Naked in the cold, I lean against the broken frame of my window. I’m shivering but I like it; I feel alive. The calming touch of glass is a good friend – there when no-one else cares to be.
The grey sky finally sinks toward gloom; meaning somewhere behind all the clouds the sun is setting. I’ve still not found a clock.
In that gloomy world outside my window a priest, complete with black cassock and rosary, walks in circles around where the shot man lay in the street. He has a book in his hands, and reads aloud from it.
A lady in a ragpicker coat and farm boots steps up to the priest. Their conversation seems civil. Maybe the priest wasn’t there just to bless the spot.
Maybe I’m haunting this apartment right now. If so, then my stomach tells me ghosts can get hungry.
I have nothing I didn’t have day before yesterday except regrets. At the refrigerator I discover I also have one less heel of bread, which leaves me with zero remaining heels of bread and a jar of mayonnaise which tastes a little bit sour when eaten with a spoon, but my hungry body sucks it down anyway.
A trickle of sweat down my neck gives me a funny feeling.
A car ambles down the street outside, passing a van going the other way. The overpass is empty of trains.
On a sudden impulse I click the metal cover over my typewriter and carry the case to my closet. At the back a loose board hides my emergency new life fund; It used to be a wad of cash, my passport, and my mother’s journal. The cash was the first to go. The passport’s next. Inside it I keep the last line of defense: a five dollar bill. The journal fits into a gap in the typewriter base where I found it originally, and the whole case slides into the wall just about perfectly. I’ll not be selling that.
It takes me a moment to get the board back into place, and the passport into my pocket. It’ll earn me a respectable little sum on the black market.
I lean back to make sure it’s hard to see.
Before I’ve finished the motion there’s a knock at my door.
Nobody knocks at my door. Nobody ever. Not in the year I’ve lived here has somebody knocked at my door. That was the point of moving to a new city.
My room is a mess of dirty laundry, but that makes it easy to spot a nearby pair of pants, which I don in a hurry.
“Who’s there?” I ask, as I search for a shirt.
There’s nothing in my room that could be used as a weapon. Maybe the lamp, but its shape is awkward.
“Mark Simmons?” It’s a man’s voice on the other side of the door. He says ‘Mark’ like ‘mock’ and his tone carries a strange flavor of tension.
“Yeah?” I say, distracted by an odd apparition; The wall on either side of my single-slate wood door shines with red light, as if the wood slats are translucent and somebody’s playing with one of those colored stage lights on the other side.
The red collapses to focus on the door. Dread hits me in the same moment the doorknob smashes from the frame, throwing splinters across my bed.
Men rush through. Coveralls. Masks. One points something my way that goes put. But I’m already throwing myself at the window.
The loose pane springs free as my shoulder hits it. The two-foot glass sheet tumbles into the fire escape railing and cracks. I land on top of it and it shatters, covering my shoulder with a lace of sharp pains. I’m already scrambling down the rusty steps. Something inside the apartment goes put and then spak as a fast blur strikes the edge of the window above my head.
Twice in two days I’ve raced out this fire escape.
There’s a white delivery truck parked to block the entrance to my building. A tall man in a blue coverall waits at the fire-escape bottom, looking alert. Our eyes lock. His are blue, with a halo of green at the core. He was waiting for me.
“I have him!” he shouts, the moment before we collide.
He outweighs me. My force knocks him back a step. He grips for my waist, meaning to lift me. He knows how to wrestle. The coverall smells new. I slam my knee into his groin, and on the return stroke my weight sinks my heel into his ankle. Something pops and he chokes back a yell as we tumble to the ground, his arms around me.
My father taught me this truth: fights outside a sport ring are not often decided by art. They are decided in favor of they who commit the most egregious violence, with the least hesitation.
I ram my forehead into his nose and feel it pop with a spray of snot. His legs, trying to lock around my waist, loosen for a moment. With a grip on his hair as leverage, I ram my knee into his groin, my thumb into his eye, and my teeth into his throat. He lets go of my waist. I scramble up and run.
Something behind and above me goes put again, and its projectile bounces off the street by my feet, spinning into the gutter. Almost without thought, I scoop it up as I sprint by. Brick is hard and grating under my tenderized feet as I weave and swing around the metal pillars that hold up the rail overpass, and then sprint along the sidewalk beyond it. The slaps of my bare footfalls echo.
The priest watches me go by, strangely unimpressed. His hair is white, his eyes brown, and in his right hand he holds a ghostly sword, transparent, and shining with internal light.
I would very much like to stop and ask him about that. I do not.
The cough and rumble of the truck starting up echoes under the overpass. I round the corner and make for the El stop about forty yards down the street.
The gal the priest was talking to leans against the riser under the EL station. She watches me approach with very green eyes. I slow.
“Jenny?” I ask her, incredulous.
She doesn’t quite nod, but it’s her. She’s wearing a knee length rag-coat with more patches than surface and a bag-cap that makes her hair look black. The coat changes her shape so much I almost didn’t recognize her, but her eyes burn with that green life.
“What the hell are you-?” I start to say, but she grabs my arm and starts running.
We’re about the same height, but her legs are longer and she’s in better shape. She’s faster. She heads for a turnstile. I pull out of her grasp.
“No! This way!”
Across the street from the EL a narrow alley makes a cave, full with garbage and the heavy smell of rotting cabbage and fruit. We crouch behind an overflowing crate and wrinkle our noses at the smell. The grocer next door is where I buy my food, such as I can afford.
We’re barely out of sight when the truck rolls around the corner and up to the EL stop. Two of the coverall guys jump out. They race through the turnstile and up the stairs to the platform. A train rumbles in, coming from the north. One of the guys appears at the edge of the platform.
“Southbound!” he shouts down to the van, then gets on the train, his head swiveling rapidly from side to side.
The van peels out and races away. A tense minute later, the train does too.
“What happened to your shirt and shoes?” Jenny asks me, as though that were the most pressing issue at hand.
“Why are you dressed like that?” I retort. “What are you doing here? And, have you got my eight dollars?”
“Camouflage. Waiting for Sylvia. And, not on me.” She winces at the blood trickling down my shoulder. “You’re bleeding.”
“Yeah! It’s because I jumped through a window! I’ve never done that before! Have you ever done that? It was exciting but now it hurts! Why wait on a street corner? I’d have let you in if you’d knocked.”
I try to meet her gaze but she looks away and steadies herself with one hand on the crate. “I was worried! I thought there might have been a trap. I guess I was right.” She squints around the corner, then chews her lip.
I look up to the vanished train, but it’s gone and the platform stands empty. “I don’t think Sylvia’s coming back here, Jenny. I can’t think of a reason she would.”
“I know! You think I don’t know? But she’s not anywhere else and this is the last place I saw her. What happened to you?” She holds up both hands. “No wait, will you come meet someone?”
“Yeah. Sure. Why not. Where? Also, who, and why? Also, why are you hanging out under the train station dressed like a rummage shop palm reader?”
She makes her way out into the street. I follow.
“You can’t get on a train like that,” she says, “Do you have things you need in your apartment?”
“Yeah. My wallet might be helpful.”
“They might have left someone there, so I’ll check it out. Wait here.” She sets off down the street.
“Jenny!” I call after her.
“Yeah,” she replies, without stopping or looking back.
I was right; she’s capable. She’s done more taking care of me than I have of her. I resolve to return the favor. Nothing unusual shimmers about her. No ghostly swords or phantom wounds confound her outline, just the rag-jacket and a ridiculous hat. She disappears around the corner.
Thinking of ghostly swords, I creep to the edge of the overpass and peek around the bend. The priest is gone. Jenny walks right through my building’s front door like she lives there, and disappears inside. Feeling exposed, I retreat to the alley behind the dumpster to wait for her return.
My shoulder bleeds in three or four places, but none of the cuts hurt until I start pulling glass out of them.
Well, all right. Down one apartment, up one girl, spy, person. Friend. I guess I’m not going home.