For subsidized housing, it wasn’t bad. Heat and A/C; a clean enough bed and a bed unshared; and if not three meals a day, at least there were two. Larry and Ricky never met at the shelter but here, they were expected to act like brothers. For a guarantee of breakfast and dinner, they could pretend.
Larry was older, which meant he’d had more time to build a sheet. When the hand of God plucked him, he was in isolation, shunned for the violent outbursts that intensified after his injury. Larry had been on the streets. He’d seen things. His body had healed but his capacity for trust remained scarred.
Ricky’s mother abandoned him at birth. They found Ricky at a fire station, naked, bloody, barely breathing. A lady firefighter dripped warmed milk down her finger into his mouth. He suckled enough to stay alive. And he stayed alive long enough to sense when a mother finally came. He reached out with hope, and certainty, and it happened: she picked him.
Larry was the brother Ricky never had and never wanted. Ricky couldn’t read his moods. Sometimes, Larry lay back on the couch ready for the remote and a joint and a beer. On those nights, Ricky stretched in front of the TV and they congratulated each other for landing a place that was safe and relatively clean, where the food – if predictable – came morning and night.
But sometimes, for no reason, Larry flipped into a rage and Ricky had to hide until the storm passed. When the memories of hurtful things pressed close, Larry saw blood. All he wanted was to shred anything in his path. Ricky understood. He felt it too. But Ricky’s way of coping was to bury his face until the furies were silent.
Even so, the good days outnumbered the bad. Until Clarice arrived.
She staggered in on drunken legs, so long on the streets that her skin folded over bone, muscle wasted to remnants. Behind closed doors, Clarice slept for two days. She barely lifted her head when they brought the plates they hoped would rouse her and begin to ease the horror of what she’d had to do out there to survive.
On the third day, Clarice awoke. She opened one eye, carefully. Clean bed. Alone. Bathroom of her own, too. And look, the food she dreamed she ate last night? The scraps were there on the plate. She let herself trace the outline of her belly. That swell could only mean for the first time, in a long time, she had eaten a meal. It was fucked up she couldn’t remember, but here was the evidence. Clarice could sense them waiting. She tossed on an attitude and pushed open the door.
The moment Larry saw her was his last as a player. Those eyes – he swore they glowed gold when she smiled and tucked her chin. Every atom in Larry’s body pulsed.
Ricky had never seen a bigger crack whore in his life; growing up in the shelter, he saw more than a few. Ricky watched Larry falling for the twitch of her hips, the way the tiniest hint of pink tongue peeked when she smiled, the slither of her body as she moved, undulating, mesmerizing. Ricky read it all in Larry’s face.
In that moment, Ricky knew the meaning of betrayal. It wasn’t from the mother who left him for dead at the fire station. It wasn’t from the people at the shelter who left him alone too much, too long, too often. It wasn’t from these people here, who tried their best. The lady with nice fingers had started whispering after she realized he hated loud voices. It was true: Ricky hated anything loud. Or anyone loud. Like Clarice, whose falseness, whose duplicity, shown as bright as some silicone-enhanced housewife. Clarice wanted the lifestyle. At the moment, Larry looked like her best candidate.
But the looks she kept giving Ricky? Sitting next to Larry on the couch there she was, showing Ricky the slice of an eye from under her lashes. It was shameful. Larry was his best friend, his brother – even though they were neither friends nor brothers. Damn that vixen. Ricky hated Clarice almost as much as he wanted her.
And the worst part was they had to share the same litter box.