Anu Desai tied her hair back with the elastic around her wrist and broke into a jog as she turned into the back alley. She hadn't taken this path in more than ten years, yet it looked exactly the same. A near-rotting wood fence still ran the length of the alley, vines draped over the planks intermittently. The gravel crunched conspicuously beneath her sneakers, and she slowed her pace as she made a right onto another backstreet. After the third garbage bin, she traced her hand along the wood, three large paces past the fire hydrant, and found the latch. Opening the gate just a sliver, she slipped through and closed it noiselessly. She glanced up at Mrs. Jenkins' bedroom window next door—if it was Mrs. Jenkins who still lived there. The lights were out, and so Anu tiptoed toward the shed.
She stuck her back foot on the fence to push herself up the wall and was surprised by how easy the familiar motions felt. She stepped fully onto the fence and then leaned against the outer wall of the house. From there, it was just one step onto the rain gutter—she tested it first, to make sure it was still sturdy—and then another onto the windowsill.
As always, the window was open just a hair. It was one of the best parts about living in Vancouver. Even if it was chilly outside, like today, nothing beat that fresh Pacific northwest air. Anu pressed her face close in toward the window as she found her footing, and her stomach growled when the smell of deep-fried pakoras hit her. While Anu's own mother had experimented with non-Indian food, going so far as to serve the family pasta and pad thai on occasion, her soon-to-be ex-mother-in-law, Priya Desai, had stuck to her roots. The only stains on her kitchen counter were from turmeric, and if the spice or vegetable wasn't available at her local Punjabi grocery store—well, Priya had probably never tried it.
Anu settled her butt down and then gently tapped her fingers against the glass until it opened. Back first, she pushed through—but where there used to be a bench, there was nothing but air, and she toppled over into a large crash onto the floor.
A light switched on while she was sprawled on the ground, and Anu tried to sit up in a blur, ignoring the pulsing sensation in her left ankle.
"Mother Fiona that hurt."
She felt hands on either side of her pulling her up, then spotted two dark brown feet sticking out from beneath the legs of khaki trousers.
"Why didn't you use the front door?"
The room stopped spinning. Anu moved to massage her ankle and winced at the pain.
"Here, let me take a look—"
"That doesn't look good." Neil Desai rolled up the hem of her jeans and inspected her ankle, squatting down in front of her. This was the most physical contact they'd had in months, nearly a year, and she wondered if he was thinking the same thing.
"Do you know what you're doing?" she said quickly to break the silence. "Are there any doctors downstairs?"
He snorted. "Don't need one. I took a first aid class, remember?"
"In two thousand seven."
"But that's basically the same thing as medical school."
He grinned again, and she winced. But this time it wasn't from the pain.
She pulled her leg away from him and stepped gingerly onto the floor. After testing her weight, she stood up straight with Neil's help.
Neil's bedroom used to have baby blue walls and ugly wicker furniture—not that Priya had ever allowed Anu to go upstairs to his room when they were dating. Now it was their daughter's, Kanika, room, with every Disney figurine, plush toy, or poster imaginable living within its blush pink walls. Her Moana backpack and matching suitcase were open on the floor, clothes and books spilling out. Neil crouched down and started tucking everything neatly away.
"Do you want any help?" Anu asked.
He shook his head, and so she walked toward the far window, pressed her head against the glass.