In stereotypical nosy neighbor fashion, Mairead Murphy pulled one of the slats on her blinds down and peeked out the front window of her rowhome. She looked down her street at the kids standing on the front porch of the corner house. “Of all the gin joint corners on all the streets in this forsaken city, those dicks sell drugs on mine.”
Mairead's younger brother, Jack, was unimpressed with his sister's attempt at eloquence. He kept channel surfing, offering only a noncommittal, “Huh,” in response. The TV stuttered through its programming.
Mairead's older sister, Rachel, stuck her head through the kitchen doorway. “What'd she say?”
The three of them had met at Mairead's before heading to their parents’ house because Mairead had a convection oven. Rachel found it gave her a more even bake on her cakes and cookies, though it also heated casseroles more evenly, which is what she was bringing with her that night. Jack was there because he planned on drinking at his parents’ house and needed somewhere relatively close to his own house to leave his car and Mairead was his ride.
Jack didn't take his eyes from the television and spoke out of the corner of his mouth closer to the kitchen. “Gin. And joints. Something about gin and joints.”
Mairead clarified. “I said those four dicks are still hocking whatever narcotic is rampaging up the highway from Florida.”
Rachel kept shouting from the kitchen. “Graffiti dicks?”
“No, dicks as a disparaging term for people.”
“Who's a dick?”
“Those kids up on the corner.”
“The ones selling drugs?”
“Who the hell else hangs out on street corners all day?”
She was suddenly at Mairead's shoulder, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “I don't know. Prostitutes? Oscar the Grouch?”
“These kids aren't spewing morals out of trash cans. And I haven't seen Big Bird for at least three weeks.”
The two of them stared out Mairead's front window. Fifty years before, the street was Rockwellian. Row homes of clean red brick sat a few feet back from the sidewalk. Most houses sported a sizable wooden porch, usually painted, with decorations changing depending on the closest holiday. Most windows, if they were the appropriate size, had shutters. Flower boxes were common.
On porches, people sat and sipped iced tea and evening cocktails and gossiped with neighbors. In the street, they washed and waxed massive Oldsmobile, Ford, and Chrysler boats or walked to corner stores for the random household odds and ends. As for children, conservative estimates put a hundred kids on the block and it was rare for a day to go by where they weren't all seen sprinting up and down the street from one childhood priority to the other.
The modern scene was surreally different. Roughly half the houses had survived the intervening years with porches and windows intact, though city statistics listed two-thirds were as “habitable”. The half that hadn’t was falling into disrepair, with rot in the wood and windows shattered, boarded up or missing altogether. Flower boxes fell to the ground to become mosquito breeding grounds. Doors hung askew and shrubs grew from the interior decay. A few of the worst houses were missing entire roofs and fire damage was apparent on a handful more. If plywood covered an opening, it was spray painted.
The rot spread to the attitude of the city's inhabitants. If they'd stayed in the city, they'd watched life crumble around them, keen to leave but unable to afford it. If they'd left, they saw their old homes gutted with corruption of structure, spirit, and law.
Jack's attention finally left the television. “You're the one who insisted on homeownership. You should've rented until you could buy in a better neighborhood.”
“I'm not going to throw money away on rent.”
“Renting's not so bad.”
Mairead turned to her brother. “How's it not so bad?”
Rachel's hand wiping adopted an element of absent-mindedness, something she was doing just because the towel was over her shoulder. “Maybe they're not selling drugs. Maybe they're just loitering. Everyone loiters. I've loitered.”
Jack sniffed. “I don't have to mow the lawn. Utilities are included. The neighborhood's better.”
Mairead scoffed. “You also can't paint.”
“How many colors do you need your apartment to be?”
Rachel gently moved her sister out of the window and looked down to the corner. “Oh, yeah, there they are. Clearly selling drugs. Like, really clearly. They just tossed a big bag of something through that customer's open car window from five feet away. Brazen.”
Mairead sniffed. “God, why are my eyes tearing up?”
Jack laughed. “Buyer's remorse?”
Rachel wiped her hands on the dishtowel again. “I was cutting onions.”
Mairead blinked hard and a fat teardrop squeezed out of the corner each eye. “Brazen's a good word for it. I've seen more drugs on that corner in five minutes than the three days I spent at Burning Man.” Jack scowled. “Friggin' hippies.”
“I've never had someone be so adamant I take shrooms. They went on and on about the psychological health benefits and the philosophical profundity and the natural connection with the ether. You know they tried to convince my friend shrooms would cure his alcoholism?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Successfully?”
“Which, the convincing or the curing?”
“One's dependent on the other, right?”
“True. So neither.”
“I'll grant them that most alcoholics substitute something else for drinking, but it's usually scratch-offs or cheese dips, not fucking shrooms.”
“I know shrooms are supposed to be good for anxiety.” Rachel was on her way back to the kitchen.
“How was the art?”
Mairead turned back to spying on the drug dealers. “Fine, I guess. Honestly, I kept staring at the orgies. I couldn't believe people would do that in the desert. You get sand everywhere, people are always watching.”
Rachel snorted in the dining room. “People like you?”
“Yeah, like me. But, look, staring's less about the sex than it is the spectacle. I bet that if you saw a man painted completely green, as in completely, with real deer's antlers stapled to his head giving it to a woman who looked like she crawled out of a desert gorge to stab Spanish conquistadors, you'd've stared too. It's a human jackalope boning a Native American curse.”
She was back in the kitchen. “I'd give myself five minutes of voyeurism.”
Jack stood up to look out the window. “Burning Man's an art gallery?”
Mairead nodded. “So they say.”
“What kind of art?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“What the fuck were you doing at Burning Man, anyway?”
Mairead ignored the question and Jack didn't ask it again. They stared in silence for a while until Jack went back to the couch, saying, “The weirdest part about this neighborhood to me is that you have those beautiful brick and cobblestone pavings on a few of these streets, the lines for gas lamps still exist, and a couple of the houses are old enough to warrant those brass commemorative plaques, and you still get people like them hanging out on the corner.”
Mairead finally tore herself from the window. “I'm pretty sure this house is a hundred and twenty years old this year.”
“That's exactly what I'm saying. Civil War vets were the foremen on the construction and the neighborhood still went to shit. What other city could manage to fuck up its historic districts this bad?”
“Camden being screwed is its history. Not ours.”
Mairead planted herself on the couch next to her brother. “Since when do you know so much about history?”
“I like those little books they keep publishing. Those ones with the historic titles, you know? Where the covers are all old sepia pictures.”
“Really? You like those?”
“Hell yeah. They get a bunch of local historians to research ridiculously specific topics, then they publish little books on them. They have ones on Seaford, the Riverfront, World War II. They did Claymont, but haven't done us yet, don't know why. Either way, I love it.”
“I know what I'm getting you for Christmas every year until we die.”
“Fine by me.”
From the kitchen came, “Help me pack all this food up to bring to Mom and Dad's.”
Bridget and Bruce Murphy listened patiently as Mairead laid out complaints, fresh and standard, about her neighborhood. The rotting porches, the lack of hope for the future, the surprising accuracy of lobbed bags of narcotics. It's a story they had experience with.
When Mairead finally finished her diatribe, Ryan, in his second year of college and by far the youngest thanks to Bridget's false brush with early menopause, worked his words around the dinner in his mouth. “I don't go to Mairead's corner when I want to buy drugs. The kids are too obvious about it and their prices are way too high.” He swallowed hard, took a large gulp of milk, and continued. “She's also too deep in the city. I'll get caught.”
Bridget nodded. “Thank you, Ryan. Very insightful.”
Bruce adopted a proud visage. “He's the son I go to when my stash is low low.”
Jack shook his head and looked like he was about to interject, but Ryan wasn't done. “No, when I want to score some primo smack, I'll head down to 5th. All the good stuff comes up 95, hits the Adams Street exit, and lands right in my hand. Then my good buddy Carlos is back on the highway and up to upgrade every life between here and Maine before the cops can even pull their pants on. Hell, I'm probably shooting up by the time they've buckled their utility belts.”
Rachel laughed. “Cops don't have utility belts.”
Ryan smirked. “Then what would you call their waist strap of gadgets, gizmos, and deadly weapons?”
A swift and piercing look from Bridget silenced all of them. “We are dangerously close to politics here. Ryan, go get dessert.”
“I still have half a plate of food.”
“And it's the third time you've piled it on, so as far as I'm concerned, you finished dinner two plates ago. The pie's in the oven.”
Ryan grumbled as he stood. “I'm away from the dining hall for a weekend and I can't even enjoy it.”
Fighting back a smile, Bridget threw a crumpled napkin at her son. “I've cooked for you every meal this weekend, you ungrateful jackass. Don't forget a knife. And that flat pie scooper.”
A wide grin cracked across Ryan's face as he entered the kitchen. “I'll see what I can find.”
Bridget turned back to her younger daughter. “Have you tried calling the police?”
“Yeah, they keep saying they'll send a unit, but it's lip service. No one comes. Not often enough to make a difference anyway.”
Bruce opened and closed a hand. “What the hell can they do? There's more mules than commuters on that goddamn interstate.”
Bridget laid a hand on her husband's. “We know, honey.”
“Of course you do. It's why we're in the goddamn suburbs now, right? You can only see so much shit change hands across the street from where your kids sleep before you start to think maybe this isn't the best environment for them to grow up in.”
Mairead looked forlorn. “I bought that house, though.”
Bruce's voice softened a bit. “I know you did, kid, and genuinely, I respect that. You hold onto it and maybe in thirty years it'll be worth something.”
“Jesus. I'll be 62.”
“They always said property was a long-term investment.”
“It's too long, Dad. It's way too long. Not that I wasn't planning on staying, but come on.”
Bruce's voice softened even more. “Kid, I told you that's why we left. We weren't even in a neighborhood as bad as yours and we could see the writing on the friggin' wall. Crime inching down along the avenues, coming closer and closer to our front door. I can only replace so many bikes before I start wondering where they're all going.”
Ryan interjected. “Yeah, and when you see a kid riding your old hog around, you tend to put two and two together.”
“This shit doesn't stop at bikes. It's what was immediate to us, or at least to you kids because your transportation kept disappearing, but it wasn't the only thing. For me, having a shooting two blocks away while I'm home on a sick day was pretty goddamn alarming-”
“Bruce.” Bridget looked quickly from her husband to her daughter. “Mairead, there are initiatives, petitions, and all kinds of other stuff sitting with the city council.”
Jack chimed in. “Even the defeatist attitude is slightly comforting.”
Bridget narrowed her eyes. “How?”
Jack shrugged. “Just that, look, it can't keep going this way, right? A city can't exist like this, so someone's got to do something about it soon.”
Bruce bristled. “And how do you do something about it when goddamn banks are using vacant properties as tax havens?”
Jack shrugged again. “Arson?”
Mairead slapped her brother on the arm. “I'm not burning my house down.”
Jack shook his head and spoke matter-of-factly. “Not yours, the empty ones. Home ownership is a matter of public record, right? Find out which ones the banks own and burn those. That'll light a fire under the bank's ass. Or at least the city's.”
Ryan yelled from the kitchen. “If you'll pardon the expression.”
Bridget leaned back in her chair to see what was taking her youngest so long. “What are you doing in there?”
Drawers opened and closed and utensils clanged together. “I can't find the pie spatula.”
“It's in the main drawer.” Bridget got up to help with the search.
Mairead wasn't done. “The empty ones are attached to the ones people are living in. It'd be like a fire in the 1800s. Everyone's house would go up because one person got careless. Wipe out the whole block in an afternoon.”
Jack held up his hands, palms out. “Hey, it was just a suggestion. Don't do it if you're not comfortable with it.”
Mairead choked on a sarcastic laugh. “No, Jack, I’d say I’m not all that comfortable with arson.”
Bruce shook his head and waved away the possibility. “They have special cops for those crimes anyway. They'd find you in a day and a half. It's not realistic. But I think I take your point. They let these things sit as shells, someone's going to burn one down whether it's on purpose or by accident. The people that are still there are careless enough that I'd believe either.”
Rachel cleared her throat. Everyone jumped at the sound of her voice. “What I think is a shame is that everyone who lives in the city gets punished while the people actually creating the problem get off scot-free, right? A bank forecloses on a home, which means they then own it. If Dad's right, and the property becomes a tax haven or write-off or whatever, then the owner, whoever they are, gets to rake in whatever kind of savings or tax benefits, you know? But at that point, you've changed the point of the property and the responsibilities owed to it.”
The other three at the table stared at her wide-eyed and listening.
She went on. “So what used to support families and neighborhoods becomes another address on a sheet of paper and what matters isn't the property itself, or the quality of it, rather. It’s whether or not you can list it on your sheet as something you own. A family needs the roof not to leak, the front door to lock, the toilet to flush, electricity, that kind of stuff. A bank needs it to fill in a line on a tax form, the rest of it be damned. You've divorced the practical function of the house, that is the fact that it shelters families and enables people to build real, meaningful lives, from the financial aspects of it, that is that you can claim it on your taxes and get certain breaks or kick-backs.”
She sipped from her water. “And, sorry, I don't want to get preachy here, but so far I've heard you guys ignoring what actually turns these houses into rotting husks. I can't speak for other cities, but for us, right here, it isn't the inaction of the people who actually live in the houses. You’re dragging those poor people over the coals, but a house with a bunch of squatters in it is still going to get some maintenance at some point. One of the tweakers knows his way around a hammer and nail and bam, you've got someone plugging up holes in the roof or putting the front door back in its frame, even if it is to keep the cops out.”
She paused to assess her audience. An eyebrow or two were raised, but the people attached to them were still with her. “The problem's with the inaction of the people who don't live in the houses and still claim to own them. So as shitty as it is to sell drugs on a street corner and drag your neighborhood down with you—because you're definitely doing that—what alternative exists? That's not a choice you made, it's a choice an absentee landlord made for you. And more than that, it's a choice that a bunch of absentee landlords made for you for thirty-five years straight. How the hell are you supposed to fight that?” She finished, avoiding eye contact with her family.
Jack clapped a bit of half sarcastic, half genuine applause. “Damn, Rachel, are you sure you're supposed to be a math teacher?”
“What else would I be doing?”
“Leading a neighborhood uprising for one thing.”
Mairead slumped in her chair, thinking about what and how she'd paid for her house. Fifty-six thousand dollars, $40,000 from a mortgage, the rest from savings from her job as a pediatric nurse.
Bruce, mouth taught and eyes glistening, stared hard at his oldest daughter's face without saying anything. He didn't look away until Bridget audibly deposited a pie right in front of him. “Bruce, get cutting. It's all I could do to stop Ryan from taking a fistful.”
The pie was cut up and distributed. It was also ignored by half of the people at the table. Mairead straightened back up in her chair. “So what? What do I do about it? I can't leave that house.”
Rachel mirrored her brother and shrugged. “Damned if I know. What I do know is that, short of selling at a loss and moving back here with Mom and Dad, you're stuck the same as them."
Mairead shook her head.
Rachel nodded. “So, then, yeah, you're stuck.”
“Will you people eat, please? We're not going to solve your neighborhood's socioeconomic issues at family dinner and I didn't bake this thing for it to go cold and unloved.” Bridget whirled both hands up towards their mouths. “Let's go. It's blackberry. They're in season.”
Following Rachel's monologue, Mairead stood at her front window more often, and she surprised herself when she found a certain sort of admiration growing in her as she watched the kids. Their work ethic surpassed hers easily. She worked five twelve-hour shifts per week. More than a normal person, yes, but a full twenty-four hours less than the small businessmen on the corner. And not that hers was an industry with many regulars, but she took pride in treating the few people that came to her consistently. As far as she could tell, it was the same with the kids. People who were customers and nothing else drove by relatively quickly with their window rolled down, ready for the throw. But ones with familiar faces in them, faces Mairead slowly became more accustomed to, drove past much slower, spending enough time on the corner to trade a few friendly jokes. Granted, what the kids provided never became more palatable, but they themselves certainly did. Mairead looked at them with conflicting fondness. In any other profession, their skills would be enviable.
It was a paralyzing admiration. Mairead's thoughts always, always returned to her desire to rid her neighborhood of the extreme damage of their operation, but she increasingly wanted it without bringing down the wrath and ruin of local law enforcement. Replace their chosen product with lemonade or pizza or subs or cheesesteaks or ice cream or any number of beloved local consumables and “lavished praise” would barely even to begin to describe the press and public's reaction.
They'd be heralded as the second coming of the old brand of neighborhood institutions. A sign that the residents were taking it upon themselves to reverse their own fortunes and return to the days of prosper and plenty. That they were invested in the health and future of their surroundings when things were actually made in the city. That they'd reclaimed and rejuvenated the city's dormant heart and were ready to fight past the specter of decades of detrimental policy at every level of government, from neighborhood watch all the way to Congress.
They wouldn't even have to give up the drug trade if they didn't want, just get on the right side of it. Open up a brewery and not only would the kids be hailed as the harbingers of better times, they'd be lauded for their knowledge and appreciation of local history as they revived an industry absent since well before the interstate cut the city decades ago.
Their checkered past wouldn't hold them back. It wouldn't be something they had to hide in job interviews or try to justify in parole hearings. It'd make headlines. It'd feature in every lede written about them. “It was prison or nothing,” it'd read, “so they chose neither.” Their story would draw in readers hungry to know whether or not it was safe to return to their abandoned city.
After Mairead missed a few of her routine phone calls, Bridget and Bruce sent Jack over to her house. He could see her standing at the window as he approached, and he let himself in the unlocked front door. He tried his best to be calm and understanding. “Mairead, you have to come away from there.”
“Yeah, I know.” But she stayed standing.
Jack looked at her for a few seconds before he went out into the kitchen. “I'm going to make myself some tea. Do you want some?”
She didn't move. “Sure.”
He went through all the requisite steps, filling the kettle with water, putting it on the stove, selecting two mugs, grabbing two tea bags, and watching the pot as it boiled. He yelled back to the living room. “Milk? Sugar?”
“Both, thanks. Just a bit. Not much at all.”
He came back to the living room with hers but kept about ten feet between them. “How 'bout them Eagles, huh?”
She absently glanced over her shoulder. “Really something.”
“Did you watch last Sunday?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Fuckin' disaster, wasn't it?”
“Couldn't be prouder.”
“Uh-huh.” Jack held the mugs tight to his torso and sipped from the one he held above the other. “Gotta say, I outdid myself this time.”
“It's just tea, Jack.”
“Yeah, but holy shit. It's really good.”
Exasperation entered Mairead's voice. “I know what I bought. It’s mid-tier at best.”
Jack kept pushing. “Gotta pass through mid-tier to get to perfection. And now here I stand.”
She finally turned around. “You perfected pouring boiling water on dried leaves?”
“Imported dried leaves. I've gone international. I'm a goddamn diplomat.”
Mairead crossed her arms. “Can I have my a mug of your huge step toward world peace?”
“Got it for you right here.”
The two of them stared at each other from where they stood. Jack's face was a characteristic smug cocked eyebrow. Mairead's twitched between a few hard to decipher emotions.
She finally caved and crossed the room to retrieve her mug. As soon as she hit the halfway point, Jack closed the distance to her but didn't stop once she taken the mug. He continued to the front window and spun the slats of the blinds closed.
Then, without looking at Mairead, he took the same seat on the couch he'd been sitting on a few weeks earlier. Mairead watched his path and joined him on the couch.
They took the small sips of people who were waiting for a hot drink to cool, as well as the small sips of people who knew what had to be said but didn't want to break the silence.
Jack slapped his knee with his free hand. “Fuck it, you got any whiskey for these?”
“You know where it is.”
He did. He brought the bottle back with him and spiked his. Mairead held her mug out expectantly.
As he poured, she said, “They're just kids, Jack.”
He didn't look at her. “Old enough to know what they're doing.”
Jack leaned over to sort through the small pile of magazines on the coffee table in front of them. He picked up an old Highlights Mairead had brought back from the hospital, flipped to the back, and scanned for the differences, occasionally blowing on his tea and giving it a test sip. When he found about half of the changes, he flopped the magazine back on the table. “You haven't called Mom and Dad for a couple weeks.”
“Flu season. Everyone whose kid just started preschool or kindergarten is freaking out and trying to get vaccination appointments at the last minute.”
“I just get mine at Happy Harry's.”
“Sure, and they work just fine, but I'm talking about new parents. They still think of pharmacies as where you go to prevent a pregnancy, not save your kid's life.”
He laughed. “That’s probably why I’m still going there.”
Mairead threw a throw pillow at him. “My younger brother's sex life is not something I want to be familiar with.”
“I'm just saying, I'd save some money if you were bringing me free, hospital-grade contraceptives.”
“I sincerely doubt you're using enough to make that much of a financial dent.”
“There are some recent college grads down at Trolley that might disagree with you.”
Mairead let out a throaty laugh. “The day you land recent college grad ass is the day I go back to medical school.”
Jack chuckled along with her. “Fair enough. I'd hate to put you back in debt.”
They both took larger sips as their tea cooled down. Jack tilted his head and looked at his sister. “Jokes aside, would you ever consider it? Would you think about going back to medical school?”
Mairead smiled a playfully evil smile. “Have you lined up an educated yet hopelessly naive twenty-two-year-old?”
“I said jokes aside.”
She shrugged. “I've thought about it.”
“You like your job enough that you might as well go whole hog, right? Be a full-on doctor.” He held out an apologetic hand and spoke quickly. “Not that I'm downplaying nurses.”
“No, I know you're not. Maybe. That'd make my initials all kinds of redundant though. Mairead Dolores Murphy, Medical Doctor. M.D.M. M.D.”
Jack laughed out loud. “I didn't even think of that.”
“Even if I just went by Dr. Murphy, it'd still be D.M. M.D.”
“Doomed.” Jack kept laughing. “It almost spells 'Doomed.' If you take out the vowels.”
“The kids would get a kick out of it though.”
“And none of their parents would ever sleep again.”
He laughed again. A happier silence fell back between them for a moment, before Jack shook his mug.
“You want to head out for a real drink? I'm empty here.”
“I'm not going to be your wingman.”
“It's Tuesday. Nobody's out on Tuesdays.”
The two got off the couch to get jackets and shoes. As they were pulling on their respective outerwear, Jack put a button on their conversation. “Call Mom and Dad.”
Mairead was anxiously happy, if a touch hungover, when she went to work the next morning. Her brother's visit had jogged an idea loose and was the reason she had three extra cold packs in her lunch box.
Christy, another nurse in Mairead’s section, was working the desk when Mairead came to clock in for her shift.
“Christy, who's on inventory today?”
Christy rotated in her chair to check the “Mundane Weekly Responsibilities” chart, which was in between the “Mudane Daily Responsibilities” and “Slightly Less Mundane Monthly Responsibilities” charts. “You are.”
“Are you sure? How serendipitous.”
“I don’t know what serendipity has to do with anything. Besides, if we start second-guessing the clipboards, this hospital's going to collapse around us.”
Mairead laughed as she sorted through the drawers to find a fresh inventory sheet. “Then who'd treat all the sniffling little kids?”
“Don't sell us short. Sometimes we get pediatric cancer. Them's the interesting days.”
“Jesus. Either runny noses or leukemia.”
“And everything in between.”
“At least you keep it all in perspective for us, Christy.”
“God's own receptionist.”
They waved to each other as Mairead went deeper into the hospital to start her shift.
She reassured pessimistic parents and joked with optimistic ones, organized medical charts, assisted doctors in diagnosis, corrected doctors' diagnoses, changed bandages, administered medication, and didn't leave her feet, all before her lunch break. After a fifteen-minute trip to the lunchroom where she scarfed down an allergy-conscious almond butter and jelly sandwich, she headed to the supply closet, alone, to fill out her inventory sheet.
Her heartbeat faster as she approached the closet, an effect she doubly noticed given her medical background. Mairead had never, to her knowledge, stolen anything in her life. When she'd come close, it was accidental and she'd rectified it by taking the next U-turn she could and marching back into the Wawa with the contraband bag of chips in one hand and a crisp George Washington in the other.
As she filled out her sheet, her eyes flicked involuntarily between various hospital necessities and the vaccine fridge. When she finally got to the fridge, she took a dramatic and entirely unnecessary deep breath before yanking a little too hard on the handle. The glass bottles inside jingled lightly. Sweat beaded at Mairead's hairline.
She tapped each bottle with her pen, listing bottles, and estimating doses. Measles, tuberculosis, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, two kinds of hepatitis, and many others, all accounted for. So was 2004's flu vaccine, even if there was a discrepancy between the estimate on Mairead’s form and what was she ended up marking down. Some fluctuation in the numbers was normal though. It can be hard to keep track of something as plentiful and frequently used as a flu shot, especially as seasonal demand increases.
Mairead dropped the completed inventory sheet with Christy at the end of the day. “Everything's accounted for.”
Christy nodded. “I assumed it would be.”
“Plans for tonight?”
“Eat dinner. Go to sleep. Wake up in the middle of the night because apparently, this 27-year-old chick has the bladder of a 45-year-old man. Consider my loneliness. Wonder why there aren't any late night 900 numbers for women. Go back to sleep.”
“The old standards.”
“If it ain't broke.”
A decade of working in pediatrics at varying levels had honed Mairead's age guessing skills until they were an expertise. The four kids that hung out on the corner house’s porch all seemed to hover around sixteen, give or take six months. Slight to average build. No one more than 140 pounds. Above average fitness level judging from their frequent visits to the baseball field a few blocks away. A history of drug usage certainly, possibly even active drug use judging from their line of work, though that won't affect the effectiveness of the vaccine. Really, it's one more reason they need it. Putting that kind of shit in your body that young's gotta mess with the immune system.
Given all that, Mairead could confidently administer a vaccine to each of them, with enough leftover that if any of them had a particularly at-risk younger sibling or cousin, she could cover them too. Though, heartless as it may sound, it might be better to make something up about not being able to use the dregs of the bottle, as vaccinating one cousin but not another would be bound to cause in-fighting in the enterprise.
On a Thursday afternoon, she made her move. She put the vaccine bottle and four hypodermic needles in a small leather case in her bag, took a breath, and opened her front door.
She got a little lightheaded and shut the door. Thieving goes to your head and Mairead found another thing to admire about the kids.
She psyched herself back up, opened the door again, and stepped out.
They saw her coming and didn't seem to think anything of her, at least until it became clear she was making her way towards them.
One stood and regarded her closely. “You're the lady who's always staring at us from her window.”
Mairead was a little taken aback by the observation. “You can see me doing that?”
“Of course we can see you. You look like a fuckin' cartoon, peeking out from between your blinds.”
“I didn't think...”
“How could we not notice the goddamn stereotype staring at us? The only thing you're missing is about 40 years on your life and a front lawn to yell at us about. Then you'd be every old lady in the world.”
Another one flanked the first. “You jump up on chairs when you see a mouse?”
Mairead struggled. “I lay down traps.”
The third one was finally beside the other two. “We got no prune juice or Werther's, ma'am, so just keep your old ass moving.”
The three up front laughed at her, while the one in the back let out a chuckle.
“What the fuck you come down here for anyway? You sure as shit ain't lookin' to buy. We'd have dealt with you already.”
Mairead fumbled with her purse. The situation was getting away from her. If she was going to claim any sort of authority here, it was now.
But her voice betrayed her and her proposal limped weakly out of her mouth. “I just wanted to come down and ask if you'd gotten your vaccinations for the season.” She brought out the leather case and unzipped it.
At the sight of needles, the three kids reeled. “Fuck, lady, what the fuck did you bring down here?”
“Christ, you trying to get us addicted to something?”
“We're not fucking shooting up, get the fuck out of here.”
Mairead felt a bit of indignance bubble up. “Hold the goddamn phone. You're the ones staked up on the corner tossing drugs into people's windows.” The oldest one cut her off.
“We’re not handing out needles, you crazy hag. You see us passing out spoons and lighters too?”
Mairead couldn't tell if it was a rhetorical question or not. “Of course not. Not trying to kill our fuckin' customers. Just get 'em a little high.”
Mairead almost stamped her foot but caught herself before she leaned too far into the stereotype. “So what the hell are you selling then?”
The second one answered. “Weed, you dumb bitch. Just weed. Fuck.” The third one nudged him. “Well, sometimes 'shrooms. When those hippies from uptown decide to cut us in on their shit. We’re not a reliable shroom source, is what I'm saying. Just weed.”
She had to admit she felt a little relieved. “No heroin?”
“Why the fuck would we sell that?”
“I figured there was money in it.”
“Shit, there is, but so's death. We're just trying to mellow people out enough that they survive their day jobs, not fuck 'em up so bad they gotta relocate to a 7-11 dumpster.”
The third one piped up. “If they even live long enough to find a good 7-11.”
An almost morbid look fell across the first one's face. “Seriously lady, take that shit away from here.”
“No fuckin' buts.” He turned to his friends. “Who am I, my goddamn mom? 'No fuckin' buts.'”
“You can put other things in a needle.”
“I don't give a shit what you put in the needle. We're not interested.”
“It's supposed to be a bad season for-”
He crossed his arms and flared his nostrils. “They always say a bad season. A bad season for who?”
“Isn't it obvious?”
“You calling us dumb?”
“Of course not.” She shook her head harder than she needed to. “Just, I mean, did I not make it clear what I was offering?”
The second one fell onto this question. “You're offering us needles.”
Mairead fell into a defeated silence and felt tears coming into her eyes.
He moved around his friends and started to come down the stairs. “And we said no to needles. Did you not listen to Nancy Reagan the first time around? Just say no.”
The tears stopped. Her head snapped up. “Fuck Nancy Reagan.” She made deadly eye contact with the one closest to her.
The second one stopped where he was and the other kids looked at her, unsure of this new behavior, vocabulary, and much firmer tone of voice.
“I remember that campaign. It was a healthy slice of bullshit with a nice side of trickle-down insanity. Good old Nancy Reagan's telling us to say no at the same time her husband's CIA is funneling crack into neighborhoods exactly like this one. So fuck that two-headed snake.” She took a step towards them. “Fuck you too, if you think I'm leaving like this.”
The third one started to lift his shirt, revealing a quick flash of black steel, but the fourth one was on him already, calmly holding his arm down.
Mairead pressed what little advantage she perceived. There were eight steps up to the porch and she climbed them slowly as she spoke. “You've seen me at the window, right? So you know how long I've been watching you. This is what you do. You don't go to school. You don't have regular jobs. You sit here, on this porch and this corner and you throw weed into passing cars. When was the last time any of you went to a doctor?”
The fourth one maintained his grip on his friend's arm and spoke for the group. “It's been a little while.”
“That's what I thought. And it's why I'm here.” She held the leather case, took out the vaccine bottle, and presented it to them, not that they'd understand what was written on the label. Her voice softened. “I'm a nurse at the children's hospital. Which I guess means we both sell drugs all day.” She laughed, with more wavering delicacy than she expected of herself.
The kids gave her a reluctant laugh too. The third kid allowed his arm to be guided back to his side.
“What I would like to do, with your permission, is give you this year’s flu vaccination.”
Her offer hung in the air.
“How does that sound?”
The first one looked at the leather case. “There’s no way to do this without needles?”
Mairead shook her head and tried her best to radiate earnest understanding from her face. “I’m sorry, no.”
The third dug his elbow in the first’s side. “Just don’t look at it when she puts it in, man.”
Mairead sat down on the top step, laid the case on her lap, and waved him down. “Don’t worry, I’ll be as gentle as I can be.”
“While she’s stabbing you.”
The kids, except the first, laughed. The first stayed firmly rooted.
The second pushed past him. “Shit, if you’re not going, I will.”
The third leaned against the porch’s wood railing to watch the proceedings. “I did hear it was supposed to be a bad year for the flu.”
The fourth leaned over the railing too. “Where'd you hear that?”
The second one shrugged and pulled his sleeve up to bare his arm. “Mostly when Mom was complaining about not having healthcare.”
Mairead administered the shot.
He put his sleeve back down, stood, and smacked the frozen first on the chest. “Didn’t even feel it, man.”
Dillon McLaughlin's fiction has appeared in The Main Street Journal, Caesura Literary Magazine, and the Delaware Humanities Forum website in the United States, and The Galway Review and ROPES 2019 "Unearthed" in Ireland.