The twin boys walked through one of the back alleys in the heart of Virgil, the part of the city that was nothing but narrow spaces turning into smaller alleys and walkways you had to squeeze through, even if you were a boy. The city had never been planned out very well. There were ninety-nine dead ends for every way out, and each one was bordered by closed doors and broken windows. Locked eyes and shattered teeth.
But the two boys didn’t seem to mind. They walked slowly, kicking at rocks and jumping with two firm feet into every puddle they could find. And there were many puddles, because the tiny alleyways were littered with potholes, and the storm had lasted for days.
The two boys each had hair as dark as the rooms behind the windows and fair skin that had been slightly burnt a summer red. They both wore the same tan shorts, the same dirty sneakers, and old socks, wet and muddy water brown, pulled up to just below their knees. But one wore a gray t-shirt and the other wore a blue button-up shirt that he had ripped the sleeves off of. The collar was still on it, and he wore it flipped up, like a 60s gang member. They were around ten years old. Everyone in the city recognized them. No one knew where they lived or who their parents were.
“I’m bored, Bird.”
The boy reached up and nervously itched around the top of his gray t-shirt. He didn’t like when his brother called him Bird, and it made him anxious when his brother got bored. It meant they were going to do scary things. He shook his head, but he didn’t say anything, he just jumped two feet into the next puddle, hard, as if trying to jump into the earth.
“C’mon, Bird, let’s do something fun.”
“I don’t want to. Let’s play a game.”
“Okay, but if I win then we have to do something fun,” the boy spat.
“Okay,” Bird shouted back, “but if I win you have to give me that picture of the girl. You know, the one that lady on Genna Street gave you.”
Both boys stared at each other.
“Fine,” said the boy with the cutoff sleeves. “Fine. But I pick the game.”
“No way, Ike. We both decide.”
“Fine,” Ike said again. “Fine. The rock closest to the wall game.”
“No, you always win. Riddles.”
“Yeah, right,” Ike said. The two boys stood there silently. The sky was blue, but the alley was narrow and the buildings on either side tall, so you had to look straight up to see it.
Ike jogged ahead to where a broken pallet had been left to rot. He bent back two loose pieces and charged back towards Bird with one in each hand. He raised one of the clubs over his head and shouted a warrior cry. The look on his face was terrifying, and Bird thought for sure he was going to hit him. But Ike froze in place, like a painting, then laughed.
“Catch a rat,” he said, handing over one of the wooden sticks.
Bird sighed and itched his collar bone again.
Ike smiled and ran off, trying one door after another until he found one that wasn’t locked, then he disappeared inside. Bird ran after him but tried the next door. Locked. The next door. Locked. He skipped a bunch of doors and tried the one at the end of the alley that faced the way they had come from. It clicked open and he walked into the darkness.
“This isn’t a game,” he shouted back into the alley. “This is your idea of doing something fun.”
But Ike had already been consumed by the building, so Bird stood there and let his eyes adjust. Dirty furniture. A fridge leaning forward with its door stuck in the floor. A rusty oven. Abandoned, but not too nasty. He wondered if it might be a good place for him and Ike to stay for a while.
Then he saw it, a twitching movement by the stairs. The rat was half the size of a full-grown cat. He clenched the stick and took a few very slow steps in the rat’s direction. It stood up on its back feet. Bird froze. The rat held something between its paws, something it was eating. Then it turned and scampered lightly up the steps. Bird followed.
The rat kept going up, up, and at each landing Bird followed the rat to the next stairway. He went up four or five floors, to the very top, wielding his stick and waiting for a chance to bean that rat and win the game. But when he got to the top floor, it wasn’t there anymore. There was a door at the end of the hall, and it was cracked open.
Bird crept over the wooden floor, grimacing as each board groaned under his weight. He clutched the stick, no longer in attack mode. No, this was for defensive purposes only. There were no windows on that floor, only closed doors and the one barely opened at the end, the one letting through a beam of dim light. He looked around for a light switch but couldn’t see anything.
He got to the door and peeked inside. What he saw surprised him.
It was a spacious apartment, and light streamed through the windows. He could see the blue sky above all the surrounding buildings. The apartment was immaculate with shining hardwood floors, exposed brick walls and wooden beams in the ceiling. He crept just inside. He didn’t hear anyone. He turned on the light.
All around the entire apartment were rows and rows of paintings. Some were strange, with battle scenes involving mythical creatures eating the heads off of one another. Others were peaceful landscapes. But as he looked down the row, one caught him as a little strange. He walked closer.
It was a painting of his brother. His face was shouting a warrior cry, and over his head he held a wooden club, ready to bring it down. It was the exact image that Bird had just seen down on the street before they had agreed to play Catch a Rat.
“I’ve gotta show Ike,” he muttered, but when he turned to leave, the door was closed.
If you’d like to find out more about the importance of paintings in Virgil, check out the first installment HERE.