May 31, 2009
By Lisa Helminski BRONZE, Mount Prospect, Illinois
Lisa Helminski BRONZE, Mount Prospect, Illinois
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Dawn was just breaking over the all but forgotten section of the rainy city. Heavy drops fell and splattered the roof tops of the buildings that stood too close together. Leaning into one another from years of wear, brick ground together in a slow, dirty dance. Evidence of brick lay in the gutters, washed away by the rain with a rotten smell. The whole city was enveloped in the scent of decay. Too much rain and moist mist caused a strange grey tint to everything it touched. Store fronts stood deserted and alone, with only empty crates as companions to the doors rusting out of their bolts. Cigarette smoke, a constant aroma in the air, whether it was noon or midnight, hung like forgotten wraiths in corners of hallways and buildings. At night the city was alive with neon lit bars and too-young adults trying to use fake IDs to get their beloved liquor. They would dance in the streets to unheard music, falling more often than the slow sway of the blissfully drunk. In the early, cold dawn, one could still smell the booze, spilled in the gutters and mixing with the flecks of brick.
Apartments stood with what was passed off as an alley between them; rarely could a car find one wide enough to fit through. The few that could fit a small car stood out; long, deep grooves from side mirrors scarred the inner walls. Many of the alleys were strewn with everything from forgotten jewelry to half-empty beer cans left in a puddle to rust. The hollow echo of a kicked can could resonate down an entire block in the early mornings. Only the ones who were unfortunate enough to have to sleep outside would hear this. Many people had used these alleys as a second home, like Jacob did when he couldn't afford his share of the rent. He knew that Zachariah, his deepest friend and roommate, couldn't care less if he had paid him or not, but it was a matter of pride. Jacob had left his father’s home with the hope of making himself into something more, and money was the clay he shaped himself from. It could pay the bills, buy a bus ticket to anywhere, and it could also buy his destruction. For many of the girls and boys who run freely through the streets, money was a means to escape the harsh realities of the long days and nights. A few crisp dollars here could buy you fifteen minutes in heaven, or hours in the worst Hell your own mind could construct. Every kind of drug imaginable was available here, but Jacob avoided them as much as he could. He preferred the bitter sting of alcohol. He reasoned that this was the lesser of numerous evils this city had to offer, and in most ways this was true.
Jacob had walked on trembling legs from an anonymous diner, leaving behind its warm, but cracked, vinyl booth and now full ashtray, and down into an alley. His bony fingers struggled to comb out the ever-present knots in his hair as his tongue slid its way over his rough lips. They were split in at least one place, and Jacob could taste the blood, warm and metallic. The taste didn’t serve him much in the way of a dry throat. A night spent searching for someone to spend the night with, filled with liquor and disappointment had left his throat barren. Bits of aluminum that had been tossed into a flask had sliced miniscule holes in his throat as he downed vodka from a potential warm body to sleep beside. He regretted it now; even his tongued felt pierced by the unassuming flecks. He tried to imagine what kind of state his stomach must be in, but decided against it. Figuring he was better off not knowing, he staggered closer to the way to steady himself. Jacob ran his hand slowly along the dripping brick wall, letting his nails scrape against the grout. They were kept long, and usually were as black as the nights he spent outside. Last night, however, he had been persuaded by a pleasantly drunk Zachariah to paint them a bloody red. Jacob had agreed and hastily painted them on the spot, leaving thick, red stains on their floor and mattress. Neither cared much about the mattress; it was already dirty beyond cleaning. In the mist and grey light of dawn however, his nails took on a shade more closely related to rust. Or stale blood. Jacob licked his torn lip once more, trying to recall when it had started bleeding.
Halfway down the alley, Jacob kicked aside a stack of damp newspapers and in that dark, moist place smelling of piss and vomit, he lowered himself to the ground. The shadows were darkest there and though the dawn was burning brighter now, the tall buildings robbed all light until noon, when the city was tired of being selfish. The city could swallow all the lives it wanted in the mean time as enraged husbands returned to disturbed housewives for a quick afternoon lunch and beating. No one lingered in the alleys past morning, however. Most of the homeless, or drunkards, crawled off to sleep beneath bridges or to go home to makeshift lovers on makeshift beds, but no one would rest in the alleys during the day. Bored criminals came out in the day light, still fearing the law, but not too scared to harass a lone man just for fun, for a distraction from the sea of mist and depression that wrapped itself around the city. They always came in threes, all with unshaven beards and bloodshot eyes. With gruff voices they would call out to a sleeping figure, and depending on the response, or lack thereof, they would take action. Most of the time they were simply looking for money to get another fix of whatever they happened to be addicted to, but some were addicted to violence. Evidence of their victims came in the various shades of reddish brown puddles, too red to be rust. Jacob still had a few hours to rest before they would come scouring the alleys for addicts and drunks, still too inebriated to produce a fair fight. He felt it in his bones all the long nights he had spent outside on the hard ground. They complained and cracked with every twist he made in a pathetic attempt to be comfortable. Jacob couldn’t remember the last time he had slept without fighting the sun and time. At last with a final twist of his long spine against the harsh wall, a slow comfort washed over him.
Just as his racing, lonely mind was relenting to sleep and his eyes were closing, Jacob heard the sound of footsteps coming steadily down the alley. They were strong. They had a purpose. He didn't panic, if it was another young man looking for trouble, he could snake his way out of any situation with his quick tongue. If nothing else besides being a good bartender, he knew how to lie on the spot. He had a special talent for knowing how to deal with people. A drug addict would be interested in what he had in his back pocket; though it had been expensive it was a weak batch the he would be willing to part with. A thief would be disappointed to find he was broke, but even that could be dealt with. Combing quickly through his tangled, unnaturally black hair and rubbing the dark makeup off from where it had smeared too far below his eyes, he straightened himself up against the rough wall. His jutting shoulder blades felt each gap where the grout had crumbled out and he let out a painful sigh. He felt the pull of old, tight scar tissue and the even more painful scab that had been healing too slowly. The steps ahead of him quickened anxiously and in a way that was so characteristic of someone he knew so well. Jacob knew before he could see him that he would be there, feeling Zachariah’s presence was an inexplicable talent of Jacob’s. Silver hair glinted in the grey matte of a lazy dawn as the dark figure appeared.
"There you are, I’ve been looking everywhere for you," Zachariah broke into a slow jog as he approached Jacob. A slow, carefully practiced smile revealed only two teeth in his mouth. The rest remained a secret waiting to be pried open from their wet depths.
"I've been here all of a few minutes. I haven't been able to sleep yet," sounding annoyed Jacob pulled his thin legs up to his chin. In the space between his slender thighs, he folded his hands. He appeared to Zachariah as a child waiting to be scooped up and taken away. Jacob’s delicately gaunt face gave little emotion; it merely gave away his lifestyle. Nights spent in sticky booths of all night diners and the smell of cigarettes that clung to his skin left little time or money for food. Ever since the pair had met, Zachariah could sadly count the times he had seen Jacob eat on one hand.
"Let's go home now then," Zachariah sighed and held out his hand purposefully as he closed the gap between them. He resisted the urge to just pull him up, knowing that if he wasn’t ready, Jacob’s slim figure would collapse in on itself in a pitiful display of skin and bones.
"I can't go yet." Definitively, albeit severely slurred, Jacob objected.
“Of course you can. I’ll carry you if I have to, but you need a lot of sleep. You look like Hell,” Zachariah knelt before him, his leather pants stretched taut against his bony knees. He pushed a slim chunk of fine, silvery hair aside and revealed several small loops and studs that ran up the length of one ear. A small spider holding a ruby gem glinted in the weak morning light.
“I haven’t paid you. I haven’t got any money yet, either. I spent it all last night,” unwillingly, Jacob’s dark eyes lowered from Zachariah’s comforting face. Nothing but love shown through his clear eyes and it unnerved Jacob endlessly, no matter how many times he looked at him. Never before had anyone seemed to actually care so much. It felt strange and in the small hours of the night, Jacob often lay awake wondering why Zachariah cared so much.
“There was money in your jacket, more than enough for this month, and the next. You left it behind last night, so that’s why you think you have no money. Now come on.”
“You’re lying.”
“Of course I am. But I want you to come home.” With a large, steady hand, he swept the unruly mass of teased hair from Jacob’s face. He flinched back, but not much, only his shaking hands gave away his feelings. His head ached with the effort of moving even slightly now. Jacob knew an enormous hangover was descending upon him. He wished for the familiar burn to relieve the aching, but with his throat, it wouldn’t be wise.
“That’s not our home. It’s yours. I signed the lease over to you months ago. Just leave me be.” Groaning at the increasing amount of light surrounding them, he closed his eyes entirely. Memories flittered beneath his eyelids like ghosts haunting a cemetery. Bones long turned to dust swirled into his sightless vision. He couldn’t hold onto any specific time or place, only saw flashes of days and nights long passed. It was painful and mentally he pushed away these images.
“I don’t care whose name is on the God damned lease. All I care about is getting you home. I’ve searched for a long time, found you, and now I think I deserve something in return.” Patience ebbed to irritation. Zachariah stood, knees cracking audibly.
After a pause, Jacob’s eyes opened and peered up at Zachariah with their infinite depths. Something stirred behind them; emotion flooding back to him. “What do you want?”
“I want to sleep beside something other than your empty liquor bottles. Something warm to hold would be nice. The heat’s broken again, but you would have known that had you been home yesterday,” he spoke softly, in his whisper of a voice that Jacob had to strain to hear. He straightened himself up and lowered his knees to the ground. Looking rather deflated, Jacob breathed out, rubbing his hands together slowly.
“I had to get out of there. I couldn’t stay there alone.” For the briefest moment, Jacob’s thoughts went to last night’s and stayed. Memories of glaring at the empty chairs, staring at dead spiders found in the corner, and tears filled his head. Without Zachariah to accompany him, the apartment was tormenting, and taunted him with every piece of chipped paint.
“Did anyone drink with you?” Zachariah knew full well that he hadn’t. If he had found a drinking companion that lasted more than two bar’s worth, he would be sleeping there. More than once did Jacob confess to sleeping in yet another stranger’s home, and it never bothered Zachariah much. So long as his friend had a decent place to sleep, it was okay by him.
“I did. But he left me after an hour or so,” Jacob slowly dug his fingernails into his scalp, satisfying an itch before he continued. “I asked him if I could spend the night with him, but he told me that he lived with his girlfriend so he would just stay with me until morning. He tried matching me, drink for drink, but he was hammered by the third round. I wasn’t going easy enough on him I suppose. We met up with another friend of his and he had some kind of flask with foil and vodka in it. He was nice enough,” in one breath Jacob summed up the events that had taken place in Zachariah’s absence.
“I wouldn’t have left you,” without an invitation, Zachariah pulled Jacob’s frail hand from his mess of black hair and pulled it gently upwards. He wasn’t leaving Jacob alone right now. He wouldn’t dare to after nights like this, even if it hurt to know that he was avoiding him, he couldn’t leave this fragile, pale slip of a boy.
“I wouldn’t go anywhere with you in the first place,” chuckling, he pulled himself to a standing position with the help of Zachariah. His boots felt too heavy on his feet, but he managed to straighten his legs out enough to stand. The alley swam in front of his eyes and he could feel the familiar taste of bile work itself up into his throat. Biting down on his parched tongue, he ignored the burning cuts somewhere in the wet depths of his esophagus.
“Sure, sure,” nodding and knowing the pain of the after effects of a night poorly spent alone, Zachariah eased Jacob’s arm over his shoulder and they remained silent on the short trip home. They breathed in the damp, thick air and were only vaguely aware of the passerby watching them walk unsteadily. The bones of their ribs matched one another’s through their thin, faded shirts, smelling of sweat and cigarettes.

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