Prose Header

Safe as Houses

by Ada Fetters

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


The truck pulled up to Jaivin’s street. A row of tall, narrow houses ran up the block. Jaivin’s was the only sky-blue one. He saw his daughter before she saw him. Ivy was jumping double-dutch with the neighbor girls.

Ivy and her friend — the Herivaux girl from two doors down — grinned at each other, daring themselves to jump faster, faster, bending down toward the ground as their feet blurred. Ivy’s curly black hair began to lift and swirl the way it often did when she was excited. The drawstrings of her hooded sweatshirt floated as if she’d jumped into water instead of stepping furiously over a moving rope. Her knees were pebbled with scabs.

Ivy was a kinetic, like her departed mama.

As the truck pulled to a stop, one of the kids looked up and lost concentration. The whirling rope collapsed to the cracked pavement amid giggles and harmless curses.


“Papá!” Ivy took off running toward him in long bounds, arms held out at her sides. When she pushed off the sidewalk sand puffed away from her sneakers. She could nearly lift herself off the ground and glide above the pavement like a dandelion seed... but not quite. She arrived in front of him with her skinny arms held out, expecting to be caught and picked up. Her eyes were the color of sea glass, bright in her dark face.

Jaivin wasn’t sure if he could lift her. He settled for ruffling her hair. His sister Alondra and more neighbor girls were on the front steps painting their toenails. Long fingernails were forbidden for hospital workers, but Alondra’s toenails were always resplendent. They shone lemon-yellow. The girls showed off their own candy-colored nails.

Ivy stuck her hands into the pockets of her New York Giants sweatshirt and wrinkled her nose at what she called “girly stuff.”

Several smaller kids charged around the yard in figure-eights, squirting each other with plastic water pistols. They screamed and ran and dodged and bounced off each other. It could be the last water fight of the season. The kids were making it count.

Inside the little sky-blue house, the only thoughts surrounding him were his own and his family’s. They were as comforting and familiar as the smell of Ivy’s grape bubblegum or strands of Alondra’s hair in her brush in the bathroom.

He stripped and showered and listened to parents from the block arriving from work to call their kids home.

The deep bruises swelling his ribs and knees shocked him. His eyes told him more than his body did. When he passed his hands over his cracked, purple skin he felt it the way he felt other people’s nervous energy from a wall or door: a receding echo. Some people loved this hazy feeling. They even found it addictive. Jaivin fought a crazy impulse to twist the hot water knob and prove the water could scald him.

You know better, he told himself. It wears off. Of course it does. If it didn’t, the crew wouldn’t need Perruque to jolt them next day.

He was hungrier for sleep than for food, but Alondra insisted the three of them eat together. Over the course of the meal, the world became less disconnected and flat. By the time he had cleared the plates, he finally felt his hands were more a part of him than the cups were.

When Jaivin dropped onto the sofa, his ribs protested. Stridently. He stifled a yelp. What a goddamn relief.

Ivy came in from the kitchen with her school books under one arm and a glass of milk in the opposite hand. She floated a cookie in the air after her. Crumbs trailed the cookie until it left them behind. They fell to the floor.

“You better not be dropping crumbs all over the place.” Alondra pitched her voice louder than the running water in the kitchen.

Ivy startled. The crumbs lifted up in a swirl and deposited themselves in a potted plant.

His daughter settled herself on the sofa, leaning against him as she worked on her math homework, cookie in one hand, pencil in the other, workbook tilted against the air as if it were braced by a third arm. So much energy. Enough to get a p-scholarship at a private school? Maybe. If she could pull herself up from the ground and balance, she’d make it in. Jaivin brushed his cheek against the top of her head.

Alondra came into the living room to watch her new favorite show: Christina Clarke, Phrenic Detective. According to Alondra, fans were fascinated by the grisly murders and by the gothic mansions of New Orleans, where the show was set. Women across the country tried to imitate Clarke’s choppy haircut.

Christina Clarke made phrenic into the new sexy but the show wildly exaggerated average ability. Jaivin was just glad schools got the hint and opened up p-scholarships.

He considered rounding up some neighbors for a game of frisbee, weighing increasingly painful bruises against trying to un-see the murder and un-hear the cheesy dialogue.

“I dunno, man,” said Clarke’s partner, shaking his head. “This city. Sometimes it... takes people.”

Clarke tossed her choppy bangs out of her face. “It always takes people to have a city. Just don’t let the city have them.” Mournful guitar music underscored the words.

Jaivin cackled until Alondra swiped her flip-flop off the floor and threw it at him. He ducked, dislodging Ivy’s carefully-arranged workbook.

“I am trying to concentrate,” Ivy informed them.

Shapes flickered on the screen. Jaivin fell asleep on the couch before Clarke solved the murder.

* * *

He woke up late, which for him meant the sun was a big red ball rising over the Atlantic, shining in the window onto his face. For a few seconds, he panicked, then remembered that the first job wasn’t until well after sunrise. He tilted his head to glance into the kitchen where he heard Ivy and the Heviraux girl messing around.

Ivy held a piece of toast in one hand while she tried to lift herself from the floor. Her hair, still rumpled from sleep, swirled up around her head. Her Giants hoodie rippled. She’d probably slept in it. One leg was tucked up under her. The Heviraux girl was counting off the way she did during jump-rope.

Ivy looked down at her small foot in its canvas shoe, frowning with concentration. Her ankle wobbled outward as she lifted up onto the grubby rubber toe. She hung suspended like a ballerina in a snow globe.

Jaivin held his breath, willing her upward into the humid air.

Perruque’s horn blatted outside. Ivy tumbled to the kitchen floor with a cry. Immediately Jaivin was off the couch and into the kitchen. Ivy was more frustrated than hurt, but she allowed herself to be gathered up and encouraged.

Perruque laid on the horn again. Jaivin hugged his daughter and dashed outside. When he took his first lungful of humid salty air, he had a flashback to dashing for the school bus.

That day, the docket was mostly little houses last occupied by summer people and tourists. Easy-peasy.

The last item was an apartment in a complex overshadowed by pine trees. Furniture and cardboard boxes were piled on a curb in a drift of pine needles.

The previous residents had left hundreds of days of gnawing anxiety baked into the walls with their tobacco smoke. When he felt it, Jaivin had to resist the temptation to ask Perruque for a jolt to strip the gunk without using the nervous system equivalent of elbow grease.

In addition to the worry, worry, worry, there was gunk from the half-assed job the last fork did. Jaivin did his best, tapping his wooden box to calm and focus his nerves. The same part of him that allowed him to do this work kept trying to draw away from the grime.

Echoes of old anger and lust and stoned contemplation throbbed through the walls from neighboring units. Jaivin couldn’t get rid of the neighbors’ gunk. He couldn’t retool the whole place to keep the apartments insulated from each other. Jaivin felt his body start to slump. Despite what Hollywood showed to people, p-skill wasn’t just in a person’s head. Then he startled upright.

He did the job he was hired to do, and did it before Perruque got back.

“You want a lift?” Perruque asked.

“Nah. I’ll take the bus back.”

Jaivin had to walk several blocks from the shadowy apartment complex before he was bathed in the brilliant light of the casinos. People stayed out on the boardwalk all night. They were safe as long as they stayed in the glow of the LEDs and floodlights. There was trouble waiting for loners around dark corners. Jaivin knew what kind, because the spasms of some anonymous nervous system echoed off the bricks and into his brain.

But why focus on that any more than on the dull shine of the trash bags the city didn’t pick up? Jaivin had mostly taught himself to ignore it until he’d lost his job. The lights were much more glamorous.

Jaivin walked past Harrah’s and Caesar’s Palace to Eclipse, where his friend Gabriel worked. A dazzling LED moon-shadow dimmed and glowed out front.

The lobby of the Eclipse created a tug as alluring as the bejeweled showgirls outside. A promise of excitement and adventure. One of the girls lowered her azure eyelid at him. The silver sequins pasted over her nipples blazed in the light of the LED moon. Psychic sparkle snagged Jaivin’s brain. The lobby of the Eclipse beckoned him inside with a promise of excitement and adventure.

Someone had done a good job there. Effective anyway. Not subtle, but what about Atlantic City was subtle? Tourists were there for one thing, and every casino tried to yell, “Come and get it!” louder than the rest. If they didn’t, they went under.

He paused. At the far end of the glitzy row of waterfront casinos stood the giant glass tomb that was Relish. Never mind the shuttered Taj Mahal: Relish was a staggering geometric sculpture that rose high above the Atlantic City skyline. The glass sides of the towers reflected the sunset clouds. It was a beautiful sight, but Relish cast no light of its own. The vast resort stood abandoned on the edge of the “prairie.”

Jaivin shivered despite the warm evening.

He strolled into the Eclipse. The carpet inside was a manic scrawl of blue-red-yellow nearly as bright as the lights of the slot machines. The place was furious with jangling noises, the clash of coins, buzz of conversation and bursts of laughter or disappointment. For Jaivin it was like coming home.

Past the slot machines, past the fountain, under a row of chandeliers, around the blackjack tables. The flippity-flippity sound the cards made was... interesting.

A woman in a silk shirt and black vest moved purposefully around the floor. Her pale hair was cut like Christina Clarke’s. She didn’t carry a box as Jaivin did; for her, it was a chain of tiny clicking crystal pendants wound around her wrist. As he watched, she ran a manicured nail across the wide, flat links of the chain.

Gabriel was bartending at the steakhouse.

“I could get you on here as a waiter or dishwasher,” said Gabriel, “but we both know you won’t do it.”

No. He wouldn’t. He would lose the house in a month on minimum wage. Jaivin waited. He listened to the beautiful sound of ice clinking against glasses up and down the bar.

“A couple of dealers left,” Gabriel said. “They might be hiring. I could put in a word. Can you deal blackjack, man?”

Jaivin hesitated. His eyes strayed to the lady p-scrubber touring the blackjack tables.

Gabriel was blunt. “Eclipse has as many p-scrubbers as they need and then some. Since Relish closed, they got higher power p-scrubbers than you for three quarters what they’re worth. Blondie out there hardly has to carry an external trigger.”

“How much does a dealer make?” Jaivin tried not to sound too resigned. Or too hopeful.

* * *

Most teenagers would have been upset with spending summer away from their friends. Kendra welcomed the chance to reinvent herself. It wasn’t like she had so much going for her back in Morristown.

She liked the pretty blue color of her parents’ shore house. She pushed her sunglasses onto the top of her head as she came in through the darker blue door, through the living room, and into her own room. She slid her beach bag off her shoulder.

Her room was acceptable, if babyish. Oh, it didn’t look babyish. The walls were painted neutral white, and there were no furniture or decorations from the last kid to be seen. Kendra was sure the kid had been a girl, though, at least five years younger than she was.

God, she hoped the baby-girl vibes didn’t rub off on her parents or else her campaign for a two-piece bathing suit and sexy-choppy haircut was shot.

Sometimes Kendra could even pick up specific memories. That was, if the place was quiet, if she focused, and if the echoes were strong enough. Kendra harbored secret hopes of joining the police force and becoming a detective. She knew it didn’t work like the Christina Clarke show — feet on the ground here — but Kendra didn’t care about that. She thought the work of piecing together memories from the background noise was fascinating.

Only the strongest memory in the room was available to her. She knew immediately why traces of this remained when everything else in the house was p-scrubbed clean: the kid had radiated nervous energy like crazy trying to lift herself from the floor. Kendra could practically feel the anticipation, like when Kendra had kicked up into her first handstand. Kendra supposed standing on hands wasn’t all that different from balancing on kinetic ability.

The girl’s knees were scabbed over from failed attempts. Her hands, splayed out on either side for balance, trembled with effort. She braced for a fall even as she tried to draw upward.

You can do it, Kendra thought, liking the kid in spite of herself. Surely you got off the ground this time, girl.

Copyright © 2017 by Ada Fetters

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