A SHORT STORY
BY RUSSELL UNDERWOOD
Lately I been thinking about the blind man. Don't know why, really. He died seven years ago, and almost no one remembers anymore what he did.
So many of us have passed on since that one sweet day in the park when we became more than just street people, when we rose up and fought and won, finally, for once in our lives. Maybe I been thinking about him because my own health is failing now -- the rattle in my chest getting worse day by day. I cough something terrible in the mornings, and I can't walk far before I have to slow down and rest. One day soon, these streets are going to eat me up, the way they always eat up the weak.
Well, almost always. There was one who made it out, who found his way to some better place.
I still got his journal, you know. Found it the night he died, on the body they left in place of his own. The papers are all yellowed and torn now, the ink faded, the words all run together and sloping down the page in the blind man's peculiar scrawl. I read it every now and then and it gives me hope that maybe one day I'll find what he found.
Fourteen steps: There. That crack in the pavement. Now left, and follow the smell from the pizzeria. Hot cheese and spiced meat, the faint odor from the empty jars of tomato paste stacked beside the dumpster. Makes my stomach growl, but the pizzeria's no good. Sons of bitches pour Clorox on the pizzas they throw away to keep the bums from eating them. Bums like me.
Bakery's better. Sometimes, early, Mrs. Golding sets a few warm sticks of French bread out on the stoop. Too late for that now, but there's always plenty left in the big plastic garbage can out back. Italian, sourdough, garlic. Some there now. I can smell it.
Got a nose for things like that. Have to, my line of work, with no eyesight to see the mold and shit. Even so, when my hand goes down in the trash sometimes, my nose wrinkles up despite itself cause you don't ever know everything that's in there, what that slimy thing is sliding up against your fingers. Sometimes you don't know what you smelling.
Third dumpster yesterday, though -- one behind the Station Street Blues Bar on the corner of 6th -- I knew pretty well what I smelled. Girl smell. Uptown perfume full of spices and a whiff of nice fruity shampoo. But there was a sweat smell, too, and an ugly kind of fear smell, and when I was right next to her I could hear the way the breath came out of her, all shallow and ragged.
She said, "Help me."
Sounded so pathetic, like she'd run fresh out of hope.
"Help you how?" I said, and I wondered right then if maybe she wasn't blind, too. Because anybody with two good eyes could see I wasn't no kind of savior.
She just said, "Please. They're coming for me."
Right then I expect I would have mosied off. Nothing against the girl, but down here in Pump City, you learn quick not to borrow other people's trouble. Specially when you old and sick and the sharks got you marked for a victim anyway.
But then I felt something. Don't know how to describe it really, except to say that in my bones I knew that whoever "they" were, they were close and getting closer. And there was a word in my mind that went with the feeling, and that word was unseelie. I'd never even heard it before, but I knew it was bad. All kinds of things wrapped up in a word like that - dark and hidden things full of menace and spite.
I said it aloud: "Unseelie."
"What?" the girl whispered, and there was shock in her voice.
"Quiet down," I said. And I climbed in after her. Don't ask me why I did it. I still don't know. It just felt right. No, more than that. It felt like I had to, like there wasn't any choice. I lay down on top of that girl and pulled some trash over both of us, hoping she was hidden well enough beneath me. To her credit, she didn't move. She hardly even seemed to breathe.
And then they were there, standing right beside the dumpster, and I wondered if they could feel me the way I could feel them. I wondered what word was in their minds.
One of them leaned against the dumpster -- I could hear the sheet metal flex in against its weight.
"What's this shit?" it said. "It's just a bum." Its voice was strange, harsh and low, the accent some kind of foreign.
"Lemme see," said the other one. There was a pause, then it laughed. "I don't believe it. Another fuckin' changeling. This stupid town must be lousy with them."
"You're saying that thing came from Elfame?" Its voice was full of disgust. I didn't care. I was used to it.
"Come on," said the second. "We picked up the wrong scent."
In a couple of minutes, when I didn't feel them no more, I rolled off the girl and sat up.
"Well, that was damn interesting," I said. "Hope you ain't too compressed."
The girl laughed, but it sounded wrong -- kinda' hysterical like. Then she threw her arms around me and damn near knocked me over. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you, thank you."
I said, "Shit, girl, you welcome already."
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