Rebecca Moon Ruark reads "Recruit"

Audio Feature

 

 

 

 

Rebecca Moon Ruark reads "Recruit"

Audio Feature

Past four in the morning in Michael’s bedroom, I stripped his bed of its sheets and comforter, soaked with piss, again. My wife Toni had found the toddler bed, shaped like a race car, at a garage sale when our son was a toddler. Then it was a treasure. Now that Michael was eight, the bed felt like a joke. He should have been racing to the toilet. Instead, he just stood there watching his feet on the braided rug while I underwent my nighttime chore.

I flicked on his bedside lamp. Toni’s night vision was for shit. So, she stayed in bed while I changed the linens and changed Michael, peeling his superhero pajamas, wet from waist to knees, off his little frame. He shivered in the nude a minute.

“Are you okay?” I asked into the dim room but received no answer.

I shut his window to the cool air that smelled of the dumpster fires in the alley below. I had half a mind to yell into the night sky. I was forty-five and still dealing with new recruits and their piss. Sure, Michael wasn’t a recruit, but it felt a little like then, like in Iraq, when my raised voice could accomplish something, get some hackles up and quell a need in me.

I swiped my son with a baby wipe. I threaded his lean body through dry pajamas. His hands, peeking out from the sleeves, were balled in fists that trembled. Michael ground his teeth.

After wiping down the bed frame, I turned to find him in the dimness, his back pressed flat against the wall. “Are you okay?” I asked again, because the teeth-grinding was new.

I went to him. I would be gentle enough, but I couldn’t reward this behavior, normal or not. “You’re okay,” I said.

I placed a hand on his head. Toni would say, “If there’s pee, there’s no TV,” a catchy jingle that meant little in the light of day, when Michael held his water just fine. But this was Saturday, and in a few hours, he would be missing the thrill of the cartoons on the screen. It was a better ritual we shared: the slapstick violence that brought me some nostalgic relief. To Michael, I figured it was all Looney Tunes fun.

The teeth-grinding stopped as I stroked his cheek. “I’m a baby,” he said finally, not seeking my eyes.

“You’re a good recruit.” It was a running thing between us, making him and me feel big. Like back when my body was an instrument of war, when I lifted more than kegs behind the bar at the Eagles Lodge. “A tough recruit,” I said.

Sixty pounds wet, but my son was strong. Just a few days before, I had caught him climbing the fire escapes at the rear of our building: a labyrinthine, three-story expanse of rusting landings and stairs and rebar railings. He clung to the edges, where the escape scaffolding met the building. The older, bigger neighbor boys bravely traversed the escapes, swung over bars, leaped down stairs, slid down railings, and flew the open expanse between our landing on the second floor and the terrace below. As they did, I thought I could see the rust dust fly, pinking the white Cleveland sky.

Toni couldn’t see it, but Michael’s palms were so rust-stained I couldn’t scrub them clean. He must’ve been out on the fire escape a lot. Truth was, it was either catch up or get caught, for the kids in our building and its twin tenement next door. So, I didn’t forbid Michael’s play.

This bi-weekly piss-and-clean routine wasn’t play.

Michael carried the wet linens down the hall to the kitchen floor while I made his bed new again, smoothed on dry sheets, and tucked them tight.

Just when I was thinking that in the morning we could take a bath together—he wasn’t too old for that yet—Michael started yelling from the kitchen. “Hey” or “Wait,” he said. I couldn’t tell.

I lumbered out of the bedroom and down the hall, hushing him on my way, not wanting to wake Toni. Tomorrow, she could trudge to the basement laundry in the light of day. She could still manage that. Hang to dry Michael’s bedding on the community clothesline, on the terrace that was more like a small parking lot below the fire escape.

“Keep it down, Michael,” I said. “Coming.” I ran my fingers along the hall wall to find my way.

When I got to the kitchen, linoleum floor cracked and sticky under my bare feet, Michael was gone.

With a deep breath, I squashed the fear rising from my gut to my chest. The light on, I found him standing on the other side of the kitchen window. Nimble as Gumby, he had climbed up and over the kitchen sink and through the busted screen down to the rickety fire escape landing outside.

The solid door between our family home and all that was out there in the early morning was still locked. Keys, I thought. But first, I held my position in the kitchen, thinking that Michael’s body would mimic mine. It was dangerous enough out there in daylight. Now, the sky high above our East Side neighborhood was a hazy charcoal with streaks of sulfur yellow and distant balls of white streetlight. But at our rear of the building at this hour, it was dead dark. He stood on the landing in no shoes, facing away from me, leaning over the top rail and inching forward. Yes, his little white heels and fingertips were shrinking to my eyes.

“Stop, Michael,” I called through the open window, removing the house keys from their hook on the kitchen wall to unlock the door. Ten years had passed, a decade of lake-effect snows and salt, since I’d been out on that landing, looking across a tiny breakfast table into the eyes of my new wife, Toni.

Michael hadn’t advanced to the escape stairs, but he had climbed up the railings. His feet curled like paws around the lower rail. His hands clung to the upper rail, which was little more than a thin and twisted wire.

I pushed the sticking door open and it squealed in the still air. I looked back into the apartment, thinking I should call Toni. But she couldn’t do more than yell and spook Michael. I could handle this. Cool under fire and all that. “That’s far enough,” I called. I kept my voice level, though I wanted to shout, to throttle him. What was this, a stupid game?

If it was a game, the playing field was uneven at best. In boxers and t-shirt, I stood in the kitchen doorway, open to the fire escape, to the air raising the hairs on my arms and legs. I tried to reach my son with my voice, rising now in pitch and volume. “Michael. Here, now. Michael.” I used short, quick demands that could carry and reach him, even if he was maybe sleepwalking or acting out some kind of night terror. Though, from the looks of his fluid little body, the night terror was all mine. At my feet, I saw that the landing was rusted through. A hole the size of a basketball had made it so I could see the terrace with its community clothesline one story below me. Just days before, a man and woman lay down there in heroin stupors in the middle of the afternoon, as if they were in bed, or dead. Michael had asked, “Are they zombies?”

“Yes, real-life zombies,” I’d said.

Michael didn’t stop, so I tested with a bare foot around the hole in the landing, like checking the ice in winter. But it only grew, as brittle pieces fell soundlessly to the concrete below. The metal rails creaked as I tested them with my hands.

“Stop in three, two,” I sounded the countdown typically followed by a loss of privilege or a swat. But he only kept moving.

A beat later, Michael stopped of his own accord, looked back, squared his shoulders, and called to me, “It’s not safe.”

“I know.” And I knew no amount of calling, bargaining, or threatening would bring him back. I mimicked his position on the railings, feet on the lower, hands on the higher. But at my height, I was practically in a pike position, and I would be ass over teakettle with my first step and flat on a broken back on the terrace below. Then who would save my boy?

Phone the cops, maybe? Toni had the phone. She’d cut off the landline, and I had come back from the war for the last time to find she was sleeping with a phone, like a kid with a security blanket.

I could inch my way back inside to get it, but Michael was moving again, away from me and into a pocket of pure darkness, where the glow from the security lights couldn’t reach.

Then he raised an arm, gracefully, only one hand on the rail now. And I thought, this is a show. Michael’s acting something out.

“I’m watching. I’m right here. Just put your arm down, please. Hold on with both hands,” I said. “That was something, but it’s time to slowly move your way back to me.” I could reach out an arm, and I did, though he was a good ten arm-lengths from me by now. Maybe we looked like some sort of high-wire synchronized team, a silly, big-man-and-small-boy act. But it was only then that I followed his little white pointer finger through the night sky and saw what he was aiming at.

Mercy, I thought. Have mercy on us, Michael and me, out here.

Where our building meets at a right angle with the next building, the fire escape scaffolding meshes, making little triangular landings outside the second, third, and fourth floor apartments. Only, they’re not meant to be landings—there are no rails, no stairs—but people use them anyway. Couples sit cross-legged, facing each other. Big boys dangle their long legs over the edges. When Toni sees them do this, she grabs at Michael and says she can feel her heart in her throat.

Now, there was a person—a girl or a waif of a woman—hanging between the third and second stories, bat-like, upside-down, her feet hooked into something in the landing above her. She hung within the deep shadow of the cornice, hugging herself instead of reaching her arms toward the landing below her, like you would if you were an acrobat. Her clothes were dark and so was her hair, hanging down in thick strands that ended in arrow-like points. Maybe I dreamed this part, but it looked as if those strands were pointing to the terrace below. The wind picked up and played with them, and they shivered and shook, like they knew their fate. Even if the girl could free her feet from their metal purchase—something like stirrups—and drop, there was no way she would make the landing below her. It was too shallow to the building. She would miss it. How cold the terrace’s concrete looked now; how cold I realized it was outside, on this fall morning before dawn. I rubbed my hands over my arms. The girl would sail right past the landing, like one of those diving birds hunting prey in water. Only, she would hit the concrete terrace two stories below, head first.

I’d taken my eyes off Michael at my discovery of the girl. In that time, he’d shimmied farther along the lower rail where the escape floor was rusted through. I could hear him murmuring as he went but couldn’t make out the words.

“No, Michael,” I called.

My son said nothing, only looked back toward me and nodded once.

When the girl started to make noise, there was no mistaking what she said: “Get me offa here. Get me the fuck offa here.” Maybe it was her language, or the fact that Michael didn’t flinch at the coarse talk and just kept inching toward her, but I felt like an intruder. As much as twenty years separated them, my boy and this twitching junkie girl. And yet, he could have been moving toward his best friend on the jungle gym for all the caution I saw, or didn’t see, in his little bearing.

Michael didn’t need me, not out there. Maybe in the apartment, where there was a rule and order to things, where he couldn’t reach the thermostat. So, saying nothing, I reversed my course and went back into the warm kitchen and down the hall to my bedroom, where I eased the phone from Toni’s sleeping grasp to call the emergency line.

I didn’t take my eyes off the pair out the kitchen window while telling the police dispatcher about my boy and a girl dangling from the fire escape. Only when I voiced the situation did my body defy my training; my muscles tensed and I could hear the blood in my ears drumming “fear, fear, fear,” before I shut it up.

Instead, I started saying to myself, one for one, like some kind of mantra or mini prayer. One for one. Not one for all. My son was eight; he was no recruit. He had no responsibility to save this broken girl.

I rattled off our address and told the dispatcher which street the fire truck should come up, as I crept back out onto the threshold between my home and out there. The dispatcher repeated the address back to me, like I’d gotten it wrong. There had always been a criminal element in these buildings, when my apartment was my father’s and his Hungarian father’s before. But now we locked our door to take out the trash. We didn’t enter the basement laundry at night. “Lord have mercy,” I said, uttering thoughtlessly my wife’s mantra.

The dispatcher told me to get inside, and I said I would, but I didn’t. Stuck, trapped behind the gaping hole in the fire escape landing, my feet freezing on the cold metal, I stood as close to my boy as I could get without falling to the terrace below. I turned on the phone’s flashlight, but the sun’s first rays were stronger. I watched Michael, who had inched forward so that he was directly under the girl now. He nodded again in my direction as if to say he was okay. “Stay there,” he said. And I did. I stood there in the cold and only thought about reversing my course and heading downstairs to position myself on the escape one flight down. I thought about praying.

For forty years, I’d figured an eye for an eye was about revenge, retribution for a wrong done. Cut me, and I’ll cut you. But then at church one week, this visiting Nigerian priest, with an accent that turned “mercy” into “messy,” spoke about the Old Testament passage. An eye for an eye, he said, was as much about mercy as it was about punishment. It meant only an eye for one eye, instead of an entire life for one eye. Cut me and I’ll cut you. I won’t kill you.

Michael wouldn’t let her fall. At eight, he knew right from wrong. It just wasn’t within his sense of order to let her fall, even if in trying to save her, he fell, too.

As softly as I could while making myself heard, I said, “Tell her to hang on, Michael. Help is coming.”

“She says one of her feet is slipping and she’s cold,” he called back. He must have convinced her to lower one of her arms, but her dangling hand wasn’t within six inches of his shoulders. Too much distance separated them still.

“Just stay put now,” I said, knowing that even if they didn’t flinch, the entire grid of rusting metal could fall to the terrace at any second.

She squirmed a little. Then she started making sounds, but they didn’t seem like they belonged to any kind of human. They were high-pitched but mournful. Keening, that was what it was called, like she was already grieving for the life she was about to lose.

By the look of the dirty gray sky, the sun would be up in under an  hour. Where were the cops? Where was the fire truck with its big net? Or was that only on old TV shows?

For a few minutes, they didn’t move. Feet on the lower rail, hands on the upper rail, Michael stood stock still and only raised his shoulders to his ears to lessen the distance between her reaching hand and his body. Her legs were shaking.

If they could do this on their own, I thought, they might have a better chance than if they waited. I began to worry about the trucks and sirens spooking them. At the circus during the high-wire act, the audience instinctively knows to shut up. Noise and applause and cheers and laughter are for the clowns. I wondered if I should run down the two flights to the back of the building and stand under them. If they fell, would they fall together? Could I catch them both?

Or, run to the end of the street, so I could signal to the fire truck to go slow, be quiet? But the noise would come anyway. Dawn was breaking, and it was only a matter of time before some old lady looked out her window and started screaming at the sight.

I crept closer—the metal groaned—but I was still a good six feet away. I said to Michael, “What if you put one foot on the top rail?” He did, slowly, and as I’d expected, it raised him up the few inches he needed, so that the girl’s fingertips could reach his shoulder. Then it was up to her to remove her feet from their restraints and swing her legs back over herself to land, piggy-back-style, on Michael.

I talked to him and he talked to the girl, like a translator. She spoke softly, so I couldn’t make much out, but I understood when she said, “Hell, no.” She made those keening sounds again, and began to move her first leg up and over her head.

All the while, the emergency vehicles closed in two stories below. I couldn’t make out the words that came through a bullhorn, but I couldn’t look down either. I hugged my middle and hummed a hymn Toni would sing while she cleaned the apartment, maybe pitying herself for having to scrub the toilet, maybe celebrating the fact that she could still see well enough to do it. “There is a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.” I thought of our lake that couldn’t wash away the filth of this city. Of our river that burned so many years ago and still seemed to burn.

Below us came the sound of the bullhorn again and a voice telling us to stay still. There was also the sound of a motor humming as a ladder began reaching for the sky.

“Help is here,” I said. Michael nodded, first to me and then to the girl.

She had to let go of Michael’s shoulder, and the hand with its pink palm seemed to grapple with the air as she did. But somehow she managed to swing one leg and then the other over her hanging head and grab onto my son, him white-knuckling the rail so her weight wouldn’t throw him over. The net below appeared too late.

In the dawn’s low light, Michael shimmied, inch by inch, back to me. As he did, the girl wrapped her legs around his narrow hips and her arms over his shoulders and didn’t move. She didn’t even seem to breathe. Neither could I, simply nodding Michael’s way.

*

Only once we were back in the kitchen did the girl say anything: “Shit” and “Jesus” and finally “Thank you,” to Michael, maybe. It was hard to tell. She was shaking and balled up face-down on the linoleum floor with her hands over the back of her neck like you do in a tornado drill.

I put a hand on her back and finally carried her down the two flights of stairs and out the front of the building. Michael led the way in his ninja turtle pajamas and bare feet, the soles pink now from the rusted fire escape.

At the entrance to the building, a dozen or so neighbors in bathrobes huddled in front of a cop with his arms outstretched. Once they saw the girl, they moved away, looking almost disappointed, the morning’s excitement at an end. But a few stood still, watching us, from their usual spot tucked into the alley where they kept a dumpster fire smoldering during most cold nights.

By the time I delivered the girl to an EMT, to be wrapped in the silver blanket and the hair pushed from her wet face, the wide safety net was being stowed away. The fire truck was retracting its ladder. Another EMT checked Michael over and gave him back to me.

I gave a quick statement to a cop who patted me on the shoulder before telling me that I should have called the dispatcher sooner.

The ambulance pulled away with the girl in the back. Then the cop car, and then the fire truck left.

I could have shaken Michael. Later, I would wonder if it was pride that kept me from punishing my son for risking his life. Did I see me in him? Was his life a reflection of my younger years, before the war, before my return to a colder and stranger Cleveland, a wife going blind, a son I didn’t yet know?

I did yell at him. Back upstairs in the apartment, after the sun had risen. I didn’t care who I would wake. But they were nonsensical, the noises that came out of my mouth. Less communication and more a release of my own fear, knowing I’d poured myself into this little vessel, this boy, and he was bound to break under the weight of something. But he hadn’t broken that night. Mercy was messy and unpredictable; that was true.

Toni could stay in bed, I told her. It was a Saturday morning. Michael could watch his cartoons, even though he had wet the bed.

We started on breakfast, pancakes from a mix, but we found that neither of us could keep from watching out the window at the sun’s red rays. I told Michael they would burn off the wisps of fog. He said something like he wanted to warm up the outside.

When I questioned him, he said he would show me what he meant. He handed me the balled-up dirty bed linens and motioned me down the hall and out our door. Behind me, he carried his soiled mattress on his head. There seemed to be something of a ceremony in it, so I said nothing, only glanced back once or twice as we descended the stairs to the street.

*

It was not a large fire, and it mostly smoked within its metal dumpster walls. But as Michael and I threw in the mattress and linens, it flamed up. I didn’t watch the three men who stood aside; I watched Michael. His cheeks were still soft and downy and they pinked with warmth. His hands hung free at his sides. His head cocked in wonder at the burning. With a satisfied look on his face, he watched every ember flicker and rise into the sky before turning to ash and blowing away in the good breeze coming off the lake. There was no bad smell to it, only the scent of kindling. I felt like I was encouraging something, even as I was burning it down, struck by the power of making and unmaking a thing, like a bed, a boy, or a man.

Rebecca Moon Ruark’s Recruit is forthcoming in Flock 20 at the end of May.

Past four in the morning in Michael’s bedroom, I stripped his bed of its sheets and comforter, soaked with piss, again. My wife Toni had found the toddler bed, shaped like a race car, at a garage sale when our son was a toddler. Then it was a treasure. Now that Michael was eight, the bed felt like a joke. He should have been racing to the toilet. Instead, he just stood there watching his feet on the braided rug while I underwent my nighttime chore.

I flicked on his bedside lamp. Toni’s night vision was for shit. So, she stayed in bed while I changed the linens and changed Michael, peeling his superhero pajamas, wet from waist to knees, off his little frame. He shivered in the nude a minute.

“Are you okay?” I asked into the dim room but received no answer.

I shut his window to the cool air that smelled of the dumpster fires in the alley below. I had half a mind to yell into the night sky. I was forty-five and still dealing with new recruits and their piss. Sure, Michael wasn’t a recruit, but it felt a little like then, like in Iraq, when my raised voice could accomplish something, get some hackles up and quell a need in me.

I swiped my son with a baby wipe. I threaded his lean body through dry pajamas. His hands, peeking out from the sleeves, were balled in fists that trembled. Michael ground his teeth.

After wiping down the bed frame, I turned to find him in the dimness, his back pressed flat against the wall. “Are you okay?” I asked again, because the teeth-grinding was new.

I went to him. I would be gentle enough, but I couldn’t reward this behavior, normal or not. “You’re okay,” I said.

I placed a hand on his head. Toni would say, “If there’s pee, there’s no TV,” a catchy jingle that meant little in the light of day, when Michael held his water just fine. But this was Saturday, and in a few hours, he would be missing the thrill of the cartoons on the screen. It was a better ritual we shared: the slapstick violence that brought me some nostalgic relief. To Michael, I figured it was all Looney Tunes fun.

The teeth-grinding stopped as I stroked his cheek. “I’m a baby,” he said finally, not seeking my eyes.

“You’re a good recruit.” It was a running thing between us, making him and me feel big. Like back when my body was an instrument of war, when I lifted more than kegs behind the bar at the Eagles Lodge. “A tough recruit,” I said.

Sixty pounds wet, but my son was strong. Just a few days before, I had caught him climbing the fire escapes at the rear of our building: a labyrinthine, three-story expanse of rusting landings and stairs and rebar railings. He clung to the edges, where the escape scaffolding met the building. The older, bigger neighbor boys bravely traversed the escapes, swung over bars, leaped down stairs, slid down railings, and flew the open expanse between our landing on the second floor and the terrace below. As they did, I thought I could see the rust dust fly, pinking the white Cleveland sky.

Toni couldn’t see it, but Michael’s palms were so rust-stained I couldn’t scrub them clean. He must’ve been out on the fire escape a lot. Truth was, it was either catch up or get caught, for the kids in our building and its twin tenement next door. So, I didn’t forbid Michael’s play.

This bi-weekly piss-and-clean routine wasn’t play.

Michael carried the wet linens down the hall to the kitchen floor while I made his bed new again, smoothed on dry sheets, and tucked them tight.

Just when I was thinking that in the morning we could take a bath together—he wasn’t too old for that yet—Michael started yelling from the kitchen. “Hey” or “Wait,” he said. I couldn’t tell.

I lumbered out of the bedroom and down the hall, hushing him on my way, not wanting to wake Toni. Tomorrow, she could trudge to the basement laundry in the light of day. She could still manage that. Hang to dry Michael’s bedding on the community clothesline, on the terrace that was more like a small parking lot below the fire escape.

“Keep it down, Michael,” I said. “Coming.” I ran my fingers along the hall wall to find my way.

When I got to the kitchen, linoleum floor cracked and sticky under my bare feet, Michael was gone.

With a deep breath, I squashed the fear rising from my gut to my chest. The light on, I found him standing on the other side of the kitchen window. Nimble as Gumby, he had climbed up and over the kitchen sink and through the busted screen down to the rickety fire escape landing outside.

The solid door between our family home and all that was out there in the early morning was still locked. Keys, I thought. But first, I held my position in the kitchen, thinking that Michael’s body would mimic mine. It was dangerous enough out there in daylight. Now, the sky high above our East Side neighborhood was a hazy charcoal with streaks of sulfur yellow and distant balls of white streetlight. But at our rear of the building at this hour, it was dead dark. He stood on the landing in no shoes, facing away from me, leaning over the top rail and inching forward. Yes, his little white heels and fingertips were shrinking to my eyes.

“Stop, Michael,” I called through the open window, removing the house keys from their hook on the kitchen wall to unlock the door. Ten years had passed, a decade of lake-effect snows and salt, since I’d been out on that landing, looking across a tiny breakfast table into the eyes of my new wife, Toni.

Michael hadn’t advanced to the escape stairs, but he had climbed up the railings. His feet curled like paws around the lower rail. His hands clung to the upper rail, which was little more than a thin and twisted wire.

I pushed the sticking door open and it squealed in the still air. I looked back into the apartment, thinking I should call Toni. But she couldn’t do more than yell and spook Michael. I could handle this. Cool under fire and all that. “That’s far enough,” I called. I kept my voice level, though I wanted to shout, to throttle him. What was this, a stupid game?

If it was a game, the playing field was uneven at best. In boxers and t-shirt, I stood in the kitchen doorway, open to the fire escape, to the air raising the hairs on my arms and legs. I tried to reach my son with my voice, rising now in pitch and volume. “Michael. Here, now. Michael.” I used short, quick demands that could carry and reach him, even if he was maybe sleepwalking or acting out some kind of night terror. Though, from the looks of his fluid little body, the night terror was all mine. At my feet, I saw that the landing was rusted through. A hole the size of a basketball had made it so I could see the terrace with its community clothesline one story below me. Just days before, a man and woman lay down there in heroin stupors in the middle of the afternoon, as if they were in bed, or dead. Michael had asked, “Are they zombies?”

“Yes, real-life zombies,” I’d said.

Michael didn’t stop, so I tested with a bare foot around the hole in the landing, like checking the ice in winter. But it only grew, as brittle pieces fell soundlessly to the concrete below. The metal rails creaked as I tested them with my hands.

“Stop in three, two,” I sounded the countdown typically followed by a loss of privilege or a swat. But he only kept moving.

A beat later, Michael stopped of his own accord, looked back, squared his shoulders, and called to me, “It’s not safe.”

“I know.” And I knew no amount of calling, bargaining, or threatening would bring him back. I mimicked his position on the railings, feet on the lower, hands on the higher. But at my height, I was practically in a pike position, and I would be ass over teakettle with my first step and flat on a broken back on the terrace below. Then who would save my boy?

Phone the cops, maybe? Toni had the phone. She’d cut off the landline, and I had come back from the war for the last time to find she was sleeping with a phone, like a kid with a security blanket.

I could inch my way back inside to get it, but Michael was moving again, away from me and into a pocket of pure darkness, where the glow from the security lights couldn’t reach.

Then he raised an arm, gracefully, only one hand on the rail now. And I thought, this is a show. Michael’s acting something out.

“I’m watching. I’m right here. Just put your arm down, please. Hold on with both hands,” I said. “That was something, but it’s time to slowly move your way back to me.” I could reach out an arm, and I did, though he was a good ten arm-lengths from me by now. Maybe we looked like some sort of high-wire synchronized team, a silly, big-man-and-small-boy act. But it was only then that I followed his little white pointer finger through the night sky and saw what he was aiming at.

Mercy, I thought. Have mercy on us, Michael and me, out here.

Where our building meets at a right angle with the next building, the fire escape scaffolding meshes, making little triangular landings outside the second, third, and fourth floor apartments. Only, they’re not meant to be landings—there are no rails, no stairs—but people use them anyway. Couples sit cross-legged, facing each other. Big boys dangle their long legs over the edges. When Toni sees them do this, she grabs at Michael and says she can feel her heart in her throat.

Now, there was a person—a girl or a waif of a woman—hanging between the third and second stories, bat-like, upside-down, her feet hooked into something in the landing above her. She hung within the deep shadow of the cornice, hugging herself instead of reaching her arms toward the landing below her, like you would if you were an acrobat. Her clothes were dark and so was her hair, hanging down in thick strands that ended in arrow-like points. Maybe I dreamed this part, but it looked as if those strands were pointing to the terrace below. The wind picked up and played with them, and they shivered and shook, like they knew their fate. Even if the girl could free her feet from their metal purchase—something like stirrups—and drop, there was no way she would make the landing below her. It was too shallow to the building. She would miss it. How cold the terrace’s concrete looked now; how cold I realized it was outside, on this fall morning before dawn. I rubbed my hands over my arms. The girl would sail right past the landing, like one of those diving birds hunting prey in water. Only, she would hit the concrete terrace two stories below, head first.

I’d taken my eyes off Michael at my discovery of the girl. In that time, he’d shimmied farther along the lower rail where the escape floor was rusted through. I could hear him murmuring as he went but couldn’t make out the words.

“No, Michael,” I called.

My son said nothing, only looked back toward me and nodded once.

When the girl started to make noise, there was no mistaking what she said: “Get me offa here. Get me the fuck offa here.” Maybe it was her language, or the fact that Michael didn’t flinch at the coarse talk and just kept inching toward her, but I felt like an intruder. As much as twenty years separated them, my boy and this twitching junkie girl. And yet, he could have been moving toward his best friend on the jungle gym for all the caution I saw, or didn’t see, in his little bearing.

Michael didn’t need me, not out there. Maybe in the apartment, where there was a rule and order to things, where he couldn’t reach the thermostat. So, saying nothing, I reversed my course and went back into the warm kitchen and down the hall to my bedroom, where I eased the phone from Toni’s sleeping grasp to call the emergency line.

I didn’t take my eyes off the pair out the kitchen window while telling the police dispatcher about my boy and a girl dangling from the fire escape. Only when I voiced the situation did my body defy my training; my muscles tensed and I could hear the blood in my ears drumming “fear, fear, fear,” before I shut it up.

Instead, I started saying to myself, one for one, like some kind of mantra or mini prayer. One for one. Not one for all. My son was eight; he was no recruit. He had no responsibility to save this broken girl.

I rattled off our address and told the dispatcher which street the fire truck should come up, as I crept back out onto the threshold between my home and out there. The dispatcher repeated the address back to me, like I’d gotten it wrong. There had always been a criminal element in these buildings, when my apartment was my father’s and his Hungarian father’s before. But now we locked our door to take out the trash. We didn’t enter the basement laundry at night. “Lord have mercy,” I said, uttering thoughtlessly my wife’s mantra.

The dispatcher told me to get inside, and I said I would, but I didn’t. Stuck, trapped behind the gaping hole in the fire escape landing, my feet freezing on the cold metal, I stood as close to my boy as I could get without falling to the terrace below. I turned on the phone’s flashlight, but the sun’s first rays were stronger. I watched Michael, who had inched forward so that he was directly under the girl now. He nodded again in my direction as if to say he was okay. “Stay there,” he said. And I did. I stood there in the cold and only thought about reversing my course and heading downstairs to position myself on the escape one flight down. I thought about praying.

For forty years, I’d figured an eye for an eye was about revenge, retribution for a wrong done. Cut me, and I’ll cut you. But then at church one week, this visiting Nigerian priest, with an accent that turned “mercy” into “messy,” spoke about the Old Testament passage. An eye for an eye, he said, was as much about mercy as it was about punishment. It meant only an eye for one eye, instead of an entire life for one eye. Cut me and I’ll cut you. I won’t kill you.

Michael wouldn’t let her fall. At eight, he knew right from wrong. It just wasn’t within his sense of order to let her fall, even if in trying to save her, he fell, too.

As softly as I could while making myself heard, I said, “Tell her to hang on, Michael. Help is coming.”

“She says one of her feet is slipping and she’s cold,” he called back. He must have convinced her to lower one of her arms, but her dangling hand wasn’t within six inches of his shoulders. Too much distance separated them still.

“Just stay put now,” I said, knowing that even if they didn’t flinch, the entire grid of rusting metal could fall to the terrace at any second.

She squirmed a little. Then she started making sounds, but they didn’t seem like they belonged to any kind of human. They were high-pitched but mournful. Keening, that was what it was called, like she was already grieving for the life she was about to lose.

By the look of the dirty gray sky, the sun would be up in under an  hour. Where were the cops? Where was the fire truck with its big net? Or was that only on old TV shows?

For a few minutes, they didn’t move. Feet on the lower rail, hands on the upper rail, Michael stood stock still and only raised his shoulders to his ears to lessen the distance between her reaching hand and his body. Her legs were shaking.

If they could do this on their own, I thought, they might have a better chance than if they waited. I began to worry about the trucks and sirens spooking them. At the circus during the high-wire act, the audience instinctively knows to shut up. Noise and applause and cheers and laughter are for the clowns. I wondered if I should run down the two flights to the back of the building and stand under them. If they fell, would they fall together? Could I catch them both?

Or, run to the end of the street, so I could signal to the fire truck to go slow, be quiet? But the noise would come anyway. Dawn was breaking, and it was only a matter of time before some old lady looked out her window and started screaming at the sight.

I crept closer—the metal groaned—but I was still a good six feet away. I said to Michael, “What if you put one foot on the top rail?” He did, slowly, and as I’d expected, it raised him up the few inches he needed, so that the girl’s fingertips could reach his shoulder. Then it was up to her to remove her feet from their restraints and swing her legs back over herself to land, piggy-back-style, on Michael.

I talked to him and he talked to the girl, like a translator. She spoke softly, so I couldn’t make much out, but I understood when she said, “Hell, no.” She made those keening sounds again, and began to move her first leg up and over her head.

All the while, the emergency vehicles closed in two stories below. I couldn’t make out the words that came through a bullhorn, but I couldn’t look down either. I hugged my middle and hummed a hymn Toni would sing while she cleaned the apartment, maybe pitying herself for having to scrub the toilet, maybe celebrating the fact that she could still see well enough to do it. “There is a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.” I thought of our lake that couldn’t wash away the filth of this city. Of our river that burned so many years ago and still seemed to burn.

Below us came the sound of the bullhorn again and a voice telling us to stay still. There was also the sound of a motor humming as a ladder began reaching for the sky.

“Help is here,” I said. Michael nodded, first to me and then to the girl.

She had to let go of Michael’s shoulder, and the hand with its pink palm seemed to grapple with the air as she did. But somehow she managed to swing one leg and then the other over her hanging head and grab onto my son, him white-knuckling the rail so her weight wouldn’t throw him over. The net below appeared too late.

In the dawn’s low light, Michael shimmied, inch by inch, back to me. As he did, the girl wrapped her legs around his narrow hips and her arms over his shoulders and didn’t move. She didn’t even seem to breathe. Neither could I, simply nodding Michael’s way.

*

Only once we were back in the kitchen did the girl say anything: “Shit” and “Jesus” and finally “Thank you,” to Michael, maybe. It was hard to tell. She was shaking and balled up face-down on the linoleum floor with her hands over the back of her neck like you do in a tornado drill.

I put a hand on her back and finally carried her down the two flights of stairs and out the front of the building. Michael led the way in his ninja turtle pajamas and bare feet, the soles pink now from the rusted fire escape.

At the entrance to the building, a dozen or so neighbors in bathrobes huddled in front of a cop with his arms outstretched. Once they saw the girl, they moved away, looking almost disappointed, the morning’s excitement at an end. But a few stood still, watching us, from their usual spot tucked into the alley where they kept a dumpster fire smoldering during most cold nights.

By the time I delivered the girl to an EMT, to be wrapped in the silver blanket and the hair pushed from her wet face, the wide safety net was being stowed away. The fire truck was retracting its ladder. Another EMT checked Michael over and gave him back to me.

I gave a quick statement to a cop who patted me on the shoulder before telling me that I should have called the dispatcher sooner.

The ambulance pulled away with the girl in the back. Then the cop car, and then the fire truck left.

I could have shaken Michael. Later, I would wonder if it was pride that kept me from punishing my son for risking his life. Did I see me in him? Was his life a reflection of my younger years, before the war, before my return to a colder and stranger Cleveland, a wife going blind, a son I didn’t yet know?

I did yell at him. Back upstairs in the apartment, after the sun had risen. I didn’t care who I would wake. But they were nonsensical, the noises that came out of my mouth. Less communication and more a release of my own fear, knowing I’d poured myself into this little vessel, this boy, and he was bound to break under the weight of something. But he hadn’t broken that night. Mercy was messy and unpredictable; that was true.

Toni could stay in bed, I told her. It was a Saturday morning. Michael could watch his cartoons, even though he had wet the bed.

We started on breakfast, pancakes from a mix, but we found that neither of us could keep from watching out the window at the sun’s red rays. I told Michael they would burn off the wisps of fog. He said something like he wanted to warm up the outside.

When I questioned him, he said he would show me what he meant. He handed me the balled-up dirty bed linens and motioned me down the hall and out our door. Behind me, he carried his soiled mattress on his head. There seemed to be something of a ceremony in it, so I said nothing, only glanced back once or twice as we descended the stairs to the street.

*

It was not a large fire, and it mostly smoked within its metal dumpster walls. But as Michael and I threw in the mattress and linens, it flamed up. I didn’t watch the three men who stood aside; I watched Michael. His cheeks were still soft and downy and they pinked with warmth. His hands hung free at his sides. His head cocked in wonder at the burning. With a satisfied look on his face, he watched every ember flicker and rise into the sky before turning to ash and blowing away in the good breeze coming off the lake. There was no bad smell to it, only the scent of kindling. I felt like I was encouraging something, even as I was burning it down, struck by the power of making and unmaking a thing, like a bed, a boy, or a man.

Rebecca Moon Ruark’s Recruit is forthcoming in Flock 20 at the end of May.

Rebecca Moon Ruark‘s fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Sou’wester, and DASH Literary Journal and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. An Ohio native, Ruark is at work on a novel and a collection of stories about vision and visions in the Rust Belt and blogs as Rust Belt Girl.