Cross the Street
by Marie Vibbert
I was on the sofa, wallowing in self-pity and blankets, when my sister answered the door.
“Sadie, honey,” old Mr. Smith said from the hallway, “I beg your pardon. So sorry for your loss, again, but are you going to cross the street soon? It’s just that I haven’t had anything to eat since Thursday.”
Now, I was sitting in the exact same spot the day before when Sadie gave him a can of beans after he said the exact same words, but Sadie just smiled and spoke receptionist-polite to him. “I’ll have to ask my momma, Mr. Smith, but I’m sure it’ll be soon.”
“Bless you,” he said, and I saw her take a wrinkled paper from him and tuck it in her back pocket. Chances were it had a dozen items written on it and not enough dollars by half folded inside. We’d have to guess where to cut it off to have some money for our fee, and he’d complain like he’d paid enough for twice as much. And then bless us.
Mr. Smith raised his wrinkled old chin and, in a voice of practiced outrage, said, “Cars should stop for people. We made them, not the other way around.”
I expected Sadie to shut the door and keep the money. Grief makes you cruel. Besides, Momma had said we weren’t to cross the street anymore. It was the last thing she said, “No more walking to the store,” angry and desperate like she was founding a new religion. She said it holding Sadie’s arms and looking hard in her eyes, and then she grabbed my arms and looked hard into my eyes and said it again. Then she started walking to Route 8. She was hitching north, chasing a rumor of a job.
Sadie said goodbye to Mr. Smith and closed the door. She stayed there, looking at that door hard. Then she turned to me. “Come on, Louis. We need to cross the street.”
She said it like she was saying nothing at all. The silence thickened between us. “But Momma said…”
“Do you want me to go alone?”
The blankets had twisted and bound up around me as I’d huddled on the couch the last few days. I didn’t like how I smelled underneath them, either, but Sadie was already poking her toes in the pile of shoes, fishing for her sneakers. She said, “Come on, then. I’m not waiting until it’s dark.” Momma used to say the same thing.
I folded up the blankets. I was stalling.
There was a pair of Jayce’s sneakers, huge boats of things, in the pile of shoes. My foot was about the size of the opening. I stepped on the cool, worn bottom of his shoe. “Let’s go walk, just us men,” he’d say to me. No one else had ever called me a man.
Sadie pulled her hair back tight with a rubber band. Then she stood there with the doorknob in her hand. She waited like the moon for the tide to come on and follow. I couldn’t do anything in the face of that. I wiped my eyes and stepped into my own shoes, which felt damp and too soft even though I hadn’t worn them for days.
I followed Sadie down three flights of landings crowded with bikes and toys and old sofas. Some people lived on the landings and it was tricky going. Sadie’s ponytail bounced as she skipped down the stairs. I picked my way carefully — a slippery pile of laundry or a book could be the death of me.
We crossed the yard and stepped over the twisted metal railing that used to enclose parking spaces. Ms. Thomson sat on a folding chair on a little island that popped out of the cracked pavement. There was a tree in the center of the island, something blasted and twisted but still green and casting lacy shadows on the old woman. “Sadie,” she said. “You going to the store?”
“Yes, Ms. Thomson. Do you want anything?”
Ms. Thomson shook her head. “It’s terrible, what happened to your big brother. There ought to be a law.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Sadie said. She kept her stride, turning up the path.
“Wait!” Ms. Thomson waved at us. We doubled back. She took some bills out of her purse with a shaking hand. “I hate that you do this, girl, I do, but if you’re going to risk your life, could you get me a loaf of bread? I can’t afford what Ms. Jones charges when her car runs.”
Sadie took the money coolly and counted out the right amount, including our fee. “I’ll bring you back a nickel change,” she said, and stuffed the bills into her back pocket.
“Do be careful,” Ms. Thomson said. She leaned forward like she might hug Sadie, but Sadie was having none of it so Ms. Thomson looked right at me. “Take care of your sister, Louis.”
That was a laugh. If God lived in our building, chances were, Sadie would be taking care of him. I let Ms. Thomson give me a whiskery kiss, though, and said I would.
A path cut through the grass around the end of the property fence, like a dirt river flowing into the space between the chain-link and the freeway wall. This was the easiest part of our journey – a straight corridor with Queen Anne’s Lace tickling our knees.
On this path, we walked the length of the parking lot back toward our building, and then the length of the building’s short side. Beyond the building was the tunnel. It was a square opening, just tall enough to walk through, smelling of piss and rot. I hated the water that dripped from the roof. Jayce said it was piss, trickling down from people on the main road who let it out of their cars. Sadie assured me many times it was just water. “Probably cleaner than what we get from the tap.” I wasn’t going to test that hypothesis. The water came from pimple-like cones of lime that dotted cracks in the ceiling.
Sadie walked like we were in a beautiful cave in some park somewhere. She trailed her fingertips on the walls I avoided touching, and smiled up at the pimple-bumps she called stalagmites.
The smell got better in the center of the tunnel, more like clean dirt. It was genuinely dark and the far side was a solid white square, like something from an old cartoon with trains.
Even at its stinkiest and wettest, the tunnel wasn’t as bad as what came after it, so I walked slower as we went. The tunnel opened onto a ditch lined in sparkling white gravel like it was designed to blind you after the dark. We hopped over the bottom and scrambled up the slope until we were at the top, on our toes on the narrow lip between ditch and road.
There were no sidewalks, no dirt paths, in the world on the far side of the tunnel. Things were built up proper and new with buildings hard against the pavement. What grass and trees they had were behind walls, locked up for the people that owned them.
We had to cross the street. I hoped this would be where Sadie gave up, gave everyone back their money, and took me home. We could look for wild loganberries or sweet clover to eat. We could dig up the Queen Anne’s Lace. The roots smelled like carrot when you cut them, and tasted like carrot, only grassier. Unlike most edible plants around the building, they were undisturbed. Old people avoided eating weeds that grew too close to the road; back a million years ago, when they were young, cars spewed poison on everything they passed. They called that “the good old days”.
The pavement in front of us was smooth and shiny. The cars whipped along on their magnetic lines, noses to the ground. We felt the wind, little pushes, as they passed, and saw the flashes of color. Why did so many people live on the wrong side of the street from the store? The world makes no sense until you remember that it wasn’t designed with you in mind.
Sadie tilted her head like she was smelling the air. She was checking reflections on the windows across the street. A car would come faster than anybody could see and crush you before you could hop back, but Sadie trusted her interpretation of the reflections. She said it let her see four blocks ahead and behind. As she watched, she rocked from foot to foot, feeling the rhythm of the traffic. Jayce used to do that, too. I couldn’t feel what they felt, even though I tried copying the motion, hoping I’d catch it backwards.
To our left was a tangle of wood and scrap left over from an attempt to build a bridge across the street. That had happened when we were pretty young. There was only so far you could build a bridge when you couldn’t fasten things to the other side or touch the ground under it. I looked at that pile of scrap and tried to figure out what their plans had been. Maybe it could be done, if you had a friend in the building across the street, someone throwing a rope to you. Then at least you’d have a start. But there wasn’t any rope in the pile.
“We could go back,” I said.
“Chicken,” she said, not even looking at me.
She stretched her neck up, tilted her nose to the wind, and nodded.
Her first step was ballet-slow, dipping her toe in; then she ran in long bounds, graceful as a gazelle. I chased after, huffing and shuffling and scared. I had no technique. I’d never had to develop one because I’d never crossed alone.
My eyes stayed on the trailing edge of Sadie’s shadow, on that smooth pavement where Jayce got hit. He’d been alone. It was his third trip to the store that week. Momma didn’t like him going so often, but there was always money in it and Jayce said he could cross blindfolded. He was saving up for a car. His body was picked up a mile away. We couldn’t get any benefits, either, because getting killed crossing a street counts as suicide. His car money paid for the funeral. It was enough already, for a cheap car. A used one.
I think we all talk about the fact that he’d crossed three times that week because it makes it his fault, like we can avoid his fate if we only cross twice a week.
My sneakers made snuffling noises and I pumped my arms as fast as I could and I pretended not to notice the greasy spots on the pavement and pretended I wasn’t imagining they were smears of Jayce.
A larger shadow fell over my toes. I was safe. We were in the narrow alley we always aimed for, a safe nook between two buildings. You had to hit it just right or you’d spend precious seconds side-shuffling in traffic. Sadie always hit it dead on. Jayce had made me sidestep once or twice. I thought mean things about him when that happened, and I hated remembering that.
I touched the cool bricks and caught my breath.
Sadie was on her butt, at the base of the wall, her arms over her knees, sobbing. Without looking up, she reached for me. Her strong arms pulled me down on top of her and clung to me like she was going to drown if she let go.
“It’s okay,” I said. I shifted down beside her. Her hair stuck to my sweaty cheek. I was scared, alone with this crying thing that wasn’t my big sister. “It’s okay, Sadie. You’re okay. Come on.” Like someone else, someone older was talking, I said, “We have to go to the store.”
She nodded, and got up. She turned to the road and gave it a look like she wished she could melt it with her eyes.
“Come on,” I said. I picked up her hand. It was in a tight fist and shaking like a machine about to fail, but I held it and led her the rest of the way. The narrow alley ended with a chain-link fence that had been smashed until it was just a steel web in the corners. On the other side was a parking garage for the apartment buildings around us. We crossed the garage to the store entrance, where we could enter like anyone.
Sadie didn’t say anything until we were in the store, surrounded by that chilled air and its special smell of bread and plastic. “Get a gallon of milk and two cans of beans,” she said. “Meet me by the counter.”
She still had wet tracks on her cheeks, but the clerk didn’t say anything. Sadie went over the list and counted out the money and loaded up our two backpacks. The milk jug was cold and heavy against my spine. From the fee money, Sadie got us some ramen and a bag of beef jerky as a treat. There would have been more if we’d gone through the complex getting orders, but I was happy enough to see that slick jerky package go into my bag, and I hadn’t thought of getting more orders, myself, until just then.
Sadie walked back to the road without looking at me. She moved her hand away when I tried to hold it. Her head was high. She stopped a few feet back from the road. The hateful look came back. I took her hand. She let me. She looked down at our hands and her face smoothed out.
“Together,” I said.
She bit her lower lip. “All right, but wait for me. I know the trick.”
Again she glanced up. She studied the wavering window-reflections on the freeway wall. She rocked back and forth. I felt her tense and knew it was time. My toe stretched out with hers. We ran together.
Wider strides than I usually make, I reached hard so my feet hit just as hers did. It felt like flying.
We slid down the gravel ditch on our heels. We kept running all the way through the tunnel. We laughed, echoing in the stinky dark. We couldn’t stop. It was like our legs took over. We slammed into the chain link on the other side and stopped at last, cracking up like it was the best joke ever.
It felt like we’d won against something.
Sadie looked back the way we’d come. “We had to cross the street,” she said. “Just one more time. For him.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s it. You’re right.”
She smiled and squeezed my fingers. “I’m always right, Louis. Don’t you forget it.”
We held hands all the way back home, and I didn’t mind, even when other kids saw.
About the Author
Marie Vibbert has sold over 70 short stories, dozens of poems, and a few interactive fictions and comics. Her first novella, “The Unlikely Heroines of Callisto Station” is the cover story for the July 2021 Analog magazine, and her debut novel “Galactic Hellcats” about a female biker gang in outer space rescuing a gay prince, came out in March of 2021. By day she is a computer programmer in Cleveland, Ohio. Find out more about her online or follow her on Twitter.
About the Narrator
About the Artist
The Artemis Rising 3 image was commissioned from Ashley Mackenzie. Ashley is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, CA she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing she can be found reading, playing videogames or thinking about her next project.