Arden stared at the new grocery store with its Starbucks inside and its fancy parking lot, disgust hardly disguised in her frowning face. Death had found its way to Ukrainian Village, dripping off of rooftops and slipping down the storm drains. It was the death of something wonderful, perhaps the death of an authentic neighborhood. There were plenty of the hipster parts of Chicago where she could have rented, but this was the one she liked, the one with onion dome churches.
“I can’t walk down Oakley, Lewis. It’s just too depressing. But then I have to walk by this dumbass chain store. Remember when it was a supermercado? I could get avocados and chile de árbol then walk across the street for pierogi. God, I hate that white people are taking over.”
“Hon, you’re white as as the sky is blue.”
She continued walking west on Chicago, trying to sound interested as Lewis chatted away in her ear about his new espresso machine. She approached Grand Avenue and saw the Metra train platform with the few stragglers out on a Saturday morning.
“I gotto go, Lewis. I’m getting on the train soon. Love you.”
“Love you too, Babe. Kisses!”
As Arden headed across the street toward the Metra stop, she slipped her phone back into her shoulder bag. The neighborhood felt like itself here, buildings abandoned and rundown like they should be. It was authentic, even if it was an eyesore, not yuppies with coffee cups. The new condos on Oakley were just too heartbreaking. She glanced around the Metra stop, noting the police car parked near the staircase. Some things never change, Arden thought to herself, comforted by the ritual.
There was a certain smell that had to accompany this spot. It was industrial and dirty, the scent of sewage and chemicals, to remind you that you’re in a tough city. But today the odor was different. It was like someone had added mortuary to the mix. Embalming fluid to be exact.
The other people on the platform stood like statues, like little robots that took the train as if programmed to do so. Arden watched the mom holding her son’s hand; the mom stared at the morning sky as if it was giving her military orders and the boy sang softly as he drew in the air with one finger. Another passenger, a young man with a backpack, squinted into the cold sunshine, a wool cap covering the earbuds that he used to block out other people. There were a couple women much farther down the platform with a shopping cart, homeless women who sat on a bench together. Arden had seen them there before. They never got on the train and never talked to any passengers. They just sat and complained to each other.
The train approached right on time, 9:20 AM like it did every Saturday. It emerged from the bowels of the city as it left the Loop, stopping at Grand and Western as the passengers adjusted to daylight again. It bothered Arden, the way Chicago trains could so easily switch between underground and above ground. It was like Persephone weaving in and out of her niches without a care. Death. Life. Death. Life. There should be rules for this, she thought to herself.
She began to step onto the train, the one that would take her north to her parents’ house in the suburbs. There was something hard about moving her feet forward, about crossing that threshold. It was the same train she took at least once a month, but this time her feet refused to advance.
Frozen in fear, she heard in her head.
Her body rocked backwards, knocking into the elderly Mexican man behind her. His wrinkled face smiled up at her, his eyes sparkling and blinking like the twinkle lights that Macy’s would put up in a couple weeks.
“Sorry,” she muttered, fleeing toward the stairs. She ran past the cop, kept running up Western Avenue, kept running like she was late. Farther. Farther, through Ukrainian Village, past her apartment. The murals on Division began to bleed together, like Picaso himself decided to shift all the boundaries. The face of Frida Kahlo moved toward her, reaching out from the community center and into her soul.
“Eres más fuerte que un roble,” came a voice from nearby. Arden looked around, her raven black hair whipping around like ribbon. An elderly lady walked slowly with a cane toward the neighborhood’s oldest Italian bakery. Two teens punched each other, joking around in Spanish.
Am I hearing things now?
Reaching into her bag again, she pulled out her phone and sent off a quick text to Lewis. I’m coming over.
Arden kept walking, heading toward Humboldt Park and continuing northwest to Logan Square. She walked like she was escaping demons. She drowned their noise with her earbuds, charging ahead like she was on a deadline. She felt death marching in line behind her.
Waiting for a stoplight to change, she opened Google Translate. Más fuerte que un roble wasn’t something she remembered from college Spanish. It was an idiom. Strong as an oak, like strong as an ox in English. “You are as strong as an oak,” she said aloud as the light changed and the walk sign flashed.
It was mid-October, her favorite time of year. Lewis was planning his annual Day of the Dead party, a hangover brunch for everyone who had partied too much on Halloween. As Arden hit his apartment buzzer, she was sure he was searching Pinterest for new Bloody Mary flavors to spice up this year’s party. She almost felt bad for bringing her negativity into his light-filled apartment.
“What in tarnation took you so long?” Lewis often reverted to his rural dialect when scolding.
“I ran.” Arden pushed past him and dropped her bag on the couch, out of breath. How long was I running? she wondered. She stared blankly out the window while Lewis continued to chide her.
“Ran?” he squeaked. “You should not be walking through these neighborhoods, Lady. Why didn’t you take the El?”
“Oh, like the El is so pleasant?” Arden rolled her eyes as she plopped down next to her bag. Lewis was a few years her senior, just barely in his thirties. He never let her forget his seniority.
His tone changed as he sat in an antique armchair and looked at her through squinted eyes. He squinted when he needed to solve a problem. “Why didn’t you go up to Lake Forest?” he whispered, placing a gentle hand on hers.
“I couldn’t get on the train. I just couldn’t. I don’t know if it was anxiety or what. I just couldn’t make my feet move.” Two tears streamed down Arden’s left cheek as she continued to stare blankly out the window.
“You’re still taking your meds? Still seeing Phyllis every Thursday?”
Arden finally took her glance away from the window and rolled her eyes directly at Lewis this time.
“You don’t need to police my treatments.” Arden looked back out the window as she opened her mouth to speak, but changed her mind. Birds were falling out of trees, or at least that’s what she saw. She wondered how flying was different from falling.
“What? What did you want to say?” Lewis was patient, happy to listen. His partner, James, was out of town and he had the whole weekend to himself.
“I was going to say that I should call my parents or something. They’re expecting me for lunch.” Arden spoke as she rubbed her right shoulder blade. It felt like someone had thrown a weighted blanket on her, like she had to wear it around all day. And no one cared.
Well, Lewis cared.
“Do you think birds ever fall? Like, they just forget to fly or don’t realize they’re not flying?” Arden was still looking out Lewis’s big bay window, focusing on a pigeon that moved in slow motion.
“Hon, call your parents. I’ll make some tea.” Lewis stood up and eyed her as walked toward the kitchen. He tried not to judge her yoga pants and hoodie as he made sure she was calling home.
There weren’t that many numbers in her favorites. Arden found the number quickly, even as the text blurred and swirled. She refocused on the tree outside Lewis’s window and saw a raven this time. Ravens would never fall, she thought to herself.
“Hi Mom, it’s me.” Arden struggled to find the words, but somehow explained that she missed the train and would see them the following weekend instead. Her parents didn’t need the details. Arden didn’t need the same speech about meds and counselors.
A slight breeze came through the window, the chilly October air that made Arden wish she had chosen a woolen sweater instead of her ratty grey hoodie. She watched a squirrel climbing the tree and then realized that it was an oak.
“Eres más fuerte que un roble,” she heard again. It was enough Spanish for one day. Enough of the voices. She knew she had to refocus, perhaps on Lewis and his party.
“Are you planning your party?” Arden yelled into the kitchen once she had her phone back in her bag. She and Lewis had an unspoken agreement that they put their phones away unless it was an important call or text. She slipped off her shoes, realized she forgot socks that day. She thought about how the hardwood floor felt against her flesh.
Blood poured through the panels of hardwood as the cold, dead wood changed her temperature. Or that’s what she experienced anyway, as she got up and walked into Lewis’s kitchen. The hardwood never changed color. The blood seeped into each crack, flowing with the grain of the wood. It was like sap running down an oak. She wondered if Lewis couldn’t see the blood because only she was strong like an oak.
“Yes ma’am! I found this amazing pomegranate Bloody Mary recipe.”
“So, pomegranate vodka?” Arden elbowed her friend playfully and was suddenly very grateful for his lavender chamomile tea. The smell calmed and comforted her. She almost didn’t see the blood covering his hardwood for a few minutes.
“It has just a bit of tomato juice, but yes, mostly just pomegranate and vodka. I might make a pomegranate gazpacho to serve also, like buffet style. What do you think?” Lewis was sipping his own tea as he sat on the bar stool next to their kitchen counter. He looked at Arden and noticed she had focused her gaze on his bedroom television.
“That guy. I bumped into him this morning. He’s on the news?” Arden recognized the Mexican man, the same wrinkled face and twinkling eyes.
Lewis hopped up and walked into his bedroom. He backed slowly away from the television, trying to form an obstruction as Arden leaned to look around him.
“Let me see! What’s the story about?” Arden was imagining the he saved a child from a fire or some such heroic tale. He looked like that sort of character. Never mind that blood was running down the cracks of the floorboards.
Lewis turned around and faced her. He opened his mouth and frowned at the teapot, wondering what to say. The news story had ended and the meteorologist was now showing the new cold front moving in for Halloween.
“He erm, he…”
“What?” Arden was growing impatient, sipping her tea for some focus.
“That story was about the train you were going to take today. That man that you recognized? He died. I think they said he was stabbed.” Lewis was still frowning, trying to gauge how Arden would take the news.
“He died?” she whispered, her tea cup hitting the counter hard. The blood was on her hands now. “I… I think I know who did it.”