The Children of Nine
Thick curtains weighed heavily against the high windows of the drawing-room. They narrowed the tunnel of light to a sliver between burgundy velvet. I had never been in the mayor’s house before, but this is exactly how I’d imagined it, dark and grand with an air of mystery, like the lair of a rich villain.
All the houses on Nine street looked like they had been through a washing machine on a quick spin cycle. They were rotting, falling apart like decaying corpses. All of them, except for this grand estate, which sat neatly by itself at the top of the hill, shining like a gem that had sucked all the beauty out of the rest of the street.
“Tea?” a woman wearing a peach dress asked me. She wore a white apron around her waist and looked about fifty, with crow’s feet and deep forehead lines that aged her. However, there was enough joy left in her smile to suggest not a total lack of liveliness.
I nodded my head. “With lots of milk. And sugar. Please.” The woman smiled and took the mayor’s order before swiftly leaving the drawing-room.
I looked across the decedent carpet to the other side of the room where the mayor and Phillip, his son, sat in parallel leather chairs, looking almost identical in their tan trousers and pale-coloured button-up shirts. They both were well-groomed and clean, unlike Jack and I, who were due for a shower. We were squished together on the emerald paisley sofa, sitting in each other's filth, wearing torn mitts and shredded jeans. My sweatshirt barely covered my stomach anymore for I had outgrown it months ago.
“How old are you both?” The mayor asked.
Jack spoke up first. “I’m sixteen, sir.”
“Phil’s age,” the mayor noted. Phillip adjusted his posture at the cue of his moniker. “And you?” he nodded towards me.
I tugged on my ribbed beanie so that it covered my ears, still numb from the cold winter air. “I’m eleven,” I said.
The mayor’s eyes widened. “Milly…How long have you been living on Nine street?
“I been here since I was ten, sir,” Jack answered.
“I asked Milly,” said the mayor sternly.
I counted on my fingers. “Since I was bout nine,” I croaked. The mayor shook his head in disbelief.
“Where do your folks live?”
“Can’t remember, never learnt what street it was called.”
His brow furrowed. “What do you mean you can’t remember? Surely you know your home address.” His tone had shifted to that of a wolf’s growl. It made my skin feel loose as if something was crawling underneath.
“I was too young to learnt it, sir.”
He tightened his fist, angered. It wasn’t my fault I was too young to have memorized the address. Besides, I had no plans on going back.
“Fine,” he snapped. It made me jump. “Jack, where are you from?”
Jack crossed his arms and shook his head. “I ain’t tellin' you. I ain’t going back there.”
I sometimes forgot that Jack went through it too. That he also endured the unspeakable for the first ten years of his life before he split and hopped a train and ended up here, on Nine Street; the dogy part of town where the train dragged in runaways and homeless vets, all people who were trying to forget part of their violent past.
“Do you kids want cookies?” the woman in the peach dress asked, having returned with my tea. She set the teacup down on the wooden coffee table in front of me, nestling the floral cup onto a saucer adorned with matching pink roses. The smell of creamy bergamot wafted up my nose, warming my insides, softening my bitter edges.
“Not now, Alyse,” the mayor snapped. “we’re in the middle of something serious! Why won’t anyone take this seriously?” he slammed his fist onto the giant, glossy grand piano beside him, mashing his hand into the ivory so that a loud, jumbled-up chord of randomly excited keys let out a violent shriek.
“Mr. Rogers…” Alyse began, softly, “…They’re just kids.”
“They’re criminals!” he hollered. Then he locked eyes with me. “Phillip told me what you two have been up to.”
I shrugged. What Jack and I did was no secret to the children of Nine street. It was what earned us respect. It’s what filled our pockets and our bellies. And certainly, it was no big deal. Right?
That was the question lately. It played in my head every time Jack picked our target. My stomach would feel like a fishbowl, all shaken up until its contents were floating around in disarray. Lately, the thrill of the hunt hadn’t been the same. The look on their faces was ghostly as if I could see the skin rotting off their corpses while they were alive.
“Jack picks the target. Then Milly goes and does it because they don’t expect those pigtails and rosy cheeks to belong to such a delinquent,” Phillip said. It was clear he was reiterating information he had already told his papa, for the mayor merely nodded at his statement while keeping his beady hawk-like eyes locked onto mine.
“We need the money,” I finally said. I didn’t know why I felt like making excuses. Jack and I were just surviving. Survival means a lot of things and sometimes it's messy. Survival meant doing whatever it took. Survival meant running away to Nine street and living under park benches and in subway stops.
“What you’re doing is wrong. It's disgusting and horrid.”
“Who’s to say?” Jack countered.
“The law! Society!” The mayor threw his hands in the air. “Didn’t your parents ever teach you right from wrong?”
We paused. Jack and I looked at each other as if checking one another’s knowledge of ethics. Alas, our definition of the words ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ only amounted to one funny thought:
“To kill a mockingbird is cruel, but to squish an ant is harmless; human rules are fickle,” I said. It's what Papa would say as he’d haul me over the couch. The sound of my head ricocheting off the TV stand still echoed behind the jagged scar left on my temple. Papa said humans wanted pain because it was the only real feeling. Love and comfort are fleeting, but pain stays buried behind broken hearts and hollowed eyes.
The mayor blinked back at me in silence. Then finally, “human laws are not fickle. You two should be in prison!” He was shouting again, and it made me want to cry. Snot ran from my nose and salted tears stung the tiny scratches on my cheeks. I hated when adults yelled at me. It reminded me of how small my father made me feel, how helpless. Living on Nine street with Jack gave me strength. I had power, a reputation, goals, and most importantly, a life.
“What do you want from her?” Jack shouted. The mayor jumped slightly as if he had forgotten Jack existed. I looked up at him; he was noticeably taller after hitting his growth spurt last year, and his face was changing too. There were red spots and his voice had dropped a couple of octaves. He was starting to look like a man, and it frightened me.
“Jack, leave the room,” The mayor demanded. “Stand in the hall. And don’t touch anything.” He pointed to the dark oak archway which led out of the drawing-room into the foyer. “Alyse, watch him. I don’t need sticky fingers snagging one of my china figurines from Paris, or my crystal ashtray.”
Jack rose without much hesitation. He didn’t often oblige to authority, for you don’t have to obey something that doesn’t exist in your mind. To us, Jack was the rule-maker. To the children of Nine, he was the mayor. Not this old dweeb with the thinning grey hair and a gut that stuck out over his brown belt. He was simply an actor, filling the role of the grumpy old man meant to scare us into good behaviour. An act that seldom worked.
“I have half a mind to call the police on both of you…” he began once Jack was no longer present. “But Milly… you’re so young.” He paused and leaned forward. “Tell me, does he hurt you?”
“Jack?” I asked, raising my eyebrows. “No, never.”
“Then why do you listen to what he says? You’re a sweet girl, Milly. Young, and sweet, and probably very bright.”
“We’re family. We work together.”
“C’mon Milly, we both know he’s the boss. He’s the one who makes you do it. I’ll tell you what… admit Jack is the mastermind, and I’ll let you go back to your other friends. Back to the streets. Deal?”
“Turn Jack in… and I’ll be spared?” He nodded. “Alright,” I said. “Deal.”
“Excellent,” he smirked.
Alyse retrieved Jack along with a plate of chocolate chip cookies, freshly baked, or so the scent seeping in from the kitchen would suggest.
Jack squished in beside me again and immediately I took his hand in mine, clutching it tightly. Then I leaned over and whispered in his ear.
“Him,” I said in a hushed voice, the same way Jack would slyly mouth our target’s pronouns to me after having identified them on the street. I’d lock on like a missile, then I’d trail them like a stray dog or a wasp that just won’t leave them alone. Finally, they’d turn around, wondering who or what was chasing them. And they’d find me, shivering, with red cheeks and glossy eyes. They’d kneel to ask me my name or where my family was. They’d bend over to get on my level.
“May I have a cookie?” I asked, eyeing the plate of goodies Alyse had placed in front of the mayor.
“Go ahead,” the mayor responded, pleased with me after our agreement. But here’s the thing about promises; nobody ever taught me what happens if you break one.
I knelt to grab a cookie, while at the same time reaching into my pocket. I hesitated, momentarily. Was what I was about to do wrong?
But before I could dissect my thought, Jack’s common words of encouragement played in the back of my head, swirling around like a broken toilet.
“Do you think our fathers thought twice before they had their way with us?” He would say.
I pulled my pocketknife out of my pocket, clicked it open and lunged forward, plunging it into the mayor’s plump gut. Blood gushed as he screamed out in agony and clawed at the air in front of him, thrashing around, trying to grab me. I wondered if the adrenaline I felt is what Papa felt when he’d hit me. That rush of energy while your victim cries out, helpless. Its power, that feeling, and it's intoxicating.
The blood on my hands would stain and I’d spend hours getting it off. But unlike some of our targets, who wouldn’t even be carrying cash, the mayor had a house full of goodies for us to take our pick from, so it was worth it.
Jack snatched up the crystal ashtray and I stuffed two more cookies into my mouth as Philip cried out, clutching his father’s oozing body. Alyse was screaming in the foyer as we passed her, crossing the threshold from the mayor’s manor to Nine street, where suddenly we felt like kings.
And as we skipped down the street, quick to dodge into an alley to avoid the incoming sirens, all I could think of was one thing: the mayor wasn’t a dumb man, he just wasn’t right.
What he got wrong was that Jack is not my authority. Because here on Nine street, we children don’t know what that word means.
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