Prologue: This Fragile Fortress

Thomas McBee


I woke up running.  My ears popped and a rush of sound came in: my feet crashing against the sidewalk and Parker’s arrhythmic breathing as we passed lit houses and parked cars, the distance growing between us and the kind-eyed man with the pistol. I looked over my shoulder. He did not have the gun trained on us, was not watching our exit while steadying that slightly shaking, extended arm.
“He’s gone,” I said, slowing a little, and Parker nodded but she kept her eyes straight ahead. We ran past a yard with a rock garden and a small pile of plastic toys, a bike chained to a wooden porch, dark windows. After so many fuzzy moments on my knees, my brain was clear, focused. I reached into my back pocket for my phone, realized it was gone. When I looked back again, I could still make out the street corner he’d pinned me to; I could feel the rough patch of sidewalk I’d knelt on, I could see the hardened chewing gum and the bottle caps.
I breathed deeply, the air sharp and wet with fog. The blue cobalt of the car beside me, the warmth pouring off me, the smell of pavement and exhaust: it was all in sharp relief. I slowed to a jog. My legs were strong, muscular; sweat dampened my shirt. I wanted to run the two miles home, to never stop running. I’ve never been happier, I found myself thinking, strangely.
I could feel his eyes on us, even if I couldn’t see him. My brain processed information: distance, temperature, and injury. It appeared I was alive. I looked over at Parker, saw no cuts on her freckled face. She grimaced with each step. Brakes screeched in the distance, a door slammed. Somewhere, a television blared but mostly it was the smack of our feet, the empty street. “Are you okay?” I asked Parker and she looked at me blankly, her eyes spooky, her pupils huge.  Ahead of us, on the left, I saw a flurry of movement in the leathery front seat of a parked Mercedes; a woman’s arms, the visor down, lighting the interior like a beacon. “Stop,” I said to Parker, trying to steady my breathing enough to talk.

Our approach was sudden, and the woman recoiled as we pounded on her window, a sudden storm of fleshy palms. “Help,” we said, and she looked scared and kept the window up. “Help!” I said again, knowing that each moment brought him closer. Suddenly the fear came back in a wash of nausea. I tried to make my voice calm. “Please,” I said, “someone’s following us.”

Her hair was dark, her eye shadow heavy. She cracked her window, examined us, looked behind her. Parker remained disturbingly mute, her cheeks red with cold. I reached over and squeezed her hand.

“Please,” I said, focusing on my words. I didn’t see the hooded man but I felt the presence of the barrel above my head, the trembling aim. I tried to address the woman clearly. I looked her in her eyes, like I’d learned to do in a psych class in college. “We’ve been mugged. He has a gun. He’s behind us,” I said. “We need to call the police.”  

“Oh,” she said, searching our faces. “Okay, oh my god.” She shut off the car and pulled the key out of the ignition while I stood guard, watching the endless night until her open door lit up the street around us. I winced at the commotion.

“Here, come on. I live here,” she said, pointing to a condo, a new one, with picture windows. “Let’s get inside.”

As she unlocked the front door my heart crashed against my ribs, my knees throbbing with bruises I’d forgotten about. The carpet felt heartbreakingly gentle underneath my feet, and as we passed framed wedding pictures and empty vases, I’d looked at Parker and said, as if no one else was there, “We need to move.”

Then, as much as I tried to stop it, I felt myself sag and whinny out an animal sob and Parker reached for me, and the woman who was a stranger left us alone at the bottom of the stairs. I didn’t feel like myself but rawer, and I couldn’t tell what it meant and I didn’t care, the world outside behind a locked door and Parker’s arms around me in the entryway. 

Lily brought us wine in fancy glasses while we waited for the cops. She had shiny hair, an Ann Taylor sweater, good teeth. Her husband, tall and serious in khakis, was outside, looking for my bag with an industrial-strength flashlight, even though I’d told him not to worry about it.
Their condo looked like a picture in a catalog, earthy and generic, expensive. “When you two came up I had just been thinking about how I must look like a target, a sitting duck out here in the car,” she said, and shivered. Parker didn’t respond, on hold with the credit card company in front of the picture window, she stared down at 41st Street as if looking for something.

“Honey?” I said, but she didn’t answer. 

Lily stood up. “I’ll get you two some water,” she said, and walked briskly into the kitchen. Alone for a moment, I watched Parker’s back as she kept her eyes on the street. I drank my wine down in two huge gulps, my body electric, fear and something else battling it out in my gut. It was pulsating, vibrant.

“Parker?” I asked, and she turned to face me.

“I’m just glad you’re alive,” she said, and her eyes were wet.

“Oh,” I said, trying to think of anything to bridge the gap between us, the one that opened up as we ran, a whole world sutured shut and now available to me. She looked small, like the child version of herself. “Everything is going to be okay,” I said, dumbly. “It really is, you’ll see.”

Then Lily came in with two clinking glasses and Parker turned away, back to her own blurry reflection.



The mugger crept up behind us and half-tackled me while the blue flicker of a television danced innocently around us. When Parker––a lean 110 pounds that I joked was “one long muscle”––tried briefly, heroically, to hit him with her heavy shopping bag, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a dull black handgun, pointed it at her and said, “Get down or I’ll shoot.” She ducked as if the gun had forced her small, like a fucked-up magic wand.
Deceptively freckled and frenetically graceful, Parker was generally unstoppable. My terror, on the periphery until she disappeared from sight, bloomed full. He then turned the gun to my head. “Don’t move,” he said.
I was on my knees, where I’d landed execution style. Dog shit curdled in the spooky stillness. The night was chilly like April, like July, one endless rainy season. My heart rate slowed, I felt airy as a balloon, lighter and lighter until I was a ghost, watching myself.

I looked at the gun, and I forgot about Parker, delivered back to something crude and familiar, a time in my childhood when my life hinged on maintaining an animal stillness. I disappeared because I was shutting down, an act of hardwired protection, a tactic I’d developed in my father’s bedroom, like a prey animal.
Minutes passed, excruciatingly expanded, while I waited for bullets.

I thought, dreamily about how I missed East Coast summer and an ocean I could swim in. I thought of heat, beers on a porch swing, screen doors. Down on 40th, a car honked an irritated staccato but all around us life had stopped––no teenagers with skateboards, no dog-walkers, no smokers. Our immediate world of sidewalk cracks and cigarette butts was shadowed in a wet darkness.
“Give me your bag,” he whispered. His voice was coarse, like a smoker’s. I handed the leather satchel to him and he skittered a few feet off, clutching it to his chest. I heard the clatter of my water bottle as he tossed it into the road and, with that, the night kicked back into motion.
Several blocks down, headlights began to make their dull way towards us. He studied the car’s approach and panicked, turned towards it and then away again. He paced as it got closer, and I saw that there was a slight stutter to his strut.

Suddenly he was above me. He grabbed me by the collar, pulled me from the sidewalk into the shadows of the bushes. I could now see Parker, crouched a few feet away, but I noticed, gratefully, that he didn’t touch her. He seemed to have forgotten that she was there.       

“Stay,” he told me. He crossed the street as the car approached, and then ducked down, hidden behind a truck, out of the driver’s view. I could see the glints of his eyes as he kept the gun on us.      

On me, I mean.        

We waited. The car slowed, the tires made a sticky sound on the damp pavement. We all waited, and the car stopped in front of me and lingered for a minute, blinding me with headlights, before picking up speed and driving on. A cold shiver rocked me. This was it, I realized, but only for a second.

The man reappeared above me, whispering in agitation. “Where is it?” he said, again. His eyes, so beautiful, so blank. I had no money. Did my mouth move? I was a bird perched on a roof, I was a snail broken open on the pavement. The night was jagged with houselights. The gun was like a firework descending, the gun was the queen of the sky.

I heard Parker offer her wallet. He ignored her, staring at me, focusing in. “You can use my credit cards,” she said. He kept his eyes on me, and I looked back, waiting. I hadn’t spoken, I realized. Not once.

“You can take my credit cards,” I parroted Parker, robotically.

Something passed over his face. His spastic eyes calculated. He turned his head away, then looked back at me again, studying. “Run,” he finally said, a mercy, and I stumbled up and back into my wooden body. My creaky knees bent and I launched myself forward, no longer a waiting ghost. And so we ran.  

Parker at the window, the credit card company tracing the mugger to a gas station down the street, the nice lady with the water, the ice in the glass. But before that was the strange blessing that snapped me into myself.  Later there were the newspaper headlines and the manhunt, the testosterone and the long needle I’d learn to inject directly into my thigh like an army medic, but first there was the nexus, the moment my life changed. I think, if I think hard enough, it began with the running.

That is where the story starts, this space that ripped open beneath my pumping legs. Covered in a sheen of sweat, my stocking cap in my hands, my body shuddered awake with clanging dissonance. I found an answer for every lost version of myself in my flight: the echo of the child who rehearsed an escape into the bathroom mirror––who told the story of locked doors and hairy fathers over and over until somebody wandered by and heard, until somebody stopped it. The teenager in the dressing room, stinging with surprise at the mirror, erasing the heft of the chest, coloring in the mustache. The adult meditating, prayerful, saying a body is a bag of flesh you just have to make peace with, lifting a dumb bell until the muscle rippled gently, like a waving flag.

Later, Parker on the phone, waiting for the police, the dark pooling like oil slicks beyond the nice house I’d found myself in, I knew something had changed, and that it had to do with the gun and the lift-off knees and the swell of relief. I stretched my feet out on the Pottery Barn ottoman. 1991 to 2010: twenty years, a body divided, and two crimes bridged in a chaotic instant. I thought about how the running was like flying, and that if there was a point to anything at all, I’d finally found it.