Weeds in the Sidewalk
Other Novels by Allen Renfro
Copyright 2016 by Allen Renfro
ARMSlength Publishing Ltd.
Cover Art: LLPix Design
Ebook Edition License Notes
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Thank you for respecting the author’s work.
Weeds in the Sidewalk is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All Rights Reserved
I was nine years old when the thing with bug eyes and stringy mop hair wrapped his hands around my throat and squeezed. The rancid smell of his breath was in my face. His grungy hands wrapped like a snake around my throat, squeezing tighter and tighter. My unfinished life was not allowed to escape. The frantic shaking, my head smacking against the cold block wall behind me, the knowing; it made my heart beat too fast. Dying is easy; the fighting is the hard part. My face shoved against the piss-stained floor, the sour taste burning my lips as I grasped something cold as ice and porcelain, struggling, squirming, fighting to scream, muffled against the salty taste of his hand as I heard the clank of his belt opening. The pungent smell of his flesh made me gag when he unzipped my pants and struggled to pull them down. I felt the press of something strange against my butt, rubbing against me, his mouth on my face, the sewage-infested breath; his grunting laughter as the strangeness pressed hard against a place I didn’t know. I’m gonna fuck you.
When I tasted the blood from his hand, my teeth as deep into him as I could get, I knew I was meant to be a vampire. Not the kind that lives in a coffin and burns from the sun. The real kind: the degenerate, the goth, the animal that’s just barely human, the one that everybody knows and stays away from or beats to death; the vulture, the leech, the abandoned, the crazy, the outsider, the empty, the only. There is no in between. Kind of doesn’t work when it’s about being afraid. It’s the afraid that is love or hate. There is no kind of love. There is no kind of hate. There is only one. There is only either.
His free hand punching my face didn’t make me let go; the stench of piss on his clothes, his frantic screaming made me bite harder. I’m Cujo and I’m giving you rabies. With a tear of skin, he was loose and the slam of the stall door was the sound of freedom. With his scream swallowed behind the door, I stood up slowly, the salty sweet taste of blood in my mouth, like drool on my chin. I was not alone. I had me. Me would always be enough.
I was innocent then, even as I stared at the blood-spattered boy face in the dirt-encrusted mirror on my tiptoes. The sink faucet belched out a cold rusty vomit and I had to wait for it to turn to water. It was a mysterious thing that just happened. My body didn’t understand it. Neither could my mind; the strangeness that pressed into me and made me angry and afraid; the strangeness that turned me into the vampire that I became. I slid my hand across my butt, the softness there; used my finger to feel the place that he had touched. What did “fuck” mean? I’d heard the word before, but it never felt the way he just said it. His fuck meant something different from the one I heard on the playground, in the street, in the men’s room on the bad side of the park. I was supposed to know what this fuck meant. Especially now. Ink pen hieroglyphics and paint-chipped phone numbers on the dingy stall walls; I could read all the words, even the ones I didn’t know, the ones that felt like delicious wickedness. Fuck. Raw. Juice. Load. I had to know what it all meant.
A teacher once called me gifted. She never had a student so good at reading at my age. I just seemed to have a knack for it. It was a miracle coming from a background like mine, I heard her say once when she didn’t know I was listening. There was a magic inside me that might pull me out of the pit I was in if I was lucky. If I was lucky.
No paper towels, my face wet and free of oozing red, and the flow in my mouth I had to swallow. I found my coat in the corner behind the door. A chill of damp on my clothes as the cold of the dying winter pushed into me raked across my skin like angry fingernails, only a soft kiss of sunlight reaching through bare tree limbs whispered hello as my breath turned to mist when it touched the air. The creatures of the night were beginning to stir and I froze as the sound of the restroom door creaked closed behind me, pushing me forward into the open. The taste of metal in my mouth, spitting on the ground, swiping my hand on my lips, his blood inside me, and I couldn’t get it out. I knew that his was different, poisonous, but I don’t know how I knew. I climbed on my sparkling blue bicycle. My shirt had to dry before I got home. I’d be in so much trouble if they found out I stopped to pee in the park. That I was alone. That I didn’t stay with Rodney like I was supposed to. I knew how dangerous it was. I knew better.
I could wrap my coat around me and they’d never see. They never saw anyway. They never understood anyway. It’s all your fault was what I was used to. Always the one to blame, always the one that ruined their lives; I knew the score. Don’t we all know the score? Don’t we all know the lie?
The breeze soothed me, my legs pressing the pedals, faster in the icy wind, pushing snot from my red nose, along the broken sidewalk, zigzagging around zombies and four-legged humans collared and yelping, whizzing past motionless covered piles of lives that weren’t dead yet. My reflection bled across storefront windows, the prisons that held motionless, plastic beauty inside, the glass walls that told us we were different, that freedom was the real prison. The sirens, the horns, the giant steel monsters with a thousand eyes, casting shadows down on the ground, the only place I’ve ever known, a vampire invisible on the streets. I searched for her; she said her name was Mary when I asked her once. This was her jungle. This was her land to roam. She reminded me of a Christmas tree, decorated with all the pretty colors glittering at night, her red hair sparkling with jewels of some kind, and her face painted with pretty colors, but I only saw her at night. It was a simple matter of luck that I saw her coming out of one of the fancy buildings, a man with a black suit and hat holding her arm and helping her down the steps.
“Sonuvabitch! He owes me money, motherfucker!”
I skidded to a stop and jumped off my bike. They were fighting. He wasn’t helping her; he was throwing her out. The zombies on the street, suddenly awake, walked the long way around.
She stumbled away from the man in the suit, ripping loose and staggering toward me, spitting at him.
“Honey,” she said with her lipstick smile and purple and blue painted eyes. “What are you doing out here? Shouldn’t you be home? It’s almost dark! Hey! You got a bike!”
I slid my hand across the handlebars with a smile and nodded, but that was not what I wanted to talk about. “I gotta question.”
“What is it?” She took me by the arm and pulled me close to the building, out of the stampeding herd clomping down the sidewalk, and away from the roaming wind. She looked at me closer, noticing something on my face. Maybe I missed some of the blood.
“What does ‘fuck’ mean?”
She licked her lips, her eyes glancing around us. “You shouldn’t be saying that word.”
“But what does it mean?”
“It can mean a lot of things,” she said.
I was even more confused.
She studied my face, recognizing that I was being serious. “Where did you hear it?”
“I was in the park,” I replied. “I had to pee, so I went to the bathroom and this guy was in there and he said he was gonna fuck me.”
“Oh shit,” she said, suddenly clutching my face in her hands. “Did he do something bad to you? Did he touch you? Who was he?”
“Yeah, he touched me,” I said, still not understanding. “He had his hands around my neck and he pulled my pants down.”
She was alarmed. “Oh my God! Did it hurt when he touched you?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I replied, thinking I was going to cry. Her voice was scaring me, telling me I did something wrong.
“Did he stick something in your butt?” she nearly shouted.
“No,” I replied, my head shaking. “He touched it, but it didn’t hurt. Was it supposed to hurt?”
“What did you do when he touched you?”
“I bit him,” I said. “He ran away.”
A look of relief fell across her face as she leaned against the wall of the building, a smile blossoming. “Good! It’s what that sonuvabitch deserved.”
“Is that what fuck means?” I asked. “Putting something in your butt?”
“Listen to me, kid,” she said, her hands gripping my shoulders, almost shaking me. “Don’t ever let somebody do that to you, okay? You did good.”
“So that’s what fuck means?”
“That kinda fuck is for when you’re older,” she said. “When you’re able to understand what it really means. But you never, ever let some guy touch you there. Understand?”
“Do you fuck?” I asked.
She took a long deep breath, a sigh that sounded like frustration. “Honey, I wish that’s all I did.”
“But you let things go in your butt?”
“Don’t ever let anybody do anything to you that you don’t want,” she said and it felt like a threat, like I’d go to prison if it ever happened again. She adjusted my coat and zipped me up closer to my chin. “Don’t ever let them hurt you. Kill them if you have to.”
I stared at her, not knowing what she really meant. Kill them if you have to.
“You really need a toboggan for your head and a scarf. The wind is really cold today,” she said as I watched her hands fidget with my coat and I grimaced when she pinched my cheeks. “Tell your mama that Ricco wants her to call him, okay?”
“You better get on home before it gets dark,” Mary said, ruffling my hair. “You already got away from the big bad wolf once. I don’t think you can get away again.”
Big bad wolf. I didn’t know what she meant, but I climbed on my bike and raced down the street, chasing the sun as it disappeared behind the tall buildings in front of me.
This was like my first day of freedom and I’d already learned more in a Saturday than most would learn in a lifetime. I wouldn’t be scared anymore. I just needed to ask the questions that nobody ever asked, that nobody ever answered.
Rodney sat on the steps of his apartment building, his elbows on his knees, bundled up and wearing sunglasses, even though he was sitting in the shadows. When I saw him, I thought at first he was praying. He was always dressed nice. His clothes didn’t have holes in them. His coat was the kind that rich guys wore. His sunglasses were the kind that detectives on TV wore. I didn’t think to ask if he was rich. I just guessed that he was.
When he saw me, he rushed down the steps straight to me, nearly ripping me off the bike, hugging me like we hadn’t seen each other in forever.
“Aiden!” he nearly screamed. “Thank God you’re all right! Why did you take off like that?”
Aiden? Why did he call me Aiden?
My face pressed into the soothing warm fabric of his coat. I could barely breathe, much less answer him. For some reason, I knew I wasn’t supposed to tell him what happened in the bathroom. I couldn’t tell him I was now a vampire.
“I just wanted to see how far I could go,” I finally replied, spitting out the words and wiggling my face free of his coat.
“You can’t do that again. After what just happened,” he said, still squeezing me. What did he call himself? My big brother? That was the title they gave him when they gave him to me. It was supposed to be a gift of some kind, something about giving me a father figure, whatever that meant. A guardian angel, maybe? What would he be after I ripped off his wings?
“Sorry,” I replied, not knowing what I was supposed to say or if it made any difference. I wondered maybe if I could ask him about the word Mary taught me. Maybe he would answer…
I never asked him. I knew he wouldn’t really answer.
I think about him from time to time. I wonder if he’s still a big brother, if he still tries to make a difference; if he’s happy; if he’s still alive. I wonder if I’ll ever see his beautiful face again. I wonder if I would eat him for dinner? The things my mind thought of then.
The mirror stares.
I don’t see me; I only see what’s wrong. Does that make me not the me I’m supposed to be? Does that make me the me that I loathe and despise? Does that make me the me that everyone expects me to be? Am I the me that somebody else built, the creation, the monster of a mountain of lies, a million words, a room of staring faces? Why did I let this me win?
Could I break the reflection, gouge out the regretful eyes that see through me? I probably could step through the mirror and go back to then. Fix it, glue it, tape it. Something to make me not be the me that I am.
“Promise me you won’t do that again,” he pleaded, hugging me like he was really worried about me, even though I only met him like two weeks ago, when the woman said I needed a man to look up to.
The cold wind was gusting hard against us, racing around the steel mountains from the great lake and the air looked blue. He noticed my face, looking closer just like Mary had. Was I bruising from the punches to my face? Did he see blood? He didn’t say.
“Where’s Mom?” I pushed past Rodney and ran up the steps to the red double doors of the building. “Is she back yet?”
“No, she’s not.”
I stopped at the door, the cold handle freezing my hand. “She’s not?”
I didn’t know what to ask. “Why not?”
Rodney shrugged, taking the steps one at a time, slowly coming toward me. “She’s very sick. So she’s going to have to spend more time in the hospital.”
“I wanna go there,” I insisted. “I wanna see her.”
“She’s very contagious,” he replied. “You can’t see her.”
Something itched, just far enough away that I couldn’t reach. I was only nine, but my vampire senses told me he was telling a lie. The suspicion grew like cancer inside me.
“Look, Aiden, you’re going to have to stay with me a little longer,” he said. “At least until your mom is better.”
“Why are you calling me Aiden?” I asked.
He looked at me. I looked at him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You remind me of somebody I used to know.”
“Somebody called Aiden?”
He grinned. “Yeah, we called him Aiden.”
My eyes wandered away in thought, studying the scars and scratches of the stone that formed the wall of the apartment building. A gust of wind shoved me. It felt like a hand pressed against my back, the eagerness of a stranger anxious to push me off the side of a cliff.
“Hey, don’t forget your bike!” Rodney’s voice turned away from me, jarring as he scampered down the steps, the metal clanks and scrapes as he grunted, pulling the bicycle up the steps. “You can’t leave it outside overnight. It could get stolen.”
I opened one of the doors with a struggle as Rodney led my bike inside like a dog on a leash. A rush of heat flowed from inside, swallowed in the icy throat of the wind. I closed the door and followed Rodney slowly up the wood staircase, climbing up and up to the third floor, my steps in harmony with every creak and groan.
“What do you want for dinner?”
I don’t remember what I told him. No matter what I said, he always heard the word “hamburger.” I didn’t care about eating, even though chocolate pudding was always good for dessert and we always had it. But all I really cared about was finding my mother. She was in the hospital and I wanted to see her, I needed to see her, I needed it to be real. I needed it to be more than Rodney’s voice. Reassurance was a lie. Promises were lies. Brand new bicycles were lies.
I could see the lights in perfect squares through the window next to the table where we ate; the giant towers reaching for the sky. Rodney’s place was like a palace compared to where I lived with Mom and the man, whoever he was. The voices in the night that crept through the cracks of the walls; the couch I slept on, with a spring pushing into my back; the blankets never enough to stay warm; the rumble of footsteps over my head like thunder. Except for my mom, the cockroaches were my only friends.
The curtains pulled back just enough, a misty heat from the kitchen that turned the panes of glass white with steam. I waited for Rodney, the sizzling smell tempting to my stomach.
“What’s that?” His curious voice was behind me with the sound of plates settling on the table, the squeak of a chair sliding across the linoleum floor, my finger cutting through the foggy white, and the picture I saw in my head.
“Trees,” I said. I breathed against the glass, creating more fog, a wider canvas. My fingers carved into the chilly wetness, creating mountains behind the trees.
I nodded. “Mmmhmm.”
“Well, sit down and eat your dinner before it gets cold.”
I sat at the table in front of a white plate filled with hamburger, bun, tomato, and cheese and piles of tater tots and a can of soda pop. I loved carbonation.
I sat across from Rodney at a table meant for four. He offered me a smile, his mouth already full with a huge bite. He loved hamburgers. I looked around the table at the salt, the pepper.
“Where’s the ketchup?”
“Oh, sorry,” he said and quickly ran into the kitchen, returning in an instant with a bottle half-filled with red.
“So why do you draw trees?”
“I don’t know,” I said, wrestling with the fork that was too big for my hand, stabbing at the bloody tater tots and overflowing my mouth.
“You must really like trees.”
“Yeah,” I replied, accidentally spitting ketchup-covered tater tot onto the table.
“Are you sure it’s trees?”
I turned to look at my masterpiece as the dark slowly swallowed it up.
“It looks like a cage to me,” he said, burger in hand. “And clouds.”
I didn’t offer an answer. I knew what my drawing was. I knew what it meant. I knew what I saw. It wasn’t his vision; it wasn’t his finger that slid across the pane. It was mine.
“So what do you wanna do tomorrow?” he asked, taking a long slurp from the can of soda.
“I wanna see Mom,” I said, meeting his eyes with my eyes, holding the fork in my hand, wondering how bad it would hurt if I stabbed his hand with it.
“I told you,” he sighed in frustration, “she’s too sick. She might make you sick.”
“Can’t we call her?”
He shook his head. “She’s sleeping.”
“Why can’t I go see her?”
He slammed his fists against the table, his fork flying off the table to the floor. His frustrated anger caused me to jerk back away from the table, afraid, sort of.
“You want her to get better don’t you?” he said.
I nodded. Of course I did.
“Well, she needs time to rest, so she can get better.”
I didn’t believe him.
“Is she sleeping all the time?”
“Yeah, she is,” he replied, leaning down to pick the fork up from the floor.
“When will she wake up?”
“I don’t know, Aiden,” he said.
I’m not Aiden.
“She’s gonna wake up, isn’t she?” I felt the fear pushing tears from my eyes, waiting for an answer.
“Yeah, she’s gonna wake up,” he said with reassurance and a comforting smile. “So what do you wanna do tomorrow? It’s Sunday.”
I stared at him, chomping on another mouthful of bloody tater tots, the hamburger not much to my liking.
“It’s too cold for the zoo,” he said with a smile. “What about the aquarium? Or maybe a movie?”
“Oh come on, there must be something you wanna do?” he said. “What about the Field Museum?”
I looked at him, confused.
“They have dinosaurs!”
It was something that interested me.
“Great.” He smiled, taking another big bite of the burger.
We sat there chewing food and drinking soda and I couldn’t get the thought out of my head: what it would be like to ram the fork in Rodney’s hand. I didn’t hate Rodney. I don’t hate him now. In fact, I cared a great deal for him. I still do if he’s still alive. The cat’s curiosity grew inside me. The vampire that I became that day wanted to know, wanted to understand, and thought about the possibilities. If a Rodney dies in the woods, would anybody hear it?
I sat at the table finishing the burger and tater tots as was required by him. The blasting television in the next room irritated me and I did my best to drown out the noise. But strangely, I never thought of it as punishment. Food and television. My stomach was empty too many times. Awful or not, the hamburger filled me up.
“Don’t forget your chocolate pudding,” he called from the other room. “It’s in the refrigerator.”
I stared at the darkness framed by the open door, the dance of light from the screaming television, the space between two rooms, two lives. Should I tell him my sin?
I pulled a spoon from the drawer of utensils and welcomed the chilling burst of air when I opened the refrigerator door. The plastic cup of chocolate was sleeping like a bird on the top shelf until I grabbed it by the throat and ripped off its head. I stuck my tongue in. The cool, smooth texture lathered my tongue as I went deeper.
“You can eat your pudding in here if you want,” Rodney called.
I didn’t want. I walked around the table and back to the window. My masterpiece was gone, swallowed by the frosty white growing around the edges of the glass. The square lights of the steel giants I could see through the window, like decorated trees reaching up to the thick clouds in the sky that glowed like orange velvet. The spoon scraped the sides of the plastic cup. I wanted every last bite of chocolate. It was something I’d never had before and now it was my favorite thing to eat. I wondered if I could fly.
I breathed onto the glass, turning the dark into a fog and drew my masterpiece again. It was trees, I told myself. He was wrong. It wasn’t a cage. It was trees. It was heaven. It was a place I would never be allowed to enter, since I was a vampire.
The room was all I could ever want: a bed, a desk, a place to be by myself, a window to look through and see the rest of the world. The walls were nice and clean. The air wasn’t infected with smoke or stink. And he said it belonged to me now. But the dark pushed against me, smothered me. Blind—the dark was heavy and blind, just a streak of light under the closed door. Two weeks and still a prison; the unknown is a prison. The dark is a prison. I tiptoed to the window and pulled back the curtains, releasing the epiphany of street light.
I’m not Aiden.
The pillow under my head, the blankets snug around me; the pajamas Rodney gave me kept me warm. The strange noises did not float like ghosts through the room, the things I was supposed to forget, that I was not supposed to hear. Those things were missing and I was glad for the quiet; the quiet that watched over me and let me sleep.
I saw the thing’s face again; the stringy, moppy hair, its shit-reeking breath in my face, the bulging eyes. I felt the dry hands on my throat. I felt the strange touch. I was supposed to be afraid, Mary said. It was something bad, because I was not old enough. But I wanted to know. I wanted to know why. Sliding my finger against the place, I felt a stir between my legs, strange and tingling. What was this? I pushed my finger inside, gritting my teeth. It hurt. But not like Mary said it would. And I wasn’t afraid. I liked how it felt. The taste of blood in my mouth, my face pressed against the floor, the stink of shit and piss. What did he touch me with?
My mom would know the answer. She would tell me. I wasn’t going with Rodney to a stupid museum in the morning. I was going to find my mom.
I was seventeen when it happened; when I still believed in my vampire, a lust for blood, a taste for poisonous revenge, sinking my teeth in and savoring the bite. It was the first time I understood that my vampire really spoke to me and told me what I needed to do before it happened again. I missed Rodney then. He was good to me. He took care of me. He would never forgive the lie. He had every right to hate me. But it was the only way I could be set free. He would have stopped it and I would have let him.
I stood behind the yellow tape with a girl who claimed to be my friend but loved my vampire more than me. She loved my secret so much that she carved it in her own skin. When did I know, she would always ask, and I would tell her as I always did: that I knew on the day that I died but what day that was I couldn’t exactly remember.
She hated her name. Lisa. She hated her parents. She hated her sister. She hated her world, but she loved mine. Her hair was the black of coal and her eyes painted in the same dark shade. She always wore black with red sometimes folded in.
It was biology when she fell in love with me, when I ripped a frog open with a blade while others gagged and paled, screamed their morality; when she realized I would cut her open the same way if the vampire wanted. It would be the kind of fuck she would enjoy; no penis, no vagina, just a steel blade straight in and back out.
I was not her. I did not wear her black. I did not paint my eyes in the same darkness. It was not the normal of my outside that she loved; it was the rooms of Hades on the inside she lusted for, every door she wanted to unlock and open. It was at the instruction of my vampire that I looked like what the world would call normal. But she saw me, the other man, the half that is my whole, the one you’re not supposed to see. And I allowed her to see. Sometimes.
We stood in a crowd behind yellow tape that rippled and scratched in an angry breeze, shading our eyes from the sun as we watched the in and out of the police and crime scene experts from a men’s room in the park. The same men’s room where I discovered I was a vampire eight years before. A man was dead inside and it was bloody, deep red slopped on the boots and white coveralls they were wearing, the material they were carrying in and out dyed in red.
The voices around us like singing birds in a chorus of oh and ah, the whispers; the horror that draws all of us to death and then repels us like a magnet. The curiosity of the unknown, the mystery waiting after the last breath is taken, the power of those not afraid to drain life away.
The gurney slowly crept from the men’s room, the body bag loaded on top, two men pushing and pulling it into the white van with the word “coroner” on the side.
“It’s really warm today,” someone said from behind us as the crowd began to scatter and a policeman ripped down the tape. That’s the way life is: savor the horror of murder for a minute and then get on with it. Life is a river always flowing in one direction, leaving all of us behind eventually.
We wandered among the herd along the walking path, surrounded by the whispering green leaves as a spring wind kissed the trees.
We walked side by side.
“I wanna watch,” she said.
I had no idea what she meant. Did she want to watch me masturbate? Take a shower? Dissect another frog?
“Somebody die,” she said. “I wanna watch somebody die.”
“Do you mean murdered?”
“I don’t know,” she replied and suddenly spun around in a strange dance to music only she could hear. “Maybe I should be a nurse or work in a mortuary? I like dead people.”
I walked past her as she slid her hands through the leaves of a tree and plucked a perfect leaf.
“I’d like to see them bleed,” she said. “Slowly… Paralyzed… as they stop breathing and look in their eyes and see what they see.”
“What do they see?”
“What’s next,” she said with a sarcastic huff. “They know it’s coming and they can’t get out of the way.”
“So you think there is something after we die?”
“I don’t know,” she mused, racing up beside me and sliding the leaf along my cheek, causing me to itch and jerk away from her with a grin. “It’s a nice thought.”
“What if there isn’t anything?”
“Well, then this life is a big old waste of time, isn’t it?” She laughed and spun around so that her black skirt flowed out in an exaggerated orbit.
“A big fucking waste,” I replied.
“Would you kill me?” she asked, throwing an arm around my shoulders, causing us to stumble and nearly fall. “Would you do it so I could watch myself die?”
I didn’t answer as we shuffled along.
“You would, wouldn’t you?”
I didn’t answer. I would if I knew she really wanted to do it.
“But what if it’s not what you expect?” I said. “What if when you start to die, you see something that’s bad?”
“Like what?” she asked. “You mean, like Hell?”
“I think you know,” she said, taking me off guard, like a car running over me. “I think you’ve seen.”
I glanced over at her, surprised. She pulled on a loose thread from the sleeve of my ugly red sweater and then tugged at the back pocket of my loose jeans. I could’ve ruined it for her. I could’ve told her that we were already in Hell and that anything after would be better than this. But she was never hungry, the pretend girl from the suburbs, she was never cold, she was never without; away from the noise, away from the piss-reeking streets, away from the creatures that roamed the jungle looking for fresh prey.
“I think you know what happens when we die,” she said. “I think you’ve seen it.”
She wanted me to tell her what I’d seen, what I knew. I wouldn’t tell her. She couldn’t know all of it. She could only know the secret I’d already told her, the one carved in her skin.
“Wouldn’t it be great to come back in another life and be the Queen of England?” she said, releasing the grip of my pocket and once again sliding her hand through the limbs of a tree, caressing the green leaves like water flowing over her hand. “Or somebody rich, you know. Really rich. A different life than this.”
I liked my life. She should have liked hers. I shouldn’t have liked my life. But I did. I didn’t need anybody else’s. I didn’t want anybody else’s. She wanted everybody else’s except hers.
“Who would you come back as?” she asked, not looking at me, focused more on her hand sliding gently through the low hanging branches of a tree. “I know. Somebody pretty, right?”
“I don’t think I’d come back as a person,” I mused. “Maybe a bird.”
“A bird?” Her sarcastic tone was more like confusion than insult.
“They can fly,” I said. “They can go anywhere. For free.”
She thought about it and liked the idea then. When she understood that a bird meant freedom. It meant escape.
“Nothing holds them back,” I said. “They do what they want and they go where they want. Sounds like a good life to me.”
“Too bad vampires don’t fly,” she said with a wicked smirk on her face.
“Yeah,” I said, not needing to say anything else on the subject.
I looked up at the rows of phallic steel with glass faces, beyond the trees, the hard-on towers scratching the sky; the sun glistened against the panes of glass and the world looked pretty and disguised.
Nobody really saw it but me; no one understood what was really going on.
The trees became cracked sidewalks lined with lampposts and parking meters, overwhelmed by herds of zombies and money whores staring through storefront windows. Lisa always got the stares, the second looks, the turn around, over the shoulder eye. I fit in. She was too pretty to fit in, so she made herself ugly. She wanted to be a vampire like me, but she knew she couldn’t be. She wasn’t meant to be. She was just experimenting, sewing wild oats until the day she became normal, nine to five normal, with two kids and a soccer mom reputation. Her husband would be a doctor or a lawyer for about ten years until the long hours at work; until the strange absences caused the divorce and the prescription drug problem. She would color her hair blond and spend Friday nights at a downtown club giving blowjobs to college frat boys twenty years younger than her. It would keep her happy until the night she stepped off a curb into the path of a truck.
She wouldn’t believe me if I told her, so I never did. She wouldn’t want to know anyway. Knowing would change it all, the life she would live, but she couldn’t understand that it wouldn’t change the night she stepped into the path of a truck. That part was set in stone. Living is dying: once you understand that simple fact, no other rules really matter.
“It’d be nice to be able to look through one of those windows and say I’ll take it,” she mused, locking her arm around mine as we zigzagged through the meandering herd.
“That’s not you,” I said, glancing at the window she was staring through, the mannequins dressed in clothes created by men with strange names, as we kept on walking.
“I know,” she replied with a half grin, the black lipstick making her teeth glow. “But even the most hardcore sometimes wants to be a princess.”
“They do?” My question was genuine. The concept seemed foreign to me. Maybe she meant that everybody wants to be what they’re not. When you have nothing, twenty dollars can feel like a million in your pocket. It means living for another week. “But you’re already a princess?”
She sighed long and heavy. “Don’t fucking remind me.”
She was like most people, unwilling to learn; unwilling to understand that no one sees the same vision and no one hears the same song.
“Let’s go to Shakers,” she said with excitement, shaking my arm. “I’ve got some green!”
I wished I had her green. I couldn’t tell her I needed her green. She didn’t know all of me. She didn’t want to know all of me. Like I said, she wanted the vampire, not me. I wondered what she thought of the me she knew in school.
It was like an oversized hallway, tall booths along the right side and a long bar along the left, just enough space in between to walk to the back where the bathrooms were. The grease-covered walls were decorated with framed posters of dead celebrities—some I recognized, most I had no clue who they were. The music piping through the speakers was always random but always cool; the strange kind of music I liked with hardly any words, just a great vibe. It felt like a diner without the loudness. It was a place of Zen called Shakers.
The wood booths, over-stained and covered in ink pen tattoos and knife carvings, creaked and groaned when you sat in them. A tiny lamp with a red shade gave each booth its own ambient glow. The smell was seductive, especially to an empty stomach. The curly fries and onion rings stacked in a large basket between us was the equivalent to worshipping at an altar. I sipped from a straw sticking out of a tall plastic bottle of soda without lifting it from the table. People in business suits and shorts and tank tops whizzed back and forth between the frantic, stylized servers in their black slacks and black shirts; a Beverly Hills personality but in a mobile home. Our clothes, our look didn’t go unnoticed; the Goth girl and the geeky, skinny post-puberty boy wearing a sweater in the spring and still not grown into his body.
Lisa watched with casual interest as my masterpiece developed on the table in black ink; my trees, my memory. An onion ring crunched loudly as she bit into it.
“Still looks like prison bars to me,” she said, chewing as quietly as possible. “Bars and clouds.”
“It’s not,” I replied, working the lines perfectly, making the trees like a forest, squeezing the ink pen tighter.
“It’s kinda wicked,” she said, taking a sip of her soda through the straw. “Why do you draw it all the time?”
Why do I breathe? I wanted to yell, but she wouldn’t understand. She didn’t know. She would never know.
“Because I want to,” I said, not looking at her, still perfecting the masterpiece.
“It’s got something to do with the day you changed, doesn’t it?” she asked. I felt her eyes on me, staring, studying, trying to understand. “It’s why you’re a vampire.”
She whispered the words; she knew the importance of keeping the secret.
“No, not really,” I replied, remembering the day I was pushed against the floor and the stringy haired, bug-eyed vulture tried to shove his cock inside me. The first time I tasted blood.
“But it’s real,” she said, filling her mouth with curly fries and chewing. “It’s not just a drawing. It’s something about you.”
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“Why do you do that?” she huffed, throwing a curly fry at me. I watched as it bounced off my shoulder and tumbled down to my lap, forming nearly a perfect circle on the bulge in my jeans. I picked it up and pushed it into my mouth, chewing up the saltiness.
“Give a bullshit answer.” She smiled at me, shaking her head. “Are you afraid to tell me? Am I too much of a girl? I can’t handle it?”
“No,” I said as I put the final touches on my masterpiece and admired it with a smile. “You want it to be something more than a drawing. And that’s all it is. A drawing.”
She looked at me funny; the smile went away. “Am I just a drawing?”
It was a good question. I studied her face, the dark eyes, the black lips, the black clothes, the black fingernails on her hand, like the heads of snakes sifting through the basket of fries and onion rings. It’s like she fell out of the 1980s, a rebel without a cause except to escape her perfect life.
“Are you?” I asked with a grin, hoping she could answer her own question.
“I feel like it sometimes,” she said.
“Whose drawing are you?”
She stared into my eyes, her face illuminated in the glow from the red lamp at our table. “How the fuck should I know? Is this one of those find-your-inner-God kinda questions?”
I laughed, sliding the pen back into the pocket of my jeans. “Like I said, it’s just a drawing.”
I reached for the basket and took the smallest onion ring; the one that I knew was the juiciest in the basket. She wanted to believe in an afterlife, which meant she still believed in God, but she didn’t want to say so. She didn’t want to say she was God’s drawing. She didn’t want to say that the God she believed in was supposed to control everything but didn’t really do shit to help her or to help anybody. Her God watched us like reality TV, like a masochist waiting for the next school shooting; the next beheading; the next suicide bombing; the next disease; the next me.
Did I believe?
I think I did.
The cute server slid the ticket onto the table and casually walked on by.
Lisa reached into a pocket in her skirt and pulled out a wrinkled bill, a twenty. She studied the ticket the server dropped on the table. “Jesus, sixteen bucks?”
I smiled on the outside, but inside, I ached. Four dollars wouldn’t pay for anything. I needed more than that.
She shrugged. “I should have brought more money. Get a box for the rest of these and take them with you.”
I nodded, embarrassed. Lisa knew, but she didn’t know. She felt sorry for me and that was worse than any sin I could commit, the feeling it made me feel, the handout that I always needed. In our own way, we both knew I was using her, but she truly loved our time, better than the movies or music. She benefited and it didn’t hurt her to pay for it every once in a while.
White, Styrofoam box in my hand, the curly fries and onion rings rattling inside, we walked along the fractured sidewalk toward the train station I knew too well. The cool breeze from the lake whistling between the shabby, rundown buildings along the street was comfortable and the herd not so crowding. We walked beside the abandoned places that were a second home to me.
“Will you be at school tomorrow?”
“I think so,” I said. It was the only answer I could ever give when she asked. I never could be certain.
“Are you hunting tonight?” she asked, purposely vague. She did care about how her words made me feel.
“At least it’s not cold,” I said. That was my answer to her. She knew what it meant.
“I’ll bring some green tomorrow,” she said as we climbed the metal steps up to the station platform, the rumble of the coming train hurrying us along. “Be careful!”
She kissed me on the cheek like she always did. “You know, maybe sometime I can go with you. I could tell my parents I’m spending the night with a girlfriend. They’d never know.”
“Maybe,” I replied, shoving my fists in my jeans pockets.
The wind smacked against us as the blur of the train slowed and finally the train was a stationary machine spitting people out and swallowing up new ones.
“Okay, gotta go,” she said with a smile. “Hope to see you tomorrow.”
She smiled at me behind the glass and waved as the train jerked and moved out of the station and I disappeared in the herd of commuters drifting down the steps. I needed to find Jesus.
Rodney was still asleep. He always slept late on Sundays and the sky had just turned to light. He wouldn’t hear me. I had to be quiet with the bike until I got it downstairs.
The cold smacked my face, turning me frosty blue as I closed the red door and rambled down the front steps to the street, the air frozen in place, my breath in rolling clouds of smoke. The toboggan on my head, the coat, the scarf around my neck, my gloves and shoes; it was too cold to ride the bike, but it was too cold to walk. The gray sky was going to bleed, but I had to do this even if I froze.
All the animals were sleeping; too early and too cold to hunt. The prey bundled in piles of newspaper and cardboard on top of steaming vents and in doorways; the concrete sidewalk hard and burning like ice. A bus that ambled by like a lazy elephant spraying smoke into the air was like a warm bed to my eyes as I blinked and squeezed out frozen teardrops. The cold pushed snot from my nose and burned my skin; my lips were numb, crusting over. But I was a vampire; the cold couldn’t kill me. I pedaled harder.
I didn’t even know where I was going. I didn’t know which hospital or where any hospital was, not even the one I was in just a couple of weeks ago. Why wouldn’t Rodney tell me? Isn’t not saying still a lie?
The pedals of the bike got heavier as I went, the wind cutting me and making my eyes sting. The sun fought to break through the cotton clouds; long rays of light drew lines across the faces of the steel giants.
I wandered aimlessly like crumpled paper caught in the wind, going only where it pushed me. I was lost. But lost seemed familiar to me. I’d done it before. I wasn’t scared. Lost was a familiar stranger, a person you pass by on the street every day and offer a smile or a nod and somehow you know them, even when you don’t. Even when he could be a sociopath that has killed a hundred people, or she could be a psycho that drowned her children in a bathtub or a stalker watching and waiting for that one second to slit your throat.
The signs at every corner only confused me. I couldn’t remember the names from one block to the next; my eyes a blur, my skin burning. I realized I was wrong. Vampires can die. I was going to die as I was hiding from the black and white monsters that roamed the streets. Their glaring blue and red eyes and banshee wails terrified me. I would never ask them for help. My fear was a scar I wore from memory; a song I’d never sing again.
Then the sun seemed to open its eyes and beam a revelation. Radiating in the glow, I could see the word “hospital” and the word “emergency” and I knew I had been saved. Winter’s bite would not take me. I pedaled along the sidewalk through the noises and the bustle of a busy place. The screaming sirens, the men and women in green and white, zigzagging between the losers and victims, a place where the chosen tried to disinfect the ones that deserved to die. The stench of everything we were taught to fear; this was where my mother could be. Could she really be sleeping?
I found a place for my bike next to other bikes and used the special lock and chain to keep it safe. Rodney taught me how to use them. I wondered if he was awake yet. Did he know I was gone? Did it matter?
Too short, too invisible, I walked through the sliding glass doors just under the word EMERGENCY, dodging gurneys racing through the doors surrounded by herds of important people barking orders. The hall inside the doors was long and bright. When I was older, I thought of that hall as the bright light you see when you die; the final journey; the ending that none of us know.
Staring eyes, the air filled with hacking coughs, a smell of rot and decay and Lysol; mindless undead sitting in plastic chair rows under hard, bright light covered in moth-eaten coats and surgical masks with death angels sitting on their shoulders. A television bolted to the wall up high reported news that nobody gave a shit about, the sophisticated anchorman’s voice lost in the cloud of moans, groans, sneezes, and coughs. The warmth in the room made my skin itch underneath my coat.
I stood in front of a glass wall with a woman on the other side. Her eyes told her story of long night shifts in a thankless job that didn’t pay enough and tormented her. The glass was not her prison. It protected her from the knife-wielding psychos that wandered in from time to time wanting legal poison to soothe their savage beast. The paycheck was her prison.
“Well, hello there,” she said. Her voice was a soothing velvet, a happiness in the tone that was a surprise. She sounded happy, even though I knew she wasn’t. How could she be?
Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail. The white around her brown eyes was turning bloodshot red. She wasn’t wearing white or green. She was wearing regular clothes, like any woman would every day.
“Hello.” My voice was timid. Why was it timid?
“My goodness,” she said, “your face is red and you’re shivering! Are you okay?”
I nodded as I pulled the scarf loose around my neck.
“Well, what can I help you with?”
“I’m looking for my mom.”
“You are?” The tone in her voice sounded more condescending, like she was talking to a child. She didn’t understand she was talking to a monster.
“Are you lost?” she asked.
“Do you think your mother is here?”
“You think she’s a patient?”
“Okay,” she said as her fingers clicked on a keyboard and she studied a screen in front of her. “Can you tell me your mom’s name?”
“Jackie Russo,” she repeated, the keyboard clicking as she hummed and studied the screen that only she could see. She looked up at me. “Where’s your dad?”
“He’s dead,” I replied simply and directly.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, looking back at her screen. “Where’s your guardian or babysitter?”
She meant Rodney. I didn’t answer.
“I’m sorry, honey,” she said with a distressed smile. “There’s nobody registered under that name here. Are you sure she’s supposed to be in this hospital?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know which hospital she’s in. I just know she’s in the hospital.”
“Okay, I tell ya what,” she said in the sweet condescending tone again. “If you have a seat in the waiting room, I’ll call around for ya and see if I can find out what hospital she’s in. Does that sound okay?”
“By the way, you didn’t tell me your name,” she said with a smile.
I stared at her, didn’t answer.
“What’s your name?” she asked in a pleasant tone.
I walked away without answering. I don’t know why I didn’t answer except to say that I didn’t think she needed to know. There’s a difference in fear and caution. I wasn’t afraid. I probably should have been.
I studied the faces, the eyes staring at me before they looked away. It was a room where all worlds collided; the walls were just higher for some people. There was no place for me to sit, every row of plastic chairs covered with infection. One woman was on her side, lying on the floor moaning in pain, praying a curse on the doctors that were making her wait. An old man wrapped in a scraggly blanket smelling like piss and cigarette smoke stood up, his voice like a rusted muffler on a car.
“Little boy, you can have my seat,” he hacked and then coughed into his hand. He wiped a stain of blood from his palm onto the blanket wrapped around his shoulders.
I stepped away from him and walked back to the safety of the wall of glass and the tired woman talking on the phone behind it. Her smile was comforting, a peace about it that I didn’t recognize. I looked around the room; the smells, the groans, the coughing, the anchorman on the TV. This was some kind of normal. This was every minute, every hour, every day. This was a place the hopeless gathered, some of them hoping their hopelessness would last another day or two with a doctor’s help. I still find it funny that the hopeless want to live.
“Son.” I felt a hand on my shoulder before I heard her voice. I turned and looked up at the smiling, tired woman until she knelt down, her hands grasping both my shoulders. “I hate to tell you this, but I couldn’t locate your mother. I checked quite a few hospitals and she wasn’t in any of them.”
I acknowledged her with a crooked smile and a nod.
“Maybe you should go to the police?” she said. “I can call them for you.”
“No, please don’t do that,” I said. All I need is me.
“Do you have a place to stay? Is anybody looking after you?” Her eyes pierced into my soul, the stare unbearable. “What’s your name?”
“I have a place to stay,” I replied and broke free from her clutches, running down the long hallway.
My mother not being there wasn’t really a surprise. I knew Rodney was lying to me. I felt like I knew my mother wasn’t in a hospital. I froze at the glass doors, the dread of winter’s icy cold fingers inside me. I wasn’t ready, leaning against the cold wall of painted concrete squares. The sun once again was swallowed up in the gray, bleeding skies; the drift of white, cotton flakes the camouflage of powder that went into my mother’s nose. The chill of winter’s tongue licked against my face as the doors slid open and closed with every gurney that came and went; with every uniformed person rushing by.
A hand suddenly on my coat sleeve, dragging me hard into the cold, my stumbling struggle against an anger that shouldn’t have been directed at me, the bundled figure, the gloved hand, a trace of the dark hair under a hat that I recognized as Rodney’s. His mumbling voice was swallowed nearly whole in the rage of snow and wind; some of the words I made out.
“Maybe I should call the police myself,” he mumbled, his words bouncing against the ice-cold sidewalk as he wrestled with the chain on my bike and I stood there like a doll, unable to move, the cold and snow burning my eyes. “I don’t know why I’m even trying. I don’t need this headache. I’m just trying to help.”
He was talking to me, but he wasn’t talking to me. Maybe he was talking to Aiden?
“I wanna see my mom,” I said, spitting flakes of snow from my mouth before they melted against my lips.
“And I said you couldn’t,” he replied, yanking the bike angrily and rolling it toward his fancy black car idling at the curb, my sleeve caught in his grasp.
“Let go of me!” I shouted, purposely drawing attention, wanting their stares, their concern, but nobody gave me a second glance; just another brat, just another nuisance, just another in the way.
“Get in the car,” he shouted, forcing me to the door.
I kicked his shin and before he stopped shouting in pain, I was half a block away and not looking back, slipping and sliding on the snow-covered sidewalk, the sting of white pellets in my eyes, the flakes soaking into my coat, the wind like an arm wrapped around me, pulling me back, the roar of car engines and blowing horns, a toxic carbon monoxide smoke dancing in time with the wind and snow. I guess I thought I could really get away, even when the weather was against me. I guess I thought I could blame Rodney for everything that was wrong.
I zigzagged through a line of zombies, their hands stuffed in coat pockets, their heads wrapped so that only eyes were staring out, heads down looking at feet, tracks of shoes forming in the thickening white.
He had my collar before I realized how close he was. “What’s wrong with you?”
I stared at him, the cold and snow burning the tears from my eyes, the perfect disguise. I didn’t have an answer. I only had the question.
“Where’s my mom?” I fought against the blinding snow, the wailing wind.
He dragged me along the sidewalk, his hand firmly clutching the collar of my coat, pushing me along as we struggled through the blistering snow, the streets and sidewalks quickly turning from ugly black and gray to virgin white until the machines and shovels tore away the façade and brought the ugly back.
“I’m gonna show you,” he shouted over the bluster of snow, still squeezing the back of my coat at the collar and pushing me along.
The way he said it told me I didn’t want to know. The way he said it was like disappointment more than anger. Disappointment in me. It didn’t matter that I had a roof over my head that didn’t leak and I had food in my belly. It didn’t matter that I had a bike. It didn’t matter that I had a room to myself in a nice place that was warm. It only mattered that I knew where my mom was and his voice told me I had no idea how wrong my thinking was. I was stupid, but it didn’t matter. I wanted to know.
Watching the to and fro of the silent windshield wipers sweeping away the barrage of snow white across the glass, I sat fastened firmly and warmly in Rodney’s car, staring out the window at the snow-covered cars that slept along the curb. The dark grasping limbs of trees covered in white, like fur, stretched across the quiet suburban street. I had never seen such a beautiful place, outside the ugly of the tall buildings and garbage-infested streets. This was a normal to some people. My bike stuffed in the backseat wiggled restlessly against the seat. Rodney’s words barely came to my ears.
“I asked Mrs. Ferguson if we could wait another week before starting school,” he said.
I looked over at him, wrestling the scarf free from my neck and unbuttoning my coat. I turned back to the window, my breath fogging the glass. Secretly, I tried to draw my trees and clouds, but the mist quickly faded, the snowflakes whizzing by almost hypnotizing me.
“Are you okay with that?”
I didn’t answer.
“She thinks you’ll be able to catch up pretty quick,” he said. “You haven’t been out of school that long.”
I looked at him again, speechless. Out of school? I haven’t been out of school. I studied the gentle lines of his face at the corner of his emerald eyes, the smile on his face overwhelming the anger that flooded out of him and almost drowned me. His language was so foreign I didn’t think I understood. He thought I was going to be staying with him for a long time? Maybe forever? Why would he ever think that?
“I think you need more time to settle in and get used to things,” he said, glancing over at me and back to the road as snow pelted the windshield furiously and the wipers struggled to keep the glass clear, the tires hissing with slush.
I turned back to the window and a sudden spray of sunlight that nearly blinded me. In the rear view mirror, a wall of raging fog slowly drew farther away. Glancing from the mirror, I watched Rodney slide his fancy sunglasses on, hiding his eyes behind the dark lenses. A strange familiar raced through me. I would never be as pretty as he was; I would never smile the way he smiled; I would never be happy the way he was. I wondered if he knew how happy he should be, that he had everything that anyone could ever want or need. I knew this is in just the short time that I had spent with him. But there was still something missing about him: an absence, a void that was as large as a black hole that I don’t think to this day I understood.
“What?” he asked, uncomfortable with my staring.
It was a fleeting moment, a pause, a catch of breath, a dream maybe? I couldn’t stop staring at him and I couldn’t open my mouth. Words wouldn’t come out.
“Have you ever been outside the city?” I caught a smile on his face.
I turned back to the side window, my eyes barely above the frame, just able to see out, the blur of cars and trees whizzing by in the cold sunlight. The silence in the car was long and painful.
“Why do you hate me?”
I didn’t know him well enough to hate him. I hated him like I hated a stranger, like a dark alley, like anything I didn’t know.
“I really am trying to be here for you,” he said, his shaded eyes staring straight ahead, not looking at me. “They would’ve stuck you in one of those homes, you know.”
I squinted from the glare of the sun, pulling off my toboggan, a rush of tears in my eyes; a note on a table, a scream, a door closed and locked, rattling, shaking, pounding, and cracking. I was screaming. I was screaming. I was dreaming, just dreaming; that’s all. His words were as threatening as the skies fading behind us, the warning crystal clear. I would get what I deserved by knowing what the answer was.
“Mom is dead, isn’t she?” I asked, kind of out of nowhere, a voice coming to me that wasn’t mine.
“Why would you think that?” he said, his hands gripping the steering wheel tighter.
I didn’t answer. He knew why I thought that. Maybe I should’ve asked him what fuck meant.
He let out a breath of frustration, shaking his head. “She’s not dead.”
“She ran away?”
“She wanted to,” he said, glancing over at me with a sad look on his face.
What did that mean? She wanted to run away?
“From me?” I asked, sounding like a crying baby.
I realized that he didn’t know how to answer and he was choosing amnesia over the truth.
“What do you remember?”
I just stared at him, not knowing what to say.
“The last time you saw your mom,” he said.
What was a nine year old supposed to say? I didn’t remember. How do you put memories together anyway? Do you always remember the very day, the very hour, the very minute? Or do they just happen? The good ones anyway. What if he was asking about a bad one? The last time I saw my mother, was it a bad one? When was the last time?
“I don’t know,” was my simple reply seasoned with a quivering voice.
“Hey,” he said softly, reaching over and squeezing my arm. “I’m sorry, Aiden. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
I wasn’t Aiden. I was a vampire. Vampires don’t cry. Vampires don’t need their mothers. I turned my eyes back toward the window and watched the cars and trees and houses, all whizzing by. “Why do you keep calling me Aiden?”
Even behind the sunglasses, I could see the panic on his face when I turned to look at him, the realization that his words were the words of a devil. It was like he didn’t understand himself why he was saying it and that he kept saying it.
“I’m sorry,” he finally replied after working scenarios through his head. “You just look so much like him.”
“Who is he?” I asked, really wanting to know this mysterious kid that looked like me.
“He’s my nephew,” he said after a lifetime of waiting. The suspicious inside me scorched my bones, a poison spreading like fire. He was lying again. He was lying about everything. “We lost him about three years ago.” He hesitated, staring at me. “You don’t believe me.”
I didn’t believe him.
“Maybe we should stop by and talk with Mrs. Ferguson,” he said.
Mrs. Ferguson, the old woman dressed too young who told me I needed Rodney. I needed a strong male role model because of what happened. She was the one that said Rodney was perfect, a gentle and supportive man who would provide stability and safety. I didn’t know what it meant. But I didn’t have any choice in the matter. That was about all I could remember about that conversation.
“You wanna talk to Mrs. Ferguson?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “I wanna see Mom like you promised.”
He shrugged with his hands, which rested on top of the steering wheel. “All right.”
Drops of sweat trickled from my hair in tiny streams down the sides of my face. I walked along a street of abandoned buildings and falling houses, counting the weeds sticking up in the broken sidewalk along every crack and break. I recognized every one of them, their faces, every smile and every fear; their strength in staying alive, even though they’d been buried, pressed into the ground, covered in concrete, stomped on, ignored. They were the just-pretend-you-don’t-see-them-and-they’ll-go-away. But they were spring-beautiful; ripe, long fuzzy lines of green basking in the sun as I jumped every fracture, avoiding the monsters with their hands in pockets squeezing bags of poison that swallowed so many whole, stumbling around the aborted that sold their soul for a place to stay.
Mirrors always staring.
The sun baked air sang with bad breath, the reeking smells of fart-making factories as I walked across a rocky field past railroad tracks leading only to a time that no longer existed, sliding my hands along the tops of waist-high weeds that sprouted up from step to step, their strange blooms of white and gold that might be poison.
Standing in the middle of growling rust and stench, I often wondered what Lisa’s home was like, especially when she wasn’t around. I wondered if her life was as I pictured: an epic palace complete with a water-filled moat and drawbridge, the princess of a powerful king and queen complete with massages, tennis courts, and gym memberships. Her absence always confused my feelings. I could never decipher the envy, the jealousy, the regret. The vampire would warn me. Feelings are not to be trusted; the deception of love leads to weakness. I was to look like the world, not be a part of it. I could never be a part of it.
The Styrofoam box filled with onion rings and fries had already been abandoned to the hungry dogs that lingered on the other side of the tall chain-link fence that I climbed over every day. It was the shortcut to my real life, the purpose that I was given, the lessons I learned. Nobody would ever know me. Nobody is a bitch.
I would smell him from twenty feet away. He would be in the lot behind the old, decaying white two-story building. He would be wrapped in newspaper, his shoes covered with socks, to cover the holes, sticking out at the bottom of the newspaper. He would be sitting against the broken chain-link fence that separated our real from their real with a wall of empty cans and cardboard beside him. His face would be burned red and wrinkled around his eyes, the dark, dirty, stringy hair on his head down to his shoulders, and a vomit-encrusted beard and mustache covering most of his face. His eyes were a secret blue that hypnotized me and seduced me away from his sweaty body odor stench. He would be going down on an almost empty bottle of cheap booze like a slut anxious to suck out every last drop.
I called him Jesus, pronounced however you want to pronounce it.
My shadow fell across him and he shielded his eyes from the low hanging sun behind me.
“Hey, kid,” he drooled, his voice like gravel tumbling down an empty pipe. He slid the bottle down next to him on the ground. “Where have you been?”
I pulled four dollars out of my pocket and leaned down to give it to him. “I was at the park.”
“What were you doin’ way over there?” he said, taking the green from my hand and counting it twice.
“Just hanging out,” I said, stuffing my hands in my pants pockets, trying to stand so that my shadow shielded his eyes.
“With that girl?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
He coughed and then hocked up a gob of spit from his throat. “And you let her?”
He shook his head. Disappointed, he slid his hands under the newspaper blanket, wrestling his hand into a pocket in a hole-infested coat.
“I only got two today,” he said, a gift hidden inside his fisted hand.
When I reached out my open hand, he dropped the gift into my palm. One red crayon and one blue crayon, worn and used, rolled back and forth against each other in my cupped hand. The paper label on each was torn and faded. They were loved and lost but had once again been found. In my possession, they would live a full and happy life with purpose.
“Thank you.” I smiled. “I need both colors.”
“Does he still draw trees?”
“Sometimes,” I added, admiring the precious gift in the palm of my hand. “And sometimes mountains.”
“When can I meet him?” he said.
Why did he want to meet him? Know him? Did he really think he could understand him? Love him? Control him?
“When will you tell me your name?”
“I did.” He grinned, his abscessed smile filled with yellow and black, covered with a flow of pinkish drool. “You just don’t believe it.”
“I don’t remember,” I said. I didn’t.
He hacked and coughed as he reached for the chain-link behind him, pulling himself up, allowing the newspaper to fall off of him, clinging to the half empty bottle of booze. I slid the crayons into my pocket and took him by the arm as he struggled to stand up straight.
“How old are you?” he asked.
I looked at him funny. He should have remembered that. “Seventeen.”
“Seventeen,” he repeated, savoring the word, tasting it like wine, wishing it meant him when everything might have been different for him, not thinking that I was his mirror. A memory that grew sweeter with time. Yesterday is always better in the mind than it really is.
He leaned against me, his steps small and shaking, using me as a crutch, managing to make it to the sidewalk, our shadows stretching long in front of us as I guided us around the cracks and breaks in the concrete, teasing the weeds that swayed with our passing. It would be a two-block journey like the crossing of a desert to the rusted car with no tires that rested in a garden of garbage, the place where he slept. His home.
“How old are you?” I asked, hoping conversation would smother the rumbles and cracks of his body and his smell.
He laughed a grumbling, hacking laugh. “Maybe you can find out for me.”
I looked up, the setting sun behind us burning my ears, the glow dancing off the glass faces of the tall, steel towers far ahead of us in the world that was clean and pretty, high in the sky away from the bottom feeders. Lisa flooded into my mind.
“What do you think happens when we die?”
We struggled along, his weight bearing down on me more with each step. “I can’t wait to find out.”
I laughed and didn’t mean to. “I thought you would say something like: we’re already dead.”
“Part of us is,” he said. “We die a little each day. We die when we watch our families die, when friends leave us, when the world abandons us. We die every day. Why don’t you ask the vampire? He should be able to tell you all about it.”
I scoffed at his provocation. The vampire didn’t know.
“Do you have a family?”
He smirked and coughed. “I guess you’re my family.”
It was strange I had never asked him before.
I laughed. “I am?”
He coughed and took in a deep wheezy breath. “Family is about using each other. Ain’t that what we’re doing?”
I couldn’t answer. He was sort of right.
“I guess so,” I said.
“You don’t have anybody you call family, do you?” he asked. I pulled him up by a belt loop under his coat so that I could get a better grip. He groaned as if I hurt him.
“If family is about using people, I have a lot,” I said, hoping he might laugh, but he didn’t.
I cleared my throat. “I don’t have any that claim me, no. But I don’t blame them.”
“You talking about the vampire again?”
“Yeah,” I nodded.
“Why do you let him live?” he asked as we turned delicately into the garden of garbage, following a worn path to the back door of the rusted, tireless car at the far end next to a pile of rubble from a collapsed building.
“I don’t have a choice,” I said, feeling a pinch against my shoe, a shard of glass cutting into the side.
“You do have a choice,” he said. “You don’t want to get rid of him. You like him.”
I may have loved him, sort of.
He stood timidly as I worked open the rear door of the dead car, the door swinging open with a rusty screech. “You sure you don’t want me to get you something to eat?”
He flopped down in the ragged seat, clinging to the withered handle on the inside of the door. “I still got some from yesterday.”
“Tomorrow’s Monday,” I said.
He looked at me and smiled. “Other things to do?”
“Yeah, I gotta do them.”
The moment became quiet, overshadowed by the sound of a dog barking and a siren somewhere far away. How long had I known him? Forever, give or take. My savior, the one who showed me why I was this way, the one that accepted the vampire he claimed to have never seen, but he had, at least once. He took another swig of booze from the bottle, dribbles of liquid flowing through his scraggly beard.
“I can stay for a while if you want,” I said.
“Until the rats come out.” He grinned, his breath hitting me like a fist even from five feet away.
“Yeah, sure.” I shrugged, feeling the chill of night coming. I hugged myself, the red sweater feeling warmer.
“So what do you gotta do tomorrow?” he asked, sliding his dirty hand across his mouth to remove the drool oozing from his lips.
“Just stuff,” I said with a bit of a shrug. He didn’t need to know everything.
“Just stuff,” he repeated with a smirkish nod. “Gonna be around any booze?”
“I might,” I said.
He laughed through a hacking cough. “You ain’t that good at lyin’, you know.”
“I’ll be at school,” I replied.
“School?” The look on his face was confusion. The question in his eyes seemed to be asking “what are you talking about?” “You ain’t shittin’ me; you goin’ to the high rises.”
He was wrong. I never went to the high rises on Mondays.
“Anything for money.” He coughed and offered the coal mine smile.
I smiled back and didn’t answer.
“I’m not gonna live much longer, son,” he said, a sadness turning his blue eyes almost green in the last catch of sunlight.
I knew that. I didn’t have to answer. I offered a smile and let my eyes drift away, looking at the pile of rubble just behind the dead car, at the buildings beyond the pile with long stretching cracks and broken windows as the shadows began to turn into night.
“When I die, the monster has to die too,” he said firmly. “It can’t go on.”
I shoved my hands back into my pants pockets, kicked up some dust with my shoe, my eyes focused on the ground.
“Did you hear me?” He hacked, warning me.
“I need a green crayon,” I replied. His threat would not stop the vampire. He had a will of his own.
He huffed in frustration, a cough rattling through his lungs as he lay down in the seat, pulling himself gingerly all the way into the car. “I’ll try to find you one tomorrow. Close the door.”
I closed the door softly, making sure I didn’t smash his feet. Through the dirty film of the glass, I could barely see him, on his side, his arms wrapping around himself, pulling the coat tighter around him. I tapped on the glass and offered a goodbye wave, wondering if it was the last time I would see him alive. I wondered if he’d be okay with letting Lisa watch him die, thinking that if she saw it one time, it would be enough to cure her of her diseased curiosity. The thought was fleeting. They existed only in each other’s minds.
It was going to be a warm night; the chilly breeze from the lake was soothing. I kept my hands fisted in my pockets as I walked away, uneasy with the sounds of the soles of my shoes slapping against the concrete. I squeezed the crayons in my right hand, making sure they were safe. Night was coming too fast and, without the protection of streetlights, darkness was swarming me. The concrete jungle, where hyenas were guns firing in the distance; where lions were sirens wailing over the electric pulsing hum of the city. I walked quickly and as quietly as I could, every shadow the threat of death, the square lights in the steel towers like twinkling stars light years ahead of me.
The clacking rumble of the L grew and I felt an urgent fear wash over me. The train emerged from between shambled buildings and crossed in front of me, shaking and jolting along the elevated tracks above the street, lights beaming through the windows, the silhouettes of tired commuters shaded in black. I wished I could see the stars in the sky, but the dim glow of the city blinded the night. I wish I could forget that night…
It was the same street; the same dark, a different cold. I think I was thirteen, maybe twelve. Wandering, just wandering, nowhere to go, no one to know, hyenas were roaming. I could feel them. I knew what they were going to do. The hyenas were going to eat their own. They saw me before I saw them. Running was all I could do. Surrounded, hoping the dark could shelter me from the growing sound of the pack’s stampede. I tried to hide in a dark corner, in the shadows of a crumbling brick building.
I thought two of my fingernails were ripped off as I scratched against every crack and break in the sidewalk, leaving dribbled lines of blood. Captured in their claws, they pulled my legs, their hyena laughs shrieking in my ears, drowning my screams. My head smacked the curb before the tainted icy water in the gutter splashed in my face, the taste of blood in my mouth different from the taste the vampire craved. A kick to my stomach shoved the breath from my lungs and I panted, waiting for sleep to stop the pain.
But then it all stopped and I heard the clanking of a pipe and his voice yelling, “You little fucks! Get the fuck off him!”
The thuds of metal against skin were loud, and then their yelling and screaming filled my ears. My hazy vision cleared to see my savior pummeling the hyenas with a long lead pipe, swinging at their heads and their knees, knocking their knives away and clobbering their backs as they ran down the street under the faded city lights.
A siren wailed as hands pulled at my coat and lifted me up. “Kid, you all right? Fuckin’ sons of bitches! Jesus Christ, how old are you? What the fuck you doin’ out here?”
The voice was a gravel siren of rescue, a reassurance as I struggled to my feet, lifted by the strength of his grip pulling me up by my coat sleeve, a taste of blood in my mouth, my face and legs feeling numb.
“Hey, can you walk? We gotta get outta here! They may come back!” he shouted as he wrestled me onto the sidewalk, his pipe clanking against the curb.
His words were coming at me like bullets and I couldn’t dodge them and I didn’t know how to answer. It was just my turn to be prey. Wrong place, wrong time. I should have known better. But he should have known the answers too, at least some of them. It wasn’t hard to figure out why a kid was on the streets in the middle of the night, was it?
Woozy, my hand slid against a brick wall, grasping onto the rough grooves to keep from falling. I could barely see. The distant glow from downtown was barely a dim light bulb in the junkyard alley where we stood. There were no houses in the area, only the abandoned factories and train tracks that lay dead surrounded by the distant bright lights from the high walls of skyscrapers. The shadows that barely stretched on the ground were our only friends, silently watching, uncaring.
I stumbled as he dragged me along the dead street, the wail of a siren growing louder, the bark of a dog not too far away. The rugged brick wall became a chain-link fence. The perfect interwoven diamond shapes practically glowed blue from the moon and the city lights. The pipe he dragged loudly along the sidewalk sent waves of nervous tingles through my body.
“Did they stab you?”
“I don’t think so,” I stuttered, the numbness in my face spreading.
I felt his hands along my back and my chest, feeling around as he pushed me along. “I don’t feel any blood. Can’t see any either except your mouth and your hands.”
“Rodney,” I mumbled, my lips swelling and stinging.
“Is that your dad?”
“No,” I struggled to say, my lower lip blowing up like a balloon. I finally realized that one of the hyenas must have kicked me in the face.
“Is that your name?”
“Do you have anybody?”
“Sorry, kid,” he said, dragging me along as my hand gripped and slid along the tall rusted chain-linked fence. “Do you have a place to stay?”
I decided to lie. “No.”
Where did he come from? How did he see? Why did he do what he did? I couldn’t see him really. I couldn’t see his clothes, his face, but I could smell him; the dirt, the shit, the alcohol breath as he dragged me along, stumbling. The cold began to freeze the tears in my eyes, the blood in my mouth drying on my chin, my fingers hurting. He was stronger than he should be.
“You can stay with me tonight.”
He hustled us along the broken chain-link fence, turning a corner, moving deeper into the dark, where the fake of night was like a suffocating pillow. The scramble of our feet was loud against rocks and weeds and strange things only the mind could conjure, underneath a highway bridge and into the pitch dark of his life. We passed an ominous glow of a barrel fire surrounded by two or three huddled together for warmth, the licking flames reaching up to kiss the crumbling walls of a building behind them. Their stares with the glisten of fire in their eyes felt like poison darts in my skin. The jungle was a dangerous place for a fawn like me.
We came upon the now familiar abandoned car, shadowed by the glow of a streetlight dangling from an arthritic pole; the garden of garbage in front, the pile of debris behind it. His palace, his world, his safety, his camouflage; we stumbled through his garbage garden.
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Mirrors. Mirrors always staring. He was only nine years old when he survived an unspeakable crime, a crime so horrific it left him with no memory of what happened. All he was sure of was that his mother was missing and he was forced to live with a stranger. Growing up in his new surroundings he pretends that his life is normal, but it isn’t. He’s different because of what happened to him, only he doesn’t know why and he doesn’t know how. Strange dreams haunt his sleep. Flashes of memories appear seemingly from nowhere, warning him of a monster growing inside him, offering him no answers except the inspiration to draw a picture that even he doesn’t understand. Desperate for answers he begins his own search into his past, but when he discovers the tragic truth it unleashes an anger that he can’t control. Thoughts of revenge and the need for justice consume him and destroy his life. Dejected and left to fend for himself on the streets of Chicago, could his desire for justice lead him to become a serial killer?