“I know you already got some jail time, kid.” He glares at me, his eyes hard and glittering, before joining his partner. “Don’t make me give you another strike.”
I hear the police radio calling them away to another crime scene. The noise around me muffles, and the image in my mind of the five thousand dollars starts to waver until it finally blurs into something I no longer recognize. In the span of thirty seconds, my victory has been tossed into someone else’s hands.
I ride out of Manhattan in silence. It’s getting colder, and the flurries have turned into steady snow, but the sting of the wind against my face suits my mood just fine. Here and there, parties have started to break out in the streets, and people decked out in red-and-blue jerseys count down the time at the top of their lungs. I watch as their celebrations swirl by. In the distance, every side of the Empire State Building is lit up and displaying enormous Warcross images.
Back when I was still living at the foster group home, I could see the Empire State Building if I climbed up onto the roof. I’d sit there and stare for hours as Warcross images rotated on its side, my skinny legs swinging, until dawn came and the sunlight would bathe me in gold. If I stared long enough, I could picture myself displayed up there. Even now, I feel that old twinge of excitement at the sight of the building.
My electric skateboard beeps once, snapping me out of my reverie. I look down. The battery’s been drained to its final bar. I sigh, slow to a stop, and swing my board over my shoulder. Then I dig for some change in my pocket and head into the first subway station I can find.
Twilight has faded to a blue-gray evening by the time I arrive in front of the crumbling Hunts Point, Bronx, apartment complex I call home. This is the other side of the glittering city. Graffiti covers one side of the building. Rusted iron bars cage the first floor windows. Trash is heaped near the main entrance steps—plastic cups, fast-food wrappers, broken beer bottles—all partially hidden underneath a thin dusting of snow. There are no lit-up screens here, no fancy auto-cars driving through the cracked streets. My shoulders droop, and my feet feel like lead. I haven’t even eaten dinner yet, but at this point, I can’t decide if I want food or sleep more.
Farther down the street, a group of homeless people are settling in, spreading their blankets and pitching their tents in the entryway of a shuttered store. Plastic bags line the insides of their threadbare clothes. I look away, heartsick. Once upon a time they too were kids, maybe had families who loved them. What had brought them to this point? What would I look like, in their place?
Finally, I will myself up the steps through the main entrance and down the hall to my front door. The hall reeks, as always, of cat pee and moldy carpets, and through the thin walls, I can hear neighbors shouting at each other, a TV’s volume cranked high, a wailing baby. I relax a little. If I’m lucky enough, I won’t bump into my landlord, with his tank and sweats and red face. Maybe I can at least get an uneventful night’s sleep before I have to deal with him in the morning.
A new eviction notice has gone up on my door, right where I’d torn the old one off. I stare at it for a second, exhausted, rereading.
NEW YORK EVICTION NOTICE
TENANT NAME: EMIKA CHEN
72 HOURS TO PAY, OR VACATE
Was it really necessary for him to come back and put up a new sign, as if he wants to make sure everyone else in the building knows? To humiliate me further? I tear the notice off the door, crumple it in my fist, and stand still for a moment, staring at the blank space where the paper once hung. There is a familiar desperation in me, a rising panic that beats loudly in my chest, pounding out each thing I owe. The numbers in my head start over again. Rent, food, bills, debt.
Where am I going to get the money in three days?
I jump at the voice. Mr. Alsole, my landlord, has emerged from his apartment and is stalking toward me, his frown resembling a fish’s, his thin orange hair sticking out in every direction. One look at his bloodshot eyes tells me that he’s high on something. Great. Another argument. I can’t deal with another fight today. I fumble around for my keys, but it’s too late—so instead, I straighten my shoulders and lift my chin.
“Hey, Mr. Alsole.” I have a way of pronouncing the name like it’s Mr. Asshole.
He scowls at me. “You been avoidin’ me all week.”
“Not on purpose,” I insist. “I got a gig as a waitress in the mornings now, down at the diner, and—”
“Nobody needs waitresses anymore.” He squints at me suspiciously.
“Well, this place does. And it’s the only job around. There’s nothing else.”
“You said you’d pay today.”
“I know what I said.” I take a deep breath. “I can come by later to talk—”
“Did I say later? I want it now. And you’re gonna need to add another hundred bucks to what you owe.”
“Rent’s going up this month. On the whole block. You think this ain’t hot property?”
“That’s not fair,” I say, my temper rising. “You can’t do that—you just raised it!”
“You know what’s not fair, little girl?” Mr. Alsole narrows his eyes at me and folds his arms. The gesture stretches out the freckles on his skin. “The fact that you’re living for free in my building.”
I hold both hands up. The blood is rushing to my cheeks. I can feel its fire. “I know—I just—”
“What about notes? You got more than five thousand of those?”
“If I did, I’d be giving them to you.”
“Then offer something else,” he spits. He shoves a sausage-like finger at my skateboard. “I see that again, I’ll smash it with a hammer. You sell that thing and give me the money.”
“It’s only worth fifty bucks!” I take a step forward. “Look, I’ll do whatever it takes, I swear, I promise.” The words stream out of me in a jumbled mess. “Just give me a few more days.”
“Listen, kid.” He holds up three fingers, reminding me exactly how many months I owe him. “I’m done with pity checks.” Then he looks me up and down. “You’re what, eighteen now?”
I stiffen. “Yeah.”
He nods down the hall. “Go get a job at the Rockstar Club. Their girls earn four hundred a night just for dancing on some tables. You could probably pull five hundred. And they won’t even care about the red on your record.”
I narrow my eyes. “You think I haven’t checked? I have to be twenty-one.”
“I don’t care what you do. Thursday. Got it?” Mr. Alsole’s talking forcefully enough now for his spit to fly onto my face. “And I want this apartment cleared out. Spotless.”
“It wasn’t spotless in the first place!” I shout back. But he’s already turned his back and is stalking down the hall.
I let out a slow breath as he slams his door shut. My heart pounds against my ribs. My hands shake.
My thoughts return to the homeless, with their hollow eyes and sloped shoulders, and then to the working girls I’ve occasionally seen leaving the Rockstar Club, reeking of smoke and sweat and heavy perfume, their makeup smeared. Mr. Alsole’s threat is a reminder of where I might end up if I don’t get lucky soon. If I don’t start making some hard choices.
I’ll find a way to work some pity into him. Soften him up. Just give me one more week, I swear, and I’ll get half the money to you. I promise. I play these words in my head as I shove the key in the lock and open the door.
It’s dark inside, even with the neon-blue glow from outside the window. I flip on the lights, toss my keys on the kitchen counter, and throw the crumpled eviction notice in the trash. Then I pause to look around the apartment.
It’s a tiny studio, crammed full of belongings. Cracks in the painted plaster run along the walls. One of the bulbs in the room’s only ceiling light has burned out, while the second bulb is fading, waiting for someone to replace it before it dies, too. My Warcross glasses are lying on the fold-out dining table. I’d rented them for cheap because they’re an older model. Two cardboard boxes of stuff are stacked by the kitchen, two mattresses lie on the ground by the window, and an ancient TV and old, mustard-yellow couch take up the rest of the space.
A muffled voice comes from underneath a blanket on the couch. My roommate sits up, rubs her face, and runs a hand through her nest of blond hair. Keira. She’d fallen asleep with her Warcross glasses on, and a faint crease trails across her cheeks and forehead. She wrinkles her nose at me. “You got some guy with you again?”
I shake my head. “No, just me tonight,” I reply. “Did you give Mr. Alsole your half of the money today, like you said you would?”
“Oh.” She avoids my stare, swings her legs over the side of the couch, and reaches for a half-eaten bag of chips. “I’ll get it to him by this weekend.”
“You realize he’s throwing us out on Thursday, right?”