Someone stabbed the sun. It’s dripping onto Baltimore, seeping through gauze clouds onto the cobblestone street, reflecting off wet tire tracks in pinpoint sparks like the ones that follow a two-by-four across the nose. It’s dimming, dying, falling in slow motion, but the city is oblivious. Couples in matching jackets and complementary scarves walk arm-in-arm down Thames and through Fell’s Point. They push strollers with babies double-wrapped in winter coats. Share hot chocolate and kiss the dot of whipped cream off their noses. Window-shop the poster place next-door, looking for the perfect thing for the TV room. Happy lives, happily self-contained in their happy little oblivious universes.
I watch the scene, staring at the reflection on the back window of The Daily Grind. The City Paper I’m not reading is gutted open across the blond wood table. My right hand quivers. I need a bump, and I don’t like that I need a bump. I’m sorry, Mary. I tried.
From my pocket, I pull my stash, held in a plastic container shaped and colored like a giant Tylenol, slap it twice in my hand then palm it. Scratch my chin on my right shoulder and scan the room—no one’s watching—then bloat my chest like a sneeze is coming and put my hands to my face. Sniff, sniff, hold. Feel it absorb into my blood and tune in the static in my head. Make a fake sneeze with my mouth—so no one suspects anything—and slide it back in my jeans. The synthetic taste of chewed aspirin, snot and white drips down my throat. My hand stops quivering and I can feel the inside of my legs and the blood flowing through every vein in my body.
Steam swirls in tiny tornadoes from my coffee. I scan whatever page of the City Paper is open just to give my brain something to do besides think think think think think. About Mary. About the Twins. Where she is, why she won’t call back, what Bruce Campbell is doing right now how hard they can hit a rib before it breaks and punctures a lung whether the Sonny Chiba DVD Christian ordered for me has come in yet whose hand is on my shoulder I bolt to my feet. My coffee spills Rorschach over the table. The chair scrapes across the floor, hands curling as I turn. My eyes are CD size and the light from outside hurts.
‘Damon, hi. Jesus, are you okay?’ a girl says, her hands palms-out-defensive by her shoulders. She’s fake-tanned too much, her skin the color of cantaloupe flesh.
‘Oh. Yeah. Hi. What’s up—’ Kelly? Wren? What the fuck is her name? ‘—man? Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired. Too much coffee, you know?’
She nods her head tentatively. I steal a glimpse over her shoulder, check the room. Four students sit glued to their laptops and dead to the world; the wrinkled couple in the corner plays cribbage; the girl behind the counter thumbs coins from the tip jar into her palm while her co-worker stares out the window at the Baltimore harbor.
‘Just making sure,’ she smiles, her need convincing her brain that I’m not a threat. Her bone fingers, with polished nails the color of old scabs, run over the cuts covering my forearm. She doesn’t seem to notice, or doesn’t care. I already know what she’s about to ask me. ‘I wanted to make sure my boy is okay.’
‘I’m fine.’ I know her name and can’t think of it, but she’s a leech anyway, so it doesn’t matter. ‘Just drinking coffee,’ gesturing to my wet, brown table. A shark swims mouth-open after a fat man in the French Roast Rorschach.
‘Are you going back to your store anytime soon?’ she coos. Her tongue traces the edge of her lips, black high-heels slide over the floor closer to me. ‘Or now if you have… you know.’ Her fingers on my ribs now, kneading, like a preview of what could come. Yes, I know, you conniving soulless woman. I finger the stash in my pocket, try not to smile.
My lips part to say Sorry the store’s closed when the front door opens. Two Twin figures, like bags of garbage stuffed into expensive trench coats, walk into the shop. I pull the girl—Alicia is her name though I don’t know why I remember it now—in front of me, bend my knees to sink behind her. Close my eyes, push on my eye sockets with my palms. This isn’t happening. You’ve seen this before, you’re okay. Then I peel my lids open.
A rainbow of stars floats through the coffee shop and the two are gone. They’re gone. Just students and old people and bored, minimum-wage workers. Alicia has pulled her body even closer. She smiles down at me. I can almost see her brain cranking through her irises. She thinks she has me. Straightening my legs, her hand is on my thigh, her fingers in my jean pocket but I could be watching her and someone else and imagining it as me.
The front door is still closed.
Then the Twins are at the counter, ordering orange mocha Frappaccinos. I collapse on the chair, pull Alicia down on my lap and sink my face into her neck. Acrid vanilla paints her skin. She moans with her head tossed back, rubs her thigh against my stomach and I peek up and watch the Twins. Close my eyes and count to three and hope to God that I’m hallucinating again.
The room seeps through the slits in my eyelids. Thin slices of light, filling in the line drawings in my head with color, depth. Filling in concrete details, and I’m not hallucinating: I’m fucked.
‘Get up,’ I say to Alicia, throwing my arm around her shoulders and pulling her head close to shield myself. As I grab my jacket, I can feel her smiling and her hand in my back pocket but try to ignore it. ‘Keep walking and don’t move your head unless I move it for you.’
‘I like this,’ she purrs. ‘It’s sexy. This whole hostage thing. When we get back to the store, I’m going to—’
‘Fuck you. Shut up.’ I peer past her profile and check the counter. One of the Twins hits the arm of the other and puts his hand out for money. There’s a bulge in his trench coat, shaped like a ‘Y’ and I’m sure it’s the hedge clippers and wonder if they’re the same pair. Everything looks Hitchcock: the door slides farther and farther away, the seven steps to the street will take fifteen years.
Alicia’s hormones buzz in my ear. ‘My god, Damon,’ she breathes. ‘You are getting me so…’
They turn towards us. Their eyes catch mine and I whisper oh fuck.
I sweep my foot under Alicia’s, knock her to the ground in front of the door. ‘I’m sorry, Alicia.’ Lean my shoulder into the door and barrel onto Thames. I glance behind and there’s no one there, but I can still feel their breath.
‘Get the fuck out of the way!’ My feet smack with dull slaps on the concrete. A pruned Asian woman carrying two bags of blizzard-backup food pauses right in front of me as she tries to figure out what I’m screaming. She figures it out too late and the bags explode into the sky. Cans of peaches and water chestnuts rain down on to the sidewalk. A deluge of dried noodles and dates. They barely miss me, spinning on the ball of my foot. The cartilage in my knee pops and cracks. My palm scrapes the ground and soaks up little pebbles, anything to keep me from kissing the concrete. To keep the distance between the Twins and me as far as possible. A man shaped like a bowling pin screams derogatory epithets about every woman in my family, says I was born in a test tube. I’d stop and argue with him but I don’t feel like dying.
The crowd in front of me pricks their ears to all the yelling and turns to gawk. They step back to avoid a collision or my elbow in their neck, and my legs can finally stretch out to a full stride. A few breaths up the sidewalk, two boys with greasy faces and mustaches like crumbled Oreos leave their skateboards at their feet, a mangy dog meanders without a leash, and a suited man finds it a good time to fix his right leg cuff.
I can almost feel Them twisting a corkscrew into my breastplate.
I hop over the skateboards, just missing the dog, and turn back to check the crowd for Them, then step on a lump and I’m looking at the waning January sky, papers floating over me like legal-sized snowflakes.
‘You prick!’ The Suit scurries to gather his business proposals, vetoed with my size nine stamp. I scramble to my feet and check behind again, the sidewalk gawkers congealing back together, hiding me. Every step catches fire in my soles and pushes needles into my temples. White clouds form in front of my mouth. Christian’s whiskey sloshes in my stomach. ‘It’ll help,’ he’d said. ‘It’s been a rough couple of days.’
Three blocks of sprinting, checking, heaving, choking, swallowing hard and trying not to vomit and I’m at Shakespeare Street. Using the light pole like a fulcrum, I wing myself around the corner. My foot slides across gravel and a broken bottle. The first alley slumbers desolate, quiet. Perfect. Fences keep it from spilling into the tiny backyards. I slam into the first door in the fence. Locked. Push on the next one. Locked. The mouth of the alley yawns, wide and empty. My ears prickle. Footsteps. They sound monolithic but could be from any of the million people in Fell’s today. The next door, locked; I yank on the handle and almost rip it out of the wood. The footsteps are louder. Four steps backwards and I take a breath, about to throw myself into the door to break it down and hide, but if the door is broken down they’ll know where I am. Sidestep to the next one, put my weight into it and it swings open. I dip inside and slam the door and it’s black, a vacuum. The doorway to another parallel world, hopefully one where I’d never met her. I’m going to evaporate, be erased, disappear into nothingness and that might not be such a bad idea. My eyes adjust after a few seconds and it’s not a black hole or time portal: it’s a storage shed. I stand on the push lawnmower, breathe, try to relax.
‘You’re cool. You’re cool. It’s okay. You’ll be fine. They’re not there.’
I’m talking to myself. Standing, shaking, breathing hard. Faint Christmas music that’s playing too late drips through the door.
A metallic scraping, like rusted hedge clippers. They’ve snuck up without any noise and are poised outside the shed, ready to aerate my chest. Once they’ve finished the rest of their coffee and dabbed the corner of their lips with a monogrammed silk handkerchief, they’ll kick the door open and drag me face-down across the alley, an Italian-leather loafer on the back of my skull to make sure I’m chewing mouthfuls of concrete.
There’s pressure around my neck and my fingertips are cold. The dying sun bleeds through a splinter crack in the middle of the door. I check the walls in what little light there is for something to grab, to swing and slice or gouge. Nothing. No trowels. No spades. No tiny scraping-things that look like three fingered skeleton hands. Not even a bulb planter. The pressure is gone. I look down and realize my fingers were spinning Christian’s grandpa’s wedding band around on its metal chain. Put it against my lips—‘Please’—then tuck it back inside my shirt and bend my knees to peer through the crack. Drag my hand across my forehead and wipe the sweat and pieces of dirt on my jeans. A rat scratches past the splinter of outside. I have to wait.
A minute, two minutes, twenty minutes. Everything seems eternal in a black space in a back alley.
The footsteps slink quiet, bulls with slippers. I squint my eyes to concentrate, hear better. They sound about twenty feet away. Light on their feet, trying to be sneaky.
My lungs take every molecule of oxygen from every shallow breath.
The footsteps disappear. I’m just hearing things; it’s all imagination. A relieved sigh, and I kiss the ring. Thanks, Grandpa.
Then they’re closer.
I perch my hand on my back pocket to steady myself, to keep from slipping and making a noise. There’s a lump in my pocket. The lump is my switchblade. It takes 30 or 48 or 132 seconds to open the blade without the lock clicking and giving me away. Shift again, gentle, silent, and scour the sliver of alley between the door and its frame. My eyes narrow, look for a gun, a broken wine bottle. A rusted pair of hedge clippers or flathead screwdriver.
Tinted glass shimmers in the sunlight.
The footsteps are slower, sound a few feet away. Just imagine they’re Paul. Imagine Paul’s face on their bodies. I’m going to destroy them. A steeling breath, then I kick through the door, my arm cocked at jugular height and ready to slash.
A bum in an army-issued trench coat that used to be black twelve layers of dirt ago drops his wine bottle with a damp shatter. He curls back, slurs, ‘Moddlefcker, don’ hur me,’ through a bird’s nest beard and mechanic-stained hands protecting his face.
Snap my head left and right looking for Them. Alleyway. Trash cans. Recycling bins. Cardboard boxes too big for recycling bins. No Twins. I drop my arm and take a step back, collapsing with relief on the door that’s leaning jagged against the shed. The bum looks through his fingers then lowers his hands, stumbling half a step.
‘Shit,’ I exhale. ‘I’m really sorry, man.’ Dig into my jeans and pull out whatever’s in the pocket, hand $13 and a Cody to the bum for the inconvenience.
While he examines his take, I creep to the edge of the street and peek around the corner, switchblade still in hand. Just in case.
They’re not there.
‘Hanks, mifter,’ the bum hiccups, then lurches down the alley.
I close the switchblade, look around the corner again to double-check and walk head-down hurriedly along Shakespeare to South Bethel, then veer right towards the corner at Aliceanna and stand for a minute, surveying the faces. A middle-aged woman with cat’s-eye glasses and pink Chucks. Two bike messengers resting on their crossbars, smoking. A herd of seven hipsters streaming out of a café.
Gone. The Twins have evaporated.
Turn around and run as fast as I can to 734 South Bethel, pulling out the key before I get to the building, then stab the lock, throw the door open, slam it shut. The deadbolt clicks then I vault up the steps, stab another lock and seal myself inside Christian’s apartment. The tattered couch creaks as I let myself collapse. An iceberg of foam floats on the back cushion.
‘Jesus Christ.’ I grab the pack of Casamirs, shove one in my mouth, light it and check that the cuts on my arms aren’t bleeding.
‘All right. All right.’ I’m talking to myself again. ‘All right all right all right.’ Talking to an empty room with amber-colored walls. I’m telling Bela Lugosi, Robert Englund and Leatherface that I’m okay. They stay quiet in their poster frames. From the cover of Changes, David Bowie gives me a look that says you have it all under control. I nod my head. ‘Thanks, Dave.’ My voice echoes off the hardwood floor and into the linoleum kitchen.
‘All right, I need to rest. I need to think.’ Take a drag. Feel the smoke fill my chest and nicotine soak into my blood. The giant Tylenol in my pocket. I’d forgotten about that. I think I deserve it. Smack it against my palm—no one’s here to see—and take a long snort. Hold my breath, let it drip down my throat, rampage through my veins. Exhale—long, slow and centered.
‘I need a pen. And some water.’ In the kitchen, I grab a glass from the draining rack and fill it. The cold water feels good on my hands; I want to fill a glass and dump it down the back of my neck then over my face. Over and over.
The hands of the Beetlejuice clock on the wall point north and south. Christian won’t be home for another two hours. I sit on the couch again, grab a pen from the wooden corner table and a receipt from Dwaine’s Dry Cleaners then stub out my cigarette in the glass ashtray I bought Christian for his birthday. It says ‘Jesus Hates It When You Smoke’ in a banner underneath the stylized face of Christ.
‘All right,’ I say to the room. ‘What do I know?’
I think about everything that’s happened, and make a list on the back of the receipt.