Content warning: implied murder

Note to self: don’t rollerblade through the King’s Plaza parking lot at three in the morning. Especially if said Key Food is a block away from the 52nd precinct and fourteen blocks conveniently from the nearest hospital. 

Fuck. I suck on my palm, edges of a gash pricking frost-bitten lips as I prop my elbows on shattered knees. My jeans are a Jackson Pollock painting, spattered with crimson and ash gray, except instead of paint, gravel tincture-blood drizzles down my pant leg.

“You okay, Aud?” Mariam calls out, gliding towards me, flashlight taped to the plywood underbelly of her longboard.

Ever since freshman year, Mariam’s referred to me by every variation of “Audrey” she could: “Aud”, “Audball”, “Ree”, and my personal favorite,“Auderall.”

Am I okay? I think. Would you like the long or short version?  I’m dandy. Divine. Just about every variation of delighted. I’d smile wider, but frost-tinged saliva fuses the upper part of my lip frozen shut. If I get pneumonia, I’m dragging Mariam’s ass to Dr. Zholov’s office to pay the medical bill.

An alabaster hand reaches towards mine, glowing against the pitch black of the night. Even though Mariam and I barely passed the weight training unit in gym, she hoists me upright as easily as if she were pulling strings on a marionette. 

“How do you feel now?” 

Mariam brushes the dust off my jacket, ever the mom friend. I should be practicing my best evil eye, but I’m too distracted by the lurching in my stomach as her fingers make Salchows on my bare wrists.

“Like someone stabbed my hand with a thousand needles.” Mariam’s saucer eyes widen until I snicker and wiggle my fingers around, giggling at nothing. I think I drank too much Red Bull

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding. I’ll be fine. But I should probably be wheel-less for a bit,” I say, wobbling forward as I steady myself on the barbed wire fence to unzip my rollerblades. 

We’re here to get B-roll for the latest documentary Mariam’s working on. Normally, I hold thee tripod while Mariam makes an idiot of herself, but this time I’m entranced in the magic of burying a life you’ve yet to leave. The aesthetic, the adrenaline—I can’t help but feel a tiny rush when I sneak out from that god awful apartment to record.

“Hold still, if I get you at the right angle this could be a metaphorically resonant opening scene.”

My mouth opens and closes like a Polaroid aperture. I hate it when Mariam gets in her artiste state, picking apart the cavities in my home life with a scalpel. Like she doesn’t know how many times I’ve snuck out. Like she hasn’t seen me sit on rooftop ledges, wishing the moon would swallow me whole.

Like she thinks I want to stay there, patience stretched taut by sandpaper dry conversations so sharp they sear your flesh red-raw from clenching your fist or shoving it in your mouth. Between the acid-wash brownstone exterior and gilded family portraits of my mother, father, and me in tie-dye shirts, my family is the paragon of all-assimilated American.

I’ve never understood the term “nuclear family.” Until I realized that bombs implode under pressure. Families so tight-knit their donut-glaze smiles curdle and women’s roller-curls burst at the seams. When I was little, I thought my mother’s curls would spring forth tiny ebony snakes, like Medusa. Nuclear is definitely one way to describe my mother; she makes a tinder box of her body, addicted to the warmth of flames licking kerosene-doused limbs. How many times have I told her to stop smoking? 

Unlike Mariam, my mother doesn’t care for artifacts, but she’s a museum exhibit in her own right: cannulas criss-crossing her arms, vape pen in one hand and e-cig in the other. 

 “Yes, because nothing says cinematic masterpiece like a bunch of cinder block houses and videos of teens smashing into cars on rollerskates.” I glance at my bare space where a watch should be, if I had the money or mental fortitude to get one.

“These are your cinderblocks.”

Mariam chews on her lip, her glare pitiful and patronizing. I’ve never understood her fascination for the mundane, or why she’s so determined to live out the manic pixie dream girl fantasy, muse for an audience of one.

“This is their life. Their artifacts. This entire city’s crumbling faster than my mom’s cigarettes.” If I’m being dramatic, I might as well lean into it. God, I need to stop watching John Hughes films.

“As soon as we graduate, I’ll be the first to leave and, I don’t know, make something of myself. Try not to destroy a family because I put shit into my body and spit it on my daughter. You're free to come with me. If you want,” I add, cheeks ablaze against the scalding ice. 

Unlike Mariam, I’m not well-versed in the art of fabrication, concocting stories with a honeyed voice or deft brush strokes. I’m more of a tin woman, announcing my presence with a clatter or cracked limb.  No matter how much I want to scourge my footprints, I always track of mud on the doormat. 

We’re a story fit for a Hallmark film:  the dreamer and the delinquent.                                                      

“Audrey, I found something!” Mariam hollers, giddy as the small girl that rattles my body from time to time when I think of her and movies and—

“What is it this time?”  I groan, expecting Mariam to be on the ground,  stringing together a necklace of discarded bottle caps. 

“Oh my god, how did—just come look!” she shouts halfway across the lot.

My bones rattle harder than the shopping cart, but I drag my leaden legs over to Mariam all the same.

“Oh my god, it’s—”

A shopping cart. In the glow of the halogen street light it looks like a mirage, but there it is, one of those rusted old things Brighton babas lug around like machine guns, stocked to the brim with stacks of Campbell soup and condensed milk packets complemented by the food stamps and tabloid magazines strewn along the bottom. 

“Should we go to the police? The precinct’s right around—”

“Those bastards? Where’s the fun in that?”

I shove my hands in my jacket to keep myself from strangling her.

“If you’re telling me you’re seriously thinking about stealing some stranger’s groceries, then I’m going to have to reconsider our friendship.”

“No, I mean—” Mariam exhales. Silver wisps curl into snowdrops, my heart sinking lower each degree the temperature drops.

“This is our discovery. I don’t think this was a crime. I think it’s an oracle. Maybe it doesn’t exist for us specifically, but whoever left the shopping cart wanted someone to find it. Like the witch who left the breadcrumbs in Hansel and Gretel.” 

Her doe eyes flutter with the innocence of a small child who’s never been told the cannibalistic origins of her favorite bedtime story. Except the small child is a sixteen-year old who fosters black cats and won’t hang up on telemarketers out of pity for the “soul-sucked car salesmen of the tri-state area.” 

“You know the witch cooks Hansel and Gretel in the oven, right? She almost ate them too, but then they had enough brains to realize that you don’t enter a sauna with oil and spices stuck in your ears and ass.”

Mariam scrunches her nose. It’s this habit of hers whenever she comes across an inconvenience, like melted ice cream cones or sun-baked film reels left on 108-degree asphalt, as if to say “I disapprove of the universe and the way it’s acting today.” 

Which is why I don’t get why she’s so into live film.  It’s not like stop-motion animation, where you mold balls of clay into a microcosm, or sitcom specials, even though she could probably run a one-woman show all on her own, laugh tracks included. That girl could probably sing and dance her way through a thousand stitches. 

No special effects. No transitions or diegetic sounds just grainy documentaries shot by trembling fingers. Diaries, she calls them. Grocery lists of shot after shot of salmon-pink skylines and abandoned hopscotch squares and holed underwear hung on clothespins.                                                              

I want to ask her if she’s afraid. What she’s more afraid of. Is it worse to sit in silence, drown in waves of static? Or is it worse to slip into shadows, become a casualty of your own doing the way our babas and my mama did when they decided their hands were only good for scribbling in crossword puzzles on the back of The New York Post.

Mariam never tells me why she films disposable camera-quality diaries, but at least I know she’ll never let her hands become museum artifacts, withered, tucked away under glass to protect them from halogen lights and Sunkist-sap stuck fingerprints. Right now her hands are jigsaw pieces, searching for a crevice she can slip into without suffocating.

“Almost doesn’t count. They were probably better off in her stomach anyway, with the plagues and wars and everything.”

“Who’s the optimist now?” I stick my tongue out, a pink snake wriggling free from battered lips. The raspberries and light shoves we feign at each other would draw stares at any other time, but they crystallize us in a space free from the withered hands of adulthood that would snatch us from nights like this.

Instead of responding, Mariam flashes her thousand-watt smile. That smile will sear itself in my memory long after this night (morning?) is gone.  

As Mariam rattles the cart, rifling through the coke bottles and cans of sardines, my stomach churns at the thought of someone finding me—or anyone—like that, rusted hinges and creaked wheels, crying out before the final crash. Artifacts. A snippet of hair or a rubber band, bird bones fit for plexiglass. 

In the glow of the lone halogen lamp, the shopping cart is a creature’s corpse, metal ribs belly-full with the casualties of corporate America.

“Mariam this is illegal,” I hiss, even though there’s no one to hear us except for the sewer rats and the homeless man who hands out flyers with the words Heaven is a coffee cup away scrawled in Crayola marker with a jagged dollar sign in the middle. I don’t have the heart to tell him about indulgences, so I end up taking one for the both of us when we get off the F train after school.

“The first step to unraveling a crime—” Mariam’s converse crunches syncopate with the shopping cart in a squeak—“is intent. Who is this woman? What makes her tick? Is she the type of old lady who crochets stuffed animals or the one who slips her grandkids cognac when their parents aren’t looking?”

I roll my eyes as they dart from the bloated cart to the parking lot. I’m used to playing make-believe, but not at the scene of a possible—

“Murder!” I yelp, tugging Mariam’s jacket sleeve towards my discovery. “Look!” I shine my phone on a pearl necklace with half the beads missing and stiff, mottled leather shoes peppered with crimson splatters.

 “What the hell, Mariam? Are you getting a close-up of that shit?” A million curses ricochet in my throat as she angles her camera toward the necklace, rubbing a bead back and forth between her thumb like a bloodred marble. 

“This is perfect.” She exhales, whipping out her cellphone. Silver wisps curl into snowdrops, my heart thumping to the tune of the wind’s whistle. 

“Mariam!” Oh my God we’re going to die. “Artifacts” Lucky us we don’t have to worry about leaving anything behind because we’re going to rot in a jail cell or the back of a van if we don't getthehelloutofthiscart.

While I keel over from nausea, Mariam remains upright, her expression placid as she bounces on her high tops, the Sharpied-on smiley-faces complementing my door-hinge jaw. 

Mariam. There is blood. Like, bloody body parts.” I point toward the dentures.

Mariam’s crescent mouth morphs into a taut line. “I wish I was fabric. Or a painting. Something to be put in a museum.” She sighs, her fingers skimming the metal rim. Did she find meth in the cart too?

“Woah, slow down there, Dorian Gray.” I slide the palms of my hands over her shoulder caps, jigsaw puzzles clicking in the ridges of my callused fingers. 

“You don’t understand. You were right, Aud. Nothing happens here. If this 2000-square foot mall complex blows up, the History Channel won’t write a special. They won’t even notice anyone’s missing cause this place is so goddamn empty.” Mariam quivers, bouncing on her Converse sneakers, the smiley faces illuminating her deathly glow.

“This isn’t about your documentary.”

“You know what archaeologists do.” Mariam pockets the pearl necklace, swatting her skateboard towards a trash can with the leather sole. “Sometimes—” she smacks her lips, slick with drugstore gloss and sweat—“you have to fabricate a little.”

Suddenly, she whips out a razor perfect for cutting skateboard griptape, perfect for—

“Stabbing an old lady?” 

The scab on my knees from crashing into the parking lot fence are paper cuts compared to the acid burbling at the pit of my stomach.

 I need to leave I need to leave I left my shoe fuck my shoe I need to leave. Mariam inches toward me, camera rolling in her free hand, knife in the other. Dimples fade to fault lines fade to—

“Freeze!” Police lights blare in the distance, background music for an excavation or a burial depending on how fast they come.

But I’m untouched. Mariam plunges the Griptape razor into the weave of her legging pant, fabric caught between the ribs of the shopping cart.  Her eyes have lost all warmth at this point as they scour mine, red-rimmed orbs tired of searching for silver linings. 

“I don’t care who finds me or how they find me. But goddamn it, I’m gonna be the first one standing.”

Somewhere too close to us a cocksured cop clicks a set of handcuffs and the first thing I do is close my eyes and I don’t have the heart to tell Mariam they don’t hold funerals for bombs, not even bombs I’ve learned to—

Elizabeth Shvarts is a 16-year old writer and spoken word poet hailing from Staten Island, NY. Her work in poetry and activism has been highlighted by The New Yorker, PBS, the United Nations, the Apollo, NY1, Grist Magazine, The Earth Institute at Columbia University, Alliance for Climate Education, and more. In addition to being recognized for spoken word poetry, Elizabeth is a 2021 National YoungArts Finalist in Play/Script, with written work published in Frontier Poetry, Twin Pies Literary, Hadassah Magazine, jGirls Magazine, and more. An advocate through entrepreneurship as well as art, Elizabeth is the co-founder/co-director of Bridge to Literacy, a global, U.S Department of State-funded nonprofit that fosters a love of language through literacy-based mentorship in 100+ youth across 6 continents.