by Rich Mallery
Leonard Gold was always barking about shutting down the Overlook. At least once a fiscal quarter he’d waddle through the front door in his scratchy over-sized suit, shadowed by a pair of New York’s finest. That weasel would snatch the Bic out of his mouth and tap the chewed end on his clipboard, shaking his tiny head in disgust.
“No, no, no,” he’d mutter. He’d shake his head more and dandruff flakes would settle on his sunken shoulders. Although his suit hadn’t once been dry-cleaned and his Payless pair had never been shined, the fuzzy horseshoe of hair on his head was always neatly trimmed. He’d run a sweaty hand through it and then shove it in his front pocket, clanking together a fistful of dimes. “My supervisors are not going to like this.”
He’d turn and staple an official-looking sheet of government paper by the front door and that would be that. The last time this happened someone shot a spit ball at his head. It smacked into the splotchy bald center of his scalp. He was too timid to turn and face the culprit, of course. Instead, he slouched forward and hunchbacked his way outside. Even after the state-issued sedan door slammed shut behind him, a trail of his dollar store deodorant lingered in our nostrils.
But this time Leonard meant business. With about a dozen uniforms, Leonard stampeded through the front door determined. He waved a handful of documents and squealed, using his authority as vengeance for years of being shoved into high school lockers.
The Overlook had been a safe haven for runaways like me for over a decade. But last week after a socialite overdosed and was photographed by paparazzi exiting on a stretcher, our group was third page news complete with the mayor’s vow to take immediate action.
Although the letters had fallen off the façade a generation ago, the Overlook was once the glorious Gold Lion Hotel. Every now and then someone brave would explore the upper floors and discover some yellowed stationary or piss-soaked towel branded with the ostentatious lion’s head. Back in its glory days, the Gold Lion was overflowing with musicians and movie stars. The only difference now was that then the loiterers were Hollywood’s darlings; now the ones that partied here were washed-up train-wrecks who couldn’t even get cast on a reality show.
The five-story crash I called home for two years went by many names: Hell House, Paradise Lost, Amityville Horror, but to my crew it was the Overlook. It had no resemblance to the infamous hotel from The Shining, but that didn’t stop us from inventing wild stories about a psychopathic bellhop who axed the entire third floor and shoved their limbs down the laundry chute. To which many open mouths would gasp, “Really?”
No. While there were scores of scandalous rumors about why the Gold Lion closed its giant metal doors for the last time, the truth was nowhere near as exciting; the neighborhood simply went to hell and business disappeared.
Since that tragic day in 1974, The Overlook had been condemned, forgotten about, and condemned again. It was an eyesore on a block full of eyesores, in a part of town that double-decker tour buses avoided. To an outsider the neighborhood was a lawless mess, with syringes sparkling on the sidewalk and junkies smiling rotten on every corner. But for those of us with nowhere else to go, the only danger we feared was falling through the decaying floorboards on the Overlook’s upper levels.
Fortunately, most people never saw past the lobby. That was where the real desperate crashed. Lumpy shapes squirmed underneath army blankets around the perimeter. Every now and then cigarette lighters would blink in sync, unleashing an addicts’ concerto of bubbling liquid and wheezing exhales.
The walls were once sunflower yellow, but the paint had long ago chipped away, leaving behind grey cloud-shaped scars. The floor tiles had all been sold, and if you didn’t step quickly, your sneakers would stick to the concrete. The whole room could be doused in bleach and would still harbor enough pathogens to shut down your insides. I can still taste the thick, burning plastic stench that would sting your throat if you lingered too long.
But once you made it past the dropouts, the place really wasn’t that tragic. There were about thirty of us who officially called The Overlook home. Most of the hallways were piled deep by garbage, but the East Wing was off limits to everyone but us. Grandpa Joe, who lived at the end of the main hall, made sure we kept our spaces straight. He wasn’t really a grandfather (at least not that I was aware of), but he’d lived here the longest. He spoke slowly, with a crunchy, matter of fact voice, and his face was scarred by enough prison tattoos to make him intimidating to even the hardest. But as long as you were straight with him, and didn’t cause any drama, you were more than welcome to stay as long as you wanted.
The fact that my father left on my ninth birthday was entirely a coincidence, but that didn’t stop Teresa for blaming me. My dad and her had been clawing at each other since the moment they met, but in her mind I was the catalyst that sent the love of her life’s face between the legs of his twenty-year-old secretary.
So when Seth, the bottle-nosed accountant she was balling, decided he wasn’t going to leave his wife and kids after all, the fault rested solely on yours truly. I was also the reason that the Arabs who ran the corner store didn’t take her bad checks, the reason she overslept for work three times a week, and the reason her father died of lung cancer.
Seth had given her the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech on a Sunday. Two Thursdays later, she was still shoulder deep in a pill coma, sunk into the couch with her crusty pink bathrobe tied loosely around her waist. A Camel burned past the filter between her knuckles as she stared into her blackened reflection on the television screen.
If it weren’t for the grating sound of her teeth grinding every time Bartleby, the schnauzer owned by the Russian’s next door, barked, you would’ve sworn she was a wax statue. Teresa swore they left that dog outside to mess with her sanity. She was never able to understand that the whole world wasn’t against her.
I’d seen her crumble before. This catatonic episode was nothing new. Her cheeks were perpetually stained by eyeliner tears. If her nails weren’t dull, yellow stubs, she would’ve drawn blood from fanatically scratching at her neck. As far back as I could remember, she was a pathetic mess who refused to leave the couch. But unfortunately for Teresa, the breakup with Seth was one of those last-straw-type of disasters.
The last night my mother and I were both under the same roof, I was rolling a joint on my Geometry text book. My fingers were stubby so it often took me at least four attempts to craft anything that didn’t canoe. This time I was ready to give up when her screaming shattered the silence.
I rushed to the window in time to see her thrashing Bartleby around the neighbor’s yard by his chain. His body limply thudded on the ground behind her, trembling as it got stuck behind a potted plant. My mom gave the chain an abrupt jerk and toppled the planter over, spilling a landslide of dirt onto the concrete.
On the front porch, the Russians shrieked and shook their fists. My mom’s bathrobe loosened and exposed her skeletal, naked body. But instead of covering her shame, she let the robe fall to the ground and, gripping the chain with both fists, swung Bartleby in a circle around her. His tiny body scraped pinkish chunks all over the driveway. By the time police arrived, Bartleby was road kill.
It took three officers to shove my mother into a black and white. The forth crouched down so he was at my eye level and rested his stony hand on my shoulder. In an emotionless voice, he asked if I had any immediate family I could call.
I didn’t, so I did what any teenager would’ve done. I lied.
I dialed a random number and held my breath until someone answered.
“Hey dad, it’s me.”
“There’s been an incident with mom. Can I stay with you till everything gets sorted out?”
“Is this a joke?”
“Great. I’ll be there in a half hour.”
“Go to hell.”
“Thanks. I’m on my way.”
Long story short, instead of going to St. Jude’s Youth House, I went to a punk show at Coney Island High. That’s where I met Lek.
Lek (pronounced Lake) was the most striking girl I’d ever seen. Even though she always hid her face behind oversized plastic sunglasses, or underneath the brim of a dusty baseball cap, she couldn’t step off the subway without some pervert in a business suit stalking her. This drove her mental and she did everything imaginable to hide her appearance. She wore thrift store t-shirts that fit like dresses and rhine-stoned her winter trench coat with multi-colored sucking candies. She even smeared tar under her eyes instead of eye-shadow. Anything to keep horny boys from staring holes into her flesh.
It didn’t matter though. Regardless of how down she dressed, she always held the room’s undivided attention. Even when we were starving, her wicked smile would light up your insides and you’d be magneted to the circle surrounding her.
Lek left Phuket for America when she was seven. Any memories of her native neighborhood were fogged out, but she could remember every detail of the closet-sized room that she shared with her parents and her baby sister Ai when they first came to New York. She could still taste the peanuty Thai food from her uncle’s restaurant bleeding through the floor below her. All she had to do was close her eyes and she could feel the creaky floorboards on her chest, and Ai clutching a handful of her hair as she tried to sleep, the snapping of rat traps jerking her out of a nightmare.
Her uncle was a degenerate alcoholic who owed a small fortune in gambling debts. When things hit rock bottom, he had someone torch the restaurant. Unfortunately when the cocktails started crashing thrown the front window, Lek and her family were sleeping upstairs.
Lek only told me this story once, but I could visualize it as if it were my own memory. Her parents were also drunks and it took Lek several minutes of screaming and tugging to pull them back into consciousness. She coughed burning smoke in their faces, pleading for them to wake up. When they finally came to, Lek’s father dragged her under his arm outside into safety. Lek screamed for him to put her down and grab Ai but he was still too battered from the night before to listen. By the time he realized he had forgotten Ai in the doorway of their apartment, she had already suffocated from the smoke.
A fireman carried out a charred body covered in a soot-covered blanket and placed it on the curb. Her mother fell to her knees in hysterics. She even tried to run back into the burning building. Before she could even get close, Lek’s father pinned her shoulders to the sidewalk and drooled tears on her face.
Despite all this, Lek hid her demons well, always charging headfirst into the outside world. Tick and Dutch were another story altogether. When Lek first introduced me to them I couldn’t imagine what the three of them had in common. Lek was tiny and Tick towered behind her, protectively clutching her shoulders. He moved slow, and thought even slower. Even his facial ticks were sluggish. When he was nervous, his whole face would scrunch forward and his left eye would squeeze shut. It would take a lifetime before it reopened and his face turned back into the blank block it normally was.
Dutch was his complete opposite. He dusted pills by the handful and stretched his slurry sentences into one another so that they flowed like endless word salad. Embarrassed by his lack of height, he walked on his toes and compensated for his skinny frame by covering his body in layers, sometimes wearing four shirts at a time.
We were all misfits in our own ways, and bonded almost immediately. The night I met them, a fight broke out during one of the band’s sets. After a skinhead sucker-punched Dutch in the jaw, I threw him to the ground and Lek immediately stomped her boot into his face. While security sorted out the chaos, we snuck out the exit and met at a diner up the block.
We tightened over stale coffee and without hesitation they invited me to crash with them at The Overlook. Tick was an expert at electronics and the bedroom they shared was overflowing with broken appliances and televisions he was fixing to sell so they didn’t have extra room, but it didn’t matter. The three of them took turns double-sleeping on a flat inflatable mattress that was stuffed with cardboard and newspaper. Their floor was actually more comfortable, since in place of carpet they had stapled sweaters to the floor. Two weeks later I joined them in stealing clothes from the Goodwill box to replace the ones that were starting to stink.
The first night, Lek slept on the floor beside me. We’d just met, but still her arm draped around my shoulder like I was hers. It took three nights before I was able to sleep, but that first night I savored feeling her body close to mine, her warm breath massaging the back of my neck.
We had only run a few blocks before we had to stop and let Tick catch up. Light buckets of snow tumbled wet on our faces. We weren’t being chased, but a desire burned in our stomachs to put as much distance between ourselves and The Overlook as possible. We could’ve loitered outside, kicking the curb, watching police shove the disoriented campers into shiny vans, but there was always a chance our presence would’ve drawn attention and we would’ve ended up amongst them, choking on their sour body odor on the way to the precinct.
“I gotta quit smoking,” Tick wheezed. He coughed into his palm and spit a chunk of black phlegm on the sidewalk. He spread it out with the sole of his workboot.
Tiny white specks sparkled in Lek’s hair. She stuck out her tongue and let snow drift on top of it. From three feet away I could already see her delicate lips starting to chap.
“So now what?” Dutch asked.
I stared at the ground, my mind blank. Usually I was the one with the solutions. But this time, I had no plan whatsoever about our future. A taxi driver blurted his horn as traffic swelled behind us. I tucked my hands under my sweatshirt and rubbed them together for warmth. An unforgiving breeze stung the wet spots on the back of my neck where the snow had melted.
“My cousin might have room for one of you,” Tick offered. “He lives over by St. Marks. Lek, you interested?”
Tick was harmless, but his constant flirting with Lek had started draining even her. She had the patience and compassion of a saint, but lately she didn’t have the strength to ignore him. Tick thought if he persisted eventually he’d break down her walls enough to slide between her legs, but in reality it was only a matter of time before she exploded rage in his face. She squeezed her fists until they turned burnt sienna.
“I have a few dollars,” I added, hoping to defuse the situation. “We can lurk in a Starbucks till closing.”
“Is there a bookstore around here?” Tick asked. “They’re usually open until at least eleven. We can hang for awhile and when they close Lek and I can go to my cousins. Maybe you two can meet an art student to crash with.”
“I know a place,” Lek smiled. “In Queens. It’s nothing special, but it’s four walls and a roof. At least there we’ll all be together.”
“Sounds perfect,” I answered.
“My cousin’s a douche anyway.” Tick kicked at a paper fast food wrapper tumbling in front of him. We all knew he was tortured by her constant rejection and if we weren’t freezing we would’ve stopped to sympathize. His failure to move on was pathetic, but Tick was family, no matter how much of a loser he was. Besides, its not like Dutch or I were any closer to scoring with her.
Lek hooked her arm around mine and led us to the nearest subway. The train was empty except for a snoring bum and the lack of distractions smacked the horrible truth across our faces. We were now officially homeless.
“This is us,” Lek shouted over the squealing brakes. The subway screeched to an abrupt stop and we lumbered off into a warm wall of piss and curry. I held my breath until we were up the stairs and back outside. Even as we exhaled, Lek wore a face that was sucked dry of emotion, as if she were a statue, a robot following her programming to guide us from point A to point B.
“Tomorrow, we’re going winter coat shopping,” Dutch shivered. This meant that we were sneaking inside Crunch Fitness and walking out with whatever people left on the hangers.
The sun had already set and the newly dark sky shoved winter onto us. It was still early, but almost every one of the neighborhood shops were locked down, with metal, graffiti-covered grates hiding their insides. The snowfall had stopped but a thin layer of powder was dusted over the ground. As cars passed they kicked a spray of wet behind them.
Lek led us a few blocks down to a row of abandonments. In the center cowered a burned out shell of a building. Lek snuck to the front window and shoved the metal obstruction blocking it to the side. She crawled in and signaled with her fingers to follow.
“That looks safe,” Tick complained. Dutch and I agreed, but without hesitation we climbed in after her.
Lek flipped open a Zippo and held the flame over a pile of old newspapers in the corner. They were damp, but after a few minutes the stack was burning bright. Flickering light filled the room as the paper crackled. Tick tumbled through the window, landing with a deep thud.
“What the hell happened here?” he blurted. A foot-long rat scampered past us into a pile of rusted metal.
“A fire,” Lek answered. “Once upon a time someone started a fire.”
“Obvious,” Tick said. Giant Rorschach patterns stained the ceiling black. The walls were a mess of melted plastic and chipped paint. Although the fire appeared to have happened years ago, the room still held the stink of soot.
“Lek,” I said, “This isn’t—“
I couldn’t finish the sentence. Lek’s eyes were normally deep brown, but as the orange glow of flames danced below her, her pupils burned the darkest shade of black. She sniffled and nodded her head.
“This isn’t what?” Tick interrupted.
“Forget it,” I shouted. I turned to face her. “Why’d you bring us here?”
“I don’t know,” she said. She dragged her fingers down the wall and winced. “I’ve never come back, you know. I have nightmares that I come back and my sister’s spirit is still here. Trapped. She’s always crying. I never know what to do so I run away. Only usually my legs are moving in slow motion and I can’t run.”
“What is this shithole?” Tick asked.
“It used to be a restaurant,” Lek answered. She knelt and fanned her palms on the floor, as if she were feeling for a pulse.
“Waitress, I ordered that burger medium rare,” Tick chuckled.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “He doesn’t know.”
“Don’t be,” she snapped back. “He didn’t start it.”
“The fire, douchebag,” Dutch huffed. He knew Lek’s story well. He was the one who found her in hysterics wandering around Washington Square Park. That was when she was fifteen and came home from school to find a scribbled note from her parents saying they had moved back to Thailand. “You are slower than syrup.”
Lek tiptoed over the pile of garbage in front of the staircase. Most of the steps were missing, but Lek’s eyes followed them into the darkness, nodding her head as if she were answering an imaginary question.
“What really hurts the most,” she started, pausing to regain her composure. She pulled her hair tight behind her and knotted it in a tail. “Was that I was supposed to take care of her. My mom, dad, they were whatever. But me, I was her sister. Me. Lek. I was the one who needed to protect her. I should’ve just grabbed her and ran. I don’t know why I was expecting them to do anything. It’s not like they even noticed Ai other than to bitch about having to feed her.”
I stepped behind her and rubbed a circle on the back of her sweatshirt. There was nothing I could do to comfort her, but I needed to let her know she wasn’t alone. I grabbed her shoulders and tried to drag her into a hug.
“It’s not your fault,” I said.
“One thing I’ve learned in life,” she huffed, pulling away, “is that blame doesn’t mean fuck all. Things happen regardless, no matter how good or how bad a person you are. You can start a million fires, burn a million children to a fucking crisp and at the end of the day, the sun still rises in the morning and sets in the evening. You can still enjoy the taste of a steak, or the lips of your wife. Giving a shit is so pointless.”
“I think we all need to drop out,” Dutch said, squatting against the wall. He pulled out a prescription jar and tapped several pills into his palm. He placed them in a plastic crusher and twisted the top. “Lek, you down?”
“I don’t think that’s a smart idea,” I said. “We need to find a place to stay before it gets too late.”
“Yeah,” Tick added. “We can’t stay here.”
“Why not?” Dutch argued. “It’s not the plaza, but after a bump or two you won’t give a damn.”
“I guess,” Tick muttered.
“I’ll pass,” I said. Lek ignored the conversation and paced further away from the light. A shadow draped over everything but her right arm.
“Looks like it’s just you and I.” Dutch grabbed Tick’s wrist and rolled up his sleeve. “Now let’s order room service.” The two of them disappeared into a dark corner. Lek collapsed on her knees and started crying.
“In my culture, a spirit can’t rest until they’re given a proper funeral. Monks have to chant and gifts have to be given or else the spirit suffers.” Lek’s watery eyes stared through me. A reflection of the flame flickered white in her irises. “My parents didn’t offer anything. They were too busy swinging at each other to even think about Ai and now, she’s suffering. She’s tortured.”
“What can we do to help her?” I asked. I didn’t believe in spirits or ghosts, but Lek did and that was enough to make them real to me. I imagined Ai reaching out her tiny hands, screaming for help.
“We need to give her something pure. Something beautiful to let her know that she’s loved. We have to show her that there’s nothing to fear and that soon we’ll be together again.”
“Wait here,” I said. Lek wasn’t listening. She was in her own world, mumbling under her breath. Her body convulsed, unable to cope with the pain throbbing in her guts. “I’ll be right back.”
I rushed outside into the darkness. I almost lost my footing on the wet concrete turning the corner and luckily I was able to grab onto a mailbox or else I would’ve cracked my head open on the sidewalk.
The freezing wind carved notches into my lungs, but I didn’t stop until I found a storefront that wasn’t boarded up. It was a florist, and inside beautiful bouquets and arrangements sat behind the giant window. I flipped over the garbage pail on the corner, looking for anything I could use to smash the glass. I tore through plastic and paper bags until I found a chunk of metal the size of a baseball. The alarm blared as I fired it into the store.
I leapt inside and grabbed as many flowers as I could carry. Before anyone came to investigate I raced back to Lek. My ears, still ringing from the piercing shrill of the alarm, felt as if they were about to explode. When I climbed through the window, Lek was still on the floor, rocking as if she were in a trance.
“Here,” I said, placing the flowers on the floor in front of her. “I don’t know any monk chants or prayers, but these are for Ai. Can you let her know they’re for her?”
Lek’s face was covered in shadow, but a tear faintly sparkled as it trailed down her cheek. She grabbed my hand and pulled me down to my knees. Her grip was weak, but still a glow passed from her flesh to mine.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “Ai thanks you.”
“Anytime. I wish there was more that I could do.”
“Stay with me. Tonight, stay with us. Tomorrow we can go find someplace else to crash, but tonight, we need to be here with Ai.”
“Of course. I can stay as long as you need to. Just let me know.”
Lek rested her head on my shoulder. The flames started to fade out, teasing us with random flashes of light. The paper crackled weakly as it dissolved into ash. Every few seconds I heard a tear drop gently on the ground beside me. Dutch sniffled. Tick scratched the crotch of his jeans. Another rat scurried across the floor. Lek hummed a melody I’d never heard before. I closed my eyes and listened until the only sound left was the ringing in my ears.
RICH MALLERY stays pale in the summer, prefers pencils to pens and is easily distracted by ice storms. He refuses to look both ways before he crosses the street, colors outside the lines and dreams about living in a post-apocalyptic world. He writes every free second he has. He writes on walls, the stack of bills on his dresser, his arms- anything that has room for words. Although he deeply loves the city of New York where he’s from, if the boroughs started burning, he wouldn’t stop dancing.
Rich is currently a writer for Fangoria Magazine and has been published in several literary journals including Evergreen Review, Metal Scratches, 10,000 tons of Black Ink, Foliate Oak, and Drops of Crimson.