The woman, with tears in her eyes, asked gently what voice I was referring to. I don’t believe I responded. I simply remained on my knees. Eventually, she saw fit to lift me up and walk me to a small coffee shop across the street: The Horsehead Café. Once we entered, I started to feel myself again. With each step we took toward a booth, the voice faded further and further from my mind.
No sooner than we sat down, a waiter was standing over us to take our order.
“Coffee, black,” I stated, plainly, before losing myself in thought. The woman’s order was mere background noise. She was a static hiss droning on behind a memory playing in my head.
Imagining. . . how things could’ve gone differently.
Have you ever looked away from the wheel, just for a second, and felt a hard bump in the road? You’re driving along, something that catches your eye, and in that split second, when you weren’t paying attention, you hit something. A pothole, or whatever. Life can be like that sometimes, if you’re not paying attention. Things change. Seconds change, and you don’t get them back.
What do you do when you can’t retrieve a moment you desperately need back? Do you just drive on? Or do you die right there with that moment? Can a heart keep beating and leave a soul behind?
“Hello? . . . Hey!” A hand reached over and forced mine to set the zippo down.
“Huh?” I turned to her, stunned by reality. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
She sniffled slightly and then responded, “that’s quite alright. Are you okay? You’ve been saying some awfully strange things.”
“Strange things?” I had already lost a grip on the here and now as I drew a cigarette from my coat.
“For starters, the voice? And then, just now, you we’re muttering something about an accident.”
“Oh.” I lit the smoke and took a drag. “I’m sorry. No need for concern.” She stared for a moment, searching my eyes, before nervously turning her gaze to the table. I took it, based on her mannerisms and speech, she’d been raised in a strict household.
“I didn’t get your name.” I flicked an ash into a small candle holder by the edge of the table.
“Well,” she stifled a teary gasp, “I don’t really belong here, you see. So, all I’ll say for now is that I am looking for my sister, Sarah.”
I looked around the café before responding. This place was eerie, even for Hell. No one spoke to each other, save to make an order, and almost everyone was mumbling quietly to themselves. A man in the far corner seemed to be having a full blown argument with his soup. Over the stylish café countertop, and through the service window into the kitchen, I saw a large figure walk by wearing a suit.
“Sarah?” I parroted. “Sarah Simmons?”
She leaned in hopefully. “You know her?”
I drew one more haul, then mashed my cigarette out in the candle. “I... I never had the pleasure, Ms. Simmons.”
She looked at me, bewildered.
“I’m afraid your sister was gunned down in an alleyway across town. By who, I’m unsure.”
I’d given that news enough times that I’d gotten to know the order of events intimately. There’s always a surreal moment for both parties. A moment where time just stands still. One side has nothing left to say and the other feebly waits for something more. They wait for, “medical staff are doing all they can”, or, “she’ll make a full recovery”. Anything, so long as it’s not the end of the road.
She sobbed for quite a few minutes as I anxiously lit another cigarette. I never knew what to say to a person that just lost a loved one. I wasn’t the consoling type. If I could’ve gotten up and walked away, I might have.
Eventually, the coffee came.
“Coffee, black,” the large suited-man spoke as he set down my order. “And two cream, two sugar, for the lady.”
Of course, I knew the guy. The owner of the establishment. We weren’t friends, really. He was much too distant for that, but he’d come in handy during a case or two.
“How’ve you been?” He posed of me.
“Same old, and you, Oro?”
“I’m doing quite well, thank you,” he replied, turning his attention to Ms. Simmons as she stared into the unfathomable depths of her mug. A small pin he wore on his lapel glinted under the café’s overbearing fluorescent lights. A rearing horse.
The man tried to be friendly, but was unapproachable by many standards. I think being a 6’7” goliath with bold features and jet black hair has a way of intimidating people. He did try, though. I’ll give him that.
“Is there anything more I can get you, miss?”
She shook her head and gasped through tears. He touched her shoulder and walked back to the kitchen.
We both took a sip of coffee and I was transported to a time I thought I’d forgotten. The black brew tasted just like the kind my wife made. One day, in particular, in fact.
I was sitting at a small table in our kitchen, nursing a hangover, as she shuffled around getting ready for work. I thought I was going to be sick. A dirty mix of shame and regret poisoned my body and mind.
I didn’t remember what happened the night before. That’s what I told myself, anyway. All morning, I just sat, looking into the coffee she’d made. Remembering and then not remembering.
“Alright Hun. I’m off,” she warned, brushing a few blonde strands out of her eyes.
I forced a smile.
“Okay.” I paused. “Have a good day.” My words trailed off. They were tainted, forever. I would never speak again without knowing what I’d done. Never would I wake up without it hitting me. It would always be in the back of my mind: the memory. From that morning on, I was a monster.
She’d already left by then. I didn’t want her to know something was terribly wrong. I didn’t want her to know the man she’d married. I kept the secret for years, but it didn’t matter. She knew that one day I was me, then the next day I was not. Like all things, the truth came out. Shortly after, our marriage fell apart and I was left alone. It’s what I deserved.
“Ms. Simmons,” I spoke as my head swam, “do you know why someone would want to harm your sister?” She looked up from her coffee. She looked like my wife.
“We used to walk in the park on Sundays,” she responded, sliding her mug to the edge of the table. “After church,” a single tear left her eye and she continued, “after church we’d walk the park.”
I answered, “I did a bad thing.” A thick yellow paint drained from the wall behind her and oozed over floor tiles. Her eyes turned white.
“I know,” she responded, pushing the mug off the table and onto the floor. “I know she didn’t belong here.”
“It was an accident.” I looked at my hands. It was as though I saw the world through heat waves. The table, Ms. Simmons, and everything before me, bent to the whims of rippling air.
She grabbed my wrist.
“Can we bring them back?” Her voice seemed to drain into a vacuum, like someone was turning the volume down on reality.
“We can make it right.” By the time I’d finished my sentence, the world was devoid of sound. Only a high-pitched ring remained. Her eyes looked to be spinning inside her skull, finally landing with her iris’s staring upward, and to the right, in a physically impossible manner.
A darkness swept over my eyes. Two distinct voices spoke in the void. They were mine.
“Make it right.”
I floated through a timeless abyss, and then they returned.
“You can fix this.”
More drifting amidst a nothing so total I believed myself dead.
“We can change it.”
My vision returned as I made my way down a concrete staircase not unlike one might find leading into a wine cellar. It was long, dank, and dimly lit by exposed light bulbs hung in sporadic intervals.
I reached up and adjusted my hat, listening to the soft clack of my shoes echo into the dark. Down, down, down, I walked with a reserve I hadn’t earned. A small pipe above me hissed and dripped water from a leaky coupling.
Bloop. Bloop. Bloop.
I pulled a final haul off a cigarette I’d lit at some point in my travels, then dragged the ember against the wall. Some tiny sparks landed on my hand. Others flew into the air, burning bright and blinking out. In a few more steps, a light bulb softly burst and rained bits of glass over my shoulders.
Before long, the stairwell gently veered right and ended at a hardwood door one might find in a castle.
A heavy bolt was undone from the other side and the door swung open to a sea of half naked people dancing to hypnotic, bass-heavy, electronica. Lasers, strobe lights, and artificial fog adorned the writhing bodies as I weaved around them. The massive room was filled with young people, from their early teens to late twenties, with a sprinkling of older generations for novelty, I guessed.
Many women and men took my quiet moving through the crowd as challenge to seduce me. With their pupils dilated, and clothes nonexistent, they’d block my path, often until I moved them forcibly. My destination was the bar at the back of the room. My intent was to speak with the proprietor of the nightclub.
A girl, too young to be there, latched onto my arm and offered me an assortment of multi-colored pills stamped with various cartoon characters. I refused by way of pulling my arm free.
Once within ten yards of the bar, complete with neon lights and endless glow sticks, a man in a hooded black robe drifted by and whispered frightful words in my ear.
Finally, I reached the counter.
“I need to speak with Duscias,” I spoke over the music.
The young woman bartending, covered in glowing paint, laughed before her reply. “Don’t we all.” The songs tempo changed and she started dancing.
“Have you seen this girl?” I knew the answer.
She slowed her dance only slightly and squinted at the photo ID. “What are you doing here, Mike?”
“Don’t make this difficult, Mara.”
She stopped moving to the beat and angrily poured herself a drink. “I see you once every couple of months and it’s always because you’ve got a new picture for me. Some missing bimbo,” Mara paused to slam a shot and pour another, “some cranked out junk fiend,” she drank again, “some stupid kid-”
“Hey.” That was far enough.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. You’ve got some never ending vendetta and we’re all supposed to cater to it.” She started in with a mocking voice, “everyone feel bad for me. I’m Mike and I have problems. Join the club, asshole.”
I took my hat off, ran a hand through my hair, and placed it back on my head. “You’ve got me all figured out, do you?”
“You’re no mystery, Mike. You’re a shit person with a hero complex, but I can’t protect you anymore. No one can.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She nodded to something behind me.
I went for my gun and spun around to catch a fist in the face from a mountain with an arm attached. I dropped against the bar, slid to the floor, and watched my whole world fade to black.