Khepri had her ass in the air when I daydreamed about her. Her head was in a 7-11 dumpster, rummaging for hotdog buns, her butt hanging out the bottom of her denim cut-offs, laughter echoing off of the dumpster walls until she emerged with an armful of bread bags that were heavy with rain water, clasped to the front of her army jacket.
“Fuckin’ jackpot,” she’d say, piling them into my arms for me to carry. When I couldn’t hold any more and the bags were splitting and wet hotdog buns exploded on the sidewalk, she’d grab my face in her hands and kiss it. The irises in her wide-set goat-eyes were grey as sky-rise concrete, and I loved the scar on her lip because of how she’d acquired it: not from the way drifter kids usually accumulate scars–brushes with broken bottles; scuffles with other kids who carried knives; meth-stumbles into traffic–but because of the way she’d leaned over the Tidal Basin to catch a silver fish barehanded and fallen onto the rocks that inched from the water’s surface.
Khepri was on my mind because our art classroom smelled of turpentine and I snapped out of it as Agnes poured jars of the stuff into a garbage bag. I looked out of the window and saw that beyond the juvie courtyard–the naked basketball hoops and the perimeter fence–the custodians were raking leaves into piles. I worried they were preparing bonfires, and my paintbrush hung, forgotten, in my slack hand. Turning away from the window, I looked down to see that I’d dripped varnish over the timber chipmunk house that I’d made, and wiped the flecks away with the sleeve of my juvie-issue peels. I set down the paint brush–the flimsy sort that couldn’t be made into a shiv–and ripped off the apron that was made from garbage-bag plastic so we couldn’t turn them into nooses, though the other girls often used them to choke each other as a joke.
Agnes, the art teacher, came around to look at my project, weaving her large hips in and out of the desks. “Chipmunk Palace is coming along, Jasmine,” she smiled at me.
“It’s finished,” I said, looking out again at the growing piles of leaves outside.
“Are you sure?”
She regarded the window frames studded with pink diamantes that slid around in wet glue; the uneven tiles penned onto the roof now dotted with brown varnish; the fuzzy felt lawn that puckered and wrinkled. She bent down to peer in through the upstairs windows so she could see the crinkled tinfoil looking glass, the matchbox bed with its bottle cap nightstand.
“Maybe this should be a dolls’ house? If chipmunks move in here they’ll wreck your interior decor.”
“No they won’t.”
“You sure you want to put it outside? I don’t know how long it’ll last.” She touched a finger to the cotton wool smoke in the chimney.
“It’ll last fine. It needs to go outside tonight. Why are they raking leaves into piles like that? Are there going to be bonfires?”
After the homeless encampment under K Street Northeast got shut down, we spent a week or so sleeping in Ronald Reagan airport, until we got kicked out because Khepri kept scarfing leftover fries and chugging the warm dregs of iced teas from the Chik-Fil-A in the food court, and the staff ratted on us for being a nuisance. We moved under NoMa Metro, but left to escape the tuberculosis that wiped out half the old guys, so ended up spending Spring sleeping jack-knifed together under the arches of the Roosevelt bridge, scabbing over with ringworm and stinking of trench foot. So we couldn’t believe our luck when, following a full afternoon of drinking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we broke into an abandoned Kash n’ Karry stockroom and found it empty.
We climbed the drainpipe, squirmed through the narrow window with the breath squeezed out of us, and fell into the old staff restroom. Khepri whooped at the size of the place, dancing around the room and flinging her arms up in the air. The windows were smashed in but we covered them with cardboard from the inside, toed the broken glass into the corner with our boots on. Khepri wrote Jazz & Keps’ Palace on the wall with a burned out match. The bathroom floor was tiled so Khepri said we’d be able to build fires on the floor when winter came; burn the stacks of cardboard boxes and ventilate it through the narrow window. We were downtown near the 7-11 where we could find entire sacks of old hotdog buns in the dumpster most nights of the week. We unscrunched our sleeping bags on a steel shelving unit–me above Khepri–our first bunk beds.
Khepri went out to find one of the soft-hearted volunteers from the Gospel Ministry to give us some dinner coupons, but she found a balled up chipmunk on her way there and turned back with it warming under her coat. She wrapped it up in a sweater before pushing it to the bottom of her sleeping bag.
“That thing is dead Khepri,” I complained, my sleeve over my nose.
“It’s hibernating. It’ll freeze outside.”
“It’s a fucking chipmunk. I don’t want lice again.”
“You want me to leave it outside because it has lice?”
She leaned against the wall and huffed butane gas out of a pink birthday balloon while I ate my way through a saturated Pepperidge Farm confetti vanilla cake thrown out by the 7-11. I held out a fistful of wet sponge to Khepri but she ignored it. She’d stopped eating when she was high because the butane made her throat swell up and she was scared she’d choke.
I fell asleep, cake frosting on my fingers like snow, but I was woken up by Khepri telling me about chipmunks. I rolled over, my head on a coat over the steel shelf. She was out of her sleeping bag, holding the chipmunk in one hand. In the darkness beneath me, I could see its mouth hanging open. I told her to be quiet but she went on; she was higher than usual and rambling about how Siberians believed chipmunks were born from the ashes of fires. There was the sound of sirens on the street below.
“Seriously, shut the fuck up,” I hissed. But she went on–a stream of bullshit–stroking the corpse of the chipmunk in the dark of the stockroom.
“If you don’t shut the fuck up I’ll go back to the bridge,” I said.
Her voice, suddenly sober, sliced through the dark. “Like fuck, will you. You’d die without me.”
Agnes swept a wet cloth over the table tops. I loitered, picking dried glue from my hands.
“So can we put the palace outside tonight?”
“Not yet Jasmine, I need to grade it next week.”
The wind picked up outside, whisking leaves from the ground. The glue was gone from my hands and I was picking at my skin.
“Please. It’s my birthday tomorrow. I’ll be eighteen,” I said.
“Oh, happy birthday. Does that mean you’re getting out?”
“No.” I felt my cheeks grow warm at mentioning my birthday. Not getting out at eighteen meant you’d probably killed someone. Agnes was nice and I’d rather she didn’t know.
“Oh. Sorry. You getting something from commissary?”
“Yeah, I asked for a can of jack mack. So we can put the palace out tonight?”
“Birthday mackerel. Jesus. Ok, the palace goes out.”
She looked surprised that I wouldn’t be paroled this week, at least, but I was fine with it. I liked the echoing, windowless juvie hallways and the standard-issue purple or pink peels with their eye-watering chemical detergent smell. I liked the art room, where I could see the flag on top of the White House in the distance if I stood on a table–if I wasn’t thinking about Khepri with her head in a dumpster.
I liked the silky puddles that spilled on the tiles beneath the soap dispensers in the showers, and drying each of my toes with a towel stiff as sandpaper. There was comfort in the huge trays of baked beans, growing a wrinkled skin as they cooled, and the weeks measured out by biscuits and gravy on a Friday. The woman at the front desk who called me “doll”or “hon” from behind her bullet-proof screen. The reassuring thunking of doors locking at night.
I went to the counsellor’s office once a fortnight where I slouched on a day-glo orange beanbag, and there were Icebreaker mints in a bowl and dollies to hold. But recently the counsellor had asked me what lessons there were to be learned in what happened to Khepri.
“I’m asking you now, Jasmine, because the parole board will ask you,” she’d said, and I turned a limp dolly over and over in my hands. Khepri had called me Jazz. I’d always hated it, and now it had been forever and I wanted to hear someone say it.
It was November, and despite the sub-zero temperatures, the meaty heads of mushrooms grew rampant out of the rotting window frames in the Kash n Karry. Frozen hotdog buns crumbled when I prised them apart. Khepri was on her back, limbs splayed like a flattened insect, her sleeping bag abandoned around her feet. She gulped butane gas with every breath and there were bumps the size of my knuckles on her skull. Her hair that had once been upswirled was balled up and set solid.
“Tell me about chipmunks in Siberia,” I said, trying to fold her cigarette-scabbed legs in and yank the sleeping bag up around her, while she clamped her teeth around the nozzle of her pink balloon like a baby with its bottle.
“I don’t know anything else.”
“Tell me again, then.”
“They crawled from the ground after hibernating. Through the fires, after the winter. People thought they were reborn from the flames. Regenerating.” One of her eyes flickered open, blood-webbed. “Reborn, brand new. Out of the ground, one life for another.”
Did she really say all that? And did I even ask her? Did frost really cocoon her eyelashes? I know that when she stopped mumbling I dug my foot under her and toed her onto her side, so that if her nose bled she wouldn’t choke. Her spine jutted through her skin, knotting down the outside of her body like a hair braid. The chipmunk was somewhere in the darkness, stinking. In death, Khepri hadn’t loved it any less.
Snowdrifts of ash gathered in the corners of the bathroom. Smoke had blackened the ceiling. The fire on the tiles was dying down; small flames casting torn and hungry shadows onto the walls, and I could see my breath tumbling from my nostrils into the night air. I kicked my way around the darkness of the stockroom but we’d burned through all the boxes.
“We’re out of stuff for the fire,” I said, standing over Khepri. “I’ll go get some newspapers from the recycling bins.” She didn’t reply. I rolled several butane cans together and then kicked them hard, cutting her off. They rattled, half-empty, curving away across the floorboards into the darkness.
I squeezed out of the window into the still night air and took off through the streets to the recycling banks, pain jarring through my frozen feet. Khepri’s feet had turned winter-grey—skin like candle wax—and I worried she’d lose her toes. The gulping in her swollen throat had become like a ticking clock through the night. We needed to get out of the Kash n’ Karry; the pimps couldn’t fit through the window, but other kids tried to climb in some nights and we had to rain broken glass onto them.
I was heading back, laden with bundles of newspaper under each arm, when a popping sound came from the Kash n Karry–then several more–like the staccato sound of gunfire. With a great sigh, fire gathered itself and rushed from the windows of our little home. Even from almost a block away, I felt the strength of it race through my hair, and then air rush in to fill the space.
Smoke tunnelled fast into the sky. Lights flicked on in the upstairs apartments along the street; people leaned out of their windows, hands over their mouths. Their voices, on the phones to 911 operators, wailed through the frosty night air like sirens. I could feel the warmth of the fire from where I stood. Obscurely and without warning, I thought of Khepri thrashing in the shallows of the Tidal Basin–cherry blossom petals glued to her hair, blood on her mouth–and laughing, reaching her hands towards me so I could drag her out. I ran towards the fire, newspapers–the last day my face wouldn’t be on their pages–leaving the cold behind.
I left the classroom and went outside to wait by the perimeter fence. Agnes met me on the other side of it, her long coat zipped up to her chin, the chipmunk palace held awkwardly away from her body to avoid the wet varnish. It looked worse in the daylight. Bubbles of dried glue splurged between splintering panels of wood. Blobs of varnish darkened on the neon pink paint. She set it down on the other side of the fence. Inked on an interior wall, out of sight: Jazz & Keps’ Palace.
“Are you sure you want it here? Maybe I should hide it in a hedgerow.”
“I’m not sure chipmunks will come all this way, to the perimeter fence.”
“They’ll come. Did you know that Siberians used to believe chipmunks were born out of the embers of fires?” I asked.
“Lord. No, I didn’t know that. How interesting.”
Agnes had never once said that chipmunks carried lice, or that they didn’t need houses made for them. She was nice like that. Her car keys were clenched in her hand, one arm folded tight around herself, shoulders tensed against the cold that I hadn’t noticed.
“Go home, Agnes,” I said.
“Hold up. Let’s see if these bonfires are getting lit tonight.” She smiled at me briefly, and in that moment on the concrete, wet leaves leaving dark outlines where they stuck to my peels, I wanted to tell her everything I’d done. I wanted to tell her how, during the trial, the prosecutor talked about the physics of the explosion; a chain reaction of butane cans that blasted through the Kash n’ Karry into the Starbucks next door, and the apartment above it, where four students slept. How the defence lawyer told the jury that firefighters had to claw me away from the window when they arrived. He said it had been twenty-three degrees that night, and I thought, was that all? He said this was the first bad thing I’d done, and I thought of the cop who caught us drinking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and spanked us on our asses like we were little kids. I wanted to tell her about Khepri, talking about chipmunks in Siberian mythology, and me telling her to shut the fuck up.
I wanted to ask her, Agnes, what lesson was there in Khepri’s ruined, heroic body? And how to move through this small space we called life without always looking back as if she were right there, bloody and laughing, arms stretched out and ready for me to pull her to safety.
But Agnes was getting cold and I didn’t know where to begin. “It wasn’t murder,” was all I said.
She looked at me, her brow knotted. “Of course it wasn’t. Come on now, I’m a prison educator. I know what a murderer is, and you sure as shit ain’t it.” Hearing her cuss almost made me smile. “Manslaughter?” she asked. Casual, like it was no big deal.
I nodded tightly, staring at my feet. “Yeah. By criminal negligence.”
She sighed and looked at the sky, like we were discussing the weather. “Won’t be long ‘til you’re paroled then, and you can get outta here.” Her teeth chattered a little as she said this.
“Please go home, Agnes. I don’t want you to get cold.” It felt good to say that.
“Okay. Night, Jazz,” she said, and was gone.
I thought about getting paroled. Getting a job in a 7-11 where I’d wear a name badge with a new name. I’d show late night junkies where the Doritos are shelved. Get to take home the hotdogs that have been on overcooking on the roller all day. Fill a 40oz cup with the dregs of every flavour of Slurpee. Pull my hood up against the rain, watch cable in my rented room, towel my feet dry and press them to an electric heater ‘til they burn. Fine without a mom, passed out in her own piss on the couch, a whiskey bottle in the crook of her arm like a baby. Fine without the foster parent to march me into church to confess to being a whore. Just to talk out loud to Khepri in the darkness and remember her cradling the chipmunk by the window where we pulled the cardboard away one evening to let in a pool of oily evening sunlight– warm and thick–and she was golden in the slick of it.
There’ll be fires here soon; flames like little dancers flinging their arms up in the air. Chipmunks will come. As if born from the flames–their bodies squeezing out of frozen ground, hot, quick, out onto the concrete, knowing so few things. Knowing only an abundance of coldness, a lifetime of searching for warmth. Knowing where the cold goes, and what takes its place. Knowing if joy is coming. Here they come–running fast and straight and without looking back, to their new, precarious, imperfect home.
Eleanor Walsh is a PhD graduate from the University of Plymouth. She lives in Cornwall, UK, where she works as an English tutor and creative editor. Her novellas Birds with Horse Hearts, set in Nepal, and Stormbred, set in Cornwall, are available from Ad Hoc Fiction.