I kissed Emily in the hallway outside her apartment. The fluorescent tube above was about to die, and it blinked and hummed as it clung to life.
“Come inside,” she said, giving me a look that hit below the belt.
“I can’t,” I said. The light above grew brighter then died, leaving us in shadows. An old woman from across the way stuck her head out as if sensing the darkness, the odor of Marlboro Reds spilling out into the hall before she went back in.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“I’m the only one who can.”
“No,” she said, resting her head against my chest. “You’re just the only one who will.”
I had met Emily three months ago. She was a bartender and a good one. At the end of the night my tab would only count one drink. I’d tip her for each one I’d actually had. One night I closed down the bar. She’d said it was her turn.
“What’s this guy done?” she said, leaning her weight against the wall. She hung on to my jacket, pulling me gently into her. I wanted her to open the door. I wanted to follow her in. I wanted to take off her clothes and lose myself. I have an addict’s brain. I need constant stimulation or I start to get bored. And when I get bored I get dangerous.
“He’s hurt a lot of people.” My voice shakes. Nerves? Anxiousness? Fear? I almost wanted it to be fear. It had been so long since I’d felt it.
“You can beat him?”
“I have to try.”
“You won’t come back. Even if you win.”
“There is no win,” I said. “There’s only lose.”
“You don’t have to lose me.”
But I did. She was changing me. Healing me. I was starting to feel happiness, and that in turn brought my guard down more and more. The walls I built were not to keep other people out.
They were there to keep me in.
“The words. I can’t say the words.” I kissed the top of her head. Tilted her face towards mine.
“You don’t have to. I love you, too.”
She was making me weak. And I needed to be strong.
“I can’t say goodbye, either.”
Even in leaving her, she was perfect. I wanted to kiss her one last time, but that would be too dramatic. I loathed theatrics. I just looked at her, making a mental photograph. One I would remember for the rest of my life.
Like pulling off a Band-Aid, I turned and left her. She didn’t call after me. My ears strained to hear any final words. All I heard was her key in the lock. The door opening and closing.
Outside was February. A winter storm had dumped two feet of snow over everything. All the dirt. All the filth. Covered over in virgin white that glowed beneath the streetlamps. Even at this late hour snow blowers were blowing. Cars passed by slowly, tires crunching the tightly packed snow in the streets. My own feet crunched along. The wind blew fresh powder from the tops of the high banks between the road and me.
I looked up, hoping for stars.
I would have liked there to be stars.
Instead there was a pale pink canvas stretched above. Light pollution and cloud cover. The reds of taillights and traffic stops. The streetlamps hummed.
I felt alone.
I looked at my mental picture of Emily. I adjusted it so the lighting was better. Made her eyes look less sad.
I gave myself two blocks alone with her before dissolving the photograph. To do what I was about to do, I needed to be cold. My enemy was ruthless. I needed to be just as bad.
I turned the corner at State Street. The diner was open. I thought about getting coffee. I looked at my watch. There was time.
A bell rang as I pushed through the door. I stomped the snow off my shoes. A middle-aged waitress with dark red hair was sitting at the counter reading something on her cell phone. She looked up at the sound of the bell.
“Just one?” she said. She smiled when she said it, as if to offer comfort for the fact I was alone.
“Counter is good,” I said, choosing a seat that let me see all the angles.
“What can I start you with?” I was glad she didn’t comment on the weather. People always comment on the weather because it’s the one thing we all have in common.
“Just coffee. Black.”
She came back with little buckets of creamer and an assortment of sweeteners. No one ever believes you when you want it black.
My fingers twitched for a cigarette. Coffee was often just as much something to occupy my hands as it was about caffeine. I needed my hands to be steady. I had one shot and could not miss.
The bell above the door rang. I looked up. I mentally kicked myself for hoping it was Emily. That she had followed me from her place. That she didn’t want to lose me and would stay with me so I couldn’t confront the monster I was about to face. “I won’t let you,” she’d say. Then she’d give me that look. The look that made me want to pick up the chains and gladly shackle myself to her. The chains I had to escape before they ever had a chance to bind me.
But it was just an old couple. He in a fur hat and mackinaw. She in a beige coat and bonnet. They went straight to the second booth, right by the window, as if it was theirs. The waitress brought them their coffees without taking an order.
They were regulars.
This was their spot. Their warm, bright place in the world.
I was just a stranger passing through. Neither unwelcome nor noticed. They were all ignorant of my fate. Of the service I was about to perform.
Would I have wanted it any other way?
The old woman hung up her handbag and coat on the hook beside the booth. The old man set his hat on the table. He unbuttoned the mackinaw with arthritic fingers. His face tinged in pain, softening when he looked at his wife. Their hands met across the Formica countertop, and for a moment they looked as young as they must have been when they first met.
I looked at my photo of Emily. Tried aging her. Tried to see myself as that old man.
I left a ten on the counter for coffee and rent. The old couple paid me no mind as I walked past. The cold February wind punched my face as I hit the sidewalk, slowly building up a momentum as I crunched down the street. Towards my fate. Towards the moment when I would learn if I was tough enough.
“Got a light, mister?” The girl could have been no more than fifteen. She was wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the hood up, skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors. No gloves. I don’t know how she wasn’t frozen to death.
I pulled the Zippo from my pocket and did a trick for her.
“Nice,” she said, leaning into the flame and taking a drag.
“You need gloves,” I said, snapping the lighter shut.
“I left home in a hurry,” the girl said. “My mom’s boyfriend. They’re fucking.”
There was nothing to say to that. So I didn’t.
“Here,” I said, pulling the leather gloves from my hands. “They’ll be a little big for you.”
“I can’t take your gloves, man. The light was plenty.”
She had a ring through her nose. I wondered if the cold made it stick.
“I don’t need them,” I said. “I need to keep my hands free.” I needed my trigger finger free.
“Thanks,” she said, slipping them on. She held her hands in front of her. They looked oddly disproportionate to the rest of her. Like Mickey Mouse.
“You got any money?”
“Why?” she said. “You robbing me?”
I pulled some bills from my pocket. Handed her a twenty.
“Go sit in the diner up the street. It’s warm in there. They have pie.”
“Pie goes straight to my hips,” she said.
“Coffee’s good,” I said.
“Why you doin’ this?” she said.
“I never got to have a kid,” I said. “So tonight, you’re it.”
I turned and continued my walk. She hollered “thank you” to my back but I kept walking. I put my hands in my coat pockets. The alley was close by. That’s where I needed to go.
I passed a bar. Thought about getting a drink. Decided that was a bad idea. I heard music, though. Shine a Light by the Stones. I’d always liked that one.
I kept on walking. Past a closed up jewelry store. Past a twenty-four hour Laundromat. Empty. Past a consignment shop and a tattoo parlor and an antiques store. I couldn’t hear Shine a Light anymore but I kept it playing in my head. It had been playing the night I first had Emily. It reminded me of her. I looked at the photograph one last time.
Then I tore it to shreds.
I stood in the mouth of the alley. In the cold. In the snow.
I made my heart a thing of winter itself.
I crossed from light into dark, swallowed by the shadows of the brick buildings on either side of me. I jumped up and caught the fire escape with both hands. The cold metal stung my gloveless fingers.
It slowly came down from my weight.
No more Emily. No more Stones. No more old people in diners. No more light. No more hope. No more coffee.
Each rung I climbed brought me closer. I felt it. Inside of me. The blackness that had been there since birth. The raven whose dark wings beat against my brain.
Inside me was madness and hatred and violence. With each rung of the ladder I remembered the faces of all the people I had hurt. All the lives I had destroyed.
I could not back down now.
I had to be stronger than my enemy.
Reaching the top, I swung my legs over and onto the flat roof, snow covered roof. I looked for fresh prints.
I was alone.
Stepping to the edge, I looked to the street below. I hoped the cigarette girl was warm. I hoped the old couple made it home safely.
I hoped Emily could love someone again.
I took the old Colt Python from inside my coat. Thought of each life I’d taken with it. And of the first one I had taken. Here. At this very spot.
“One more,” I said to no one.
I put the muzzle under my chin and looked up. Inhaled.
© 2013 by A.G. Devitt
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