Between the Cities of the Living and the Dead

Scott Atkinson

The boy was perhaps twelve—yes, twelve—and up to no good.  She could tell these things. He had a way of walking, an unperfected swagger he was still trying on like a pair of new and uncomfortable shoes. It might have even been comical, but his confidence was unsettling. Too many boys thought they were already men, and lived in a world that let them believe it.  

She pulled up beside him in the old Buick, a hulking thing Charlie had bought “straight off the line”—his line, he’d tell anyone who would listen, where he’d built the car himself. She pulled over slowly, stopping when she felt the front tire mash its nose on the curb, and kept the car in drive. She didn’t like stopping here.

She leaned across the long bench seat and cranked the window open. The heat poured in like too-hot bath water and she blinked through it, waiting for her mind to settle before she spoke to the boy, already a dozen feet away.

“Shouldn’t you be in school, son?” she said.

She was years out of practice but the voice she needed, motherly, neighborly, and authoritative, came back as naturally as the turns and stops on her way home from the grocery store, one of the few places she still drove.

The boy continued to walk.

She lifted her foot from the brake and crept along the curb until she was beside him again.

“Son?” she said again, louder now.

“I ain’t your son,” the boy said, speaking with the confidence of a man.

She pulled farther up the block as he walked. She had already driven past the street where she usually turned. Where was she now? She should be by the Banks’s house, but surely that house wasn’t—but it was. When had they moved? she wondered. And how was it possible she had not known? Like her, Peter Banks had been one of the last to hold out in the neighborhood. She’d always admired his lawn but now the weeds were knee-high in the front and higher in the back. Plywood covered the upstairs windows like coins placed over eyes of the dead.  

“Where’s your mama?” she said, pulling up closer, slowing to match his steady speed.

“That’s none of you damn business,” the boy said, and looked at her with a taunting, disgusted snarl before returning to the business of walking. The words stung, but she felt perhaps it was a small victory she’d had gotten him to speak at all. He’d acknowledged her.

The boy turned down a one-way street, going the direction she could not follow. She thought of turning anyway but hesitated, and the opportunity was gone. Would she have done it years ago? Perhaps. It was a hard thing to know.

She drove to the next street and circled around, but when she made the loop the boy was gone. She thought maybe he was peering at her from behind a fence or a shrub, and so she drove slowly, trying to make some kind of point. He might be inside any of the empty houses surrounding her or long gone, plodding down trails cut through that waist-high grass of back yards, trekking through a Flint, Michigan she did not know, one with its own transportation routes separate from the potholed streets and cracked sidewalks and the people who still drove and walked them.

That was how it felt, as if there were two cities that had either merged into one or one that had split in two, and it was only the young who were too innocent to know any better. It was only they who could negotiate between the city that once was and the city that existed now, inhabiting both the city of the living and the city of the dead, simply because they’d been born not knowing there’d ever been a difference.

She drove home and unloaded her groceries, needing to make only two trips to the car. She locked her back door automatically and became conscious of the movement for the first time in years. There was a time when you hadn’t had to do that, then a time when you thought about it and decided you might as well. Those times were gone now.

She thought of the boy, and what Charlie would have said if he’d been with her—what he’d said all those times she had pulled over to talk to children who weren’t where they were supposed to be, playing ball or palming cigarettes in a way that had fooled so many other adults. “Why are you always doing that? You know that’s not your business,” he would always say once she’d sent a group of boys home, their heads hanging in collective, embarrassed defeat. And she would tell him that it was her business, that it was everyone’s business. In those days, before they’d gotten the late-night phone call that sent Charlie into the depression that finally swallowed him whole and left her alone in the house—long before all that—she would ask him, wouldn’t he want someone to call them if their boy was somewhere he shouldn’t be? She wished he could hear the conversations she would have with the boys’ mothers after they were home, standing in the kitchen on the telephone and telling them what had just happened while Charlie sat in his chair, shaking his head. She wished he could hear the thank yous from those mothers and feel the bond between them all, even the ones who didn’t like each other. It was they, the mothers, who knew what the neighborhood was and what it needed, they who knew each other’s numbers, who to call, the families children came from and what you could expect from whom. And if you did not know the family of a child you saw, you asked, and you sent them home. Charlie would shake his head again when she hung up, but always with less conviction and a grin he could not fight back. And on those nights they would make love without saying a word, with smiles that could not be seen in the dark but could be felt upon lips and ears, with giggles they’d stifle so as not to wake their sleeping boy and unsettle a perfect night.


The next day she was restless and went for a drive. She tried to think of errands she needed to run and, finding none, concluded that there was nothing wrong with going for a drive. In fact, she should go for a drive. It wasn’t right that the neighborhood beyond her familiar routes to the grocery store, bank, and church had become so unfamiliar, and when she pulled out of her driveway and went a few blocks in a direction she never otherwise needed to go, she felt like someone who has returned home after a long absence—startled by how much everything was different, and how much it was the same. She knew she lived a small life, was aware even of the fog that had descended when Jerry died and thickened when Charlie followed, shrouding her within her minimalized existence. Still, it was alarming. She had only her familiar streets—to the bank, to the grocery store, to church—to go by, and even then she would drive by places that showed promise, like downtown, which was nothing like the way she remembered it from when she was young but carried some of the energy it once had. People were there—so many that she was overwhelmed and never stopped but drove straight through nodding and smiling to people who mostly didn’t see her before she was back in her own neighborhood, close and yet very far away.

She had assumed those routes through her neighborhood were among the worst, and even they had their strongholds where people like her were holding out. But it was everywhere. For every two or three empty houses there was a well-kept one—Victorians with wrap-around porches and posts painted to match the house’s tri-colored themes; English Tudors with their stark white plaster against the brown, angled planks like they’d been plucked straight from some European countryside. They were houses with histories as well as history but now stood lifeless without the families inside that powered them like batteries. It was too bad. So many were such beautiful homes, built before the subdivisions surrounding the city to which so many families had fled. Many houses were in between, savable if there was someone to do the saving. The entire neighborhood was in purgatory, neither here nor there and with no idea of what would be next.  

It was hot—uncommonly hot for June—but she rolled down the window anyway. The heat flooded the car. She felt her consciousness tip and lose its balance but left the window down when she came back to center. She didn’t want a barrier between her and the world around her.

It wasn’t until she saw the boy that she admitted to herself he was the reason she’d left the house.

He was walking again, still at his steady, soldier’s pace. He was wearing the same no-color shirt as before, the kind of thing that comes with too much washing, or not enough. He wore blue jeans and gripped the cloth around the button as he walked to keep them from falling the rest of the way down. She wondered if he was mimicking other boys and the style that had still not subsided, or if they were simply a pair of too-large hand-me-downs he was stuck with.

She pulled up beside him.

“Don’t I know you?” she said, and smiled, trying to sound funny and familiar. It was a strange thing that with the worst boys you had to become that much gentler. You had to make their mishaps feel almost like jokes in order to correct and talk about them, while the better behaved boys got the harsher scolding for lesser offenses simply because they would listen.

He looked sideways at her and bolted down a side street, one arm pumping with the effort, the other clutching to the button of his pants. She’d forgotten how fast boys could run when they wanted to, all that energy. She circled the block, trying to figure where he would come out on the other side, but he had vanished.

She found her way home with only two wrong turns. It was early afternoon and she could not sit still, and so she began to weed her long-forgotten garden that flanked each side of her front porch steps. She saw it every day but realized now just how neglected it had become. She walked into her garage for her gardening gloves. It was strange to find them there still bearing the dirt of the last time she worn them. They were stiff with age, but they still fit.

She tore at the plants, ripping them from the dry, baked earth. Weeding had always been her favorite part of gardening, something she had never admitted to other women who complained about it. But weeding was really all there was to it. The plants you wanted would grow if you just let them. Gardening was not so much a matter of watering as it was policing, keeping order.

She worked until the evening, sipping iced tea and standing often to avoid the dizziness the heat brought, and when she went in to shower she could feel the good ache of hard work settling into her bones.

It was still and quiet when she dressed for bed, and she turned on the television. Winter was her favorite season, not for the weather but because people with guns did not venture out into the cold and break the silence with the pop, pop, pop, of their shooting, sending her thoughts to places she only otherwise went when she needed to, and on her own terms. But even in the summer she kept the television on because there were other noises to drown out, the echoes of the past that sometimes came as she drifted off, neither awake nor asleep. She had been alone for years, but in that late-night state the sound of a toilet flushing would not have alarmed her. Sometimes she heard them even when she was wide awake during some familiar trance-inducing task—washing the dishes, vacuuming, getting dressed. She heard them in the same way, she thought, that people who lose limbs can still feel them. Phantom limbs, they called them. There were times she wished she could just go crazy and stay there forever, but her mind had remained strong and when she would wake up or come to she would have lost everything again. And so she took the pills the doctor gave her, turned on the television, and listened to the voices of people she did not love until she was deeply asleep.


She called the police the next morning and told them everything. She was not convinced of what they could or would do, but had always told people the way to keep them involved in the neighborhood was to be in contact. If nothing else, she wanted this documented, on the record for all time. She asked for Sgt. Jefferson. It was he who’d she’d always talked to before, but the young woman on the line said she had no idea who that was.

She told the young woman everything, how she had seen the boy, how he had walked and ran, and that she was worried, as said in her most authoritative voice, about his welfare. The young woman said she could make a report for a suspicious person in the area.

“No, you don’t understand. He’s just a boy.”

“Do you know the boy, ma’am?” the young woman asked. She sounded confused. “Is this a missing person’s report?”

She said she did not know him and that was not what it was. She spoke confidently and precisely, refusing to feel foolish. She repeated she was concerned for the boy’s welfare and hung up sometime later unsure what, if anything, the young woman had written down.


She went looking for the boy the next day, and the day after. She expanded her routes, driving streets she had not driven in decades, an impossible thing to believe. She continued to drive, taking in more of the city she had once known and now failed to recognize so much of. There were times she forgot she was looking for the boy, but not for long.

On Sunday she went to church. The church was at the far end of the neighborhood, on Jerry’s street, the one they’d all walked the twenty-three blocks to where it had happened, before the funeral, candles lit, singing songs she could not remember now nor the day after the vigil. There was a time when her emotions froze her, left her still and incapacitated. That was before she had learned the way to the place where she could at the least breathe and function. It was a path of thoughts that needed thinking, true good things she needed to remind herself, that made life bearable. It used to take her days of thinking and reminding to reach even one hour of peace, but she knew the path so well now that most days she could feel her way through the way a blind person can navigate a familiar room, touching and tapping her way through the past.

Her church had helped, and continued to, but not in the way her pastor or other members thought. The church was ancient-looking, and she loved it for its stone, its permanence, its ability to exist and continue to exist outside of everything else. She would sit in the back, as close to God as she could manage and closer than He deserved. There were days when she would get swept up in the service, the preacher’s words and the music, but usually it was a wordless, almost thoughtless ritual. Her mouth said “amen,”  and repeated the words of the pastor, her hands clapped to the music, but there was nothing driving it. It was only a reaction of the nervous system, as natural as pulling your hand away from fire.

She prayed for the boy during the service and thought for a moment she might see him there. She imagined talking to his parents about him as though he was not there while he stood below them. It would be a matter-of-fact conversation. The mother would not be embarrassed (though the husband might) because while they both understood that these children were their own, they knew the troubles of raising children were shared among them. But she did not see the boy.


She continued to look. She explored the neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods, going a block or two farther each time, expanding her territory until she felt sure that she was outside anyplace she would find him. Once she thought she saw him down a side street and hauled Charlie’s giant Buick in a wide U-turn that took her briefly over the curb, but when she turned down the street where she’d seen him he was not there.

She began walking. The Buick seemed like too much a barrier between her and her neighborhood, like riding in a submarine. She walked many of the streets she’d driven and felt closer to the houses, their yards, the people that may or may not live in them. She liked the air, the smell of dried grass that took her all the way back to girlhood. She thought of her garden and wondered if it was too late in the summer to plant something.

She thought of the boy and how he’d spoken to her, the pure dismissal, as if she was no threat. But he had also ran, ran like crazy, which gave her hope that she still carried that old authority. It was stronger than the police, which to the boy were probably nothing more threatening than any other natural hazard to be dealt with—hot summer days, cold winter nights, an empty belly. It was the oldest authority there was.

One day she walked farther than she ever had and rested on the porch steps of an abandoned house. She thought she’d known who lived there, but it was possible her memory of its former glory was nothing more than a mosaic of old memories cobbled together. All she had to do was lean back and squint and let the filtered light become whatever she wanted it to become. And when she did not squint, when the light fell freely into her eyes she saw the peeling paint, the sagging roof, the loose plywood on the door.

She gave the plywood a tug and felt it move easily on hinges of bent screws. She walked in, expecting emptiness. She’d imagined herself walking through large, echo-y rooms with hardwood floors and tall ceilings, a shell waiting for someone to reclaim it and make it a home. It was a mess. The floor was hidden beneath a thick, sediment of trash--bottles and cups that had held soda, water, and gin; wrappers and bags from fast food restaurants, some newer than others. She picked her way across them gingerly, as though stepping across stones on a creek. In the back room (where she would have put a second, smaller dining table, a place for coffee in the morning) there was a lone mattress on the floor. It was stained but looked newer than she would have expected. Next to it was a blanket crumpled on the floor. It reminded her of the one dog they had ever owned and the blanket he would chew, hump, and sleep on. She had hated the dog, and wondered if she had said so back then. Probably she had.

She touched the old blanket. It was light blue, thin but soft. All manner of tiny things—slivers of wood, bits of paper, someone’s short hair—were tangled up in its fuzziness. She gave a few harsh, bullwhip shakes that freed it from all but the most stubborn of debris. She gave it a final shake and guided it, floating until it fell softly over the mattress. She tugged at the corners, evening, tightening, and folding under, and when it was uniform she turned down the blanket at what she figured to be the head to the bed. She took a moment to look at it, then turned and picked her way over the trash and walked out the front door, and closed the plywood behind her.

“You know that’s not safe,” she heard a voice say, and she looked up to see a man across the street, working in his yard. He had a wheelbarrow full of mulch he was spreading around miniature trimmed trees with little pink flowers. She saw that he mowed in an alternating pattern, leaving stripes of two-toned green in his lawn. A nice lawn. “I ain’t seen no one in there for a while, but you don’t want to be going in there.”

She smiled back at him, not knowing what to say and too embarrassed to ask if she knew him, or had, when he was younger.


A few days later she was up earlier than normal. All the walking had her sleeping earlier, resting more deeply. More than once she’d fallen asleep before it was time to take her pill. She found she preferred the early morning for her walks. It was slightly cooler and she did not have to stop as often or plan her route according to where there were enough shady checkpoints to rest. It was also when she saw the boy.

He was not far from where she had first seen him. She had not been looking in the wrong places, but rather at the wrong time, and noticed that he was walking to exactly the street where she had seen him the first time, in the same direction. He marched as he had before, his steps rhythmic and uniform, as though keeping pace with the slow but constant passing of time itself. He was heading in her direction and she was afraid he might see her. She turned onto the sidewalk of s nearby side street and hid behind what had once been a hedgerow and now was an overgrown patch of brambles. Even on the other side on the thin branches and leaves, she was near the sidewalk and she heard him approaching, the tap-tap of his old shoes, his slightly labored breath in the heat. He passed so closely she could have touched him, and felt like she almost had.


She returned the next day to the place where she had seen him, and again hid behind the old hedgerow. She was scared to speak to him, afraid he might again run off, disappearing into that other world and that she’d never see him again. It was enough to see him, to check on him.

It became a daily routine. She took to sitting on the porch of the empty house by the hedgerow. She was still out of sight from the boy, unless he looked, which she hoped he would. When he did she would smile and wave and return to sipping from the thermos of iced tea she brought with her. She would take small steps.


He was uncommonly late one day. She had been at this new routine for a week, arriving at the same time with her thermos of iced tea and a sandwich. He was there within a certain span of time every day in the morning. It was almost noon and her iced tea was long gone and she had had to urinate on the far side of the porch in the weeds, like a little girl. She sat, arms folded, her emotions sliding between fear and anger, and occasionally the ridiculousness of whatever it was she was doing. At church someone had asked how she was doing and she thought then, what if I told them? She would sound like a crazy person. It was the kind of thing that only made sense if she kept it a secret, the way she had during those years she would still sneak out behind the house for a cigarette where Charlie wouldn’t see or smell.

She’d been pacing in front of the porch waiting for him when she saw him. She was in the shade but the heat was thick and attacked from all sides, forcing long, slow breaths. He was walking more slowly and yet more aggressively, it seemed, with a trace of the snarl he’d once given her. She felt her body deflate, the anger escaping like air from a slashed tire. There was only relief, and the slight adrenaline shake in her hands. The anger would return when it was time.

She could not see him through the bushes, but could hear the soft, syncopated tapping of his shoes. She stood still and waited for him to pass by, to see and hear and maybe smell him. He passed by, and she knew he was gone until she returned tomorrow.

Then she heard them. The pop-pop-pop of her nightmares, and she burst through the bushes to the other side, arms above her head throwing off the clawing arms of the branches, exploding through the leaves and twigs and running, running. In a moment she was on top of the boy, had jumped on him and tackled him to the ground with a shriek that split thick hot air as though she’d stolen the voice of God.

They were still and silent and she was still clutching him when the obvious came to her—just how far away those shots had been, muffled by perhaps a mile of humid air. The boy lay completely still beneath her. Scared, maybe, or confused. She didn’t know, and she didn’t let go until after the moment to let go had passed. She was aware of the cuts and scrapes on her arms, shins and face. Some were puffy pink lines, other deeps scratches lined with blood. She stood up, brushed herself off, and looked at him he stood up. She realized she was waiting for him to say something.

The boy looked at her with blank, empty eyes—not wary, not thankful—before he turned and resumed his slow, march-like pace.

“Son,” she said, and did not know what she would say next but it did not matter. The word sent the boy fleeing, one hand again on the button of his pants, the other arm pumping as it had before. He ran straight across the street without a thought of traffic and into a yard and out of sight. She imagined his jeans, held by one hand, rustling against the waist-high grass; saw him ducking through holes cut long ago in chain link fences; jumping other fences, knowing the place to grab where there were no rusted nails; running deeper and deeper into that other world.

She crossed the street and stood at where he had entered the yard, where yellowing grass met the cracked concrete, and considered following him. There was no shade, and the heat beat down. Her focus wavered and she felt less like she was considering following the boy, more as though that other world itself was calling her forward. She felt like she might fall into it, head first, into those weeds, across some barrier from which there would be no return. It was tempting—as tempting as falling forward into a cool backyard pool. She felt herself tipping toward it, falling, before she was abruptly stopped—by her own leg, she was surprised to see, as her head cleared. It was there, sturdy beneath her. All that walking, she thought. The world around her returned and the dizziness lifted.

She took a breath, then another. She was still on the sidewalk. She turned and walked back across the street, collected her empty thermos and walked home. She was embarrassed by the bare dirt of her garden when she reached her home and decided she would plant the damned thing once and for all. Inside she poured a glass of water and drank it down, then drank another. Then she walked to the phone. The boy had ran behind Martha Sumner’s house, or in that direction, anyway. She had no idea if Martha still lived there, but she dialed the number, which she remembered as though the last twenty years had not slipped by her. She stood and waited with one hand on her hip as it rang.  

“Martha?” she said when a woman’s voice answered the phone. “It’s Claire. Roberts.”

“Claire. Oh, my goodness, how are you?”

“I’m good. Thank you. I wanted to tell you I saw a boy running back through your yard today.” She could hear Martha sigh. “He’s a neighborhood boy,” she added quickly. “I happen to know him a little bit. He has a gray shirt on. I just wanted to let you know. Keep an eye out, will you?”

“Well, sure. Sure I will.”

“All right. I have to go now. I’ll talk with you later,” she said, and hung up the phone and stood in the silent house.  ​

Author Bio: 

Scott Atkinson has written about Flint, Michigan for The New York Times, Next City, The Flint Journal, and several other publications. He is also the editor of Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthologyfrom Belt Publishing. His fiction has appeared in Carve magazine, Old Northwest Review, and other journals. He teaches writing and journalism at the University of Michigan-Flint, and is currently at work on a novel, also set in Flint.