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Scene Title Ratcatchers
Synopsis Nick discovers that there are reminders everywhere.
Date March 9, 2011

Staten Island

What we remember from childhood we remember forever — permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen. ~Cynthia Ozick

The day is bright after a rain shower, the sky cerulean; a crispness hangs in the air that is not the frigid cold of winter but promises instead of the spring to come. Days like this, so opposite of the humid heat of the summer days he arrived in New York, bring to Nick Ruskin’s mind the city of his youth and childhood.

He turns into the alley he’d parked his motorcycle, a white bag containing fresh groceries in one hand and another a containing beer (no Bass, tonight, but Corona) in the other swinging lightly with each step as the plastic winds around his fingers. It is then that a bushy-tailed and shaggy long-haired marmalade cat mrrs from the spot it sits bathing itself, one toe pointed daintily as it tries to clean its own chest with a pink tongue.

Despite the matted coat, it’s easy to tell the cat is malnourished and Nick stops, crouching down to click his tongue at the beast, who immediately gets up to inspect the stranger in the alley. No feral stray this, but obviously once a beloved pet. Nick’s dark brows knit, and he stretches out his hand to the cat that sniffs him before rubbing up against the scarred and scabbed fingers, a motor-boat purr rumbling in its throat.

“Y’look like Tybalt,” the Brit tells the ginger creature. “Don’t tell me you moved to New York, too.” His lips quirk into a half smile even as this could-be ghost of his past tugs at his memories.

She's waiting at the top of the stairs with the ginger tabby using her lap as a throne, and later, when she returns from her social visit with Mrs. Dreyfus, their mother will grab her hair in a fist and reprimand her for the cat fur stuck to the navy wool of her coat — Sophia might not have even noticed if she wasn't allergic, but that is later and this is now. When Eileen pets Tybalt, her small hand follows the curve of his spine from the top of his flat head through the mane at his neck all the way through to the base of his tail, which spreads outward like a fan, and maybe that's what she'd be doing if it wasn't for the mats in the feline's fur.

Brittle fingers attempt to pick out and untangle them without causing the animal any unnecessary pain, and she's lucky that Tybalt is more tolerant around children than some cats in the neighborhood; flexing claws and the metronome tick-tock of his tail tip betrays his irritation, and when Eileen starts to work on the tufts on the side of his face, he makes an effort to twist his head away from her, only to have the little girl catch it between her hands and press a kiss between his half-lidded eyes, soft words of encouragement murmured into his fur.

The flat's door is open, as it often is.

Nick begins to trudge up the steps without looking up — had he seen his sister at the top, he might have ducked back out the door and out of the house for at least a few more hours of not having to dodge questions. Not that he hasn’t come home with new bruises or cuts — not that he hasn’t left home with new bruises and cuts. But today is different. The tears in his eyes that he hasn’t quite been able to blink back since gathering himself up from the asphalt convey a hurt that is more than physical, a pain far worse than those his body bears.

His eyes cast downward on his worn sneakers as they lift for each step, it’s only when the cat purrs that he realizes Eileen is sitting there, and he’s too close to try and hide from her, halfway up the steps as he is. His face comes up, pale blue eyes and dark lashes glittering with salt water; mouth and eye swollen and already growing purple from the beating he’d taken an hour ago.

Nick doesn’t say anything but makes the last few steps before lowering himself to the top seat next to his sister, wincing as his legs bend before wrapping his arms around his lanky legs.

The snarls in Tybalt's fur no longer matter. Eileen's hands slip under his front legs, and she evicts him from her lap by placing him on the step where her feet rest, allowing him to shake himself out and twist his neck around to lick sandpaper tongue over his mane, washing off the smell of English girl. They find his face next, her poor circulation making her palms cool to the touch, though the way she holds her brother is not as demanding as the way she held the cat despite having a similar intent.

Green eyes a few shades off from gray shy away from his gaze, focusing instead on his puffy mouth, the contusions on his skin and the wet sheen of blood and tears stuck to his cheeks. She uses her sleeve to wipe the worst of it off on the side of his face closest to her. Sophia will undoubtedly take issue with that, too.

His brows knit together fiercely and he turns his face away, toward the wall, away from the rough wool of her coat that scrapes at the raw skin of his face, even though her intentions and administrations are both gentle. “Leave it,” he says more sharply than he intends, more sharply than he’s ever spoken to her before.

Even as he faces the wall, a tear slides over the thick black lashes, cutting a clean line through his dirty face. One of his hands comes up to swipe at the tear, before the fingers curl into a fist that presses against the side of his face. Nick swallows, and then sighs, a shuddering and shaky thing, before unfolding his limbs to rise again.

“C’mon. I need to make us dinner,” he says, voice a little softer, apologetic, and hoarse from crying.

Inside, Eileen's book bag hangs off the back of her chair at the kitchen table and her violin case leans against its leg. The smell of cigarette smoke is stronger in the living room with its sofa, armchair and television on mute than it is outside in the hall, which stinks a little like piss of the feline variety. Tybalt is not neutered, and stray toms slip easily inside from the alley that separates the flats from the building next door. It's something that the Pakistani immigrants who own the antique shop below do not appreciate, but like the loud noises that sometimes come from above, it does not affect their business — they keep their noses out.

As he rises, drawing away from her, so does she, following him into the flat. There's a moment where she considers doing more than closing the door behind them — how she imagines their mother will respond to being locked out of her own home is the only thing that keeps her from sliding the deadbolt into place and fastening the chain.


Tybalt follows the two into their apartment — something else that they’ll likely get punished for later — and twines around Nick’s legs. The teen boy is usually affectionate to the regal red cat, but today the feline is ignored as Nick moves into the kitchen.

“No one you know.” It’s not a lie, but it’s not 100 percent the truth either. Eileen has seen John Logan, but her brother didn’t introduce him to her, told her it was “nobody” when she chanced upon them in the stands at the football field.

“Doesn’t matter anyway,” he says, opening cupboards to pull out a saucepan and moving to the sink to shove the faucet on, pouring water into the pot. “It was just a fight. I get in ‘em all the time.”

If he says it often enough, maybe he’ll begin to believe it.

Eileen studies her brother's back at the sink. He's grown more in the past few years than she has, and although he's always been bigger, lately the difference in their sizes has become disparate enough that it's drawn her attention. His legs and arms are getting thicker and the muscles in his neck and shoulders more pronounced when they tense up — the once fair hairs on his chest have grown dark, his voice deeper and rougher, and the hoarse quality it's adopted this afternoon makes it sound stranger still.


She keeps a respectful distance and lowers her eyes to her hands as she unbuttons her coat. A few moments later, it joins her book bag on the back of the chair. She slips out of her flats and uses the toe of her stockinged foot to nudge both shoes under the table so no one will trip on them. The sound of the water hitting the bottom of the pot drums in her ears, drowning out the sound of her own breathing, tight and a little anxious.

"Was it that boy?" she asks, just loud enough to be heard over the noise, and she regrets it even before the words have left her mouth. She presses it into a hard line.

The pot is slammed on the stove at her words, water sloshing over the sides; his back tensing, his jaw twitching, he shakes his head as he moves to turn on the burner. “It was a buncha guys,” is again a half-truth. “Older’n me. They ain’t from this neighborhood so it ain’t anything you gotta worry about, all right, Lee? Just leave it.

He moves to the cupboard to pull out the macaroni shells that will comprise most of their dinner, mixed with a small portion of ground beef and tomato sauce — a cheap and hardly hearty meal but something a young teenager can manage on his own.

The shells are measured and set aside, and Nick nods her way. “You got homework?”

Eileen startles at the bang of the pot, which resonates through the flat and sends Tybalt streaking under the table with her shoes. Instinct has her shrinking back, though not very far, both her hands knotted and drawn into her chest.

"You're hurt," she whispers, and maybe she has homework and maybe she doesn't — either way, it isn't on the table at her back and she isn't going for her book bag to check what she wrote down on the inside of her notebook. She'd be going to him instead if she wasn't making every effort not to.

"Nicky, please." Straining. "Let me look at it."

Every time he’s been hurt in the past — a fight he picked with a schoolmate or a tumble on the football field or, most commonly, the abuse inflicted on him by their mother — he’s let her tend to his wounds, let her play nurse and patch up his scrapes, burns and bruises. If it weren’t for her, the scars he bears on his body would be greater in number and worse in severity; her attention and innate ability to help the injured have lessened their severity, kept them from getting infected, healed them faster than they would have otherwise.

Perhaps it’s because he knows the wound here is emotional rather than physical. Perhaps not.

But he shakes his head, keeping her at that distance she’s forced upon herself. And he tells another lie.

“I’m fine. I’ll be fine. It’s nothin’ to worry about, Lee,” he says, pulling out another pan to brown the meat in.

Another tear slips down his cheek, splashing into the pan as he turns the burner on — the burner the same hand had been held on by his mother several years before. She’d patched him up then. They’d gotten through that — survived together.

There are only so many wounds that can be healed in so short a time.

He finds her by the hearth in the dispensary, using the heat wafting off the crackling firewood to dry one of Gabriel's sweaters after washing it in the basin at her feet, which are bare. It will be easier in the spring and summer months when the sun can warm what she hangs up on one of the lines outside, but until then she and the others have to dry their clothes by hand as well as clean them, and while she could leave it to drip out anywhere, this is faster and gives her something to do.

Sleep is less tempting when she's occupied.

She does not look up from the sweater when she hears him enter. The sentries she keeps posted outside on the rooftop have already informed her who it is, and she acknowledges him with a slight lift of her chin instead of making a feeble attempt at eye contact.

"Between you and Ethan," she says, "this is turning into quite the little halfway house."

He’d spent some time calming the cat outside — the stray had yowled the entire ride over, scratching Nick where the beast was held against his chest with one hand, making for a difficult and slow-going commute. The marmalade cat makes a merow at Eileen’s voice, and Nick smiles sheepishly at the words.

“I’ve told him he ain’t allowed to mess with your birds, but the coon is fair game,” he says, setting it down to watch it warily, making sure the cat has no intentions of harming any feathered friends. Instead it moves like a magnet toward the warmth of the fire, weaving through Eileen’s legs like their neighbor of long ago.

“I tried to think of a better name but I can’t help but think of it as Tybalt. He’s a ringer, ain’t he?” Nick says, reaching into a bag carried in as well — somewhere along the way he stopped for cat food. The can’s lid is popped off and the can is set down, but Tybalt II is already making himself at home near Eileen’s feet. Birds or no.

Nick can hear it from the other side of the room — Eileen's sigh breathed out on a thin rasp. She sets Gabriel's sweater aside, mindful that the sleeve doesn't get too close to the fire, and pulls the cat up onto her lap. Fingers comb through its fur, and she does not have to rove very long to find what she's looking for. This would be easier if she had a pair of scissors or her knife, but she doesn't, and she's too content where she is to venture elsewhere in search of something she can use to cut the knots out of the ginger cat's fur.

Like she did when she was small, she relies on her own dexterity, gently tugging at the looser tangles to work them free. More gnarled patches will require real snipping, a task she'll leave to the cat's new owner. Bathing, too, provided he's brave enough.

She's already responsible for washing the raccoon on the occasions he gets into things when Ethan isn't around to watch him, which is often.

"Jensen has dogs. You'll want to keep him in your room when they come back — at least until they're all settled."

“We’ve quite the menagerie,” Nick murmurs, watching her groom the cat, a conflicted expression on his face — fondness and wistfulness, even nostalgia. That he could think of their childhood with anything other than self loathing and anger comes as a surprise.

That he has room in his heart for a malnourished ginger beast that reminds him of his childhood is another.

“Thanks,” Nick says. “I’ll try an’ keep him out of everyone’s hair. I figure he’s an alley cat, he’ll be a good mouser, at any rate.”

"Then he'll be more useful around here than Ethan." It's a joke, dryly delivered and at the expense of someone not in the room — her tone may be serious, but the words themselves are not. The remorse she experiences for saying anything at all manifest as a frown that twitches at the corners of her mouth.

She tries to only say things that she means. "Tybalt is a good name," for instance.

“Tybalt, you ratcatcher,” Nick says, quoting Shakespeare as he addresses the cat. He’d had a way with languages rather young, including picking up Shakespeare fairly well, even if he never pulled the best of grades. “It’s a good name,” he agrees, bending to pick up the can of food and bringing it closer to the beast’s spot by the hearth.

“I got some groceries on my bike. I’ll bring them in.” Things she’d asked for when he asked if she needed anything. He gives another nod, a bit awkwardly — it’s the longest they’ve been in the same space without a third party for some time, unless the cat counts — and then heads for the door once more.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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