(Image courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net / Simon Howden)
The city night is in front of you, the bar is behind you. The scent of gin and cheap perfume mixes with cigarette smoke from the trio by the bar’s door. Then there is you—your name isn’t particularly important, but you are a he—stumbling out of the bar, slicing between the semi-circle of smokers and onto the sidewalk.
You’re tipsy, not drunk. A five O’clock shadow clings to your face, giving you the appearance of a brooding poet. You’re not a poet. In fact, you hate poetry—you consider modern poems too pretentious. But this story is not about your personal literary criticism; this is a tale about you and everything that makes you you. I guess that includes your literary criticism, and your penis.
It is your penis—or rather, your bladder—that moves your story along its downward arc. Your climax comes before your story begins, back in a dark corner at the bar. The hand job from the waitress sends you over the brink. You are half afraid you’ll piss in her hand. Instead, you ooze white stuff and are safe from a different kind of embarrassment. But if you had peed then, your story would be different because you will not have to pee at the moment you near an alley.
You step inside the alley, tiptoe around a dingy pewter colored tin can trash bin—the type you see in movies. You face the brick wall of some building unknown to you, unzip your pants, and pull out your junk with your left hand while steadying yourself by placing your right palm upon the wall.
Your stream, which carries the scent of cheap beer into your nostrils, flows freely at first but quickly dies. After three shakes, you hear a muffled thud that draws your attention. You turn towards the sound, your eyes peer deeper into the bleak alleyway.
A filtered scream escapes from the shadows. You hear what can only be a boot connecting with human bones—probably ribs. Curious—not in a savage way of wanting to see a blood spectacle, but curiosity brought upon by compassion—you walk towards the sounds—more abuse, less screams, one distinct hoarse whisper, “Shut the fuck up, bitch.”
The noise comes from behind a green dumpster. A single bulb hums and flickers from above a door, shedding scant light upon two—no, three—shapes: two wraiths hovering over a bloody apparition. The wraiths, too busy subduing and torturing the apparition, do not notice your approach.
Tipsy as you are, you recognize rape when you see it. The apparition’s t-shirt is torn open, her sweatpants a bunch at her ankles. What can only be her ripped panties are stuffed inside her mouth. Her face and limbs sport bruises the size and color of plums. She lies in a puddle of her tears, blood, piss and fear.
Before you are seen, you dip behind the dumpster. You take out your mobile phone and dial 9-1-1. You whisper what you witness to the dispatcher. You give your location as an alley two blocks east from the bar.
During the call, the sounds have not ended. Since you’ve been on the phone, the apparition continues sobbing nonstop. She’s beaten and ravaged again and again and again. You wonder if the operator can hear what you hear; the brutal savagery rendered from supposedly civilized creatures. How long will it take for the police to arrive? Will the apparition be dead by then?
You understand what is transpiring before your eyes. Your next thought is a blur: I got to do something to help her. This thought surprises you; these are foreign words in your mind. You’ve spent your life avoiding confrontation—skirting passed high school bullies in the hallways, internalizing your rage when your best friend runs off with your fiancée. Normally you are a cat hiding behind a couch when a vacuum cleaner roars.
For some unknown reason, the brutalizing scene in the alley is different. Someone’s life, a strange apparition, is in the balance. You are struck by the imperative placed before you. You are there. You can do something. So you do.
Mobile phone still in hand, you emerge from your hiding spot. You step towards the buzzing light and say, “Leave her alone!” You hastily add, “The cops are on their way.”
Both wraiths pause—one in mid-thrust, the other in mid-jerk—and glare at you as if you are a specter. They notice the mobile in your hand at the same time as if conjoined twins. Recognition floods their eyes.
Wraith A disentangles from the apparition on the ground while Wraith B reaches behind his jacket. Wraith A is already running deeper into the alley, disappearing into the darkness as if swallowed by Hades. Wraith B holds a black thing in shaky hands. You realize what it is just as the black thing’s front explodes in light and sound, a flash and a boom. Smoke.
A fiery hand claws at your torso, turning your shirt and the skin beneath it to ash. Flames lance through your ribs and out your shoulder blade. You move backwards; gravity tugs at you, the concrete below catches you.
This is how it ends, you think. This is how I die: trying to save a stranger. You would laugh at the irony, but there is too little air in your lungs to form even a chuckle. You wonder if there is a god or afterlife; if so, will your act of bravery—or foolhardiness—suffice as penance for past misdeeds?
You could have been nicer to your niece. True she annoys the hell out of you with her incessant chatter, but you are an adult and should exhibit more patience. You were once an annoying 7-year-old yourself.
You remember your ex-girlfriend, Dolly, and your last interaction with her: a kiss before she heads down into the subway. As you turn away, you catch a man with a hood covering his face walking slowly behind her. That night is balmy with summer love and, though the sun has set, the temperature is still 80 degrees. The man exudes an aura of shadiness. You ignore your intuition—chalk it up to an overactive imagination coupled with paranoia—and continue about your way.
You call Dolly when you arrive home, as per your usual arrangement. She doesn’t answer. You figure she is angry at you for some offense you didn’t realize you committed (she is often upset with you for offenses you do not know you committed). When she doesn’t call back or answer your call the following day, you figure she broke up with you.
It isn’t until a week later that Dolly’s remains, washed up along the Potomac, are discovered by a tourist.
You recall the scene at the bus stop a few days ago, a couple arguing loudly over something. She yells, “You’re not pulling out your knife!”—which got your attention. He calls her a bitch. She walks away. He calls her another bitch. She walks back to him. They continue to argue as they walk down the sidewalk. You hope she doesn’t get stabbed later that night.
You think these things while lying on the ground, shot. You hear a faint voice say, “Sir? Sir? Are you okay? I heard what sounded like a gunshot; is everything okay, sir? Please respond. The police and paramedics are on the way.” You realize you did not end the call with the police.
You hear sniffling. Are you crying? No, it is not you. You are leaking another type of fluid, the kind that turns maroon when it comes in contact with oxygen.
The cries you hear are from the apparition. Good, you think—not “good” in the sense that she has reason to weep, but crying means that she is still alive. As for you, you are dying.
But isn’t the apparition dying too? Not just from her wounds and mental trauma. Every breath taken is one breath closer to the last. Last comes quicker for some than others. You can feel your last breath fast approaching.
You are struck by a morbid thought: your death is a heck of a lot noisier than you had secretly envisioned it. In your fantasy, you are at the ripe old age of 82 when Death greets you. You lie in a hospital bed where imaginary loved ones surround you. Your nonexistent children and grandchildren huddle around you, and the last thing you hear are their howls of grief.
In reality, your death has its own musical soundtrack. There is the light bulb’s tuneless hum, the operator speaking over the phone, the apparition’s sobs mixed with the peal of sirens.
Your mind whispers, Ah, the police have arrived. You wonder if this shall be your final thought. Wasteful, if it is. You simply cannot think straight with all the noises around you and blackness surrounding you from all sides. It is as if the corners of your consciousness are being folded inward, exposing its darkened underside.
The sounds distract you from your reverie—your mental journey from what you were to become the last man you are: a hero.
You think this, and then you die.