by Carl Fuerst
This story starts with Phil trying to drag his only friend in the world down a dark alley. The walls are narrow and they’re smeared with sticky ash; the rough-faced bricks scrape his shoulders raw with each lunge. Phil’s neck muscles, swollen from too many injections, bulge like a braid of irritated snakes, and, every few seconds, his hands lose their grip, shooting his arms away from his body like snapped circus-tent ropes. Each breath feels like the air is filled with tiny bits of broken glass.
Phil’s memory begins only fifteen minutes ago, with the kicking down of a rickety warehouse door — and even this is less a certainty than a conclusion hazily implied by the six-inch splinters in the bottoms of his feet.
A feeding tube juts from his belly, its soft plastic nub caked with orangish grime. He’s wearing a bloody set of women’s pajamas, and there’s a new set of tattoos scabbed across his ribs.
His only friend is handcuffed and wrapped in a camouflage tarp. Despite her unconscious condition, she’s clutching something secret, terrible, and incalculably valuable in her fists.
When his body gives out, he falls to his back to stare up at what is either a featureless night sky, or the point where the walls of this black place eventually meet.
Then, with a burst of energy whose source is strongly suggested by the previously mentioned needle-marks on his neck, he leaps to his feet and renews his efforts with terrific dedication and strength.
Sometimes the distance between the walls affords him space to whip his body back and forth in wild convulsions, stringing together a series of maneuvers that resembles a jog, and sometimes the walls get so close he feels like he’s wedged in a crack in the center of the earth; these cracks open up into more wideness; another straightaway; another crack as tight as a grave that suddenly erupts into another wide-open shot.
Just when he’s sure that all his effort has done nothing but trap them in a tunnel as wide as a shoebox, he gives one more tug and they pop out into a clean little cul-de-sac with a streetlamp and an empty garbage can, and a hatchback with a duct-tape bumper, a broken back window, and different colored doors.
Phil throws her in the back of the car and climbs over her body into the driver’s seat. Once he gets comfortable, he closes his eyes and tries to die. He tries to numb his body piece by piece, starting with his feet and hands, and moving inward towards his heart.
Then something slaps against his knee.
It’s a plastic keychain in the shape of a long, drooping penis. It says, “Dirty David’s Donkey BBQ. Come and Get a Piece of Ass.” It’s attached to a key, and the key is snugly inserted into the ignition slot.
He turns the key. The engine whines from the strain of a start. He stomps on the gas and the car bounces off the curb, stumbling gracelessly into the unknown.
The gauges are broken and the lights don’t work. The upholstery smells of cat and the steering wheel is coated with something slippery and thick. The cup holders are stuffed with Styrofoam cups one-quarter full of a thick black liquid that Phil wishes was coffee but knows is probably tobacco juice.
The road seems governed by the same agency that built the alley—open stretches that abruptly end in crazy turns, that open up into still more open stretches that end in still more suicidal turns.
He clicks on the radio and the cabin is flooded with the sonic comfort-food of sports radio filler. It’s one of those call-in shows where everyday Joes vent about the home team, and, as Phil listens to somebody’s argument about a slacking defensive line, he knows that he’d gladly die in five seconds if only he could spend all five of them as one of those Joes; it is suddenly obvious that the best a person could do with his life is spend at least one part of it on a reclining chair, cradling a phone to his ear, and soaking in the fumes of pork-chops from the slow cooker in the kitchen, while his wife and kids play ping pong in the basement.
But the more he listens, the more he realizes that something is wrong. The caller and host speak in the same fake-sounding accent, and they are both clearly trying their hardest not to laugh. Phil has never heard of the Chickapee Chumslingers, Dalworth Foam, or the New Mercury Ghost Dancers, and the host keeps emphasizing the importance of trance points, zone boners, and zigzag passing.
He changes the station, but all he gets is fuzz, and when he goes back to the sports station, well that’s fuzz too. He turns the radio off. He looks in the rear view mirror. Black as the inside of your heart. And what he suddenly remembers, and what his mind is suddenly possessed by the memory of, is a family party he attended ten years ago; it was a conformation party for a red-haired cousin who he’d never see again.
This memory of the party isn’t related to his current situation in any way, and the event, at least as he remembers it now, wasn’t particularly important in his life, but he throws his full weight into reconstructing the scene, because his memory of that party represents hope that his mind will return, and because it’s something to think about besides this endless maze of dark and narrow streets.
Phil remembers standing barefoot in the center of his Aunt Virginia’s living room, running his toes through her dust-colored shag. He remembers cradling a plate of cannoli close to his chest and resenting his parents for guilting him into taking the three-hour bus ride from college to attend this event. He remembers coveting the Elvis bust on top of the television because of the ironic splendor it would lend to his shitty apartment, and how he felt superior because his family didn’t share his belief that everyone’s time would be better spent in low-rent apartments, wading ankle-deep through dirty clothes, listening to obscure rock music, eating boiled eggs, and burying their noses in Norton Anthologies of such-and-such.
An uncle touched Phil’s shoulder. “Hey dude,” he said. “You still play cards?” He had a toddler on his shoulders.
Phil said nope.
“If you’re interested, we’ll be in the basement.”
Phil was positive his uncle was confusing him with another nephew, because there was never a time when he did play cards, and he was thinking of saying so as he stood statue-still and watched his uncle walk away.
To avoid another conversation, Phil feigned intense interest in the television, which was recycling coverage of the Berlin Wall’s collapse.
He watched helicopter shots of throbbing crowds. He watched teenagers in Michael Jackson t-shirts, black-market Levis and Government Issue sneakers wave sledgehammers and crowbars and skinny, naked limbs.
Shaky airborne images were interspersed with scenes from a train station, where East Berliners crowded on to westbound trains. Cramped passengers stuck their arms through the windows, waving at throngs of well-wishers on the platform and emptying their wallets of crumpled East German currency, worthless as a dead leaf dropped from a tree but eagerly scooped up by the types of people who, despite all the evidence, couldn’t resist the temptation of heaps of money on the ground.
For ten minutes, Phil had believed he was watching live footage, and he was disgusted with his family for not paying attention to this politically magnificent event. It wasn’t until he noticed the date-stamp in the corner of the screen that he realized he was watching a rebroadcast from the week before. During the actual happening of the event, Phil was too occupied with writing unreadable poetry and reading untranslated Beowulf and flirting with cute-girls-with-glasses to care. And now, finally presented with the facts, he couldn’t care. The Berlin Wall could fall. They could rebuild it a thousand times bigger or they could build another Berlin Wall around the town where he lived. It wouldn’t matter to him. Phil realized this then. He realized that, despite all the love he had for himself, he did not love the world.
The room had emptied with the exception of his girlfriend, a scrunchy-faced art major in a thrift-store party dress two sizes too small. She stood up from the couch and said, “Don’t over think this.” She kissed him. She said, “You can be a good person, too.”
Phil stops the car at a fork in the road. The tarp in the back rustles as his only friend in the world climbs into the passenger seat and says, “Don’t over think this. Just go.”
He stomps the gas and they screech to the left and a lane opens up for what looks like forever. He doesn’t speak because she doesn’t remind him, in the least bit, of his girlfriend from the conformation party. She doesn’t remind him of anyone. In fact, he’s certain of nothing except that he’s never seen this woman before.
He glances at her once. Her head’s been hastily shaved. Her cheek is torn. One eye is gone.
“Do you know what happened?” she asks.
“I think we were in a warehouse. Were we in a warehouse?”
“I remember that we went to a movie. We were the only ones in the theater. The movie stopped in the middle. The lights came on. The next thing I remember is waking up in this car.”
“Was the movie?”
“How long ago did it happen?”
She looks out the back. “There’s someone following us.”
There’s a dim pair of headlights way back there.
“I stole this car,” he says, because that seems like a big deal and he thinks she should know. He’s frustrated when she doesn’t react.
“Want to hear a joke?” she asks.
“You don’t know who I am,” he says.
She picks up one of the Styrofoam cups and smells its contents. She puts it back down.
“I remember a lake,” she says. “We were in high school. My dad’s mom was dying, so my parents drove to Michigan to watch it happen. They left me home because I never met her. My dad hated her and made sure I never would. You know families.”
“Do you know who’s chasing us? Do you know who we are?”
“I know I was home alone that night and you had just gotten caught stealing cigarettes from 7-Eleven and you were grounded. Even from the phone. I had no hope of seeing you and I was a wreck. We were both just about ready to die. It wasn’t long after midnight, and I was standing in the driveway when you walked up. Bare feet and all. You must have lived ten miles away.”
“I left my shoes by the front door, to avoid suspicion, even though I never, until that night, actually left my shoes by the front door.”
“And we took my Mom’s LeSabre to the lake.”
Bit by bit they told each other the story of that night. How they drove for an hour to escape the suburbs; they drove out to the forest preserves, to the 150 year old cemetery where time had erased the headstone names and the life-size stone Jesus was missing his nose.
They took a trail into the woods until they found a brackish-scrap of a pond, and they took the trail around it.
They circled the lake in a rainless storm, and she said, “What if lightning strikes us?”
He said, “If I get killed by lightning, that’s how I’m supposed to die.” He was 16; his corny bravado was at full force.
He jumped involuntarily at the sight of something squirming beneath a leaf. It was a baby garter snake, and she picked it up and they let it pass back and forth between their palms, all soft and smooth and new.
They broke up two months later, and though the notes they left in each other’s’ lockers described complicated reasons, it was more because they were bored with each other than anything else. She returned everything he’d given her—Black Sabbath albums and a shark-tooth necklace, bad poetry, his jacket. One year later, searching through the liner of that jacket for a lighter, he found the baby snake from that night, curled onto itself like a tiny, fragile wreath.
They stop their story at a four-way intersection, where black-windowed vehicles idle to the left and right. Another pulls up behind. Phil peels off. All the vehicles follow.
“Look at my hands,” she says, laughing like people do when they discover a puppy sleeping in a laundry basket. “Look at these things.” She holds up a disfigured nest of bone and blood attached to her wrists. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
“Try not to think about it.”
“There’s something in there.”
“In my hands.”
“How do you know?”
“That’s what they wanted. But I grabbed it.”
“Try not to think about it, “ he repeats, but she’s already working at it with what’s left of her teeth, and he’s quickly distracted by a maze of turns that give him hopes of losing whoever is in pursuit.
Those straightaways seem harder to find the farther he goes and the more desperate he gets. Turns reveal more turns, options yield identical options, paths yield onto an exponential increase of more possible paths, and no matter how long he waits to decide, the vehicles behind react as if their drivers knew his decision long ago.
“Wake up,” he says.
“Not sleeping,” she says. “I think I can almost weasel this thing out of there.” She’s still gnawing at her hands. “I’ve definitely got the corner of something.”
“Get ready to run,” he says. “We should run in separate directions. They’ll probably just chase both of us but you never know.”
“Have you seen my feet?”
“You go. I’ll chill here.”
“Not my style.”
“And we’re fucked,” he says as he slows the car to a stop at a dead end. “Fucked.”
“You can help me with this,” she says. “I’ve almost got it. Curiosity is killing me.”
She’s worked the better part of an envelope from the crippled grip of what used to be her hands. Phil plucks it free and throws it onto her lap.
“We’re fucked,” he says. “And I have no idea who you are.”
“Let’s open it.”
A van slows to a stop behind them. Doors slide open. Boots crack against gravel. Husky voices mumble in the same fake-sounding accent from the sports talk radio station he’d been listening to before.
“I think we’re onto something here,” she says, looking down at the envelope. “I think we’re on the verge of a breakthrough.”
“I don’t think we know each other. I think we’re making this up,” he says. “Out of desperation.”
“Open the fucking envelope.”
The car is surrounded by hulking figures that smell of burning leaves and vapor rub. Phil rips the envelope open. They break the windshield out. A pinky-length, dried up, and flattened out snake falls from the envelope into Phil’s palm, curled onto itself like a fragile wreath, and as he holds it up and shows it to her, the shadows gathered around them might as well be throngs of waving well-wishers, eagerly waiting to scoop up piles of crumpled money as it flits soundlessly on the floor, as worthless as a dead leaf dropped from a tree.
CARL FUERST‘s fiction has appeared in Farmhouse Magazine, Dark Sky Review, Our Stories, and more. He teaches college writing and lives in Madison, Wisconsin.