Long Bright River

Kacey and I return to my bedroom, and to my laptop, on the bed.

She points to Eddie Lafferty again.

—This guy, she says, used to come around all the time while I was living with Connor. It was before I got sober. It’s hazy. I remember him, though, because he talked to me. He was friendly. He talked to me and kind of eyed me up. I thought maybe he was looking for a date, but he never asked me for one. He and Connor usually went off someplace together. I don’t know what they were doing. I thought he was just there to get high. Connor dealt. Still deals, I guess.

—Try to remember more, I say.

Kacey looks up at the ceiling, then down at the floor.

—I can’t, she says.

—Try again, I say.

—There’s a lot in my life I can’t remember, says Kacey.

Both of us go quiet for a while.

—We could just ask him, Kacey says suddenly.

I look at her, incredulous.

—Connor? I say. Dock? You want to ask Dock for help after what he did to you?

—Yeah, says Kacey. I know it’s hard to believe, but he was a pretty good guy. Treated me better than any other guy has treated me, at least.

—Kacey, I say. He attacked you.

She pauses, considering this.

—But I bet I could get him to talk, she says, finally.

I’m shaking my head now.

—Absolutely not, I say.

Kacey turns away.

—We’ll figure it out in the morning, I say. Both of us need sleep.

Kacey nods.

—All right, she says. I guess I’ll get going.

She doesn’t move, though. Neither do I.

—Do you mind if I just take a nap? she says.

* * *

I turn off the light. Both of us lie down, awkwardly, next to each other on the bed. There’s silence in the room.

—Mickey, says Kacey, suddenly. It startles me.

—What, I say, too quickly. What.

—Thank you for taking care of Thomas, she says. I’ve never said that.

I pause. Embarrassed.

—You’re welcome, I say.

—It’s funny, she says.

—What is? I say.

—All the time you were trying to find me, she says. I was trying to hide from you.

—Funny is one word for it, I say after a while.

But I can hear, by her breathing, that she’s already asleep.

* * *

It’s been sixteen years, half of our lives, since we slept next to each other in the back room of Gee’s house. I picture us, just children then, telling each other stories to get to sleep, or reading books, or looking up in the dark at a domed ceiling light that rarely contained a working bulb. Below us, the hoarse voice of our grandmother, complaining on the phone, or chanting to herself in anger about somebody’s misdeeds. Put your hand on my back, Kacey would say, and I would comply, remembering tenderly the way my mother’s hand felt on my own skin. In retrospect, I believe it is possible that I was trying to bestow some sense of worth upon her; to be the vessel through which our mother’s love poured, posthumously; to immunize her against the many hardships of the world. In that position, my hand on her back, we’d both drift to sleep. Above us was a flat tar roof, poorly engineered for winter. Beyond the roof, the night sky over Philadelphia. Beyond the sky, we couldn’t say.

When I wake up, it’s sunny out, and my phone is ringing.

Kacey isn’t next to me.

I sit up.

I lift the phone into my hands. It’s my father.

—Michaela? he says. Is Kacey with you?

* * *

I check everywhere. No Kacey. I look out a window. Her car is not in the driveway.

—Maybe she’s on her way to your place, I say.

But both of us are quiet. We know the odds of that.

—I’ll find her, I say. I think I know where she is.

Then I remember Thomas.

* * *

I promised him. I told him last night that I would stay with him. I think of him as Mrs. Mahon described him yesterday, running into the bathroom, running the sink, feigning illness in a misguided attempt to bring his mother home to him, and my heart nearly shatters.

Then I think of my sister—who may be at this very moment putting her life on the line—and the life of her unborn child—in the interest of protecting others. And I think of those others, countless other women on the streets of Kensington, whose lives are also at risk as long as Eddie Lafferty is at large.

Suddenly, surprisingly, I am met against my will by a strange quick sympathy for Gee, and the lengths she went to procure stable childcare for us. What must it have been like for her, I wonder, to work so hard, to constantly fear the closure of our schools?

I think. I think.

And at last I decide that what’s happening today feels bigger than just the two of us, bigger than just the needs of our small family. There are lives at stake, I tell myself, and then I steel myself and call Mrs. Mahon.

Once she’s arrived, I walk into the bedroom to say goodbye to my son.

He’s still asleep. For a while, I watch him. Then I sit down next to him. He opens his eyes. Closes them tightly again.

—Thomas, I say, and he says, Don’t leave.

—Thomas, I say again. I have to go do something. Mrs. Mahon is here with you.

He begins to cry. His eyes are still closed tightly. No, he says. He shakes his head.

—I’m sick, he says. I’m still so sick. I think I’m going to throw up.

—I’m so sorry, I say. I have to. I wouldn’t leave unless it was really important. You know that, right?

He says nothing. He’s gone still now, breathing lightly, as if he’s feigning sleep.

—I promise I’ll be back soon, I say. I promise I’ll explain someday. The reason I’ve been gone so much. When you’re grown up, all right? I’ll tell you.

He turns over. His back is to me. He won’t look at me.

I kiss him. I put my hand on his hair and leave it there a moment. Then I stand up. What if I’m wrong, I think. What if I’m making the wrong choice?

—I love you, I say.

I leave.

When I arrive in Kensington, I park on a side street not far from Connor McClatchie’s makeshift abode.

Quickly, I walk east on Madison. Then I turn down the alley that leads to the back of the house with three Bs on it.

As I round the corner, I’m greeted by a little group standing about halfway between me and the end of the alley. There are three men: two of them in construction gear, work boots and helmets. One in a long overcoat and nice jeans.

I can see the house they’re standing in front of: it’s McClatchie’s place.

I don’t know what they’re doing there, the men. I walk toward them, slightly less certain than I was a moment ago.

They notice me. They pause in their conversation and turn toward me.

—Can I help you with something? says the man in the overcoat. Friendly. He’s got a thick Philly accent, like he’s from the neighborhood. But he looks like he’s come up in the world recently.

—I was, I say. But I’m uncertain how to proceed. I’m looking for my sister, I say. I think she might be inside there.

I nod to the white house we’re standing in front of.

—No sisters in there, says the man cheerfully. He has no idea how familiar this phrase has become to me. Better not be, anyway, he says. We’re starting demolition tomorrow. Just did our last walk-through.

Sure enough, the door to the place is standing open.

—Hey, are you okay? says one of the construction workers, when I have been silent for long enough.

—Fine, I say vaguely. I turn around and face Madison Street once again, putting my hands on my hips, uncertain what to do next. Behind me, the men resume their discussion. It’s condos they’re building. Soon to be populated, perhaps, by the Lauren Sprights of the world, the kids drinking coffees at Bomber. The city is changing, unstoppably. The displaced, the addicted, shift and reorder themselves and find new places to shoot up and only sometimes get better.

* * *

It’s then that my phone dings.

I take it out of my pocket and inspect it.

On the screen is a message: cathedral on Ontario

The sender—the number has been saved, unused, in my phone since November, when I first met him at Mr. Wright’s—is Dock. Connor McClatchie.

The cathedral on Ontario is technically called Our Mother of Consolation. But from the time I was a child, its size and grandeur meant that everyone just called it the cathedral. I’ve only been in it once, when I was about twelve. A friend of Kacey’s took us there after a sleepover. It’s massive: materials brought over from Europe, we always heard, the high-ceilinged interior built to remind people of God. It closed several years ago. I read about it in the paper; at that time, I didn’t think anything of it. It’s one of many churches that have closed in Philadelphia in recent years.

* * *

The cathedral is only a short drive from where my car is parked. I get in and take off.

* * *