The laughing men weren’t leaving much room for anyone to get by, but what else was I supposed to do? Stay in the underpass until Christmas?
The dim light silhouetted one of the men’s Mickey Mouse ears. Not really Mickey Mouse ears, I told myself. Not possible. Or was it? I couldn’t tell. But I had seen it was hat night at the place on the other side of the station.
ROARR! An express train passed overhead. Who could hear anything over that?
I glanced over the railing to street level, maybe five feet below my shoes, to where the lone car in the underpass bucked and stalled.
ROArrrrr . . .
Come on, guys. Out of my way!
The men were so loud, shouting and laughing. Mickey Mouse ears jumped with one of the roars and fell against one of his companions, a guy wearing a top hat. What a party!
“Charlie’s had too much to drink,” said the man closest to me. “Haw, haw, haw!”
The man was never going to know I was there, not with all that celebrating going on. Maybe I should just go back and walk on the street, I thought. No. This was the walkway, and these guys could just let me through.
I gritted my teeth and tried to find some sneaking-by room, maybe turn sideways against the railing and slip by like I was little, but there was just no space at all between that one guy and the railing. Zero.
The man’s shirt creased against the rail as his laughter boomed out. “Poor Charlie! Haw, haw, haw!” Head thrown back, he laughed some more. “Haw, haw, haw, haaaww!”
I gave up and pushed the shoulder of the haw-hawer. “Excuse—”
He pivoted away from the group, and—whoop! I fell into the space that opened up as he did so. My grab for the railing brought the two of us nose to nose.
I tried not to wince right in his face, so I grinned one of my goofy grins at him instead. Garlic Man frowned, but I just kept going, skirting past the now quiet, ominous-feeling group, its smoky shape undulating against my progress.
I kept saying it, “Excuse me, excuse me,” like I didn’t feel anything wrong or threatening, like I was just another perky girl on her way through, like everything was ordinary. “Excuse me, excuse me.”
“Hey, girly-girl,” said one of the men, and he reached out, curling and uncurling his fingers. I twisted my body to avoid his touch and pushed, pushed forward. I was afraid. The crowd opened for me, but not as fast as I wanted it to. I couldn’t run, and I was afraid. “Hey, girly-girl!”
I pretended not to hear. “Excuse me, excuse me.”
Then I was past them, and I could run.
“Hey!” That was Garlic Man. “Hey, girl! Stop!”
Stop? Stop? Uh-uh!
I fled out of the tunnel and into the dusky June air. Mom—yay, Mom!—stood at the next corner by our side yard, and I ran for her.
I ran for her, but I stumbled over an unevenness in the sidewalk and then another, dancing a couple of weird steps each time for the amusement of whoever was watching—Garlic Man or the Incredible Hulk or the guy with the fingers—anybody—before I could get my balance and keep going. Would I never reach her?
I was used to the old messed-up sidewalk, broken for ages, and I usually knew just where to put my feet without even thinking about it. Only, not this time. Somehow I couldn’t time my steps right, not with that creeped-out feeling I still had. I kept tripping, the last time almost landing at Mom’s feet.
Almost, because she caught me before I absolutely went down, her hands on my upper arms.
“Mom!” I felt like six instead of sixteen, just wanting my mom to make things right. I would hug her—I would tell her—and she’d—
“Li-ZA!” She jumped at me on the wavy “ZA!”
We fell against the sticker bushes that lined our side yard, before hitting the ground.
“Ow!” What the heck? “Get off me!” Why did she do that?
Mom didn’t move or answer, so I dug my elbows into the grass and pulled myself out from underneath inch by inch. “Come on, Mom, it’s not funny.” She was a dead weight on top of me. “Get off.” She didn’t move. Why was she doing this to me?
Inch, inch. What a time for a joke! Mom never played jokes like this. Why would she do it now? Inch, inch. And why wasn’t she moving or laughing or anything? What was wrong with her?
“Come on, Mom!”
I gave a huge tug forward. Mom rolled off and over my right elbow, ending faceup on the sidewalk. Rolled and didn’t move. Had she hit her head? I pushed to my knees and looked at her. She’d fainted, and that’s why we’d gone down. That must have been it. She’d fainted and taken us both down.
A red plume grew out of a spot just below Mom’s left shoulder. “Mom!” I didn’t know much, but I knew to press against the plume. Wet and warm.
“What happened?” I asked her, but her eyes were closed. Press, press! “Why are you bleeding? One of the stickers get you?” Pressssss! “It must have been a big one.”
Her eyelids fluttered. Coming out of the faint, I thought. She probably didn’t even know about the sticker getting her. And all this blood coming out of the wound. It seemed like an awful lot for a sticker.
I heard the Bang! again, sort of in retrospect, and it started to register. Bang? Bang? There’d been a bang. But no one ever banged anything in our neighborhood.
Because, I guess, you just don’t really believe anybody would actually, really shoot at your own mom. Maybe, anyway, I hadn’t heard a shot. Maybe it had been a metal trash can lid hitting the sidewalk. But then wouldn’t it have gone clang?
“Liza,” Mom whispered. Her eyes darted up the street. “Danger.” I looked around, but I didn’t see anything except some kind of gray, unimportant fuss at the underpass. Unimportant to me, with trying to make Mom’s blood stop running.
The street was empty, anyway, which was normal for this time of day, but we were on the sidewalk. Safe there from cars. What else was there to be safe from?
Then I snapped to some sort of reality. Mom was hurt! Hurt!
“Somebody!” I shouted. “Help!”
There was noise all around me. That’s what I was later told.
I don’t remember it. It was all just Mom and the blood and the smell of the sidewalk in the sultry June air. A perfect June evening. How could this ever have happened?
But apparently two police officers had come out of a house near the underpass while I was with Mom.
They’d shouted, “Hey!” Something else I hadn’t registered.
There’d been a scuffle, and the men I’d passed under the railroad tracks had scattered. So I was later told. One of the officers gave chase, and the other came down to me and knelt by my side. I remember none of that. Him, the noise. Nothing. What shooting?
Well, maybe all that was the unimportant gray confusion at the underpass. Everything was unimportant right then except Mom and how she kept bleeding. The blood was seeping onto the sidewalk behind her shoulder now. How could this be from a sticker bush?
“It’s on the way,” somebody said, probably the officer, and I stopped shouting, just pressed and pressed, eyes only on Mom. She looked so pale.
Sirens. Ambulance. Noise. All in a jumble. I didn’t know what any of it was, with my mind so much on Mom. The smell of blood, the salty smell of the sidewalk, Mom’s dark red hair streaked against the white concrete, the dusky June air.
Dad’s voice finally cut through, and I saw his face on the other side of Mom’s chest.
I remember blinking and blinking at him. Somebody’d gotten him from our house, and he took over the pressing for me.
“Angela,” he said to Mom. “Honey.”
“Mmm,” she responded, like it was just too hard. She turned her head, a crease between her eyebrows. “Danger. Liza. Guns.”
“No danger,” said Dad. “Not now.” And Mom’s face seemed to relax a little, but not all the way.
I looked up the empty street. There’d been guns?
The Bang! replayed itself. Guns. Someone’d shot Mom? Shot her? Mom?
I pushed the hair away from her forehead. “You’re gonna be all right,” I told her. “Who shot you?”
“Liza,” she murmured. “Little Liza Jane.” From the folk song she used to sing to me.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I didn’t know why you pushed me down.”
She smiled faintly. “My little flower.” Eyes on Dad. “Harold.”
Then the EMTs took her from us. Lifted her up and put her on a gurney and into the ambulance. There was a lot of blood on the sidewalk where she’d been. Or maybe a little blood looks like a lot. Maybe it wasn’t so bad, I told myself. My hands were covered with red, and I wiped them off on my shorts before climbing into the ambulance, pulled there by an invisible rope that stretched, taut, between Mom and me. Wherever she was going, I was going. Dad came up beside me, and I noticed the red handprints on his white Phillies T-shirt.
“Not room for both of you,” someone said, so we jumped out again and sprinted for the car. Just around the corner. Only around the corner.
“She’s got to be all right,” I hollered to Dad. “She was just standing there and—” Woop-woop-woop! The siren knocked out my words, and we ran harder. Woop-woop! Woooooo!
When we got to the Buick, I yanked on the door handle, but my fingers slipped off and the force of the yank spun me around. What? Blood. More blood. But I’d already wiped it off, hadn’t I? I wiped it off on my shorts again, wiped the door handle with the hem of my shirt, and then I could open the door. Wasted seconds. Come on!
More seconds wasted while I buckled my seat belt and Dad turned on the ignition. Finally, finally, we left the driveway and took the car over Butler Avenue to a left on Lancaster, and then on to Bryn Mawr Hospital. We hit some traffic lights, and I couldn’t stand it that we had to sit there, three cars back, five cars back, seven cars back, but we got to the hospital as fast as we could get there.
It turned out not to matter about the three cars, the five cars, or the seven cars. It didn’t matter how fast we got there at all.
© 2011 Susan Shaw