<--Uptime | Park Ethereal | Downtime-->
Fire and Forget
Park Ethereal - Chapter 10
Rolling over seemed the obvious thing to do. I therefore resolved not to do it. I collapsed slowly to the ground, drawing my hands under my body. As expected, Gunman kicked me in the ribs, hard. I sucked in breath, coughed, spat out; all while twisting to cover that side.
"Didn't we warn this white-ass motherfucker he didn't belong? Didn't we warn him?" Another kick.
"Yeah, man, you did..." One of the others. Leadfoot? Couldn't recall the voices. I squirmed, trying to block my ribs. Gunman squatted by me, prodded at my spine with what felt like his .38. My back spasmed in instinctual fear, attempting to protect my spinal cord by rolling over to face him. I fought it. He prodded again. "Hey, dude!" That brought a laugh from one of his fellows. "Hey, dude. Cali homeless loser. Mr. Upstate." Another prod. This time, I rolled with the prod, over onto my back; shoved the Smith & Wesson (which I had been busy extracting from its front pocket) at his face, the hammer back.
"Eat this, motherfucker." The scene froze. Gunman was squatting next to me, which meant his face was perhaps eighteen inches from the business end of the gun. His pistol was hanging towards the ground at his side, caught there. He wasn't moving. Neither were his friends, who, I could see, were the same two from before. There was a pause.
Gunman grinned, brought his pistol up to face me. I didn't fire, unwilling to shoot him in the face, and he relaxed slightly as his gun came up even with mine. He moved it slightly to one side, so that the barrels pointed past each other, then spoke past it, one eye closed over the sights. "Hey hey, homey! You got a gat, so do I, man, let's do it. You ever shoot anyone, Mr. Upstate?"
I grinned back at him tightly. "Not yet. But let's think. What was that you said? Never keep one up the pipe?" His face froze. Poor bastard couldn't hide anything at all. "Yeah, that's right!" I continued brightly. "Never keep one up the pipe! Jeez, I must be a loser. I didn't listen to you. Man, that was stupid, huh?" I rolled to one arm, raised myself to a kneeling position, the Smith and Wesson still aimed dead at his face. "Oh, man, I fail. I totally fail. But say, y'know, if you don't have one up the pipe, which you don't, asshole,when I hear that dry empty pussy click, man, your face is gonna be all over your buddies' shirts, there." Gunman was worried, now, and his .38 was trembling slightly. He was sweating. So was I. I continued my upward motion, which he matched, until we were both standing, facing each other across the tracks.
"I'm gonna blast your ass, man." The words quavered slightly, as did his gun. I was past caring, off into adrenaline overdrive; miraculously, my voice came out slightly bored.
"Really? Like I said, man, you can't hide shit. If you had a cap in there, you would've dusted my ass when mine came out. You wouldn't've waited, right? Cause you're a hard-ass gunman, right?" The sarcasm dripped from me. I marvelled at the calm of this stranger who held the gun in my hand. "So, you don't have shit up there. Also, as I can see" I craned my neck slightly, "your hammer isn't even back. Which means you're on double action, whereas mine-" I rotated the gun just enough for him to see, by pointing it at his groin- "is back. That means I'm on single-action. Wanna bet who wins even if you got one up there?"
Gunman whimpered, barely audible. I looked down; was rewarded to see a dark stain on his trousers. His gun as still up, though; wavering, but still there. I didn't turn my head. "Take off."
There was a clattering of stone, a brief "Sorry, man-" and the other two were gone. I heard them heading uptown.
"Get back here, you chickenshit bastards!" screamed Gunman, without looking. I smiled at him, feeling ice tearing at my eyes from the inside.
"Okay, hero. What we're going to do is the following. You're going to put your piece down on the ground, on the tracks. I'm gonna let you walk away very slowly."
"Screw you, man-" The gun was still wavering, but a new light was in his eyes now. Oh shit. No, please, don't do this-
"Look, I don't want to shoot your ass, okay? Please! Just put it fucking down and go, man!" The Smith & Wesson wasn't wavering; it was a rock, gazing incuriously now at Gunman's left eye. "I swear, I'll put one in you before you can get one off. Just do it, okay?" I hoped I didn't sound as desperate as I was becoming. There was a sound, then, far-off; familiar. Air horn. Coming closer. The sound of wheels on steel. Gunman's head cocked; he was listening, too.
"Look, homes, there's a rail comin', okay? Whatsay when it get between us, we both go? No face, man. No face." Whatever that meant. I could puzzle it out, though. No loss of face; external circumstances; no one gives ground. I nodded. Okay. We both cautiously moved back from the rails, which were singing softly by this point. I stood on the east side; Gunman on the west; we waited for the train.
It came around a curve, headlamps blazing. I heard the air horn scream, shattering the tunnel's atmosphere against the walls. Gunman flinched; I must have, also. We waited. The Metro-North came closer, slowing; headed downtown. When it was perhaps a block away, I nodded. Gunman nodded. Our weapons remained high; I watched Gunman's eyes. They flicked towards the train, gauging; I felt a cold drizzle of fear at the calculation that flick betrayed. Shit. He thinks he can make it. He thinks he can make it, just before the thing gets here, when I can't hear his gun or see it from the glare. Shit. Shit shit shit- the litany continued, pointless, and I frantically tried to figure a way of not shooting him first. I couldn't come up with one.
The train drew closer. I ignored it, trying to watch Gunman's hands- he'd have to get the gun cycled once, if my assumption about his ready cylinder was true, and that I should be able to see - the train was within a hundred feet of us by this point, screeching as its wheels tore surface molecules from the rails while turning towards the platforms. I looked at the .38, shaking my head no, no, don't do it- the train's headlight beams glared over both of us.
I saw the cylinder of the 38 swivel slightly. He'd fired the dry cylinder.Damn it. I pulled the trigger, swinging the gun down slightly, hoping for a leg hit. There was an apocalyptic noise that was lost in the roar of the train; a cone of pale yellow-green that blazed out from the nose of the Smith & Wesson. Gunman spun, the .38 flying from his hand, as I rode the recoil to wrestle the gun back downwards. The last I saw of him as he went down between the pillars (not, thank lord, on the tracks) was a bloody smear across his side. Then the Metro-North thundered past, excising my view of Gunman with a steel wall, broken only occasionally with minute flickers of the other side as the cars passed. I lowered the gun, lowered the hammer with my thumb. I was completely unsure what to do, whether to run now, or wait to make sure he was...what? Alive? Dead? I sagged back against a pillar as my gorge finally won out, vomiting dry bile onto the trackbed. I realized abstractly that I hadn't eaten in quite some time. My stomach ached, wringing itself again, this time upward. I finished before the train was past, and wiped my mouth with my right hand. The smell of gun oil and cordite from the Smith & Wesson was almost enough to set me off again, but didn't.
The train vanished. I stared across the tracks, gun pointed, even though I'd clearly seen him lose the .38 when he fell. I walked crab-fashion across the track, gun in front, trying to watch all sides. There; he was slumped by the side of a pillar, both hands against his side. I moved to him. The train's taillights left a bloody glare on the tunnel, swiftly fading.
I safed the gun. He was clearly not a threat. It went back into my jumpsuit. I knelt beside him, realizing I ws crying. "Oh, God, man, I told you not to do it, I tried-"
"F...fuck you, man-" That effort exhausted him, and he slumped back. I looked at his side. The bullet had hit him near his stomach, but off center. I winced, thinking words like peritonitis, and gut-shot. Finally, I realized I couldn't just leave him; if I was going to do that, I might as well put him out of his misery first. That thought started my stomach up again. I looked around. I couldn't tell where we were, but there was a faint blue glow from downtown, so we couldn't be that far from the station. I made sure he wasn't in immediate danger of dying, although I couldn't be sure. He was moaning a litany of obscenity and threats, although in a half-hearted way, as if he expected to pass on before being able to carry them out.
"Listen. Listen, motherfucker!" I was screaming at his inability to focus on me, bad sign- "I'm gonna get you help. Help, you understand? Justdon't move, okay? I'll never find you if you go anywhere. Just sit here." He subsided, nodded slightly, then his chin sagged forward. I cringed, turned and surveyed the area. The .38 was only a few meters away, but I left it and ran for the west side of the tunnel. I couldn't see much, but picking a direction at random I ran uptown. The bolt-hole was not more than a hundred yards away. I tore through it, up the ladder, then paused, struck. Removing the gun, I held it as I ran, looking for a place to stash it. Finally, at the intersection I'd seen too many times before, I ran right, into the darkness. After no more than a hundred feet, there was a ledge in the rough walls, up high on one side, above the level of the light thrown by the few incandescents. I stuffed the gun and silencer up that way, and ran back to climb the ladder, emerging blinking in daylight on Fifty-Sixth across from the Drake.
No cops in sight. Shit. I moved to Park, looked uptown- there, a cruiser, some blocks away, moving towards me at a leisurely pace. I let it get to within a half block before flagging it down.
* * *
I ditched them as soon as I could. Oh, I told them there was a man shot in the tunnels, and gave them the approximate location, and said that I had been passing by (my outfit certainly lent credence to that) and they bowled off down towards Grand Central with me stuffed in the back seat. When we reached Grand, there were several officers waiting in the Main Lobby (Kelly wasn't one of them) and while they were conferring, I merged into the commuter rush and moved away. I heard "Shit-" as they realized I was gone, but they kept going, moving towards the tracks. I hoped they'd get a paramedic before they went.
Meantime, I had just enough energy to panic at the fact that I hadn't wiped the Smith and Wesson clean of my prints, after which I moved downstairs towards the number 6 train, jumping the turnstile, to end up at 77th and Lexington. I found a comfy looking streetcorner, and let my head nod downward until raising it brought only sodium streetlights into view. Then I shambled over towards 72nd and a familiar manhole, and within twenty minutes, was buried under as many quilts and pads as I could find, sobbing uncontrolledly amongst the boxes in the dark. I woke consumed, not with regret or shame, but hunger. I still hadn't eaten, and from the lightheaded feeling I slowly felt fill my cranium with buoyant gas, things were getting quite serious. Grubbing in my rucksack produced no food, and no money, but digging through my trouser pockets with a Charlie Brown expression on my face resulted in a pile of bills. It took me a moment to track where they'd come from; then I remembered my friend giving them to me right before my mystery assailant had entered the picture.
It was night (again? still? no idea) so I slithered quickly through the tunnels and listened at the manhole under 72nd. No more than two or three cars were passing with each change of the traffic signals. That meant it was probably somewhere between one and four; even New York tends to snooze to the point of empty streets during the Hour of the Wolf. At least on the Upper East Side.
Waiting for a break, I pushed the manhole up. Other than a few headlights in the distance, no cars were nearby, so I wormed my way up onto the pavement as fast as I was able, letting the manhole settle back onto the rim with a clang. As I made my way towards the curb, I saw a blonde woman - no, girl, I corrected myself - staring at me. She was seated against the building on the north side of the street, smoking a cigarette. As I reached the sidewalk, she took a drag and spat the smoke out hard to the side. She was wearing, I noticed, an extremely sheer and fairly small dress, which was bright red.
"Busy night in the sewers, Norton?" Her voice was a bit harsh, cracked by the day gone by. I stopped.
"Yeah, Trixie, busy." I grinned, to show lack of rancor. She smiled back, a bit tiredly.
"Hey, at least you don't look too dirty."
"Storm drains. Not sewers."
She hits the cigarette again. "Well hell, you learn something new every damn night." A long, slow exhale, reflectively. "You looking for a good time?"
Ah. I'd wondered. "Um..." Not quite suave. Keep going. "I was really looking for something to eat..." Oh, that's a winner. Hastily: "I mean, I'm really starved, I haven't eaten in days, I think..." I trailed off, wincing internally.
She smiled again, wearily. "Don't worry, sailor, I ain't one to take offense. Good luck finding something open around here though."
I glanced about, and sure enough, saw nothing but dark lobbies and streetlights. "Any advice?"
"Oh, that ain't free either. But I'm in a nice mood. Yeah, there's a Korean fruit stand down on Lexington and about four blocks down."
Food was calling. I could taste it, stray molecules of complex carbohydrates wafting on the wind. Surely, I could just float my way downtown towards it. Still, something gnawed at my forebrain.
Sex, naturally. I was somewhat ashamed to discover that I was staring at her legs. She had her knees pulled up together, and between her thighs a small white triangle of panties was visible. They were filled out, rounded slightly. I looked away, embarrassed, as she laughed and spread her legs another inch. At least the laugh wasn't cruel.
"You sure? What're you hungry for? At least, first?"
Terror was the next natural step. "Um, how, how much, for, well..." I was, I told myself weakly, a virgin in this life. Nervousness was normal. She looked at me appraisingly.
"Tell you what, sailor, you go eat first. If you come back this way, we'll see what you got left, hmm? Maybe you'll get lucky. But don't starve on my account." She stubbed the cigarette out with deliberate, slow twists against the pavement alongside her, then grinned wickedly and gently rubbed her panties with two fingers, bringing a slight darkness to them. "I mean, if you starve, what's a girl to do, huh?"
I gulped, smiled weakly, and ran for my life down towards Lexington, absurdly grateful to her that she wasn't laughing in my wake. A pale blue flourescent glow drew me down Lexington towards sixty-eighth street, where the fruit stand lurked. I walked slowly, conserving energy; lifting the manhole had almost drained me entirely. There was a man in a tan winter coat, with a dark brown collar, shucking peas outside the fruit stand, no doubt for the next day's salad bar. He was Korean; dark hair, fair skin, with moderate epicanthic folds. He looked up briefly as I went by him. I nodded, and he nodded back; volumes of city-dweller communication exchanged, my dubious economic status examined, acknowledged, reflected on, and dismissed in one quick burst of New Yorker code. I went inside.
There, light was a pale blue insomniac, roaming the shelves. One older Korean man stood behind the register, looking out the windows at the traffic passing. He paid me no notice as I entered. I moved towards the back of the store. The salad bar looked like yesterday's, so I chose some fruit, a large container of chicken soup (reasoning that chicken soup, at least, should improve from constant simmering) and a carton of apple juice. Returning to the front of the store, I browsed hungrily at the deli counter. The cashier, noticing me, moved over to the deli and waited.
"Ham and swiss sub with mayonnaise, please." I had to force the words out past a rush of saliva as my body, aware of the proximity of the food, began to respond. He nodded and began constructing my sandwich. I took the chance to browse a second time, looking for less perishable items for the boxhole. A couple of boxes of crackers. Some small cans of deviled ham - not nutritionally ideal, but it didn't require refrigeration, either. Some dried fruit snacks. Fifteen dried Oriental noodle soups. A package of dried soup and some freeze-dried coffee.
I felt almost like a real person, adding a Hershey bar to the top of the pile on the front counter. The counterman added my sandwich to the stack and began tapping away at the cash register. Something nagged at me, something unexpected that brought a rush of tears to my eyes, but damn it, I couldn't figure out what it was...then he looked at me and said "Nineteen fifty-six, please," and I knew. He hadn't even looked warily at me. He'd assumed that I could pay. It had been quite some time since I'd felt that much a part of the system, and the tears dripped slowly as I dug money from the pockets of the jumpsuit, handing him twenty dollars. He made change efficiently, and packed everything up in two plastic shopping bags.
"Could I have a couple more bags, please?" I was thinking about the tight trip up the drains, and having to drag them. He shrugged, and double-bagged them for me, offering a perfunctory smile as I picked them up to leave.
"Thank you, have a nice night." His English was accented. I smiled back and moved into the chill air.
I made it as far as the corner before I sat heavily down on a stoop and ripped open the sandwich. It was warmer than the night, and as hard as I tried to moderate myself, I wolfed off a huge bite. Before I made myself ill and wasted it, I forced myself to re-wrap the intact half and put it back in the bag. Having done so, I finished the first half, the apple juice, an orange, and the Hershey bar, settling back against the brownstone steps with a sigh of satiation, my bags clutched to me. After ten minutes I felt able to waddle, and did so, back uptown.
Turning on to Seventy-second, I had a rush of memory, but the girl was gone. One of her cigarettes remained, smoked, crumpled, the butt angled up off the pavement where it had been crushed. I thought about the spot where she had sat; thought about her thighs in the dark, shuddered, sighing; walked off to the manhole.
Getting underground with the bags proved interesting, as I was unwilling to let them touch the surface of the storm sewer flow. I wormed my way up the narrow section of the drain carrying them on my stomach, and finally, made it into the boxhole having only crushed one box of crackers and two noodle soups.
I stored them in niches between boxes, as far off the floor as possible. I didn't want rats getting to them.
Suddenly, I was overcome with a compulsion to collect belongings, and I thought of the gun waiting patiently in the tunnels. I fought the impulse for all of five minutes, then gave in to stupidity and made my way back to the Metro North tracks and began the walk downtown. There wasn't much going on in the tunnels; I made it to the manhole at Sixty-fourth without incident and slipped into the rougher stone of the surrounding tunnel system. Approaching the ledge I'd stashed the gun on from the other direction robbed me of both landmarks and pace counts; I was forced to go all the way to the junction and then retrace my steps. I ran my hands up along the ceiling before finding the ledge, finally.
The gun was gone. I fought off the cold in my torso and checked again; nope. Gone. Definitely. With my fingerprints on it, and matching the ballistic profile of the bullet that had hit Gunman, and no doubt matching the extractor marks of the shell casing I'd left on the floor of the tunnel.
This, perhaps, was time to panic.
I fought it down, sitting there in the dark with my heart doing its best not to give up under the strains of adrenalin and malnutrition, squeezing my hands alternately and breathing until I felt mostly normal. At that point, however, I then had a rush of nausea and had to fight that down as well. By the time everything had passed, I was sitting against the wall, drenched in sweat. I pushed my way to my feet, shuddering; started off back north towards home.
The tears came intermittently, without warning, and usually accompanying violent shivering. I hiccuped for several blocks, but eventually made it back into the suddenly very flimsy concealment of the boxhole. I ate mechanically from my stash of goodies, then rearranged the padding and curled up inside it. I couldn't sleep; each time I wavered on the edge of dreaming I could see Kelly shaking his head sadly, holding my Smith & Wesson by the expedient of a pencil through the trigger guard. He was wearing latex gloves. Then he would turn to hand the gun back to a faceless forensic assistant, and I would open my eyes suddenly, sweating, still in the boxhole.
This happened, oh, maybe five or ten times. Give or take a thousand. Then I slept. Some time later, I awoke knowing it was night. The grimy windows, the traffic noise, the building around me, all the information condensed and submerged into a realization that seemed almost unconscious. I stood, wondering when I was. There seemed really only one way to figure it out; I drew my lockpick from its slot between two boxes and made my way as quietly as I was able up to the ninth floor, pausing before the door to 9H only long enough to listen for sounds from within the apartment. There were none, and the lock yielded to my coddlings in less time than it had before. I slipped inside into darkness, closed the door. There was no noise save a soft rhythm which I mentally tagged as a wall clock. Sounds were muffled slightly by the carpet. I moved into the living room.
I think I screamed as the lights came on. I'm not sure. In any case, my dark adapted eyes were completely stunned by the sudden rush of light, and I merely stood there blinking back tears and frantically turning about to see who had caught me.
It was Kelly.
It took me a moment to realize that, as he wasn't in uniform. He was standing over by the light switch with a curious expression on his face (which part of my brain, the part not gibbering in panic, classified as a Good Thing, especially as compared to some expressions he might be wearing).
He was also holding my (damn, not my, the ) Smith & Wesson. It was in a plastic bag, and he was holding it by the top of the bag so as not to smudge the gun. He looked at me. I looked at him, trying to school my heart into dropping back into the sonic frequencies.
Kelly turned slowly so that his back was against the wall and leaned his weight on it. I watched his posture sag slightly as he regarded me.
"I thought you'd be along, me boy."
I wasn't sure if the accent was a good or a bad thing.
"Uh..." I started over. "Um, Kelly, what are you doing here?"
"Nope, nope, nope, son, that's my line. I'm the copper here; you're the second-storey man; what're you doing here?" "I..." I realized, at that point, that I didn't have a thing to say that would make sense. I shrugged. "You first." I had nothing to lose, after all. Surprising me, Kelley nodded.
"All right then. I'm here because I got to thinkin', now, ye see, about me friend whom I meet in the tunnels with a shooter. He's natterin' on about this dead woman and gettin' his piece from a gent who's supposed to have lost it in some other decade, see. Then, I get back to the station, and I'm told that this same gent, much older now, has been seen in Grand Central Station behavin' like Wyatt Earp, and surprise surprise, at the point he's aimin' there appears to be a ragamuffin I might find familiar. So I says to meself, Kelly me boy, all three of these folk seem to have one thing in common, and that's this building. So, I ask me captain if I might have a peek, and he feels strongly enough about gunfights at rush hour he gives me a few hours of me time to come have a look.
"So, I gets to the buildin' and asks them if I can see apartment 9H, and surprise, they tells me that there's no-one in 9H, the woman who lived here vanished several weeks before! So I comes up to have a peek, and then there comes the sound of scratchin' at the lock. And here we are."
"Where'd the gun come from?"
"Why don't you tell me?"
There was a moment while I considered what the hell to do, but I really couldn't see any alternative. "I left it in a cross-tunnel, on a ledge up above the light."
Kelly held the gun up, turned a side of it to the light and examined it critically. "That's where I'm findin' it. After lookin' in a certain place me ragamuffin friend apparently used ta live, and following some prints in the dust." He looked up at me. "Why'd you leave it there when you were so concerned about keeping it earlier?" The accent was wavering.
I looked away, out over Park Avenue. There was a light snow falling. Kelly's voice jerked me back.
"I asked why you left it." Steel, but calm
"I shot a guy, Christ, man, I shot him in the gut, I didn't mean to do it but the son of a bitch wouldn't put his gun down, and I tried to tell him to go, but he wouldn't, man, he wouldn't leave..." I sat down, suddenly, on the rug. My head was swimming slightly. I realized I was crying soundlessly, and shut up, sniffling slightly.
Kelly dropped to a squat next to me, the gun dangling near one knee. "This the boy you brought the officers to in the tunnels?" I nodded. "Well you'll be pleased to know he'll live. No permanent damage. We found a .38 near him with one barrel discharged and his prints on it. What happened?"
His voice was calm, sweeping over me. I shuddered and told him, from the beginning when I first met Gunman and cronies in the tunnels. He nodded when I had finished, and stood. "Come on then."
"The station, me boy. We got to get your statement in."
"Am I under arrest?"
Kelly considered that. "Not if your story checks out. We couldn't find the bullet what hit our friend; nothing says its this gun. You've admitted to using a found weapon in self-defense; if he doesn't press charges then you're in the clear. I wouldn't, you know," he added conversationally, "if I were him, havin' seen his record and all." He put a hand on my arm, guided me out the door.
As we were exiting the building, the doorman looked at me strangely; obviously, he hadn't seen me come in, but he just nodded to Kelly, who must have identified himself coming in. Kelly nodded back and ushered me out to a grey Pontiac standing at a hydrant near the curb. "In you go."
I sat in the passenger seat slowly, wondering when the last time I'd been in a car was. Kelly drove quickly but carefully, and before I could blink I was filling out forms with stuttered answers to various questions. At some point, the two policemen I'd grabbed to take to the wounded Gunmen showed up, looked at me incuriously, and nodded to Kelly, who thanked them and resumed the paperwork. "Kelly?" I asked him during a brief break.
"Where's the-" He cut me off sharply, waving, and shook his head. I subsided. Forty-five minutes later it was over; I'd simply made up a name. Kelly hadn't contradicted me. I couldn't remember what it was, and just hoped I'd been consistent. Kelly may have helped. I know he drove me back uptown, not to Grand Central, but to 775 Park. I turned to him in surprise. He looked back, grimly, and nodded me out of the car.
I exited. A new doorman met us, saluted Kelly's badge and a sheaf of paper I surmised was a warrant, and let us in. 9H looked the same as when we'd left it. I turned on Kelly.
"Where's the gun, man?"
He regarded me for a time, then reached under his coat and produced it. It was still in its evidence bag; looking smudged. I presumed fingerprint powder. I looked at it, then at him. "I notice that never came up on the forms. What did I shoot him with?"
"Weapon taken from assailant's accomplices, who fled. Weapon not found; probably recovered by said accomplices returning to the scene afterwards."
"That's damn thin, man. So what am I guilty of?"
"Nothing. For now. Because he didn't press charges, and because he verifiably shot at you. Powder burns on his hands, a discharged barrel on his .38, fingerprints on the gun." He sat on the sofa, leaned back and regarded me. "You have no idea who you are, eh?"
The sudden shift was dizzying. "No. I wish- look, what're you doing?"
No answer. I blinked. Everything changed.
-flickering halogen torchlight of steel and thunder, moving with the waves of the city under the ground, sweeping across the field towards the flesh and bone, thump- I shook my head. Kelly was gone. The room was dark, and street light filtered in through the window. My heart was pounding, and I wanted to shout in surprise but kept it clamped in by main force. Sweat burst from me, the sofa arms creaking under my fingers as my shuddering flexed the couch's frame.
Waiting for the pounding of my heart to ease took perhaps five minutes. At the time, I would've sworn I sat on that sofa, unmoving, for two or three geological eras. Eventually, however, I could breathe normally, and felt my heart settling into non-lethal ranges. I looked around, resigned, but I knew what I was going to see. The stereo cabinet winked dully in the reflected/ambient/ochre light. I got up, moving very slowly, and looked down the hallway. The bedroom door was closed.
Opening the cabinet revealed the expected seventies turntable. I closed it as softly as possible and turned back to the closed door to the bedroom, taunting me from the end of the hall. Moving towards it increased the silence, as more than the convex hull that made up me held its breath; an alterdimensional pause in the heartbeat that penetrated into the soul.
Turn the knob.
Hinges that swing noiselessly, thank whatever's holy. A darkened room; a dark shape for the bed. I moved inside, put my back to the wall next to the door as I closed it.
I stood there for several minutes. The room brightened slowly as my irises expanded. I tried to breathe as slowly and regularly as possible; my heartbeat diminished in volume, and at last the sound was audible. Breathing (not mine). Where? From the bed. Deep. Regular.
Two rhythms. Not one.
I moved closer, looking. Surely only one form, there? No; no. Two forms, intertwined. Sleeping in spoons; one beside the other. The covers were up quite far; I could only make out blonde hair that had to be Ellyn's, spread gently over one pillow. Her companion, behind her, was farther from me.
I suppose it's a measure of how much my life had changed me, recently. I didn't think of leaving. I didn't think of the intrusion that I represented. I had fallen deeply into the role of the Invisible Man, both within and without. Having come recently to believe that I was really here, now, had paradoxically made me less wary of contact. If I was really here, then I was meant to be here, for a reason as yet unknown, but no less real for it. Therefore any censoring of my normal impulses could result in a skewing of my purpose, as easily as unintended (by who? I wasn't sure) interaction.
I softly, carefully, lifted the covers from Ellyn's face. She frowned, slightly, in her sleep as the small weight lifted, then turned her face further into the pillow. Her bedmate, at her stirring, lifted his (yep, it was a him, now plainly obvious) head up, probably to nuzzle her ear from the looks of it.
He froze, face in view. Eyes open. Damn.
There was perhaps a million years of silent tension.
Then his eyes widened, at the same moment that I could see his body tensing for some violent reaction - a shout, a leap from the bed, I wasn't sure - but it was suddenly unimportant to me as I fell backwards away from the bed into the blackness. The last image I took with me into the void was that of his face, one I was slow to recognize in my fogged state. My face.
blackness, comforting, warm. the mind's method of coping with too many unreasonable shocks. a womb of timeless stasis and heated saline suspension, only reluctantly letting me go as the light draws me upward to itself. Folds of blackness drop away from my sides, pulled down by gravity, leaving only the blurry light, sharpening- Kelly's face, over mine, in a stark and empty bedroom, the white paint on the ceiling behind his head and a concerned expression on him as he touched a moist towel to my forehead.
I screamed, then, for a long time.
* * *
Waking was an unfriendly, painful ritual. I watched the light return, and the pain lurk there at the sides of my vision with gleaming teeth that shone as they were bared in rictus grins. The light came closer, shining on me. I forced my eyes open; held them that way against the glare. Kelly was there; there was whiteness. That was all. I let them shut again; gathered my strength.
"Come on then, boyo. Open up. 'Tis just me."
I groaned something unintelligible. At least, it was to me; I presume that it made no more sense to him. He dabbed my forehead again with the towel, blessedly cool. I hunched my shoulders and tried to sit up.
Kelly lifted me. I was on the floor, in the bedroom, near the doorway. With his help, I made it to a sitting position, and let my back lean against the doorframe.
He sat back on his haunches, eyeing me. When it appeared I wasn't going to fall over, he stood up. I could hear his knees crackling. Moving away slightly, he sat on the bare bedframe that held vigil in the center of the room before speaking.
"Did you see something?" It came out quietly, and his stare was intent.
"What?" I was shaken, still and again.
"Did you see something?"
"Not sure. N-not sure what you mean." I shivered, suddenly, sharply, and drew my knees up. "Come on, man, you sat there for a half second, then you got up suddenly and went into the bedroom. I followed you in; you looked around, looked at me, collapsed on the floor. Now here y'are, back again on the side of angels, and in nasty shape to boot. D'ye remember walking in here?"
"Yes." I squeezed my now-fetal shape tighter. "But not with you."
With infinite patience. "Ellyn Santano, boyo. The one who used to live here."
"No- that is, no, I didn't walk with her. She was in here, in the bed, sleeping."
"That's not all." Kelly stated facts, slowly.
"No. There was someone in bed with her."
"I- don't know. A man." A sharp look, triggered by cop instinct. I tried to look shaken. It wasn't hard.
"All right then. A man. Did they see you? What did they do? What were they doing?"
"They were sleeping. He woke up. I think he saw me. Then I blacked out, and saw you."
"What're ye leaving out, hey?"
"What?" Infinite patience, ladled over my reluctant brain by Kelly's voice.
"What're ye not telling me, son."
I looked at him.
"Aw, please, don't try to tell me I can't tell after what ye've been through!" Air blew from me in a gusty breath. I gathered my forces; staggered to my feet. Kelly sat and waited, unconcerned. I moved towards the bed, and he moved aside, to let me collapse on the mattress, hands at my side and staring at the ceiling. He didn't say anything else; I could feel him looking at me. I breathed.
There was a long pause.
"Ye were there?"
"I was him."
"Twasn't a mirror?"
"No, Kelly, I think I'd know. I was him, there, in bed, with her."
"Did ye know yerself?" I simply turned face to look at him, and he shook his head, hand rubbing his nose. "Jasus, that sounds daft. Did you...herecognize you, then?"
I'd turned back to the ceiling. "I think so. I was busy fainting." Another pause.
"Right." Kelly sounded decisive, which relieved me; I was surely incapable of it. "What've we got, then."
"What do you mean?"
"List it all out, boy. One: You don't remember anything about who you are." He glanced at me. I nodded dutifully. "Two. Ellyn Santano was killed in 1974 by a commuter rail train under Park Avenue." His accent was fading as his attention focused. I nodded again. "Three. You have now seen her here, in this apartment; you've seen her killed, you've seen you here in this apartment in nineteen seventy-whatever."
"Yup. Can we sell the rights?"
"Shut up, son, I'm thinkin'. Now, ye've been there, really, since ye brought back the pistol, eh? And ye've just seen things, there, since I saw ye walk about in a daze when you say you were seeing her then." "Check." I yawned. Lying on the mattress, an unexpected and unfamiliar luxury, was causing my body to try to take advantage of the windfall by dragging me under. Kelly looked down at me.
"Try ta stay with me here, boyo, 'tis yer life we're talkin' about."
I sat up. It took a massive effort. "Kelly, I just told you I have no fucking idea of what's going on. All I know-" I waved my arms expressively, frustratedly, before settling on words - "is that all this shit is normal to me now. Normal, you know? Like, I've never had a time in my life, short one though it is, where something isn't just happening to me. I hate it. I hate it. God-" I stopped for breath, sagging back against the headboard of the bare mattress. Kelly just watched me for a moment.
"What d'ye mean, short life?"
"Well, hell, since I can remember, man."
"And when is that, exactly?"
"I-" didn't know. I thought about it for a while, discarding memories as earlier ones surfaced. The wall loomed up ahead, white and grey and foggy and concrete, as I sifted through the detritus leading up to its base. "I think about a year, you know? I think, I think I first remember waking up in the hospital, and they wouldn't let me sleep, so I told them a made-up name so they'd let me go, so I could sleep-"
Kelly moved, swiftly, grabbing the front of my shirt. "Don't sleep! Keep yer eyes open, man!" He shook me, slightly. Confused, I shook my head and lifted lids that were suddenly heavy. "All right, son, all right. Don't worry about it now, I need ye here." His hands left my shirt in wrinkled cotton, clasped my head on each side. I looked into his worried Irish eyes and found myself grinning lazily.
"What's happeni-" Black.
There was an interlude of random static noise and blurring phosphenic swirls there behind my eyes. I turned about, randomly, but no clear light was to be seen anywhere. I swam, I suppose, as I tried to scream.
"-OUT OF IT, boy! Ye hear me?" Kelly was shaking me again, and I blinked to bring my focus from somewhere past the sky to his face. It was, I noted, a bit more wrinkled than I'd thought; a cared-for but careworn cop's face, seeing all the underbits of the city and its denizens. I reached out to touch a wrinkle. He stopped talking, suddenly, and didn't move. I drew my hand away.
"Are ye back, then?"
"Whoo, christ, boy, ye keep givin' me fits." He released my head, and sagged back to sit on the edge of the bed. I tried desperately to remember what the hell was going on; I knew something very very important was happening, but that wasn't enough. I could feel the information and memory sliding around just past my vision. I looked up at Kelly and realized there was a silly grin on my face.
"Kelly? Could I have some water or something?"
He brightened at my voice, looked back and helped me sit up. "Sure, sure, son. Just get yer feet down on the ground, that's the way." With his help, I managed to swing to my feet which, although unsteady, supported me as we staggered down the hall to the kitchen. Kelly filled a glass from the tap as I leaned against the cabinet. I took the glass from him.
Clear, cool, water, crystalline; the edges made round but still left sharp. Refraction changing position and shape but not the time; I looked through to the bottom of the glass as I drank and felt the clarity flowing into me, so that by the time I lowered the drained glass, I could stare across at Kelly and ask in a reasonably steady voice, "Kelly, what the hell just happened to me?"
He looked back, worried, then drew himself a glass. "I don't know, bucko. All I could say is that ye looked really, really bad there for a bit; couldn't talk to me, went away." He drank. "Ye seem better now; d'ye feel any better?"
"I feel, well, normal, whatever that means." We regarded each other for a bit. Then Kelly sighed and moved out into the living room. I followed, and we both sat. "Kelly, you were listing out stuff, last I remembered."
"Yah." He thought for a bit, then held up a hand to tick off points. I smothered a smile at the slightly officious mannerism, which earned me a frown which might even have been real. "One: You don't remember anything. Two. Ellyn Santano was killed in 1974 by a commuter rail. Three. You've seen her here in the flat; you've seen her in the tunnels, you've seen yourself here."
"And I saw her, originally, in Madison Square Park. A few times. I chased her up Madison a couple of blocks before she vanished; it looked like she was being hit by the train, although she wasn't chasing her hat then."
"Right, the beret."
"Yah. Um, I saw her once from the point of view of whoever was chasing her in he tunnels."
"I just said so, didn't I?"
Kelly raised his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay, boyo, I give in. So what happened?"
I looked away.
"Ah. Nothin' good, I'm presumin'."
"Not that time."
"What happened the other time?" "Lessee. I saw her in the tunnels that time, saw her being chased by somebody, didn't make it, and they were hit. I first saw her, that time, Then I saw her while I was on Seventy-second street, leaving the building..no, wait. Let me start from the beginning." I raised my fingers, and Kelly laughed. I started, then glared at him until he subsided to a snicker.
"Okay. So the first time I saw her, I was on the bench. Then I chased her, and watched her...vanish, and I passed out. I think I woke up in the tunnels, and there was something in there with me."
"I don't know. All I know is that right after a train passed me, I found my shoe on one of the rails of the track it had been on. Then I saw her on the bench, and she stopped-"
-pulled out her beret, which had nestled there ever since. I offered it to her, shyly, and she looked at it a moment before looking at me askance and taking it with a small brief dimpled smile that twisted my heart.
She got up, and reached out as if she might touch me, but stopped and instead turned her head away and looked off into the distance for a moment at nothing, and when she turned back there was a different expression on her face, one of stark terror-
"Jesus." I came to a halt, stared at the wall. Kelly waited. "Listen, man, that time, the time I saw her before I chased her and...and..."
"Yah, that time, okay, go on-" Kelly hurried me past the memory.Move along now, nothin' to see, not yer business, move along.
"Yeah, that time, she stopped and I gave her the beret. And she came closer, like she knew me-" I trailed off into silence.
It stayed quiet for quite some time.
"She knew you." Kelly sounded quite certain, with flat affect.
"Yes. Yes, I think she did."
"Then what?" "Then...then I remember she turned away, and when she turned back she was...afraid of me, and ran away, so I chased her..."
"She ran away and so you chased her? Not and then?"
I turned to look at him. He was giving me that intense stare. "What?"
"You said she turned and ran, and so you chased her."
"Yeah, I did."
"Why does her running cause you to chase her?"
"Jesus, I dunno. I guess - because I hadn't gotten any answers yet, you know? I guess..."
"There was something else, wasn't there."
"I can't remember."
"Sure you can."
"No, I can't! I tell you, man, it's there, it's behind this fucking wall, the one I found downstairs..." Oops, I was starting to make less sense even to myself.
"The big cinder block one, with the noises behind it, south of Grand. I think it's a basement foundation wall, but it was way out in the middle of the avenue, you know? I couldn't find a door or anything, and I beat up on it with the Maglite, but nothing happened, I couldn't break it or find my way in..."
"What's behind it, then?"
"Everything. Everything that's important, I guess, to-" I ran down, stared at Kelly.
"Important to who?" He leaned in close, staring, waiting, holding me with his gaze.
"-to me! To me. Jesus, where'd that come from?"
"To you? Or to him?"
"To..." I stopped again. "Shit, now I can't think. I don't know."
"What wall?" The repeated question had the affect of a forceps, tweezing away resistance in order to expose the underside of it. I pictured lying to Kelly as the interposition of a fatty layer, during surgery; I could see him peel it back, lay it to one side, focus on the fluids running beneath. Jesus.I shook my head. Then, I wonder if I'm Christian? A thoroughly irrelevant question. The mild oath lay interspersed with my speech and thought just as Yiddish had taken root in New York; constantly there and spoken, never recognized for its true self. While I watched, Kelly put down his glass and adjusted his coat.
"Come on, then."
"We're going ta find the wall."
I felt myself stare accusingly at him. "That's horseshit."
"Nope. Come on then, me boy. Downtown we go. Got yer Maglite?"
* * *
<--Uptime | Park Ethereal | Downtime-->