After the final count I was only 200 short of the 1.5K. So when Bryan was wrapping a rubber band around the bills and tossed the emptied wallets into a bin bag to dispose of them later, I took the tracker from my pocket and tossed it onto the table.
“That one should also fetch a nice price. What do you think you can get for it? Fifty? Seventy-five?”
Julie at least had the decency to blush. I think. I find it hard to tell with a black girl. Bryan just picked it up and gazed at it.
“Quite a bit more, man. When did you find it?”
I stared at him. I wanted to lie for some reason, no idea why or even what I wanted to say. But in the end I said the truth. Because everything else would have felt like cowardice.
“Today. Sometime in the afternoon.”
He regarded me impassively. There was some serious High Noon shit going down between him and me, me glaring fiercely and feeling somehow betrayed, silly as that might sound, and he all pensive and cool as a cucumber. He broke the eye contact, but it still felt to me as if I had lost the stare-down.
“Can you put him up for the night?” he asked Julie, as if I was just a friend visiting and he needed to scrounge up a bed for me. That was how I spent my last night in Leeds a guest instead of a prisoner, on a bed sofa in the living room of Julie’s grandmother. And that was how I heard that bloody conversation I wasn’t meant to hear, and how everything went off course.
It was a lot later. I had been tossing and turning on the couch. Whatever troubled me, and something did, it was bad enough that I didn’t even want to think about it. It had something to do with Julie’s grin when she had called me “Fido”. And something with the tracker. And a lot with the darkness in her eyes when she had smiled in the kitchen, when I had brought up Bryan.
Julie and Bryan came out of the kitchen. I could hear him put on his jacket, keys and coins jingling inside the pockets. They were murmuring quietly, covert lovers stealing a hidden moment, stripped of all sarcasm and coolness, of all the bravado they hid behind during the day. That was not the make-believe of teenage romance, not the coy flirt or the hard to get games of people too lost in self-doubt to take another person for more than a test of their market value. Right then they gave each other that rare gift only true courage is capable of giving: Presence without calculation. Two people wearing no masks.
I wasn’t listening to their words, just to their voices. Was it envy I felt? Jealousy even? I don’t think I begrudged them their brief moment of honest intimacy, dear enough, painful enough as it must have been. But I was only too aware that this was something I had never experienced, not with Hendrik, and certainly not with Jonas. The only person who had ever seen me anywhere nearly that naked had been ‘Nette, and I had been 10 years old.
I became aware that something in their conversation changed. I am extrapolating here from what I sensed and what I thought I knew, but I had the impression that Julie at last pushed Bryan to tell her what really had been bothering him all evening. And as he finally began telling her his real troubles a desperation crept into his voice, a helplessness I knew too well, because it had been the background sound of my childhood: Before my father had left, and when ‘Nette was dying, and when my mum had talked with social workers, shrinks and lawyers as they all tried to keep me from slipping over the edge into the darkness, there had always been this murmuring in the hallway.
The thick tufted polyester carpet soaked up the sound of my naked feet as I snuck over to the door and listened closer. There was a lot of disjointed mumbling, names and references I didn’t understand, and most of it made no sense to me at all. But slowly I pieced that much of the puzzle together:
Bryan had something in his possession that he needed to have delivered to someone by Sunday, or he would be in deep shit. The sort of deep shit that really scared him. Whatever it was, he couldn’t entrust it to the mail service, probably because it was quite illegal, and because the recipient wouldn’t be willing to pick it up from a post office, sign for it, or provide a traceable address. Neither Bryan nor Julie, not even Nate, could be there in person. (At least with Julie, I knew that she would get a visit from the social worker who was keen on sending her, Nate, and the grandma to state homes if they so much as gave her a reason. Hence all the housecleaning I had been doing.) And apparently he seriously didn’t trust anybody on his crew enough to let them deliver it either – from what I gathered less because they might keep the something, but rather because they weren’t supposed to know about the whole transaction at all.
I quietly pushed open the door. Bryan was sitting on the narrow stairs, head in his hands, and Julie squatted between his splayed legs, her hands on his bony knees.
“I’ll take it.” I said, rushing the words to keep my brain from stopping me. I cleared my throat belatedly.
Both looked up, tired even in their surprise.
“What have you heard?” Julie asked. I shrugged.
“Does it matter? I don’t know what it is, and I suppose I don’t want to know. I don’t know where you want to have it taken, but to me any place is as good as any other. It’s not like I have much of a goal anyway.”
They looked at each other again. The question written all over Bryan’s face was unmistakeable. Julie thought long and hard, and finally she nodded.