There are two birds in a tree. The branches are thin and weak, and there aren’t any leaves on them. The tip of the longest branch touches the window of a big grey building. When a breeze comes, the long branch scrapes against the window and it sounds like a ghost dragging its fingernails across the glass. At least, that’s what it sounds like to me.
A group of people passed by a minute ago and one of the girls in the group came over and stood next to me. Her friends kept walking. The girl didn’t say anything but just stood there looking up at the tree with me. I didn’t look at the girl but I watched her out of the corner of my eye. She was black, prettier than me, and about every two seconds she tapped the top of her head like she was swatting a fly. I wanted to ask her what she was doing and why, but I didn’t. She knelt down next to me and asked what I was looking at.
I didn’t say anything. I closed my eyes and listened to her tapping her head.
After she left, I thought of what I should have said when she asked what I was looking at. God. That’s what I should have said. I bet that would have freaked her out. You expect crazy homeless guys to say stuff like that, not someone like me. I’m a girl, and I’m only twelve, and I’m not dirty or homeless, but I am an orphan. My brother is, too. Lionel hates it when I say the bums are crazy. I say, “But they are,” and he says, “You shouldn’t say that, even if it’s true.” He almost always sneaks out with me to go to the park or the church, but he got into trouble last night and so now he has to stay inside.
Tonight’s the night I go to the graveyard. I’m not going right to it, though. I feel like going to a couple other places first. There’s a fenced-in garden underneath the railroad tracks. I figured out the trick to opening the lock on the garden so I can go there anytime I want. Actually, Lionel was the one who figured it out. I don’t know who the garden belongs to. I never see anyone there, and I’m here all the time. Maybe it’s mine.
The trees are white in the garden and there are dark spots on them like a Dalmatian, and there are a lot of them, too, these trees. And there are birds in them. I can hear the birds but I can’t see them. It’s too dark. When the train comes around the bend there’s a light that shines on the garden, but it isn’t bright enough to see anything except shadows. I like sitting under this white pavilion in the back of the garden. I sit there with my legs crossed and my eyes closed, and I like just being there by myself in the quiet.
Sometimes people come out of the building behind the park, past the fence, and they sit on the porch and talk all night, and I can listen to them from under the pavilion because it’s too dark for them to see me. I like to listen to people talking. I like when they can’t see me. I sit in the quiet and close my eyes and I don’t think about anything at all.
I eventually leave the park and walk around the corner to where there’s a bench that I like to sit on. Sometimes there’s a bum stretched out on the bench and I can’t sit there. I can tell when I turn the corner if there’s someone there because of the old-fashioned-looking light above the bench. It’s empty tonight, too cold to sleep outside. A lot of bums hang around the playground at night, and when you see their big shadows stumbling around, and you hear them coughing, it’s really creepy and sad. Because they used to be kids once, too. They sit on the swings and sometimes they sleep inside the slide. I only know that about the slide because my brother is friends with most of the bums that hang around here. Lionel doesn’t like when I call them bums, but that’s alright because he’s never going to read this. I can say anything I want and it’s going to be fine.
There are other benches around but I like this one because it has the best view. I can see the train track curve behind a big brick building, and I can see all the windows of the building, a whole wall of them, and if I turn around, I can see a chain link fence that wraps around the graveyard where I’m about to go. The graveyard and the playground share the same fence. It’s the wind that’s making the swings move, I keep telling myself, because of how weird and scary it looks without anyone swinging on them.
I close my eyes and try looking like the most peaceful person I’ve ever seen: an old man who used to live next door to us, when we were all still together. He’d sit on his porch staring straight ahead, and sometimes he’d lean out of his chair like he smelled something funny, a smell he wanted to follow, but then he’d sit back and close his eyes, and if I looked sharp I could see his nostrils flaring like he was still sniffing the air.
When I open my eyes, I’m looking into one of the big windows in the building, and all I can see is the ceiling fan in one of the rooms and some shadows moving beneath it. I wish I had one of those tall, rickety-looking ladders that slide in bookstores across the shelves. It would have to be a really big ladder to reach the windows at the top. That’s all right. I know a lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me. Actually, I even prefer them.
I was looking into another one of the rooms, watching the ceiling fan and the shadows there, when from behind my bench a whole family of rabbits come running through the fence from the graveyard. One of the rabbits has a broken-looking foot, and when the other rabbits run off, that rabbit falls a little behind and starts limping and looks lost and scared. But why were the rabbits running? I tip-toe over to the fence and look through the other side. The graveyard is dark except for the moon, and some of that pale light shows the shadow of something that looks like a hyena, or maybe some sort of jungle cat. I don’t know. Maybe a leopard. I can’t tell. I curl my fingers around the cold links in the fence and watch the way the anonymous monster moves through the dark.
It looks like it’s scared, frozen there, waiting for something. I let my fingers run along the length of the fence as I walk around the corner to the sidewalk, watching the shadow sort of twitch under the trees, ready to run. Then the shadow suddenly jumps into the air and takes off into the dark behind the trees, and after a couple minutes I see the broken-footed rabbit crawl back into the graveyard and fall asleep on one of the stones.
I kneel down and study some of the grave markers. I have a crazy thought about seeing my name on one of them, the date I was born, the date it is right now, and then me blinking real quick and I’m in a box under the ground, and it’s really quiet and my eyes are closed, and if I listen closely I can hear myself walk away up above. There isn’t any pattern to the dates on the stones. Some are really young, some are really old. Lionel likes to talk about death and ghosts, but not me. It makes my chest feel empty, my stomach tight, and sometimes if I see one of those stones, a really young one, I’ll sit down with my back to the fence and take a bunch of deep breaths until the hollow feeling goes away.
That’s part of why I like coming here. Most of the time I don’t feel that much, like sad or excited, but coming here makes me feel something, and even if it’s sick and a little scared, it’s something better than nothing. Plus, afterwards, when I’m walking home and the sickness has started to go away, I feel really calm and sleepy, and when I see other people walking I feel happy for them because they’re not under the ground in the upside-down zoo. That’s what Lionel calls the graveyard. He’s always saying really crazy things.
I take the long way home and am slow about walking back. It’s a very beautiful night and it feels good to be outside. My room at the orphanage is really hot. Even if it’s cool outside, like right now, I know it’s going to be hot and sticky in there. Hard to breathe. The ceiling fan only spins the warm air around even worse. The girl who I share the room with, Elizabeth, she’s from somewhere in the South so the heat doesn’t bother her as much. If it wasn’t for Lionel, I know I would have left the home a long time ago.
As soon as I turn this next corner, I know that I’ll walk with my hands behind my back down the long sidewalk that doesn’t have any trees, and I’ll look in the window of the home where we stay, see the little lamp inside the den that’s always on, and that just before the street ends I’ll begin running to the front steps even though I’m not in a hurry, and that I’ll carefully unlock the back door with a paper clip like Lionel showed me. I know that I’ll stand in the empty hallway outside my room and, with my ear against the door, listen to the CD of whale sounds that Elizabeth plays to cover up all of her crying.
But I still have a few more blocks before I get to my street, and it’s really beautiful outside and I don’t even have to look that hard to see the stars. I wonder what it would feel like to walk past the house and to keep walking until I get to someplace I’ve never been, to stay there until it starts feeling familiar and then to keep walking again, doing that forever, because right now anything sounds better than going back home.
Dustin Michael-Edward Davenport is from Kalamazoo, MI. His work has appeared in Ampersand Review, BRICKrhetoric, Bartleby Snopes, Oregon Vagabond, among others. He currently lives in Chicago, IL.