Chapter 6:

2 nights, 2 roofs

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               After a night of uneasy rest, Grace awoke to a chilly breeze flowing from the partially opened window. She shivered and pulled the blanket back above her head. It took a few seconds before her disorientation faded, and then she groaned and shut her eyes, for the details of the night had just returned to her. She curled up near the edge of the bed. The weirdness continued. The previous day had been the most awkward of her recent life. Not only did Grace suffer her first attack in years, it was also her first time sharing a man’s bed in even longer. Home for two days and already back to old habits. She shook her head at the thought.

    Sitting up, Grace looked to her side and saw Matthew’s relaxed unconscious form. She stared at him calmly. The longer she looked, the more he resembled a large sleeping child. The idea brought about a smile, a smile flashing the charisma that only Grace could flare so well—charisma through vulnerability. Wearing only her shirt and underwear, Grace lifted herself from the bed and slid into her jeans and sweatshirt. She grabbed her cigarettes and opened the box halfway, but then stopped after a moment’s thought and returned them to her jeans.

    When Grace arrived on the second floor, her attention was immediately snagged by the decorative artwork that lined the living room walls. It had gone unnoticed during the night. Large grainy photographs of the city were arranged throughout the room. Each had been taken during the peak years of steel production, showcasing the scorched skies, spewing factories, and begrimed skyscrapers of 1940’s Pittsburgh. Between the prints hung two impressive guitars, a Guild acoustic and a metal Airline electric—the masters of the servant upstairs.

     After thoroughly examining each photo, Grace headed to the sink and quickly downed a glass of water. She leaned an elbow on the counter and surveyed the room, her eyes landing on the door to the second floor balcony. Grace approached the door and withdrew the blinds from the window. The formations of a grin arose. She set her glass to the counter and hurriedly retrieved the camera from her bag, which she found sitting near the steps; and then scurried back towards the door, slid it open, and stepped to the balcony.

    With her back to the house, her gaze became fixed on a stunning view of the Allegheny River. It was first drawn to the Heinz Factory on its far bank, which calmly churned smoke and steam from its red brick smokestacks. Thick gray clouds had replaced the near perfect weather of the day before. To the west of the city, a low-lying fog had begun its slow, eastbound creep. The panorama was surreal. The morning air was light and misty; the erratic breeze was unexpectedly fresh, and Grace welcomed it gladly.

     After snapping a handful of pictures from several vantage points—using various apertures, angles, and shutter speeds—Grace returned the camera to her bag and sat down. She continued to stare at the view for the next several minutes, gazing upon the river in a state of tranquility. The breeze lapped gently at her face. All reflections were removed from her mind, barring the beauty of the water.

     The abrupt opening of the sliding glass door shattered her peace. Matthew joined her on the balcony. Grace, having been transfixed by the landscape, felt warmth swell in both cheeks and her knees bent together.

    “It’s a beautiful view,” Matthew said coolly, taking the seat next to Grace.

     She nodded in agreement as he clambered into the chair, and then replied,

    “Thank you for respecting my wish last night. Not everyone likes to hear no when it comes to sex, especially in their own house. I appreciate you letting me sleep here.”

     Matthew smiled.

    “There’s no need to thank me,” he responded, gently taking her hand. “It’s really ok. I have no expectations concerning sex. I just want you to be comfortable, so I can learn the genuine you. And I like the genuine you.”

    He grinned in his chair, now softly massaging Grace’s palm.

    “Honestly, I pretty much expect nothing from everyone,” he chuckled. “The last thing I want to do is pressure someone into bending their nature.”

    Grace cocked an eyebrow at the guitarist, and then joined him in grinning. Although they had only met the night before, Matthew had already topped the list of “most interesting men” in Grace’s life. In addition to his obvious skills regarding music and talking, it was clear he possessed a fierce intellect. He certainly had her curious. Thinking on it, Grace couldn’t recall having met anyone, male or female, with such a selfless, yet cynical philosophy on how to treat people. His words had definitely moved her; and the deep pools of his eyes held extraordinary power, the same as the night before. Almost the power to match her own...  

    Still smiling, Matthew released her hand and arose to his feet.

    “You hungry at all?” he asked. “I can make us some lunch if you’d like? Then we can enjoy a nice afternoon.”

    Grace smiled and bowed her head to the idea. Matthew returned the nod and worked his way towards the kitchen. Then a thought came to her mind. Grace was overcome with an urge to do something kind. Something natural. Considering that Matthew had been quite hospitable, it would be wrong not to return the favor.

    “Wait!” she called, standing up to join him. “Let me buy us both lunch. I know a good diner a few blocks away. We can get food from there. I’ll call it in and pick it up, then we can eat it here.”

    A charming smirk appeared on Matthew’s face.

    “This isn’t an attempt to duck out on me, is it?” he said wittily. “If you don’t want to stay its okay; by all means you don’t have to.”

    The redness returned to Grace’s cheeks.

    “No, no, absolutely not," she said shyly, suddenly embarrassed. “I didn’t mean for it to sound like that. I really do know a good place.”    

     Then Grace shuffled her way to Matthew and gave him a gentle kiss. The kiss triggered a shockwave that brought a tremble to the guitarist. It was a tremor that Grace felt and shared. She retracted a step backwards and smiled, having gained newfound swagger.

    “Let me take a quick shower,” she flirted. “Then I’ll go get the food.”

    “Ok!” he replied, unable to conceal his beam.

     Grace returned several minutes later wearing the scent of his soap.

    “I’ll be back soon,” she said, her hand on the door nob. “Do you want anything from the store?”

    “Ill be alright, but thanks anyway,” he replied politely. “Sure you don’t want me to join you?”

    “Its ok, you don’t have too,” she reassured. “I could do to stretch my legs,” but then slyly added. “Don’t go running off!” 

    His laugh echoed from inside the room as she left the house, yet the worry in his face could not be hidden. However, Grace knew that his concerns would immediately disappear upon her return. She walked briskly against the wind and pulled the cigarettes from her jeans.

 Grace felt sufficiently better, yet she hadn’t fully shaken the awkwardness of the previous day. As usual, a few days time would have to pass before her strength returned in full. She dragged from her cigarette profusely, unable to push Matthew from her mind. In years past, she had overheard her friends talk of their encounters with sexually passive men. Grace had always considered these tales to be myths, as none of the men whom she had ever dated fit that description. Could it be that Matthew fell along those lines? Only time could provide an answer. But ever the artist, Grace tended to view sex, like every other aspect of romance, as art. She had even photographed it on several occasions with previous lovers. Nevertheless, heterosexual intercourse had always proved tricky for her, and she suspected that it always would. Yet Grace was determined to balance the current.

     After walking through a stretch of shabby row houses, Grace turned a sharp corner and entered a near vertical street with cobbled stones. Her mind remained fixed on Matthew.

    Apart from the deep wounds within Grace’s core, the two were surprisingly similar. But as much as that allowed room for growth and development it could also create serious pain. Extreme doses of the same energy often leads to unsustainability, which, in Grace’s experience, generally results in the worst type of heartbreak. 

Grace decided it was best not to think on the future. With Matthew, it would be wise to proceed with baby steps, as she was having a difficult time remembering the last man who had such an impact. Being her overly skeptical self, Grace was unsure of what to make of it all. She figured the extent of his worth would be learned over time.    

    “Well, he’s worth sixteen bucks of breakfast at the very least.”

    Laughing at the thought, Grace extinguished her cigarette on the nearby brick wall and entered the diner…

                                              

                                              *

    On a warm summer night in the distant past, a boy took his sister by the hand and speedily led her into his room. Their attempt to vacate the house was unsuccessful due to double locked doors and hidden keys. The boy barred his bedroom door shut by dragging his bed in front of it. He then ran to his window and pulled it open. The sound of his father’s drunken yells and heavy footsteps could be heard approaching.

    “Quick,” he shouted to his sister, gesturing her towards the window.

    His cry went unnoticed. Fear had rendered the girl catatonic. 

    “Grace!” the boy screamed, causing her head to slowly rotate. “We have to get you out of here!”

    The harsh pounding of fists on his bedroom door had announced their father’s arrival.

    “You can’t hide her from me boy,” the man shouted from the other side.

   The boy grabbed his sister’s arm and pulled her towards the window.

    “You have to jump. Please jump!” the boy begged the terrified girl.

    But her fear kept its hold and the pounding grew louder. The trauma from two nights previous was still consuming the girl. It was clear she wasn’t going to jump, and he wasn’t going to throw her.  

    “Shit!” he cursed.

     The boy dragged his sister to his closet and quickly led her inside.

    “Stay in here, and take this,” he demanded, placing his switchblade firmly in her grasp.

     The boy shut the door behind her and turned to face his room. He stood motionless as the barrage continued, scared and defenseless. It wasn’t long before the lock to his bedroom door snapped, leaving only his bed as a brace. Now it was his turn to consider jumping from the window; but he discarded the thought and gathered his courage. The boy would never leave his sister, not with their father like this. He had to be her shield.

    After a violent kick to the door, the hinges were removed and the bed was knocked from the wall. The drunken man forced his way inside, kicking the bed upon arrival.

    The boy scanned his room for a potential weapon but his eyes flitted around and found nothing. His only defense was what he possessed on his person. Swallowing his fear, the boy faced his father who in turn laughed as he watched his son raise his fists. The man pounced forward, and, with little regard for his child’s health, landed a hard right hook to the boy’s eye.

    Lying on the floor, fading in and out of consciousness, the boy could only watch as his father stepped over him in direction of the closet. The door swung open and his eyes fell to his sister, who sat curled up and trembling on the closet floor. She only managed one word before their father led her away.

    “Kevin…”

   

    At the whisper of his name, Kevin awoke shivering in the back seat of his car, lying lethargically against the cushions and using his backpack for a pillow. He hastily rubbed the fog from his eyes and did his best to push the overwhelming nightmare from his mind.

    “Fuck my life,” he muttered, pulling his sweatshirt tightly around him.  

    After speeding away from his apartment, Kevin had sent a plea for help to all of his associates with zero affiliation to Syd. The list was not a large one, yet he had hoped it possible to find a roof to crash under. Not receiving a single response, Kevin had once again overestimated his connections. The results were not surprising, but the lack of support was disheartening. Kevin had always been one to assist those who needed him.

    Disoriented, Kevin rummaged his pockets to gauge the time from his phone. He shook his head upon seeing that he had missed about a half-dozen messages. Each had been sent from a client in need of his weed; all of whom he had called for shelter the night before. Yet as he scrolled through the messages, Kevin’s mood brightened upon seeing a dispatch from his old friend Rashad. It was a message that Kevin was happy to receive, for it implied that he was more than welcome to crash. The text also held an apology for not responding immediately. Kevin quickly replied, telling Rashad that he would arrive before evening.

    Unsure as to his whereabouts, Kevin craned his head in a circle and observed his surroundings. Then after a minute of recollection, the final memories of the previous night returned to him. Unable to find a place to crash, Kevin had travelled to the far side of the East End to safely spend the night. It made for a convenient neighborhood that allowed him to slip quietly under the radar. Nor did it hurt that Syd had an immense disdain for this part of town. The gang had never been ones for art, music, or counterculture.

    Still shivering, Kevin jumped into the driver seat and started his car. The beautiful climate of the day before had vanished; overcast skies now painted the above. Yet Kevin knew better than to expect consistency when regarding the weather in this city. He pulled away from his slanted parking spot and hit the road, smiling as he did. A second wind was approaching. Rashad was the ideal person to lend a hand in times like these. An old friend since elementary school, he happened to be the most humble and honest person that Kevin knew. It also didn’t hurt that he lived in a hood where even Syd wouldn’t dare snoop. Kevin decided it was best to head over immediately. He was due for a decent rest.

    As Kevin drove through the hilly neighborhood he couldn’t help but feel like a stranger. It had been years since he’d last stepped foot in the area, and he had long forgotten how its rebelliousness ran rampant. In these parts, the freaks came out by day. It was an oasis of unique culture, tucked away and hidden within the hills of the city. Its people and dealings were unknown to even him.

     Still, it wasn’t long before Kevin neared an establishment that was indeed on his radar—a diner frequented by his family during his childhood. He was glad to see that the place was still around despite the city’s changing climate. As Kevin grew closer, he watched as an attractive young woman with dyed black hair strolled from the diner. In her left hand sat a bag of food. Unsure as to why, Kevin was incapable of pulling his eyes from the gypsy. For reasons unknown, his recurring dream began to resurface.

    Then Kevin’s heart did a somersault, followed by his car screeching to a halt…

                                                *

  After paying for the food, Grace slid her change into the tip jar near the register, much to the cashier’s appreciation. Grace shared her smile and told the girl not to mention it. She returned to the sidewalk and took in a deep draft of the autumn air she loved so much. Grace felt her uncertainty and doubt leave her as she exhaled. Maybe returning to Pittsburgh wasn’t that bad of an idea. In that moment, it seemed as if progress might actually come easy.

    That was until a gold car slammed on its brakes and halted directly in front of Grace. Her stone blue eyes met those of the young male driver. The two stared each other down like a Mexican standoff.

   Then Grace gasped.

            The bag of food slipped from her hand and splattered atop the pavement…

    

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