Ch. 1—

The loud bang coming from my cousin's back alleyway could be determined as either a gunshot or fireworks. Since both my eyelids had decided to remain firmly closed, I decided on the latter. People were careless in these parts. They didn't think about others or themselves really. They just acted. Tonight they were acting most likely from a bored or celebratory mood. I was going to ignore it because I was tired enough to, and my cousin had told me to ignore it. He'd said that what happened in that backstreet alleyway would be of no concern to me. He'd long since considered it irrelevant to his own life, as long as it didn't prove fatal to his own self and those he loved. So far it hadn't.

"Woman, give me my money!"

"No, you don't deserve it, you bastard! You've impregnated me one too many times and you don't pay a dime for child support!"

The shrill sound of the woman's voice was what assured me I would not be getting much sleep the rest of that night if I didn't act quickly. I wondered why this quarrelsome couple had decided to argue about money in the middle of an inner city alley at two in the morning on a Tuesday, but I quickly abandoned analyzing the situation. My cousin had told me that sometimes this happened, for whatever reason these people decided to engage in conversation at obscure times occasionally. He'd advised me accordingly.

The light blankets were off of me before I was half-way to a sitting position, and I pulled on the dangling cord that hung from inside the lampshade of the light beside me. It wasn't too bright because of the ancient looking shade that turned the white glow of the lamp into a faded gold. I yawned, rubbed my eyes and proceeded to stand up and walk into the hallway. The small, too high cupboard – even for me, five foot nine – was supposed to contain earplugs and an additional, easy to put in thick curtain that would block out more of the noise from the street beyond the guest bedroom window. I tripped on a few magazines and an empty pizza box in my effort to find the small stool that my cousin had insisted existed someplace between the guest bedroom and the kitchen. He was not a very orderly person, but I'd needed a place to crash and he'd obliged – he was nice. More likely the case was that he was so laid back the possibility of the arguing couple in the backstreet winding up in his living room would not be incredibly alarming, at least not initially. I settled on nice though. It sounded less complicated.

I found the stool and managed to successfully reach the handy objects that were positioned as declared. I was somewhat astonished. Austin was not particularly known to remember where things were to an exact point. He was very vague. I guessed that was part of the reason he hadn't been able to keep a girlfriend for very long. Forgetting birthdays, anniversaries, dates, names…tended to be an issue where girls were concerned. Men tended to be more lenient, but Austin was nothing if not the straightest man alive.

When I returned to the guest bedroom, earplugs snugly fitted into my ears and heavy, thick, supposedly easy to place drapes held in my arms, I finally caught a clear glimpse of the arguing couple in the street below. My eyes had blinked enough times while I'd been gathering the necessary items that I could now see things in as much clarity as I did during the day, except for the fact that everything was darker now of course. The woman in the street was crying. The man looked like he was bordering on intense anger and incredible guilt. I closed the distance between myself and the window and saw for the first time a small group of people behind each of them. Back-up. I wanted to chuckle at how much of a beat-down – bully vs. victim – it looked like. This was different I was sure. The yelling that had been going on for the last twenty minutes assured me of that. The man was not about to throw punches at the woman who he'd apparently never used a condom with. The fact that she looked like she was about to burst from yet another pregnancy did not help his case, regardless if the child was his or not. What flabbergasted me the most – and I'm ashamed to admit this – was the fact that this couple and the people surrounding them, albeit from a distance, were white. They weren't black. They didn't belong in the inner city. White people were scarce there. Caucasians lived in the suburbs or the skyscrapers filled with high-end stores and office buildings in the city downtown. They lived in residential areas where their children could play in the yard or on the sidewalk without the parents having to worry about them being kidnapped. They just didn't live in the inner city, and they most especially didn't argue about things like child support at two in the morning on a Tuesday in the midst of a dark alley with a gang of people behind them should "back-up" be necessary. White people were more civilized than that.

It was tense in the street. I could feel the ripples of anger and betrayal and greed reverberating through me all the way up on the second floor of the duplex behind the soon-to-be doubly covered windowpane. It looked like they were speaking some more but I couldn't hear it, and it occurred to me that I could use this break in the argument to go back to bed and hopefully sleep soundly the rest of the night. Austin had informed me he'd be back from his friend's "celebration" by 10am and I didn't want to be exhausted when he returned, even if he'd be sure to be. So, I hung up the drapes, which though not entirely complicated were harder to set in than he'd made it seem. The glow of the lamp reflected on the sliver of window glass visible to my eyes lured me to turn around and go back to bed. Out of the corner of my eyes though, I caught a final glance at the scene and noticed that the man in the street was walking away, and for various unknown reasons I rejoiced because of it. What struck me as even more alarming however was the fact that a young girl had stepped out from amongst the crowd behind the pregnant woman and I was enraptured by her. It was late – 2:30 now – but my eyes were wide open, even if my ears were shut and the drapes were clouding most of my vision. I pulled part of the thick fabric to the right so I could see her better. The lighting was not good, but it appeared that she had blonde shoulder-length hair and a jean skirt accompanied with a trendy top. She looked to be somewhere between 18 and 25. It's so hard for me to tell ages when I'm not given a particular range. She looked young though, much too young to be involved in something like this. It was out of place. She should've been somewhere safer, I thought, as if I knew the entire situation and exactly who these people were, as if we'd known each other for years. I thought the young girl was very beautiful, and I wondered how she'd managed to get involved. When she went up to the middle-aged impregnated woman and held her to her I wondered then if she were her child.

The drape slipped from my hand and I realized that I was still very tired and had only been momentarily alert for the sake of getting back to sleep. My hand had released the fabric of its own involuntary accord. I shook my head with a little smile on my face and made my way back to the bed. I tugged on the lamp cord and the light went out. I laid myself back in the bed and brought the covers back over me until they reached the very top of my chest. I closed my eyes.

When I was almost asleep, I heard a sharp noise again, though it wasn't as loud this time because of my earplugs. A shriek followed, causing me to shoot up in the bed to a sitting position. My breath was caught in my throat and I wondered why my body had reacted as if it had been me that had been the gun's target. Because it was a gunshot, just like before. I had never really questioned it. When I recovered, I felt a great urgency to go help the people down in the street. What if someone's hurt? But then I remembered my cousin's advice – "Just leave them alone, Cuz. There are plenty of other neighbors that can help them if they really need helping. You'll be too overwhelmed if you try to get involved". I'd felt insulted at the time, just a little, but now I indulged in the suggestion. Relief flooded through me and I lay back down. I felt a little guilty because my moral compass was so enormous. But my cousin had lived there a long time. He knew how things worked, and he'd told me to leave them alone. I would let myself be selfish this time, but only because I needed to sleep. It wasn't as if I was going to see the girl again.