by MB Austin
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--- MB Austin
For Basha, sine qua non
We’re already in our nightshirts, Maji on the top bunk and me on mine, when she sits up and swears under her breath. The bunk squeaks some more, and she plunks to the ground. “I have to go back,” she whispers, pulling on shorts in the dim light that filters through the curtains from the streetlight.
“What? No! Why?” I’m putting my feet on the floor, scanning for some pants in the piles there.
“Go to sleep, Bubbles. I just left my tape in the player. I’ll be back in twenty.”
By the time I find some shorts, she’s down the stairs and creeping through the kitchen. If I try to catch up, I’ll make too much noise. Dammit!
I lie back down and close my eyes, but it’s no good. I flop one way, then the other. Tonight will be the night she gets caught, I just know it. Out there alone. I start to feel the panic rise, and now I’m afraid I’ll start screaming any minute, and Hannah and Ava will run down the hall from their room, and Maji will get busted by them, when she comes sneaking back in.
I take the calming breaths, and count, like Ava taught me, until the screaming feeling washes away. I have to put my brain someplace calm, so I go back through tonight, playing it back like a movie behind my eyelids. Dinner, then doing the dishes, me washing and Maji drying. Hannah asking what our plans for the evening are.
“Thought we’d go to the park,” Maji lies. Well, not a lie, exactly. I know we’ll go through the park, to give ourselves some distance before we starting scouting for a car to borrow.
“Well, keep your eyes open and – ,” Hannah starts.
“And your shoes laced,” Maji finishes for her. “Yes, Sensei.”
I would never interrupt Hannah like that. But then, Maji does a lot of things that never even occur to me to do. Plus, she’s been training with Hannah for years now, and Hannah’s her godmother. You’d never guess that at the dojo; but at home you can tell.
I still can’t believe Hannah agreed to let us stay out until 11. And go out alone, in the dark. Back in May, when Maji got kicked out of school again and came to stay for the summer, we heard them talking about it. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but if you just sit quietly at the top of the stairs, you can hear everything in the living room.
“Bubbles needs to start getting out on her own, have some unstructured, unsupervised time,” Ava said. “She’s ready for more freedom.”
Maji elbowed me.
“By running loose with the Wild Child?” Hannah replied. You could hear the skepticism in her voice, no need to see that look on her face.
I nudged Maji back.
“Maji will look out for her, and teach her some things about being a teenager,” Ava said.
“That’s what I’m afraid of.” And then Hannah said just one more word, “Havvah.”
I looked at Maji. She shrugged. She’s learned some Hebrew on her own, just listening to them and looking stuff up. She can even read a little, thanks to Friday night dinners. Maji can read and speak English, Spanish, and Farsi already. She’s learning Russian from some babushka in Little Odessa, too. Me, I barely read English. Maji punched the bed when she learned that, and said a bunch of curse words in Spanish. All I caught was “Deacon,” and he deserves whatever she said. Now that reading’s starting to click, I get why she was so pissed, and why Deacon wouldn’t let us. He was afraid of anything that gave us any power at all. Never in a million years would I have gone outside the compound on my own, day or night.
So the very next Friday night, Maji asked what ‘havvah’ means. Hannah and Ava looked at each other, and I knew we were busted for listening in. But Ava just crinkled her eyes, like she does when she’s trying not to smile, and said, “Mischief.”
Hannah’s kind of lectury; so she tagged on, “Wrong-doing. Petty theft, other crimes against property. Nothing as serious as assault, or homicide.” She paused. “So, girls, what else did you learn from our conversation? Which I am assuming you heard all of.”
Maji pushed the fish on her plate with her fork, then looked at them both. “That you aren’t worried whether we can take care of ourselves.”
“True, you will look out for one another.” Hannah agreed. “Follow the five buddy rules. Which are?” She looked at me.
“Um, stay together. No drinking or drugs. No getting in cars with strangers. Stay alert to your surroundings? Uh…” I looked to Maji, stuck for number five.
“Be accountable to one another. One of us acts out, we’re both in trouble.”
Hannah nodded, satisfied. But Ava added, “And, of course, neither of you needs any attention from the county sheriff.”
All I could say to that was, “Yeah.” Cause truer words were never spoken. I needed to keep flying under the radar, out here in quiet little suburban Long Island. After the FBI went after Deacon, they wanted to put me in WitSec, send me to strangers someplace far from NYC and from “home,” both. But Hannah pulled some strings, and the Feds gave me a choice.
When I chose to stay, Ava promised I could start a new life here, go to school with normal kids. OK, she said, “average,” but I know what she meant. And Maji? She could totally take juvvie, she’s the original badass. But that could take years; and it’s bad enough she’s going back to Brooklyn when school starts. I wish she could stay out here with me; but some people have real parents who actually want them. And she’s going to that Queer school, where they’ll let her independent study stuff. The rate she’s going, she’ll know like a dozen languages before we graduate. And I’ll be lucky if I have a diploma. Seriously. Really fucking lucky. I’m not going to let my temper, or my panic attacks, or even all the school I’ve missed out on get in my way. When I think what Deacon would say about girls going to school, much less there being a Queer school for girls like Maji, I don’t know whether to laugh or break something. These days I do a lot of both, making up for lost time.
Turns out I love being outside at night, feeling like we can go anywhere, and do anything. But tonight we just kept walking, never picking a car. Sitting in the swings at the park, watching the sun set over the cove was nice and all; but I’ve been looking forward to taking a ride since Maji brought it up this morning.
The more cars we pass up, the more time I have to think about havvah, the sheriff, and the look on Ava’s face if I got in trouble.
“At this rate, we might as well walk home,” I say, “No matter what car I like, you got some reason it we can’t take it.”
Maji just shrugs. She never apologizes for her rules, and she never backs down from them, either. You don’t want to follow them? Fine; see ya later. Brat. She’s so much like Hannah, you’d think she could see that. But noooo.
I see the Andersen’s spare car in front of their house, and start for it. “Hey! We can take this one again.”
“Bubbles – no!”
But Maji’s too late – my hand’s already on the door handle, lifting up. And there’s the alarm, bouncing around the sleepy, tree-lined street. Crap.
Without even looking at each other, we dash across the street and hunker down behind a minivan. I close my eyes, waiting for sirens. But instead, the alarm stops. We peek through the minivan windows to the dark houses across the street. No lights going on, nobody stepping out onto a porch. I breathe again.
Almost broke Rule #1 – Don’t Get Caught.
“So that’s another reason for rule two, huh?” I can feel myself blush. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
Maji grabs my hand and peels my fingers out of their fist, before the nails can cut my palm. “S’ok, Bubbles. No harm, no foul.”
The Anderson’s car was the first we ever took for a spin, back in May; and it didn’t go berserk like that then. Maji picked it specially because it met Rule #2: Must be unlocked, with keys in it, or hide-a-key handy.
“So, stealing a car is OK, but breaking into it is not?” I said to that one. “You just don’t know how. I bet you never hot-wired a car in your life.”
Maji gave me her ‘I am not amused’ look. “If that’s what I wanted to do, a late ’80’s Civic like this would be perfect,” she said, opening the driver’s door. “Hondas and Toyotas, any econo model, pre-’90, are the top most stolen cars in the US. The last three years, they changed the security, but the 80’s are still OK. If I had a Slim Jim – ” She paused, waited to see if I knew what she meant. I didn’t, but I’m not dumb. Some kind of break-in tool, right? So I nodded.
“OK, I’d slide it right down here, between the window and door panel, mira?”
I saw. I nodded.
“So, now we’re inside, under 10 seconds. Get in.”
I opened the always-unlocked door and slid in behind the wheel, while Maji got in the passenger side. “Where the key goes in – there – you find the gap under that. Go ahead, feel it.” She waited until I did, then went on, patient like I might actually need to know how someday. “So you just stick a screwdriver in there, the flat kind, and pry it open. Cracks the plastic, but now you can pull the wires out, touch the right two, and vroom! Less than 30 seconds, if you practice.”
“Well, that’s easier than stalking your neighbors, figuring out who keeps their keys up for grabs. Why don’t we just do that?”
“Cause joy-riding gets you community service, or a scolding. Breaking shit can send you to juvvie. Tambien, Chica, not everybody’s got the cash or the time to get their car fixed.”
Bingo. She pretends it’s about juvvie, but really it’s about not hurting somebody by mistake. I won’t call her on that, though. She’ll never admit it, just get moody on me. Brat.
So that night we took the key from under the mat, where half the people in Oyster Cove keep them, and drove the Civic to get ice cream down by the marina. Well, Maji drove and I rode, like always. We left the AC off, and rolled down the windows. I love to feel the wind in my face, the horrible daytime stickiness gone after dark. Maji says I’m like a golden retriever, shiny blond hair blowing in the wind, nose in the air, grinning. I never had a dog before; but now I notice them all the time, cruising by in town, noses poked out of back windows. They look really blissed out, the original joy-riders.
“Maybe the first car thief was poor, and just wanted to make his dog happy,” I suggested.
Maji laughed, a thing that totally softens her face. “Maybe.”
Now I think, maybe the Andersens realized somebody’s been borrowing their car, and started locking it up. Which makes me feel bad. Maji shrugs that idea off, though. “Nah, their son’s home again from college. A few months in the City, and he’s probably driving them crazy locking everything all the time.”
“So how ‘bout this one?” I ask, tapping the Aerostar we’ve been hiding behind.
If we grab a car and go right now, we can still follow Rule #3: Always bring the car back where you got it. Before they know it’s gone. Another serious pain in the butt, that one; but Maji knows half the people in this town, and things like where they work and when they come home. I thought she’d have some kinda notebook; but she keeps a million details in her head. If she did anything bad with all those bits and pieces, like gossiping or blackmailing, or acting stalkery, it would be wicked creepy.
But then that would break some other Maji rule, wouldn’t it? So I guess it’s just part of her weirdness. And also how I know she won’t tell anyone else the stuff I tell her, not even Hannah or Ava, or her own Papi. Mr. Rios might be the kindest man I ever met, but still. I need to be able to look people in the eye, and not wonder what they’re thinking about me, you know?
She still hasn’t answered me about the Aerostar. It looks perfect to me – boring, dusty. Old enough to have a cassette player. Not a cop magnet, for sure.
I cross my arms, ready to give up and go home. “So what’s wrong with this one, Maji-san?”
“Look in the back seat.”
I try to see in, but even the street lights aren’t enough. “Gimme the flashlight.”
She hands it to me, and I shine the pale beam into the back. So close we both jump, a siren wails. We hit the ground in a blink, nearly landing on each other. I start laughing, hiding in the damp grass, sheltered by a minivan. The patrol car flies by, reds and blues flashing, the wail getting softer as quickly as it had grown piercing, just a few seconds before.
“Jesus, Bubs,” Maji exhales. “You are such a brat.”
“Am not,” I say, still laughing, pushing myself off the ground. “You are.”
“Am not.” Already on her feet, she bumps me with her hip.
I bump her back. “Are too. That cop had grilled us, you’d have been all, ‘Occifer! Help! We drove off without the baby, and now we’ll never get to babysit again!”
She laughs finally, and shakes her head. “Loca. You did see the car seats, then?”
“Yeah. So. Little kids go to bed early, right? Parents have to stay home and watch them, right? We could borrow it for an hour, still be home in time.”
Maji sighs. “Here’s the thing. I was gonna start teaching you to drive, since I won’t be here soon, ’cept some weekends. And this one’s no good for that. The owner’s a single mom, can’t even afford the car wash, much less body work, you know, if.”
I’m kind of stunned, can’t even think of a comeback, for once.
“Hey, maybe tomorrow night,” she offers. “Grab that douchebag Carpenter’s Beemer, go up to the campus parking lot. He’s so rich, we could total his ride, he’d just order a new one.”
“Um, Maj?” I’m still swimming, looking for words. “I don’t want to drive, yet. I just wanna ride around with you.”
“But, what if you need to get away, and you don’t know how?”
“Chica, I won’t need to get away. I’m safe here.” When I say it out loud, it feels real. Not like when Ava said it to me, letting me try out the idea. “I can wait two years and get my license like the normal kids. Right now, I just want to be a kid.”
I didn’t mean to cry, but sometimes it just hits me like that. At least now I can, you know? Maji puts an arm around me, and we lean against the minivan. When we stand up straight again, our shorts are dusty.
“Hey,” I say. “Why don’t we wash it for her?”
Maji shakes her head. “Car wash is too public. Also, it closed at nine.” She might be the only 14 year old in New York who tracks details like that. How is her brain not full, already?
“What about out at the Fairchild place?” A lot of the old Gold Coast estates, that used to be owned by obscenely rich people who went bankrupt, are being restored by non-profits now. The volunteers go home at night.
The brat smiles that smile that creeps over her face, like she can’t help it. “They have water, and enough light. Cops don’t make a sweep ’til after midnight.”
I want to ask how she knows that last bit, but hold my tongue. Finally, a yes!
Maji pulls the little van away from the curb carefully, and hands me tonight’s soundtrack. Not an actual movie soundtrack, like Star Wars, but ours. Well, Maji’s, anyway. I’m still figuring out what I like. There’s so much! All they played at the squat in Brooklyn was Zeppelin and AC/DC, and that just made my head hurt. Maji laughed when I called it noise, said I sounded old and crotchety like Hannah. Who’s what? 45, maybe.
Surprise, surprise, tonight we have Ani diFranco. She’s cool, really. Kind of angry in a good way. That about sums up Maji’s taste in music, except for the Latin stuff. Now, that stuff is fun. Maybe it’ll be part of my soundtrack, when I can follow the words better.
The drive out takes less than one side of the tape, and Maji turns the van off in the middle of Lullaby of South Brooklyn, which will go on my soundtrack for sure.
Washing a car in the dark, with a hose and just a baby bib we found in the back seat, is a little, well, imprecise. The hose won’t reach to the floodlight by the grand entrance, so we have to drive back and forth, washing and then checking our work. After the second go at it, we’re both antsy about curfew, and a lot damper than we’d meant to get. So we give it one last hose-down, and drive back to town.
Maji goes exactly the speed limit, stops at every sign, and pulls the van back into its spot exactly like it was before. As she puts the keys away under the floor mat, I look down the driveway of the closest house, and what do they have? I start giggling, pointing, until Maji comes around the front of the mostly-clean Aerostar, shushing me. She sees the hose I’m pointing at, and it’s all over. We start jogging home, our sneakers squelching, laughing even though it makes our sides hurt.
Ava’s in the kitchen when we come in, reading a book at the table, under the light that hangs down from the ceiling fan. She looks us over, and her eyebrows both lift. “Oh, my.”
“Sprinklers at the park came on and got us,” Maji lies smoothly.
“Well, get everything into the wash, please. The dirt got you, too.”
Maji nods, and I smile. I love Ava. Hannah too, of course, but Ava most of all.
I open my eyes, stare at the bunk above me. The empty bunk. I shouldn’t worry about her, though. Ava says a worry is just a prayer for trouble. She taught me the movie trick, to see what’s already happened, and see what you think about it, good or bad, now that it’s done and nothing more can happen to you there. But I want this movie to have a real ending, a happy one.
So I picture Maji jogging back, her easy stride, scanning the empty streets for trouble – people, dogs, cops. Nothing in her way. I see her get back into the Aerostar and then – no! There’s a patrol car cruising down the street, shining its light right and left, and I nearly yell out loud for Maji to duck down. I see her flatten out on the seats, waiting; and I breathe again.
I rewind to when the wind was in my hair, the speakers singing me the Lullaby. I’d like to stay there; but we’re on the buddy system and I need to get Maji home safe, somehow. So I decide that even if that cop spots her, she’ll be cool. It’s not illegal to be in an unlocked car, after all. Is it? I’ll ask her when she gets back. Besides, I gave her that great line about babysitting. It could work . . .
And what if the cop in my head took Maji to the station? Hannah would go there and bring her home, that’s all. She’d want the truth, and gives us extra chores, but that’d be ok. That’d be fine, actually. Maji would try to say it was all her; but I wouldn’t let her. And Hannah and Ava would see that I am learning to Be Accountable.
I smile to myself. Tomorrow we should wash Hannah’s car. And not tell her why.
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