Reflections – A Novella – Part 1
It was to be the strangest day of my entire life…
I awoke with the pungent flavours of blood and dirt and bile mingling on my tongue – a tongue that felt too thick and parched and alien as it darted out to lick at cracked and swollen lips. I was horribly cold; shivering, my teeth chattering together; and yet I could feel a thick sheen of sweat covering my flesh. Fat droplets of the salted liquid crept down my forehead to seep into my eyes.
… eyes that were aching in their sockets; dry and raw and stinging as I struggled to open them. It felt as though tiny grains of glass had become imbedded beneath my lids. It was an agonizing effort, but I managed to force them open. At first I could see only vaguest of shapes through a thick grey haze, but eventually my vision began to clear. I took a few deep breaths and willed myself to see.
It was dusk, but even that pale light seemed too harsh and cruel. My eyes watered insistently. They burned.
The stark reality of my surroundings began to sink in, and the first wave of panic followed.
I was in an alley, dark and damp. I sat on the ground with one knee draw up against my chest and the other sprawled out before me. Only a thin sheet of cardboard and a tattered grey blanket shielded me from the filth and wetness of the place.
I sat between two blue dumpsters; those hulking metal monsters with BFI stamped in white along their sides; and two more were positioned against the wall on the opposite side of the alley. Everywhere I looked was litter, scraps of paper, chunks of damp cardboard, rotting bits of food, empty cans and broken bottles.
The odours strangling the air were nauseating. The reeking perfume of garbage was most prominent, old food and stale booze… and something else… was it urine? Oh god yes, human urine.
Bile rose in my throat and I struggled to choke it back down.
At that moment I became all too aware of every inch of my being; every tiny molecule that made up my person. It seemed that there was not a single particle in me that was not suffused in pain.
I looked down at my hands and arms and was mortified by what I saw there. Bruises and scrapes covered my flesh. Some were fresh; blood still just clotting in the wounds, bruises as brilliantly coloured as the sunset during a violent summer storm. Others were older; some of the scrapes just the tender markings of the scars they would soon become, bruises already that garish yellow-green that denotes their swan song.
Eerily calm, ignoring the sadistic pounding in my skull, I stretched both legs out before me to inspect those limbs for further injury. They were covered in fewer abrasions it seemed, but the bruises were just as abundant. They spanned from a quarter-sized mark near my left ankle to a potato shaped welt that disappeared just below a too-short black skirt.
Not my clothes, I thought, somewhat irrationally. And where are my shoes?
I couldn’t understand why the nakedness of my feet might alarm me so. Given the gravity of the overall situation it seemed a little absurd to be so troubled by bare feet. Still, the absence of shoes caused my terror to swell.
I made some strange animal mewling sound in my throat then as my brain raced to imagine what the rest of my body might look like. I didn’t even want to consider the damage that might have been done to my face.
Waves of pain and panic alternately pulsed through me.
Where the hell am I? I wondered. And what the hell is going on?
Again I took several deep breaths, desperately trying to ignore the putrid stench. I willed myself to think, to remember…
… And then I was moving, scrambling through the filth on hands and knees, groping out for handholds, and finally stumbling to my feet. My limbs moved sluggishly as though under intoxication, but they moved.
I ran – or did the best lumbering, somewhat convulsive variation of a run I could muster – towards the mouth of the alleyway.
“Help!” I tried to scream, but the word that rasped from my lungs was barely audible enough to resonate in my own ears.
“Help!” I whimpered a second time, only to become all too aware of the scorching rawness in my throat.
With tears streaming down my face, I stumbled on towards the street. I needed help; even if I couldn’t find voice enough to call for it; and somewhere beyond that litter-strewn hell I knew I would find it. Someone would help me or at least point me towards the nearest phone. I needed to call the police probably – the hospital possibly – and I needed, if nothing else, to call my parents.
The last thing I could remember was being at a party with my two best friends. It was Thursday – a school night – and we’d been somewhat sneaky about it… but it was no big deal… Claire’s older cousin was there. She’d make sure we were okay.
Something was definitely not okay.
My bare feet slapped against the damp pavement as I ran. It couldn’t have been more then forty feet and yet it seemed like a mile.
Finally I spilled out into the street like a mad woman, spinning around to make sure nothing had followed me out of the darkness from which I’d just escaped, spinning again to make certain no assailant awaited me in the twilight.
No one waited.
But there were signs of life and civilization; as dirty and unappealing as it was; and my heart swelled with optimism. Everything was going to be alright. It didn’t matter what I’d been through – whatever that might have been – because I was alive and soon I’d be going home.
The streetlights flickered on.
Cars rushed by in both directions.
People scurried along the sidewalks, carrying on about their business either completely unaware of my sudden appearance, or wholly indifferent to my very existence. Either way the masses seemed to look right through me.
For one irrational moment it occurred to me that I was dead, and wandering this urban nightmare for all eternity was to be my punishment for lying to my parents.
A chill shot through my body.
My stomach cramped and twisted.
A fresh wave of nausea rose, and nearly undid me.
I thought, if I was dead, I wouldn’t feel this terrible, and that realization put the power of movement once more behind my steps.
I turned and bolted left, nearly tripping over a man sleeping with his back against the wall and his feet sprawled spread-eagle across the path in front of me. I reeled, flapping my arms wildly as I struggled to catch my balance. I stumbled forward a few feet and ran head-long into two men standing partially concealed in the alcove of what appeared to be a drugstore.
They’d been engaged in conversation – smoking as they stood there – but both were instantly silenced when I collided with them.
I couldn’t force my limbs to obey my will and the impact, slight as it was, sent me fumbling backwards. I wobbled, floundered and finally fell on my ass with a dull fmmmp.
I stared up at them dumbly, my eyes as big as saucers as I studied their faces.
The older of the two appeared to be in his mid forties. He was burly and unshaven and had a weathered look about him, but there was a kindness in his eyes.
The second man couldn’t have been more then twenty-five or so. Half of his shaved skull was covered in a tattoo of what appeared to be some kind of demonic octopus. There was no compassion to be found in his strangely pale grey eyes, and there was no humour in the grin he played for me.
It was to the older man I turned then; desperate, with tears flowing freely from my eyes and running down my cheeks. “Please,” I begged him. “Please… help…me. Something’s… h-h-happened. I don’t… I don’t know. Help?”
The burly man frowned, his brow knitting together beneath a thatch of curly auburn hair. He took a step forward and crouched slightly to reach a helping hand towards me. “Laney, honey,” he said softly. “What the hell girl? You look like shit.”
I stared blankly at his hand, confused.
How do you know my name? I wanted to ask, but other then a soft whimper, no sound passed my lips.
He knelt lower and gripped me gently about the shoulders, helping me to my feet when I could not seem to help myself.
“Laney?” When I didn’t respond he cupped one hand under my chin and forced me to look directly at him. “Laney,” he said a little more sharply. “Are you okay?”
I shook my head wildly from side to side. I opened my mouth to tell him that no, I was not okay, but the sound that bubbled from my lips could hardly be confused for language.
The younger man cackled, rolled his eyes and spat on the ground. “For fuck sakes eh?” He chortled. “Get a load of this broad.”
The burly man shot him a cold glare and snarled, “Let it go, Troy. She’s sick.”
Again, Troy chuckled. Again he spat on the pavement. “You got that right, Mort… she’s all kinds of fucked up.”
The burly man – Mort – shot him another sharp look.
With a snicker the younger man raised his hands in mock surrender and turned away. “Fine,” he muttered over his shoulder as he parted. “You play Mother Teresa… I’m getting a drink.”
Mort watched him for a moment before turning his eyes back on me. “Okay,” he said. “Let me get you some dinner Laney, then we’ll get you home so you can get cleaned up. How’s that sound?”
I shook my head. I protested. “No. I have to call… I have to tell my parents I’m alright. I have to… I think I have to call the cops.”
He chuckled. It wasn’t a mocking sound, just soft amusement at something I couldn’t understand. “Now kiddo,” he said. “That is something you probably don’t want to be doing.”
He took me by the elbow and started to lead me up the street and – for some reason – I let him.
As we he was saying , “You need to eat something and get your head clear before Dean-o catches you like this, ’cause knowing that boy, I don’t think he’d like the shape you’re in too much.”
I didn’t understand what he was talking about but – at that moment – I could barely find the will to care. My mind was racing again, speeding out of control as I sought some clue – any clue – as to what had happened and how I’d come to be trapped in that moment of time.
I was dazed and disoriented. I felt somewhat disconnected from my physical body, almost as though I was watching someone else going through the motions. If it wasn’t for the pain tethering me to my flesh I think I might have drifted away entirely.
Ignoring everything my father had ever taught me, I let the strange man lead me up the sidewalk without further objection.
So many faces along that street and so many of them filled with sadness. The emotional depravity of the place seemed to take on corporeal form. It lashed out at me. It beat violently against me; it broke something within me.
Men and women… even children… moving about like animated corpses. Unaware of me, unconcerned with the burly man who led my steps, so caught up were they in their own separate hells.
A dirty faced woman in filthy clothes approached as she moved in the opposite direction. At first I thought she intended on speaking to us, or at least to Mort, but instead she veered off at the last moment, yanking at stringy brown hair and groaning as we passed her by.
A sickly-thin man glanced up as us from the pavement as we passed. He was dressed in clothing so overly large for him he seemed almost clownish. He mumbled something under his breath and then turned back to the mounds of garbage he’d pilfered from an overturned can. Like a gold panner separating useless rock from his preferred treasure, he sorted the trash into various piles.
I watched that man cram a chunk of stale bread between his teeth and begin to gnaw happily on the treat. I felt the nausea rising again, and clutched at my belly with both hands.
Mort must have felt my hesitation because he stopped moving. He cocked his head as he looked at me. “You gonna make it kiddo?” he asked.
I nodded. More so, I meant to nod but I’m not entirely sure that my head fell altogether into compliance. “I just want to go home,” I whined.
He smiled, though the expression seemed too sad to be truly called a smile. “I know hun,” he said. “Soon, okay? I promise. We’ll get some chow in ya, and then I’ll make sure you get home safely.”
I nodded again and this time my body obeyed my will.
To be continued…