knife, smiling down at me. I stood still, waiting for the blow I knew must come. I'd broken the rule, I hadn't stayed silent, I knew what the consequences would be. I looked up at him, at his crazy glittering eyes, and knew that it didn't matter. I'd done what I had to — I'd saved the other guy.
Pain, then. Such pain. I screamed, and again, knowing it would be the last sound I would make. "Nooooo...!"
Confusion then, as the monster seemed to be pulled off of me, and I fell. I seemed to fall slowly, so slowly and softly, as if I would never reach the floor. I realized I was on the floor, although I didn't remember getting there, scattered there like a rag doll. I opened my eyes.
He stood over me with his eyes glowing gold, snarling deep in his throat, the monster dropping from his hands to land on the ground with a thud. I watched him, calm now. I knew this was no longer my life, that somehow I'd become part of one of my library books. That had always been what I wanted, to leave my life, and enter the lives I found on the pages of the books. He bent down, fixing my eyes with his gaze, and started to speak. He paused, and his words cut off, but still he looked at me, his eyes slowly returning to the clear blue they were originally. "Can you hear me?"
I didn't answer; there was no need to. This was fiction, it had to be. Soon, I would turn the page, and the book would end, and this creature would dissolve away, as all the fictional things did. But... now the other one was there, the one I knew was real, his brown eyes filled with pain as he knelt beside me.
"Grace... no, no, you gotta be all right. You gotta be..." His voice seemed to come from much further away, as if his voice had to travel a long way to reach me. I tried to reach out, to touch him, to make sure he was real, but I couldn't find my hands. I opened my mouth, and finally, finally, the words came out. "I did it..."
"What? You did it? You... you killed him?" He sounded confused, and I tried to explain, to tell him that I had conquered it. To tell him that I'd faced down the fear and the silence, and defied the monster, but no words would come out. The other detective moved then, reaching out his hand as if to touch the other on the shoulder, but he stopped short.
Why doesn't he tell him? I thought. Why doesn't he tell him that he became a monster and killed the other monster? As my eyes closed, so tired, I realized that I was wrong. The golden eyes and fangs didn't make him a monster, or even the rage that killed. The other was the monster, and his beastiality didn't show on the outside, but it was there, underneath, deep inside. The words wanted to come out, now. I wanted to tell them, to explain this astonishing thing, but I was so tired, too tired to force the words out.
But now I know the difference between animals and humans. I know.
Natalie was standing in the crowd, filling out the scene-of-crime paperwork, softly cursing the unmanageable clipboard, when Nick, standing behind her shoulder, suddenly said, "Grace."
"What?" Natalie said, confused by the non-sequitur. "Grace," Nick said, pointing to the form where Natalie had just entered the name 'Jane Doe'. "Her name was Grace... at least, that's what Schanke called her. I don't know what her last name was," he added apologetically.
"Oh!" Natalie said, and carefully inked in the name. "We didn't find any belongings — no ID, nothing with a name." She sighed. "I'll have to be sure someone else in the morgue processes this. Grace hates to deal with bodies with her name." Natalie looked at the slight body on the gurney, and bending down, brushed the too-long bangs away from the closed eyes. "May you find heavenly grace, little Grace," she said quietly.
The ambulance attendant arrived then, and started to zip up the body bag. "You done, Dr. Lambert?" he asked, looking up at the sad-eyed coroner.
"Yeah. Here's the paperwork," she said, handing him the clipboard. "Nick..." she started to say, then turned and realized that he was gone.
Schanke sat on the curb, a box held loosely in his hands, his face blank. Not the blankness of no emotion, but rather the no-expression of an emotion too strong to be conveyed with mere flesh and bone.
Knight suddenly appeared in front of him — or maybe Schanke just finally noticed him, for he looked like he'd been standing there a while, waiting for Schanke to see him.
"Are you all right, partner?" Knight asked.
"Yeah. Fine. We all done here?" Schanke replied, pushing himself off the curb and standing up.
"Yes, Natalie's finishing up with..." Nick stopped himself, not wanting to finish the sentence.
"Let's go," Schanke said, heading for the Cadillac.
Nick walked beside him, waiting for his partner to say something more. When he didn't, Nick said, trying to break Schank's silence, "What's in the box?"
Schanke looked at the box that was still in his hand as if seeing it for the first time. He started to smile, then stopped. The smile tried to turn into a frown, then his face went back to the blankness. "Nothing," he said, turning to toss it into a street corner trash can. Knight was there before it could hit, catching it effortlessly. How does he do that? Schanke thought briefly, Reflexes like a cat...
Knight opened the box, taking out the bright blue backpack that was in it. He stared at it, then up at Schanke. "Did you get this for her... for Grace?" he asked softly.
Schanke cleared his throat. "Yeah. Her's was... it was falling apart. I just thought... you know, a kid on the street, she needs something to keep all her stuff in, all her notebooks..." He turned away abruptly. "Leave it. She doesn't need it any more." He started toward the car again.
Knight caught up, still holding the bag. "It's a shame for it to go to waste. Maybe Jenny...?" he stopped, seeing his friend shudder.
Look at that bag every day... on my daughter's shoulders? Shanke pushed that thought away. Too close... "No," he said quickly. "She already has a backpack, she doesn't need another one."
Knight was silent, and Schanke snuck a look at his face, wondering if he was buying it. Knight seemed to understand, though, because he nodded, and said, "Maybe we could drop it off at the shelter? There's sure to be someone there who could use it."
Schanke nodded, relieved, "Yeah, good idea. No need to just throw it away; it's a good bag, cost me a pretty penny. Come on," he said, taking it out of Knight's hands and folding it up. "We can drop it off on our way to the station." He paused for a moment, looking back at the blank walls of the pumping station, illuminated now with the flashing lights of the police cruisers, before he turned and walked to the car, anxious to get home.
Someday, I'm going to have my own place. Somewhere I can lock the door, and be safe. It won't have to be much; a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom... and a room just for my books. I'll have my own books, hundreds of them. Austen, and Brontë, and Melville — all of them. I won't have to go out to the library, I'll just stay home and read. And write. I'll have a typewriter, and real paper, not just these stupid notebooks, and I'll write all day long. Maybe I'll even write my own books...
Natalie closed the notebook, and put it down on top of the pile of notebooks already on the counter. She closed her eyes briefly, a tear leaking through and trickling down her cheek. Brushing it away, she looked in the backpack, sorting through the things in there to be sure she had all the notebooks. She stood for a moment, looking at the ragged backpack that had somehow appeared next to the gurney in the ambulance. I wonder where Nick found it... she thought briefly, before moving on to more important things. Crossing to the phone, she picked up the receiver and dialled a number, and waited for a reply.
"Bonnie? It's Natalie... yeah, it has been a while. Sure, we can get together for lunch sometime, that would be great. Listen, is your publisher still looking for books written by teen-agers? Well, I have something for you to look at. I think you'll find it very interesting..."
Schanke stood silently in the darkened room, looking down at the figure on the bed. He stood there for a long time. The light of dawn was coming through the window when he finally bent down, brushed the too-long bangs away from her face, and kissed her forehead. Whispering, "Sleep well, Jenny," he left the room, closing the door softly behind him.
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