Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man. - Romans 1:22-23
Night was still waking. A golden halo merged with the orange lamps of the city. The city itself did not mind. Basking in the late summer heat it lived and loved as it had always done. Couples strolled beneath the lamps. Revellers chased one another across car wide streets. Only the alley behind block C was unlit, a pool of shadow amidst an orange land. It hid a lonely pair of eyes gazing up at the apartments.
Sifra checked her gloves one last time. She pulled tight the straps on her backpack, though it was empty. Her phone vibrated in the arm pouch. That was the signal. She hopped onto rotting crates, the wood bending beneath her runners. Her fingertips brushed the first balcony. She jumped, conscious of the noise. The crate gave way beneath her but she grabbed the edge. If she fell, there’d be no second tries. The thought amused as she climbed up over the railing. First storey. She lingered, listening. A car horn blared, voices babbled in the café on the road. The air smelt of garbage. Her gaze travelled up. The balconies were staggered, storey by storey. Each one was exactly the same, tiled floor with white railings. She’d planned a route based on which ones were empty and closed. Rested she hopped onto the side, eyes on the heavens above.
Gerard would have hated her form. She dragged herself over the railing, sprawling on the floor. A moment of climbing, a moment of rest. Five stories, ten minutes. That had been her boast. She was already ahead, and lounged as a result. It would be nice to live in a place like this, with rich purple curtains to hide the sun. Bang! Something slammed against the balcony door. She vaulted over the rails and was about to drop before her brain caught up. There was another bang. Something pressed the curtain up against the glass. Sifra stared at it in horror, a steady thumping as the curtain moved back and forth. She made out a faint moan. Her cheeks grew hot, even in the evening heat. She jumped on top of the railing, focusing on what was above.
“I don’t see why.”
The voice didn’t spook her. She focused on just clambering over the side of the rails.
“We haven’t seen them in months.”
The door on this balcony was open a tad. Maybe this route wasn’t as good as Sifra thought.
“She insulted me. Right in front of the others,” the speaker was female.
The movement had to be from her. She rattled plates like spears.
“I’m sure she didn’t mean it,” replied a man.
He spoke in the tones of someone who didn’t mean it.
Sifra could hear kids chattering around their bickering. Their exchange grew venomous but the kids seemed to think it was no big deal. Sifra bit her lip. She wanted to burst in and yell at them to stop arguing, but something about it made her feel warm. They sounded like a family. She had to leave it behind. She looked up to the sky, it seemed so much darker, but it couldn’t have been more than five minutes since she started. Focus on the prize. She prepared for the next one.
Her muscles ached. She’d practiced so much, on the streets and hills. Yet here she was, four storeys up and breaking. She almost missed the open door. The breeze was stronger up here and it made the curtain billow. She crouched on the windward side, eyes glued to the gap filled by the apartment inside. An old and smoky thing, it was lit only by candles. Sifra’s lips went dry as she spotted the woman. The flames caught the wrinkles on her back. Her bare back. Sifra watched in terrified silence as the woman finished undressing, folding her clothes with exaggerated care. The curtain flapped across the opening. It did not conceal those sagging breasts or the dark spots upon her thighs. The woman turned toward the window. Sifra clung on grimly. There was a strange smile on her lined face as she approached. Then she shut the door and the curtain closed over the gap. Old people were blind, Sifra told herself. That woman must have been ancient, probably 50, even 60. She could go on. Everything was fine.
The last balcony was the hardest. For one brutal moment Sifra felt her arms give. Her nails screamed. Don’t think. Don’t think. She shut her eyes and pulled. She made it. She leaned over the rail, panting. This door was open also and from it spilled electric light. Her phone vibrated. She ducked down as the their came a thunderous knocking on the front door.
“I’m coming. I’m coming!” grumbled a man in slippers, shuffling past her vision and to the door. She heard it open and a conversation start. Now! She slipped into the apartment.
The lights shone on endless shelves. They were arrayed with portraits, paintings, statues. There were haloes, hearts and lambs galore. The shelves groaned with icons and Sifra glanced round desperately for the one she had been told of. She passed a computer, its monitor showing an Amazon bid. The slippered man argued with his visitor “No, I don’t want your crap! Who let you in the building?”
Slipping into the bedroom she caught a glimpse of Martín at the door. He glared. She was running out of time. The bedroom was so tidy. No clothes on the floor. No leftovers on the table. She spotted it above the bed. The Sacred Heart of Saint Arethas. This was bad. He would notice it was gone. No time. She yanked it off the wall and shoved it into her pack. Her runners padded on the tiled floor, carrying her outside as the man shut the door. As the sun descended so did she.