===** Author’s Note **===
Thank you for being patient with me and continuing to read/follow the story. I moved twice over the last month and a half. Once from my apartment to Q’s and then Q and I both moved to a home we have selected together. A lot of organizing, boxing, moving, unboxing, and organizing to be had by all!
But this book means a lot to me. It is a part of my break out into the writing world. A serious one, where I take all that I have learned about publishing and start using it. Please share a chapter that you like with someone that you think would enjoy it. I appreciate each one of you. Again, thank you for reading. And as always, w.w. ~joe
Continued from chapter 17 of the Devastation Series.
I awoke several times during the period that I passed out. It was more of a brownout than blackout; it was hard to sleep with the city noises. Animals would bounce around the alley until they saw me. A raccoon waddled off, an opossum stopped at the alley entry, but an alley cat jumped up on the dumpster. The cat was very familiar with people. He recognized me for what I was but didn’t care about me being there. He had seen my type before. His desire to fit in was long gone through his days on the streets. His rough coat was striped, but it was too dark to make out what color. Tabby, I assumed. When I clicked my tongue at him, he only paused for a second. He then went back into his search for his next meal. I thought about a cat that I had when I was a young boy. Titus was a short-haired gray cat that just wanted to be with his people. I remembered the affection. I wondered if this cat was someone’s Titus once.
Titus would follow his family around the house and brush against the doorways, legs, or toys in front of him. I would pretend he was the Godzilla for my army men and need to be defeated to save the day. His fur was so soft and fluffy with a white patchy tummy that he bared for a rubbing. Everything seemed so still in those moments. There was no emergency. Doing wrong meant not listening to mom or dad when being called for dinner. If I didn’t like dinner, I would stall and drag it out with a groan when my stomach was angry with me. Or perhaps, if I was pushing the limits, I would shove my toy mess under the bed corner and sneak candy. The world continued spinning and the confines of my toy littered room were the closest thing to prison that I ever experienced. When did life become so much more complicated?
The bottle was full. Ironic, that I packed the bag when I did, but I was thankful for fate in that brief moment. I admitted to myself that I was scared. It was cold and wet and I had no plan. I opened the bottle and took a very large swig then put it back into my bag. A nightcap to soothe the transitioning. “Is that was this is?” I wondered. The street light created shadows in the alley and I tucked away off to the side of the dumpster. I listened to the city streets and explored all of my senses. The alcohol was burning my lips and tingling my mouth and throat. The warm rush felt nice in my makeshift chair of a cardboard box. The smells mixed together around the trashcan and sour-sweet smell stirred about the area. The metal dumpster smelled of rust and dew, which I had never noticed before. I heard water puddles swish and splatter when cars drove by. Fast cars…. slow cars… Life was still going on. What was I doing here? I closed my eyes in my little corner and laid my head on the pile next to me. My bag sat on top as a clean pillow. The recent drink carried me several hours through the night until the dawn.
Sparrows bounced around in the alleyway bobbing in and out of small nooks picking up dropped food or insects that shared the spaces. Their chirps signaled to one another and the group scoured the area and bounced off as quickly as they came. The dark green paint could be made out on the structure next to me and the spray-painted tags from years of street life. Traffic lulled mid-morning but traffic patterns started picking up with people starting their days. The smell of wet ground and trash radiated the area. I decided to get up, with only a headache holding onto me.
The seat of my jeans was slightly wet and I could make out the mud on my shoes. I thought to myself, “at least I put on real sneakers.” I slung my backpack over my shoulder with a bubble blop from the bottle inside. I stretched my legs and reached for the sky shaking off the hard ground bed that I had made. The aches lingered in my joints and a dull throbbing pulsed with my heartbeat. I slid the bag off halfway and shot a little bit of the drink to aid in the throbbing. I was not even sure that it would work – but what did I have to lose?
A drone zipped by while another was scanning the block. I reached up to my face and realized that I did not grab my mask. The drone stopped and turned towards me and slowly approached. By the time it got to me, I had pulled my teeshirt up to my nose. After a few moments, which felt like an eternity, the robot turned and continued its route. I knew that the cheat sometimes worked, but the sigh of relief told me that I didn’t count on it. Shakey, I knelt down on my knees and pulled my backpack all the way off to the front of me. I rummaged around the bag and finally found two cloth masks tucked in a small zip-up pocket. Maggie and I used to get away once in a while. While generic and only cloth, it satisfied the street requirements.
My stomach ached from my liquids diet. I felt around my pockets to find a $10 bill rolled into the same pocket as the newly found masks. I put it back into my jeans pocket and slung the pack to my back. I emerged at the alley and Centennial Street and looked around me for a place to eat. I saw a small convenience food shop on the corner and decided to go there. I walked over to the entrance and noticed that no one was in there; the store had just opened. I also realized how much of the street rubbed off on me during my overnight stay. Mud trailed up and down my legs and the dew from the evening clung to me in various spots. The dumpster forest green and rust left its mark on my side. It was obvious that I had some better days.
The sky was crested with orange accents as the clouds rolling in covered the sky. The handwritten sign read “OPEN.”The bell rang as I entered and the crew member’s smile dwindled instantaneously, “Sorry man, I cannot give you anything.” He reluctantly said in broken English. What did he think? What did I look like, I wondered, and it donned on me?
“Sir, no, I have money.” I held up the $10. “May I wash my hands?” Which he nodded to. I made my way through the small establishment to a room labeled “PUBLIC.” Urine odors stained the floor and a lemon-lime air spray burnt my nose as I shut the door to look at the sink and mirror. My weighted face sagged and my eyes were red from drinking and sleep deprivation. I splashed water on my face with my wet hands and wiped off the smudges along my cheekbones. I rinsed off my hands and wiped my face with the towel. I stretched faces and walked out of the bathroom towards the counter.
Another customer was in the store getting a breakfast sandwich as I exited. His smile drained and the look on his face could not hide his disgust. In several hours, I had become one of “those” types of people, I reckoned. The person that is easier to not see. To not know that person exists makes a conscience easier to manage. Even with my cleaned up appearance, I had the beginnings of a street stench that could be smelled over his designer cologne. I smiled back and raised my hand in a wave to acknowledge his presence. That is what a person is supposed to do? Again, I had to rethink everything, but I landed on the same outcome and decision each interaction that I had going forward. While his face withdrew from me, I stood back and waited for my turn. While I was the object of attention at this hour, I was also a paying customer. The sandwich was made for me – just like any other customer. I thanked the employee and walked out of the shop like I knew where I was going. I just kept walking.
The bread was tough and crispy on the edges with a light baked appearance. The melted cheese gushed out the sides with each bite and the juiciness of the smoked ham dripped over my tongue. I walked around the next corner and leaned against the wall and looked at the sky changing colors. The clouds were patchy and the breeze carried a dew smell embedded within. I took it all in. Each chew of the sandwich seemed sweeter and sweeter and the weight finally landed in my stomach. The soothing smell and taste lent to a satisfied belly and I appreciated the scarcity that I had just encountered. It would be some time before I could do that again, and while I knew it, I focused on the appreciation of what I had at the moment. I felt a jarring on my thigh and reached down to see what it was.
I had my phone on vibrate and I pulled it up to view it. Dozens of missed calls, texts, and alerts crossed the banner of my screen. I saw Valerie’s name and instantly felt shame. I held the side of the phone for several seconds and let it power down. I had around 50% of a charge and decided to conserve that while I could. With food in my belly, I was able to feel life back within my body. I needed to think through the last few days and think about what was to come in the next few. I was scared. I had never been on the streets – or been without anything. I had never wondered about meals and other random things going through my mind. I secured my backpack on my shoulders and decided to press forward. I spent the next couple of hours just walking around the city and observing. Appreciation of what was… already.
Everything seemed to be in slow motion at moments. I would catch myself being lost from time to time. The things that mattered, did not at that then. Maslow’s pyramid was flipped upside down and things taken for granted were blatantly obvious. Each footstep was simultaneously inspiring, yet terrifying. I had to continuously evaluate the situations and the old ways did not matter. Rent, bills, due dates… suddenly took a back seat to food, water, and shelter. As the day progressed it become even more so obvious. Clouds pillowed in the sky and the sun disappeared. Grey linings were overcast and the day began to look like night. Thunder chased strobing streaks and a cool breeze swept through the streets. Paper waste wisped across the sidewalks and people began to disappear from the main walkways. A green tinge filtered the daylight like a lens as the winds started and stopped and then repeated the cycle. The severe weather sirens digitally echoed through the hallowed streets. Distant apps on devices chirped as an alert plunge through the city. The storm was going to be big. I needed to find shelter.
The sky continued to swell and became darker and darker. Moisture could be felt and smelled in the air long before the droplets started to fall. In a seismic woosh, the heavens exploded with a strong wind that blew the large water droplets into my face. The pellets of rain felt like sandblasting blowing over me. I walked around the corner to escape the weather and leaned against the brick wall to take advantage of an overhang. The wind roared in bursts and thunder crashed in the sky overhead. I felt the water hit my hair and drip down the back of my neck in a small stream. The coolness from the air rushing over my wet skin made a frigid chill rush my body. I moved several times to try and get rid of the waterfall that had formed from the skies. I held my backpack, which repelled the majority of the water, over my head to remain dry. I hunkered down and let the bag balance over my head. I closed my eyes and prayed for the storm to pass. The rushing water echoed in the ally and my ears. I am unaware of how much time had passed. I had become numb to the sensory overload when I felt a tug at my shoulder.
A dark silhouette stood beside me and tugged towards a distant building. I could not make the face out with my blurred vision and the downpour. His head was barely visible from a hood pulled tight around this face. “Come on!” the gruff raspy voice directed me to move. I could tell it was a man by the voice and he hurriedly moved towards a building in the distance. I slang my bag over my shoulder and felt the sloshing of my shoes with each heavy step I took. The water did not let up and streams rushed down the alleys, streets, and sidewalks. We navigated around a couple of cars before entering a large opening where the weather stopped. The figure, ahead of me, walked away from me and over to a rusted trash can with a fire burning rapidly out of the top. Large sticks, branches, and other paper waste were sticking out as well as piled into a box beside it.
Several heads were moving around in the distance on the first floor of an abandoned building. The building was only a shell but the structure prevented some environmental protection. Each group of people gathered around a trash can with similar setups. Their hands were held toward the fire like it was the middle of winter. Hands were rubbing together and held to their faces. A couple of men were turned, back to the fires, and drying their backsides. The groups of people did not say much, but it was apparent that they knew each other by the body language. Different people took turns stoking or adding to the fire at different times. As I dripped from my soaked clothing I looked around taking it all in.
The fire glowed wavering shadows onto several men’s faces. The shadows moved from side to side as the wind blew through the building spaces. I looked and found the man that got me from the alleyway. He was an averaged size man. His hood laid on his shoulders and his long gray and white pony-tail wrapped around his neck and over his shoulders. The night-like shadows showed the sharp features of his face. He had a large bridged nose and light-colored eyes. The lines showed deep on his face and ash marks were on the side. His cheekbones were highlighted by his drawn in face. He pulled a small box out of his pocket, removed a single cigarette, and walked over to me. “Want one?” He asked in a cold, but friendly manner. I reluctantly nodded and managed to get a whisper of a thank you out as he walked away. A few feet away, he stepped back up to the can, again removed the box, and lit a cigarette in the fire’s flames. His V-shaped face made the blaze orange embers shine and he exhales a blue cloud that quickly vanished in the breeze. Our eyes met and he nodded towards a spot open in the can. I looked around as if I was verifying that he was referring to me and walked up to the can. The fire’s warmth quickly penetrated the saturated clothing that I was wearing. I reached into the fire and pulled out the small stick. I placed it to my mouth and took a small drag of the cigarette. I felt awkwardly comfortable at that moment.
The sparks climbed with the heated air as the men took turns churning the can. Each man stared into the flames with a somber and absent look. They were all physically standing by the only source of warmth but in their minds, it was obvious they were elsewhere. Like REM sleep, their eyes fluttered occasionally while they lived inside of their heads. The silence was only broken by the fire crackling, adding fuel, or a cough from someone in the circles. I looked through the windows while the dark sky continued to beat down on the earth. Common drones perched on ledges only scanning the 180 views from their landing. Military-grade drones continued patrolling but in far reduced numbers, but I was the only one paying attention. The others had seen all of this many times before and were used to these routines.
The afternoon continued into the early evening then late evening. No one spoke or did anything. It was nice to be dry. One man would walk off for a while and another would step up to the can. Often the same person that left would come back to their spot. There was no food around, only the occasional water bottle tipped back. Despite the stereotypes, alcohol, and drugs were not their m.o. Like many people, I thought they were all drug and alcohol junkies looking for their next fix. I had bet that I was the only person that had drank anything in the last 48 hours. I caught myself, too, looking into the fire. I replayed the last hours myself and thought about the difference of worlds that I was experiencing. It was not they or them anymore. It was we.
The rain never stopped completely that night. The fires died down and one by one the men scattered to various locations. Some to a spot in the building while others left. Each with a momentary connecting look, nodded to one another as they departed. By this point, I was tired of standing and honestly, I felt that I had given up in more ways than one. Yet, some form of oppression was lifted off of my shoulders and the worries didn’t matter for a moment. I slang my bag over my shoulder and walked to an unclaimed area of the large building. I leaned my back against a pillar and sort of slid down. I sat with my legs crossed with my bag on my lap. I unzipped my bag and pulled out a sweatshirt that I had tossed in. I unmangled it and put it over me like a blanket. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
Shortly after I got myself situated the same man towered over me. “Come with me.” He again said in a cold, serious but caring tone. I hesitated but decided that I had nothing to lose. I assumed he was going to inform me that I was going to need to leave or that I was in someone’s space. All of which, I was unprepared for but my instinct was leading me to listen to him. We snaked around pillars and concrete debris. Trash had accumulated in some spaced and piles of things were left from people. I was unsure if they still lived there or if the items were just left behind. The gentleman walked to a corner and pulled his hood over his head again. The stairs were deep and went up inside the rest of the place. He showed me around the stairs to a cubby that was there from the hollowed-out structure. Underneath the stairs, a small room like a sub-space formed. It was not large enough to stand up in, but sitting would have been no problem. He motioned inside as he ducked and crawled in.
There was an old mattress on the left side and a rolled-up sleeping bag against the makeshift wall. He squatted and pulled it out as he sat down on the mattress. He pulled out several aged and tattered blankets and laid them down in a small rectangle to form padding on the floor. He then unrolled the large comforter like a sleeping bag over the rages. He motioned for me to come and sit, followed by, “You can use this,” and gestured. As if he was inside of his own house he began to settle in. A couple of curtains lined the front and shower curtains were strung around the stairs on a wire. They enclosed the area into a small 8′ foot square which now resembled a dressing room. He pulled a small metal box out from a storage container and placed a recycled candle onto it and lit it. The little flame flickered in the drafts but radiated warmth as it continued to burn. The man reached beside him and pulled out a blanket. I sat on the sleeping bag as he pulled his legs on the mattress and doubled the blanket over his body. He clasped his hands together under the back of his head and once again gazed beyond. This time at the artificial ceiling. Not knowing what to do, I trusted my instincts and slid into the sleeping back doing the same as he did.
The city was quiet for the most part. I could hear a car drive by occasionally and a honk in the distance. The city had an empty echo to it with a sound of rummaging nearby. My stomach growled and I realized that I had not eaten since the morning. I did not have much cash left – and I did not want to use any cards since I was avoiding being tracked. In my mind, the crimes were mounting and I was thinking as the judge, jury, and executioner. It was all coming to an end and this life of crime would best me at some juncture. My mind spiraled down the rabbit hole just like when I would look up an illness with images on the websites. A small thing became a large thing and then snowballed down the cliff. I could hear coughs in the background, outside of our small room,
I opened my bag and pulled out the glass bottle. I took the cap off and chugged enough shots to forget the night. I didn’t know what else to do. The lumpy sack on the floor was a good situation considering what I could be doing at this hour. In this place. I laid back and stared through the walls with the burning in my stomach. Gut rot set in and a groan escaped me. “It doesn’t always have to end that way,” the raspy and gruff voice stated. I looked over and was pulling his sleeves down his arms still looking at the ceiling. We both knew what he meant, and was referring to. I felt myself drift as the moments passed by. I was lost in a moment. Even without the drink, I felt strangely settled, yet unsettled. And over time, it would appear more and more. I heard a sound and looked over. A masked mammal walked into the curtain and looked towards me and the man on the floor. Ironically I was the stereotype that I thought about earlier. The raccoon walked right beside me, not even flinching by my movement. I was a part of their world now.
My eyes closed and sleep set in. “Good night,” I muttered and it was met with acknowledgment.
Read more of the Devastation Series.