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Tracks in the Snow

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You don't remember much, but you remember there were pigeons. You were fourteen.

No. Younger.

Twelve?

Twelve. You were twelve and there were pigeons on the roof of the building next door.

***

That's how memories come now, shattered and incomplete. Sometimes you can push yourself to recollection, track memories down like prey, footprints in sand, blood trails in snow, and if you are careful, if you're keen, keep your focus, you might find yourself, blade drawn, standing over another part of your broken life.

A frightened animal, bleeding out.

***

Mostly you follow Steve.

You don't remember if you remember his name is Steve or if you picked it up from a file. But his name is Steve. That is a thing you know.

You also know which rooftop gives you the best vantage point on his apartment. You know which people he opens the door for. Who he lets knock. You know the security code for his phone. The route he takes when he runs. That he forgets to water the peace lily in his living room.

These are things you learn from observation.

But then there are things you just know.

Steve's gait, uneven from scoliosis in your memories. The metal thunder of the fire escape, trembling with the horseplay of two teenage boys. The rooftop. Brooklyn: birds-eye and back-lit.

You know you spent your twelfth summer on a rooftop a lot like this one, your hand sweaty around the stem of a slingshot. You've been a sniper nearly all of your life. (You've been a liar even longer.)

In another lifetime, maybe you would select the right station for your rifle. Test the wind and wait. You'd repeat the mission objective (or your serial number, or your ten Hail Marys when the boy beside you only had three.) But today you crouch. Listen to the hum of the air-conditioning unit, count trails of pigeon shit. Have you always hated those birds? You think so.

Across the street, Steve pulls on the light coat and the baseball cap you've come to associate with his sadness. Leaves the apartment.

(Bleeds out.)

***

So, the pigeons.

You try to remember the neighbor's name, but the tracks disappear in the snow. (Look skyward. Listen for the telltale rustle of dead leaves.)

You remember he had white hair by the time you knew him. Age spots along the hairline, over the bridge of his nose. You remember he was kind. It is important that he was kind.

The roof of his building was infested with pigeons. Or you think maybe he raised them. Yes. He raised them. Cages and cages of birds. Had them shipped in cheap and they cooed all night, just this soft sound bouncing off the brownstones, and you and Steve (Stevie) would sit on the roof of your own building and listen to them. Steve said they sounded prettier than they looked. You said they sounded like supper. You remember that he tried to look appalled but his stomach growled and he ended up looking embarrassed instead.

***

Steve doesn't go for a run. He doesn't go to the V.A. where he's been spending a lot of time. You keep back in the crowd, hat pulled down, hair tied back, and you know you could follow him unseen for miles.

He walks. Sometimes, he opens doors for women, even if he doesn't follow them inside. You try to remember: He's always been like this, right? Even back, even before. He had a good heart.

No. That's not quite right.

His heart was good, but mostly it was angry. It raged inside his chest, made his face flush red. You remember that. You remember the trembling legs. The sharp, bird-boned hands bent into fists. You remember blood on lips. His heart was angry.

It just happened to be angry about the right things.

There's no anger now. Resignation is the word that swims to the surface of your mind. And you think, for all that you have changed, so has Steve.

You think.

You're not sure.

***

"Don't be a jerk," Steve is saying.

You like to get him riled. Like to push jokes just too far, just into dangerous, because he puts on a show of resistance, even though he trusts you to pull back right at the edge. You always pull back.

"I'm not being a jerk," you say, "just, don't you think they'd taste good?" The sun is just beginning to set; everything is washed in dirty orange.

"Buck--"

"Look how fat they are!"

Watch his frown deepen, the lines around his eyes scored deep. Wait for it...three, two--

"Maybe one would be okay."

Oh.

Steve looks ashamed and you know that look from him better than almost any look, save for that weird hero-worship thing he does when he thinks you aren't looking. He ebbs and flows between shame and longing and your heart breaks daily. He shouldn't be ashamed about anything. Not about being small; not about being hungry.

"Just, do it quick, okay, Buck?"

***

You follow Steve to the bakery, and then to the park. He sits on a bench. Pinches clumps of stale bread from inside a paper bag. Feeds the pigeons at this feet.

***

Take a breath. Step in close. Watch the orange sunlight on his long lashes.

Say, "Hey."

Say, "I know."

And when he looks at you like he's been waiting--waiting--place your palm over his eyes. Hold it there.

"Keep them shut and don't watch. I'll be back soon."

Steve's ma is working late, so you take the bird back to his apartment. (Bleed it out.) As it cooks, Steve makes the happiest noises you've ever heard and you swear that you will get him a pigeon every goddamned day if it keeps him happy like this. Your slingshot is snug in your back pocket.

You stew it like someone taught you, but you can't remember who.

***

Strategically, this is a terrible idea. Open space. Under-armed. Too many variables. But one of the things you are learning is to tamp down that fear, that gut instinct until it is no longer instinct but choice, so you approach him as if you aren't scared at all. You sit beside him on the bench.

He doesn't look startled. He just pulls off a hunk of day-old bread the size of a baseball and hands it to you.

Muscle memory tears off small pieces and drops them to the ground. Pigeons dart their heads in, clean the grass of crumbs.

"You get tired of staring in my windows?"

You shrug. Break more bread.

"You know I looked for you, right? Of course you know." Steve sighs. "Jesus, Bucky." There is no malice in it.

In your head, you run through the things you know. Steve, you had a crush on Sarah Murphy in the fifth grade. I busted my knuckles more times than I can remember to keep the Sunday school kids from beating you up and I always got twice the penance you did. You were my friend--that wasn't a lie. My fingers sometimes freeze into the shape they make around a trigger and I am a bullet casing from head to toe--

"I always hated these stupid birds," he says, "do you remember?"

You swallow. "You said they sounded pretty. I hated them."

Steve huffs a laugh. "I guess."

Both of you are silent for a while. The paper bag in his hands rustles. If you closed your eyes you could be back on a rooftop with him, lifetimes ago, blood trails stretching back decades. I remember the way the uniform scratched at my skin. That last double date when I should have stayed home with you. I remember campfires and comrades. Learning every curse word the French had to offer. I remember--

Steve breaks the stream. "I didn't know until you were gone. After you got your orders." The paper bag is empty. He wads it up and sets in on the bench. "Mr. Wallace told me."

You stare into the void of your mind, straining for something solid, something familiar, but the name drops into snow, melts there.

"How he sold them to you. The birds. You'd give him whatever change you could, or you'd take out his trash, sweep his floors, feed the pigeons. And he'd send you home with those ugly, flavorless, goddamned birds so you wouldn't have to put them out of their misery." He laughs.

"Wallace." The darkness fades and the trail becomes clearer. "Son of a bitch taught me to make that stew."

"Tasted like potato peels and wood chips."

"Yeah."

Steve leans against your shoulder, cautious at first. You don't push him away. He sinks in, heavy and warm.

***

From the rooftop, you can only see other rooftops. Smokestacks. Smell the dark scent of coal stoves burning away. The free pigeons lift from power lines.

You rest the butt of your slingshot on edge of the roof. You are stretched out behind it.

"Bet I can pick one off from here," you say. You squint one eye, close the other one completely.

"Cannot," Steve says and he shoves a toe at your ribs. Your aim falters.

The rock pings off the side of the opposite building. Falls to the ground.