Tommy slipped the pry bar into his backpack. “What are we going to do?”
I looked at the kids, the infant and the toddler, then at him.
I was seventeen and my brother, Tommy, was nineteen. We’d been house breaking for a couple of years and had it figured. We stuck to low-rent neighborhoods, to shabby apartment houses and rundown two-flats, places that were never going to be at the top of a cop’s to-do list. We hustled from ten till
two, hours most people spent at work, and looked for stuff that would fit in backpacks: cash, dope, guns, laptops, phones and jewelry, the real stuff, platinum and gold. We thought we’d seen it all, everything from ass-packers, the name we gave strap-on dildos, to a pyramid of Mason jars filled with urine. Sick shit, right? But a couple of kids locked in a closet blew way past our pay grade.
“They’re little,” I said.
Tommy popped a cigarette in his mouth. “Give me a light.”
“I just found a couple of babies locked in a closet,” he said. “Give me a light.”
I cracked my lighter.
The older one was a girl, black hair and brown skin. The other had on blue pajamas and I guessed it was a boy. He was lying in a plastic box. He was too little to stand, maybe too little, even, to sit up.
My brother blew smoke at the ceiling. “We’re fucked.”
The little girl’s black eyes were wide open. She was like a fledging sparrow, bright, fierce, waiting for our play, waiting to know which way she had to dart.
Tommy stooped down. “Are you okay, kid?”
She took one step back, deeper into the closet.
“Maybe she can’t speak English. She looks Mexican,” he said.
“Maybe. Maybe she’s too young.” I touched his shoulder. “Come on, Tommy, we gotta go.”
“What about them?”
“What about them?”
“We can’t leave them in there.”
“Leave the closet unlocked. Come on.”
“They’re too little to be on their own.”
“Well, we can’t take them with us.”
“We need to call somebody.”
“Cops! Are you nuts? We just jimmied our way in here.”
“And that puts us in the mix. What if there’s a fire—or worse?”
“Look around, there’s not a lot of kid’s stuff.”
“What if they’re like—getting trafficked or something? Do you want us in on that?”
“We’re not in on anything,” I said, but Tommy was right. If something were to happen to those kids now, it’d be on us.
I glanced around. It was a crap apartment, three beat-up rooms that smelled like the underside of a sink. “Watch ‘em. Don’t let her out of that closet,” I said, and started looking around.
A gray couch, stained and legless sagged near the front door. On it, a bruise-blue afghan was twisted into a nest. A portable DVD player sat to the right of the tangle, and a cup crossed with a plastic spoon was on the floor, just to the left. A twin mattress was on the floor in the bedroom, pushed against the wall opposite a window taped over with newspaper. In the small bedroom closet, a few things were draped on hangers: a couple of blouses, one pair of jeans and a woman’s dress. At the end of the clothes pole in a cleaner’s bag, there was a little girls dress, too, a fancy one that poofed out at the bottom.
There was a dish drainer in the kitchen sink. In the silverware cup were two small rubber coated spoons
and a black plastic fork. Repurposed margarine tubs were up on edge to dry. I reached for the knob on the cupboard next to the sink, but paused. The gray afternoon tumbled through the window, and I didn’t need to open the cupboards to know what was inside.
I went back to the closet between the bedroom and the front room. My brother had his arms crossed. The little girl had a spill-proof baby cup in her mouth.
“So?” he said.
“What’s the plan?”
“Okay, here’s what we do. We close the door . . .”
“Listen, Tom. We close the door, go out and call 911, but not on our phones. We use a pay phone.”
Tommy started shaking his head.
“We wait outside, we watch the apartment, who comes, who goes, we watch until the cops get here.”
Tommy didn’t like it. He slumped against the wall.
“What else are we going to do?”
He shook his head.
“You got a better plan?”
“Let’s move. Lock ‘em in.”
“It ain’t right, Burns.”
“I know, but what choice do we have?”
Tommy slid down the wall opposite the closet. The little girl was sitting next to the plastic box, watching him. “It’s spooky how she don’t cry.”
“She’s a tough kid.”
“We were tough kids, too, but if somebody had left us locked in a closet we would have been wailing our asses off.”
“You think they’re brother and sister?” I asked.
“Yeah, and I’m guessing it was probably mom or dad or both that put them in here.”
“Yeah, me too.” Tommy took a long drag off his cigarette. “Ma pulled some shit, huh, but nothing
“She did the best she could.” I reached for the smoke.
He took another drag and passed it up to me. “You think?”
I took a pull and looked at the baby girl. “No, not really, but what does it matter? She’s our mom.” I grabbed the shoulder of his hoodie and tugged. “Come on, we gotta go.”
He got to his feet. “I say we hangout and beat the shit out of the first person who walks through that door.”
“Let the cops handle it, that’s what they get paid for, right? Let the goon squad do the dirty work.”
My brother smiled. Smiling was good. It meant we were on the backside of this thing.
Tommy stood at the closet door. “Think they need something, water, food?”
I pulled my brother back by his elbow, closed the door and slid the black steel bolt into the keeper. “The cops‘ll get it.” I tugged his elbow again. “Come on.”
It was gray and cool. The sidewalks and streets were wet. Granville was busy, but it was all car traffic. Nobody was walking. We crossed the street and stood in front of a Payday Loan. “Look, I can see all the way down the gangway. Nobody can get in the back without me knowing. Duck down to the CVS and use their pay phone.”
“Nobody’s got pay phones no more.”
He was right. “Check, and if not, there’s an Armanetti’s another block down.”
“And if they don’t got one?”
“But don’t use your phone,” I said, and Tommy took off.
Thirty minutes later he was back. “Walked all the way to Clark.”
“A laundromat. Anything yet?”
“No. What did you tell 911?”
“I told them there was some kids locked in a closet.”
“You give ‘em the address?”
“Yeah, 1011 Granville, second floor, back.”
“What did they say?”
“They asked me who locked them in there.”
“What did you say?”
“Said I didn’t know, and then they asked me if I thought the kids were in danger.”
“I said, ‘What do you think?’ and hung up.”
Tommy pushed his hands in his pockets. “They been by?”
“The cops? No, not yet.”
Another half hour passed. School let out. People started getting off work. The street filled up. I walked up to the CVS to get us Cokes, and Tommy called while I was in the store. “Cops,” he said.
I dumped what I had and hurried back.
There was a blue and white stopped out front. Tommy tossed his head at the cop’s SUV. “There’s that and an unmarked Impala went down Kenmore and pulled into the alley.”
Twenty minutes went by.
It was just a little after four pm. It started to drizzle. Tommy and me moved back against the windows of the Payday Loan. A Latina from inside knocked on the glass and told us to move on. I smiled at her. “We’re supposed to meet our mother here. The hot water heater quit on her, and she’s coming down right after work.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know how to install one, would you?” Tommy asked, raising his voice to penetrate the glass.
She smiled and asked if we wanted to wait inside.
Tommy showed her his cigarette.
“Those things will kill you,” she said, and she went back behind the counter.
People were streaming off the Red Line trains, and the sidewalk was full. Another unmarked car came up. A woman and a man got out and disappeared down the gangway.
“Family services,” Tommy said.
We’d seen enough of those people to know.
It wasn’t long then.
I can’t tell you why I noticed her, but I did. A frail looking girl was hurrying down Granville from
Sheridan. I nudged Tommy.
“I see her,” he said.
At the intersection she noticed the police car and broke into a trot.
The woman from the Payday Loan stepped out of the building. “What’s going on over there?” Tommy looked back at her. “I don’t know. The police pulled up—thirty, forty minutes ago, something like that.”
“When’s your mother getting here?”
“She just called, said she was running a little late. You’re open to nine, right?”
“Can we stash our backpacks behind the counter for a quick sec? We want to see what’s happening across the street,” Tommy said.
I looked at my brother.
“You want to see what’s going on, don’t you?”
Tommy looked at the woman at the door of the store. “Can we? We’re sick of lugging them around.”
The woman hesitated.
Tommy opened the first flap on his bag and tugged a laptop half out. “Just our computers, we’re coming from school.”
I had two computers in my bag, plus some ‘scripts, and a fifteen pound bag of change.
The woman agreed.
We stashed our bags, jogged across the street, and sat on the steps of the building next door. A cop led the frail woman out in handcuffs; she was tiny, and most surprising, not much older than us. Her face was stone. She wasn’t happy, but something about her said she knew the score and this wasn’t the worse thing that had ever happened to her. Behind her, the woman from Family Services appeared holding the little boy, and the man came out holding the girl.
The little girl, the little sparrow, her eyes were on the woman in handcuffs. The man that carried her took long strides and her head bounced with each step, and maybe because of that bounce, she noticed us, me and Tommy, sitting on the steps. Recognition lit her face, and she pointed and called out in Spanish. Just a few words, but it was enough to tip off one of the cops, one that spoke Spanish I suppose, and me and my brother were suddenly surrounded.
A huge, muscled up fucker stood in front of us, his hands on his hips. “You live here?” He nodded to the door at the top of the steps. Cops loved to trap you like that, ask you a question that tempts you to lie. If you go for it, they got you. Lying makes you a suspicious character.
“Not me,” Tommy said.
The cop looked at me.
The frail woman was being guided into the back of the SUV; she was no longer stoned-faced. She was looking at us and blistering with hatred. After he’d put her in the car, the cop’s partner walked up behind him.
“All right, up.” The big cop patted me down. His partner did Tommy. The big one held out his hand, did the “gimmie thing” with all his fingers. “IDs.”
We gave him our state cards; he glanced at them and turned them over to his partner. “Brothers?”
We nodded our heads yes.
We shook our heads no.
“You’re from up by Humboldt. What are you doing around here?”
“Walking around,” Tommy said. “Saw the hoe-down, and wanted to know what was going on.”
“Is that what you’re going with?” he said.
“Do you know anything about this?” “About what?” I asked.
“Did either one of you call this in?”
“Call what in?” Tom said.
We shook our heads.
It started low, but quickly built into a steady, deafening yowl. The cop turned. The little girl, the little sparrow, had cracked. She was finally crying full out, with everything she had, and the mom, for all her granite, was bawling, too.
“Sad case, this illegal here, locked her kids in a closet and went off to clean houses.”
“Yeah?” Tom shook his head. “Just goes to prove it.”
“Prove what?” the cop asked.
“Shit’s tough all over.”
The cop huffed. “And you two don’t know anything about it?”
“No,” we answered in unison. The family services car drove off.
The cop’s partner came back and handed him our IDs. “No warrants, no priors.”
The cop gave us one last nudge. “Whoever called that in, now that guy was a hero.” The cop looked at us, weighing our expressions. “Maybe saved those kids’ lives.”
“Yeah,” Tommy said, “and it’s such a great life, too.”
We pushed into the Payday Loan. “It was some kids. Their mom locked ‘em in a closet and went off to clean houses.”
The woman bobbed her head, picked up a landline and pushed a button. “Ed, can you come out here?”
“Can we get our backpacks?” Tommy asked.
“Pardon me?” she said.
“Our backpacks?” Tommy said.
A big Hispanic came through a door on the back wall of the store. “You guys gotta go,” he said.
“What about our backpacks?” I said.
“We ain’t got no backpacks,” he said. “You gotta go—now.”
“Hey, what is this? We left our backpacks with this fucking cunt, and we want ‘em back.” The woman and the man smiled. “Get the law down here, whites, tell ‘em what’s in the bags. See if they can find your computers and prescriptions and coins and crowbars. What do you say?” she said. “Fuck you.” Me and Tommy both started stepping up, but the big man opened his coat. There was a pistol in his waistband. He represented, index and pinky finger extended, middle and ring finger half way up. The M13s: it was a gang sign people didn’t toss unless they could with absolute authenticity. The woman waved bye-bye and laughed.
We started walking. It’d be dark in twenty minutes. We’d catch the Red Line, then the Division Avenue bus. We’d pry Mom off her stool at the Five Step on the way home. She’d crawl into bed, and we’d make a double box of mac and cheese. Yeah, it’s such a great life.
Dave Schultz is a factory worker, who received a BA in Creative Writing and an AS in Mortuary Science, both from Southern Illinois University. He's had one notable piece published, a short story titled “Colt 45,” which appeared in Fifth Wednesday and was nominated for the 2013 Pushcart.