Alicia Dorman folded the candy packet over three times, stuffed it back into the box upside down and pushed it toward Casey: “Put that away where I can’t see it. If I can’t see it, I won’t remember we have it. If I don’t remember it, I won’t want it.” As if you could forget to want something. As if not having it in front of your face could be enough to extinguish desire. Casey and I wanted stuff. We wanted ramen noodles and we wanted hip-hop back and most of all we wanted someone to love us, or at least someone to hold us for a little while, someone not our moms. I twisted the knob of the stove until it click click clicked like a little bird’s heart and lit a burnt-at-the-tip birthday candle that was lying in a dish with a cold tea bag, just to see the flame flare up, just to smell the old birthday-wish smell when I snuffed it, even though the wish was already gone.
Outside, the rain curtained the Dormans’ square green garden, same as always. The red kettle whistled and the yellow tiles still gleamed but now the whistle sounded like crying and the gleaming looked like trying too hard, grinning through tears. It was nearly 3 p. m., nearly the witching hour, and we felt the old restlessness of getting out of school. We wanted to go out. Casey took the chocolate-covered honeycomb and stuffed the packet of treats into the kitchen cabinet, even though their mom was watching. We were all watching to see what we would do, Casey, their mom and me. Then Alicia, whom I had known too long and too well to call Mrs. (and who wasn’t married anymore, anyway), handed Casey the key.
Alicia Dorman, Realtor, had every professional reason to go into and out of houses, to let strangers drop keys into her hand. In and out, slipping right through the net of Nest cams and Ring doorbells and porch cams collecting faces so easily requisitioned by the cops. Who knows who at the synagogue picked her, how they let her know her services were required. Who knows if they even told her in advance, or if some stranger sufficiently distanced from the rabbi and the hazzan and the president of the board remembered her from religious-school carpool days and knew she could be counted on, knew it would be too hard for her to say no.
Casey, who had been hocking their mom for hours now about making the delivery for her, counted on their mom not to be able to say no—not to Casey, not to us. It was our futures, she always said, that had been stolen. “You can’t keep us inside forever,” Casey pleaded. I had my own reasons for wanting to get out.
Casey’s mom bit her lip as she relented, but she told us what to do as if it had been her idea all along. “I need you and Juliet to bring this to Mr. Kamal at the old Chimes Market.” Casey turned the key over in their hand. It was the big brass key that opened the door to the synagogue basement, where they were hiding the last Torah, the small, knock-kneed one from Czechoslovakia, in a plain pine box. Mr. Kamal had a friend who worked at the Port of Oakland who could make things disappear. “Make sure you put it directly into Mr. Kamal’s hand.”
Casey slipped the key into their pocket, where I imagined it felt five thousand years heavier than a few ounces of brass. I knew Casey was relieved to take the task away from their mom, and I knew that they believed nothing could hurt us. We were seventeen and immortal, and even if we weren’t, we didn’t care, because it was either do something or give in. I knew because I felt that way, too. Casey counted out one kiss on Alicia’s cheek. “Don’t worry. No one will even notice us.”
Not true. Not even likely to be true. From a distance in our jeans and Timberlands we looked like skinny boys who wouldn’t care about anything much besides black-market music. But closer inspection—really, not that close—revealed us as something else, something dangerous: tomboy and boi, easy targets for the parochial schoolboys in their Dockers, or the cops, or anyone else with a little pent-up rage and something to prove. As we jumped off the front steps and bobbed down Broadway toward College Avenue in the direction of Mr. Kamal’s shop, Casey’s mom called after us, more scared for us than she was for that key: “Don’t stop anywhere!” Casey didn’t know yet that we weren’t going there directly. I intended to go see Serafina Shira before her parents sent her away.
“Hey,” I turned to Casey, who was stuffing their hands down into their pockets as if they could bury that key in the earth. “Let me see it.” I’d get around to telling them in a bit.
Casey looked mistrustful. “She said don’t give it to anyone except to Mr. Kamal.” They kept their hands in their pockets.
I thrust out my own hand, empty and open: “She didn’t mean me!” Casey’s mom had known me since I was five years old. At this point, she was practically my second mom. But Casey’s jaw went sharp. Casey had also known me since we were five years old. I just waited until they pulled the key from their Carhartts and laid it out flat and warm in the palm of my hand. That, in a snap, was the history of our friendship: Casey who looked so brave in shaved hair and Carhartts, sticking to the straight and narrow, and me with my kid-sister dimples and Timbs, begging them to do something they felt sure was wrong. “Come on.” I started walking again and, before Casey could say anything about it, I slipped the key into my pocket.
When we hit the avenue, Alaska Dave was already out on the street with his dog in her little knit sweater. He always wore the same stained oilskin raincoat, stinking of sweat and neglect, but somehow Baby Girl’s colorful little sweater always stayed bright. “Keeping dry?” Casey called out. When they had one, they gave him a dollar. Alaska Dave was the only homeless man who didn’t look us up and down or say something about how we were girls wearing pants. Dave nodded. “I’m goin’ to the library to get warm!” Baby Girl orbited his boots, shivering and bright. We wanted to believe we would have talked to him even if he didn’t have a dog, but it probably wasn’t true. I reached down to pet Baby Girl. When I did, I noticed one of the neighborhood boys had stopped a block away to watch. He looked like the kid who used to fly his drone in the park over baseball games, but he had gotten heavier and sulkier, his stomach and thighs outlined under the white shirt and plaid uniform pants of the new charter Bible school all the kids whose parents still made them went to, after the old high school went dark. Rumor was one of them had set a tent on fire at the lake. I caught Casey’s eye and we made sure to get going.
“Merry Christmas!” we hollered to Alaska Dave with real feeling, even though it was the mandatory greeting at that time of year. It was still drizzling, a single undulating wave of drops. When he saw us turn the other way, the school boy in his precious white shirt ran off, probably afraid his nipples would show.
We always meant to leave our phones behind because they were spying on us, but we never did because they also counted our steps.
Smoke from the library blew down the block, toasty with pages of the books burning in barrels in the parking lot. Casey and I decided to see for ourselves. We never read much anyway. The corners of the pages were curling up like pirate maps whispering soft smoky secrets to the bright, thirsty flames, but the librarians could not stop crying and it was too sad to watch. Casey took a snap, knowing they’d have to delete it from their phone before it synced with the cloud at the end of the day. We always meant to leave our phones behind because they were spying on us, but we never did because they also counted our steps. With nothing much to look forward to, all we had was where we’d been. Plus, Serafina might text to say “Hola?” and then I would know she wanted to see me before saying good-bye.
Serafina Shira. Her name means Angel Song. She was just the kind of girl Casey falls for. Ribbons and curls—the kind of girl who passes. But I was the one who found her. We’d hooked up at a dance before the end of dances, in a warehouse that, later that winter, was devoured by fire. We knew each other by sight from the big high school, where kids danced hip-hop out front at lunch and you could take U. S. history or learn about Charles Darwin and the halls surged between classes like a tide. (We hated school for taking up time we could have spent hanging out at the donut and taco shop, but after they shut it down we missed it. We had no way to get together.) Serafina had fifth period Spanish and I had sixth period Spanish and when we passed in the door she would wink and say Hola! I would have said it back, but by the time I found my voice she was gone. At the warehouse party, she was standing right next to a giant papier-mâché piñata, a huge pink, yellow, and green husk of his head. (He had hijacked the last three point five years of our lives, which was too much of the sixteen years we’d had; we all wanted to beat him until what was inside spilled out.) She had made up her eyes so they looked dark and mysterious, and the chain around her throat glittered like nighttime forest-animal eyes. It was only natural to walk up and say “Hola.” She couldn’t hear me but she smiled, only with her eyes. The place was so packed you couldn’t move through the crowd and they were playing mostly electronica, music Casey likes and not me. Casey was upstairs somewhere, watching the DJ. Serafina yelled something I couldn’t hear. She took my hand and we slithered our way into the crowd where people were dancing. I didn’t know how to dance to music made by machines but I wanted to touch all the places on her neck that glittered. I wasn’t going to be the idiot who just stood there, looking at my shoes. She danced hard, like she meant it, a small girl with ferocious muscles in her arms. That’s all we did: dance under the black light, our sweat glowing purple like a Gatorade commercial. At the end of the night they hauled the piñata head up on a rope, like a hanging. People took turns smashing at it with a bright orange baseball bat, no blindfolds. The fun was to see yourself hitting him and hitting him, thinking he would finally fall apart, but he really was a tough bastard, at least the piñata version of him was. (That was before the inevitable unthinkable that wiped out the rest of our teens: he won again.) Two guys finally used a gaffing hook to pry his lips apart. Candies showered everywhere, peppermints and Skittles and Starbursts and glitter. Serafina got a piece of glitter in her eye. We both had it all in our hair, dark hair like galaxies full of stars. But she had a piece in her eye. She said she did. She said, “Look in my eye. No, closer.” There really was a sparkle in her eye. “Closer.” Serafina was sweetness; her lips tasted like sugar sponge or spun sugar, cotton candy sweetness that was more than the strawberry Starburst she had in her mouth. She tasted like burnt sugar and the part of the carousel ride that lifts you up toward the stars.
Six months, three weeks, and two days ago. That was the last night we really had fun.
Casey teased me that night on the way home while the train rattled through the tunnels, crooning Bubblegum kisses like it was puppy love, but I didn’t think they would tease me about going to Serafina’s, because now that night might be all either one of us gets, that might be the only spun-sugar kiss for the rest of our lives. (We don’t say things like that to Casey’s mom that because it would break her heart. She would say “No, my babies, you can’t believe that’s true,” but what does she know? She didn’t know things would turn out like this.) According to Serafina’s brother’s friend who was in my same Spanish class, Serafina’s parents were shipping her out on the five o’ clock train. They were away at work right now. This was my last chance to see her.
“Casey,” I announced, “we have to make a detour.”
Casey raised their eyebrows, which were so light brown that all it translated to was a rainbow of wrinkles. Their jaw tightened, and I knew they were mad as hell because of what their mom said about not to stop. And when I patted my pocket to remind them I had the key now, I was driving the bus, they bit back at me: “Fuck you, Juliet.” But then I told them: “Serafina is leaving. Her parents are sending her away.” Casey frowned, but now that I’d told them Serafina and I were being tragically separated, it was a different story. It was the story of love. And if Casey was a little bit in love with Serafina too, so what? Looking around to make sure there were no schoolboys in sight, we turned down Fortieth Street, exactly the opposite direction from Mr. Kamal’s shop, and headed the ten long blocks toward Serafina’s house.
As we passed the bakery Casey and I used to go to all the time, the one where everything is decorated from before in huge, brown dots, like delirious chocolate bubbles gone mad, Casey stopped walking. The sheet of mist had lifted and the sidewalk sparkled a little even in the foggy light, that urban sidewalk mystery sheen. Blackened gum that came out of people’s mouths before his name would ever come out of them blotted the ground like black holes or parallel universes. “Shouldn’t you give her something?” Casey said. It seemed like I should. I decided to get Serafina a latte, maybe, and a cherry cheese Danish, but a new sign in the window, a friendly, smiling man-woman couple holding hands, let us know we weren’t wanted. We kept walking. And anyway, I wasn’t really sure Serafina wanted to remember me. I knew her parents didn’t. That was the point. After the dance, her parents saw her Insta and, boy, were they pissed. I didn’t hear it from her. I heard it from her best friend’s cousin who was in our same math class. Legit, he said, the parents are freaking! They weren’t bad people, probably. But after he went from fluke to fixture—now that it was clear there was no way out—people started doing all kinds of crazy things not to stand out. Later, I heard her parents made her change her name to Stephanie.
Yeah, I wanted her to think about me.
Five blocks from Serafina’s, Casey and I ducked into the Walgreens on the corner, the only store that was big enough for us to hide in. A guard in all black leaned against the wall but he was texting. Five rows of Inquirers fluttered when we swooshed through the electric doors where the newspapers used to be. Casey headed toward the junk jewelry, but I didn’t have that kind of cash.
I wandered over to the candy rack and, shit, it felt fresh being out again with regular things! Newspaper and candy and gum! Roaming the aisles at the end of the day like after school, when the thing that constrained us was also the thing we could get free from when the bell rang at 3:35. Just smelling the bubblegum through the wrappers—it was worth the risk of being seen. I leaned over the Life Savers and Ring Pops like a second-grade crush, but what kind of nutjob would I have been, offering Serafina something shaped like a ring when the whole point was getting away from me? “Starbursts?” I held up a pack of the tropical fruit flavors to show Casey, “or would that be too—” I shrugged. Too much: I remember your kiss and the taste of your lips. Please don’t go.
Casey shrugged, “I think she would really like it, you know?” They stood in the aisle with their gentle smile and their squinty gray eyes, holding a ruby-red ring pop out in their open hand with no one to give it to. It was so sweet of them to say that Serafina would want to remember me that I had to tell them the truth: “Casey, she didn’t ask me to come.”
At this revelation—I had hijacked our mission, I had taken the key and Casey ten blocks already in the wrong direction and we were standing in the candy aisle of Walgreen’s holding Ring Pops for a girl who hadn’t even asked me to come see her—Casey’s head jerked up so hard their long half-head of hair flew up, revealing the shaved part underneath. I didn’t expect them to take it like that. But their eyes flicked toward the door, toward the doughy white school boy who had just walked in. It was that time of day and we’d known it. Now we were staring down a herd of them—the one from the neighborhood plus a couple others, big boys there to fill their school sacks with candy and vapes. That maybe makes them sound rebellious, but they weren’t, at least not in the right way, or they wouldn’t have been in those white shirts and plaid pants. They hadn’t seen us yet. “Let’s go.” I dropped the Starbursts and Casey and I circled around to the back of the store. When they started picking up Mounds and jerking them in front of their dicks like it was the funniest thing in the world, we cut out the front door and ran all the way to Serafina’s.
Her friend’s cousin was right—her parents weren’t there. Her brother let us in. Not a schoolboy. Too old now and, even though that family was afraid of everything, at least they weren’t that kind. Her brother let us in without saying anything, just a warning look like I know who you are, I saw the photo too. But he didn’t stop us. Serafina lived in one of those super-skinny houses where each room leads to the next one, Queen Ann or Victorian or some shit I read on one of Alicia’s brochures, all squashed up against the neighbor houses, so tight there’s not even a dog run leading to the back yard. Cozy and old and fancy looking, like they’d taken a lot of trouble not to show how much they’d spent to “restore the former glory,” like Alicia would say.
Her brother left us in the front room. Serafina didn’t come out to meet us, so we had to walk through the kitchen into the hall lined with doorways. One opened up to a small bathroom with checkered tile, another to an empty bedroom with a knobby pink spread that reminded me of my grandma, who, thank God, never lived to see any of this shit. At the end of the hallway another door stood open, and there was Serafina, folding a T-shirt over a suitcase. The shirt was so soft and purple it poured over her fist, reminding me of that night in the warehouse, dancing with her while our sweat turned to wine. She looked up when she saw us. “Hola,” she whispered. That was soft too, soft and like wine and so full of everything that still flowed between us that I could tell Casey wanted to fade away down the hall.
“Hola,” I said. But then she stood up all the way and there were her breasts, crazy bigger than I remembered, and there was her belly, small and hard and round. Too round. “Serafina, corazon—” I whispered the word we’d read in a poem and I felt tears choking my throat and I wanted to say something else, I wanted to ask Why? But I already knew why: Serafina had fucked some guy to convince her parents she was straight. Like a queer girl in an old-school tragedy. And that was why she had to leave—not because of me, not 100 percent. Because of it. Because there was no way to get rid of that, not here, not anymore.
Even though I was afraid of the bump beneath her shirt, I stepped in close enough for it to kick me. It didn’t. Serafina didn’t. She didn’t apologize and she didn’t get mad. Like they cancelled each other out.
“I heard you were leaving,” I said.
She wasn’t wearing any makeup that day, but her eyes looked as dark and mysterious as the night we danced, only this time dark with sadness. Her hair was longer, and even though it was pulled back in a ponytail, devilish wisps curled up around her face. It hadn’t even been a year but she looked older. No one wanted her to have the baby, really, but there was nothing you could do about that.
“You should leave too.” Serafina wasn’t asking me to come with her, just commenting on the state of the world. We should all go somewhere else, but where?
I stepped close enough that I could smell her shampoo, coconut pineapple, and brush my hand against the side of her suitcase, brush my knees against her bed. Her veins ran blue under her skin, like rivers, like railroad tracks. Maybe the pregnancy did that. “Maybe I will,” I agreed. “Maybe I’ll go west. Or north.” The truth is that, even though some places were different, more and more every place was the same. But maybe not. West was straight into the Pacific Ocean.
I kept staring at her lips when she said my name because I was realizing she had thought about me in English class, too, not just Spanish.
The idea of me leaving seemed to make Serafina sadder than her leaving herself. She took my hand. Hers was small and fierce, like when we were dancing, but her rings looked tight. She seemed like she wasn’t sure what to do with it, and for a second I thought she was going to put my hand on her little hump like on those billboards I saw down by the old high school, but she just held it. “Juliet, oh, Juliet, wherefore are thou Juliet?” she whispered. Her brother was down the hall and Casey was hovering in the doorway behind me, wanting to turn the other way but too curious not to look, but I kept staring at her lips when she said my name because I was realizing she had thought about me in English class, too, not just Spanish. This was serious, but we’d missed it. We missed everything. Maybe we should run away together, I thought. But it was too late.
“I brought you something,” I told her. Without letting go of her hand, I dug around in my pocket and pulled out the candle with the already-burnt wick, the little pink-and-white birthday candle with the wishes used up. It was the only thing I had to give. “Here,” I held it up in front of her lips, “make a wish.”
She nodded, and without saying anything she brought her lips close enough to the candle to eat it. Her mouth smelled as sweet as birthday cake and then her mouth was on my mouth.
“That’s what I wished for,” she said, but her smile was so sad. I wanted to tell her it was what I’d been wishing for, too, but then, Hola!, her brother was stomping down the hall and I could hear her parents’ voices and her eyes went white, white all around.
“Go!” she said. Casey and I made it out of her window—legit like Romeos—and dropped into the alley behind her house and ran, past the houses, past the Bible school, past the Walgreens. We didn’t stop running until we reached Broadway again, and then we kept walking, back up toward Mr. Kamal’s shop. I couldn’t tell if I was out of breath from the running or from kissing Serafina one last time. Casey threw their arm around my shoulder: “I’m sorry, man.” I was sorry too. Sorry for me and sorry for Casey for not having anyone to kiss like that, even if it only lasted for a minute. I pushed my hand into my pocket, the other one, with the key in it. Even if we couldn’t save ourselves, there was something else we could save.
“Let’s go see it.” I pulled the key out of my pocket and flashed it. “Before it’s gone.” Casey had been at Temple Sinai all their life. Casey had had their b’nei mitzvah there, and confirmation, too. I had persuaded my parents not to force me to have any kind of mitzvah at all, but Casey had read from that scroll, that holy lady. It meant something to them. I had had my big goodbye. It seemed wrong for Casey not to get one, too.
“Put that away.” Casey stink-eyed the key. But I could see they were thinking about it, weighing the trouble we might get in with Casey’s mom against the memory of standing up in front of everyone they knew, in front of the scroll, Casey’s clear voice singing, “Blessed are You who made me as I am.” The Casey who was scared all the time against the Casey who had feared nothing on their b’nei mitzvah day. I wanted to go back to that moment together, before everything changed.
Casey wanted it, too. “Yeah, okay.” A new-moon smile fled across Casey’s face. “Let’s go.”
It didn’t take long to get to the synagogue. A black swastika dripped sloppily down the granite cornerstone and deep into the lettering that read first hebrew congregation and 1875. It had been three months since the firebomb, three months since the sanctuary had been boarded up. I’d stopped going to temple way before that, not long after preschool, so I didn’t know if Serafina’s family had been members there too. But as Casey fitted the big brass key into the lock of the little door, set almost invisible against the wall below street level, below the sanctuary, I imagined that I was going to see Serafina’s Torah too, the scroll her breath had caressed at the moment she crossed from girl into woman.
Casey and I had to shoulder the door open together, and when we shut it behind us, mildew and Pine-Sol smells swallowed us up with the dark. Casey flicked on their phone light but I shook my head. Who knew how much a phone might be recording? I waved my hands over my head and Casey ran their small hands up and down the wall until I batted an overhead chain and tugged it, washing the room in yellow light.
Cardboard boxes packed with stacks of High Holiday prayer books lined up shoulder to shoulder with mops and brooms along the gray concrete walls. The room was low and cold and so bunkerlike it was hard to imagine that the sanctuary was right above us, filling on a clear day with jewel-colored light, red, purple, and blue. I wondered if, when it was playing, you could hear the huge pipe organ down here. Against the back corner of the basement room, huddled against a raft of boxes, a trio of flags—the U. S. flag, the Israeli flag, and some ancient fringed thing embroidered with lions—saluted the plain pine box they hid the Torah in. Tucked inside like a human body.
Casey was the one who grabbed the hammer. I had this weird feeling like we were about to rob a grave as we took turns prying up the nails, but when we lifted off the cover, She was nothing like a corpse. Fat, wrapped in crimson velvet, naked of her silver breastplate and crowns, the Torah shimmered like a breathing, beating heart. She was so beautiful. Suddenly, I could see how people fell in love with her. Casey was staring at her that way, too. Like someone lovestruck. “That’s ours, Juliet,” they kept saying. “Yours and mine. She’s ours.” Casey grabbed one of the prayer books from the cardboard boxes lined up along the wall and touched it to the Torah’s shimmering red dress. Then they brought the prayer book to their lips and kissed it. That’s how special She is. She’s so old and so important, you can’t touch her with your fingers.
We hesitated to close her up inside the box again. But this Torah had been in hiding before. It was time for her to go into hiding once again. We tucked her back in carefully before we tapped the nails into the box and locked the door.
They must have been following us, those boys in their uniform shirts. Waiting outside Serafina’s house or the Walgreens, waiting for one of us to make the wrong move, for Casey to put their arm around my shoulder. Or maybe they just saw us run past the Bible school like prey signaling to predators: Come! Chase me! Eat me alive! Waiting for us to bring them back to our den.
They were on us before we knew it, dragging me by the hair, dragging Casey by the collar of their button-down, shouting at each other more than us: “Grab it! Grab it!” It took me a second to realize they weren’t talking about the key. When I hit the sidewalk my hands burned but they didn’t break. My head didn’t hit the ground. There were just two of them, grubby neighborhood boys, stinking of Axe body spray and sweat and the candy bars they bought or stole, surging in them now as sugar rage. Casey was fighting, but a skinny kid like them can’t get out from under a big sulky boy. We both knew what Grab it! meant. Boys like that were too timid for rape right out on the public sidewalk. But these boys with their soft hands and acne had to prove that they were men and that people like me and Casey were not. The one on top of me pressed his knee into my ribs; I stared at the pleats on his hips and told myself it was pathetic, to be a boy dressed in pants like that. It made me feel stronger to desex him that way. Remarkable how powerful it felt to conjure hate like that, how easy, even for me.
Maybe future girls will be different. Maybe they’ll be born with razor-blade fingernails and lasers for eyes.
He must have been doing the same. “It’s too bad. This one’s at least half pretty.” He grinned down from on top of me, wolfish. He had braces! Still! I wondered who that fucker thought was going to take his braces off, now that only the really rich assholes could get their teeth fixed. A kid in polyester pants wasn’t rich, not by a long shot. Those braces would either have to break off or fall off, or his brother would be out in the garage, prying them loose with pliers, maybe taking a tooth along with them. See, they have problems too, that’s why they’re like this. Honest to God, even scared to shit, I was making excuses for them—that’s what happens when you’re born a girl. Maybe future girls will be different. Maybe they’ll be born with razor-blade fingernails and lasers for eyes. But my rage had fled me. I was making it bearable the best I could right then, paralyzed with sympathy for the person who hated me.
Then he pressed an experimental hand against my throat and my rage came back, and my strength, and I thrust my head to the side, and that’s when I saw Casey.
They’d been thrashing around on the ground, but now Casey had turned into a statue. A corpse. Not moving. Not yelling. Nothing. They lay paralyzed and zombied while the sullen schoolboy’s fat fingers tore at their shirt. “No!” I shrieked. “Motherfucker!”
I wanted to reach up and smash those glittering wires from Schoolboy’s face. I wanted to take a few teeth out with them. But I was pinned under his heavy thighs, under the surprisingly sharp bones of his butt.
His hand relaxed from my throat. We both watched, the schoolboy and me, as his sullen friend, who must once have felt joy launching his small drone into the air, watching it fly, fixed his fingers on the clasps that held Casey’s binder in place and started to pluck at them, one, two, three.
It was impossible not to imagine what would happen next: the slow or fast unwinding, the pale cloth coming in ribbons away from their chest, the terrible nakedness as Casey’s soft body was exposed to the light. In four years, even I had never seen Casey’s breasts. It was our pact with each other that they didn’t exist. That was not who they were.
The big boy snickered and started to peel a layer away, jerking with the other hand at his pants. I felt the schoolboy begin to harden against my chest. But it wasn’t myself I needed to save.
“Hey!” I yelled at Plaid Pants, the one on top of Casey. “Hey, that’s nothing! I have something you want!”
“Heh, heh,” Braces thrust his hips up toward my face, the polyester shiny where his boner pressed at the zip.
“Something else, asshole. Way bigger than that.” I glanced at his crotch for just a second longer than I might have, but that was me, smart in the mouth even under duress. “I know how you can fuck with the Jews!” The Jews. It’s funny how a piece of yourself can just float away like that. Attach an article like a piece of string, like it’s nothing to do with you yourself, and then let it go. The Jews. It was the only part of ourselves we could hide.
I fixed my eyes on Casey, expecting them to rear up in protest, but they didn’t. They opened their eyes and blinked once.
The Bible school boys made us watch. They took turns tossing either side of the scroll up and up, spooling the parchment through the branches outside the synagogue’s stained windows like stiff, wide streams of TP. It was a small scroll, and an old one, but they still had to tear it in half just to manage the weight. She was exposed, unrolled; She was coming apart. An old religious-school song spooled through my head as they threw it, up, up into the trees like the veils of a bride: It is a tree of life . . . a tree of life. The boys watched each torn piece fall from the sky, roaring with laughter. “Kill the goddamned Jews!”
“What the hell is going on?” A cop appeared out of nowhere. His eyes traced the shower of thou shalt nots through the trees. “What have we got here?” He slapped his baton against his thigh and turned to Casey and me. Blood trickled from the side of Casey’s mouth. “You two better have some girlie panties on under there.” Three articles of female clothing. That was the law. He made us prove it before he yelled: “Get out of here! Next time I’ll haul you in!”
At Casey’s house, their mom made us tea. We had agreed without speaking that we wouldn’t tell Alicia about the details. Not because she didn’t deserve to know, but because we couldn’t bear to hurt her. And she must have agreed with herself not to ask about the torn buttons on Casey’s shirt as she took it from them, or the blood she dabbed with cotton from our faces and elbows. She didn’t ask about the key, or Mr. Kamal, or the Torah. Not because she didn’t care, but because she did and she couldn’t do anything.
Casey took out the cups and I took out the teabags. I could still see the loops of that ancient lambskin parchment floating over our heads. I remembered what Casey had said at their b’nei mitzvah about that Torah. It had come from one of those little Eastern European towns that had been entirely murdered. It was supposed to be held in safekeeping in America until the day a Jewish community came back to that place. But America couldn’t promise safekeeping anymore. Maybe we would leave the country, Casey and me. Maybe we would run away—if we could find somewhere to go.
Without saying anything, Alicia opened the cupboard and took out the package of sponge candy. Of course she’d known all along where it was. We all did. We all knew what was hidden and what couldn’t be hid.
When we’d nearly finished all the candy Casey’s mom said: “It’s not worth more than a life. I remember that much. Nothing is worth more than a life.” We hadn’t told her what had happened to the Torah, but she knew. I knew she would always live with this. I doubted the rabbi and the hazzan and the congregation would agree, but I knew it was a life I’d saved. A whole life.
When the police arrived, the boys had fled, and the sound of the key rang out on the sidewalk like a bell. Now Casey took the heavy key out of their pocket and set it on the table. A confession. An apology.
I reached into my pocket too, and fished out the pink striped candle I had crushed into my pocket when we fled Serafina’s house. It had broken in two places, but it was still held together by the wick, still sharp at the tip where the flame had burned it and it had touched Serafina’s lips.
Cradling the wrecked candle in my hand, I held it to the little bird’s heart of the stove and lit the black wick and watched a sticky little crumb of sponge candy burn in the flame. It burned sweet, and then the candle went out. A curl of smoke spiraled up like a wisp of Serafina’s hair. Casey and I still stank of the smoke from the library, and I imagined my memories of dancing with Serafina in the warehouse would always smell like smoke now too, electricity and fire. It was too late to make wishes. It was too late for devotion. But when the little snuffed-wax smudge flew up into the kitchen like an angel on burnt-sugar wings, it smelled like our birthday-cake kisses and it reminded me of her.