She’s on her feet, reaching for him as he folds at the waist, hand still pressed to his gut. His other hand comes up like a stop signal at crosswalk, warning her off. “Yep. This is going to be disgusting. Appreciate it if you'd look the other way now--"
A second later he starts to heave. Violently. He's vomiting up the power-steering fluid, which she's pretty sure he told her you weren't supposed to do because of some reason she can't remember on account of being suddenly, horribly worried he's going to die
On his hands and knees now. Shoulders up around his ears, looking like he’s about to turn completely inside out. She has this insane urge to hold his head or rub his back or–
Get the fuck out of here. He’s incapacitated. Only a matter of seconds before the batshit crazy returns. Anyway, not like he’s going to die. Said he couldn’t die from it, right? Right?
Run. Run right now, get far, far away, find a phone in a very public place, call 911 — Yeah, there’s this crazy guy in Forest Park who tried to kill me. I think he may have aspirated power steering fluid.
The puking ends on the high gross factor of choke-gag-splat. She takes one step back, then another, turns, and takes three more steps — certain steps, very committed steps — to home and bed and forgetting this night ever happened. Behind her, half-whimpered sobs of relief and outrage sound just like a little kid. She throws a quick look over her shoulder to make sure he’s okay.
He rocks back on his heels with a deep groan — manly in tone, very nearly a grunt — and wipes his mouth with his hand before taking note of what it is he’s coughed up.
“Gyah!” he cries, scooting backwards on his knees, arms waving about in horror like a stage magician who’s accidentally conjured up the Prince of Darkness. His reaction seems overblown and kind of ridiculous until she catches sight of the gelatinous hairball undulating gently on the grass. Her own gag reflex takes a backseat to grossed-out fascination. She’s never seen vomit so neatly contained before. It’s like a chunky mucous covered water-balloon. Sickly phosphorescence glows inside it
“It was a lot smoother going down,” he says. A second later, he’s stripping. Just like that. Sloughing off the leather jacket and pulling the sweater over his head like his clothes are on fire. The t-shirt underneath comes off too, inside out, stuck to the wool. She only wonders at the layers of clothing he’s wearing in this heat now that he’s taking them off.
It’s the strangest disconnect, watching this, like all the signals from brain to body have shorted out, and now she’s just standing there while a man who threatened to kill her takes his clothes off. If he unzips his jeans, I am so out of here, she tells herself, in no uncertain terms, so she’ll know she’s serious this time. But the jeans stay on.
He’s so pale he practically glows in the dark. Ribs sticking out, stomach banded with tension. She’s pretty sure he’s not holding it in to impress her. His arms are all corded wire and not enough flesh. He’s so thin. Jesus. How long since he had a decent meal?
“Just so happens I ate this afternoon,” he snaps, answering a question she hadn’t asked out loud — again. He’s terribly aware of her looking, and she gets the feeling he wants to cross his arms over his chest like some Victorian maiden in the bath, but doesn’t dare stop the terribly important peeling of the t-shirt away from the sweater. Little sparks of static electricity jump from the wool to his fingertips and back again. She can’t for the life of her figure why he’s doing it. Compulsive-obsessive, she thinks, and he makes a scoffing noise in response before the freed t-shirt is held aloft for a moment of triumph. He pulls the sweater over his head again and smoothes it down. It’s on inside out. She doesn’t mention it because why bother. Instead she looks at the mess on the grass. “That’s not your actual stomach, is it?”
He throws the t-shirt over the evidence. “S’okay. Got a spare.”
“No. Seriously. What the hell is it?”
“Poison in a bubble. A little container my clever body built out of the kombu, rice, and mushrooms I had at lunch.” He gazes at her then, and his sudden grin has her shielding her eyes, like from a camera’s flash. “You have fantastic mushrooms this corner of the Earth,” he says. “Really fantastic. Not just the magic kind either. I’m talking porcinis the size of my head.” He looks mournfully at the t-shirt. “They were really delicious.”
“How- I mean — “ she begins. He proceeds to carefully roll the water-balloon full of vomit into the t-shirt. “Um…why are you…?”
The tone of his sigh conveys that he’s about to explain something to a kid who takes the special bus to school. “The outside — the container — is organic. Gonna degrade, right? Stuff inside won’t. Gets into the ground water and that’s another thing on my conscience I don’t need, thank you very much.”
It should probably be on her conscience, but, then again, she didn’t ask him to drink the stuff. The issue of conscience brings up another issue. “You said you couldn’t die from it.”
“And look. Not dead.”
“Yeah, but then you said, ‘if only’ — like ‘if only I could die from it wouldn’t that be swell.’ So that means you’ve tried…you’ve tried to kill yourself. Or thought about ways to do it.” And that means you’re no better than me even if you claim your reasons are better. She crosses her arms over her chest to emphasize the veracity of the words she hasn’t said out loud.
“Doesn’t matter. I’m like Rasputin. Or a Timex watch.”
“Rasputin actually died.”
“Shows what you know.” But before she can respond to that, he leans back, and tips his face to the deepening night sky. Eyes squeezed shut, breathing in deep through his beaky nose. When he speaks, his voice is hushed with an eerie reverence. “There was a weapon once. Could’ve killed me twelve times over. Horrible, evil thing it was too.” He opens his eyes, reaches around for his coat, and puts it on like the armor it is. “The person who created it never existed now.” He glances at her, head cocked, smile almost wistful. “I really wish he did. I think I’d kiss him. There might be tongues involved.”
“Christ,” she whispers. Clears her throat. “How long have you been off your meds?”
He laughs, gets to his feet. “Yep. Homeless and crazy. That’s me.”
“Your coat’s too nice.”
“Ah, well,” he says and starts walking. He holds the t-shirt bundle away from his body, pinched between his fingers like something a stork might drop down the chimney of an offshore drilling rig. “You may find this hard to believe, given the evidence, but I never cared much for violence. My weapon of choice was always language. I could talk people to death. Honest. Couple hours with me running my mouth at ‘em and they’d be all–“ he mimed a gun to his head, pulled the trigger– “boom. I could talk words in languages you’ve never even heard of, some you wouldn’t be able to hear at all. Words, words, words rolling around in my mouth, dancing on my tongue and teeth, tickling the back of my throat, glottals and umlauts and clicks and whirs and buzzes and bells — the beating hearts of countless worlds thundering in my head–“
She’s been following the breadcrumbs of his words words words in the dark so when he stops suddenly, she bangs her nose into the wall of his back.
He turns on her with weary exasperation. “Is your survival instinct on permanent holiday?”
“No. What? No- I just–I thought–“
“What the hell is wrong with you? I threatened to kill you!”
“But you did that to make a point. About the preciousness of life and shit.”
“You didn’t get the point. I’m a very dangerous man.” He shoos her with his fingers. “Now bugger off.”
He starts walking again. She runs to catch up with him, her words pounding out in little gasps. “I figure a guy who’s worried about contaminating the ground water can’t be as dangerous as he thinks.”
“Met any eco-terrorists lately?”
“Oh my god, really? Are you into that? My brother’s girlfriend–“
“Don’t give a toss about your brother’s girlfriend, Emma. Too busy cleaning up after my own mess to worry about you lot and yours.”
They’ve come to a small clearing. She can make out a dark smudge of shape and shadow she thinks is a chemical toilet hiding between massive rhododendrons. Then she realizes it’s a little too big to be a honey bucket. Relay box? Maybe he works for the city — which, she should totally complain to City Hall.
He fishes a key out of his jeans pocket. “Got things to do.” Jerks his head to indicate the little building, “In my tool shed.” He fits the key into the lock and opens the door a crack. A sliver of cool light slips across the grass.
“Are you living in there?”
“You’re a strange, nosy little bitch, Emma.”
“My name’s not Emma,” she snaps. “And who’re you to be calling me strange?”
“Fair cop. Would you like to come inside Not-Emma?” There’s something about the way he asks, and something about the light spilling over the ground like a finger curled and beckoning that gives her pause. Two things working at cross-purposes — Don’t you dare. I dare you. But the tiny building itself is saying something else.
All her senses lean towards it. A pulse, the hum, the deep subsonic rumble of a song so terrible and wonderful that it vibrates in the marrow of her bones, races through her spinal fluid, clears her sinuses and makes her tingle between her legs. She feels herself falling into it, reaches out a hand to catch herself or be drawn in –
His words are like a punch in the face. “Got some new rubber hoses and a lovely chainsaw I’m dying to show off.”
For a second she can only blink, breathless, gawping like a fish. Then, “Fuck you. Fuck you, you fucking asshole.” She whips about, and marches away from the freak like she should have done twenty-minutes ago. Her throat aches from rage and tears and then she realizes the pain at her throat has a lot to do with his arm choking her. That hurt! Her heart is roaring in her ears. She can feel a thousand aches and pains bobbing to the surface of her awareness now; her sternum from where he squeezed the air out of her, the scrapes on her knees, hands, scratches on her arms, a bruise rising on the back of her thigh from when she fell on the steps. He caused this pain. Him. And now that her legs are willing to run, she doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing her do it.
“Not-Emma,” he calls. Mocking with contrition. Nice trick.
Her arm shoots up, gives him the finger as she keeps walking. Until she has to stop.
Shit. Which way back to the main path?
She turns, turns again, avoiding the spot he occupies, trying to get her bearings within the close grouped trees, the tangle of ferns and blackberry thickets, the dense clumping of massive rhododendrons, the faint glimmer of stars and spider webs, jutting rocks invisible in the dark, half-buried roots that grab at toes and ankles. Somewhere to her left water chugs lazily over stones and fallen branches. Left is…north? Shit.
He’s still there, at the door to his “tool shed” with its thread of light like a line drawn between his world and hers. Arms crossed over his chest, and the t-shirt full of wonder suspended from a one-finger hook. She can’t make out his features, but feels his judgment aimed at her, the entire human race weighed and found wanting because she has no sense of direction.
She swallows, loud enough for the whole world to hear, the prickle of tears starting up again. And it just pisses her off. She won’t ask. Refuses to ask out loud, but feels surrender coming. Which way do I go now? Where do I go from here? Where can I go?
He sighs, like he’s goddamned Atlas and she’s just one more thing he’s got to bear. “Give me a minute. I’ll walk you back.”
“I don’t need your help!”
“Well,” he says softly, “maybe I need yours.”
That throws her. What game is this now? Her chin sinks to her chest. Give it up. You’re lost. You’re still lost. She rounds to face him.
“I’ll get rid of this,” — the t-shirt — “grab some equipment, and we’ll head back to the …” He’s disappeared just inside the door, and she thinks she hears “Witches House” but knows that’s not what he said. “You can help me carry stuff!” The last is shouted from within the tiny building.
Her legs fold beneath her of their own accord and she’s on the ground, vibrating with exhaustion, and something else, a feeling she has no name for. With sudden, certain clarity, she understands that the weirdest night of her life is about to get much weirder. She hugs herself, guarding against the vicious sting of hope.
“You still out there, Not-Emma?”
“I’m still here, “ she says, and laughs quietly at the wonder she hears in her own voice.
They can tell as they approach that the Witches House is occupied, muted voices that echo sudden and loud and fade again, though she can’t quite make out the words. Closer, she can see lumps, sprawled, lounging. Closer still, the smell of booze and unwashed bodies wafts towards her on a lazy breeze. Her own homeless man, who’s identified himself by title only, hefts the battered cardboard box from his shoulder and sets in on the ground with a thump, the contents inside clanging together. She puts the boombox she’s lugged from the toolshed down beside it, and hangs back as the Doctor wades through a haze of hopelessness that hangs over the place and starts up the broken steps. The murmured conversation of men stops, and there’s only breathless, intensely focused listening.
“Good evening, gents,” he says. “Got a scratch-it ticket worth a hundred dollars. Yours for the taking if you clear out.”
Shocked silence, then a rumble of laughter. One of the men gets to his feet with a solid grunt. He’s a solid man, dressed only in a pair of jeans cutoffs and a layer of perspiration.
“Sure you do,” he says, scratching his belly. Catches sight of her and grins. “Tell you what? Why don’t you bring your little honey on up and spread some of that good fortune around?” Giggling from the others. An empty bottle falls and rolls into a pillar as another stands up to observe what reactions might follow.
The Doctor reaches into his pocket, and the guy with the belly tenses up. He waves the ticket at him. “A hundred bucks. That’s what? Bottle of the good stuff each, carton of smokes, and a Whopper value meal at Burger King, right here.”
“What if we just take it from you, and stay put?”
“Why the hell would you want to do that? You can walk to 23rd and cash it in right now.”
The man scowls. “Lemme see.” The Doctor mounts the steps and holds out the ticket where, as expected, it’s snatched from his hand. The next few moments are spent waiting while the three men huddle over the miraculous piece of paper with a disposable lighter assuring themselves of it’s authenticity.
“Fuck me,” one whispers in awe. He looks over his shoulder at the stranger in the leather jacket. Another minute, and they’ve collected their belongings, and are hurrying down the steps and down the path in case their good fortune can be snatched away as easily as it’s been bestowed. The Doctor returns to the cardboard box and starts rummaging through it.
“Wow,” she says. “That was pretty generous. Considering.”
“You live in a tool shed.”
He shrugs and starts assembling the stuff in the box. She watches as he screws something that looks like a copper u-joint with an eggbeater on top into something that looks like a waffle iron with five legs. It hurts her head, so she looks at the Witches House again. All of the sudden, it’s like she’s actually seeing it. Even as the run-down, crumbled remains of a building it makes no sense, building-wise. The pillars are placed wrong, could never have structurally supported anything. The foundation is bent, not sloped, with rebar jutting out at angles like broken branches. The walls are not walls that separate one space from another. The place has no cohesion, an architectural anomaly. It’s painful to look at.
“Smart girl,” he murmurs, and she can hear the smile of approval in his voice.
“Who’d build something like that?”
“No one. It’s not really a building. Not in the way you know. Think of it as a gangrenous limb.”
“Veerchehosh.” He snaps another piece into place — a bullhorn thing, and another piece that looks like a silencer for a gun. “A kind of living architecture. Poor thing got caught when dimensions shifted.”
Veer chee hosh. “Witches House,” she whispers. Then she shakes her head. Right. Of course. A she-building from another dimension
“Flick the switch on that, will you?” He gestures at the boombox. She does. Music starts up. Apparently, it is a real boombox, unlike the stuff that looks like other stuff he’s putting together from the cardboard box.
The music isn’t anything she knows, but it’s pretty and soothing, vaguely new age and vaguely classical. Something a hospital might play while you’re stuck in the cat-scan chamber.
“Used to be a sanitarium here, for tuberculosis patients, “ he says, “before the War.” She can actually hear emphasis on the capital letter.
“What? Like World War Two?”
He draws in a breath, blows it out in a loud noisy raspberry. “Yeah. Sure.”
“Was it run by evil nuns?”
“Nah. Just your run-of-mill Sisters of Mercy. ‘Course, you won’t find any actual records of it having existed.”
“Oh, come on. How could something people remember being here, never have been here?”
“People remember a ghost story. A myth made out of echoes. Not saying it didn’t exist. Only that it never existed. Now.”
The hell? Like the weapon that could have killed him invented by a guy who never was?
“And that?” She flaps her hand at the Witches House. “Does that not exist now?”
“Don’t be stupid. Told you. Got caught between dimensions.”
“This music is pretty. It’s helping me pretend you’re not crazy.”
He laughs. “But we’ve already established that I am, just not delusional. You don’t have to believe me. Doesn’t change what I have to do.”
He snaps the final piece of his contraption together, and stands up. “That there is a leg caught in a trap. On the other side, the side you can’t see because you’re not built for it is a Veerchehosh. Looks a bit like a Gaudi, only prettier. This one's just a baby. Probably was stretching dimensionally, as they’re wont to do, moving her baby limbs when she– “ He breaks off, sucks in a breath. “She got caught. No fault of her own. Because of— because of something I– because something happened and--” She’s not oblivious to the way he stumbles over this information, but he’s talking really fast now and moving really fast but purposefully so she can’t focus on one thing in her efforts to follow a million others, “if I don’t remove this rotting limb from the rest of her, she’s going to die, and if that happens… well, then, most of this park will sort of… implode, and take half of the city with it.”
“What’s the boombox for?”
He swallows a couple of times before he answers. “Music. It’s the only anesthesia I can offer.”
Vibrations start in her feet and travel up her spine to the top of her head in a familiar rush. Unlike the rush from drugs, the energy continues to rattle around inside her like something trapped in the cage of her bones desperate to get out. A high-pitched whine emanates from the Witches House, a sound that feels too much like a dentist’s drill or a bone saw, as if the Doctor’s strange machine is actually cutting away something physical, digging something rotten out. Her teeth chatter. Can’t shake the image of a baby. That he’s cutting off a baby’s leg. The music from the boombox is meaningless John Tesh crap, not soothing, not remotely anesthetizing. She wants to scream for him to hurry up please, please hurry. It hurts it hurts it hurts can’t you feel it? But of course, she knows he can, does, more than she could possibly feel it.
He murmurs soothing words of sympathy. Apology. Encouragement. “Almost there. Almost done. Hang on, sweetheart.” The muscles in his back are bunched up beneath his coat, but his hands are surprisingly steady as he moves from one part of the structure to another, running a small pen-like instrument over what she imagines are invisible joins and struts. The instrument is connected to the bizarre machine by a curly cord. If she squints and angles her head just right her imagination colors between the lines and gives form to something impossible. A cool glow of light pulses from the tip, but when she tries to focus on what it illuminates she feels nauseous and dizzy, like she’s standing on window ledge forty stories high and below the earth is melting into nothingness.
She hears him take a deep, deep breath, almost a sob. He stands back. There’s a weird tearing noise, like Velcro pulled apart, and suddenly her ears pop, and she falls onto her ass like she’s been pushed. She rolls over, and pounds the button on the stupid boom box with her fist so hard the plastic cracks. The insipid music stops. She can hear the whoosh of her blood pounding in her ears.
The Doctor (and she now believes he is one) is sitting on his ass too, legs drawn up, boot soles flat on the concrete. One hand dangles over the ledge of his knee, the other brushes at the burr of his short dark hair. The machine he built is a couple of feet in front of him. Now that it’s served its purpose it looks kind of ridiculous, crazy bits glommed together with rubber bands, duct tape, and spit.
“Did it work?” She thinks it must have, because even though the Witches House looks the same it feels different. “Is she–is the baby…house…thing okay?”
He leans forward, covering his face with his hands.
“Oh god,” she whispers. “Oh god, oh god…”
“She’s alive,” he says wearily, raising his head. “Her own are taking care of her now. This rift is closed. One mess cleared. Another few million to go.”
“Jesus. So this what you do? This is your life?”
“It is now.”
“Your life really… sucks Satan's giant dick, doesn't it?”
He snorts. “Yep. It really does.”
“Um. You want me to help you carry this stuff back?”
“Nah.” He lifts his shoulders, listless, indifferent. “It’s rubbish. Leave it.”
This from a guy who wrapped poison vomit in a t-shirt. Well, that’s no good. That’s just crap. He’s made her care, and she’ll be damned if he gets to stop caring. She brushes the dirt off the butt of her shorts.
“Wanna go get a beer or something?”
He glances up at her, startled. A suspicious scowl lodges between his brows, shows no signs of leaving anytime soon. He scuffs at the cement with a boot heel. Gives another shrug. Lot of shrugging going on. “Gave away my golden ticket, remember? No money.”
She unsnaps the pocket of her pink gingham cowgirl shirt, and pulls out a twenty. “I got fired from my job two long weeks ago so be assured there’s no more where this came from. I’m willing to buy you a beer with my last twenty. In fact, I absolutely owe you a beer. You took a power-steering fluid bullet for me. Even though I didn’t want you to. The pants-wetting terror that followed? Well, I won’t hold it against you. Consider it forgotten. Because you, my friend, deserve a beer.”
Even though he’s not looking at her, she can tell he’s considering it. “I do.”
“We have fantastic beer. Not just mushrooms.”
“The beer is pretty good.” He pushes to his feet. “All right then. You do owe me. You should absolutely buy me beer. But here’re my stipulations — ” He bounds down the crooked steps, finger pointed at her, and then uses it to tick off stipulations on his other fingers. “I’m not gonna talk about myself or my feelings or any of that bollocks, and you’re not gonna talk about your ex-boyfriend or your crap job, both of which you should be grateful you don’t have anymore. We talk music, films, telly, or sports. That’s it.”
“Okay. No sports then. Books.”
“Books, I can do.” She holds out the twenty. He looks at it, lips pressed together as if suspecting snakes in a can before finally pulling the bill slowly from her hand. He turns it over and over, looking bemused and bewildered, like he has no idea how this strange piece of paper can represent currency with which to buy beer.
“What are you,” she giggles, “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer? It’s a real twenty.”
“Requires a moment of zen. Very unusual circumstance for me. Means I’m buying instead of you.”
“God, I hope so, because I could really, really use a beer about now.” And all of the sudden, out of nowhere, the little sorrows of her life wash over her in a wave — anxiety, grief, betrayal. Her chest heaves, and it’s all she can do to keep gulping at the air.
He grabs her hand in his. It’s a calloused hand, rough and soft at the same time. The grip is firm, comfortingly solid. Instead of pulling away she finds herself squeezing it hard, squeezing back tears. “I’ve had a bad week. Month. Year.”
“You and me both, Not-Emma.”
She throws back her head with growl, half laughing. “My name is Emily.”
He said they were only allowed to talk about music, films, television, and books, but after the second beer, book talk leads to talk of her not being accepted into a certain MFA program because her course work wasn’t outstanding and her proposed thesis “had nothing unique to offer on the subject of Madame Bovary in any historical or literary context.” He leans across the table, eyes blue-hot like the gas flames on her tiny two-burner stove. “Next year. Professor Annalee Shrep. That’s all I’m gonna say.”
Music talk can’t help but lead to talk of Drew, and she’s not even the one who brings him up. He calls Drew a tosser and a wanker and a stupid git, and fuck him if he can’t appreciate her because where’re you gonna find a smart girl who’d spend her last twenty buying beer for a madman? And she has to laugh because he sounds exactly like Drew when he says it.
He’s walked her back to her apartment. Refused an invitation up. Which proves he’s very wise, because she’s a little drunk and he’s still a guy who had his arm to her throat a few short hours ago. “I’m thinking you shouldn’t be alone so much, is all,” she says.
“I know that’s what you’re thinking,” he replies solemnly. “But tomorrow, you’re going to wonder what the hell you were thinking spending your last twenty buying me beer. And someday I’ll probably be very sorry for what I did to make you think that, but not tonight. Tonight, you’re alive and you’re going to have a fantastic life, Not-Emma.”
Her throat closes up, but she laughs anyway. They shake hands, and when she holds on a little too long, he pulls his hand through the bars of her fingers with a sad, apologetic smile. She watches him until he’s turned the corner on Raleigh, headed back to the park, and his tool shed. She knows that if she goes up there tomorrow he’ll have picked up and moved on. She knows she’ll go anyway. Just to make sure.
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