Their voices carry down the hallway like a freight train letting off all her bells and whistles – the steam is named Spades Slick. I can hear them all in the parlor. From the rhythmic slow tune played on my Father's chords, I can tell he's trying to talk some sense into Slick again. A deep voice and a high voice, like the outermost ranges of a barbershop quartet, accompany the others and banter back and forth. Another meeting of the Midnight Crew which my innocent ears shouldn't be privy to, or so Father would say.
It's safe, I whisper to no one but myself – checking both ways before I cross the street like the good little girl I am. It is safe, just so long as I can ghost past that open door.
I clutch my teacup with one hand, skirt draped over my arm like a waiter at one of those fancy Italian places Father sometimes takes us to, and topped off with Father's old fedora snug on my head. I step out gentle, toeing inches and wary of creaky wood floors.
Down the hallway I go – a panther in a forest of expensive monochrome vases and gray Art Deco women.
It's just as I'm slipping past that open door that I freeze. I didn't intend to look in the room; Father tends to be mad at me if I eavesdrop, accidental or not. But what I glimpse with my own two eyes makes me petrify faster than if I had signed up for a staring contest with Medusa.
Face flat into our billiards table is planted a blond boy, not much different in age than myself. Slick has his cane raised above his head, intent to bring in down on this boy's back. But there's Father, jabbing at Slick with a cuestick as if he were the last ball on the table that needs to be sunk.
Spades Slick, corner pocket.
Boxcars and Deuce are just standing out of the way. Smart of them, to remain out of Father's and Slick's bickering. They always leave a path of destruction with each of their little marital tiffs.
“You working for English, you little brat?”
“He told you he wasn't, Slick. And anyway, what would English want with a scruffy little rat like this.” My Father, always the voice of cool reason.
A cry of pain.
A shattering of a teacup.
It takes me a moment to realize that shatter could be blamed on me. It would also explain why they were all looking at me.
“He said he wasn't working for him,” I cry out, stepping forward into the sherds of porcelain and ignoring the biting of all those ravenous teeth into the bottoms of my feet.
“He could be lying,” Slick growls at me.
“Aradia! Get out of her now,” and Father is glaring desperately at me.
I refuse. I would refuse until I was blue in the face. I step again, past the door frame. How could they, I fumed. To just a boy!
And that boy peers up at me from a head raised with such obvious effort. His eyes meet mine, red like the snake eyes of the dice he carries. Yes, I recognized him. He silently pleads at me.
I step forward again, glaring at the men in the room. How could they?
“You are sorely mistaken, gentlemen, if you think I will walk away and let you beat a little beggar kid within an inch of his life. You really think this boy is working for English? You should retire, Slick. Go buy yourself a nice little home with all the other senile folks and a terrier to keep you company. And you Father, I'm ashamed!”
I slam my fist down on the green felt with the strongest conviction I've felt since Father tried to force me into finishing school.
Boxcars and Deuce edge towards the walls, preparing for the inevitable blow up.
“Working for English or not,” Slick spits at me, “The brat had no right running his street dice in our territory.”
“You heartless fucking -”
“Aradia, watch your mouth!”
“- bastard! Dave was just trying to feed himself and his brother!”
“You know him?”
“Yes, Father,” I sigh in exasperation. He's completely missing the point. “I know this boy. I know him enough to wear the ribbon he gave me after we talked in the park one afternoon. To know he's an orphan. To know that his older brother does worse than roll some dice in an alley to try and feed them. I know him enough to know exactly what lowlifes you four are!”
I reach over the table and place my hand into Dave's own; it's clammy and tense. He is just staring at me incredulously, as if he's seeing something he's never witnessed before. I smile at him, gentle and reassuring.
He groans like a rundown shack in a thunderstorm as we work together to get him off the billiard table. He stumbles and I lean him on my shoulder, a little hard with him being taller than me but I make it work.
Walking from the room, I sweep the broken teacup aside with my foot and ignore the sting. I'm sure I'm leaving bloody footprints behind at this point, but I can't find it in myself to care about anyone but Dave at the moment.
I glare over my shoulder - sharper than any dagger Slick has ever carried. The men recoil, and I feel slightly proud of myself for that act.
“I'm taking him to my bedroom, and none of you are to come anywhere near there or I swear to all that is Holy," a dramatic pause, "I will stop time just to make sure I can draw out your pain and then keep your ghosts around so I can make your afterlife Hell, too!”
I watch with barely concealed glee as the four men gulp and stare at me.
Safely in the privacy of my own chambers, I finally let out a strained laugh. My nerves are shot and I feel like the slightest breeze could blow me over at any moment. I lean against the door and just concentrate on slow rhythmic breaths.
Weakly, I raise my hand and point Dave towards my bed. He just stares at me.
With one final deep inhale, I swing the door open like I'm about to make my grand entrance in the strange film that is my life. Head held high with the mission I've been tasked with, I complete my journey to that very kitchen that was my original intended destination.
A few minutes after, I pass by the parlor once more having fetched some hot water and clean cloths to wash Dave up, the four of them were still standing in place like their feet had grown roots.
When I return to my bedroom, Dave is fidgeting on my bed. He bleeds on my white duvet, where ever he touches with his scraped hands covered in the sticky red from when he clearly wiped at his nose or lip.
It's alright, I was hoping for a new dark red bedding set anyway.
And at least he sat down.
I smile at him as I come to sit next to him. I feel mute – voice stolen by some sorcery I know not. No words even come to mind.
He looks at me warily as I bring a cloth to his face. He flinches, but I must persist because I'm sure that he remembers me from the few times we've spoken over the years. Of course, that was before he knew who my father and his friends were.
It's quite the task to clean this boy up. I won't lie. But the damage is revealed to be a lot less than it seems. Most of that mess must have poured like a waterfall from his nose; it was probably thunderous.
“You're going to be alright, Dave,” and I lay my hand on his.
He just looks at me with a straight face. No emotions. No words.
“We have to go through thousands of hardships sometimes to really get to that place in life where we're supposed to be,” I try again.
“Yeah. Cool. Thanks for that insight. What are you my fairy godmother,” he deadpans.
I wipe more of the blood from under his chin, staring in wonder at how he could have lost so much for it to have gotten this far down his neck. I swear, those bastards will answer for this. But now isn't the time for anger. Now is time to take care of Dave and make sure he will be alright after all this.
“No,” I smile. He'll trust me on this. He just has to. “But I would like to be your friend. I'm sure we could get through a lot of things better together.”
His face still doesn't tell me anything about how he is taking my words. But he doesn't seem upset, so I take that as a good thing.
I slowly run a hand through Dave's white gold hair. He doesn't flinch this time. He just stares at me with those wide red eyes like a deer in the headlights, not sure what his next step should be and too scared to just get the heck out of there.
Fine by me. He can stay just as long as he likes.
Dave's hand twitches, like it's itching to grab something. He stares at the strands of hair that have fallen in front of my ear. I push it back out of the way for him.
Time will only tell if he can fully recover from this or trust me, but I have hope.
At this point, he just acts very twitchy around any sudden movements or words that I say. He looks like he just really needs to rest.
“Why don't you get some rest now and we can start our grand adventures tomorrow,” I offer.
He looks down at the bed and back up at me. I pat the bed emphatically, like I'm a drummer calling the people back to the village for some important news. And maybe this is just that important. Maybe it's just the most important thing I've ever done.
“Don't go getting frisky on me, lady,” he warns, a tinge of seriousness behind the sarcasm.
“I wouldn't dream of it even in a different lifetimes,” I swear, palm held forward.
And I only speak the truth. All I want is to be there for him for comfort and support. To hold him and tell him that we can make things better. To guide him through this tough time and help him find the beat in his step once again.
He doesn't trust me to do this for him yet, but I can see something in him that is begging for it. I know he will come around eventually and I have no intention of missing that moment when he reaches back to me.
We slip under the duvet together wordlessly, sticking to our own sides of the bed even though I want nothing more than to hold him and shoosh his pain away.
My fedora hangs off one of the bed posts as I begin to drift off to sleep.
Behind me, there is a shuffle of movement. Dave presses his back up against mine and I grin through my tiredness. I reach my hand back and almost immediately it is met by his. We twist our fingers together awkwardly behind our backs.
As my consciousness fades out, I realize that I still haven't heard any more noises from the parlor. Serves 'em right. I squeeze the hand in mine. I fall asleep with a half-smirk and half-smile plastered across my face.