Evidently Ryan's way of getting over it was to bring Mikey slice and bake cookies and hover over him while Mikey ate them, until Mikey confirmed that they were, indeed, "Yummy."
Ryan smiled then, and things were back to normal. It wasn't that Mikey didn't have reflexes that were just going to be there, and he had to know that and accept it, but never being left to himself made it ten times worse. Luckily, most of the inmates who had been in with Mikey and were paroled had family that took them in, but at the beginning of the month one of the Skinheads had been staying there for about a week and it was only because Mikey had been able to bluff about Frank having people on the outside that the guy had left Mikey alone.
If he could have found an apartment it wouldn't have been a problem, but he'd been searching with the aid of a job for two months straight and either the apartments were too expensive for the first month, when a security deposit was required, or amazingly, all the places he applied to had just been rented. It was time to get creative.
There was a warehouse district about fifteen minutes walk from the community center that was host to a wealth of abandoned buildings, business and otherwise. The business buildings, Mikey found, were somewhat decently insulated. Not enough so that the winter wasn't going to be pretty harsh, but it was better than the actual warehouses, where the wind just whipped straight through. Mikey found himself one and moved the few things that he had in. He used some of the money he would have been putting toward rent to get himself some things: a mattress, blankets, a couple of flashlights and the batteries for them, a chest of drawers.
There was no electricity or running water, but Mikey could get to the community center before his shift and use the showers without anybody asking questions. Employees did it all the time when they were running a little short for their water bill that month.
When Matt asked, "How's the apartment search going?" Mikey just shook his head and said, "Still at the Y," and tried to ignore the tingling of guilt that he felt knowing that Matt wouldn't even think to see if Mikey was still signing in nightly.
Strawberry ice cream. Strawberry ice cream with hot fudge, then whipped cream piled high, then nuts and sprinkles, but most importantly--it's really not a sundae without this--maraschino cherries. Plural. You ever shoot whipped cream straight into your mouth? I used to drive my mom crazy doing that.
Tommy wants me to get a four-leaf clover tattooed on my knee. He says it's good luck. I think the Italians might be less than amused.
Bob's teaching me about cars. It's a slow process. He's very meticulous about things that go vroom. It's kind of cute, but you need to not tell your brother I said that, not if you want me to live. Gerard's a total snitch when it comes to Bob.
You should tell Ryan to give his minister a candy bar. It seems to have worked for me.
Ryan organized an apple picking trip for the beginning of October. It was a coup for him. He'd had to cajole Jon and Brian to help him fundraise, and pester Spencer until Spencer shared his secrets of school bus rental, and find a place that wasn't too far, but Mikey had to admit it had sort of all been worth it, because the thirty kids who signed up first were totally blown away by the way the leaves looked once they got out of the city proper. Once set free upon the orchard, they were a fucking force of nature.
Mikey helped the others make sure that nobody fell out of trees or that sort of thing. At one point, this actually required Mikey to climb into the tree and extract one of the kids. He would have made Jon do it, but Jon was in another tree. It was odd, Mikey hadn't grown up around trees, so there was really no muscle memory, nothing but too long limbs trying to find spots that would support them. And yet, once he was in the tree, sitting next to seven year-old Doug--who had clearly climbed a little higher than he'd realized--Mikey looked down and thought, huh, safe.
Doug asked, "Help me?"
Mikey took a moment before bringing them both back safely to earth.
Mikey picked two apples for himself, two for Gerard, three for Bob, and three to make apple tarts for Frank. Mikey didn't actually know how to make apple tarts, but he was willing to bet Greta, who played piano for the church choir and headed up the soup kitchen, would. He picked two apples for her as well, by way of thanks.
When he asked he promised her a week's worth of help, and she said, "I would have done it for three days."
Mikey shrugged. He didn't mind helping out in the soup kitchen. Greta and Chris, who was the other regular, were both funny, and they always let Mikey have the fun jobs like giving out the brownies. Greta decided that in honor of his apple tart idea, "You are helping us make apple pies, mister, lots and lots of apple pies."
Mikey really had never been near a kitchen if the process didn't involve a microwave but he said, "Okay."
Apple tarts, as it turned out, were not hard to make. They bought the dough pre-made and peeling and slicing was easy enough, and then it was just a matter of heating the apple jelly to the right temperature and brushing it on. Greta helped Mikey with that part, so as to apply the right about of pressure. When he was done, it actually kind of looked like something someone could call a tart and Mikey couldn't help it, he hugged Greta.
Greta laughed and said, "You're not gonna be hugging me by the time we get to the eighty bazillionth pie."
Maybe not, but Mikey didn't regret the action.
We went to an orchard. Ryan wanted to do it. He and Spencer went to school in Vermont and he says he misses trees. I kind of understand, they were really gorgeous.
Greta helped me make this one, so it can't be all bad. She's a really good cook, even though she's always cooking for crowds. She says it's because she gives a crap, comes through in the flavor, but I think she's just good at knowing how to not always follow the directions. That seems to be a lot of cooking, knowing how to break the rules. Probably what makes you good in the kitchens.
Did you climb trees as a kid? We didn't really have any in our neighborhood, but I don't know exactly where you grew up. I don't even know if you're from here. I want to learn. It's fun, being up in the air. Nobody can get to you, not without warning.
Happy Fall, Mikey
By late October temperatures were dropping into the low forties, upper thirties. Mikey scavenged a metal trashcan for his lair but was slightly afraid to light fires. He didn't really want anyone knowing he was there, particularly not the other denizens of the neighborhood. He went to Goodwill for some gloves, a coat, a hat, some long underwear and a few new sweaters.
Jon kept offering to take Mikey back to the Y in his car which was a problem because the Y was in the opposite direction, making it more of a twenty-five minute walk than a fifteen minute one. Mikey generally tried to stay later than Jon or make some excuse about needing to run an errand, but there were times when neither of those worked and he just had to smile and accept the ride.
He caught a cold--probably from one of the kids--in early November. It was just a cold, though, so he got himself some over-the-counter decongestants, bundled up as much as he could, spent as much time as possible in the heated center or church, and tried to eat a lot of soup and drink a lot of tea.
The first snowstorm hit just as he was beginning to tentatively feel better. Mikey risked a fire. It was too cold not to. The building had high ceilings and was fairly open, so it didn't help much, but a little, and Mikey was willing to take everything he could get. Brian closed the center--it was icing, too--but the phone number he had for Mikey was at the Y, so Mikey trekked there just to find a note on the door. Mikey holed up in the church for a while, sharing tea with Brendon and offering to help in any way he could. Greta took advantage of the offer, which was convenient, because she was making a hot meal, something Mikey was not going to turn down.
He left when he finally couldn't come up with any reasonable excuse to stay and Brendon said, "I'm a little worried you won't get home if you don't go now."
Mikey asked, "You're okay getting home?"
Brendon said, "I live here."
"Oh," Mikey said, "right," and wondered how he had never noticed that before.
Mikey waited the full day until the ice had cleared enough for him to get back to the center and went in early, sitting on the steps and waiting. The cough that had never really gone away from the cold was being painfully persistent. It was hard to breathe between bouts, and the coughing itself hurt, tearing all the way from his stomach, into his back, up through his lungs.
When Brian showed up and let Mikey in, he said, "We gotta get you a key," and also, "Mikey, I can't have you working with that cough. There are kids around."
Mikey tried to say, "Okay," or at least nod. He could go to the church. Brendon would probably let him stay in the offices, where people didn't usually go. He was too busy coughing, though, to give any indication that he had understood. This particular round was pretty vicious and after a bit Mikey was struggling just to stay on his feet. He was dizzy from lack of air.
"Hey," Brian said and put a careful hand to Mikey's back.
Jon asked, "Mikey?"
Mikey hadn't even heard anybody else come in. After a few more seconds, Jon said, "We've got to get him to a doctor."
Mikey fought to breathe, fought to tell Jon he wasn't insured. That wasn't part of his package. Brian said, "He's not insured. Um, there's that clinic over on State. It's pretty early, you could probably get him in."
"Okay, I'm gonna--" Jon threaded his arm around Mikey's waist.
"Yeah," Brian said. "Call me when you know something, okay?"
Jon said, "I'll be in touch."
Mikey was turning blue by the time they reached the clinic and Jon was not his normal, affable self. Luckily, the receptionist responded to the fact that he was pretty clearly panicking and got Mikey into a room almost immediately. The nurse who greeted him in there got a breathing mask on him and talked calmly to him until he could catch his breath, at least a little. She laid him back and said, "I guess we know what the problem is, huh?"
Mikey was so tired, and it was warm in the clinic. It was hard to keep his eyes open. She said, "That's okay, sweetie, you go to sleep."
He didn't think he would really be able to, he hurt everywhere, but he must have, because he woke up being loaded into an ambulance. He panicked, but the mask was still on his face so he couldn't exactly speak. He called, "Jon! Jon!" all the same.
Jon said, "It's okay, Mikey," from his side. "It's okay. We just have to go to the hospital."
Mikey tried to remind him about the insurance thing, but Jon just squeezed his shoulder. "Don't worry about anything right now, we'll figure it out. Please, just, rest."
Mikey tried, he really did. Doing anything else hurt. The hospital clearly wasn't far and they wheeled him into an x-ray room where Jon couldn't follow, and then there was an IV and they took his blood and Mikey could only stay awake for certain parts. At one point they asked him how long he'd had the cough and he held up two fingers.
He shook his head.
He nodded. The doctor said, "Okay," and listened to his chest. Mikey fell asleep despite the touch of the cold metal, despite the looming presence of the doctor. If he'd been awake, that alone would have told him how sick he was.
When he woke up, he was still in the hospital. There was a curtain around his bed and Ryan and Spencer were in chairs right next to it. Spencer said, "Hey sleepyhead."
Ryan said, "We brought flowers," and nodded at the daisies on the stand by the bed.
There was still a mask on Mikey's face but he did his best to say, "Thanks."
Spencer patted at his knee. Mikey gestured at his chest, tilted his head. Spencer shook his head but Ryan asked, "You want to know what's wrong?"
"Viral pneumonia that you let get a little out of hand," Spencer told him. "They gotta keep you on fluids and meds for at least 24 hours. And you can't go back to the Y, you need to be somewhere where you're not likely to pick up every germ that walks in the door, so we're gonna figure out something."
Mikey tried not to want Gerard and Frank, he tried, because it was no use, he couldn't have them, but none of that mattered. He was sick to his stomach now too, which was probably just the medicine, but it wasn't making him feel any better, all the same. He wanted Frank to crawl in bed with him, tiny, but solid and always, always so fucking warm, and Gerard to rub his stomach, the way he had when they were kids and Mikey had the stomach flu. Gerard had gotten sick for his troubles and he hadn't even blamed Mikey for it.
Ryan said, "Mikey?" and to his complete mortification, Mikey realized he was crying. He hadn't done that since the early days of prison, really hadn't planned on doing it again, ever.
"It'll get better," Spencer said softly. "You just need some more sleep."
Mikey closed his eyes. Gerard and Frank were hiding in the dark.