Gen twisted her phone so that the map faced her palm. “We’re pretty close. Just a turn or two away.”
“Shut up, Gen. That was thunder. You should have put the entire address on your phone.” Brad twisted the steering wheel and the Nissan ran up into the tiny parking lot in front of Jim’s blank-and-Go. “We’re right at the bottom of the bowl down here. The streets’ll flood fast.” He pulled into a spot that faced the street.
Gen opened her door. “There was, like, a twenty percent chance of crap weather. I checked.” It was still hot, squinty, insta-headache weather, despite the freeways interlacing themselves in the air above the parking lot. Houston’s grid of downtown streets was just behind them to the left. “Don’t you remember? We came here for that thing when I was taking that art class.”
“I don’t remember coming down here with you. Ever. You didn’t go to places you had to find. Give me your phone.” Gen handed it over, stepping out of the car so that the breeze could shake out her shorts and tank top. Humidity shrink-wrapped the day to her pale skin, clammy from the a/c. She knew they’d been here because she’d been on the Cougar Gallery mailing list ever since, five years of not wanting to overlay the memory of that day with Brad.
He was still scrolling through her messages. “Why the hell are you on the mailing list for all these job sites? You just got a new freaking job. What was the exhibit called?”
“Dive. Everything relates to pools.” Gen leaned against the car. The wind picked up and trash blew across the parking lot. She thought she recognized the shape of one of the houses that backed up on the next street. The gallery was an ex-fraternity house, reclaimed by the university after an ear-biting incident Gen’s freshman year. Her one art class—a blurry year of slides and coffee orders for the grad student graders—had required they attend at least four shows and write about their experiences. Pretty much the entire class had come to the opening show at the ex-frat.
“I think it’s just over there. I’m going to run over before it rains and take a look. Then you can move the car.” Gen hurried across the street, forgetting to grab her phone.
The neighborhood around them was a mix of businesses and houses. It was hard to tell them apart, unless the buildings were just basic brick and glass. Gen crossed the street, cut up to the left to circle the block and felt a few spatters of rain on her neck. The unexpected touch caused her to jump and spin around.
A woman was waiting at the edge of the curb opposite her. Gen hurried forward, following a cracked sidewalk up in front of the buildings under the tangle of elevated roadways. Sharp shadows dissolved as the clouds lowered and the breeze tossed several foil and paper scraps against her legs. Gen skittered forward, trying to guess which house was the gallery. The one she’d thought it to be was boarded up, although the door was partway open. Her stomach turned cold. There were tags on the windows and the walls. Not art. Maybe gang art?
Thunder rolled above her, vibrating through the concrete and along her shivering skin. Something nearby growled back at it. A pile of blue black kittens squirmed against the fence—Gen looked twice to verify they weren’t rats. She hesitated. Art or cat?
Gen murmured at the pile and squatted beside them. You can’t really pick. It’s kinder to let them pick. She clicked her tongue and held out one hand. The middle one stood up so quickly two others flopped out of the pile. Gen continued to click and it came to her.
“You don’t wanna do that,” said a woman behind Gen. Gen glanced over her shoulder and saw the middle-aged woman from the curb, shaking her head. “Ain’t no kitten. Just leave ‘er be.”
A tiny nose bumped against Gen’s fingers and she scooped the kitten up without looking at it. “It’s hungry. And it’s going to rain.”
“Won’t hurt her. Too late, now, I guess.” The woman shuffled close, her left shoulder twitching as her shirt slid off it. A shadow flickered along her neck. Thunder boomed and the rain fell.
She hurried forward, pulling Gen along to the fence and then underneath the temporary protection of a freeway underpass. “It’s gonna steam. Ketz should have known better’n to mess with that phoenix.”
Gen balanced the kitten on one arm and fished for her phone. It was still with Brad. The rain was pouring down like a curtain, and Gen tried to watch the woman behind her, the kitten, and the water at the same time. “I should have grabbed the rest of them.” The kitten suddenly dug her back claws into Gen’s shirt and reached out to bat the rain. Curls of steam rose from its paws, the sluice of water spread out like a screen and Gen saw a sunny neighborhood beyond. She blinked. The kitten slapped at her arm with a burning paw.
Gen looked down and saw a ruff of feathers rise around the creature’s neck and along her back. “Half phoenix. Half Quetzcoatl. No part cat. Better take yourself off to Ben after the heavy stuff passes.” The woman fished in her top and pulled out a card for the Fahill Apartments. “Long A. We call it the Concrete Mushroom. Two blocks down this street, turn left, another block. Go to the third floor, ask for Ben.” The woman looked Gen up and down. “Smoky Ben. Best one for you.” With that, the woman adjusted her top so that both shoulders were exposed, rolled her neck, cracked her spine and drifted off into the rain, wings like dandelion fluff peeking from the back of her shirt.
A hot paw fell on her arm and “Ben” flared in Gen’s retina. She shook her head, smoothing the ruff of feathers that had flared around the creature's neck and along it's spine. "Art today," she said and plunged into the rain.