Laughter, with hints of youthful vile and ignorance, echoed down her alley, a path brimmed with stench and decay, hacked into a hidden alcove in the Chelsea District. This great New York City, not a comfort, was still her home. Cassandra lifted her eyes at the hollow sound, her long lashes barely concealed her red-rimmed gaze, not an emotional plight, but a daily toil. Her pulse sped, urging her to flee. The dim light of the gibbous moon caused her to squint as she measured the intent of a band of teenage boys. Their pale blue shadows stretched towards her like ethereal hands, clawing a trail around the refuge of her home.
Momentary silence and her mind drifted. “Where did I put that change?” Cassandra tossed a plastic Kool-Aid bottle to her left and peeked inside a broken TV, poking at its innards with gloved fingers. Her misty breath obscured her vision, making the quest all the more difficult, a product of a particularly cold winter. The street lamp feebly scattered the night, offering little help. It seemed the TV would produce no treasure today, perhaps tomorrow.
The shadow-cut alley whistled. The chill bit making her think of a dog bite, but with ice for teeth. She wiggled her toes in tattered boots to improve circulation. A scarf needed to be garnered soon, before winter’s minions tightened their tiny grips. Maybe a cup of coffee too. Yes, she liked the idea of that. Coffee to soothe her rigid fingers and brittle tongue.
The laughter ignited once more, splaying a cacophonous tune in her direction. Cassandra winced. Ignoring it as best as she could, Cassandra snatched what she hoped to be a weapon, but instead procured her lucky Pepsi bottle.
When it jingled under her grip, her tension evaporated, left behind by the excitement of finding her savings. The laughter continued, but she gave it no heed, intent on her meager wealth. Over the last couple of months, she scavenged the lost, forgotten, and discarded to procure this jingling hoard. She pulled the crumbled plastic used as a makeshift stopper out of the mouth of the bottle and dropped the coins into her left hand. “Two pennies, one dime, eight quarters, and four dollar coins.” Pride split the premature wrinkles of her face into a smile. Beauty still lingered under the tarnished matte of her sun-scorched skin, but none cared to notice nor would she want them to. If her counting skills still proved competent, she had earned enough to attempt her escape plan once more. Placing each coin in her Pepsi bottle one at a time so she might count them again, she dreamed of her plans to break loose from the clutches of poverty’s cloying grasp.
Daily, Cassandra made herself forget where she hid the coins just in case the boys came back. She never remembered the specifics from their visits. The lingering aftereffects painted a vivid enough picture for her to ascertain what happened. The wretched vermin stole all her money, usually crushed her lucky bottle, and left her with bruises as a keepsake. They didn’t exclusively come to see her, having overheard a few of the others speak of it. Somehow, knowing she shared the experiences made it better, like she participated in a secretive community of the tormented. It was one of the ways she dealt with the beatings. Besides, they weren’t even boys. They were rats, nothing more, vile creatures with bottomless eyes, never with a glint of empathy. They didn’t see her as human and she didn’t see them as human. A fair trade, she thought.
They approached, shoving aside piles of refuge in their way. Deep shadows cut the edge of hard jawlines, which could be construed as handsome or even beautiful to some if it didn’t expose the twisted grins smeared across their vile faces. A tingle crawled up her calves and along her spine as they got nearer. She slipped the bottle inside her trench-coat. If she threw the TV at them, their ugly grins would stop menacing her. A smile sweetened her lips. Last week she crushed a rat in a similar way, the memory providing a pleasing comparison of tiny rat boys squeaking underfoot as she dropped the TV on them. No more vermin, big or small.
Cassandra sneered and spat at their feet. “Hey Billy, how are you and your rats doing?”
“I’m going to throw out the coffee. Do you want me to save a cup to bring to that homeless girl?”
“No, I’m too busy. I need to get something faxed before I go home.” Jen finished filling the ketchup dispenser and then handed the bottle over the counter to her coworker Gayle. The sun lazily drooped in the sky. It glimmered through the windows of her work, a limpid cage of daily economic dependence. She only had an hour at most before the sunset. It felt weird finishing work with the sky darkened like she lost the day before it began. Besides, she felt guilty. This morning she rushed and didn’t visit her homeless friend. The beggar woman seemed bat crazy, but she wanted to do the right thing. Something to do with karma, she was sure.
Fighting against her resolve to always be happy, the day burrowed a nice ache in her back. She forced a smile and bent down to get napkins from the cabinet at her feet when a flash of pain rattled up her spine. She grabbed the edge of the counter to keep from falling and bit off a squeal.
“Jen, you OK?”
“I’m fine.” Jen waved Lisa away. It could have been worse. It had been worse in the past.
“I just need a moment…to let the pain pass.”
“You should really consider retiring. You’ve worked here how many years now?”
“Fifteen, but I want to wait a few more years.” Jen lengthened her spine gingerly with her left hand supporting the small of her back and the fingertips of her right hand preparing to use the counter again. “To help my pension along and such.” That wasn’t the real reason, but it suited most people. She liked her work, even if she hated the customers. This was her social life, her only life. It beat reading trashy romance novels. On most days at least.
A group of boys shouldered open the doors, letting their cocky laughter spill into the restaurant. Jen thought she recognized one of them as Billy Galliard, the son of the drunkard football coach for the local high school team. The father beat his son bloody in a parking lot after a lost game. The police found him drunk in a bar that night and threw him in jail. The boy spent the next few days in the hospital. It made headlines in the local paper.
She glanced over her shoulder at the clock. “…five minutes before we close,” she mumbled under her breath. As the boys approached, she slapped a plastic smile on her face and began the prerecorded greeting logged in her head. If she got out of work soon enough maybe she would bring the beggar a cup of coffee after all. She needed something to make herself feel better and it might assuage her guilty conscience for forgetting this morning.
Billy melded into the couch as the TV blurred in front of him and the afternoon sun cut hazy rays across his dingy living room. A McDonald’s bag and its moldy inhabitants sat next to him. Earlier in the day, he skipped school and ran home, it took him an hour of feet slapping against pavement, but he didn’t care. It gave him time to think. He knew he should have stayed, it was the right thing to do. He grew tired of the moral banter flung at him daily. It seemed every step of his life he must measure, calculate. He was smart and he knew it. He figured out the best choice without someone’s unwanted input weighing him down.
He spent so much time reading, he never spent any time living. That realization caused him to create the Rebellion, a group of friends who did everything in opposition to society and the norm. He figured if they, his group, did everything wrong they would understand what it meant to be wrong and would then be able to make decisions based on reality, not pointless theory or archaic tradition.
When he hung with the Rebellion, he felt more alive. They could do anything. No one could stop them, and if they did, he accepted the consequences whatever they panned out to be. Life was immediate and clear. Action and consequence, experience and result. The simplicity of it made him laugh, not caring who overheard. He laughed so hard tears streamed down his face.
He couldn’t believe at one point he followed the oppressive traditions of right and wrong, the old prodding beast. The moldy shape of its archaic form held little appeal to the lively youth of the Rebellion. He noticed the time displayed on the flickering jabber of the Fox news channel and his pulse sped up. Fifteen minutes and the rest of the crew finished school for the day. He wondered what they would do. Each day reared its head differently, some grimacing with pain, some licking ice cream off its lips, and some bearing its fangs. He did his best to lead, but things always took a more organic turn. “In the moment,” he called it when recollecting such events. “You get lost, separated in a way as if you’re not there; you’re not really the one doing it, which makes it so easy.” Talking to himself should be a warning sign for some mental impairment, but he couldn’t think of a better person to understand him than himself.
Billy stood, stretched, and ran out the door, leaving the TV to flicker behind him with tirades of the communists and the radical decline of our culture.
He didn’t slow as he worked his way to the daily meeting spot. He ran by a woman in a business suit, most likely walking back from work, he grimaced and she ignored him. He hated Suits. Money grubbing pigs, nothing human about them. His stomach rumbled and he remembered he hadn’t eaten today. The Rebellion should snag a bite to eat before going on the prowl. Besides, he liked the older clerk, she reminded him of his grandmother, the only worthwhile human in existence.
Cassandra’s sneer was answered with a fist slammed into her stomach. The air blasted out of her lungs and before the pain could grip her voice someone kicked her in the face. Her vision blackened and the world spun. Her shoulder pressed against the cold pavement, blood dribbled over her lips. She spat a piece of tooth and pushed herself up on her elbows. The boys were getting rougher than usual.
“Can’t you put up a fight?”
She tried to stand. They never let her. Cassandra did her best to kick, bite, scratch, claw, and scream, but it only invigorated their efforts. They taunted her as if they wanted her to win. Some of them cheered her on.
“She hit the ground again, but this time they paused as she laid on the ground, the sharp pain in her ribs forced her to wheeze to catch a breath, and aches racked everywhere else, one of the boys got a grand idea in his head, which started an argument. She didn’t care what bothered them. “Rats!”
“What did you say, bitch?”
“Cut it. We had our fun, let’s go.”
“Rats.” Cassandra repeated with barely a whisper.
“Ya, whatever, I always knew you were pathetic, Billy.” The boy raised his hands in question. “What, our big leader wussing out?”
“What are you doing?”
Tighter, Cassandra curled into a ball to lessen the pain or make the rats forget her. She hugged her knees to her chest, but it did little to assuage the fear and pain building in her chest. “Stop it!” The voice was the one they called Billy.
At first she thought they were urinating on her as a wet stream coated her face. Cassandra licked her bloody lips. It lacked the salty tang she expected, being bitter instead like vinegar or liquor. She spat and frantically wiped her face, but the substance wouldn’t come off. The boys started yelling at each other. It looked like Billy walked away and kicked a trash can, but it might have been someone else.
A bright flash of orange light engulfed her vision, licking her with a molten tongue. She screamed. It seared into her skin, her eyes, her clothes, and her mouth, like being dragged naked over coals. Her flesh peeled away and her heart quickened with vain attempts of perseverance. The fire hurt, the fire ate, the fire was. She didn’t know anything else. Her mind had become the pain and the pain was the fire. She could no longer scream, see, or even breathe.
Then the agony faded, her mind momentarily cleared. She thought of days picnicking with her mom, of nights eating ice cream with her father at the local dairy shop, of early mornings with over-easy eggs and pancakes with too much syrup, and so much more. She remembered it all and nothing. She knew where she was, but also knew she wasn’t there. She saw the irony, even as her last vestiges of thought faded into the after. Like sipping coffee in the chill of winter, the heat consumed her. At least she wouldn’t be cold. She found her long-awaited respite.