Everybody likes costumed heroes, right?
“How serious are you about this ‘secret identity’ thing?”
“I dunno-- fairly, I guess.”
“Well, serious enough to keep it a secret from me?” she said.
“I think so,” he said.
“You’re fucked in the head, you know that?” she said, and exhaled a little cloud of cigarette smoke.
Warm rain began falling onto the fire escape from the open space above the alley. Little drops, at first. Her cigarette went out, and she reached for her lighter at the same time that the Swallow tossed her an apple from his backpack. The apple landed on the floor of the fire escape with a clang and rolled over the side.
“Hey!” said the Cardinal. She stepped to the edge and looked over the side of the escape. The apple had fallen thirty feet and smashed itself to pieces on the asphalt.
“Fuck, I’m sorry,” he said. He began to look through his bag “I have a sandwich in here somewhere...” He withdrew a sort of flat circle of Wonder Bread/ Jelly polymer. She ran her hand through her hair. It stuck up in irregular black spikes-- the red was coming out.
“I think I’ll pass,” said the Cardinal. She re-lit her cigarette and took a drag. A thought came to her as she exhaled. “Coffee would be nice, yeah?”
“Let me finish this smoke, then we’ll go.” She tapped her cigarette ashes onto the wet guardrail, where they disintegrated into a little lump.
“Listen,” she said in the direction of the floor. “Why? Why bother? Neither of us are wearing our scarves, we’ve seen each other’s faces, we’ve fought together... what? Five times now?”
“Yes, five times.”
“I mean, I’ve dropped you off at your goddamn apartment building for God’s sake--”
“Does that mugger count?”
“What?” she said, looking up.
“The mugger,” said the Swallow. “That one alley off Queen West, remember? The first time we met.”
She laughed. “We fucking tore that fucker apart!” she said, and then her expression changed, and her eyes moved to the wall on their left. “We really hurt him, Swallow. Sent him to the hospital, maybe. He had a knife...”
Fifteen seconds of silence.
“Fuck-- that’s not the point right now, though.”
“It’s not,” she said. “We’re different than them, aren’t we? The Beetle and the Locust and the Tiger, all the crazy ones? We don’t think we’re saving the World, right? I mean, Christ, we dress up like animals and beat up lowlives and shit, but we’re not really crazy, are we?”
“I don’t know. We do dress up like animals and fight, er, lowlives.”
The Cardinal frowned and looked at the drops of water on the metal beneath their feet.
“You’re bad at people,” she said.
“Bad. At people. You, you’re just... not good at being, I dunno... with people.”
“I guess so. I don’t get much practice anymore.”
“It isn’t practice,” she said, and flicked the cigarette over the side. “It’s like... you enjoy all of this, right? You like when people call you by your name name, right?”
She looked at him. She didn’t talk until he met her gaze.
“I don’t know anymore,” she said.
“Are you coming out tomorrow?” said the Swallow.
“Coffee first,” she said, and pivoted both legs over the guardrail and onto the ladder. She paused. “You coming?”
“I wouldn’t know what to do out there without you, you know,” he said.
* * *
The rungs were slippery; the rain had begun to fall in earnest. Industrial rain, full of smog particles and dirt, full of cancer. It was warm. No rain clouds were visible in the darkness above them.
“I was raised religious. Did you know that?” said the Cardinal. She jumped onto the next fire escape below them, and her red sneakers hooted and squeaked as they slid to a stop on the wet surface. The Swallow was farther behind. His foot slipped a little; his stomach lurched.
“Yeah? What kind?” he said, keeping his eyes on his gloves and his shoes.
“Korean Presbyterian,” she said, and laughed. “Doesn’t really mesh well with our, er, hobby, does it?”
“Are you still?” he said, stepping down off of the ladder and onto the escape.
“Religious? On Sundays when I’m visiting my parents, maybe. I don’t think I ever really believed in anything,” she said, and vaulted onto the next ladder.
“Nah. Think of it this way: Gymnastics, fifteen hours a week. Tae Kwon Do, ten hours a week. Church, three hours a week.”
“Kept me out of trouble. Or something like that, I guess,” she said.
“Do your parents know? That you don’t believe in God, I mean,” said the Swallow. The Cardinal laughed.
“They don’t even know I smoke,” she said. There was a siren in the distance, and both of them became still for a moment.
The siren faded away.
“My Mom’d kill herself if she knew. She’s like that,” she said. “She really wants me to get married. She cried on my fucking twentieth birthday-- she sat on my bed and cried because over breakfast I told her I didn’t really want to, thanks.” The Swallow looked down at her.
“What if she found out about this?” There was an explosion of low fidelity thunder from somewhere high above and far away.
“She won’t,” said the Cardinal flatly.
“Well, what if she does? What if... we get caught or something, I don’t know...”
“We won’t.” She jumped to the ground and landed in a puddle. There was a muted ‘fuck!,’ half lost in the rain.
“You okay?” The Swallow stepped off of the ladder and onto the asphalt. He rolled his left shoulder, trying to loosen it.
“My socks are wet. I need coffee,” she said. “And my stomach hurts.”
“That one guy punched you pretty hard.”
“White trash biker motherfucker. He deserved what he got.”
“I swear his head made a dent in the wall.”
“I didn’t look,” she said. “Could you pass me my scarf?”
They exited the alleyway, passing by a prone man clutching a bottle of green Listerine. He gurgled in his sleep.
* * *
The streets had become canals, and the darkness at their bottoms made them seem to be deeper than they actually were. The Cardinal whooped as she put her foot in to cross. They moved slowly. The current was enough to unbalance them.
“Hell of a storm,” said the Swallow. The Cardinal held a gloved finger in front of her scarf, and they walked on in silence through a wall of rain.
They passed two people, neither of whom looked up at them from under their umbrella or newspaper. The Swallow drew back the soaking sleeve of his jacket and waited to pass under a streetlight.
3:39, said the hands of his watch. There was a little water in the bottom of the dial. He took the watch off and put it in his backpack.
Perspiring and tired, they reached a small parking lot. The car was parked just outside the reach of the streetlight, and lay battered in the darkness; an old wagon, from whichever decade had favoured fake wood siding.
A hubcap had come off and the Cardinal cursed under her breath as she put it back onto the wheel. She gave it a vicious kick, then put her hand on the door latch and looked over her shoulder.
“Ladies first,” she said. She slid over on the vinyl seating in the back seat and closed the door. The Swallow turned the other way, sat back on his haunches and rubbed his face. He played with his shoelaces, his movements clumsy with fatigue.
The door clicked open behind him, and he turned around to see the Cardinal stepping out of the car in a dry hooded sweatshirt and jeans. She’d removed her scarf; there were dark circles under her eyes.
“Hey, uh,” he said. She paused in the doorframe. “What, er-- Do you want-- I’ve got coffee at home. If you want.”
She looked at him for a little bit.
“I’m pretty tired,” she said. “I think I’m gonna skip the coffee tonight.”
“Do you want a ride?”
“Nah,” he said. “I’ll be fine. I need to walk off some of this adrenaline.” He smiled, and glanced at the pile of wet clothes in the back of the car.
“Sure thing,” said the Cardinal. She sat down heavily in the front of the wagon, and leaned out of the open door.
“Keep that identity of yours safe,” she said, closed the door, and pulled out of the parking space. He saw her outline lean over and pay the man at the booth. The outline rolled up the passenger window awkwardly and drove into the night.
He started to walk; passed the parking attendant, who was busy with an Arabic newspaper. A block passed silently.
Fatigue and pain and something else hit the Swallow like a punch in the stomach. He took a right turn and disappeared down an alley. His scarf collected rainwater in a puddle beside the curb.
A few blocks away, the Cardinal parked her car and rested her head against the top of the steering wheel. She put her arms around herself, although it was June and the night was hot.
She watched the shadow of a raindrop make its way down her face in the rear-view mirror. She started the car and turned it around.