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Walking across the bridge spanning the freeway, Matt was startled to see a young woman leaning back against the rail. He was momentarily aroused and then embarrassed when he looked at her breasts projected forward thanks to her arched back. Was she going to commit suicide? He stopped and almost reached out. Instead he said, “Excuse me.”
She lifted her head so he could see her face. For an instant, he hoped it would be different, but, of course, it wasn’t. Like everyone else, he couldn’t see her face, just the forehead to chin mask everyone wore these days. Even though most of the city had complied with the vaccination order, the CDC had issued yet another order continuing the mask mandate for another year “just in case.”
“I help you with something?” Her voice was muffled but still carried an annoyed tone.
Matt made eye contact hoping to communicate his sincerity, but he felt like he was invading her privacy, while her gaze uncomfortably bored into his soul.
“No. That is, I was concerned with you leaning…I thought maybe…”
“Then fuck off.” The woman, she was young, but without being able to see her face or hear her voice, he couldn’t tell how young, leaned back again, her chin slightly wagging.
He moved on. What else was there to do? Besides, the sun had set and it wasn’t safe to be out in the open after dark. The woman would have to take her chances, or maybe she was one of the gangsters who he was told to fear.
He marched the rest of the length of the bridge still wondering about her. Who was she? What was her name? Why was she here now, and why did she seem so angry? As confusing and complex (and messed up) as his life was, hers must be just as detailed and nuanced. His thoughts swirled considering how the lives of the untold hundreds of thousands in this burg were all so vivid and complicated as his was. It was too much to take in. He couldn’t even handle his one meager existence.
Trotting downward from the bridge to the sidewalk, he made his way toward Danny Street hoping to find some shelter or relief. He passed others, this time looking away or downward, avoiding the masks and the eyes behind them. He looked like them, but he wasn’t them. He wasn’t any of them. He wore the mask, kept his distance, received the injections because he had to, not because he wanted to. The rest wanted to, needed to, bragged about it on social media. He felt like the only one who didn’t consider himself some kind of hero for receiving the shots and letting each one disable him for a week at a time.
It could have been anxiety, he’d had a problem with that before, but he could feel his heartbeat. It wasn’t unusually fast or slow, but it was there when he shouldn’t feel it at all. Stepping in time with each beat, he found himself at the intersection of Morris and Danny. It was only a little past nine, but there was hardly any traffic at all, either on foot or by car. Where had everyone gone? He didn’t like the answer that occurred to him.
“What am I doing here?” The voice in his head could have belonged to someone else. “I should be at home. No, I left because of Cecilia. She wanted to come over again and worse, to bring ‘a few friends.’ She said she thought I was lonely. Yes, of course I’m lonely and she’s only trying to help, but no one can help. Yes, I like Cece, but right now I just can’t stand to be around a lot of people, even the ones I like.”
A rumble came out of the darkening sky to the west.
Thunderstorm. He felt suddenly exposed.
“Better get inside but…” Then he saw the used bookstore just to the east across Danny. “I’ll be safe in there.”
His feet tapped across the empty asphalt and he reached for the doorknob just as lightning cracked nearby and the first drops began to fall.
As Matt opened the door, he heard a little bell ring inside. He saw a clerk at the counter behind what looked like an incredibly ancient cash register, one without a laser scanner where the proprietor had to manually calculate costs and taxes.
He was an older man, bald except for a thin wisp of white stringy hair around the ears. He smiled and nodded but didn’t say anything. The oldster wasn’t wearing a mask but he was behind a regulation clear plastic panel, so he was still within the law. At his age, he would have been among the first to get the vaccine, so he likely had been protected for well over a year, or maybe two assuming he kept up with his boosters.
Rain started a sharp staccato tapping on the windows while Matt walked further inside and began to browse the fiction section. There was something about the smell of decaying, dog-eared paperbacks that made him feel wistful, as if he had missed out on so much by not reading more. The storm was picking up outside, adding to the sense of comfort this haven provided him.
There was a flash of light from the windows and at first Matt thought it was lightning again. But he turned to see the old shopkeeper hurriedly put on his mask, then rush to the front door. He flipped the sign from “open” to “closed” then locked the doors. He fumbled with the blinds covering the windows including the one in the door.
“You’ll have to stay here until it’s over, I’m afraid.”
Matt knew what he meant. The riots were considered a protected activity, so the police had been ordered not to interfere. For them even to show up was considered a “hate crime.” Every night this happened, and in the morning, the people who lived and worked in this part of the city came out to see what they had lost, or in some cases, who they had lost.
The screaming and chaos outside drained Matt, as if he were a balloon and all of the air was streaming out. Sometimes he wished he would be caught outside during a riot, be thrown into the worst of it, imagining he also lost everything and yet somehow survived. It was foolish, but he was tired of hiding and being afraid. He was tired of the irrational regulations, making what was wrong lawful and what was right a crime.
Nothing in his life or an life in general made sense anymore.
The clerk was behind the counter again, but having taken off his mask, Matt could see that he looked worried. Occasionally, he’d open a drawer and check something Matt couldn’t see. Maybe it was the store keys. Maybe it was a gun. Guns worried him as did the violence. If only he didn’t care so much about everything. He wanted to get away from this tedious life. It made him feel small and insignificant. There wasn’t any purpose in things and no purpose in himself.
The sounds of yelling and screaming were getting closer. Through the gaps around the blinds, he could see flickering orange lights getting brighter. There was the sound of breaking glass, maybe as close as next door.
“I should never have gone out. I could have endured Cece and her friends. It only would have been for a few hours.”
A thunderclap overhead drowned out the riot for a minute. Then there was another. The flashes were white, not orange. A gust of wind made the windows rattle and then the torrent delivered its full rage on the roof.
For long minutes Matt listened and waited, but all he could hear now was the tempest.
The lights flickered but stayed on. More time passed, falling like rain. The storekeeper’s voice startled him.
“I think we’ve seen the worst of it. We got lucky. Storm drove them away.”
“I guess so.” Matt’s voice stammered and he felt himself trembling, maybe out of relief.
“You can stay until the storm lets up.”
“What if it rains all night?”
“I’ve got some rooms downstairs. Not much, but the sofa is comfy if you’ve got to stay. It’s long past closing time anyway. You hungry?”
Matt paused as if asking himself the same question, querying his appetite. “A little.”
“Good.” The old man stepped out from behind the counter. “Name’s Vincent.” He held out a spotted, wrinkled hand while wearing a smile like sunshine.
Matt hesitantly shook hands. “Matt. Pleased to meet you.” He’d almost forgotten how to greet someone or how to be polite.
“Let me turn off the lights and then you can follow me to the back. Been a long time since I’ve had overnight company. Be nice to have someone to talk to, someone to get to know.”
Vincent bustled about, locking the register, turning off illumination until there was only one soft glow coming from the rear of the store.
“Come along, Matt. Hope you don’t mind left over Mu Shu chicken. I can’t get enough of that plum sauce. Yen Ching’s makes the best…”
The old man kept talking as Matt trailed him to the back room and then down the stairs. Beneath the store, storm clouds covered Danny Street like a shroud, Matt felt like he was coming home after a long journey far away. Then he remembered that this used to be what the world was like when people were warm, and personable, and altogether human.
I wrote this for Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie’s Photo Challenge #373. The idea is to use the image at the top of the page as the inspiration for a story, a poem, or some other creative work. Just above this section and below the “simulation” of Danny Street, you can see a list of words describing unusual emotions. I thought it would be interesting to use as many of them as possible in this tale. I didn’t get all of them, but I did include:
- Nodus Tollens
That’s 14 out of 23.
Oh, I “borrowed” the name “Danny street” from HERE.
To read other stories inspired by the image, go to Mister Linky.
In other news, I was recently interviewed by Blackbird Publishing about my short story “No Place Like Home,” which is in a fantasy anthology being promoted with a book bundle until July 14th. Click the link to find out more.
Also, don’t forget that my science fiction short story “Homeward” is currently featured in the SciFi anthology Deep Space, Vol 2.