Wind yanked my hair like angry fingers, and I swallowed a laugh before Mom heard. With my toe, I found the iron platform and tentatively slid all my weight onto the fire escape. Yellow streetlights turned the brick of our building orange and gray. Ozone from the promised storm crackled in the air. I pressed my back against the rough wall and tilted my face up. Hanging over the edge of the roof was Dex, grinning at me like a fool. I waved and he reached down a hand.
Slowly, I crept up the thin stairs, wincing hugely when the iron squeaked. Two flights, and Dex caught my upper arms. I let him pull, raising my hands up to his neck. He dragged me over the lip of the roof and against his chest. “God,” he said, kissing his way down to my ear. I twisted in his lap and found his mouth with mine.
A car alarm blared and I laughed when Dex startled, squeezing my hips tighter. “I hate the city,” he said.
“I love it,” I whispered back, kissing along his jaw.
“That’s what you said at the fair yesterday – that you loved the country.”
I shrugged. “I love every kind of place. Just lucky I guess.” I’d met Dex leaning across a fence to pet a giant black pig. He’d grabbed me back before I tumbled into the muck. He said the hog – there was a difference, apparently – might bite me, I looked so tasty.
Wind flew over the edge of the roof and crushed down onto my back. I squirmed until I was straddling Dex’s waist. He wore a button up shirt, like any decent cowboy, and when he smiled his nose wrinkled adorably: the main reason I’d invited him to my rooftop. One last fling in Arizona.
Mom says we’re like shadow birds and night-time butterflies; instead of flying south for the winter, we head north. Different cities every year, we spend Christmas surrounded by a forest of iron. Denver. Minneapolis. Fargo. Whatever. It was the end of November, and in the morning we’d be on the road. Interstate-25 north, then east into Oklahoma, up through Kansas on our way to Chicago.
“You’re really leaving first thing?” Dex asked, sliding his hands under my shirt.
I cocked my head. “You’ll get over it.”
His fingers brushed up to my bra and he squeezed my ribs. “Not fast.”
Shivering, I bent back down and said, mouth inches from his, “Good.”
“What’s that?” His eyes flickered toward my tits to where my amulet dangled from a strip of red leather. It had fallen out of my shirt when I leaned over.
“It keeps bad juju away.” I waggled my eyebrows and heard thunder rumble far off.
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“My mom made it.”
“What’s she afraid of?”
“Irish mafia,” I said, because it sounded way less psycho than the truth.
Dex laughed and I kissed him.
That morning, I dozed on the way to the fair, hoping some sleep would kill the ache in my head. I woke up to the quick beat of Billy Idol and my mom’s low voice singing along. My head still felt like it was being attacked by a dozen mice with pick-axes. I groaned. “Can the music, Mom.”
“Hey, Lo, it’s almost lunchtime. You should be awake. We’re about fifteen miles out from the fair site.”
I pressed my forehead against the cool window glass. Beneath me, the road spun past, vibrating up into my thighs and back and neck. I felt like puking. Sitting at the booth all day selling Mom’s herbal tinctures and home-made anti-Tinkerbell amulets was going to suck big time.
“Here, put some charms together.” Mom reached behind my seat and grabbed a handful of construction paper. She dropped it into my lap. “There are markers in – ”
“ – the glove compartment, I know.” With a sigh, I sat and gathered the pieces of paper and crossed my legs. I glanced at Mom. With both bony hands on the wheel, she was like a four-legged spider, long limbs stretching away from a thin torso. Dark, scrappy hair trailed down her neck like old grass. I’d seen pictures of her when she was my age, when her skin glowed and her hair was a long fall like on the cover of romance novels. Whenever we were on the road I thought about what her life would’ve been like without me.
“Hey, peaches,” she flashed me a grin. “What’s wrong?”
“Just headachy. The storm, you know.”
Mom nodded. Storms gave us both headaches. “You can feel how close they are.”
“The clouds? I know, they’re super dangerous.”
“I’ll bet they have corndogs at the fair. You can slather them with ketchup.”
“And that will make everything better.” I couldn’t be quite as sarcastic as I wanted to be. Red food was my favorite, and when I’d been little, I’d put ketchup on everything.
Turning up the radio, Mom began to tap her fingers on the wheel.
“Which are we low on?” I asked as I dug into the glove box for markers.
“Safety and fleet-foot. Though, I burned most of the hiding this morning while you were asleep, to get away from that thunder.”
I stretched my legs out and thunked my ankles onto the dashboard. Using my shins as a table, I lined up the markers: red, green, silver, black. I chose a green piece of construction paper and slowly drew the word safe in black and red ink. I added curly-cues and flourishes to the letters, added leaves and smiley-faces into the thick lines before coloring over them. Pictures within pictures within words – and then I folded the paper into a star. I licked each tip and breathed into the center.
In the middle of my fourth charm, Mom pulled off the highway into a gravel parking lot. “This is it,” she said, taking out the keys. I tucked my half-made charm into my jeans pocket and climbed out. And met Dex about twenty minutes later.
On the roof, we rolled around until my back was pressed onto the concrete. I grabbed Dex’s butt and tugged him between my legs. “Shit, girl,” he said into my mouth.
I bit his lip. “No time to waste.”
“Not wasting to – slow – down,” he replied between kisses.
“Unless you want my mom interrupting at the wrong moment.”
Dex winced. “Naw.”
“Then let’s – ” I froze as the thunder neared, beating a staccato pattern like a hundred horses galloping our way.
Scooting out from under him, I pulled down my shirt and got to my feet. The sky churned black with rain clouds. “I have to go.”
“Already? But we haven’t even – ”
“Sorry, I thought I had more time.” I smiled apologetically, and started for the stairs.
Dex grabbed my arm and flung be around to face him. “You’re right, you don’t.” He grinned, and sharp teeth snapped at me.
My lungs contracted and I couldn’t breath for a split-second before I ran for the fire escape. But Dex snatched my hair and jerked me back. Throwing up a fist, I hit him in the face, and kicked out behind me. My heel crunched into his knee and he growled. “Get. Off!” I twisted and tugged, finally slipping out of his grasp.
As I leapt again for the edge of the roof, I felt a patter of tiny pebbles hit my back. They burned through my shirt and I gritted my teeth. Then he was on me again. He hit me, shoving us both forward. My hands slammed into the brick ledge just as the first bits of rain splattered down. His fingers twisted in my hair and I shoved back, straining as he tried to ram my face into the bricks. Teeth slashed at the base of my neck and I bit my tongue against a scream. His spit was hot and my stomach tightened. All his weigh pressed me down against the edge. I couldn’t kick or flail or anything. I reached out, scrabbling with my fingers along the bricks. The fire escape was right there – right there.
Dex pulled at my hair, and pieces ripped out at the roots. Tears flooded my eyes, but I gritted my teeth and stretched. His other arm squeezed under my jaw. I couldn’t breath! Water streamed down from the sky, plastering my hair to my skull. “We’ve finally caught up with you,” he whispered. “Won’t the Rider be happy.”
Thunder cracked and I relaxed. I just let go of everything.
We fell onto the concrete, the breath whooshing out of me, but I still didn’t move. Dex laughed, and turned me over. “Don’t want any more kisses, lovie?” he chuckled. I kept my eyes closed, concentrating on the drops of rain plunking down onto my cheeks and lashes, hitting my lips and nose and chin. I heard his breath, felt it brush on my skin as he leaned over me, legs on either side, hands flat on the ground next to my face. Closer and closer he leaned. “Elizabeth?” he said, his voice wavering.
Lo, I thought. It’s Lo. I’m Lo and you can’t hurt me..
I kicked up and slammed my knee into his junk.
With my elbow, I hit his face, then scrambled up to my feet. Dex rolled on the wet roof, his skin rippling like a million ants crawled underneath it. With one hand I dug into my jeans and dragged out the construction paper star. I kicked him in the ribs, and he turned over so his face lifted to the sky. I slapped the star against his cheek. The paper glowed, and red streaks appeared on his skin, streaming away from the star like poison.
“Back to the chase from which you came,” I whispered. “Back to the hunt, back to the game.” Mom always said, Three times to count.
Rain pelted Dex and his mouth opened. A rivulet of thin black smoke slipped out between his lips and dissipated in the downpour. His chest convulsed, and then his head lolled to the side. The red streaks of poison burned under his skin. The paper star flaked into ash and the rain dragged the gray bits down to melt on the rooftop.
I sank down against the ledge, pressing my shoulder blades into the brick wall. Queasy and light-headed, I stared at his body. Thunder rumbled again. Mom would be up soon, shaken awake by the storm.
Speak of the Devil, and all that.
Mom’s voice carried up through the rain. “Lo, are you up there? We need to go.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off of Dex’s body, and wondered if he’d ever been human. But I managed to say, “Yeah, Mom. I’m coming down. My bag’s already packed.”
image by xparxy