The Hu Palace had a classy buffet, with slippery chopsticks that went into the dishwasher not the break-apart kind. Baxter raised himself on the lid of Hu’s dumpster, hanging off it with forearms and elbows as anchor. The graying cabbage landscape and jagged Styrofoam iceberg looked the same as yesterday. Then a faint scratching. Something was alive, a small something.
His foot found a cardboard box island in the sea of decomposing food. The box took his weight, so he swung the other leg inside, pushing the trash aside with a sneaker.
A chick, brown wings folded under its body.
It pecked Baxter’s hand until it bled. At the bottom of the fire escape, he tucked the chick between shirt and chest, tying the fabric at the bottom so it couldn’t fall out. The bird rattled around against skin, unable to find purchase while he climbed. At the window ledge, Baxter untied his shirt and the chick flopped onto the carpet, stretched his legs, and cheeped in protest.
Baxter’s brother wasn’t home yet. Boy, when he came home! Baxter let the chicken stand on the counter while he wet a dishrag. He knew that cats cleaned themselves and dogs hated baths, but didn’t know the protocol for chickens.
Eddy slammed the door. Baxter tried to scoop the chicken in his hands, but Eddy intercepted it. The chick tried to stand on Eddy’s fleshy palm but tumbled backwards on spindly legs.
“Careful,” Baxter said.
“I found it in Hu’s dumpster.”
Eddy pondered this, holding the chick up for closer inspection.
“I win? You find anything?”
Eddy shook his head. “You win. Yeah. You win.”
Paul lived in an underwear drawer, its original contents relocated with the pajamas. Baxter poured Paul a shot glass of water. The shot glass said “Margarita Mondays.” He hoped there wasn’t any alcohol left in it, poor bird, but then he remembered the chick lived in a dark drawer for twenty hours a day and hoped maybe there was. Maybe to the chick, the dumpster had been the whole world.
Was that life? Baxter wondered.
The other four hours of the day, Paul wandered the apartment. Between school and dinner and whenever Mom was occupied—he had free range. A chicken ranger. A vigilante, not a chicken at all.
Baxter didn’t play the game anymore. Baxter had Paul. Baxter won, and for once, Eddy had lost.
Until Eddy found the cat.
The creature had half a tail and nicks in its ears like hole punches. “This is Big Paul,” he told Baxter. He set the animal on the bottom bunk, and it hopped off, disappearing under the bed.
“The game was over. And we weren’t looking for animals anyway.”
Eddy just hummed, hand groping under the bed. “I didn’t say it was over.”
Years later, Baxter sat in the car outside his brother’s house, breathing hard. He couldn’t believe that every picture with his brother didn’t have hidden feathers and blood in it like an ISpy. Like Where’s Waldo.
Blood, feathers. “Well, don’t blame the cat.”