My mother told me there were too many guards around town to steal tonight, but I didn’t listen. Now I’m fucked.
I’m running as fast as I can, the pocket of my jacket heavy with the stolen watches, my boots slipping on the thin layer of snow that covers the sidewalk. Chinatown at this hour is a mess. The bright signs with green and orange writing throb all around, blinding me. There are heavily made-up girls smoking and women overloaded with plastic bags. Shopkeepers linger by the dirty curtains that hang in place of shop doors. An old woman smiles at me, toothless. I run past her, panting, as the smell of fish and burning plastic makes me feel sick. I almost knock over a tanghulu stall, the candied fruits skewered on sticks that look like tree branches; the vendor yells at me but I ignore him.
I turn left into a narrow street and quickly enter the first door on the right. The room is stuffy, and the ceiling is low. Tiny dumplings are arranged on a counter, and, behind it, an old man looks at me, confused. His nails are broken and dirty, covered in flour. Before he can say or do anything, I put my forefinger to my lips. He must be quiet.
I take the steep spiral staircase at the back of the shop. The steps are slippery and I’m almost climbing, hands against the cold metal. On the roof of the building, I lower my body so that no one can see me from the street, and peep. Three guards in silver uniforms are entering the shop. I hear menacing shouts, then the old man’s fearful voice. I hurry and climb onto the roof of the adjacent building.
The guards’ voices become closer. I throw myself over the wall, land on my back, gasping for air. I push myself up and start running across the roof. When I hear the gunshots I turn, even though my father always told me to never look back, only run forward… I see the guards running, closer and closer. One lifts his gun and takes aim.
I hold on to the drainpipe of the building and let my body hang in the air. I look for toeholds on the walls, but I can’t find any. My body drags me down; my palms bleed against the rusted iron. A few meters down there’s a green metal staircase. I let go of the pipe. The impact with the stairs makes me gasp with pain. I’m barely on my feet when the guards start shooting at me from the roof. I rush down the stairs, missing some steps.
Back in the half-deserted streets, I run until I cross the border between Chinatown and my district. My feet splash in puddles of half-melted snow. Some men are walking back home from their nightshifts in the factories, their faces sunken, their cigarettes burning in the dark. I avoid the path that leads me straight home, in case the guards are still following me. I need to protect my mother, my sister. They will be waiting now, their faces flattened against the cold windowpanes, their eyes looking for a gray shadow in a white landscape. I have instructed them to never leave the building at night if I don’t come back. But I always come back.
I catch my breath in a corner, away from the feeble light of the lamp posts, burying my hands in the snow to stop the bleeding. There is silence, except for the gusts of wind that make the snowflakes dance in the sky. I breathe out, relieved, and take my shaking hands out of the snow before they freeze. I walk around the corner, thinking about the upcoming warmth of our apartment.
A sudden blow to my head makes me fall to the ground. My face is wet with snow and tears. There is my heavy breathing, and the smell of garbage and mud.
“You’re fast, aren’t you?” A man’s voice. My head hurts, all I can see are my red fingertips in the snow. Other steps. Hard, gray boots around my hand.
“Search her pockets,” another voice says.
A man pulls me by the hair and throws me against the wall of a building. My back scrapes against the rough plaster. The man is short and looks young, about my age. Before searching my pockets, he looks at my face.
“She’s also pretty,” he laughs. “Maybe this one has a chance on the show.”
“Get those watches.” Another man, with the tattoo of a snake around his neck doesn’t even look at me. The short man unbuttons my jacket. His hands linger on my body before taking the watches from my pocket.
My voice comes out as if I’m being strangled. “Please.”
The slap is quick and painful; it makes my eyes water and my nose bleed. The snake looks at me from the man’s neck, its mouth open, ready to bite me.
“Shut your mouth.”
My voice dies in my throat.
“Hit her again before she runs away,” he adds.
Before I can think, my head is bashed against the wall. As I lose my senses and everything becomes blurred, I see the creepy smile of the short man, his teeth chipped, his lips cracked.
About the Author
Casati was born in the US, but grew up in Milan, in Italy. She studied at universities in London and Oxford before graduating from the prestigious Warwick Writing MA with a distinction. You can find out more about Costanza Casati and her writing on her website, or by following her on Twitter and Instagram. She also runs a successful bookstagram account, @youngpeopleread.
NITRB also published some of Casati’s short stories, You Asked For It and Horrible Feet. We also interviewed Casati earlier this month about the release of her novel.