“City College is nearly free. You can get a scholarship for the rest. And you won’t be poor when I get my degree. We’ll be borderline rich. That’s the whole point of becoming a pharmacist. People always need drugs.”
It seems Ben has plans for the future. Shelby assumes he’ll dump her by the time he succeeds at anything. She’s stoned most of the time, and she’s haunted, but she isn’t stupid. Ben latched on to her when he was a loser; once that changes, everything else will too.
“You’ve got a lot to give, Shelby. You can save the world.”
“Right.” Shelby feels a deep bitterness inside her. He doesn’t know her at all. She ruins whatever she touches.
On this evening the air smells like sulfur. Lacy pieces of black dirt float through the air as if the two of them are trapped inside an upside-down snow globe. Ben can think whatever he wants. Shelby has absolutely nothing inside of her. She’s a black hole. A sinkhole. A whole lot of nothing. She’s told Ben that, but he doesn’t want to believe her. Who would have imagined he’d turn out to be such an optimist? Maybe that’s the reason Shelby has sex with him whenever he wants her. She has to give him something in return for his devotion. She makes certain to imagine she’s somewhere else when they’re in bed so she won’t be haunted by his desire and the sounds he makes, as if he’s drowning and expects her to save him.
Shelby hasn’t told Ben anything about her job. She doesn’t tell him much. She keeps things inside. She usually wears a hooded sweatshirt; that way everything in her mind is packed away where it belongs. At work, she prefers stacking dog food to manning the cash register. Fewer interactions with people equal fewer complications. She likes to feed the birds. Already, the parrots know her and do little dances when they spy her; the parakeets go wild when she approaches their cages. She loves birdsong; it clears her head. Or maybe it fills it. With all those chirps and trills ringing out, she doesn’t have to think about what she’s done and how she can never be forgiven.
The one area she can’t stand is the puppy department. The poor things are so cheerful and hopeful. She avoids that section, as she avoids her co-workers, who are equally friendly, although more bored than hopeful. They order pizzas delivered at lunch and give each other nicknames as if they’re in a fraternity. Juan is called G-man because he’s determined to one day join the feds, a whacked-out dream for someone in charge of lizards who sells weed on the side. Maravelle Diaz is known as Mimi because she sings and has a five-octave range reminiscent of Mariah Carey. Their supervisor, Ellen Grimes, who manages the store as if it’s a small, corrupt country, is called Hellgirl or the Grimester behind her back of course. Shelby was dubbed E.T.—the bald head, the big eyes, the silence—her nickname is a no-brainer. G-man called her that the very first day. Shelby refused to answer at first, but after a while it’s easier not to fight it. Hey, E.T., give me a price on the birdseed! E.T., stack the Science Diet.
Shelby does as she’s asked no matter what they call her; there’s less human contact if you don’t argue or give your opinion. At lunch she goes off on her own. She usually picks up a packet of cheese and crackers at a deli, then goes to Union Square Park. She’s there even on rainy days, and there happens to be rain on the day she becomes a thief. It’s summer and hot, and the sudden shower is a surprise. While the rain pours down, she skitters toward an overhang of the subway, squeezing up against a wall. Union Square smells sweet and green on days like this. Petals and leaves from the Greenmarket are scattered about, and the scent of mint mixes with the hard smell of hot concrete. People dart about, trying to get out of the rain. Everyone is walking so quickly Shelby can’t pick up on anyone’s despair. The truth is, she feels empty without it. Maybe she’s empty if she doesn’t latch on to sorrow. She’s beginning to wonder if perhaps she’s haunting herself.
Shelby’s favorite sweatshirt is red, like Riding Hood’s cape. She finds herself thinking about wolves and how they’ve always been hunted, caught in traps and hung upside down on ropes, blood dripping from their mouths and noses. She often dreams she’s running through the grass in the dark and something is following her. She’s too afraid to turn around in her dreams and see what’s behind her. When she wakes, she’s drenched in sweat. She gets out of bed, then climbs out the window so she can be alone on the fire escape while Ben sleeps. She gazes upward as the sky turns pink. If she’s not careful she may cry thinking about wolves and accidents and ice. She wants to think that Helene is watching the same pink sky through her bedroom window, that she weeps for the beauty of the world, even though she knows that Helene no longer has the ocular ability to shed tears.
On the day when she’s ducking the rainstorm in Union Square, Shelby hears a slight huffing and puffing. She thinks of ogres under a bridge, of the werewolves she and Helene used to imagine were lurking in the woods. Shelby glances beside her to see not a monster but a homeless person. He’s a kid, with a blanket tossed over him to protect him against the rain even though it must be broiling under a woolen blanket. His belongings are stored in garbage bags balanced on a rolling wooden platform. Atop the platform are two dogs. One is asleep; the other is the thing that’s huffing and puffing.
The kid rises out of his stupor. “What are you looking at?” he growls.
The kid seems older when he speaks. He has a cut on his lip that looks infected. Shelby glances away. She’s always on the lookout for ghosts, but this guy is definitely real. Shelby feels guilty eating her cheese and crackers. She puts the package on the sidewalk.
“Are you going to eat that?” the homeless guy says.
Shelby slides the cheese over, and the kid, or whatever he is, eats her lunch.
“What about the dogs?” Shelby asks. “They’re probably hungry.”
The kid throws her a look, and after considering he tosses the huffing and puffing dog half a cracker. “Dogs in America are too fat. Don’t think I’m starving them, because I’m not. Why would I do that? Everyone loves dogs.”
“What are their names?”
The kid shrugs. “Dog,” he says of the filthy, white, huffing and puffing one. “That one’s Puppy,” he says of the sleeping one. The second dog’s eyes don’t even flicker. For a moment he seems dead.