Chapter 1. Time to Run.
Day One, night
There’s a loud knocking at the front door. The big, meaty kind made with the side of a fist. The knocks rush into the dining room now empty of everyone but me, silently counting my money, and Barbara, quietly stacking hers. She’s making an icon of her tips in the middle of the table. One twenty on the bottom, then four quarters on top. Another twenty, another four quarters, and so on until, by my count, she’s $84 in.
Barbara is unfazed by the barrage of knocks and continues her Jenga-esque tower. I pretend-startle and slap both hands against the table.
The tower of tips falls over.
Barbara looks up. “Not cool,” she bleats in her starchy voice.
I spear two of her twenties with my fingertips and drag them across the table towards me.
Earlier tonight, while making change at the register, I watched Barbara pull two twenty-dollar bills off my six-top where they’d been left beneath the staying weight of an empty wine bottle.
“Almost gotcha.” Barbara smiles, not shrinking from the attempted theft. Proud of it.
The knocks sound out again. This time louder.
Barbara points a bullhorn made of hands towards the front door and shouts, “Hold on a minute! Jesus.”
I drop the twenties, along with the rest of my tips, into the hammock of my shirt.
“Who’s here this time of night?” I ask, sliding out of the booth.
“Pizza guy,” Barbara answers, re-stacking her money. “Your turn to pay.”
Checking first to make sure she’s not watching, I pause in the foyer and find my coat, one of three left on the rack. I dip a hand into its right-side pocket and find the thick pleat, high up and hidden behind the stitching, where two buttons have been sewn. I pinch them free of their holes, and push my tips, minus the pizza money, into its hidden pocket. The one I put there even before I caught Barbara stealing tips.
Over the years, I’ve created many secret pockets. Hidey holes for everything from money to food to information I’d rather keep private. A need to lay low is a condition of my condition. Keeping secrets as inconceivable as mine is the only way not to stand out.
The loud knocks start up again.
“Coming,” I call out, pressing my coat back into place.
At the restaurant’s entrance, I unlock the main door and, slowly, so as not to hit the figure behind it, push open the second. A storm door put there to keep out rock dust, blown over from the parking lot, and spray dragged up from the river when the winds pick up.
“Hello,” I say, flipping on the overhead light and stepping out onto the porch.
The delivery person, a woman, doesn’t answer.
With her head down, eyes on the boards beneath her feet, the first thing I see of her is a vertical stripe of pink scalp, then, exploding away from it, white, frayed hair. Some of it has been combed, as evidenced by the tine marks preserved in a mixture of dirt and oil. The rest has been left in knotted clumps so thick and hardened, they stand erect, at odds with gravity.
“How much?” I ask while resisting the urge to cover my nose.
The woman’s flannel shirt, several sizes too big, smells of mildew. Her equally too-large trousers, fallen to her hips, smell of urine. As she turns to drop her carrier on the porch, our pizza already extracted, the back of the woman’s shirt moves and I can see one of her exposed hips. There’s nothing of substance there. Just some skin covering a bit of bone that looks more like the head of a knitting needle than anything to which muscle and tendon could be affixed.
The woman turns back around. Keeping her face averted, she shoves the pizza box into my chest. “Twelve dollars, twenty-five cents,” she grumbles.
Immediately, banks of colored numbers appear around me, triggered, not chosen. Spawned by a need to calculate that’s been hardwired in me for as long as I can remember. Some of these numbers exist within arm’s reach. Most occupy a space farther away. All of them, together, act as my counting mechanism, though, really, I’ve never had to count so much as choose. The answer to any equation glows brighter within my floating sea of numbers. It’s no more work than turning my mind’s eye towards the showiest one.
This is just one way in which my synesthesia works. I also see letters in color, have a combined taste-smell reaction to certain sounds or words (like Jeremy, which smells of cabbage), and see colors when listening to music. It seems that, as I age, I’m manifesting new and increasingly more unusual ways of perceiving, and interacting with, the world. I sometimes worry that if I’m too long-lived, I might have to relocate to Mars, like Dr. Manhattan.
Twelve dollars, twenty-five cents, the woman said.
1225, is what I see. The cost of the pizza, a purple number floating twelve rows from my left, three columns down.
1500 is the amount of money in my right hand. A red number located fifteen rows from my left and sitting at the top of its column.
275, a bright blue number, would be the money left over, and the woman’s tip, which, given her state, now feels insufficient.
I pat down my trousers for any additional bills and find one rumpled in a back pocket.
375. This new, forest green tip glows bright in its position on my left-hand side, near to my body. Its sparkling display means, Yes! This new number is the right amount of generous!
For as far back as I can remember, this extra shot of luminescence has always acted as an exclamation mark. A, Do this! or, Don’t do that! Somewhere along the way, my conscience got hard-wired into my observations of the world and I don’t know if this is normal. If I ever meet anyone else like me, this is the first thing I’ll ask.
“Cash or credit?” the woman belches out and I smell the alcohol on her breath. Something sharp and sweet, like whiskey.
I take the pizza box with my left hand and hold out the money with my right. “Cash.”
The woman wraps her fingers around the bills and I see the state of her nails. How she’s chewed them down to the quick. Their beds are the color of a plum and there’s just the tiniest bit of black hovering over each one. As the woman moves, the black doesn’t track with her hand. Instead, it becomes five, dark, quickly dispersing chemtrails formed and floating between us. What it means is that the gangrene is not in her hands. It’s in her energy.
The pizza money bound tight in her fist, the woman turns to collect her holder from the porch. As she slings its strap over a shoulder, her eyes land on some part of me and she spins around. The same hand holding my payment shoots forward, fingers flanging out then wrapping themselves around my wrist. They twist until my birthmark is visible.
When I try to pull free, the woman releases the bills caught between us to get a better hold. Immediately, they’re plucked away by the ever-present wind. Shot up and over the house, along with a few dozen fall leaves that, against the moonlit sky, look eerily like a flock of wingless birds.
“Stop it!” I shout, working to dislodge my arm from the woman’s grasp while keeping hold of the night’s dinner.
Determined to get a better look, the woman turns my arm until the inner portion of my right wrist is visible. I can feel the moist heat of her breath on the skin there, just beneath my birthmark, a pale-brown stain roughly three-inches wide and half that tall, positioned just above the green veins over my palm. For those who know their geography, it looks like the Australian mainland minus the northeastern tip of Cape York.
“You!” the woman’s voice, come up from beneath her downturned head, is pure ruin. Cigarettes, screaming, reflux...
The woman tilts back her head and looks up at me with electric blue eyes, the bagging skin around them, retracted. “Why are you here?” she screams into my face.
I stumble back.
The woman follows.
“You need to leave,” I say with more authority than I feel. “Leave, or I’ll call the police.”
I bump into the storm door and drop the pizza box on the porch. It rattles where it lay, the wind’s bony fingers catching on its lid.
Tears suddenly half-mooned in the woman’s eyes, she points at me with a nailless finger. “You killed her and you know it.”
I hear the clack of Barbara’s heels on the dining room floor and turn to shout, “Call 911!”
Immediately, the clacking stops, then starts anew. Diminishing as Barbara heads back the way she came. Gone to find a phone.
With surprising dexterity, the delivery woman sprints across the space between us and takes my face in her hands. “You killed your own mother!” she shouts in a voice both ripped and ragged. The voice of someone ruined by an unbearable thing.
I shove the woman away and slide around the storm door’s edge, yanking it closed behind me. Before she can take hold of the handle, I slam its locking mechanism into place.
“I’ve got them on the line!” Barbara shouts from somewhere far removed from the front door. “They’re sending someone now!”
The delivery woman backs up to the edge of the porch. The look on her face, utter devastation. “You’re not supposed to be here,” she whispers, swaying. “They promised me.”
Without warning, she lunges towards the door.
I watch through its clear pane as the tips of the woman’s fingers collapse against it, the distal bones buckling and rolling under, her knuckles following, smashing against the glass. I see it when the skin there splits over the shiny white bone. I recoil at the little bursts of red, so like the yellow guts of bugs exploded on a windshield.
“They should have killed you!” the woman screams, lips trembling. “They should have killed you when you were born!”
She slaps the flat of a hand on the pane between us and leans closer so I can see every stripe and freckle in her cerulean eyes. She takes a deep breath and stares at me through the glass.
“You killed her!” she screams in an anguished voice. “And you know it.”
My heartbeat in my ears, I watch through the fogged pane as, suddenly calm, the woman turns and, like a zombie, walks away. She drips blood all the way to her truck, jumps up into the cab, and pulls out of the parking lot, no problem. She turns left onto the riverfront road and disappears at a casual, Sunday morning speed.
I watch until the truck’s taillights are out of sight, the whole while trying to get rid of the woman’s voice in my ears.
They should have killed you, it echoes.
You killed her.
And you know it.
I shut my eyes and focus on the lava heat in my hands. The burn of it in my chest. The coldness in my fingers and toes.