|A Thirsty Story
Daydream-filtered memories drifted like flotsam in Ralph's mind. The pert birdlike face of an old sweetheart popped up and cloned itself along a bleached alley fence, working to make a couple of old Chevy wrecks glamorous, then he had a flash of the red sports car that had severed his brother Jack's legs at the kneecaps.
People were streaming in and out of the subway, and if any of them noticed Ralph, it was because his sad face was close to being a joke-store glasses-nose and-mustache mask. He had a familiar look, he was a fool people knew from somewhere.
The words 'SPARE CHANGE' slipped easily off his lips every few seconds, like they were words he knew and revered. As he spoke, he saw things through slow waves of manageable thoughts. He preferred to keep the painful stuff buried. And today he was practically inspired; the sunrise was healthy flesh and he felt like much more than a shadow-edged bruise on the wall.
Some silver was rattling in his pocket so he muffled it with a Kleenex as he went back to the wall. Across the street, two interesting guys were coming up the alley. A short wiry guy in a faded blue suit was making quick gestures and spilling out a lot of words while carrying a sign. He was so spry his sandals barely kissed the pavement. His companion was young and plump, dressed in a weird array of secondhand clothing - baggy blue pants, a neon T-shirt, flower-print vest and a rainbow-colors silk scarf. Black-and-yellow bumblebee-style runners topped off the outfit.
The little guy held up his sign and stopped the traffic as they crossed the road, and the plump guy looked Ralph straight in the eyes and winked provocatively. Ralph didn't wink back; he backed tight against the wall, his face souring as he saw they were setting up shop beside him.
The sign had a support peg and the little guy had a fistful of flyers, which he began passing out. His weird partner unhooked a tiny drum from his side belt loop and sat cross-legged on a square of cardboard. He looked ridiculous tapping his fingers on the tiny toy drum; his hair was near to being a clown's yellow fright wig and he wore a placid expression like an idiot Buddha.
Ralph was usually a reserved person, but now he was unable to contain himself. These were pros he'd be unable to compete with, so he put on his most dangerous face - a face that might tempt some people to get out a fly swatter - and cleared his throat loudly. “If you guys are running a swindle you better move along to another station. The blue jackets always lay out fines in this neighborhood.”
“You don't read too well for a guy with glasses thicker than plastic yo-yos,” the little guy said. “We're businessmen.” He pointed to the sign.
Ralph studied the sign. A DOLLAR A VISION, it said. “Why that's fraud, no one has visions to sell.”
“I'm Moses Murphy and I have visions to sell. Ain't that right, Marvin?”
Marvin looked up from his drum. “That's right. Say, pal. Just to show you we're on the level I'll give you a free vision. Come over here and hold my hand.”
“Not on your life,” Ralph said, starting to back away.
“Don't be afraid,” Moses said. “That's the way it's done. You gotta touch Marvin to make contact.”
“Okay. I'll touch him, but only to expose this scam you guys are running. And you better not try to pick my pocket either.”
Up close Marvin's face looked artificial, like a pale wax apple, and his eyes sparkled and darted, putting Ralph in mind of Jenny Figuerada, a waitress he'd been engaged to back before he locked the president of the Commerce bank in a vault and got put out of security work. Jenny's eyes and face hadn't belonged together, like a stranger was using her eyes. Marvin also puckered his lips like Jenny - fish style.
Marvin's playful mood vanished under the cold weight of Ralph's stare. Like a mock zombie he held up a limp hand and Ralph took it, looking at it suspiciously like it might be something dead.
Nothing happened other than that he felt like an idiot, then a foul odor wafted in and he gagged. He felt his neck crack and vile medicine somehow got on his tongue.
The pain came suddenly, like a boxer had jabbed him on the jaw. Curtains of blood spilled and twisted in front of him and he could feel clammy hands caressing his legs. He was staggered, yet he couldn't move; the blood vanished and he saw a mound of swollen, blackened corpses.
A fetid odor was drifting from them, and the worst part was the faces. They were contorted like they'd died having a vision of something abominable, and they were faces of regulars he hit on while panhandling.
Bat wings flapped like canvass in his ears, then he saw a vampire bat land; using claws and folded wings, it skittered up the corpses and drank blood flowing from a small fountain at the top. Ralph's vision zoomed in. Horrible things in miniature were in the blood, visions of more corpses rolling and a million different death-head grins. He thought he saw hunger there, but it was like the hunger of a devil for your soul more than anything else.
The bat took flight, and its wings became waves of darkness that consumed Ralph. Next thing he knew he was back by the wall. He'd vomited and he could hear Marvin and Moses laughing uproariously.
Moses remained jolly, moving like a marionette, his worn suit flashing as he led Marvin closer to the subway entrance. Ralph's feet filled with lead, like he was digesting an elephant tranquilizer. His mind expanded and he watched events flow by like he was the sky. Quite a number of people were attracted by the vision pitch, and almost all of them stumbled away in shock. The exceptions were an old hag, a blond girl with a spider web on her cheek, a biker, a hooligan and several ordinary business and secretarial types. They all smiled like death and made sure they pocketed one of the flyers.
Two beat cops suddenly popped out of the alley, startling Ralph as they brushed past him. They went straight to Moses and arrested him, saying they had received a complaint. Marvin looked unconcerned. He remained, tapping on his drum as Moses was led away. A minute later, he got up, fastened his drum to his belt loop and strolled off down the street.
Ralph tailed Marvin without even thinking why, following him through a willow-dripping park, down some railway tracks and through some sumac and pines. Marvin got out of sight in the trees and Ralph ended up creeping over pine duff and twigs until he came to a clearing. He found Marvin waiting for him in the field, his hands on his hips and disgust on his face.
Ralph smiled sheepishly then his face fell as Marvin hissed and ran at him. Falling to his knees, Ralph held out his hands protectively. But he didn't have to fend off an assault. Marvin stopped dead just before he got to him and began to laugh like a crazy man.
“So you had a hungry vision,” Marvin said.
“Nope,” Ralph said.
“You must've seen something. Come into my palace and we'll talk.”
Marvin's palace was a tramp's hovel made of warped plywood sheets, tin and vegetable-oil cans. So much bird crap was stuck to it that it appeared to be dripping. Ralph ducked inside reluctantly.
“Moses isn't handling you right,” Ralph said. “You should just shake hands. I could lift a few dollars from each mark.”
“I could do it that way. The way it is Moses gives a flyer to the hungry ones and they show at a meeting so I can channel their perverse visions. They give all their money. And they have to be channeled clear. The hungry ones like the visions. They're like dogs that have tasted human blood and have an appetite for more.”
“Moses may be away for a while. You'll need a new manager, like me for example.”
“Moses is my only friend. Since I got the power six months ago nobody can stand to touch me. I really don't need to be used by an opportunist like you.”
Ralph was suddenly sorry for Marvin and he wanted to wallow in self-pity with him. “No one can stand to touch me either. I just want a friend, that's all.”
“Okay, but we've got to settle up with the people I touched today. You can come to the meeting with me and collect the money while I channel away their blood thirst.”
Vagrant neighborhoods and the gutters of the nation were sunny memory lanes in their recollections; Marvin pulled out a six-pack and listened raptly as Ralph told stories of places he'd been run out of -- sometimes Marvin added a tale of his own, but he remained strangely silent when asked for further details on the power he had gained.
The afternoon was slipping through their fingers, and then Marvin suddenly jumped up and stared as if he could see something in the white bird crap dust floating in a slat of sunlight. “Holy shit, we're late for the meeting! Let's get moving.”
Once they got to the street, Marvin pulled out some loose bills and they stood like transient clowns in the blooming city spring. A Yellow cab came along and the longhaired driver wasn't averse to breaking the speed limit. Asphalt snapped under the wheels like a rubber snake and they pulled in at a soot-blackened red brick building. It was abandoned and had a huge smokestack, like something from back in Industrial Revolution days.
“Here you go, boys. 262, the old slaughterhouse,” the driver said.
They spotted some cars at the side and walked across the gravel lot, not sure if they were at the right place. The building was like a time-tunnel object standing against a background of freeways. It had a power of desolation, like it was the wasteland heart of the city.
“I can't imagine anyone meeting here other than a group of unemployed butchers,” Ralph said.
“Moses picked the place,” Marvin said, kicking open a rusty gate. “It's private and the rent is attractive.”
The front door was battered, scarred. “Wait,” Ralph said as Marvin was about to open it. “Did you hear that?”
“It's just wind shaking through the cracks.”
Ralph nodded, but he still thought he heard a faint animallike huffing.
Marvin swung the door open and sunlight flooded part of a dim passage. A blond girl was hunched against the wall, her head hanging down under drifting cobwebs, bobbing some as she heaved up sighs.
Believing she was in distress Ralph hurried to her aid; he touched her arm and she lifted her face. It was the girl with the spider web on her face, only her face was now drained of color and her eyes were vacant.”
“You okay?” Ralph said.
Rather than answer she latched onto him and sank her teeth into his thigh, causing him to howl and drag her back as he tried to shake her loose. Her teeth sank deeper; he tripped and grabbed Marvin as he went down on the rotten floorboards. His head banged the wall and a vision came over him. He saw a vampire hag, hollowing her cheeks as she sucked blood from his torn flesh. She lifted her crimson face and her eyes shone with mesmerizing lust. Then a soft tapping began, the lines on her face became shadowy and her ugliness faded as she fell back. His vision clearing, he saw Marvin gently pulling her to her feet with one hand while he tapped his drum with the other.
Ralph tied his shirt around his wounded leg, keeping a suspicious eye on the girl, who was now still as a zombie.
“We're too late to stop the hunger,” Marvin said. “It's a good thing there are no victims around here.”
“What am I, yesterday's hamburger?” Ralph said. “Let's get out of here before more weirdoes jump us.”
“We'll take a peek inside first, and then we'll split.”
At the end of the passage, there was another door. A throaty howl sang through the cracks, lifting Ralph's hair before it slid down his spine with his shattered courage. His eyes reached out of his head, almost enough to hold the door shut.
Marvin maintained a cool expression, pushed Ralph back, guided the blond to the door, pushed her through, and then slammed it. Madhouse screaming, tortured moans, banging and thumping were followed by grotesque slurping sounds and scraping. Raising his eyebrows, Marvin gave Ralph a follow-me signal, but Ralph couldn't move, he could only watch as Marvin vanished in the gray gloom.
A minute alone proved to be a formula for terror. He regained the power to move along with the power to probably jump through the wall. He ducked into the room, in search of Marvin.
The place resembled a giant medieval dungeon. Sunlight was leaking through the cracks, cutting the general gloom and falling as bars on a floor of earth and crumbled concrete. The dirt was like camel-dung hashish; vile odors rose and they had a near gaseous power of levitation.
Marvin was standing by a post, watching dim figures move on the other side of the room. Forms that mingled and tumbled like a strange play of shadows.
Ralph hurried over to Marvin and without thinking grabbed his arm. Immediately the forms became clear, the blond girl was streaked with blood and dirt, rocking on her butt as she tore with her nails at a wound she'd just opened in her leg. Beyond her, a biker in a black leather jacket was sprawled over a small heap of mutilated corpses. Crazy hunger was on his blood-smeared face as he stared at a gruesome chain of sausage slipping in his filthy hands.
There were other people lying broken and contorted on the floor. Some were alive, sucking blood and cannibalizing body parts. One bald man was chewing on a rat.
Assuming it was a hallucination he'd got from Marvin, Ralph waited for it to pass. But it didn't pass, it only got uglier.
Marvin turned to him and his eyes were a deep well that threatened to boil up with more unspeakable things. Before he could say anything, a skeleton-thin naked man dropped from a rafter and knocked Ralph to the ground. In a flash, he was on Ralph's chest, his teeth snapping like a buzz saw, horrible blood spittle dribbling from his mouth.
Hysteria shot up Ralph's spine; he caught the teeth with his forearm, jumped up and began battering the man against a post. The force cracked his skull, blood and tissue shot out. A moment later, the man slid to the floor, and Ralph fled, striking out wildly at the shadows as he made his way to the door.
Sunset colors hit him like an explosion and he ran in circles in the parking lot then began to wander in a daze. A dam of guilt and emotions threatened to burst and snap his mind. Covering his eyes, he shook his head, ran off and cowered behind a tool shed.
He was still crouched and shivering when Marvin emerged, looking like a man on his way to a Sunday picnic. Marvin spotted Ralph, strolled over and put a hand on his shoulder. It was a healing hand that burned the taste of death off his tongue. Trauma was channeled away.
“Doesn't matter so much about them anyway,” Marvin said. “It's only evil people that go mad from the visions. They're the hungry ones. Tomorrow we'll make sure we take their money first, before we send them here to the meeting.”
---The End ---