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Within the Sanctuary MAG
The storefront window lay between a run-down appliance store and a Dollar King owned by a nose-ringed, spikey-haired Chinese guy. He leaned against the glass, pulling a metallic lighter from his leather jacket, and watched me approach.
“Hey,” he said crisply. He averted his gaze and lit a cigarette, shielding it from the wind.
I tried to smile but only managed a weak “Hey.”
Lingerie-clad mannequins vamped behind the glass, and overhead, “Over the Edge” glowed in neon lights. A teenager lazed against a brick wall, a cigarette burning in his black-polished fingernails. His girlfriend’s head rested on his shoulder, smoke blowing from her black lips, embers falling from her pale fingers to the cracked sidewalk. Three more of them, clad in black, acknowledged me with eyes smothered in eyeliner.
I didn’t recognize their faces. Even though I hadn’t been there for months, the same swirling smoke clouded the air. I remembered when I’d lounged at the storefront too, and I brushed past them and stepped inside.
Over the Edge catered to the punk/goth subculture and sold exotic lingerie. The Encounter, a store devoted to card games, models, and comic books, occupied its basement. Reaching those stairs meant trekking through an aisle of black outfits and provocative underwear. Posters of nearly nude Elektra and Wonder Woman lined the stairway. Formerly, the underground hangout had been known as The Sanctuary, a club where goths indulged in beer and music. The club had since become a place for nerds to bond – playing Dungeons and Dragons, eating Chinese food, playing Yu-Gi-Oh! card games.
Twenty-two-year-old Brian, who lived with his mom and played World of Warcraft all day, saw me first. His man-breasts and Claus stomach bulged from under a stained shirt. His lens prescription could substitute for bulletproof glass and his acne-studded face could supply grease for McDonald’s.
“Hey, Mark,” he said. “How are ya?”
“Doing pretty good,” I lied. “Just stopping in and saying hello.”
He had a job. I was happy for him. Thing was, it was the fifth time he’d been hired since I knew him.
“It’s great to see you again, man,” he said.
“Yeah … it really is.”
I walked to the back room. The place was overrun with mountains of boxes, stacked to the low ceiling, shoved against the walls. Wrappers from card packs littered the checkered floor tiles. Empty cans of Coke lay abandoned among the tables.
Only a handful of people were there, including my former best buddy, Branden. I didn’t see any other friends. He spotted me as I entered, his icicle eyes glinting hurt like a wounded animal’s. His eyes always looked like that, as if some internal grief was perpetually tearing at his heart. We shared a slight smile.
“Hey,” I said.
I wanted to shake his hand, half-hug him, clasp him on the shoulder, but all I could muster was that smile.
“Hey,” he replied.
I swept a McDonald’s bag off a chair and fell into it. Most of the chairs in The Encounter were ready to collapse after years of holding heavy a**es.
“You got contacts,” Branden said. “And your braces are off. And you got taller.”
“Yeah,” I said. I wanted to say something similar to him. But he was exactly the same – the same orange-haired, round-faced Branden with the Queen shirt and the ankh necklace. Staring at the ceiling, hands on the back of my head, I said, “Your hair’s shorter.”
Branden scrutinized me. He nabbed a Burger King fry and ate it. He preferred Burger King to McDonald’s.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said, but he knew I was lying.
The basement air now hummed with chatter. The usual crowd was arriving with their Chinese take-out and KFC. The smell of food and body odor created a noxious gas. I felt sick.
“How about you?” I asked.
“The same old,” Branden said. “Everyone else is out getting food. They’ll be here soon.” He paused. “You came by to say hi?”
“Something like that.”
Branden eyed me. I met his gaze for a second and it sliced me as if sharp ice had stabbed my gut. Something about that look reached deep inside me. Rising, he donned the trench coat all the goths and nerds considered slick, and declared, “Let’s walk.”
I was glad. I’d puke if I stayed there any longer. We walked out into the cold air. The goths, wraithlike, smoked beneath streetlamps as late autumn snow sprinkled my face. The fresh air immediately cleared my mind.
Twinkling Christmas lights adorned Main Street. A flutist played a jazzy “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and jingled Salvation Army bells. I donated six of my eight dollars. Passing St. Luke’s Catholic Church, I stopped to view the nativity. I’d skipped mass last Sunday after attending nonstop for two months. Branden waited respectfully. He never attended church. He was pagan.
When we came to the Inner Borough Bridge, we looked over the edge into the creek. The bridge connected Stroudsburg to East Stroudsburg. We couldn’t see the dark water. We knew it was there, though, because it gurgled from the abyss. Branden had jumped into the creek last summer. I’d followed, and we’d traveled past an abandoned bridge to a place we never knew existed. We’d carved our names into a rock, and imagined they might still be there in a hundred years.
“So, what’s up?” Branden asked again.
“I’m not really sure what happened,” I said before realizing it. “I don’t come anymore. I think I must’ve grown up or something?” This fell from my mouth like spoiled gravy. I looked at my hands. Branden didn’t need to answer.
“I’m moving away,” I said. “I figured I’d say good-bye.” Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a big deal. And now the whole situation seemed to fade, like smoke into the air.
“Why?” he asked.
“My dad. The divorce screwed everything up.”
“You’re moving in with him?”
“Yeah, up in Attica.” My dad was a correctional officer.
I leaned on the stone railing and wondered if we couldn’t have another adventure in the creek. But the water was probably too cold.
“I guess this is good-bye, right?” Branden asked.
“I guess so.”
We had no problem giving a farewell hug.
“See ya later,” he said.
“Yeah, take care of yourself.”
We promised to keep in touch. Everyone promises to keep in touch.
I walked with Branden back to the storefront but didn’t go inside. We walked in silence. I guess we didn’t need to talk. After he disappeared into the dungeon, I set off through the smoke and snow toward my aunt’s house. The snow wasn’t sticking. I noticed it only lay on the cracked pavement for a little while before it melted and vanished.