Gifts by Keith Rosson
The conflict shrinks ever inward, and summer, finally, brings skirmishes that ring the city. Rumors abound: rations will be lessened, insurgents’ boots can be felt in the ground like an approaching train, they’ve turned our incantations against us. There will be a curfew, evacuations. At night the sound of far-off mortars drifts through the open windows, and in daylight the gutters are dense with flies roving mounds of rotting garbage, sheets of flies that tremble like green-black skins.
The days are filled with a still, joyless heat, where grit gathers like a film on the skin. The television is on, of course—it’s mandatory—but soundless, and the day is so quiet that footfalls can be heard on the sidewalk below. Footfalls on cement, and beneath the soles shell casings and glass shards rasp like bitter stones.
Upstairs in my apartment, Jinx and I have sex for the last time while the neighbor moves out next door.
“I want to get out,” the neighbor says to his friends as they drag something heavy along the floor, “before some motherfucker makes me get out, you know?”
Jinx and I, our hips notched together, the skyline outside the window immutable, thumbed with smoke. Jinx’s bones are like pipes socked in felt. Drops of sweat fall from my nose to the notched valley of her breastbone, and it’s not love, whatever’s left between us. It’s something sad and faded and winding down.
My trembling arms, our hips thocking together hard enough to ache, hard enough to leave bruises tomorrow. We go from chair to floor to couch, this panicked routine, this sadness, bits of detritus sticking to the pale awkward moons of her ass, the jutting bird-wings of her shoulder blades, the palms of my reddened hands. The air smells of plastic, and outside uncoils a long and faraway stutter of weapons fire, discordant and arrhythmic. The neighbor and his friends thump and bang their way down the stairwell to his freedom, to his death, to some other place than this.
“Don’t stop,” Jinx says, her face turned away from me.
“I won’t,” I say.
When were we the closest to love, she and I? The very closest to it?
We end joylessly, silently, not looking at each other. Jinx covers her hands across her breasts and I rise up. She believes that there is somewhere better than here, somewhere we can go besides this place. She believes in the Lottery; that some blessed citizens are given access and means to leave, gifted with a place void of conflict. It’s the same wall we have run up against over and over, she and I. The same argument for months and months, and today she is going. Jinx is leaving, and what was meant to be a quick stop to say goodbye—a severing as painless as possible—has turned into this, a prolonged ache. And the separateness I feel right now is like its own thing, like some third thing in the room that we’ve given birth to. I pull on pants and, gutted, pretend interest in the television while Jinx gets dressed.
You can hear the rustlings in the walls, constant now.
On the screen are tanned, hugely muscled, well-fed men in ridiculous costumes slamming into each other. The television won’t go off for another four, five hours, and now it’s Sports—wrestling—and after that will be News and then Incantations and then Lottery and then the screen will wink out like a dim star, leaving us to the cadence of war outside the windows. Onscreen, they pan the stadium’s crowd and a cavalcade of gaunt, hollow-eyed people like Jinx and me rage back, gaunt and blood-mad. A Great and Terrible Wraith, my favorite guy if only for his colors, petitions the crowd, raises his massive arms up and waves his hands and struts in a rooster circle, bringing the people to a frenzy. His orange and green singlet gleams with reflected light, the ragged bubblegum-pink scars uncurling beneath the neck of his mask. The image of the hatchet buried in a skull on the back of his costume, his sigil, surrounded by the logos of corporate sponsors. Another wrestler—Vim and Vigor, maybe, or The Ceaselessness, or Name Me Terror—writhes around on the mat behind him, ensconced in a false agony. The death-tally of the insurgents runs in a yellow ticker at the bottom of the screen, ever growing. It’s ageless, this entertainment of watching men hurt each other. We’ve done this for centuries, we’ll do this until we’re dust.
“I should go home,” Jinx says. “Should finish packing.”
I appreciate the distraction of these men, the supposed sport of it, but mostly I just think about all the calories ingested, how much the fuckers must get to eat to stay huge like that.
Jinx lights a cigarette and I sit at the kitchen table and sneak glances at the blued backs of her knees, at her little feet as she puts on one sock and then one shoe, the way she yanks hard on her belt. She catches me looking and I quickly turn my head and watch the last dirty swath of sunlight move across the wall. The wall is creased here and there in ways it wasn’t a month ago.
“What is that?” Jinx says. “That noise.”
“Kind of a rustling sound?”
I say, “Kind of a writhing ululation? A—I don’t know—a papery oscillation, maybe?”
“Jay,” she says, sounding tired.
I point to the wall, the wrinkles there like bad papier-mâché. “It’s just the building,” I say. “Just whatever’s happening to the building. To the city. I don’t know, Jinx.”
I walk her downstairs. There is some part of me that knows this is for the best, that we tried, that it hasn’t worked for a year, maybe more than a year—that eventually we found each other lacking in some integral way, some way that I will probably not be able to name for a while. But another larger part of me is desperate to stop it. Is already steeped in loss from it, and delirious, and halved. We were together since the war was a distant thing, back when time could be measured in clearly defined increments: when we could travel freely. When we could get fruit. Gasoline. When convoys didn’t fill the street with dust and menace and blank-faced boys bristling with weaponry. When we did not perform spells on the bodies of our dead or the dead of our enemies. I can tell Jinx and I are finished by the way she walks ahead of me and I walk behind her, even though the stairwell is wide enough for both of us. I keep wanting to reach out and lightly touch her arm, to stop it, to be someone different than who I am. She’s leaving, I think, she’s leaving.
When we get outside the heat is like being smothered with a smoldering garbage bag, suffocating, and Hooper is standing on the sidewalk in front of my building. He is always standing on the sidewalk in front of my building, the shithead, and today he sucks his teeth and nods at us as we pass by him. Beneath his vest and helmet, Hooper is all sweat and Adam’s apple and wrist bones. His uniform is sweat-salted white at the armpits and he’s missing a button on his shirtsleeve, right there above where his hand rests of the grip of his rifle. This man ostensibly enlisted to protect us stares at Jinx’s ass as she walks down the street.
“Listen,” I say to him, acidic with sarcasm, “I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate all you do. I think it’s really valuable,” and I walk backwards a few steps and Hooper, oblivious, actually touches his fingers to his helmet’s visor and salutes me. I’m full of what’s happening between Jinx and I, I’m sick with it, and his gaze on her like that, and the feeling in my heart; I want to spit blood in the guy’s eyes, knock him down and put my knees on his arms and yank his helmet off and bray laughter into that implacable, smug, half-starved face. I want to ask him if it’s worth it, what he’s doing, when he’s still practically as hungry as we are. Instead I turn and Jinx is walking far ahead of me, mad, her legs knifing the ground, her hands gripping her elbows. I have to run to catch up.
“I couldn’t help myself,” I say, singsonging it.
“Of course you couldn’t.” She won’t look at me. “When can you, Jay?”
The hood of Jinx’s car is covered in a skin of ash. She turns to face me, the car door between us.
“I’m never going to see you again, am I?” It comes out of my mouth as pathetic as it sounds, as pathetic as it feels.
It’s a moment draws out; her face softens and she looks away and for just a bit my heart lifts, like maybe. But then she says, “I don’t think so,” and when she looks back at me I can see her assuredness tighten like a fist around her whole body. I’m a little awed by it. Tiny bits of ash already dot her shoulders, hang like flakes of snow in her hair. And it’s still so goddamned hot out. We’ve been outside for a minute? Two minutes?
So much of everything seems a slow dismantlement, a piecing away.
“I don’t want you to go.”
She shakes her head, pulls a strand of hair from her mouth. “Not everything makes it, Jay, you know? Wrong place, wrong time? Too different? Who knows. We’ve just talked it to death. We tried and tried.” She shrugs. “I’m sick of it here,” she says, and as if in response comes the crumple of an explosion, some doom-spell uncoiling over towards Industrytown. Neither of us flinches, not anymore.
I look down my street. All the buildings with their windows boarded, cars humped in silt. Numbers slashed in chalk on brick walls, symbols: street-side magicians plying their own chickenshit spells against the dark, against the insurgency. Hooper, and other guys like Hooper, standing in clusters with their guns, stocky with body armor, their faces rimed in dirt except where they’re sweating. Piles of stacked bricks that’ve tumbled into the road.
“I just feel like we can change,” I say. “Like nothing’s too late.”
“If we could have, we would have,” Jinx says. “It’s poison here, Jay.” She gets into her car and gently, careful of my fingers, shuts the door.
I’m stunned with the finality of it—we did it, we split for good—and I’m crossing the street back to my building when someone picks me up and throws me from behind, flings me into the air, when my ears fill with this tidal roar, something animalistic, like I’m being pressed down to the bottom of the ocean. Then the street rises to meet me and I skid on pavement like it’s iced, like it’s choreographed, and things begin to tumble and flower down around me in slow arcs that are almost beautiful, and I stare in wonder as something metal and edged in char is sticking out of my wrist and I can’t feel it, I can’t feel a thing, just a roar, this singular roar.
“It’s not like there’s words for it,” Harrison says. His hand tries to divine the tabletop for his beer bottle. “It’s not like there’s a statute on loss. Anybody who says so is wrong. There’s no other way to say it. Fuck em.”
“I know, man. I hear you. I appreciate it.”
We’re sitting in my kitchen nursing a twelve-pack of Harrison’s black market beers while any number of fans creak and push hot air around the apartment. It’s quiet save for the fans and the skittering in the walls and the occasional rattle of a convoy down below. This is our most recent tradition, born from my mourning: beer and bullshitting. Blind Harrison, Black Market Harrison, who lives in the apartment above me and has been my friend almost as long as I knew Jinx, brings me boxes of beer and listens to me sloppily recount any number of tales. The minutiae of she and I. Our greatest hits. My cavalcade of shortcomings and regrets. (How the stick-and-poke tattoos we gave each other—each other’s initials, Jesus Christ, so corny—got infected and soon enough were little more than gray-green blurs on our arms. The crooked incisor she had, and how for the first year we were together she covered her mouth whenever she laughed. The way she went sock-shoe, sock-shoe when she got dressed. How we would lie in bed and she would drape her hair over my face while I talked; how that was the best darkness. And how it felt like I was flying when the car bomb went off, how the street seemed to be moving towards me instead of the other way around, and how I shook afterwards for two days, sick with adrenaline and shock. Flaming shrapnel raining down on me, Hooper pulling me by the collar into the doorway. Some weary doctor working outside of a ration center pulling the shrapnel out, stitching me up, giving me half a dozen pain pills, all they could afford.)
I talk and Harrison sits in the dark afternoon and listens.
Harrison’s a bad man according to the neighborhood. Housebound Harrison, the man that never leaves the building, a shot-caller. Harrison handles booze, dope, commodities. Food. There’s a price for it all, but when isn’t there a price? What’s ever free? It makes me wonder, sometimes—will there be a price for this? For our palaver? I find it hard to match, the man they claim him to be and the man he is in my kitchen, listening to me stutter and weep. Grayed flattop, his cane folded in his lap. Mostly it’s the eyes that moor you, those eyes that are marbled with blue and gray cataracts—thirty years ago, a single operation could’ve saved his sight, but the world’s a far cry from how it was thirty years ago. They look, I think, like the chilled, resolute center of an iceberg. They search my face when I talk.
“I just miss her,” I say dumbly—that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? “She didn’t even want to be with me, and still, it’s just this leveling.”
“If I ever find em, Jay,” Harrison says, and finds his beer bottle, and tilts it to his mouth. “I ever find the sergies that planted that thing, I’ll come get you.” He swipes his hand down his face, wicks the sweat away. “They’ll know they been got, I promise you. You know? They’ll regret it.”
Do I want that? I open my mouth and then I close it.
She was leaving anyway.
But I do want that. I do.
Part of me? There’s still that part of me that’s like, had she lived? Had Jinx just driven away? We could have fixed it. I could have found her. We could have saved it. I don’t know if that’s true.
So now we’ve got a signal, Harrison and I—three taps on his floor or my ceiling—and if he’s home, he’s knocking at my door a few minutes later. Blind man of the neighborhood, a dangerous man, and I’ve never seen him outside the building. But it’s true, his name runs in threads all along the streets here, all through the brickwork, falls hushed from people’s mouths. He says, I got my finger on the pulse of the nation, Jay, when I ask how he does everything, how he makes it work. He says that, and then he winks one of those marbled eyes.
Death is a constant here, right? I know that. Jinx’s death is just one among many, that dumb stutter of mortality. And yet—context? Screw context.
“Hey,” he says now, and I watch as he puts his hand on the table and an insect—a cream-colored moth with dust-heavy wings, big as a half-dollar—falls from a crease in the wall and trundles towards his tented fingers and then away from them. This is what the sounds in the walls are, the traffic of these things. They’ve only recently begun burrowing out (this is the first one I’ve seen in daytime), and revulsion rises in me, my hands go slick with sweat. “Hold on,” I manage, “there’s a bug right by your hand—”
“I know,” he says. “I can hear it. Leave it.”
“It’s nasty, Harrison. It’s one of the ones from the walls.”
Harrison nods. “You hear about your new neighbor?”
The moth seems stunted, confused. “No.” I can’t take my eyes away. It’s vibrating like something electric.
Harrison nods. “It’s that guy,” he says. “It’s that guy you like.”
“What? Next door?”
“Yeah. The wrestler.”
The moth’s wings flutter, spotted with flakes of plaster.
Harrison lifts his head towards the ceiling. “What’s the guy’s name? A List of Partial Demands? A Half-Hearted Vengeance? Something long like that.”
“It’s not A Great and Terrible Wraith, is it?”
Harrison slowly begins unfolding his cane. “That’s it. That’s exactly who it is.”
“He lives here? How the hell do you know that?”
“Because I ran into him.”
“You ran into him.”
“I literally ran into him. Walking down the hall and he was carrying a bunch of boxes and didn’t see me. Guy’s just beastly, Jay. Just a huge man.”
“So he just introduced himself? ‘Hi, I’m A Great and Terrible Wraith, maybe you’ve heard of me?’”
“That’s pretty much how it happened, actually.”
I say, “Maybe it’s just somebody bullshitting you.”
Harrison shrugs, and on the table the moth, I think the moth is maybe dying. When it walks, there’s these clicking noises that get buried in your ear somewhere. Watching it move is like watching the skin get peeled from a skull.
“That guy’s sponsored, Harrison. Why would he move into this building?”
Harrison’s lips pull back and he brings his cane down on the table. He’s so fast. There’s a loud crack, and our beer bottles jump and one rolls off onto the floor. He turns those beautiful marbled eyes toward me.
“I get him?”
The moth skitters to the edge of the table, tests it in a panic.
“Not even close,” I say.
“Damn.” Harrison smiles, folding his cane back up. “I was hoping for some real ninja shit there.” I knock the moth to the floor with a bottle and then step on it. There’s a brittle crunch beneath my shoe, like autumn leaves.
Harrison says, “Anyway, Jay, I don’t know if you noticed or not. But here’s about as good as anywhere these days.”
The heat breaks, and power rationing comes with the autumn rains. Sections of the city flood and are abandoned to the insurgents. Home Protection sends a covert group of magicians and numbers men into an insurgent camp on the outskirts of Industrytown, and their heads are sent back with their own incantations stuffed in their mouths. The rainfall is so heavy the streets below seem to warp like something spied through antique, untrustworthy glass. Mold slicks the walls. I cough at night, and if I ever believed in magic, I don’t anymore. The moths continue to lace their way throughout the building, the city. Come morning the floor is littered with their carapaces, pale as finger bones.
I write Jinx letters with the hiss of rain outside my windows, letters in which all is resolved, in which our lives are retold, in which I have wooed her back to living. I put the letters in envelopes and seal them and put them in my desk. I try my best not to cry out when a moth tumbles to the floor.
Occasionally I hear someone through our shared wall. Scrapes and murmurs. If it really is A Great and Terrible Wraith, I have yet to see him.
We’re gifted with electricity today, and I’m down in the basement, breathing through my mouth. Slime darkens the walls ankle-high, but the washer and dryer still work, and even as the building slowly empties of tenants, as we sneak away in the night, or pretend some grave errand and make our way in daylight, I remain indebted to these luxuries. I crave them, their normalcy, the repetition of these actions.
Today I pull my clothes from the dryer and among them is a mask. An orange and green mask with worn stitching and frayed eyelets. I put the mask in my laundry basket, stuff it beneath my clothes. I walk quickly up the stairs, expecting to meet him on the way, some scar-riddled behemoth, some huge motherfucker who can read the theft on my face like a birthmark, like a tremor.
In my apartment, I hold the mask on my hand, tented on my fingers. Every light in the apartment burns, and the fabric almost glows incandescent.
I put it on, still warm:
And you, Jinx, become a sudden ghost like a knife blade down the furrow of my skull. You bloom like fire, the heat of your life and your death inside me, at play relentlessly behind my eyes. Your voice runs a wooden cup down my spine like a xylophone. I see you, I see your life, your sorrow, your triumph, I see you as you saw yourself, and how I saw you as well.
This is wraith, this deathlessness, this haunting: how much you cared even as we ended it, even as you prepared to leave, and how you were afraid of so many things I never knew about, and how little you trusted to tell me.
You wanted me to come with you.
And I yank the mask from my skull and my breath comes in great shuddering gasps, and I’m loosing these sputtering jagged sobs. And already, seconds later, curse stacked on curse—the shutter-stop memory from beneath the mask begins to fade like smoke.
Jinx had an uncle who was an analyst for Home Protection. He was relatively high up, and she was always getting extra stuff on her ration card because of it—cigarettes, vegetables. Extra fill-ups, stuff like that.
Once he gave her a day pass outside the checkpoints. It was right after I met him at a get-together at Jinx’s parents’ place. The uncle was a small, dapper man who carried his power around like an expensive coat, like plumed wings. He looked, you know, like someone’s uncle, but also like a man who had the surety and mercilessness to call in a drone strike on a tenement building with children inside. The three of us talked, drank wine that I would never have been able to afford on my own, and at the end of the night he gripped me around the elbow, a little drunk, and said, “You two fit well, Jay. I’m a fan.” And I’ll be honest; I was a little flattered.
So he sent Jinx a day pass and we drove through a checkpoint, and some HP kid gave us a map that showed sergie hotspots and places to avoid. We drove through the gate and marveled at the ruination. There was wreckage everywhere: blackened convoy trucks, blocks of buildings that were now just arcs of rubble amid clotted weeds.
But it was springtime, and things were blooming, and I remember both Jinx and I were silent with something approaching awe when we came across the cherry orchard. It was beyond a fence, a leaning fence laced and woven in vines—just hundreds of these blooming cherry trees, all of them stretched for acres on this one unblemished hillside. Pink blooms heavy on the branches, bursting like just-lit fireworks. We pulled to a stop on the side of the road and gingerly, with my sleeves wrapped around my hands, I lifted the barbed-wire fencing and Jinx slipped through and then she did the same for me. We ate a picnic there beneath one of the trees. The scent of it, the way a breeze would send blossoms down to get caught in Jinx’s hair. The way she would laugh, chewing something, and thread the blossoms out with her fingers. That memory. Sometimes I think if I could just live in that, you know?
I don’t know what happened to the uncle, it’s been years, but tonight on the News I sat and watched footage of the orchard, the trees skeletal now but unmistakably aligned on that rising hillside beyond the fence. The sergies had just torched it, and the smoke lay black and roiling against the gunmetal sky, flaming trees bent against the wind.
Above me, Harrison taps three times: You want to hang out?
I don’t answer.
I just sit there, the mask in my lap, wondering, wondering.
Winter. Frost rimes the windows, ghostly as Harrison’s eyes. Eventually, grudgingly, the radiator will clang to life, if only for a while. Magicians wend through frozen, windblown streets, shouting curses and clacking rhythms with their dice and charred bones until the police, breathing air into their cupped hands, roll their eyes and tell them to move on.
I lie awake in the scant light of evening, too cold to sleep. No power today. Just one fluttering candle, blankets to my chin. I’m wearing a jacket, a sweater, two pairs of socks. My wrist is long healed but aches in this weather. I’m hungry, and I listen to the wind sneak fingers through chinks in the brickwork outside. Somehow the insects survive the cold and continue their machinations in the walls. I don’t understand it. I watch as one tunnels its way through the plaster across the room; the shadows its wings lay upon the wall are terrible, alien.
I rise and gather a glass jar from the kitchen and when I walk back, the moth—they’ve grown nearly as big as my palm now, and sometimes the images on their wings look like men killing other men, or a child curled in a corner, or Jinx with her hair in her eyes, or the look on my mother’s face the day I left home—lies there dazed on the floor, unmoving. It panics when I get near with the jar. I scoop it in, screw the lid, punch holes in the top with scissors.
I hold the candle flame next to the jar and the moth beats beats beats its wings.
“That’s right,” I say, sneering.
And beneath my window is a muffled cough of breaking glass, and then noises bloom from the street and up the stairwell, footfalls thunderous and quick-paced, and when lights flutter madly beneath the seam of my door I lick my fingers and snuff the candle flame. I set the jar down on the floor and tiptoe to the door and press my ear against it. When I open the door, a half-dozen police line the hallway—everything’s this strange ballet. They have lights attached to their weapons and details swim out of the lurching murk: a bandolier of ammunition across a chest, a faceplate with a silver crack down the center, dust motes whirling madly in the air.
They have a man pressed up against the wall, his hands zip-tied behind his back, his eyes white and searching through the rills of blood running down his forehead. I don’t recognize him.
“Please,” the man says. He’s crying. “I don’t understand,” he says. They pull a hood over his head.
The police are yelling at me now, one of them, no, two of them, yelling at me to get back, get the fuck back inside, the bores of their guns are huge, planet-huge, their breath fogging their visors, clouding them, obscuring their faces, and I’m painted in the lights beneath their weapons, blinded, and I squint and raise my hands and gently shut my door, murmuring, “Sorry, sorry.”
The lucidity of a dream, the surety of it, the shape of a man leaning against the wall at the foot of my bed. And he’s huge. And it doesn’t—it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who it is.
But it’s a dream and sometimes bravery’s a cheap commodity in dreaming.
“I guess you’re here to kill me,” I say.
He laughs, crosses his arms. Now, why would I want to kill you, Jay? And his laugh is terrible, like scooping something dark out of a drain and then watching it writhe in your hand.
“I don’t know,” I say, scooting up on my elbows. There’s a tilting funhouse quality to the dream. With a levity I’d never have in the waking world, I say, “Probably because I stole your mask from the dryer.”
Who says you stole it? He leans in shadows, but he sounds like he’s having a great time, like this is all hilarious.
“What, you left it there for me?”
I’m supposed to wait him out? What?
“I put it on,” I say. “I put the mask on.”
Of course you did. What are masks for, genius? Of course you put it on.
And with that, something in me threatens to loosen, and the dream kind of tilts again, and I’m in this panic to talk to him about it, to tell him everything. “This girl, Jinx, okay? I saw—I put the mask on and I saw—”
He shushes me. That’s your problem, Jay. Talking about it isn’t going to help. Haven’t you been talking about it constantly? Isn’t that all you’ve been doing? Can’t you shut your fucking mouth about it? It’s like you’ve got the patent on loss or something.
A sound then like ten thousand moths, a hundred thousand, a million of them, all beating their wings. A million of them veined in the walls, in my fingertips, my balls, the circled bone around my eyes. I think about the moth in the jar, wonder if it hears the armada around it, how close it is to the others, if it knows jack shit beyond the ceaseless curved glass of its jail.
“What’s the answer then?” I ask when the sound finally fades, because I have to ask. Because it’s a dream, and brave or not, there’s things you have to do.
You just live it. You just let the ghost of it all rattle inside you. You owe her that, right? Isn’t that what this is all about?
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t know what it’s all about. I wish I did.”
Then you’re as dumb as you look, he says.
And then he leans forward, and I hear the rasp of a lighter, and he holds the flame to his face.
It’s as bad as people say.
And then he opens his mouth and the moths, all of them, ah, goddamn, probably every one of them, they tumble from A Great and Terrible Wraith’s ruined mouth, they fall from his jaws like a river of stones.
I keep writing Jinx letters. There’s a selfishness to it, I know. Housed in this ache as the world tumbles apart. Who’s right? Harrison? The Wraith? I go with Harrison: time is time. Time doesn’t care, time doesn’t give a shit. Time moves on whether you are happy or sad or dying an inch at time. Your life is your life.
Maybe, it occurs to me, they are saying the same thing.
I am rolling some of Harrison’s gifted tobacco and watching Sports when it ends.
In the ring, A Great And Terrible Wraith picks men up and flings them down like toys. There’s a knock on my door, and that’s the moment.
I look through the peephole. It’s Hooper, skinny as a bad dream, his helmet in his armpit. Scowling in the weak light of the hallway. He looks left and then right. I open the door.
“Come upstairs,” he says.
“Why?” I say. Do I have to? is what I mean.
“Just do it.”
I follow him up the stairs, shutting my door behind me as gently as I can. The walls are studded with holes, and plaster grits beneath our feet. A dead moth here and there. How do you tell when a man is tired, or when he is ashamed? Hooper seems like he’s both.
I’m a little surprised when we stop in front of Harrison’s door, and Hooper knocks, and from inside the apartment Harrison says, “Yeah.” But only a little, because Harrison is the current that runs the neighborhood, isn’t he? Haven’t I always known that?
And we go into Harrison’s apartment, and Hooper shuts the door.
And it’s me, and Hooper, and Harrison.
And the man tied to the chair in Harrison’s kitchen.
The Harrison I haven’t seen before, he’s here now. Full bloom, the bad man of the neighborhood. All present, live as war. Harrison stands near the man, his chin resting on his hands, which are resting on the top of his cane. The overhead light carves dark shadows on his face.
The man in the chair is crying. The man in the chair is held there, I see, by spools of barbed wire. Blood stipples the linoleum. The man, his eyes are a little too close together, he has a little mouth, he looks like anybody. Like someone on the street you pass and never think about again.
He looks like a naked man tied to a chair with barbed wire, weeping under butter-yellow light.
“Told you,” Harrison says. “Told you I’d get him, bud.” It’s like a joy inside him, this kindness he’s doing me. This gift. The man in the chair sobs, and Harrison gently explores the man’s face with his hand, gingerly, like a father would with a sleeping child, and then presses a thumb into the man’s eye.
The man shrieks. The man bucks against the wire.
“Jay, this is Mark. I think it’s Mark. Is it Mark or Matt?”
“It’s Mark,” Hooper says.
The man just turns his face away and sobs, his eyes cinched closed. He has a bald patch and a few sad curls of hair combed over it. He’s naked, with a little pale belly, and the walls here are also peppered in holes, like someone took a shotgun to every room.
“Some other sergies gave this guy up for some pistols, you believe that shit? A couple .22s!” Harrison leans over and slaps him in the face. “You’re not going to topple any regime that way! Gotta have allegiances, right, Jay?” He turns to Hooper. “Give him your gun.”
And then there’s Hooper, with his Adam’s apple and his missing button—he’s holding his pistol out to me. He won’t look me in the eye, but there’s the gun, matte black and deadly.
“Do it up,” Harrison says, his chin resting on the top of his cane. “From me to you. You wanted this. You wanted this, Jay, so get him.”
What do you do when all the magic and vengeance, all the ache and hope in the world still won’t bring somebody back? How do you make your way in the world? What do you do when the people you thought you knew—Harrison, Jinx—had all these hidden, tucked away things inside them, things culled from the light or the dark?
What do you do then?
The heart moves as fast as it wants. Shit, the heart runs in circles, in mad leaps. Shivers like a dog, comes back to the same wounds until there’s enough scar tissues to move on.
“The fuck are you doing, Jay?” Harrison asks.
And I turn around.
Behind me, Harrison says, “Jay? Jay.”
My footsteps are loud in the hall, and I go down the stairs, and the stairs sound hollow, as if everything solid in the building has been sectioned away. I go inside my apartment and I take the jar with the moth and I go down onto the street. I keep waiting for Hooper to come out and do something to me. But I step outside into a night heavy with a salting of stars above the ruined skyline of this city, and my breath is yanked away in the wind like torn fabric. It’s still cold out, but not as bad as it has been. Winter’s fading. I unscrew the lid on the jar and I don’t even see the moth fly away—I’m afraid to look, I look down the street, I look away from the spot where Jinx’s car was—but when I look in the jar again, it’s empty, just hollowed glass.
I take A Great and Terrible Wraith’s mask from my pocket and pull it tight over my head, and your ghost, Jinx, your ghost runs its hands down my spine again, your life seizes my hair and howls along my blood. I stumble off the curb and then right myself, and you, you’re a siren inside me, Jinx, a clanging bell. Your entire life, your whole life.
I take a shambling step, another one.
© Keith Rosson
Keith Rosson‘s short fiction has appeared in Cream City Review, PANK, The Nervous Breakdown, Gulf Stream, and more. His debut novel, The Mercy of the Tide, will be published by Meerkat Press in early 2017. He’s also an illustrator and graphic designer, with clients that include Green Day, Against Me, the Goo Goo Dolls, and more. An unabashed fan of libraries and cassette tapes, he can be found online at keithrosson.com.
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