All the Mass an Eight-Year-Old Can Muster

            A blur at the edge of sight, a blue blur across the sidewalk, and Rafferty feels Miaow stop in her tracks, yanking him back with all the mass an eight-year-old can muster.  The blur collides with a stout woman, knocking her sideways.  Hands grab at her to keep her from going down.  The blur pauses just enough to resolve itself into a running child, and then Miaow drops Rafferty’s hand like a stone, all but pushing him aside with a shriek that scrapes the upper limit of the audible spectrum.

            The blue child launches itself off the sidewalk, splitting the distance between two cars, aloof as a subatomic particle, and vanishes into traffic.  Miaow, her pigtails flying, has covered half the distance to the curb before Rafferty can get his body organized, but then he sets off at a dead run, without even scanning the crowd for Rose, who is somewhere ahead of them on the sidewalk, on her way to buy the evening’s dinner.

            Silom Road is jammed this late Sunday afternoon with shoppers and tourists threading between the sidewalk vendors’ booths.  Rafferty shoulders past several of them, earning a shout of warning in some unknown language, and then slams his hip against a rickety plywood booth piled with hill tribe souvenirs as he sees Miaow leap from the curb and into the path of a battered taxi.  More shouts as the booth splinters to the concrete behind him: the taxi swerves right: and then Miaow is gone, too.

            When in doubt, Rafferty thinks, stop.

            The sky is low enough to scrape a nail against, that peculiar sullen gray that usually precedes one of Bangkok’s frequent rainstorms.  Rafferty is aware of the livid greenness of the trees, of the wind that has kicked up to make the empty plastic bags dance on the pavement, of his heart hammering in the vein at the side of his neck.  Aware that both children have disappeared.

            The taxi that stopped for Miaow is stalled in front of him, and Rafferty skirts it at a trot, looking for anything that could be a running child.  He hears another shout, across the six lanes of Silom this time, and the blue blur reappears and disappears in a blink around the corner of a narrow soi, leaving Rafferty with a mental snapshot of a dirty blue t-shirt and baggy low-slung blue trousers, torn and flapping below the child’s right knee.  Hair, long and knotted, bounced over the blue shirt as he — she? — ran.  Behind the ragged child, in full charge, is Miaow. 

            Spaces open between the cars in front of him, giving him just room enough to dodge between them.  Miaow lived most of her eight years on the sidewalks of Bangkok before Rafferty found her, but he chases after her, weaving suicidally through traffic as though she were a rich, pampered pre-schooler wandering outside the family compound for the first time.

            He gets across the street somehow – later, he will be unable to remember any of it – but by the time he makes the turn into the soi, she is gone.  The sidewalks host a few harried-looking pedestrians, all adults.  There is not a child in sight. 

The other end of the soi – one of the countless small streets branching off Silom – is too distant for Miaow to have reached it.  The buildings are raw, shiny apartment houses, too new to have acquired the city’s distinctive petrochemical tarnish. Their doors are guarded against unattached children.  A third of the way down the block he sees a driveway, leading to an open underground garage.  He takes off at a run.

            The driveway slopes so steeply that he has to lean backward against the incline.  The afternoon sun has dropped behind the building, darkening the interior of the garage, and he slows to a walk, waiting for his eyes to adjust.

            Thin, watery sunlight leaks through small, sidewalk-level ventilation grills, casting elongated patterns on the concrete floor.  The far corners fade into gloom.  Fewer than twenty cars occupy a space big enough to accommodate a hundred.

“Miaow?”  The name ping-pongs off the walls.  Rafferty can hear his fear in the echoes.
Nothing.  His pulse bumps beneath the skin of his throat like someone tapping him with a finger.  Moving slowly toward the right side of the garage, where the majority of the cars are, he quiets his breathing so he can listen.  Horns from the street, the catch of an engine.  Outside, a woman laughs.

            A scuffling sound off to his left terminates in a fierce, choked whisper.

            Rafferty goes on the balls of his feet, moving faster.  A cluster of dusty cars looms ahead, four or five of them.  One of them rocks suddenly as something slams into its side.  Rafferty starts running again, and when he rounds the car’s rear fender, he sees Miaow planted on her rear on the cement floor, her feet wedged against a tire, both hands wrapped in the blue t-shirt of the other child, who is straining to pull away.  The second child — it is a boy, Rafferty sees, with sharply angled cheekbones beneath a mat of filthy hair — flails at her arms with clenched fists.

            The boy’s back is to him.  Miaow’s eyes come up to meet Rafferty’s and he sees her shake her head, no, although he’s not sure what the no means, and the boy’s head snaps around.  When he catches sight of Rafferty his eyes narrow so far they almost disappear, his lips peel back from his teeth in an animal snarl, and he screams, so high it goes through Rafferty’s head like a bullet.  It caroms off the walls in all directions, a human distress siren.

            The boy kicks out at Miaow with new urgency, the torn trouser leg flapping against the thin calf, and Miaow dodges the kicks left and right and then, as the boy raises his right foot to kick at her head, she whips her own leg around and sweeps his left foot out from under him.  The boy goes down on his back.  Miaow scrambles up onto him, straddling his chest and sinking her knees into his shoulders.  They fight in complete silence.  The boy batters at her back with his legs, so hard that Rafferty can hear his knees strike, but Miaow bears down, and Rafferty suddenly realizes how much weight the child has gained since she started living with him.  The boy, whose elbow-joints are the widest part of his stick-thin arms, cannot throw her off.

            Rafferty approaches from behind her and looks down at the boy’s face.  Confronted by an adult at such close range, the boy goes limp, a trapped animal giving up hope.  He stops kicking, and his head rolls to the right.  He is completely still.  He seems to be studying the car’s tire.  His face is filthy beneath the shock of knotted hair.  The eye Rafferty can see seems to be infected; it is red and swollen.  Automatically, Rafferty reaches down, and Miaow slaps his hand away.

            “He bites,” she says in English.  The boy’s head rolls around at the sound of a foreign language.  When he sees Rafferty’s face he freezes.  Even the damaged eye looks confused.  Rafferty’s native English and half-Asian looks, courtesy of his Filipina mother, have bewildered the Thais since his arrival in Bangkok.  “Back up.” Miaow doesn’t look back at him.  “Not so close.”

            He retreats four or five steps, enough to give the boy some room, but close enough to get involved if necessary.  Miaow leans forward and whispers for several moments.  The boy shakes his head violently, and Miaow leans in and looses a torrent of Thai, too fast for Rafferty to follow, although he can make out kon dee, which translates into “good heart” or “good person,” one of the language’s supreme compliments.  The boy looks up at her for a long moment, the left eye swollen almost shut, and then snarls a short, bitter question.  Miaow shakes her head in the negative and waits.  After a good ten seconds, the boy lifts his head and his eyes go past Miaow and settle on him.  They look at him and through him. Once, for an article he was writing, Rafferty interviewed a monk who had just emerged from four years of solitude.  Except for the moment when that man’s eyes fell on him, he has never been looked at like this in his life.

            At last the fierce eyes release him.  The boy lets his head drop back on the concrete.  Then he makes a minute nod, not so much assent as surrender, looking at neither of them.

Miaow slowly lifts her hands from his wrists, and, keeping her eyes on the boy, climbs off.  With one hand behind her, she waves for Rafferty to come closer.  He does, but he is careful not to get too close to either child.  The world they have inhabited for the past few minutes is not his. 

            Looking over Miaow’s shoulder, Rafferty sees a boy who could be ten or twelve, and who probably weighs less than sixty pounds.  The injured eye is as red as a geranium.  He has a short, broad nose, heavy, unnaturally red lips, and tight-lidded, enraged-looking eyes.   A bruise, not a new one, swells on his right cheek.  The neck of his t-shirt is twisted, revealing a shoulder with a bone structure as delicate as a bird’s.  The shirt may once have been sky blue, but now it is dark with grime and pitted with holes big enough to push a finger through.  A red, irregular “S” has been scribbled with some kind of marker on the front of the t-shirt.

            The boy glares up at Rafferty.  His broad nostrils flare like those of an animal smelling blood.  Rafferty thinks he should have known that the boy bites even without Miaow’s warning.

            Miaow steps away and offers the boy a hand up.  He ignores it and stands on his own, the furious eyes still fixed on Rafferty.  Miaow looks up at Rafferty, and he can see the urgency drawing tight the muscles of her face, but he does not know what it means.  Most surprising, tear-tracks glisten on her cheeks.  Rafferty knows she could survive a cataclysm dry-eyed. 

            She indicates the thin, dirty boy with one hand.  “This is Superman,” she says.  Her voice comes from a throat as constricted as her face.  “He’s coming with us.”

  Buy from Amazon
  Buy from an independent bookseller via IndieBound