Summer was a burning blade rippling through the streets of Manhattan. It made ovens out of the tenements in Harlem and mocked the struggling window units that dotted their brick facades. Perspiration coated the nameless faces that passed beneath the open mesh of Mallorie Ortiz’s fire escape. She sat, leaning forward against its bars, her hair hanging loose in a tumbling cascade, her tan, sandaled feet dangling high above the broiling pavement. Traffic was grid-locked and noisy at that hour; the poisonous smell of diesel exhaust just typical city incense.
“Eat something.” Her mother hurried past the living room window, fixing a final bobby pin to a neatly restrained bun of black hair, her feet twisting into a pair of sensible shoes. Stopping at the mirror, she applied dark lipstick and tossed the tube in the pocket of her apron. “Mallorie!” she shouted, glancing out the window while she clipped on a small teardrop earring. “You’ll be late.”
Mallorie leaned her head to the side and closed her eyes for a second, and then she stood and climbed back inside. “I don’t have to be there till ten this morning. All I have left is my Math final,” she said, convinced the impending end of her junior year still hadn't registered with her mother.
The busy woman laid her purse on the table and disappeared into the hallway. “Maybe you get a job this summer?” her voice called from the bedroom.
Mallorie’s eyes rolled. “Maybe,” she mumbled, adding a determined “not” under her breath. Taking a seat, she poured the last drops of milk into a bowl of stale beige flakes.
Her mother raced past her and paused at the door. “I love you. Don’t forget your key.”
“Love you too,” Mallorie said, pulling out her test notes, not that she needed to study. Good grades had always come easy to her, and unlike most of the students in her school, Math was her favorite subject. Her eyes lifted towards her mother’s purse and she cocked her head at it. “Oh shit,” she whispered, then shouted, “Mom!” Jumping to her feet, her hand reached for its straps, and then she stopped, her inquisitive gaze narrowing on a check that sat inside it. Her head tilted as she poked it sideways. It was written to her mother in the amount of $1,000 from a company called DVC.
Suddenly, the door swung open and her mother reappeared. “Your crazy mother forget her purse,” the woman said in a blur of Spanish, grabbing the loud floral pocketbook and tossing it over her shoulder. “Love you. Again.”
“Goodbye, again,” Mallorie said with teenaged irritation. Her eyes dropped back to her notes, and then lifted, staring at the closed door. It seemed odd that her mother wouldn’t have mentioned a $1,000 check, considering she’d once won $100 from a scratch-off lottery ticket and talked about it for a month. “DVC...” she whispered, trying to imagine what it could be from. Poor as they’d always been, a thousand bucks was an enormous amount of money. While her mother made decent tips working as a maid in the most expensive hotel in town, her wages there after nineteen years still barely covered their rent.
Mallorie blinked the sweat from her eyes and focused back on her papers, twice tucking her chestnut locks behind her ear before reaching for a scrunchie. The heat inside their home was insufferable, the air so thick with moisture it was hard for her to breath. From the hallway outside, she could hear the woman from 4B bang on the elevator door, complaining that it was running slow. Another neighbor screamed for her to shut up.
"Nothing works right here," the man from 4G chimed in loudly.
“Tell the landlord, not us,” the second hollered, both of her dogs barking behind her.
Mallorie stood, her fingers curling into fists. “You know I’m trying to study in here!” she shouted into the hall, before angrily gathering her things together and storming out the door.
Public School 39 was an uninteresting brick building that ran six stories high, and it sat across the street from another brick building that acted as a senior center. Mallorie strolled past a line of old folks perched on folding chairs and benches, pausing only when an elderly black man with a tattered felt hat reached out a hand to her.
“My trumpet.” His voice came out trembling and weak. “Won’t you bring me my trumpet?”
The gray-haired woman sitting next to him shook her head. “He says that all the time. He’s confused. He thinks it’s still 1945.”
Mallorie smiled politely and lowered her eyes, not wanting to engage in a pointless conversation with a bunch of Alzheimer’s patients. Relief from the heat was the only thing on her mind, and the school’s library, which sat down in the basement, was always mercifully cool. It was also a place of solitude and blissful quiet, but not when her friend, Jada, was there.
Jada sat at the corner table browsing through the internet on the library's computer. She stood when Mallorie entered and waved her over, then pulled her shirt down snuggly as it tried to ride over her amble hips. A flop of black corkscrew curls fell into her eyes, despite the headband she was wearing. "Mal," she whispered, pushing aside her books to make room for her friend. "Did you see the selfie Naill posted last night?" She reached into her backpack and pulled out her iphone, tapping open twitter.
“No, let me see,” Mallorie squealed, glancing apologetically at the librarian as she raced to her friend’s side. “Oh God, he’s so sooo cute. Where’s the one where Liam is winking?” she whispered, leaning in closer.
“I have that...wait,” Jada said, clicking through her large collection of boy band videos, her bright pink and yellow bracelets making a tropical contradiction against her dark brown skin. Their hushed giggles echoed throughout the library, which was always filled with city kids in the morning, trying to escape the heat.
“Oh, hey,” Mallorie suddenly exclaimed, “Can you look up something for me real quick? My mother had a major check in her bag from some place called DVC?”
Jada raised an eyebrow. “D...V...C...” she recited, her fingers dancing deftly across the keyboard on the screen. “Durham Venture Capitol, Manhattan,” Jada read. “I’ll bet it’s like a 401k. She’s probably saving for her retirement.”
“No....no, that’s not what venture capitol is,” Mallorie said, taking the phone from her friend's hand and clicking on the link for the site. “They’re like a group of investors who give you money for start-ups.”
“So maybe your Mom is starting a business or something.”
“What?” Mallorie laughed out loud, and then shook her head. “My Mom is not starting a business. She can’t even keep track of what day it is. Besides,” she sighed, “she doesn’t make the kind of money where anyone would loan her anything.”
“Well, okay then, Miss Math Genius,” Jada said, “Then why are they sending her a check?”
“I don’t know,” Mallorie started, her eyes drifting to the log-in prompt for account information. “But I bet I know how to find out.”