Mostly, we watch.
I lie in the quiet hours of the night, wrapped in soft darkness, the slide of my cloak warm against my back. March wind coils and mutters away from the soles of my running shoes, rasping against the grit of shingle under and beside me. There’s been nothing so far, just whispers of cars on the damp pavement and the first flowers starting to send their fertile calls into the air. There’s been nothing for nights on end.
The black band around my wrist vibrates. I raise it to my mouth, breathe “Nothing,” into it.
“Mm. Here, either.” Her voice hisses into my hear – an older woman than I, five houses down, watching the other side of the street. I toy with the mystery of her name for a moment. She must be from the neighborhood, but I only know her through the group, and there, she’s Lady Grey. She wears robes blue and draping, which probably fade into shadow better than the black of my own cape and clothes, but black – it’s traditional. It has the weight of history.
“How long till your watch is over?”
“Hour, hour and a half. You?”
“Three hours – I homeschool my kids, they don’t get up before eight or so.”
“Ah – oh. Wait,” she says, her voice distracted despite the neutralizing spit and crackle of the radio. I don’t know what she hears; my own radio is filled with her voice. “Hey. Carnivale. I think there’s something for us, half a block north on Grace Street from the gas station.”
“See you there, Lady Grey.”
I slither down the roof, and hang for a moment before my feet catch the top of Megan’s kids’ playset. We moved it out of the sun a couple weeks ago when she heard that news bite about skin cancer, and I am grateful for the solidity beneath my feet instead of the long drop. Her back lawn is empty and dark; the street light doesn’t carry so far, with all the trees. I make sure her gate’s well shut behind me as I lope towards the gas station. After all, we try to soothe fear, not create it.
There’s a lot less fear these days. Since they learned we were watching, the crime rate’s slowed down, down. Falcon and the Duchess were the first of us, lurking on roofs and behind fences, confronting the burglars and drug pushers and everyone else threatening our homes and our families. They told me, one rainy Saturday during reading hour at the library, and I wasn’t sure what we could do. The soccer moms of East Everley, fighting crime? Without recourse to weapons, since we were private citizens and unlicensed, without training or the law’s protection should we injure one of those that sought to injure us – what could we do?
Now, I dart through the swings in the park across from my house, and can’t believe I laughed at them.
Two weeks after they spoke to me and I began to read the papers daily, I knocked on Falcon’s door, stepping over the train set half dismantled in the entry.
“How do you do it?” I said. She broke off wiping the dust from her hall table and stopped tossing the trains in a bucket, straightened.
“We watch.” Falcon’s heavyset, and that day she wore a gold-lined russet blouse with her silkscreened slacks. “We watch, and then they don’t know where they can do their dirty work safely. They get careless, trying to be so careful, and they’re afraid. Sometimes, if they don’t look armed and don’t seem violent, we circle in around them and never say a word. Mostly we call the police and if the bastard runs we follow him until the police catch up.”
“I want to help, then.”
“Why did you listen?” she asked me, and I’ve never been able to deny her an answer, even when we were children. She studied me for a moment before yelling over her shoulder at her son in the kitchen. “Paul, chairs need to keep all four feet on the ground!”
Sixth sense of mothers, and the tell-tale scrape of chair legs leaving the floor.
“I’m fine, Mama!” he said, all stubbornness and the assured confidence of a three-year-old.
“Then if you tip over, I won’t feel sorry for you.”
A thoughtful silence, followed by a crash and a wail that was abruptly curtailed as the boy remembered he was being proud. She rolled her eyes and turned back to me.
“He knows that if he’s actually hurt, I’m here. So. Why did you listen?”
“Then? Well. I was an English major, you know. Thought about a doctorate, before I met Teddy. I wrote my thesis on the Battle of Camlann.”
We the quest-seekers, wandering forever in search of knowledge and justice. I could no more immediately discount them than I could forget my name.
She laughed. “And now?”
“Because I read the papers – you’re right. You told me, what, two weeks ago, what you were doing? And then they ran that article, about our unofficial superheroes. It – they looked like they wanted to make fun of you and couldn’t.”
“Why not?” Socratic.
“It’s working. Used to be, there’d be seven or eight new crimes every morning. Last two weeks, it was five on average. I want to help.”
“Then help. We’re having a meeting this evening after dinner, if your husband can watch the kids. They were looking real cute the other day, by the way – your girl’s going to be a heartbreaker here in a few years.”
“Isn’t she just? Laurie’s already getting notes from all the boys in her study group. Anyway. Where’s the meeting going to be?”
“You know the woman in the yellow house three blocks down from the grocery?”
“I’ve seen the house, but I don’t know the owner.”
“That’s Orlando’s house – she’s a bit old to be going out most nights, so she hosts instead. Just come on up around seven.”
“Should I bring anything?”
“Well, some of us bring casserole, but between you and me, I think more fruit and less cheese would be good given what we’re trying to do here.”
“I’ll bring a salad then, how’s that?” I always make a fruit salad for the neighborhood pitch-ins, and the bowl always ends up empty.
Teddy was thrilled to spend an evening with the kids – he kissed my cheek as he handed me the big pink cut-glass bowl of fruit salad and told me to have a good time with my friends. I grinned all the way out the door, holding my secret. It’s nice, being married, and the sharing is good most of the time, but I was just about out of my mind without any little thing to myself.
Stepping in the door at seven, a woman in a feathered mask took my bowl and handed me a simple black half-mask.
“That’s just to hold you until you’re named and costumed,” she told me, calling over her shoulder as she whisked off towards the kitchen. “Go sit down in the living room, everyone’ll be here shortly.”
It was Falcon, of course. I turned the mask over in my hands for a moment – pale Norwegian skin, black mask, like a mime from that Venetian festival. Carnivale.
They asked me for a name over casserole and Jello salad, and I smiled my sharp new smile, said “Carnivale.” And no one thought it strange.
I got home at one in the morning, reeling with acceptance and Lakshmi’s sweet liqueurs. My husband snored on the couch, children draped over him like small breathing blankets. The red-shaded lamp by the couch burnt their blond curls to flame as it cast a too-bright light on their faces. Centers of my life. I turned off the light and wandered up to bed.
Three days later, they called me out.
I’m blessing my hours at the gym since then. It’s probably no more than half a mile to the trouble zone, but if I’d tried it when I first started, there’s no way I’d make it any further than I have already. It’s a tricky run, too, a snaring labyrinth of exposed roots and half-invisible park benches this hour of the night, this phase of the moon.
Esterline Road’s got cars on it, just a few, mostly a red sportsy thing with loud music at the empty stoplight. The driver looks confused at the Harlequin woman in the beaked mask and black cape running full tilt. He seems glad when the light turns green, and then I’m past and falling over the back fence into Pauleen’s yard. Lady Grey and Compass beckon from the water barrel in someone’s back garden three blocks down.
“Lakshmi found him – trying to break into this man’s house,” Lady Gret says. Compass rubs the rose of her mask, shifting it back from the slide of her own run. She’s catching her breath, and it almost steams in the air.
“Plan?” I ask.
“Circle back, with me. Compass and Ananda are heading west, and Falcon’s taking front with Lakshmi, Duchess, and Yaga.” Lady Grey grins, a wolfish curl to the tilt of her mouth.
We waft to our places. The hiss from our wrists tells us it’s time to move and I glance at our target as we drift forward. He’s standing, low-slung jeans and ratty hooded sweatshirt like all the teenagers these days, on a ladder, and I hear him swear a little as he tries to slide the window up with his quiet screwdriver. He doesn’t see us. We are too quiet, we move too smoothly, shadow to shadow across the lawn until we stand in a semicircle below him. He hears a rustle, and looks down.
I wonder what he sees us as, this gaggle of middle-aged women in masks and cloaks, a frozen tableau below him and he never heard a sound. Lakshmi laughs, then, low and rich. We watch him. His hands are tight on the ladder; I can see the white of his knuckles, white as Lakshmi’s tunic, in the moonlight.
“Why are you here, boy?” Yaga whispers, rasping grandmother of seven. “Why are you here?”
“You threaten our homes, boy,” says sweet Ananda, and she’s not laughing. “We are our homes.”
Shadows in the shadows, and I know he can see them when he suddenly breathes quick and harsh, louder than our words. New girls, watching him. Watching us.
The murmur grows – bad child, lost child, not a child any longer… people like you… fear… anger… distrust… hate… ruin the neighborhood, people like you… threat to the children… the children… our children… people like you…
He’s sweating now, sheen of sweat, and he grasps the ladder tighter yet. It creaks under his fingers. Compass glides to the ladder, and the quiet scrape of her fingernails runs through our bones. He’s shaking. She lays her hands on the ladder, shivers it a little.
“What to do with you, boy, what to do…” Falcon murmurs, but not a Falcon I have ever heard before, as if she meshes with her mask and the words come from an inhuman tongue. “A chase, I think, and you will not forget this run, boy.”
Compass shoves, and the boy falls. She pulls him up.
“Unhurt,” she decides, and like a dustpan of mud she tosses him from her. He stumbles, and catches himself, looks back at Falcon.
“Then run, boy. And don’t get caught.” He takes off with our hellhound whispers hunting him, hearing the echo of our feet in his mind, our little hare. “Run…”
I don’t recognize my voice, but there’s the chase and that’s what matters.
We chase him, stretching the ground under the moonlight, following the sound of his panicked sneakers on grass and asphalt – are we that terrifying, I think, women in masks who know his sins and maybe his mother? But he doesn’t know that. He only knows that we are faceless and given voice.