A Cage Handed Down by Jack Beimler

I thought of Cal then. Tucked underneath his sheets, my mother leaning over to check his forehead for a fever she knew he faked, her touch an Autumn leaf finding it’s place on a soft patch of grass. Those were the moments he would miss. No one could fill that hole.

A few of mom’s church friends dragged their way past me, their dress mimicking their shadows. I must have only been a few feet tall, but in that cemetery, I felt more.

He was still so young, but I think Cal knew what had happened. It wasn’t hard to understand. He no longer had a bed, his toys, the stuffed pig he had carried with him everywhere. No longer had his mother.

I remember the feel of his hand grasping mine. Cold. Clammy. As if he were the one being lowered into the pit; where the maggots and worms would return his flesh back to the earth.

He didn’t cry then, just held my hand. I had done my crying. There were no more tears left, I was a dry and helpless boy, already trapped in a life I could know nothing yet about.

***

The city spoke only with the rumble of the midnight freight on the tracks. The summer night air was cool and snappy, a relentless breeze kept my shirt from sticking to my back.

No matter how many deals I made, I always got anxious.

“Here, put this in your pocket,” I finished the last swig of my root beer and handed Cal the weighty glass bottle.

“What? Why?”

“They’ll think you’re carrying,” I said.

“Oh…do you think that’s a good idea?” he said. I looked down at his freckled face and he glanced away, stuffing the glass inside of his jean jacket.

Cal and I had bounced around from home to home since our own burned down, taking our mother with it. She had done her best to bring us up alright, but by herself, without a family, without help…it was rough.

Each new place we came to seemed to care less about what shit I got myself into, and more about the reimbursement checks coming in every month. I didn’t mind much. I had to learn to make my own way – had to take care of Cal.

The home we were in now might be the worst yet. Mike, our foster-father, was a drunk. Any chance he got he would scream and throw tantrums. He loved violence too. The only days of the year he kept clean were when the government and social workers came by. He had to put on his show to get paid. He was good at it.

I stared down at my feet as we walked to the park. It wasn’t ever really nighttime here. The street lamps always cast a depressing luster on the buildings, replacing the sun at dusk.

Along the edge of the trees, a couple of old benches with a ruddy patina and ancient flaking paint stood before us. I looked over the brush towards a fountain dedicated to some war hero or president in the middle of the park. I didn’t see anyone.

This wasn’t the first time I had dealt with Jimmy’s crew. I met the kid a couple of schools back, and while I never trusted him, he always had cash. This was the first time he’d ever been late though.

We waited in silence for a couple of minutes.

“I don’t think they’re gonna show Gabe,” Cal said, staring at my expression, waiting for something.

“You got somewhere to be?”

“Well. No… I’m a little tired is all,” he said, stretching his legs out on one of the benches.

“We’re gonna wait. He’ll show up,” I said. I sat down on the edge of the sidewalk over a storm drain, the evening’s rain shower rushed underneath me with a steady growl. He better show. What if the cops stopped him…would he mention my name?

My thoughts hurdled around in my head, all the possibilities and endless scenarios played out.

“Who’s the kid?” A high, squeaking voice with a strong Jersey accent spoke out from behind the tree line.

I spun around to see Jimmy, his skinny frame covered by a huge New York Yankees bomber. A couple of his goons flanked either side of him, their eyes drooping, one wearing ripped jeans and a scrappy old sweatshirt marred with paint smears and oil stains, the other barely keeping himself awake, yawning and wiping the crust from his eyes with a handkerchief he had tied around his wrist.

“The hell were you man? I’ve been waiting for twenty minutes,” I said, trying to keep my cool.

“Took me a while to count all that cash bud. I’m no good at math,” he said, a grin stretched over his cheeks.

“Whatever Jimmy. As long as it’s all there,” I said, and pulled out the small bag of powder in my back pocket. I tossed it at him. It wasn’t a lot, but it was all I could safely get my hands on.

“Nice, nice. Hope this is more than half flour, right boys?” He looked to either side of him.

“Come on man just give me the cash. I don’t like the feel out here,” I said.

“Sure man, calm yourself. Here.”  Jimmy pulled out a few bills.

I stuffed the cash in my pocket, nodded at Jimmy and turned to the street. Cal followed.

We walked for a few minutes. A couple of times I looked over towards my little brother, his cropped brown hair and dirty backwards ball cap made him look so young. I guess he was young, but we didn’t have the luxury of youth, of innocence. Not when the place you called home offered no direction, no way out.

That night I lay on top of the covers of the bed I shared with Cal. I couldn’t lay still. I rolled over to face my brother, he faced the window, his breaths were shallow and unbalanced. The walls of our room were chiseled with the cracking of a dozen paint layers. The ceiling’s once flush-white surface was now blemished with the swelling stains of mildew. The wrinkled, scratchy sheets beneath my back offered no comfort.

“Gabe?” Cal said, checking if I was still awake.

“Yeah?” I said.

“Do you… do you remember what mom looked like? I don’t think I can picture her face anymore,” he asked, his voice calm and pensive.

“Yeah, I think so. You can’t remember at all?”

“No… do you think you could you describe her for me?” He asked.

“Uhm. Yeah, sure bud. Of course,” I said. “She was beautiful. Brown curly hair, bright green eyes, she always wore jeans when she wasn’t working. Jeans and that baggy Fredonia sweatshirt. I think she was just starting to show some wrinkles around her eyes but her freckles distracted from them… You got it?

“No, still nothing. I remember the lavender though. I’ll never forget that,”

“Me either. I don’t think she was ever caught without her perfume,” I laughed, sure that Cal was smiling on the other side of the bed. I turned over, pulling the sheets over my chest and switching the fan on the chair next to the bed on. The room was getting sticky. I lay there for a long time, listening to Cal’s uneven breaths turn steady, until they broke intermittently with a soft, rumbling snore.

I swore I felt my mother’s soft lips press against my cheek that night. The springs of the bed released as she sat up and walked out. The wave of lavender flushing past my face, softly sending me into a dark and dreamless sleep.

That morning I woke to a dappled flood of light pushing through the soiled window panes. Not even morning light was pure. The reek of cigarettes fanned through the halls and into our room; it penetrated the floors and breached the doorways, encircling Cal and me in our bed.

“Cal. Wake up bud.” I shoved him. He mumbled. A yes.

“I’m heading to the store. You coming?” I asked. He mumbled. A no.

“I’ll bring you back something to eat.” I said and left, Cal just rolled over.

The moment I left the steps, I could feel the sun’s heat on my scalp. I was relieved, having done the deal with Jimmy. There’s always a bit of danger involved, I knew that too well. It was the nature of the business, and I didn’t have much of a choice. I hadn’t finished school, didn’t have the support to move on from the city. But mostly, Cal didn’t have anything without me. He was a strong kid, but he was just that, a kid, not capable on his own and I knew it. He knew it too.

‘The store’ meant the gas station down the road. Our foster home still fed us enough. Most of the time. These trips were extra. The extra things were what kept Cal and me from losing it. Sodas, stale donuts, chocolate. Cal especially loved chocolate. I picked him up a couple of bars and a root beer.

The walk home brought me past brick buildings and cement barriers, ancient remnants of sidewalk paint and peeling stop signs. A dead place. Ruins and walls keeping the real world out, and keeping it out of my reach.

I turned the corner in front of the foster home. The windows were open in the heat, and I could hear yelling coming from inside. I ran towards the steps, the plastic bag from the store now digging into my palm. I dropped it at the door.

Inside, Cal was crying out, and Mike, our foster-father, was holding him up against the wall. Mike’s face was an inch from Cal’s, veins popped out of his neck. Red, purple, blue. Cal’s face was flush with pain, he couldn’t breathe.

“Where the hell did it go then huh?!” Mike screamed. “Did it just get up and fly out the fuckin window?! I doubt it kid!” He wasn’t letting go.

I ran forward and threw myself against Mike’s body. He was bigger than I was, but he hadn’t heard me come in, and wasn’t expecting me. Cal toppled to the floor and Mike was knocked backward. He reached out to steady himself on the kitchen chair, but it went down with us, catching my shoulder between the sturdy wooden legs. A crack. I looked at my shoulder, it looked fine, felt fine.

“Gabe!” Cal called out from behind me. I pushed forward, my hands around Mike’s neck. Something had spilled during the fall, and my hands were sticky, sliding around his Adam’s apple. I turned my palm, and a deep, dark ruby showed. Mike wasn’t resisting, he looked right at me, but he wasn’t seeing me. I tried to calm the adrenaline from gushing through my brain. I couldn’t feel a pulse under his chin, and the blood was welling on the floor. The rivulets flowed into the cracks between the tiles first, until a great pool caught up and moved forward, claiming more and more of the room. I stood and backed up towards Cal, who had moved into the living room, away from the blood.

A fresh, tangy metallic scent clung to the air. Searing iron.

I looked over at my brother. Behind him, on the staircase, one of the other kids stood watching. They ran up the stairs, yelling for someone, anyone else in the house. I could hear stirring on the second floor.

“We have to go. Now,” I said. I don’t really remember saying this, and maybe I hadn’t, but we sprinted outside and down the street as fast as we could.

We ran for mile or so, down the side streets and back alleys of the city. We moved past an old school and came upon an abandoned playground.

Rotting, rubber swing-set seats fell to the ground and rusted see-saws sported jagged edges and spikes jutting out instead of handles. Stepping onto the grounds was like walking into a swamp. The wooden chips that had once covered the cement foundation were now more like cereal left too long in a bowl of milk. Across the park a long wooden warehouse looked to be on its last legs. Inside I could see the rusted yellow of big machinery the city must have stored in it. We sat at a picnic table and caught our breath.

“Gabe… Where the hell are we going?” Cal said, his eyes darted around and his voice quivered.

“The train.” I said, trying to sound sure of myself. I wasn’t. “We can’t hold off much longer. Let’s move.”

The ground around the tracks vibrated with the coming of the evening train. The small rocks under the bars, the ones that helped drain the raindrops and flooded streets from overtaking the rails, crunched under our feet. I could see the freight’s light at the edge of the far tunnel. I could also hear sirens. Alternating flashes of red, white, and blue created a seizure of light in the smog. The cars screeched to a halt and a group of uniformed men ran along the fence that outlined the tracks.

“Jump on the first open container Cal!” The sirens did their best to drown me out, but he nodded. I looked back and forth between the oncoming hunk of steel and the flock of navy blue shirts that were now shimmying the narrow staircase leading onto the railway. Behind us the train moved by. Cal jumped at the first opening, holding on for a few feet and then falling back onto the gravel. I moved towards him, the men were almost on us. Cal got up and steadied himself, again running with the train. This time when he jumped, I hurled him the rest of the way on board and ran alongside him.

I leapt and flopped my arms around on the hard, cold steel of the container floor. I looked up at Cal as he reached towards my hands, and a look of horror rushed over his face. He grabbed my hands, but they were ripe with sweat. I felt a hard tug at my ankles.

One of the men jumped on me from behind and wrestled my arms behind my back, his knee pinned my neck. I sobbed, my eyes hard and drenched. He held my face down on the cold, broken stones which now dug into the soft flesh of my cheek. My eyes were fixed on the train moving past. The other cops ran after it, but soon stopped.

“Forget the kid! This is the fucker!” the one on top of me said, panting.

I watched the container that Cal was in as the officer’s callused hands pinned me. Cal’s face peered out past the opening of his car. I had no idea where the freight was going, how long it would be before it stopped. Or where Cal would end up.


Jack Beimler is 22, and grew up in upstate New York. He enjoys photography, scuba diving and the outdoors. His first piece of short fiction, The Void was published on Pennyshorts.com. He has an Archaeology and History degree from Binghamton University and has published research in those fields.

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