Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas -- A Free Holiday Story -- "Nor Doth He Sleep"

Nor Doth He Sleep
By Sean Taylor
An iHero Entertainment Holiday Story

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

As the knife bit into the girl’s back, it pierced to the hilt, and a wet, red stream poured from the incision. Red and green lights from the street decorations blinked into the alley, flicking the scene from gray dirt and faded concrete to colorized extravagance and back to gray again The man watching impotently from a few feet away jerked against the two grunts holding his arms, but he couldn’t pull away. His fiancé lay on the ground, face pressed against the pavement, sputtering and coughing through her tears. On her back sat a third thug, a slug of a man in a denim jacket, his wrists all but rolling fat skin back to cover the cuffs as he played with the knife, wiggling it without removing it from the meat a few inches above the girl’s waist.

“Let her go!” he yelled, but in response all he got was a punch in his gut.

The two guys holding him laughed when he gasped to regain his breath.

“Let her go, damn it!”

Another gut punch.

“Or what? You’ll cry?” asked the tallest of the thugs, a white guy with green hair whipped about like a pretty boy in one of those Japanese comic books.

“Or cough up blood?” said the other thug, a squat muscle-head with fat arms stuck to his otherwise fit torso. “Or puke on us?”

Pretty Boy glared at Fat Arms, and he shut up.

“C- Carlos…” the girl stuttered.

“Hang on, Cynthia,” the man said.

All the while, I lay in the corner of the alley, hoping to God they all just go the hell away.

I had done the hero thing before, even worn a fancy-ass costume, well, fancy for my standards. Pretty sure it wouldn’t have even registered on the scale of guys like Pulsar and The Minuteman or chicks like Living Doll or Fishnet Angel.

Hell, I’d even worked with Doll and Angel since we all lived in the same damn city.

And just like the rest of them, I even had a “secret origin,” just like in the comic books. On the way to throw myself from the top of a worn-out building because of a sucky life and broken heart, I got stopped by some crazy woman who touched my arm and then told me the day I was going to die—four days before my 42 birthday. Only, she promised I’d die as a hero, a hero killed by another hero, one of the so called brightest and best of heroes.

And she’d been right… at first. Nothing killed me. Bullets? Sure, I took ‘em and they hurt like hell, but I got better. Take a punch in the face from a super villain who could derail a train? Lost some teeth and a lot of blood, but I healed eventually. Follow a suicide off a roof to cushion his fall at the bottom? Why not? Same shit, different day, as the saying goes.

That was me. The Grandstander, a.k.a., the “I got hurt but I got better” man. Even had my own goddamn room kept ready at the hospital.

Only last June, I turned 43 here in an alley in Cristol City, lost among the forgotten riff raff huddled beneath old newspapers and other trash in the shadows of the alleyway dumpsters. Very much alive. And very much aware that playing the hero could get me killed. Killed very dead.

No longer a hero. Just another man who had finally grown up and realized his own mortality.

So I quit. No going away parties or citywide celebrations of my time behind the mask. Just there one day and gone the next. The papers had run stories for months speculating about what had happened. Eventually they gave up guessing and just didn’t care anymore. No more “What Happened to the Grandstander?” I stayed hidden. Lost. Forgotten. Sleeping away the terror of death. Just the way I wanted it.

If only these punks would shut up and get the hell out of my alley.

Cynthia started screaming, and that set off Carlos, and the guys holding him tossed him back against the wall and wailed punch after punch into his gut and chest. He shut up fast, but they didn’t stop. After about a minute, when they finally figured he had enough, he dropped to his knees between them, struggling to breathe through what had to be several broken ribs.

I recognized the struggle. I’d been there more times than I could remember.

The slug on Cynthia’s back pulled the knife out and slammed it down again, this time into the muscle of her shoulder. Not as much blood, but a lot more noise from the girl. He jerked her head back, exposing the dirty skin of her neck to the night air, and I thought for a moment that he would slash her lithe little throat. Instead, he covered her mouth with his hand, leaving the knife in her shoulder.

“Zip it, baby, and all I’ll take is all your money, cards and the gadgets and shit you bought for Christmas presents.” He laughed. “Needed a new phone anyway. Saw you leaving Radio Shack when we followed you. Hope for your sake you got one of those.”

“Let… Let her go,” Carlos sputtered.

He was rewarded for the effort with a boot in jaw. A bone cracked. Loud.

“If not, maybe you could give me a little something else for Christmas, baby,” the slug said, grinding against her back.

A car drove by the mouth of the alley, and everything stopped just long enough to make out the music rumbling from a passing car. It was Springsteen reminding the city who was coming to town and making sure Clarence had been “real good” this year.

I laughed.

And immediately realized it had been a really, really bad idea.

Five pairs of eyes suddenly turned to look at me. Two pairs begging for help. The other three pairs biding their time to figure out if I was a threat or a witness or simply the same silent alley decoration they normally encountered.

For about a second, I wondered the same thing myself.

The slug ripped the blade from Cynthia’s back and stood up, pushing his blobbish weight to one knee to hold it steady while he pushed up with the other one. He wobbled a bit, but righted himself more easily that I had expected.

“Fuckin’ A,” he said. “Looks like we got some extra trash in this here alley.” He walked toward me.

I pulled my knees toward my chin and started to sing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I kept singing while he walked all the way to me and crouched in my face. His breath reeked of onions and garlic. I didn’t make eye contact. He just stared, not saying anything, and I kept singing, going over the part where all the reindeer loved him a second time just to take up more time.

“Keep singing, Rudolph,” he said. “And remember you didn’t hear shit.” He flicked the knife at my wrinkled t-shirt collar. “And that way you can live long enough to booze it up again tomorrow.”

I felt the crotch of my pants grow warm and wet.

The slug laughed. “He pissed himself. The bum pissed himself.”

I stopped singing. “I did,” I said. “But not for the reason you think. It’s not you I’m afraid of.”

“A big man all the sudden, huh?” The slug cocked his arm at the elbow, knife in ready position. I grinned so wide he couldn’t miss it. He never should have pulled it away from my neck.

The butt of my palm collided with his chin and something cracked. Before he had fallen backwards all the way to land on his ass, I already saw blood draining from the corners of his eyes. I grabbed his hoodie to keep him steady and pulled him to me as I stood up. At six and a quarter in my shoes, I towered over him. My knee, which would have hit him in the stomach had he been a taller man, instead connected with his already busted jaw, and he went limp against me. I grabbed his shoulders and guided his face past the wet spot on the front of my jeans as he melted into the ground.

By this time, Pretty Boy and Fat Arms had let Carlos go and were running toward me. Pretty Boy held a clip-loaded pistol and was raising it at me. Fat Arms swung a military blade from sling on his thigh.

“Get her the hell out of here!” I yelled to Carlos, and as I hit the last word, Fat Arms was slinging his blade toward my gut. I weaved and dodged, but being a hidden and forgotten drunk had played hell with my reactions, and even though I missed the worst of the cut, the blade did manage to rip through my side and take a few inches of skin with it.

Red blood mixed with the coffee stains and dirt on my shirt, and I knew I’d most likely end up with an infection. Stupid.

“Shit!” I yelled and brought my elbow down on the back of Fat Arms’ head. “That really hurts, you dumbass.”

“Shoot him!” Fat Arms shouted, and sure enough, Pretty Boy aimed his gun at my face and pulled the trigger. But it misfired, and I didn’t waste any time running for the son of a bitch and took him to the ground with a dive that landed me on top of him. Taking what little opportunity I had I bit into his shoulder with the best grip my teeth could muster and ripped away what I could of his skin and muscle there.

Okay, it wasn’t what the Minuteman would have done, but we couldn’t all be the fucking Minuteman, could we?

He screamed, and when I covered my ears, something hit me in the back of my head, sending me onto the concrete. When the stars stopped twinkling and the lights came back on the slug had his fat foot crunched on my left shoulder, and Pretty Boy had his black boot on my right one.

“You’re the bravest fuckin’ hobo I’ve ever seen, but you cost me a few hundred tonight…” The slug looked at Pretty Boy and grinned. “…and possibly and hot piece of ass.”

“I don’t think you’re her type,” I said.

“Can I cut him up, Will?” Fat Arms asked from somewhere off to the right beyond my line of vision.

“Fuck that,” said Will the slug. “This asswipe is gonna eat a bullet.”

“Hope you brought ketchup,” I said.

“Listen, Rudolph,” Will said, still wiping blood from the corners of his eyes. “All you hadda do was keep your trap shut, but no, you had to play the hero and so now we—”

“Play the hero.” I laughed.

“What?”

Both feet pushed harder on my shoulders and I could feel the rocks on the concrete dig into my back, no doubt making a lovely painful pattern of indentions across my skin.

“You said play the hero.”

“Yeah. So?”

“I did that before.”

“And it’ll be the last thing you ever did, Rudolph.”

“You’re missing the point,” said, keeping them talking instead of letting them think long enough to realize that they should just pull the trigger already. “I used to play the hero. I played the costume. I played the mask. I even played the name. You see, I was only playing at it then because I didn’t think it would really hurt me, not permanently anyway.”

“He’s nuts, Will,” Fat Arms said. “Let me cut him up. Maybe take one of his nuts. That’ll shut him up.”

“But I’m not playing now.” My smiled went flat. “And my name’s not Rudolph.”


* * *


Carlos was still going on about the fight while paramedics loaded his fiancé into the ambulance. He stood behind the doors as Cynthia’s unconscious body was lifted, gurney and all, and rolled in the open doorway. The light from the fire truck and three squad cars gave him a funky purple glow as the 40-something cop took down his statement.

No doubt using lots of capital letters and exclamation points, if he was really getting it just like Carlos was saying it.

“…like a bat outta hell, I tell you. One minute he’s down on the ground with a gun pointing at his face…”

Me, I was waiting my turn on a second gurney, wondering if I’d ever walk again after Pretty Boy has managed to squeeze off two shots through my left thigh. And I was wondering too just how damn long it took a blonde paramedic with thick full lips to find the damn morphine in the back of the ambulance so I could stop hurting long enough to think about how much I wanted to flatten those lips of hers against my own.

In the old days I wouldn’t have let a second thought pass without just leaning up and planting one on her. But in the old days I didn’t smell like booze and the trash I’d been sleeping in. In the old days there had been a nice line of abs that flowed in one smooth line from my chest across my stomach. In the old days, there had been a trendy coarse stubble on my face and not a mangy tangle of knots that hadn’t been shaved or much less brushed in months.

So I lay there.

“…and the next minute, he’s up on his feet and has the fat one up against the wall. Then there’s all this punching and blood, and I’m still dragging Cynthia out of the alley.”

“Yes, sir.” The cop nodded and kept writing.

“Then there are these two gunshots, and I watch him, I mean fucking watch him get shot in the leg twice, but he doesn’t go down. He just keeps on walking toward the dude with the gun, and he takes it from him and just head butts him in the face, and the guy goes down. One head butt and he hits the ground.”

“Uh-huh.”

I heard the music from the front of a nearby squad car as I waited. Sounded like Judy Garland singing “O Holy Night,” but not quite Judy Garland singing “O Holy Night” at the same time, you know.

“And the last guy?” the cop asked.

“Hell, he couldn’t get out of the alley fast enough, but even with a shot-up leg, this dude runs, takes off  and runs like fuckin’ Jessie Owens or something and tackles the guy and takes the knife away from him.”

“Uh-huh.”

“It was like he’s some kind of, I don’t know, super hero or something.”

Vigilante, I wanted to correct him. Ain’t got no powers, so I can’t be a super hero. Just an idiot in a mask.  A vigilante. But I kept my trap shut. Mostly because I was afraid of what I’d say if the damn paramedic didn’t get the morphine in me soon.

Judy Garland stopped singing, and Louis Armstrong jumped in to take her place. “Zat you, Santa Claus?” he asked. I laughed.

Hell no, I thought. Not Santa Claus, not the Grandstander. Hell, I was barely Larry Moore anymore.

The paramedic returned with a smile and a syringe. I smiled back, mostly with my eyes, because my mouth wouln’t cooperate, and like her eyes lit up they figured out something she’d been wondering about for a while. “Oh my God,” she said. “It’s you.”

“Nah,” I said. “I haven’t been me for a long time.”

“You’re the—”

I shook my head.

Trumpet solo. Drums. Almost a celebration. A big noise anyway.

“You can’t hide it. I know it’s you.”

“Sure, kid. Merry Christmas.” I forced a grin. “So should I kiss you or just bleed to death?”

“What?” she asked with her thick lips.

“Do you think he used to be some kinda super hero?” I heard Carlos ask the cop.

“Don’t know,” the cop answered.

“Don’t tell ‘em,” I whispered to the paramedic as she stuck me with the needle. “Let ‘em guess.”

I decided to kiss her later. If she was lucky.