Marcus remembered the face in the mirror, the one that once smiled at …. She had told him he was good looking. He remembered there had been a boy’s face, the one his mother had kissed, telling him he looked like his father. The face in the mirror was a monster.
Night had not yet fallen when Marcus woke. The man was growling, shaking his shoulder, yelling for him to get out of his home.
“I am sorry.” Marcus grabbed the wrist, careful not to hurt him. “There was no one here. I will leave when darkness falls.”
Spit dribbled off Marcus’ cheek. He chose to ignore it, but there must have been something in his eyes, for the stranger backed out of the box. “Keep it. There are plenty of boxes.”
It was still too early to leave. Marcus knew he would have to find another home. He wished once again, as he so often did, that he had not woken. The dreams were so much more pleasant than the real world. The nightmare he lived.
Dead blood did not satisfy and Marcus wandered the streets wondering what he could find. The funeral parlor was busy. There were too many people, so loud with their tears. He could not enter. Circling behind, he saw lights were on in the embalming room. Two men were carefully preparing the embalming fluid. Soon the blood would be pumped out, the fluid pumped in. It would make an easier, if no less appetizing meal. Waiting, he rushed in as soon as they left. He drank too quickly. He did not taste the embalming fluid until he drank it.
“What will it do?” He asked no one. He felt strange. His head felt like a balloon barely tethered to his neck.
Uncle Ab had been arguing. Marcus’ father repeatedly saying no.
“Come on, I’d do it for you.”
A slow shake of his head and once again he said no.
“Look, it won’t be for long. It’s only a few kegs. They have to age and you have the dry basement. Goddamn spring rains flooded mine again.” He wrung his hands. “I have a buyer.”
“Didn’t Kate tell you?”
“Kate didn’t say anything about your wine, barely had time to say good morning. You know it’s canning time. So tell me what this is about.”
“At the food festival. I brought over some of my best bottles. Gave out samples. This guy from Augusta was there. He said he was representing an Italian restaurant, the Roma Restorante. I looked it up, did my research, just like my big bother told me to.”
His big brother just shook his head. “Don’t try to flatter me.”
“It’s true though. I did my homework. I know I’ve been sloppy before, but not this time. The place is real, and it has a good Better Business Bureau rating, and this guy really does work there. I went to see Miles.”
“You already went to see a lawyer?”
“Want to have all my ducks in a row if this pans out. Miles said everything seems legit. As soon as the wines age the buyer will purchase them. If it goes over well, he’ll buy more. How much depends on how popular it is and how much I can produce. This could be big for me, hell, for the family.”
“Okay, I can buy that, but why the other kegs, the old stuff?”
He shrugged, large muscular shoulders rising above his thin aging neck. “Can’t bring myself to get rid of my early attempts. You know, like your wife’s first knitting. She keeps those scarves, the ones that start out six inches wide and end up almost a foot. I thought you’d understand.”
“I do.” He finally smiled. “Well baby brother, I can’t say no to that. Sounds great. I really hope it works out for you.”
“For us. I haven’t forgotten all the things you did for me, for all of us. Family would have fallen apart when dad died if you hadn’t taken charge. I wouldn’t have a job, at least not a good one, if you hadn’t sent me to college, took over the farm. I make it, we all do. Well maybe not Grey.”
“You ever gonna forgive him?”
“No. I’m surprised you can. Broke our mother’s heart and she always stood up for him. She should have let him go to jail. Maybe that would have given him some sense, respect. You haven’t given him any more money, I hope? He just wastes it.”
“No, no more money. I got him a job at the apartments. He gets room and board for keeping the place up.”
“And if the tenants complain?”
“If they complain, Parker told me he’s out and he won’t get an argument from me. This is the last thing I’m doing for him. If he can’t keep this job, I figure he can’t keep any. Hard to believe he’s our brother, he’s so different.”
“I’ve been thinking that over a lot lately.” Ab began circling his brother. “Don’t say anything. He’s the baby. Dad, Ma was older. You remember how they didn’t discipline him, not like us anyway. He got away with things we never would have. I think you did more real teaching than our parents. Then you moved out. I think, well I guess they made him think he was the center of the world and he believed it. Think how he must have felt when he found out he wasn’t, not only that but when he was compared to us.”
“Never wanted comparisons.”
“Me neither, but they happened anyway. Well, like I was saying, he found out everyone thought he was a loser compared to us. I heard one of his teachers say he wasn’t as smart as you, as athletic as me. Wasn’t fair. Made him bitter.”
“You could be right. I know when I help him, at first he’s grateful, but later he’s just plain mad that I had too.” Allen Rollins tucked his hands deep into his pockets.
“You know, Marcus does that too.” He pointedly looked at his brother’s hands.
“Kate hates sewing the pockets back on. I think you’re right about Grey. Wish I learned it a long time ago. Maybe I can have a talk with him.”
Ab shook his head. “Too late. He’d just think you’re patronizing him. Probably make it worse. Let’s just see what happens with this new job and maybe, if he finds a woman like Kate, he just might make a life for himself. Good woman’s a big motivator.”
Standing outside the door, Marcus looked down to see his hands tucked into his pockets, the corners tearing. He ran to Hatchet’s shortly after the kegs were put in the basement.
“Got six kegs of wine in the basement. You ever have any?”
“No, but I got an uncle who drinks quite a lot of the stuff. Always laughing, falling down, then puking. Want to try it?”
“Not the puking, but yeah I don’t mind the falling down stuff. Uncle’s got better stuff, wine he’s selling in the fancy kegs. We can’t touch them. How bout we sneak in after dad goes to bed. It’s almost harvest time. He goes to bed early. I’ll be on the porch roof. Can you come about eight?”
“Sure. Mom sleeps like the dead. Used to scare me sometimes. Can you get us in the basement?”
“Sure thing. Dad never locks anything.” Marcus grinned. “I’ve always been a good boy. Plan on being in bed sleeping before he gets up. If we only have a little, he won’t even know.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Marcus checked on his sister as soon as his father began snoring.
Cathy was thankfully sleeping, so he didn’t have to bribe her. He peeked into his parent’s bedroom where his mother sat up in bed reading. Lost in the pages of good book, believing her children asleep, she wouldn’t hear a thing. Still Marcus moved silently through the house. Hatchet was right on time and Marcus, sitting on the porch roof, climbed down to meet him.
The old wooden bulkhead creaked when it was opened. The boys paused, but no one called down to them.
“Over there.” Marcus pointed to two large oak kegs. “Don’t touch those.”
“They’re pretty.” Hatchet ran his hand down the smooth oak, sniffing his palms. “Even the keg smells good.”
Marcus returned with the two plastic glasses he’d nicked from the kitchen. The spigot turned easily.
“A toast.” Hatchet laughed. “To our upcoming adulthood.”
Marcus joined in the laughter. They drank.
“Let’s have another one.”
“Sure.” It went down pretty smoothly and the boys decided they needed another, followed quickly by another.
It was his mother’s voice that woke them. She was screaming his name.
“Shit.” Marcus looked at his friend’s eyes, blood shot and baggy. “He felt his stomach churn. His mouth tasted like he’d just eaten from the garbage pale. “Do I look as bad as you?”
“I think you must look worse, least I hope so. Oh God, it’s morning.” Hatchet looked out the open basement door. “Mom is gonna kill me. She’s probably looking for me. I gotta go.”
He ran out, stumbling and Marcus knew his parents had to have heard him. He was about to leave the basement, when his father came to the door.
“Don’t say a thing. Your mom’s upstairs. She’s frantic. Mrs. Casey called. Hatchet’s missing. Was that him running home?”
“You deserve it.”
“Which one did you drink?”
He turned, taking his father over to the keg that was now laying on the floor.”
He heard his father’s sigh of relief. “You know your Uncle has special plans for some of his wine.”
“Yes sir. I knew which ones, I, we didn’t touch them.”
“I hope you don’t think that makes this alright.”
“No sir. Dad?”
“What.” His tone was more patient than Marcus thought he deserved.
“We just wanted to try it. We were only gonna have a couple of glasses. I don’t…”
Angry eyes looked his way, one eyebrow riding high on the man’s forehead.
“I guess I do understand. We got carried away, drank too much. I’m ashamed.”
“Marcus. There’s no sin in being curious. We all make mistakes. Lots of people drink wine, beer, all sorts of alcohol. I expected you to try. Just not like this. You need to know. Drinking too much can kill you. You didn’t drink enough for that, but you could have. It’s easy to forget how much you had. Alcohol can poison you. And if you’re out with friends and have to drive home you could have gotten yourself or someone else killed.”
“You said people who drink too much act stupid.”
“It’s not always stupid but it’s never smart or clever, like some think and it can be dangerous. When you’re drunk you have no filters. Don’t ask. I’ll explain. It means things you know better than to do, or say, you find yourself doing. On top of that you don’t do them well. Then there’s saying things you know you shouldn’t. Like calling your teacher a name. The next day, you’ve hurt a lot of people and your sick. Not something to be proud of. Some people call that having a good time.”
Marcus wiped the sweat off his forehead. “I don’t think this is a good time. Feel awful.”
“Just remember this next time you get offered a drink. Maybe you can stop at one, some people really can’t and sometimes you just get caught up and drink more than you should. I don’t know where you fall, so be careful. Now for the worst part. You’ve got to face your mother. She was so scared. You better find a way to make it up to her.”
“I’m sorry, I really am.”
“I know. Just being a boy, but still scared your mom.”
“I thought you’d be more angry.”
“Can’t be angry with your being a normal boy. Angry with myself for not giving you a drink, telling you what it could do to you before. What I am though is disappointed. Thought better of you, thought you’d come to me, not get your friend in trouble.”
Marcus had walked away feeling worse than if his father had yelled.
Head hurt. He remembered this feeling. It was so long ago. Hatchet, he discovered later, had thrown up all over the floor. Hatchet. The name forced Marcus to stop walking so suddenly he fell forward.
He couldn’t put a face to the name even though he knew he’d been important to him once, in the other life. Where is he, does he, did he miss me, he wondered but there were no answers in the quiet night.
“The fluid, not the blood,” he whispered to break the heavy silence. “It has to be the fluid that’s making me feel like this. It’s worse than when we drank the,” he screwed up his face trying to remember what it was they drank.
In his lonely walks he’d seen people smoking, putting things into their arms and walking just the way he was walking now. Once a dangerous looking man had tried to sell him something he called blow. Said it would give him the best high he’d ever had. If this is what he meant Marcus was glad he hadn’t tried it. Walking into the woods, beyond the streetlights, he felt his stomach heave. With an empty stomach there was only stabbing pains as his stomach clenched. Sweat soaked his shirt. A hammering pain pounded the back of his eyes.
“Never again.” He whispered. “Dad, I didn’t know.”
The night was young and Marcus decided this town was not a good fit, but he had no idea where to go. He did not feel Gregor, had not heard anyone whispering of murders that could be his.
“Have I put too much distance between us?” His head bowed. “It is not time. Too soon, I will show you that I am still …alive is not what I am.”
Walking behind a large brick building, he avoided the windows even though the candlelight was soft. It stunk. On another day, he might have thought of food, felt hungry. Today it only made his stomach hurt. Large crates, reeking of decaying vegetables sat out back. Some would not block out the sun. Others were better built for his needs. He carefully chose the one that upset his stomach the least. He couldn’t stay here, so he carried the crate, staggering under its weight. The park was too pretty, even with men lying on the benches, faces covered by newspapers. Below the overpass, a number of boxes and crates had been lined up against the cement walls. There was room for one more.
He was surprised to see a mother nursing her child. Skin and bones, her breast was sunken and the baby sucked hard receiving very little for its efforts. A different pain stabbed Marcus’ stomach. He learned to never ask questions. Questions were not well received; everyone was suspicious, weary of danger. It was sad how often the preyed upon preyed upon each other. But there were those you could trust. The old lady, head wrapped in a heavy scarf was one.
Dark skin, mottled and grey, surrounded the dark blue eyes, eyes looking his way. He could see her studying him.
He turned, looking directly at her. “I.”
“I don’t want to know you.”
“You won’t. But I mean you no harm. Just need a place to hide for a while. I sleep in the day. I ask only to be left alone.”
He was surprised when she rose, walking over to him. “You young.”
“Not so much.” He tried to smile, the corners of his mouth falling. “I think you are younger than you would have me think. Time has not been a friend to you. Many people have proved to be no friend of mine. But there have been a few. I would like to add your face to those I remember kindly.”
Weathered lips, cracked and dry, smiled, showing a mouth with discolored gums holding no teeth. “Not so nice to look at.”
“I don’t care what you look like beyond the look in your eyes and they are kind.”
She cackled. “Been a long time since I heard anyone say something that nice. I can tell that you mean it. I don’t think you flirt too often.”
“Don’t flirt at all, least not as far back as I remember.”
“Well I bet you did once. Better looking than me, at least you could be if you weren’t so pale, so hungry. I have some food.”
“No please. I really cannot eat.” He returned a straight-lipped grin, knowing that at least this time he had a good excuse. “Drank too much.”
“Is that your demon?”
“No my demon has two legs and a very bad temper. The drink was a mistake. Thirsty and stupid.”
“Tired too. You get some sleep. I’ll tell the others to leave you alone, let you sleep the day away if that’s what you want. Hal ain’t gonna need the space no more. The dead sleep somewhere else. Don’t know it’s a better one. Don’t want to find out too soon either. Good night.” She looked at the writing on the crate, smiling. “String Beans. Fits.”
Her laughter slowly faded away. Marcus curled into a ball. He was always surprised to find the generosity of those in need. So often a blanket had been shared, the only blanket. Food was offered, a kind hand helping him stand when he was too exhausted to stand on his own.
He did not see the dawn. The ragged people passing his home were warned to leave him alone and the laws of the homeless made them agree.
He saw the hand, searching, coming close to where he lay. Quickly he grabbed it careful not to break it.
“I have nothing for you.” It was a hiss.
The voice, thick with saliva, had an accent Marcus was not familiar with. “No money, watch anything I could sell for my family.”
Anger rose up and Marcus, pulled the man inside, grey eyes stormy. “Don’t lie. You have no family. I can smell what you spend money on. I do not have any. Nothing you could sell. Do not steal here. You are not welcome.”
He could hear that a small crowd had gathered. Crawling out of the crate, he dragged the man behind him. Marcus hid his hateful eyes, knowing his anger had turned them black. “Does he belong here?”
There was a long silence. Finally the old lady responded. “Battery comes and goes. He has never stolen from here before.”
“Don’t call me that.” He squirmed trying to wiggle out of Marcus’ grasp.
“From here?” The tall man was so thin he could not stand straight. His back was bowed; stomach caving in to create a void where it should have sat. Between decaying teeth, he hissed. “You have stolen from me.” He turned to the old lady. “I know it wasn’t right here.” Pointing towards the street running beside their homes, his lips curled angrily. “He knew who it belonged to. You steal batteries, don’t use any other name, whatcha expect us to call ya. Took the battery from my bike. I needed it too. Lost my ride, my job.” He turned away but Marcus could hear him whisper. “Once I had food.” His voice trailed away as he stepped into the night.
Marcus saw his prisoner forming a reply and held more tightly to his arm. Battery turned to face him and Marcus did not look away. Black eyes, slowly reddening with blood vessels bursting, looked down.
“Don’t hurt me.”
Marcus swallowed, forcing his anger back.
Fighting to control the growing hunger, his hands began to shake. Finally, he turned to face those surrounding him. They were angry and Marcus was glad to see they were not angry with him. He pushed the man forward.
Looking beyond the overpass, to the dark, Marcus felt his legs begin to buckle. “I must find food. There is nothing inside.” He pointed to the crate.
Shading his eyes, he turned to the city lights. He heard the old lady, addressing those gathered around. “String Bean came last night. He had nothing with him. Battery you are not welcome here.”
“You’re hungry. I got some food,” someone called out.
“Her first.” The crone cackled. “She has a child.”
Marcus could no longer hear them as he moved quickly towards the funeral home. “I will be careful tonight,” he told the stars.
The home was dark. He could see that it was empty. Aimlessly he began to walk the streets. Surely he would find a hospital. The blood bank was always well supplied.
The fight caught his attention. From the mouth of the bar, three men stumbled out. The smallest was the angriest. His drunken punches landed awkwardly. After a few minutes, another man came striding over. He was angry and sober.
“Insult my country.” The words, softly spoken, cut through their drunkenness.
“Joey, we didn’t mean anything. Stupid talk, that’s all.” He turned, but was spun around. One well placed punch and his nose broke, spilling blood.
“I will take him.” Marcus stepped out from the dark.
“What da fuck.” The three men stepped towards him, but Marcus easily pushed them aside, the wounded man falling into his arms. Marcus carried him away from the others, lapping up the blood. Knowing he would remember very little of what happened, drunks seldom did, Marcus knew he was safe.
A few streets away he waited. There were sirens. His friend must have been found. Marcus followed. The hospital was arranged much like the others he’d visited. Tonight he would find the best path to take. Tomorrow it would provide dinner.
The underpass stood before him smelling strongly of piss. Someone had relieved himself just outside where the others slept. Marcus was glad to see his crate still standing.
“Thought it wouldn’t be here, eh String Bean?”
“I would not have been surprised.”
“They”—she waved her hand at the other crates and boxes—“all right. We almost got us a neighborhood here.”
“The woman with child, what brought her here.”
“I would guess it’s the same kind of thing that’s got you running.” She looked away, staring at the debris floating on the breeze. Her grey hair hung in the wind, not moving. “Lots of us here like that. I am sorry for she with the baby. For you too.”
“I would like to help”—he nodded towards the child—“but I have nothing. I cannot even stay. My demon will find me if I stay too long. You do not want to meet him.” He smiled, his sadness nearly breaking the old woman’s heart. “What can I call you?”
“Once I was Frieda. And you?”
“I like String Bean, but a long time ago I was Marcus. You should forget the name.”
He turned suddenly, sniffing at the still air. “He is coming. Give the crate to Battery.”
Hiding in the shadows, Marcus listened to the words around him. The city was afraid. Two murders in one night and now a young man was missing. Marcus knew it was time to be seen. He felt his fear growing. He could not ignore it, but he would not let it control him. There was a chance, busy with his new toy; Gregor would not hear him approach.
The house had been empty for years. It had been made a toilet long ago. Gregor would not have chosen it, but dawn was coming and he could go no further.
Marcus, watching, could tell by his expectant expression that he was eagerly awaiting the wakening.
Gregor listened; the sound of stirring came with his slower breathing. Then he heard another’s.
“I am still here.” Marcus growled.
Gregor looked into the dark, but could not see where it was he spoke from.
“It was a mistake, this gift”—Marcus snorted—“you gave me.”
Gregor heard the screeching wood, but was not prepared. The wall collapsed.
“The sun will be up soon.” Marcus’ laugh was cruel.
“You will also die.”
“Did you not know that that is what I desire, as long as you go first?”
Gregor jumped to his feet, but Marcus moved too quickly to be caught. The sky began to change, grey to rose. The rose would soon become blue and it would be too late.
All those living on the outskirts of the town heard the cry. Gregor ran, looking for shelter, hoping Marcus would watch the sunrise, skin burning in its light.
“Come,” Marcus shook the teen awake. “You should go home.”
“He ran off.”
“Come with me. They should…”
“I can’t go. I do not need thanks. Go home. Live well.”
Marcus, leaving the house behind, ran as far as the brightening sky allowed. The shed was locked. He didn’t slow. The wood shattered and Marcus, knowing it was foolish, held his breath, hoping no one would come to investigate. Backed into the corner, far from the only window, he lowered himself to the floor. Behind the door he heard the chaos of the sky as the storm approached bringing with it an evil wind. The pelting rain beat upon the tin roof and Marcus found the sound pleasingly familiar.
“Why do I know this sound?” The rain would not answer. In his head he heard a voice that had once been familiar.
“Reports called it the New England Hurricane. Hit Rhode Island already. They said it was pretty bad there. We’re only getting some of the wind and rain.”
“Is that my father’s voice?” Marcus shook his head impatiently. “It does not matter. It would seem I had once heard winds like this. I wonder, was I afraid then? I am not now. Gregor”—once again he spoke to the image he carried—“I am afraid of only you. You do not know this.” His voice became a growl. “You never will.”
When the sky grew dark, he stepped into the shadows. The house was quiet. No one came to investigate the broken door, no lights shone through the curtains.
Not knowing where to go, he walked towards the noise. The highway would take him somewhere and that is where he decided to go.
Another city of lost souls grew before him. Casinos stood between the bars and houses advertising the women dancing there. Marcus looked for a place to hide. Finding no sanctuary, he walked into an alley, covering himself with the newspapers littering the streets. Lying in the shadows, hands around his knees, he sat, not knowing if the shadows would linger. Soon there were others. Hiding in plain sight is what his father called it.
His father had been watching the news, chewing on his bottom lip. He had not seen his son enter the room.
Marcus stood silently at his side.
“Marcus,” he jumped, bumping his knee painfully on the table’s edge. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Sorry. You were staring at the set. What’s wrong?” He looked at the blood gathering in the corners of his father’s mouth.
“It’s just the news.” Allen Rollins hastily sucked the blood from his lip. “I’m frustrated. A third boy had to die before the cops thought to check out the abandoned houses. He was right there and they didn’t catch him.”
“He was hiding.”
“Not really. I guess you could say he was hiding in plain sight.”
“You’d think they would have been looking everywhere.”
“Sometimes people overlook the obvious. I’ve heard people say things like why would anyone hide there, it’s too easy.”
“It’s not easy if no one bothers to look.” Marcus had frowned.
“Exactly. This time three kids got killed. The third one most definitely shouldn’t have.” He rose, shutting off the television. “Let’s talk about something else. News is too depressing. How was school?”
“Okay. It’s kind of boring.”
“Surely not the classes ….”
Marcus felt the heat rise up his neck. “Not those classes. I don’t learn much in those classes.”
“Well—he drew out the word—“if your last report card is any indication of what you’re learning, I’d have to believe she’s in all your classes.”
Marcus hung his head, kicking at the floor. “I hate school. The city kids make fun of my clothes, my everything.”
“Tell me the truth. You’re too big to let that kind of talk bother you. What makes you hate it so much?”
He shifted from foot to foot, hesitating, but his father, looking directly into his eyes, demanded an answer.
“It’s Cathy. I’ve seen her crying. Being the poorest boy in school is tough but I’m good at sports and too big to pick on anymore, so they pretty much leave me alone. But Cathy, well the girls are brutal. They tease her all the time. Make fun of her clothes, her hair, her everything. A couple of the older boys said that poor means cheap. They ganged up on her. I took care of them. Signed the note,” he couldn’t look his father in the eye. “Signed your name. Didn’t want you to know I was fighting at school again, not after that thing with Bobby.”
“Marcus,” he interrupted, walking to his son’s side. “Defending your sister is different. Do you know those boys?”
“I’m going to school with you tomorrow. The principal needs to hear about this. You’ll have to tell him what happened.”
“Won’t help. Least I don’t think it will.”
His father’s voice turned hard. “Have to try. If they don’t do anything about it, well…” He turned away from his son, “I will.”
Father turned to son. “I don’t want you getting into trouble.”
“Sir,” he stood taller. “She is my sister. If there is something you must do, then we will do it together.”
“You still want a dog for your birthday? Think you can take care of it?
“I’m turning fifteen.” Marcus ignored the sudden change of subject, seeing the appreciation in his father’s eyes. “I think I can take care of a dog.”
“Me too. We’ll go pick it out together. Getting a rescue. They’re the ones that need your love. I know you’ll love it. Have a big heart, my boy. Protect it and even if it hurts, don’t ever stop caring.”
“Yes Sir.” Marcus turned, heading to his room.
“Hey, you already too old to give your father a good night hug?”
He turned back, hugging his father tightly. “Never be to old to give my father a good night hug.”
As he passed the window, he spoke to the harvest moon, its bright glow lighting up the night. “Be busy soon. Harvest time. Then a dog.” He’d been grinning when he went to bed.