Simon waits until he hears the refrigerator close and the tink of bottle cap on counter, then the television, Jeopardy, his father’s favorite show and one that Simon hates because it is boring and old and he is twelve and does not know the answers. Simon slides the lock on the bedroom door. At his real house, his mother’s house, bedroom doors do not lock, even bathroom doors do not lock anymore, since that time Simon shut himself in and refused to go to school because of the boys there, and what they do to him at recess. His stepdad, The Ralph, had to break in through the window over the tub and cut his hand on the glass and needed seven stitches. Simon’s father’s apartment on Clifton Street has many locks, and pigeons, and it smells of other people’s cooking, in a bad way. It is in the city. Simon was born in the city, during a hurricane that knocked out the lights for three days. The doctor wore a headlamp. Simon came out with the cord wrapped around his neck twice and didn’t cry until the doctor held him by the ankles and slapped his bottom, and right then the lights came on in the city. It is a fairy tale to Simon, this story that his father retells each year on Simon’s birthday before Simon blows out the candle on his Ding Dong in whatever apartment his father is living in at the time. You are special, is what his father means, but Simon knows better. Some things have no meaning.
Easter weekend. Who would have Simon this year? His parents tossed a coin. Or maybe they didn’t, but either way Simon knows his life hangs on the edge of chance, as it always has. He might’ve died in the hurricane that bore him, he might be dead now, existing in a fever dream, a prolonged neural misfiring as the oxygen dwindles, and maybe everything he calls real is not, like that movie on Showtime with the boy who talks to dead people. These are the thoughts Simon has. Simon is not like other kids and he knows it, and, in knowing it, he becomes more different. It’s a loop. Simon wants a loophole.
The Ralph drives Simon to his father’s apartment Saturday morning, squeezes his shoulder, tells him to be a good boy if he wants to get his Xbox back. No more creations, which is what The Ralph and Simon’s mother call the movies Simon makes on his iPad: stick figures decapitated by wrecking balls, snaky red bolts coming out of eyes, plateau-like necks. Simon says nothing. He has a secret. The Ralph stamps his feet and breathes through his mouth while Simon’s father buzzes the door and meets them inside the room with the mail slots and antiseptic smell, looking, as always, as if he has just woken up. Since the divorce, Simon’s father has shrunk and his hair has grown. He wears his wedding band on the thumb of his right hand, though Simon doesn’t know why, except that it fits there now and clinks on everything like it is tapping out SOS. The two men raise palms, grunt, look down, the way Simon imagines Indian chiefs would have done once, making some kind of trade that both knew was a bit shady. The hand-off. Simon’s father reaches for Simon’s backpack but Simon shrugs it away and starts up the four flights on his own. Simon’s father follows, talking anxiously about the new high-rise his firm has designed, the choice of Chinese or pizza for dinner, the quart of dairy-free Funfetti ice cream in his freezer. Simon feels a sad, fetid ache for the man. He does not know Simon’s secret.
The blade is in Simon’s backpack, still packaged, X-Acto. Simon swiped it from The Ralph’s workshop table in the basement where The Ralph stashes things—a toaster that doesn’t pop, a humidifier with a cracked tank—that he can’t fix or bring himself to throw away. While his father watches Jeopardy, Simon sits on his bed, on a starchy comforter covered in planets, and takes out the knife. Around him, the walls his father painted a streaky green, baseball decals, a window that opens onto the roof of the adjacent building, stuck shut. A room pretending to be his. As good a place as any. Simon punches through the cardboard, tears off the back in one lick, holds the orange handle in his left hand and pushes up the shaft with his right until it clicks. He touches the tip to the padding of his pointer finger, draws a bead of blood. His father shouts who is Babe Ruth and taps his ring against the bottle’s belly. Outside in the night, a woman laughs.
She is tipsy, maybe more, and she knows everything she is doing is too much, too friendly, too touchy—Jon would say—but she can’t help it, she is watching herself do it and thinking stop it, but nothing stops. Laney laughs her bubble laugh. If Jon is looking down from his kitchen window, let him. Let him see what he’s done.
“Locked you out?” the man says, showing outrage on her behalf, his hand on Laney’s shoulder. They stand under a street lamp that has buzzed on, and Laney wishes she had not left her coat on Jon’s bed when he made her leave his apartment. She is wearing a sleeveless shirt and flats with no socks. She has just met the man here, but she knows him from work: he is the young muscle; she answers the phone. He is headed to the Star Dog, the bar Laney and Jon left only an hour ago, after drinking their way through the afternoon, fighting about something, though what it was this time, she can’t recall just now. Laney tips her forehead to the man’s chest. He cups her neck.
“You’re sweet,” she says. Is she slurring? Jon can drink all night and you’d never know, but she is the one with the reputation, the quiet girl who comes out of her shell when she’s drunk. In Orland, the small town where she grew up—she and her retarded sister, Dina, sharing a room in their red mobile home everyone called the caboose, and not kindly—Laney took a dare, in high school, to walk across the dam where the alewife swam upstream through shoots, after drinking coffee brandy from a Styrofoam cup in the back of some girl’s car. Laney had to climb a nine-rung ladder to the upper level of the dam, a two-foot wide cement beam twenty feet above the river, slick with spray, no rails. If she fell on one side, a placid pool. On the other side, a maze of wooden planks and partitions, frothing water. But of course, she didn’t fall. She made it to the other side. It is a story she tells here, in the city, to make her backwoods upbringing feel less humiliating than it was. She tells it so much it becomes a fairy tale. I am not afraid, is what it means. I can do anything. Sometimes she cannot remember if it is even true, or rather knit together by her hope and yearning to make a place for herself in this city where she will always be an outsider. Laney is twenty-eight, an artist. She makes clothes out of hemp and jewelry from found objects like flattened bottle caps and bird feathers, though her day job is landscaping, at least until Project Runway picks her up. Her boyfriend, Jon, is forty-two, a voice actor. Jon lives on the top floor at Clifton Street Apartments and is watching her now, flirting with another man, because she drank too much at the Star Dog and embarrassed herself, and he has locked her out of his apartment. What she wants—what she has always wanted—is to be let in.
“Coming?” the man asks, and Laney glances skywards, hoping to get a view of Jon in his kitchen window at the top of the building. The panes are lit warmly from within. Laney knows that the screen has been removed so Jon can smoke clove cigarettes, tapping his ash down the whitewashed side of the building like a trail of excrement waiting to be washed away. Above is a flat roof where the pigeons roost and Laney and Jon tried to grow cherry tomatoes in buckets last summer. Laney knows that Jon’s window is unlocked, perpetually cracked open a quarter of an inch to the elements due to warping in the sash. But Jon’s face is no longer visible through the glass. Has he given up on her, so quickly?
“Another time,” she says, putting a finger to the man’s chest, where his zipper opens. “See you Monday?”
Laney watches the man walk away, pleased that he will be thinking of her as he continues on into his night, and also pleased that she has stayed behind, as she should, as Jon would want her to.
Ben’s category is US Presidents. He knows them in order, memorized from the back of a ruler he owned in third grade, making a song of their names to the tune of “Yankee Doodle” that he still sings to count them out, stretching Jeff-er-son and Mon-roe to match the cadence in a way that is satisfying to him, even now, at forty-six.
Like every day at nine o’clock, and seven on Sundays, Ben is watching Jeopardy. His son, Simon, is in the second bedroom, the one Ben painted his first weekend in the apartment and decorated with Yankees decals, though Simon is not interested in baseball, or any sports. Ben does not know what Simon is interested in, besides playing on his iPad, or his phone, or Xbox. When Ben was his age he videotaped Yankees games so he could pause and rewind and track the stats himself; he kept a notebook for it under his mattress. It was something he cared about. What does Simon care about? When Ben asks him, Simon’s lips cinch to a dash. “You wouldn’t get it,” is what Simon says. An ugly duckling, Ben thinks, though isn’t twelve too old to be a duckling? Ben’s ex-wife believes it’s a phase all children go through, as if becoming an asshole is a developmental stage which persists until it is supplanted with adulthood. Maybe Ben was an asshole kid, too. But Ben senses something off in the boy, something that needs to be squeezed to the surface and scrubbed clean.
It is Double Jeopardy, now, and no US Presidents. The category pops up every few months, enough to keep Ben invested. It is like finding a parking space without circling the block, or knowing the phone will ring before it does: a sign of luck. Ben finishes his beer and goes back for another one, pausing in front of the hallway that ends in Simon’s room. He should check on his son, say Hey buddy! What’s up? Though what would come next, Ben doesn’t know. He’s never known. He should have helped out more when Simon was a baby; he sees that now. He had been waiting for the right feelings to come. Still, he does love the boy, and it is a relief to have company. He is glad to have gotten Simon this Easter. It’s nothing personal; his ex and her oaf of a husband wanted to go upstate to an Airbnb. But everything happens for a reason: this is the story Ben tells himself.
Ben returns to the couch, the cushion that smells of pickle juice, though he’s not sure why, it was that way when he moved in. He runs his ring along the cold bottle, prepares for the Final Jeopardy question. If things go well, Ben will take Simon into the city tomorrow, show him the new building under construction, the archway that Ben designed. He pictures the boy greening up like the buds of oak leaves on Clifton Street, the crocus shoots. The life coming back.
And here it is, the category reveal. Come on come on, Ben whispers.
The Final Jeopardy category is: US Presidents.
Ben bounces on the cushion and releases a whooping sound that surprises him. Sometimes, the smallest thing can change a life. Ben doesn’t need to consider the question, does not require the song to play itself out. Who is FDR? he says to Alex Trebek, and knows, beyond any doubt, that he is right.
Jon’s intercom is buzzing, an SOS call. Why won’t she go home? He’s too old for this. For Laney. He is sober enough to know he will hurt in the morning and he wants to take two Tylenol and lie down, alone, before he does anything else he will regret. What had he called her at the Star Dog? A novelty, that’s what.
“Like a toy?” she had said. Her neck blotched red. She looked up from the napkin she had been doodling on, a new design, a cowl-necked mini-dress. “You think of me as a toy?”
He could have stopped there. Their relationship was capsizing at its own pace, no need for him to blow another hole in the hull. But he was half-drunk, and also hurt, after seeing those texts on her phone, the ones from a man she knew at work, someone nothing like Jon. Laney was nothing like Jon. After two years with her he could no longer maintain the illusion that she was a sweet thing from the country, with her found art and improbable aspirations (she was certain Project Runway would contact her, if she just kept up the emails) in need of his wisdom and protection.
“No,” he said. “Not a toy. A toy is fun. I mean something that is new, once, and then isn’t, and after the newness wears off there’s nothing left.” There, he said it. He had said these words in his head, many times, and speaking them out loud gave him a sort of déjà vu, like repeating his name to someone he’d already met.
“Fuck you,” she said. She crumpled the napkin and threw it at his eye. He grew hot, felt a lick of the shame that was being held at bay by the beer, but he could not deny his satisfaction in her pain.
On their walk back to Clifton Street she cried mascara streaks onto her cheeks, and so he let her in, took her coat, sat her down at his half-circle table with a bottle of water while he used the toilet and held a towel to his face. Even his linens smelled of her, the lilac of her laundry detergent. She was on her phone when he came out, thumbs darting. That man, again. The last straw. “Leave,” Jon said, too loudly, pointing to the door in a gesture that showed his age. Laney giggled, a bubbly sound in her throat that made Jon want to yank her hair back, slap her face. She wasn’t crying anymore.
He wants to turn it off, the buzzer. Jon glances at the clock on the microwave—9: 15, fourteen minutes of buzzing so far. Eventually she’ll give up. He would be better off without her; his friends have said that for months. His mother would be relieved. Don’t feed it, Jon, his mother had warned him when he was little, slapping his thigh because he tried to toss a cracker to a stray dog. You feed it, and it will keep coming back.
And then the buzzing stops. Jon goes to the kitchen window and looks down, expecting to see Laney sulking off toward her own apartment, holding her elbows across her small torso, but she isn’t there. She has disappeared. Jon goes to his couch and turns on the television, Jeopardy. The banality of the show gives him a carsick sort of feeling, but it is something. It fills the space.
Simon is on his bed. He runs the X-Acto blade along the sole of his sneaker, peeling back a flap of rubber. He carves a line into the bed frame, saws through a corner of the cheap solar system blanket. Practice. He has Googled how to do it the right way, down the length of tendon, push harder than you think. He’ll wait until Jeopardy is over and his dad goes to bed. His stupid dad. Clueless about what his mother and The Ralph say. Clueless about Simon, as well. Funfetti ice cream, Simon thinks, and that feeling is back in his chest, the same one he used to have in first grade when his mother would write notes on napkins (I love you! Smile! Have a fun day!) and pack them in his lunchbox. An awful feeling, really. He used to drip milk from his straw onto the ink so it bled and he wouldn’t have to look at the words anymore, didn’t have to imagine his mother at the counter, hunched, her hair draped around her chin, writing carefully so as not to rip the napkin.
Laney is cold, now, without her jacket, in the hemp shirt that gapes at the neck and falls over one shoulder, her own design. She knows Jon is waiting, upstairs, even though he won’t answer his buzzer. Her toes and fingertips are numb. He is making her earn it, is all.
Laney presses every button on the intercom box outside the front door of Clifton Street Apartments. She pushes one, waits for the door to hum open, then goes to the next. If Jon won’t let her in, someone else will. The fight they had is coming back to her in shards and she recalls the word, novelty, but it is toothless now, inert. She isn’t sure why she let it upset her. It does not hurt like the coldness of her hands does, now.
The door gives. Laney jumps inside, into the warm foyer with the mail slots and Listerine odor, and listens for an opening door, a shout down. There is nothing. Whoever let her in is not concerned with her. She rubs feeling into her hands and arms and relaxes her jaw and the clench of her teeth. Then to the stairs. At the first floor, smells of onions and garlic and roasting meat pass her in waves and Laney remembers that she is hungry and has not eaten dinner, and that tomorrow is Easter. Maybe she will call home, in the morning, say hello to Dina who has probably forgotten her by now. She imagines her family’s amazement to hear her voice, and then thinks of Jon, and his astonished expression when he opens his door. “Surprise,” she will say. She will laugh her bubble laugh, put a fingertip to his chin. “Here I am.”
At the top floor, Laney is panting and flushed through her pale skin, though at least she has warmed. She goes to Jon’s door and knocks twice, three times. The sound of canned applause comes from inside. He is watching TV. He is waiting for her. She knocks again. Again. She thinks she can hear the click of his knees as he gets up, his feet pressing the floorboards. But the door does not open. There is nothing, only that horrible theme song that reminds her of being trapped in the red caboose, the long, stuffy winters with Dina repeating everything on the television, humming those deathly tunes.
“Jon!” Laney yells, no longer caring if she sounds desperate. So what if she is. She is tired and hungry and she isn’t going to walk the thirteen blocks to her own apartment without her coat. “Come on,” she says, twisting the knob and pushing at the door. “Please, Jon! I’m sorry about tonight. I am. Just let me in.”
He doesn’t say no. He doesn’t say anything. The TV thrums.
It’s unfair, how he’s on one side of the door and she’s on the other. She wants to be on his side. Out here, in the hallway, she is nowhere. “Fuck you, Jon!” Laney screams. She is angry. He is treating her like a stranger. Like an animal. Still, nothing. Laney kicks, she pounds the thick wood with the meat of her palms. A man’s voice from the next-door apartment yells “Shut up!” But the door remains locked.
She hates Jon. She will teach him a lesson, which won’t be hard—she could sleep with the man from work. It would be simple. She could record it on her phone and send it to Jon. He would be sick from it. He couldn’t bear to see her like that.
But first, she wants to be let in.
She has spent more nights in Jon’s apartment than her own; has single-handedly redecorated it with yard sale end tables and wall art she made herself, the mural of a maple tree with feathers the color of moss. She made his curtains out of pleated garbage bags. Hung mason jar pendant lights. His actor friends were amazed, weren’t they? Didn’t he call her his little designer?
Then she realizes it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t have to let her in; how silly of her to forget there is another way. There is always another way.
The door to the roof is at the end of the hall. She has to heave it open with her shoulder and hip, and when it closes behind her it booms. A few steps up, and then another door, this one aluminum and insubstantial. Stepping out, the cold surrounds her and the neighborhood lights up below. Tomato plants curl brown in their pots. She walks to the side of the roof, the one that abuts another, shorter apartment building, and lies down on her belly and cranes her head over the edge. Pigeons coo under the eaves. Two fat cables run down the whitewashed brick. Jon’s kitchen window is directly below her, an arm-length and a half down. Another few feet and she could lift it open, climb inside. Surprise.
Jeopardy is over. Ben’s good mood is a bubble floating past sharp objects; he needs another beer. There is buzzing down the hallway, one doorbell and then the next, working its way closer to his own door. As Ben passes, the buzzer goes off, startling him so that he presses his thumb to the white button reflexively. He holds the button down for a good three seconds, twisting the pad of his thumb as if killing a spider. He hopes the noise hasn’t woken Simon. It is probably someone who forgot their keys inside. Ben did that once, when his mind was fried over the divorce; he had to wait in the cold for a passing neighbor to recognize him, some man about his age whose face he knew from the mailboxes and laundry room. Ben releases his thumb, steels himself for more buzzing, but it’s over. Fresh silence, a relief. Back to the couch; Wheel of Fortune is next. Ben hasn’t seen that neighbor again, since the day he was locked out, but such is life. Ben recalls how kind the man seemed, holding the door wide as his smile so Ben could enter. Come in, come in, he had said, his voice deep and round like a game show announcer. It’s cold out there.
Simon presses the blade into the notch of flesh below his hand and immediately withdraws it. The blood bubbles. Simon puts it to his mouth, tastes the old-penny sourness. He hears his father’s doorbell buzz and then stop, and the air prickles in his lungs. Is it his mother? Does she know? He sees himself stiff on the bed, the blood-soaked blankets, his mother shrieking. His father would faint. The Ralph would make that adenoidal sound in his throat that means he is trying not to cry, like when Simon says he hates him. It’s almost enough for Simon to put the X-Acto blade away, except what he sees next is the boys at school—their faces when the news hits, the guilt that will hobble them every year on this holiday. Simon would live forever in their nightmares, resurrected like a zombie Jesus. And for Simon, that’s worth it. Surprise. Here I am. He sucks the blood off and tries again.
This is how she will do it: rappel down the cables. Laney kneels at the side of the building, pulls up on one of the rubber-coated cables, and sees that it is well-fixed. She can swing herself over the edge, monkey down—it’s three, maybe four feet—and rest her feet on Jon’s window ledge. She’ll give the glass a tap with her toe: Knock knock. What could be more novel?
The breeze chills, but she isn’t bothered. The adrenaline is pumping too hard for that. She doesn’t feel drunk anymore either. The world is sharply focused as if carved by a blade. She thinks of walking the dam, how the fear lifted from her and left a pocket of hope in its place. That is all she is doing now. She is making a better story.
Laney goes to her belly, this time reversing her position so that her ankles dangle over the edge of the building. An explosion of feathers; the pigeons startle and fly. Laney centers herself on the cables and holds them under her, against her chest. As she extends her arms, her shins kick out into space, and she slides her grip back down to chest-level and extends again. This time she’s over far enough to hinge at the waist. The toes of her shoes scuff as they dig into the wall. The tendon between her bicep and forearm flexes like a rope pulled tight. A twenty-foot drop to the roof of the smaller building. The window is inches below her shoes.
Slide, extend. Laney is holding her breath. Her feet hit the window ledge, the narrow lip of half-rotted wood dusted in ash. She exhales, adjusts her grip so she can lean out from the building and see into the space behind the glass, Jon’s kitchen. Presently she is stable, a right triangle against the wall. She looks inside, the white range and yellowed counter, the scrolling calendar from the Chinese take-out place, the half-circle table, an opened bottle of water. Jon just out of sight, in the other room. But the window ledge buckles. It cannot hold her weight. Her hands are sweating and she is pulling the cables to her chest, feeling the spongy wood give.
“Jon!” she screams, kicking the window. Glass splinters. Her hands slide, a foot dangles loose. She is sure Jon is already there, working to open the window, cutting his hand on the glass. He will hook her knees with his arms, pull her inside, and they will tumble onto the warm kitchen floor, Laney on top, both of them gasping and giddy and relieved, so relieved that everything turns out alright. Jon says, Jesus, Laney, you scared me to death. And it’s true, he is shaking, his face has gone the color of a fish belly, an alewife belly, one of those floating bellies on the calm side of the dam.
Except, what happens is something else. The wood breaks, Laney’s fingers slip from the cable, and she drops to the roof below. And while it is instantaneous, there are years in the freefall, time soaked through with blurred stars and traffic noise and the surprise that is, at first, a hopeful one, until it isn’t.
Simon hears the crash outside his window. It is a dense, breaking sound that does not reverberate, but seems to hover in the stillness around Simon’s ears. Quickly, in a reflex of guilt, Simon pushes the blade back into his backpack and kicks it to the floor. Blood drips from his wrist, and gathers to a clot.
There is silence. And then many noises: banging at his father’s door, a man’s voice, high and shredded, and his own father’s voice, trying to be calm, trying to understand. Simon’s door is tested. “Simon! Buddy!” his father yells in a voice that is not angry, only excited. “Open up!” But Simon cannot move, he can’t unlock the door, things are happening too quickly and unexpectedly. Furious knocking, a huge thump, and another, and Simon’s door explodes open, the knob ricocheting off the side wall and cracking it, and a man runs through, blind to Simon and the spatter of blood on the bed next to Jupiter. Simon’s father helps the man rip the plastic blinds down, unlocks the window and heaves, grunting, kicks the sash where the paint has dried and heaves again, and it opens, wood squealing against wood. There is no screen. Outside, Simon sees the shadowed lump on the roof, sees what the crazed man is climbing out to reach.
“Hang on, buddy,” Simon’s father says, standing inside the window. He is trying to dial his phone. His hands are shaking. “Don’t worry. It’s okay.” From the roof the man is sobbing in bursts. The lump is motionless. Simon guesses it is an animal of some kind, maybe a dog. He wants that to be true. Simon’s father speaks into the phone, his voice rushing and apologizing, and rushing again. “Clifton Street Apartments,” he says. “There’s been an accident.” In that moment, Simon thinks of the blade, the blood on his wrist, and becomes confused. He is in another fever dream, a post-mortem hallucination, and this time he really is dead. The thin edge of life startles like a flock of pigeons and rushes up, away from him.
“Don’t look out there,” his father says, perching on the bed. The solar system warps around his weight, pulling Simon closer. Simon’s father is charged with adrenaline and he feels numb and heroic. He watches the man and woman on the roof of the window and realizes how glad he is to be on this side of the window, with his son, who has gone white and soft and silent, a frightened child who needs his father.
Simon presses his wrist into his pants, hears siren wails that are growing higher in pitch, closer. The man is lying down next to the figure on the roof, making low sounds that might or might not be words. Simon’s father tugs him up onto one thigh of his lap, and though it is uncomfortable to Simon, his father’s thin limbs too sharp and bony, Simon cannot resist.
“It’s just an accident,” his father says, but Simon knows better, knows that cause and effect have been twisted somehow, and he is so sorry for what he has done. Cold air fills the room. Outside, through the window, he can see flashing red lights and hears heavy idling and he knows they have come to take him away. He doesn’t want to go. They’ll cover him and carry him out on a stretcher: down the four flights, through the smelly foyer, an older lady who was checking her mail will hold the door wide to let them pass so she can sneak a peek. Out into the cold night. Then the door will shut, and it will lock, and what Simon will want—what he will always want, even years from now when he will recall this night the only way he can in order to make sense of the senseless: as his true birth story, the one he actually deserves, the one he will tell to himself each year at this time, waiting and waiting for the meaning to become clear—is to be let back in.
“Don’t worry, buddy,” his father says, seeing the brightness of Simon’s eyes, the shine of fear, and life. His father hugs him harder, too hard. “Just hold tight, hold tight,” he says. And Simon does as he is told.
RS Reynolds earned her MFA from Emerson College, has been published in various literary magazines including Redivider and Copper Nickel, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her story “The Principle.” She lives with her husband and three little boys in the suburbs of Boston.