Wild Birds

Philip Cesario

The knock on the apartment door was soft. The boy opened the door and standing in the hallway was a ponytailed young woman wearing a gray sweatshirt two sizes too big for her. She bit her lip for a time before she spoke.

“Do you know me?” she asked.

“Yes. You live next door,” he said, leaving his hand on the doorknob.

Her face relaxed into a smile. “Oh good, good. That’s right, yes, next door, in 3C. They’re working on something in the building and my lights are out. And, well, I hate the dark, and, well, could I come in while they straighten things out? I’m Jennifer, by the way. Well, not, really, but everyone calls me Jennifer.”

She stuck out her hand. When the boy hesitated to extend his hand, she wiggled her fingers. Her hand was slender, and her fingers were long and lightly tanned even though it was the dead of winter. A plain silver ring circled her thumb. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“My name’s Addie,” he said, clasping her hand.

“So, Addie. Where are your parents?” Jennifer looked past him and into the apartment as she spoke. “I’ll tell them it should only be a little while.”

“My father’s not here. He’s at work.”

“Is your Mom home?”

“No, it’s just us.”

“Uh huh. Well, I think it’ll be alright with your Dad. I mean I’m not a serial killer or anything.” She took a few steps into the living room and looked around. “This is about the same size as my place.”

The apartment building was old, and the walls were thin. Their bedrooms met at the rear of the apartment and muffled voices and strange night sounds made their way through the wall that divided their rooms.

“Okay, sure, you can wait here.” Addie motioned to the sofa where cookie crumbs sprinkled the seat. He swept a hand across the cushion before she sat. Afterward, he placed himself at the far end of the sofa, then reached onto the coffee table where there was an open laptop. He looked over at her. “I have to finish my homework.”

“Sure. Of course. Don’t mind me. I’ll just sit here.”

Jennifer waited, phone in hand, tapping it against her fingertips as she surveyed the small living room. The room was sparsely furnished. A cabinet with shelves of unframed photographs, some curled with age, old black-and-white pictures of people, filled one corner. After a while, she drew a long breath and in a single motion smoothed the thighs of her jeans where the cotton had almost worn through.

“Why are you home today? Aren’t you supposed to be in school?”

The boy’s eyes remained on the screen. “I got suspended.”

“How did that happen?”

“Jimmy Archetti called me a little scumbag.”

She propped her elbow against the sofa and leaned backward. “A boy in school? Well, that’s not nice. Why did he say that?”

“I don’t know. I think it’s because he thinks we’re poor.”

“Uh huh. So, what happened?”

The boy locked his teeth and set his jaw. “I hit him. He’s the scumbag.”

She leaned forward and swept back a lock of his hair that had fallen onto his brow. Her wrist held the faint scent of crisp linens.

He touched his own forehead, his fingers trailing her touch. “My mother used to do that,” he said softly.

“Is that why your eye is swollen?” “Yeah. His friend jumped in and punched me. Then Mr. Levine came and broke it up. We both got canned for three days.”

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