The air is city air, fetid and rank like the air in the apartment but better than the recycled death we use - used - in the office.
I can smell cars, and hear sirens. Low, throbbing sounds like diseased heartbeats or blood rushing down the veins of the city. Here. There. They end, fade out, begin again. My mother asked me once what the difference was, between here and the country, back when she and dad lived out there. I told them: sirens.
Every day, we hear them. When the end of the world comes, the trumpets will be sirens and no one will pay attention. We’ll just pull over in cars to the side of the road, letting the horsemen and ice giants and giant worms and fire elementals go past out of a sense of politeness, or duty.
A few people are walking, six stories below. A homeless man is sleeping away some binge or drug in the alley below the window, rendered visible by the sunlight. I look down, wondering if he’d want my life, if I could offer it, but close the window instead. The people across from me, barred in, never react.
But then, they never seem to be home. Even when the lights are on, almost no one moves. I wonder if they’re a police stakeout, and if they watch me when bored, through the window or the wall. I write my phone number in the grime, quickly, but realize it will be backwards for them. The grime is an old friend, in its own way: I leave it, feeling as if I should apologize for disturbing some balance between myself and this place.
I didn’t call it home. Cat mrrows again, louder, pulling me like a lodestone, a loadstar. The tile is white and black, petal seventies etchings into the ground and cold under bare feet. I yelp the three hops to the bathroom, jumping in to close the door before Cat can dive in after me to play in the sink.
Cats hate being bathed, but love to play in sinks and seem to have no problems with the contradiction that imposes on them. The sink is blue, which never bothered me before but does now, for a moment, before I turn the water on. Hot, sluicing water that drives into skin but never reaches far enough to really matter.
They used to do baptisms by fire, in some cultures. Fire is deeper than water, ash a kind of purity. I hug myself, curled up under the heat, watching the steam fill the air and just stand.
“Do you plan to stay in bed all day?”
“Well, you can’t!”
I looked up from the bed at my sister, giving her my best glare. “Go away.”
“Your bladder will explode,” she sang, prancing out of the room. “And then you’ll be sorry.”
“You’re just jealous because I got the good bed.”
“For now,” she said darkly, stopping in the doorway, a shadow outlined in pale yellow. “Until we move again,” as if it was some secret code, some pact of a fraternity we’d joined without meaning to.
“Close the door,” I said, and she did so, hearing something in my voice, offering up that small apology.
The bedroom was wood, cheap pine panels and a real wood floor only good for splinters. I lay there, trying to get back to sleep, and my father knocked on the door, then came in without a word and sat on the edge of the bed.
He nodded. “She loves you.”
“You said that was wrong. You and mom.”
He chuckled. “Sometimes it’s good, if done for the right reasons.”
He was quiet for some moments, on the edge, then: “You know she’ll be okay.”
“Your mother. She’ll be all right.”
“But every time she gets sick, she comes home with another one!”
“Why can’t she get sick like normal people?”
“Mother’s get sick in different ways. Having a baby isn’t the same thing.”
“She keeps bringing them home, though. What if we don’t want another?”
“Pardon?” he said, in his voice he usually reserved for the Big Bad Wolf.
“Can’t we trade one in for a puppy?”
“You can’t trade babies in for puppies,” he said, amused, trying not to laugh. “And it’s all right to be worried. I am, too. But your mom will be fine. And she’d want you to get up, and be ready for when she comes home today.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I am. That is what father’s are for,” and he stood and left with a smile, giving me time.
Over twenty years ago, and he still told me about it every few years, so that I no longer know what is memory and what part of it is story. I never forgot the next day, her coming home empty-handed, eyes filled with broken things.
I remember recoiling from greeting her, as if she were a stranger, not sure what to make of this slow, strained creature who made her way inside the home and sat in a chair and looked out from it at the world for long moments, staring into nothing as if expecting to see something.
Dad had told us, gently, that there had been an accident. He didn’t need to: the woman who had come home wasn’t the one who had left. They’d replaced our mother with this look-alike stranger and then let us know. Our mother returned to us in the coming weeks in fits and starts, like a car engine being turned over.
But I am not sure she ever cried again, and she never tried for another baby.
And we never did get a puppy dog.