Crows picked through the trash when Cosgrove hunched toward the Dumpsters behind China Terrace. Snow covered the mounded trash bags, though one bag was torn on the ground, debris strewn down the alley in a careless trail which fed the crows. The scent of sesame oil hung in the air, somehow warm, and Cosgrove’s stomach grumbled as if to remind him how long it had been since he’d eaten. He didn’t need the reminder.
Crows fluttered when he approached, but didn’t abandon their meal. He didn’t blame them and shuffled closer, walking stick sliding through slush. Was that a half head of cabbage?
Cosgrove moved with a speed a man his age should not possess. The nearest crow flapped into the air, perched on the edge of the Dumpster as Cosgrove bent, groaned, and took the cabbage in hand.
He settled on China Terrace’s damp back stoop, breaking the cabbage apart. The cold weather had kept it overnight; it was still crisp when he folded a leaf into his mouth.
The back door of the restaurant opened, knocking into his hip. Cosgrove turned and looked up, into the troubled eyes of a young Chinese woman he did not know. She looked startled and he supposed she had every right, what with him eating cabbage on what might be her back stoop. He slid to the side, enough to allow her to exit. When she did, she just stood there.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
She said nothing, gazing beyond him, to the tongue of trash down the alley length. Cosgrove looked too, wondering if he’d missed something. Looked like only trash to him and he knew a thing or three about trash.
The woman sank onto the stoop beside him, seeming oblivious to the damp. Cosgrove, though down on his luck, still knew his manners. He hoisted the cabbage.
She reached out, but not for the cabbage. She unfolded her hand to show the silver locket she held. A small key dangled beside it, like a key to a lockbox. Cosgrove sat a little straighter. Tarnish colored the edge of the locket, but it remained beautiful, engraved with a letter ‘A’. He could sell a locket like that, could eat real food and maybe get a hotel room. A warm shower. Some dry socks. And the key…
“Take it,” she said. There was a look in her eyes and an edge to her voice, both like a plea.
Cosgrove didn’t move but for the narrowing of his eyes. “Don’t need your charit–”
Her ragged laugh swallowed the last of his words. “Charity. You think so.” She shoved the cabbage out of his hand, forced the locket in, then flicked it open.
Darkness swallowed the alley, like clouds had moved over the sun. When the sun came back, Cosgrove found himself on the same stoop, but the alley was clean. No crows, no trash, no snow.
The back door of the restaurant opened, passing through his hip. Cosgrove turned and looked up, into the dark eyes of a young Chinese woman he vaguely knew. She held a bag of trash in her arms and moved down the steps as though he weren’t there. Toward the Dumpster.
A Chinese man came from the corner of the alley, cocksure smile on his lips. Cosgrove pushed himself up from the step, stomach still growling as the young woman hefted the bag of trash. That was when the young man charged, leapt for her, ripped the bag of trash in his haste to get to her.
“Git off her!” Cosgrove yelled, but they did not hear him. He shuffled close, but could not touch them, not even with his walking stick.
She screamed the way a person does when they know what’s about to befall them. The gleam of a knife, the demand for a key, and then there was blood amid the trash, blood that would be lost under the snowfall. She was small, easily tucked into the Dumpster. The bags mounded over her.
Crows were picking through the trash when Cosgrove hunched toward the Dumpsters behind China Terrace. Snow covered the mounded trash bags, though one bag was torn on the ground, debris strewn down the alley in a careless trail which fed the crows. The scent of sesame oil hung in the air, somehow warm, and Cosgrove’s stomach grumbled as if to remind him how long it had been since he’d eaten.
He didn’t need the reminder. He backed away from the Dumpster and shuffled away, around the corner of the building where, in the smudged window the girl looked at him, peering out from a faded poster that listed her as missing, beloved. Cosgrove pushed his way inside, offering the key to the woman behind the counter, the woman who collapsed to her knees and sobbed.
E. Catherine Tobler lives and writes in Colorado — strange how that works out. Among others, her fiction has appeared in Sci Fiction, Fantasy Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, Talebones, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. She is an active member of SFWA and senior editor at Shimmer Magazine. For more visit www.ecatherine.com.