PRW Runner-Up Tour: Rose by Sarah Remy
Sometimes when Katherine Luque-Mesa was especially tired of dusting, usually after she’d listened to her midnight playlist about a thousand times in a row, she’d turn off her second-hand lime-green iPod, and complain to the Big Man and his Barbie Doll wife.
The Big Man’s real name was Sal Crimson. Katie knew his name because it was printed in fancy letters on a little sign propped at the front of his desk, next to a computer she wasn’t allowed to turn off – NO MATTER WHAT – and a crystal decanter that was always half-filled with a foul-smelling brown liquor.
At Katie’s house all the liquor was clear and scentless.
“One shot of agave tequila, every Saturday night, before Mass,” Katie told Sal as she dusted around him, trying not to squirt Pledge on his trophy wife. “Mama says one shot saves the soul, two begs the devil.”
Of course the Sal didn’t answer. Katie wiped her rag across the silver framing Barbie’s perfect white smile. The woman – Sal’s third wife – didn’t look all that much older than Katie. Barbie and Sal had been married in December, on Christmas Eve, and although the Luque-Mesas had been invited to attend the massive reception, Mama had refused.
“One wedding is enough for any man or woman,” Mama scoffed over the gold-trimmed invitation. “Remember that, Katherine Marie. God keeps track of every sinner.”
Katie didn’t believe divorce was a sin. And she didn’t really believe in God either. She’d stopped believing on Wednesday, July 23rd, 2006; the day Daddy’d fallen into Rockefeller Center’s number 5 trash compactor, and been crushed to mostly to bits.
Katie paused, rag dangling, and swallowed a sigh. The digital clock next to Sal’s photo read 2:06 AM, and she still wasn’t half done with the 18th floor. They were running an hour behind, and Eddie would be pissed. She set down the bottle of Pledge, and reached for the vacuum.
Eddie’s boots shook the floor as he stormed down the hall. He stuck his round face through the office door. He scanned the square room, scowling.
“How much longer?”
“Fifteen minutes this hall,” Katie said. She didn’t look at him, but she couldn’t escape his calculating stare. His face reflected back at her in the floor-to-ceiling-window wall; his hard eyes floated smack in the middle of Manhattan’s blinking lights. “Another forty on the floor.”
“Christ, you’re slow. Three more floors left in the building, Katherine Marie, and we’ve still Sixth Ave to do. It’ll be dawn before you’re finished.”
“Sorry.” Katie swallowed. She had an AP English final to study for, and two pages of trig homework, but she knew better than to complain to Eddie. He wasn’t family, he didn’t give a shit. Last time she’d dared open her mouth, he’d left a bruise below her eye, and she’d had to skip school for an entire week.
“Christ,” he repeated, running beefy hands over his bald head. “Fine. I’m taking the truck to Sixth. Finish the building. You’ll have to take the subway home.”
Katie nodded. She hated lugging the vacuum on the train. People pretended not to notice, but she felt them stare, and take note of the Luque-Mesa Clean! logo on her sweatshirt, and she knew they were wondering about child labor laws. Everyone always thought she was younger than seventeen, because she was short.
“Hurry up,” Eddie warned, and then stomped away down the hallway.
Katie waited until she heard the elevator ding, and counted to twenty. She tippy-toed to the door, and peeked out into the hall, just in case Eddie was messing with her head, which he sometimes liked to do.
When she was absolutely, positively sure he was gone, she dropped the vacuum handle and dove for her backpack. She hadn’t eaten a single thing since lunch at school, and she was starved. Mama always packed something special for midnight snack; Eddie rarely gave Katie time to eat it.
She dug past school books and pulled out Mama’s thermos, still warm. She unscrewed the lid and inhaled greedily.
“Black bean,” she told Barbie and Sal. “With extra cilantro. Aren’t you jealous?”
Katie didn’t bother with the spoon that lived, all folded up, in the thermos lid. She tilted the thermos and guzzled. Her stomach gurgled and growled in reaction.
“Hey. Slow down, little bird. You’ll choke.”
Katie almost dropped Mama’s thermos. It bobbled, and tilted, and nearly upended all over the office carpet. But the boy was quick – super quick – and caught it in both hands, narrowly preventing disaster.
“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
Katie’s heart was in her throat, because she’d thought she was alone on the 18th floor, and because if she’d stained the carpet with Mama’s soup Eddie would make sure she ended up in Rockefeller trash compactor #5, mashed right in with Daddy’s old bone-dust.
“Holy Mary,” she breathed. She could see her own expression on the windows, superimposed over the city, a small girl with braided black hair bound in a kerchief. The old jeans she wore below her work Polo belonged to Mama, but her wide, frightened eyes were all Daddy.
“Sorry,” he said again. “Here.” He set the Thermos on Sal’s desk. “Here. Did you get any on you? Are you burned?”
“Not on the desk!” Katie hissed, mortified. “What are you, loco? It might leave a ring.”
“It won’t.” He smiled, all blue eyes and perfect teeth, just like Barbie’s. His hair was dark and curly, and too long for fashion. “Desk isn’t real wood, just laminate.” He picked up the thermos, making the point. “See, no harm.”
Katie snatched it back. “What are you doing here? I thought I was alone. No-one’s supposed to be here, building’s locked.”
He shrugged. “Eddie sent me. To help. Said you were running behind, needed an extra hand.”
Katie felt her jaw drop open, and hurriedly snapped it shut again. Eddie never offered up any of his own private team. Eddie didn’t like to share.
“See?” He poked a thumb against his chest, against the Luque-Mesa Clean! logo on his own shirt. “Legit.”
She couldn’t argue the shirt, or the badge hanging from his belt. But the boy didn’t look like Eddie’s usual fresh-out-of-prison type. He looked more like he’d escaped from an Uptown private high school.
“Sit down,” he said, still smiling. “Finish your dinner. I’ll take over.”
He put a hand on Katie’s shoulder, and practically shoved her into Sal’s leather swivel chair. He must have come directly from outside, because his hand was very cold; she could feel the chill through the fabric of her shirt.
She was really hungry. Her stomach was practically having a fit. So she sipped Mama’s soup and stared as the boy played with the vacuum controls. He was tall, and thin, and when he lifted the vacuum to look underneath at the roller bar the lean muscles stood out on his fore-arms.
“This your first night?” Katie asked, trying not to giggle. “The button’s on the top. What’s your name?”
He shot her a wide-eyed, innocent stare.
“My third night,” he said, smile curling. It was really a very pretty smile, Katie thought. Almost too pretty. “Eddie hired me on the fly. I need a little cash.”
“For a girl?” Katie guessed.
“No,” he said, groping along the vacuum handle. He found the off/on button, then jumped a little when the machine roared to life. He pushed the vacuum back and forth tentatively, then more firmly as he got the hang of it.
“Never even vacuumed before?” Katie yelled over the noise. She wasn’t really jealous. But she’d grown up with hard work, and it was hard not to pity those who hadn’t.
But the boy only shrugged, and smiled over the growling vacuum.
Katie fell asleep. She didn’t mean to, but she’d been running several days without any real down time, and she’d forgotten what it mean to just sit. The sound of the vacuum was like white noise, chasing the worries from her busy brain. And Mama’s bean soup sat warm in her belly.
She didn’t doze long, because when she started awake in Sal’s leather chair the digital clock said 15 to 3. The vacuum was quiet. The boy was sitting cross-legged on the floor at her feet, boldly going through her pack.
“Hey!” Automatically she kicked out, knocking his hands from her things, almost kicking him in the chin. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? You won’t find any cash in there, bastardo!”
“Sorry.” He spread his hands. “I was looking at your books.”
“Yeah, right.” Katie grabbed her pack, tossed Mama’s thermos inside, and zipped it closed.
“You have a lot of books.” His blue eyes were unrepentant. “I like books.”
“What did you say your name was?”
“Brian.” He pushed himself up from the floor, and stuck his hands in the pockets of his Dockers. He rocked back and forth on his heels, watching her. Katie wished his grin didn’t make her want to smile back so badly. His expression almost warmed the frigid room.
“Why’s it so cold in here? You didn’t mess with the AC, did you?”
Brian shook his head, obviously baffled.
“Fine, okay.” Katie slung her backpack over one shoulder. “We’re running out of time. Let’s start on the next room, okay?”
“It’s done,” he said. “They’re all done.”
Okay, Katie decided, handsome but dumb. What a waste.
“No,” she explained. “We have to clean all the other rooms. You know, dust and vacuum. Every room on the floor. Entiende?“
“They’re done,” he repeated, blue eyes glinting with what had to be humor.
“Yeah, right.” Katie brushed past him, then down the hall.
He trailed after, watching as she stuck her head in the next office.
The room was clean, as clean as she ever managed. The books shelves and file cabinets shone, dust free. The windows gleamed. Even the cluttered desk-top sparkled, executive knick-knacks polished to a gleam. The room smelled of Pledge and Windex, and a faint, pleasant flowery perfume that reminded Katie of spring.
“I figured out the vacuum,” Brian said. “It wasn’t that difficult.”
Katie didn’t reply. Instead she marched down the hall, checking one office after another. She paused in each of the three metal-and-glass conference room, and in the miniscule kitchen, and in mail room.
Every space was clean, her work finished.
“No way,” she said. “Impossible. A floor this size takes me at least ninety minutes.”
“Anything’s possible.” Brian patted her arm. “Now you can go home and read your books.”
He was just tall enough that the top of her head reached his chin. When she tilted her head, she could meet those absorbing blue eyes. His smile made Katie sigh and shiver at the same time.
“You’re very beautiful, even when you’re frowning,” he said. “Go home, now, Katherine Luque-Mesa, all your work is finished.”
She did shiver then, because the cold off his finger seemed to seep into her own bones. And the faint scent of flowers clung to her braids. But she nodded, unable to feel anything but relief. She’d have a few hours to sleep before she had to catch the subway to school.
“Thanks,” she said. “I appreciate it. Please don’t tell Eddie I fell asleep on the job. He’d kill me.”
“No on will know,” he promised. “You’re safe now.”
It was kind of a creepy thing to say, but Katie didn’t care. She was in such a hurry to get home, and into bed, that she left her vacuum behind.
When Katie rolled out of her room before sunrise, her vacuum was sitting in the middle of Mama’s tiny apartment, next to Mama’s rocking chair. Mama was rocking furiously, mouth set in a flat line, hair up in pink rollers. She was already dressed for work in the dull blue US Postal Service government uniform, but she’d just started on her first cup of coffee. Katie could tell, because the lines on her brow hadn’t yet relaxed.
“You were home early last night,” Mama said, half scold, half worry. “And I found this outside the door. Lucky no one ran off with it.”
Katie regarded the vacuum doubtfully. No one had run off with the old machine because it was worth nothing, even in parts. It had been one of Daddy’s fleet, and now most of them were gone, dead of rust or broken wiring.
“Eddie must have dropped it by,” she said, pouring her own cup of coffee into the elephant-printed mug she loved. “I finished early because I had help.”
Mama’s brows rose. “What sort of help?”
Katie dug in the cupboard for a Pop-Tart, unwrapped the pastry, and nibbled on an edge. They didn’t have a toaster, but that was okay, she liked her breakfast cold and her coffee hot.
“Eddie went on to Sixth, but sent some kid back to help. He looked like a Hollister ad, but he worked major.”
Mama rocked faster. “That doesn’t sound like Eddie.” She frowned over her coffee. “That man doesn’t waste a thought on any person but himself.”
Katie shrugged, finishing her Pop-Tart and licking her fingers clean. “He dropped my vacuum off.”
“Maybe.” Mama sounded doubtful. “Off to school with you, chica. Doesn’t ever pay to be late.”
Katie hoisted her backpack, and kissed Mama on the cheek. She wouldn’t be late today; she had plenty of time to catch up homework on the train, and maybe even make the first bell at school.
“Love you, Mama,” she said, and took her coffee with her out the door.
That night Luque-Mesa Clean! worked Rockefeller, which always put Katie in a bad mood. She missed Daddy extra-hard when she stepped off the subway at 30 Rock.
Dragging her vacuum behind her, she flashed her badge at the concierge, and took the elevator up to the 12th floor, where they had a contract with an architectural firm. Eddie wasn’t there to greet her, but he’d left a nasty note about making sure she sprayed down the microwaves with cleaning solution.
The floor was mostly modern white furniture and bleached wood. There was no carpet, just fancy rugs, which made vacuuming difficult. She dropped her pack in the closest office, plugged in her ear-buds, and went right to dusting. She had more energy than usual, and she danced a little as she cleaned.
Katie smelled the flowers before he stepped through the door, and he brought an ebb of cold with him, even though his expression was warm and eager.
She switched off her music. “Eddies’ gone loco supreme. You again?”
Brian only smiled. “We’re a team, now. I started at the other end. All shiny, just need to vacuum. Can I borrow it?”
He reached for her battered machine, preening a little in his work shirt.
“You dropped the vacuum by, last night,” she realized. “How do you know where I live?”
“Eddie told me. It was on my way home.”
Harlem wasn’t on anybody’s way home. And if Eddie knew she’d left equipment behind at a jobsite, he would have been around to scream, because Eddie left no mistake unpunished. Something flipped a little in Katie’s stomach, and the tiny hairs on the back of her neck began to itch.
“I don’t believe you,” she said.
He looked a hurt. “I told you,” he said, “we’re a team, now. You’re always good with me.”
Katie wanted to argue, but he seemed so forlorn, and his blue eyes promised a safety she hadn’t felt since she’d lost Daddy.
“Okay,” she said, a little dazzled.
“Good.” He touched her, just a finger-tip on her chin. Cold, so cold, but his face was flushed with affection. “Thanks.”
He took the vacuum with him, steering it out of the office, whistling. Katie switched her music back on, and went back to work.
They finished an hour before Katie was supposed to move on to 3rd, but this time she didn’t scuttle out. They sat together in the firm lobby, surrounded by architectural renderings and beautiful paintings, and sorted through Katie’s school books while she sipped at Mama’s soup.
Brian flipped through each book, gently turning pages, reading passages carefully out loud. Katie forgot to worry he might be about stealing her stuff.
“You must go to school on the East Side,” she guessed. “Or one of those private academies in the Financial District. Don’t you get enough of your own crap to study?”
He had her dog-eared copy of ANTHEM in his hands. He shook his head, and Katie thought he sighed a little.
“I like the feel of this one. Can I borrow it?”
Katie hesitated. ANTHEM was one of her favorites, and she didn’t like to loan out her favorites. Still, they were a team.
“Sure,” she relented.
They sat cross-legged on one of the thick rugs, almost knee to knee. Brian scooted closer, until their thighs brushed.
“Thank you,” he said.
She’d been kissed before, in the movie theater, on the subway, behind the school library when she should have been in math class. She liked boys, and she liked kissing, for practice and entertainment, but she’d never felt like she couldn’t live without.
Brian’s kiss was different. His lips were soft, cool. His hand tangled in her braids, tugging lightly. Katie forgot to breath. Warmth spread through her bones, even as his breath blew cold on her face.
When she closed her eyes she could still see the bright blue of his regard on the back of her eyelids.
“You’re mine, now, little bird,” he promised. “No one will hurt you again.”
Katie sighed, and leaned into his embrace.
When she rolled through the apartment door at 2AM, Mama was up and waiting, which was very unusual, and not good.
“You’re early,” Mama said. She glanced sideways at Katie. “At least you remembered the vacuum tonight.”
“Yeah.” Katie’s head was still spinning; she could think only of Brian and his smile. And she was tired, unusually tired. “I’m going to bed.”
“Wait.” Mama blocked her way. “I talked to Eddie today. He said he hasn’t hired anyone new. There’s no new Hollister nino.”
Katie made a rude noise. She hated Eddie.
“Why do you listen to him, Mama? He’s a bad man, and a liar. You and I both know he murdered Daddy.”
Mama deflated, as she always did when she thought of Daddy and the dumpster. “That was an accident, Katherine Marie. A terribly accident.” Her cheeks quivered in remembered distress.
For once, Katie didn’t try to soothe.
“I’m going to bed,” she said.
She pushed past her mother. Her bed was warm and welcoming, and the sheets smelled of remembered flowers. She fell into sleep even as Mama called after.
“Eddie’s loco,”Brian said, mimicking Katie’s accent without much success. “I don’t like him. He makes you afraid.”
They were in the Garment District, alone in a fashion mogul’s design studio, wrapped in swathes of expensive fabric. They’d finished cleaning, or maybe they hadn’t started. Katie couldn’t remember, and didn’t care.
Brian managed to look dashing in a hounds-tooth coat and matching hat. The samples were worth a fortune, Katie knew. She’d never have touched them before, but Brian had changed things.
“No,” she said, pulling a length of velvet through her fingers. “I’m not afraid anymore.”
“Good,” he said, her new love. He posed, a ridiculous, and made her heart pound in joy. “Take a picture, for your mother.” He pushed back the lapel of his coat, exposing the Lugue-Mesa Clean! logo. “Show her I’m real.”
Katie laughed. “Silly. Of course you’re real.”
Brian grinned, whirled, and plucked a flower from a profusion sprouting from a vase on the cutting-board.
“Take her this,” he said. “Tell her I’ll come to visit, and drink her soup. When it blooms.”
Katie studied the flower. It was a rose, a red rose, still wrapped in new bud.
“Will you? Come and visit?”
“Of course,” he said, drawing her in for a kiss, all hounds-tooth fashion and affection. “Tell your Mama to be ready.”
Mama looked at the rose-bud with distaste. “What sort of foolishness is this?”
“It’s romantic,” Katie said. She pulled an old, empty tequila bottle from the top of the fridge, filled it with water, and carefully positioned the flower in the make-shift vase. She set the vase on the kitchen counter by Mama’s rocker.
“You’ll like Brian,” she said, then yawned. “We’re a team. And he wants to taste your soup.”
Mama only frowned harder, worry creasing into lines above her nose. “Why would Eddie lie to me about this? It’s my company, your father’s company, even if he runs it now.”
“I don’t know.” Katie didn’t care about Eddie anymore, about slaps or bruises or the fear she’d once felt every time he’d mentioned Daddy. It didn’t matter. Brian would keep her safe. “Goodnight, Mama. I love you.”
Mama kissed the top of Katie’s head. “Goodnight, baby. Sleep well.”
The rose bloomed before dawn, as Mama sat in her chair, rocking. She saw it bloom, even though the room was all but dark. The petals spread and stretched, opening to a warmth Mama couldn’t see. She sat up, frightened, and hopped out of her rocking chair.
She could smell flowers, the rose had a perfume as strong as twenty bouquets. The scent made Mama gag. It was cloying, other-worldly, and reminded Mama strongly of her late husband’s funeral.
“Holy Jesus!” She grabbed at the red rose, crushing the petals between her fingers, knocking the vase to the floor. Crossing herself, she ran to Katherine’s room, but too late.
Her child lay, still and cold and blue, on her back beneath her blankets, un-breathing. Her lovely mouth was curled in a frozen smile, and her eyes were open, looking beyond Mama at something only the girl could see.
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