Marjorie wrapped Joey's scarf twice around his neck, thereby muffling his lower face against the cold, completing his morning dressing ritual. Joey's step-father, Stan, stood in the doorway of the kitchen as he finished his last cup of coffee.
"There!" Marge huffed and rose from kneeling before the boy. Her knees creaked and cracked painfully, and she used a supportive hand behind one hip to help her stand. "That old north wind won't get you now!"
"Thanks, mom," mumbled Joey, his voice muffled by a double layer of loose knit that smelled faintly of yesterday's moist, hot breath.
"You're sure you don't want me to walk you to school this morning?"
"Nah," returned the boy immediately, his hands twisting inside his mittens where they alternately held his lunch box and his school books. "I'll be okay."
"What about this afternoon? Do you want me to meet you at school? We could walk home together."
"Nah, I'd rather walk home by myself."
Marge pouted and crossed her arms beneath her modest breasts. "Maybe I like to walk you home sometimes, Joey."
"Ah, leave the boy alone, Marge," grunted Stan from the doorway. He half-turned to deposit his coffee mug on the kitchen counter near his hip, before he crossed the living room to open the front door for them both. "He says he's big enough to do it alone. Don't cut his balls off, just when he's gettin' a set."
Joey blushed, but his heart swelled painfully to hear Stan stick up for him. He stood straighter, squared his shoulders and nodded his hooded head. "I'm ten years old, ma," he added, "and it's only five blocks."
"What about Tony and those other boys. I know how they teased you when we first moved here this summer." When Stan groaned and rolled his eyes, she added, "They used to throw rocks at him, Stanley! One hit him in the head."
"I know," returned the boy's step-father, "but every man has to take his lumps from time to time. It builds character."
When Joey saw an expression cross his mother's face that warned of stubborn insistence, the boy inserted, "Besides, I go a different way, now. You wouldn't like it, and neither do the big kids. Nobody bothers me. I'll be okay."
Without waiting, hot as he felt stifled inside a sweater, a light jacket and a heavy coat with an all encompassing hood, Joey turned and dashed out onto the porch the instant Stan opened the door. The resultant blast of chilled air forced his mother backward and suppressed the remainder of her protests. With a wave and a muffled 'good-bye', Joey trotted down the short walk to the curb, where he turned left to walk along the row houses toward Seventeenth Street and his school a mile away.
Stan paused in the doorway to gather his own coat, while he pressed a hand into the cold morning air. "You over dressed him," he noted, "it's going to warm up today."
"He could still catch cold in the morning."
The man grunted, and together they watched the boy march off to school in his great, yellow coat like a plump little chick sent off to the farmyard to forage for worms. "What's this new way he's talking about," asked Stan?
Marge stood to one side of the doorway, out of the draft, and she hugged her body with both arms, shivering with the chill. "He turns left just after the McAllister's, and then he walks through the Meadows."
"The Meadows?" Stan's voice trilled with disbelief. As though to confirm his wife's assertion, he leaned out of the doorway to watch Joey march along the curb, his mittens raking the ramshackle pickets of the front yard fences along the way. "They closed that place back when my father lived here as a boy. It went bankrupt and reverted to city care when I was a kid. It lies fallow most years, and the city only mows it when the rats get out of control."
"Rats?" Marjorie shivered, and once more felt a haunting pang of dread and danger. She had never wanted to move into Stan's old family home after his mother and father passed. She was happy back in Pecan Groves, Texas, where snow was rare and the strife of city life was unknown. She felt she could never adapt to the oppressive lifestyle of Chicago's inner loop, where everything seemed dinghy and a hundred years old. Gentrification had yet to reclaim Stan's old neighborhood. "Are there really rats?"
Stan grunted, nodding. He watched Joey trudge past the McAllister's three story town home. After a pregnant pause and a glance both ways along the street for older kids, Joey turned left, passing through their neighbor's side yard to enter into the Meadows through a bend in the wrought iron bars of the dilapidated fencing, which ran behind their row of houses.
"No kidding," breathed Stan, amazed, "he really takes a shortcut through the Meadows."
Marge braved the chill to lean out of the doorway beside her husband, so she just caught the last glimpse of Joey's yellow coat as he disappeared from view. "He told me about it three weeks ago. He says the older kids won't go that way, so he feels safe."
"Yeah," spat Stan unhappily, "it's no small wonder, either. They're afraid to go in there. Most everybody in this neighborhood feels the same way. It's why the city can't keep the place mowed and trimmed. None of the local sub-contractors want to do the job."
"Really? That seems silly to me, coming from grown men and all. Are they afraid of ghosts?"