I heard the shouting from down the alley. Three, four voices at least. For a moment I tricked myself into thinking it was just kids roughhousing, and I flipped the steak on the grill. Then the man raced past the dumpsters and into my backyard. My mind processed three things: he was holding a gun, his white t-shirt was stained a spreading rusty red at the bicep, and he was stage-whispering at me to get in the house. I didn’t move. I’d forgotten how. He grabbed the shoulders of my shirt, the gun so frighteningly close to my face that I thought, stupidly, how real guns look faker than fake ones, and pushed me in the back door, shutting it behind us.
“Don’t scream,” he said, but it hadn’t occurred to me. I was so much more scared than that. The gun was up, not pointed at anything, but he still had his hands on my shirt, and we both stood there, panting but otherwise silent, in the darkness of my back storage room.
The other voices and slamming footsteps had gone past us and then, in smaller numbers, back again in the other direction. They were shouting in Spanish, and I told myself that they were saying, “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” like they were playing a game. Tires squealed on the street side, but that might have been unrelated. The voices faded out.
“Good,” he said. I didn’t say anything. I was still breathing hard because of the gun. His breathing was slower but ragged. “Anybody else home?” I shook my head. “You got some bandages? Those fuckers grazed me.” I didn’t remember hearing a shot, but on a summer night I might have decided it was a stray firework.
I nodded and stupidly said, “Can I get the steak off the grill first?”
He laughed, a short little snort, and said, “Sure, but remember I’m watching you.”
I walked as casually as I could out to the grill, tonged the steak onto the plate, close up the grill to put the fire out, and then walked back into the house.
“Good,” he said again. The gun was down at his side. I forced myself to breathe like a normal person.
We walked upstairs, him behind, and into the kitchen. I set the steak down on the table, and he sat. “You got a beer to go with this?” he asked. I flashed from fear to anger for a second, but my eyes fixated on the gun and the fear crept back again. I opened a beer for him and gave him a knife
He put the gun down on the table, very black and very close by. “So those bandages?” he said.
“In the bathroom,” I said.
“Go get ‘em.” As though he were surprised I hadn’t done it already. I could have just bolted out the front door, but it was like he knew I wouldn’t, and I didn’t. I brought back a variety pack of bandaids and a washcloth and some antibacterial stuff. He was gingerly holding the steak down with the fork on his bad side while sawing away at it with the knife in his other hand. It wasn’t really working, so he gave up and swigged some beer.
He pulled up the long, baggy sleeve of his t-shirt. The wound wasn’t deep at all compared to how bloody it had looked. I thought he was being sort of a baby about it, how I’d wrecked out worse on my bike, and that was when I realized how young this kid actually was. Looking at him up close, his skin fair and soft and a bad mustache poking through, I put him at about fourteen.
I washed his arm and stifled a smile when I put on the ointment and he winced. He tried to keep his mouth hard through the sting.
The quiet was clearly getting to him, so he started talking, some bullshit about the war going on out there and being a soldier and running this town. It sounded like a speech from some gangland movie or just the chorus to a rap song. Like lines he’d heard from someone else and studied and repeated until he forgot where he’d heard them. I felt vaguely bad for him, for believing everything he’d been told, for feeling like he didn’t have any choice other than to believe it.
“Shit’s going down now,” he said. “You gotta take sides.”
“Right now, I’m on your side,” I said, pasting a big bandaid over the softly pulsing gash, “because you’re the one in my house with a gun.”
“Hell yeah,” he said, like this was some kind of moral victory.
He gulped down the last of the beer. Outside there were only the typical sounds of summer—chatter from porches and ice cream cart bells and bass from a passing car. He looked at me with a slow nod and said, “You been cool.” He stood up and picked up the gun. “You got a side door?”
I showed him where it was. He asked me to check if it was clear, and I did, and it was. He gestured at me with the gun. “Remember what side you’re on.” He said it like a true believer. I wanted to cry. I almost told him to take care of himself. Then I remember this kid tore up my steak and drank my beer and pointed a gun at me in my own house, so I didn’t say anything. He tucked the gun into his waistband, gave a last nod in my direction without meeting my eyes, and slipped out, down the gangway, onto the street, out of view.