I creep out the back of the house. Mother should be climbing into her sleigh of a bed, brother should be watching TV and me, I should be fast asleep but I want to die a little instead.
Sauntering down the driveway, I dig my dirty nails into my pockets, searching for fire. However, there is no answer to my finger’s burning question, so I stick the cancer behind my ear and weave onto the street. It’s a warm summer night, breeze in the trees, and my feet are itching in my three dollar shoes so I promenade down Lawrence Avenue, a skip in my step.
Which I reach the arrow, suddenly I note that my skin is prickling despite the heat. I’ve changed texture from cotton to suede and there’s a shade on the pavement that doesn’t match the scene. I bring my fingers to my neck, touching the Celtic cross that hangs there. It’s an old inside joke with the company I keep.
From behind me, a black sleeve creeps over my shoulder, spider fingers play with the chain of my cross, shadow on my collarbone.
“Hello,” I say, placing my digits on their counterparts. My heart skips a beat. A searing, fleeting pain streaks across my chest, an echo of a past heartache.
“Hello,” my old friend replies. He retracts his touch and falls in step with me. His voice is pleasant to hear. How many years has it been?
As if reading my mind, Jack speaks, “You know, you’re kind of a tease. We don’t see each other too much anymore – just passing glances, a wave or so. Nearly meeting but always a miss.”
“I dare say you’ll catch up with me one day.”
He laughs at my expense. We’ve reached Sprague street, passing by Karrie’s house. All the lights are out. Trying not to be vague, I start shooting the summer breeze, “How’s my sister?”
“Business is booming,” he takes the cigarette from my ear, “an excellent partner. She doesn’t talk much, good for the morgue.”
He touches a finger to the tip of the cancer stick and it begins to smoke.
“Thanks,” I say as he passes it to me.
“Anything to bring us closer,” he replies with a wink.
I think as I inhale the fumes and exhale through my nose. Nicotine absorbs faster that way. By now, my companion and I have strayed to Elm and feeling especially bold, I take Jack’s cold hand. It overwhelms me, his skin. I tremble. He notices my chagrin and lets go, withering some leaves on a tree we pass. As we amble by the Wead library, I nod at a house across the street and ask, “Why are you so hard on Cheryl?”
He sighs and wearily replies, “It’s not my place to question fate. I just do my job.”
Though I find his tone odd, I don’t speak. The only sound is our shuffling feet, the wind in the trees, and the hush when I breathe.
Somewhere down Park, the silence makes me silly and for a lark, I start doing a jig. Jack smiles and joins in, though he’s a bit stiff. If someone were to drive by, they’d probably think we’re high, but we’re just playing with being alive. But after the jig morphs into a hand jive, we decide that things have gotten ridiculous and return to our constitutional. We’re by the hospital now, its façade toothy with neon signs.
Jack ducks inside for a minute, to take care of some business. I don’t mind. I light another little suicide and chill on the curb, humming the opening bars of Another One Bites the Dust.
In just a few moments, Jack is back again. He smells a little like formaldehyde so I walk beside, not behind him. The aroma is carried away on the wind.
We’ve wound our way to Constable street an found our words a bit lost after his occupational jaunt. It’s always weird to see a friend at work.
“When are you going back to Chicago?,” he asks, as if he doesn’t know.
I play along, “Sunday morning, three A.M.” and flick my cigarette butt onto the cement.
“Rail or sky?”
I smile as I reply, “Plane. Statistically it’s the safest way to travel.”
He laughs deeply, “Y’beat me.”
Starting to climb the incline of Prospect, I suspect that Jack’s got something on his mind. There’s a frown on his lips.
I gasp, giving him a flat tire and he trips. “C’mon man, out with it.”
After recovering his balance and a quick glance in my direction, Jack says, “Sometimes it’s hard to leave work at the office.”
As we descend the end of the hill, I give him my best clap on the shoulder. It stings my hand.
But now, after our meandering maze, we’ve made our way back to Lawrence Avenue. As we walk up to number three, Jack says to me, “Well, it’s been great catching up with you.”
“Likewise, my friend,” I say, climbing the steps to the porch.
He stands at the bottom of the stairs. The air moves in the trees around us. I’d embrace him, if his touch didn’t hurt so much.
“You take care of yourself,” he says, about to turn and leave, “and don’t you forget about me.”
I laugh and say, “Jack, you know I’m a sucker for a man in black, and besides, I can’t forget. I wear you around my neck.”
He smiles, then blows me a kiss. I pretend to catch it, but don’t. He won’t know, though. He’s already taken off.
So with a yawn, I open my door as dawn begins to form. It’s late and I need to sleep. Climbing into bed, I'm not worried about seeing Jack again. It’s only a matter of time.