Chapter 1 – Last Stop, Gethsemane
At 10:00 p.m., I was ready for company. I was showered and combed-out, my ragged blue jeans and ripped tee had been traded for clean khakis and a button-down shirt, and the domestic explosion in my studio apartment had been thematically separated into distinct piles. When the buzzer rang, I didn’t answer the console beside my front door, but jogged down the three flights of stairs to the entryway of my building. Lillian, my short-but-scrappy sometime-girlfriend, was waiting.
As I opened the door, the hot August night hit me like a sullen blast furnace. Thick with months-long humidity, the air of the street oozed inward, pushing the stale coolness in the entryway aside.
“You’re right on time,” I said.
“I do what I can,” she grinned. Under the streetlamp her teeth flashed white against her olive skin. Her touch was light, as she drew me to her. She smelled of diesel, dust, electronics, and the sweat of heavy lifting.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a large, dark shape moving quickly towards us. I took hold of Lill’s sleeve to pull her into the building.
“Jax ?” a voice called my childhood nickname.
“Danny?” I said, releasing my girlfriend. She turned to face my brother, arms crossed. “What are you doing here?” I tried to ask politely.
“I was in the neighborhood,” he said, his sharp features becoming clear under the street lamp. He hesitated a moment under my first guest’s baleful gaze, then stepped up resolutely. At six feet four, he towered over us. “I thought I’d visit my big sister on my way home from work.”
Lill and I exchanged looks.
“Can I come up?” Danny asked. He sounded excited. “It won’t take long.”
Lill hesitated a moment, then said, “I’ll wait,” with ill-concealed impatience, squeezing my hand.
My brother quickly averted his eyes, then wondered aloud, “Is it safe around here?” Danny might have worked in the City by day, but to this grown-up country boy, Center City Philadelphia was no place fit for respectable humans at night.
He wasn’t far wrong. Three blocks south, crystal meth was peddled at busy intersections, and muggings in the vicinity, while not frequent, were known to happen. Especially at the end of a long oppressively hot summer, when temperatures outlasted tempers, violence flared in street corner arguments and liberal use of car horns to register impatience. In the distance, sirens wailed.
“The video store on the corner lets you loiter in their adult aisle,” Lill said wickedly, nodding in the direction of the neon-fronted shop catecorner from my building. “I’ll entertain myself till you’re through.”
“Come on up,” I told my brother, holding the door open for him. As he stepped through, muttering what sounded like one of his condemnatory scripture recitations, I called to Lill’s disappearing back,” Just 15 minutes ― don’t forget about me.”
She waved without turning, paying more attention to crossing the street, than to me.
Danny was half a flight ahead of me, by the time I turned and locked the front door.
I followed him up. “I was expecting you last night.” My voice echoed loud and annoyed in the stairwell. “What are you doing here this late on a Wednesday?” My brother’s usual late night at work was Tuesday. He lived a good hour-and-a-half west of the City, and he hated to postpone his commute home to Pennsylvania Dutch country any longer than necessary. He was a dutiful company man, though, so he put in extra hours once a week, like clockwork.
“I was busy last night,” he defended himself with a hint of mystery. “But I wanted to stop by as soon as I could. I’ve got some news.”
To be continued…