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Unpleasant Ways to Die

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Steve wakes in sunlight and a pool of his own sweat. Everything hurts, especially his head; it's like someone is trying to stab icepicks into his temples. But the hard mattress is solid under him, not rising and falling like the deck of a ship, making him seasick and trying to throw him off. And he can think clearly for the first time in awhile.

He needs to piss and he's terribly thirsty. It's daytime so Ma is at work, and he lies very still for awhile, waiting to see if his head will stop hurting and if he's going to throw up, which he doesn't want to. It doesn't feel like either of those things is going to happen, so he pushes up slowly, which makes his head try to split open. Stops and waits for the rush to clear. His heart flutters under his ribs like a bird's wings.

Steve lies awake sometimes at night, counting heartbeats, waiting for it to skip. He can never quite catch it in the act, but he knows a doctor once told Ma that his heart's going to kill him one of these days. He's not supposed to know about that, and he doesn't really worry about it most of the time, because it wouldn't be a bad way to die, he thinks. There are worse ways. Lots and lots of them.

But he doesn't seem to be dying today, so he goes ahead and sits the rest of the way up. He and Ma sleep together in the back room. It's just big enough for their two narrow iron bedframes, shoved together, and a tall cupboard made from cheap pasteboard. Until last year they slept in the same bed, but Ma managed to score a discarded bedframe from the hospital and then talked or bribed some of the stronger male neighbors into helping her dismantle it and wrestle it up the narrow stairs to the apartment. There's barely room to move in the bedroom anymore, but Steve's a little ashamed of how glad he is that he no longer has to sleep with his mom, even though the beds are so close together they might as well be one. There is at least a psychological separation between them.

The cupboard has been there since he can remember; it still has some of Steve's childhood drawings on it at toddler height. It's where Ma hangs her good dress and keeps the few valuables they own, including their "library". Steve loves books, loves anything with words on it, and even though Ma can barely read herself, she brings home everything she can get her hands on for him: dime novels, catalogues, old pulp magazines with their covers off and half the pages torn out that she bums off the scrap-paper guy. Steve reads to her sometimes in the evenings, picking through the words he doesn't know, learning the shape of them.

But when he's sick, she doesn't read to him -- she tells him stories, her voice gentle and sweet: old stories, stories she heard from her mother as a girl, stories with an Irish lilt and weird, cynical endings, where people turn into birds or bears, and there is a lot of fighting and cattle stealing and magic swords and cauldrons. People die a lot in those stories, often in interesting ways like getting stabbed or trampled by horses or torn apart by wild wolves. A lot of times they come back, either as live people again, or by turning into something else like birds or dragonflies or somebody else's baby. That doesn't happen in real life. Dead people are dead forever, like his dad, whose lungs rotted away from mustard gas before Steve was old enough to remember him.

Steve climbs out of bed, wearing nothing but a sleeping shirt which is cut down from a shirt Mrs. Meacham gave them that used to belong to her oldest son, the one that died of a nervous disease from working in a fertilizer factory out somewhere west. There's an old tin pail shoved under the bed for peeing in. Ma doesn't want him going all the way out to the public hallway and the fourth floor's shared bathroom by himself, not when he's this sick. He uses it and then clambers over Ma's bed and pads barefoot into the kitchen, holding onto the wall because he's still pretty weak and dizzy.

This room is no bigger than the bedroom. There's a table and two chairs and some apple-crate shelves and the cooler in the window made out of a small crate with a wet towel hung over it, which is where they put milk and fruit and things like that, when they have it, to stay cool. In this weather it doesn't do much cooling; the towel is warm and dry when Steve touches it. On the long workbench that is their kitchen counter, there's a two-burner gas ring on little iron feet and their cups and plates, and a sink that discharges into a bucket.

Ma filled up the big pitcher before she left -- they don't have a tap in their apartment, so they get water from down the hall. Steve isn't strong enough to pour it even when his arms aren't limp as dishcloths, so he dips a cup instead. The water is warm but that's all right because it doesn't hurt his sore throat so much.

There is a covered plate on the table, which means one of the old ladies has been here: Mrs. Meacham or Mrs. Rubenstein or maybe Miss Chmakova who cleans people's houses for a living and makes weird little rock-hard tea cakes. Ma leaves the door unlocked so that one or another of the neighbor ladies can stop by with lunch for Steve if they can spare him something. (It's not charity, she says defensively, not that Steve ever asked. It's neighbors looking out for neighbors. Like how we took the pie to the Tilsons after their baby died, Steve, remember?)

He peeks under the flour-sack towel covering the plate to keep the flies off. Shepherd's pie, looks like, made with mostly potatoes and very little meat. He's vaguely hungry but his stomach lurches unhappily at the thought of food, so he doesn't risk it. Instead he puts it in the cooler and wets the towel to help keep it from spoiling in the heat. Ma can eat it tonight. That way she won't have to cook dinner, 'cause she's awful tired when she comes home from the ward.

Despite its tiny size, despite the water stains on the walls and the sagging ceiling, the apartment is immaculately clean: every worn floorboard scrubbed with lime, the table wiped down daily. As well as making sure people don't talk about how Mrs. Rogers can't keep a clean house -- everyone talks about Mrs. Pinder on the second floor and her terrible, messy kitchen -- his mother has a belief that keeping everything clean will stop Steve from getting sick so often. Steve is pretty sure it's not working, but maybe if she didn't, it would be much worse.

Steve dips another cup of water and sits at the table to drink it, holding it in both hands. There is a calendar hanging on the wall from Mr. Wladyslaw's grocery and looking at the carefully marked-off days makes him notice he's not nine anymore, but ten. His birthday was four days ago. He doesn't remember it. That seems fundamentally unfair to him, a basic injustice in the underpinnings of the world.

Something taps on the window in the bedroom.

Steve knows that sound. He puts down the cup and wobbles into the bedroom, climbs on the beds and pushes back the thin curtains made from one of Ma's old gingham dresses that got too tattered to wear. By that time Bucky's already done the trick to make the window open from the outside. They figured it out together: you push the blade of a penknife between sash and sill to pop up the little catch that's supposed to hold the window closed.

Bucky grins at him, red-faced from the July heat, his dark hair plastered to his forehead with sweat. Bucky runs everywhere, even in the middle of summer when heat shimmers off the asphalt. He's got a burlap sack with him, dusty and filthy with some kind of lump in the bottom of it. "Hey Steve, lemme in. I got to give you your birthday present."

Steve catches the window sash as Bucky pushes it up, trying to pull it back down with his thin arms. "You can't come in. I'm sick and you'll catch it." Since Bucky shows every sign of ignoring him and coming in anyway, he says quickly, "I have -- diphtheria."

"You do not," Bucky says, effortlessly resisting Steve's weak attempts to pull the window closed. "Prove it. Show me your tongue."

One thing about being a nurse's son: Steve knows all the diseases, collects trivia about their worst and most destructive symptoms like baseball cards, and shares it with Bucky, who is equally fascinated. Unfortunately this means that Bucky knows all the symptoms too.

"Okay, it's not diphtheria, it's worse. It's plague," Steve says. "That killed about fifty million people in the Middle Ages, they basically puked up all their guts in the form of blood, so I don't think I would really want to get close to me if I were you."

"Steve, you don't have plague or diphtheria, you don't have typhoid or TB or polio -- though I sure wouldn't put it past you -- or apoplexy or sleeping sickness or cancer. Whatever it is, I probably already had it, or my sisters did 'cause they're always sick. I don't ever get sick anyway."

"You got mumps last March."

"Right, so I can't get sick, 'cause once you had it, you won't have it again."

"I don't have mumps, stupid. And you still shouldn't come in," Steve argues, stubborn and protective to the last.

"Well then, you come out here," Bucky says. "That's better, right? Can't catch anything in the fresh air."

Steve thinks there's something wrong with this logic, but his head hurts too much to figure it out, so he climbs out the window in nothing but Mrs. Meacham's son's cut-down shirt and sprawls on the fire escape beside Bucky.

It's devilishly hot out here, though not quite as hot as the bedroom. Strings of laundry pinned to the fire escape's railing -- theirs and the next-door neighbor's -- flutter apathetically in what passes for a sort of breeze. Steve crawls into their feeble shade. In spite of the water, his mouth is still horribly dry and he can't quite breathe right; the hot, humid Brooklyn air is like a wet garbage-flavored towel covering his mouth and nose. His heart is doing that stupid wrong-beating thing again, twitching under his ribs. It does it when he runs sometimes, and right now just walking across the tiny apartment makes him feel like he's run a race.

"You look awful," Bucky says.

"You too, buttface," Steve retorts, kicking him with one small bare foot, right under the ribs where he knows it hurts.

Bucky rolls away into the iron railing, clutching his side. "Okay, I won't give you any presents, I'll just keep them all for myself."

Steve kicks at him again and misses. Bucky rolls back over to him, bumping into him and squishing him into the brick side of the building. It is way too hot for roughhousing, and the jostling makes Steve's head hurt more.

"Say the word," Bucky says happily.


"Not that word."


"Not that one either. Guess what I got you."

"Give it to me or I'll push you off this fire escape and you'll die." That would be an interesting way to die, Steve thinks idly, smashed flat on the sidewalk, but it would probably hurt a lot. Unless you fell on your head, in which case it would be quick and probably not painful at all. Mrs. Tilson's baby fell off the fifth-floor fire escape last summer. It died. Mrs. Tilson has six other children, but she still looked very sad and thin for a long time after that. Everyone made their kids stay off the fire escapes for a while -- or tried to; things reverted back to normal pretty quickly, since the fire escapes are the tenement children's main thoroughfare.

Bucky grins, clearly unconcerned about falling to his doom. "Not until you guess."

"Dead rats?" Steve suggests. Bucky sticks out his tongue. "Maybe that's where I got the plague from. That's what spreads it, you know. They bite you and then you die. Horribly."

"That's stupid. Dead rats can't bite anybody."

"Huh," Steve says, because that's a good point, even though he distinctly remembers plagues and piles of dead rats from a book he read, but how does it work exactly? Maybe he's wrong about where plague comes from. He'll have to ask Ma.

Bucky's ten-year-old patience breaks and he gives up on guessing games, dumping out the sack's contents on the fire escape. Steve sits up enough to see that it's a fat magazine with a cheap two-color cover, heavily smudged from its ride in the sack.

"It's the new Astonishing Detective Tales," Bucky says, shaking it off and dropping it on Steve's scabby knees. "There's a new Simon Grant story and a chapter of Big Dick Larson and this pretty swell one where this guy gets stabbed in the eye with a letter opener, the pictures are really --"

"Don't tell me before I can read it," Steve protests, snatching the magazine. He squints at the slightly mangled cover. It is the new one, fresh on newsstands this week. "Where'd you get this?"

"Bought it," Bucky says smugly. "I got paid for helping Cousin Jack stack milk cans on the cart."

And he'd spent the dime on a book for Steve, which makes Steve's faulty heart swell warmly. Bucky had also run a certain amount of risk just having the magazine in his possession. Bucky's ma thoroughly disapproves of his and Steve's fascination with the lurid, violent pulps. Steve's ma doesn't seem to mind, possibly because she doesn't read and therefore doesn't know what the magazines are about. Bucky's ma, though, would probably rather have her son toting around a sack full of dead rats.

Steve's going to have to come up with something nice for Bucky's birthday. Luckily it's not 'til November, and therefore too far away to even imagine in this sticky July heat. Bucky is a winter baby, therefore technically a year older than Steve for half the year, but still in the same class with him. Which is lucky, Steve thinks; being friends with a fifth grader while he himself is in the fourth grade would be, of course, unthinkable.

For awhile, a companionable peace settles on the fire escape while Steve pages through his new magazine and Bucky offers color commentary over his shoulder. Around them, life in the tenement proceeds as usual. The Tilsons are fighting on the fifth floor -- loudly, with the window open. Mr. Tilson is out of work and it sounds like he's drunk in the afternoon again. (He's unwell from the war, Steve's ma once explained to him. Like my pa? Steve asked. No, she said, not like your pa, and didn't elaborate.) A floor below the boys, one of Miss Chmakova's cats is having a domestic spat of her own with a scrawny tabby with a kinked tail. Doors slam; feet pound up stairs; cars jostle for street space with ash-wagon horses and their surly, shouting drovers. It's the hum of the city and Steve tunes it out automatically.

Sometimes very late at the night, though, the street is so quiet that it wakes him, leaves him lying awake in his narrow bed with a sense of doom pressing on him. Counting heartbeats. Wondering what his ma would think if she woke to find him cold and stiff beside her. Wishing he could tell her it's all right, he doesn't mind so much. It's just how things are.

After all, the pulps and his ma's old stories are full of death. Steve knows a lot of people who have died: Mrs. Tilson's baby, Bucky's uncle who got crushed in a scrap-metal plant accident, the Brady twins in his and Bucky's class who both died of the flu last winter, Mary Prentiss who died of typhoid the year before that, Mrs. Meacham's grown-up but not-right-in-the-head daughter who ate rat poison thinking it was sugar, and her son who wasted away from a disease of the nerves. That hobo who froze to death right in the building doorway and lay there for two days before someone finally took him away. Lydia Moncrief on the first floor, who went away to her sister's (Ma said) and had something happen there and never came back.

Steve's dad.

Even young healthy people die. It doesn't save you to be smart or strong or have a constitution like an ox. The world is like that.

He turns a page of the detective magazine to a picture of a man using a gun to threaten a frightened-looking woman clutching a curly-haired little girl. People in the pulps are always getting shot, but Steve doesn't know anybody in real life who's been shot. His head hurts too much to read the story -- the words keep blurring and twisting and not making sense -- so he looks at the pictures instead.

"That guy looks exactly like Miss C's suitor," Bucky says, leaning over Steve's shoulder to smudge the page with a dirty finger. Miss Chmakova is being romanced by a beetle-browed old fellow who has a barber shop down the street that is supposed to be a front for a speakeasy. During those summer halcyon days between the time that school let out and when Steve got sick again in late June, he and Bucky followed the man a few times, trying to figure out if it's true. They really wanted to see a speakeasy. Unfortunately it just looked like a barber shop, from the outside anyway.

"He looks like a guy who shoots people for fun," Steve says. "Do you know anybody who died of getting shot, Bucky?" He defers to Bucky in matters like this, because Bucky is most of a year older and always knows the good stories.

"One of the guys that works with my dad shot himself," Bucky says. He rolls onto his back and looks up into the cloudless bowl of the sky.

Steve hasn't heard this story before. Bucky's been holding out on him. "Where?"

"Uh, I think probably he did it at home. I can ask my dad."

"No, in the head or what? Under the chin? That's the usual place for a suicide with a gun." According to pictures in the pulps, anyway. And the funnies in the paper, where it's a pretty goofy joke -- people killing themselves with a rifle, using a string to pull the trigger.

"Oh," Bucky says. "I don't know. Don't you think it would be in the head, probably? In the brains? That's what I'd do. I mean, it doesn't make much sense to shoot yourself in the foot if you're gonna."

"Or in the gut, that'd also be stupid," Steve says, knowledgeable. Both he and Bucky read way too many detective and Western stories not to know that people shot in the gut take forever to die.

"Or that," Bucky agrees.

"Why'd he do it?"

"I dunno, prob'ly cause he wanted to. Why'd --?" Bucky stops himself.

Steve twists around to look at him. "Why'd what?"

"Nothing," Bucky says. "I wasn't gonna --"

"Why'd what?"

"Why'd your dad," Bucky says, a little reluctantly.

Steve's heart does something unpleasant and new. "My dad didn't. He died from mustard gas. It rotted his lungs."

"My ma said --" Bucky stops himself again. He shakes his head.

Steve knows, though he doesn't like to think about it, that Bucky's folks don't approve of his friendship with Steve. They think Steve is a bad influence. He just has a ma and not a pa. He lives two streets over from the Barneses, in a rat-infested tenement with no running water or heat. The Barneses have three rooms, not two, for themselves and their four children; they have a cold-water tap in the kitchen and a coal stove. Poverty is a ladder, and the Barnes family is on the rung above the Rogerses, and not at all interested in being dragged back down.

Still, he likes Mrs. Barnes; he knows she probably wouldn't invite Sarah Rogers over for coffee, but she's always nice to Steve when Bucky brings him by, and gives him cookies and sometimes a basket of potatoes or a patched old winter coat to take home to his ma.

"Take it back," Steve says, balling up his fists.

Bucky refuses to rise to the fight Steve's clearly spoiling for. "I'm just saying what my ma said. I wasn't even supposed to hear."

"Your ma's a liar!"

Now it's Bucky's turn to flare with anger. "She's not! Take it back."

"You take it back!" Steve yells -- not much of a yell; his lungs aren't up to it at the moment -- and piles onto him.

However, Bucky is much bigger than Steve, and Steve is kitten-weak right now anyway, so Bucky holds him at arm's length without too much trouble. "I oughta pop you in the mouth for saying that about my ma, but you're sick and I don't hit littler kids anyway, and -- ow!" Steve, driven beyond endurance, bites him.

Bucky drops him in a heap. The metal of the fire escape is hot enough to hurt his bare knees.

Steve scowls at him with all the fury his tiny, illness-ravaged, just-barely-ten-year-old frame can muster, before the swirling intersection of heat and sickness, dehydration and anger and not having eaten properly in a week catches up with him, and he decides that he's probably going to throw up after all. Not wanting to do it in front of Bucky, not wanting to look at Bucky just now, Steve crawls through the window, abandoning both the magazine and his former best friend on the fire escape. He slams the window and, for good measure, throws the locking catch.

Spots dance in front of his vision and he's still miserably sure he's going to throw up. He stumbles into the kitchen, finds a flowered mixing bowl of his ma's, and takes it onto his bed with him, where he curls up around it.

He doesn't actually throw up, as it turns out, just lies tucked into a small ball of nausea and dizziness and hurt. After a long, miserable while, there's a rattling at the window and Bucky pops the lock with his penknife and opens it.

"Go 'way," Steve mumbles.

Bucky, of course, ignores him. He crawls through the window onto the bed, bringing the magazine with him. "You dropped this."

"Go away," Steve repeats, and then gags.

Bucky blanches and retreats to Steve's mother's bed, which he apparently thinks is less germ-ridden, or at least less proximate to a soon-to-be-puking Steve. "Are you gonna be sick?"

"Yes," Steve tells him, and gags on purpose this time in the hopes it'll make him go away. Bucky generally has a low tolerance for the messier aspects of Steve's near-constant bouts with sickness. He seems to enjoy sprawling on Steve's bed with him when Steve is sick, entertaining Steve with comic books and funny impressions of their classmates and teachers, but he doesn't have much interest in playing nurse and usually finds somewhere else to be if it looks like there are going to be bodily fluids involved or if Steve is too feverish to talk to him.

It doesn't work this time, though. Bucky stretches out on Steve's ma's bed. Steve decides to ignore him while his body decides if it's going to be sick or not.

It's the worst, hottest part of the afternoon. The sun shines straight into the bedroom through the thin gingham curtains. The room is an oven, one that stinks of the sweat of illness, of urine from the pail under the bed.

After awhile Bucky says, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't'a said that about your dad. I never meant to."

Steve pretends to be too sick to answer, though the urge to throw up is mostly gone. It's not Bucky he's mad at, not really; he's finally realized this, but the truth is worse, because although he knows that adults can lie, and adults can be malicious, he has never been forced to face the fact that people we like, people who like us, can lie to us, can be unthinkingly cruel. Either his ma lied to him all these years about his dad, or Bucky's ma spreads malicious gossip about his family behind his back; at least one of these things has to be true, possibly both of them. It upsets all his beliefs about the fundamentally just nature of the world, and if the world is not a place of pattern and justice, then his own death is an equally senseless thing.

"Can I get you anything?" Bucky asks.

Bucky doesn't fetch and carry for him when he's sick, either -- if Steve literally can't get out of bed, then Ma usually tries to get one of the elderly neighbor ladies or a between-jobs neighbor to look in on him during the day, and otherwise it mostly doesn't occur to Steve to ask, or to Bucky to offer.

But he's too tired and miserable to get up, and his throat is so dry it's making him sick to his stomach all over again, and he finally says, reluctant and a bit sullen, "I'm thirsty."

Bucky slips off the bed. There's some clunking around, and he eventually, after half of forever and so much clattering that it seems like he must have picked up everything in the kitchen at least once, comes back with a cup half-full of water. It's the wrong cup, it's Steve's ma's cup, but Steve doesn't mind. He has to hold it with both hands to drink. His arms tremble at the weight.

"You're relapsing, aren't you?" Bucky says. He hunches on Steve's ma's bed, his hands between his knees. "I shouldn't'a drug you out on the fire escape. The sun's not good for invalids, Ma says."

Steve doesn't want to think about Bucky's ma right now. That topic is too sore to touch, so he says instead, with deep resentment, "I'm not an invalid."

"No, 'course not, didn't mean nothing by it."

And for awhile he's quiet again in the too-hot room. Bucky isn't quiet very often; he's the sort of child who is always moving, always talking. But Steve is often quiet, and Bucky can be quiet with Steve, just the two of them in a comfortable silence where nothing really needs to be said.

And Steve wants to break it, wants to say, I'm not going to grow up, one of these days one of these things that always makes me so sick is going to kill me. And he wants to say, You should stop coming over, you're going to catch what I have and die of it too. Except that's not the problem, not really; Bucky is strong, and Bucky is tough, and even though Steve knows that strong and tough people can still die -- of guns, of wolves, of crushing factory machinery -- he doesn't think Bucky will die of the sort of things that threaten Steve.

The problem is that it isn't fair for Bucky's best friend to up and die on him. This isn't a thought that ever occurred to Steve when he was nine years old. This is a ten-year-old thought. He thinks if he were a good friend, he'd make Bucky go away and not come back. But he doesn't want to, because he never really had a friend 'til Bucky came along, certainly not a best friend. He doesn't remember how he got along without someone to come over when he's sick and bring detective magazines for him to read. He doesn't want to have to learn it all over again. He's not a good enough friend to protect the one friend he has.

The walls seem to bow inward, pressing the air in the room tighter around him, and his headache is splitting his skull. Bucky's right, his fever is coming back.

He's so tired of being sick all the time.

"Hey." A hard but yielding object pokes him in the arm. Steve cracks open his aching eyes to discover that the object is the detective magazine, rolled into a stiff cylinder and wielded by Bucky. "You oughta read the Larson story, at least. Remember, he was tied up in the safe and the gang was gonna blow it up with dynamite? You'll never guess how he gets out."

"Don't want to," Steve mumbles, closing his eyes again. It's really more like can't. Even the sunlight behind the thin curtains, painting the walls in gingham flowers, hurts his eyes and sends a fresh spike stabbing through his skull. He's pretty sure trying to concentrate on the tiny, swimming text on the page really will make him throw up. But there's something else he needs to say, so he forces his eyes open again, even though it hurts. "Thanks, Buck. It's a real good present. I'll read it later, when I'm better."

"I could read it to you?" Bucky offers, sounding a little embarrassed.

Steve still wishes Bucky would go away and let him die properly, in peace, but the idea of something to pull him out of his increasingly miserable downward brooding spiral is appealing. And he feels too awful to argue. "Okay."

Bucky's never read out loud to him before, and it soon becomes clear that even though Bucky can read okay on his own, the way he reads when he's called upon to recite in school -- jerky, halting, mispronouncing half the words and stumbling over the other half -- isn't just Bucky being his usual self and playing at being dumber than he is. Bucky is good at a lot of things, but not this.

But he's right, it's an exciting story. Steve pushes the bowl away -- though he keeps it close in case he needs it -- and curls on his side facing Bucky, on top of the covers with the nightshirt draped over his skinny legs.

Bucky reads to him, enthusiastically but badly, about the adventures of Big Dick Larson and other people with equally colorful names, exploring new and interesting ways to die.

Steve shivers in the grip of a fever that might or might not be his final one, and falls asleep at last, his back to the window and the hard hot Brooklyn sky; his body curled toward Bucky like a flower to the sun.