No…it didn’t start here. Not with the pissed man clutching a crushed beer can in fear on his knees. Not with the other over the wall…somewhere…spilt.
After all, it’s only been how many hours? since I stopped staring at the blank wall of the TV. Only so many hours since I’d finally started listening to that other voice, like I should have been all along. I’d just walked out of the house and into the concrete cold, aiming for the usual trip to the WORLD’s BIGGEST MALL, or so it was once. That should have been the nothing of it.
And then the surprises came.
Nothing much else comes out of him, the beer-piss puddle beneath the man growing as grows the effects of the adrenaline I know I can’t let go of now, no, not now. Not ever. There wasn’t a “going back”. I’d already let go.
No, it didn’t start here.
There is no variance to the beige walls surrounding me, the squared-smoke shadows of long-gone family portraits barely a difference in the nothing palette of them—on all four sides. My once-grey couch sags with me in it, my skin crawling, my whole Self wanting to move and do something and the rest of me dead-otherwise, nothing, not even knowing what. I pass the time mentally removing each section of weighty wooden furniture from the room, piece-by-piece; an old habit.
We all live in boxes. Boxes and nothing else.
I skip my gaze over to the remote drowning between cushions beside me, knowing that if I press the worn-out ON/ OFF again that the television’s white noise will build until I can’t take it, that the tiredness of it will creep under my bones—so distracting that I would have to turn it off…turn it off to relative silence. Almost worse.
My cell clicks its ringtone not far from the remote. A number I don’t recognize pops up and I get just as lost in that, it’s uneven racket boring through that unwelcome nothing until it stops, the background blanking out to a dark off-screen.
Get out of here, wrings that other voice in my head.
Perhaps I’d been waiting to hear it again, goading, as this time my body churns into action as it hadn’t those others, in all these weeks past. Grabbing a jacket against the wind and walking out the door, I barely glance in the hallway mirror—all too aware of our shared distaste for the growing bags under my paling eyes, the reddish whiskers I can never seem to tame—and settle into the stupor of the well-known walk.
There is no memory between the grey roads of my street and the sudden fluorescence of West Edmonton Mall. Blinking, it is only the rise of an escalator that wakes me from that other place, where I’ve been going so often lately.
Only a few patrons collect in the wide, grey halls before me. My hands wade through my pockets, shuffling the lint. From my left a few straggling popcorn holders rub their eyes in the too-bright fluorescents, grabbing for their cellphones. I wonder at the time, realizing I haven’t brought my own phone, the sagging couch at home probably eating that, too.
No distractions tonight, then. Just you and the crowd. Walking in the Great Big Box.
A store owner across the way closes their gate and turns off the inside light, drawing my eye away for a moment until, again watching the phone-deep movie patrons, I see it. On the floor, just behind the booted heel of a 20-something lost to some media stream:
As if by instinct I begin towards it, ready to call out for its return when I shift, almost stumbling, stamping my foot on the bill instead.
Why shouldn’t you?
I bend down to “tie” my shoe, crinkling the red plastic face into my palm, carefully watching the receding crowd. Their crone-voices have begun to echo dully along the grey and glass walls, but none are raised. None have seen. As I stand, the blood rushes to my head for a moment, and with it another rush—of difference. Of…Something.
Suddenly I find myself wanting to head down to the nearest food court, an itch to burn the cash and get rid of the evidence strong. And then, that voice again:
I’m stuck, planted, my hands tingling still from the fast-surge of endorphins, my vision outwardly blank of the mechanism turning within, the one fixating itself harder and harder on that single, whispered thing—the Difference. The Something.
My body comes back to me, thrilling, blind, sending foot after foot until before I know it I’ve lapped the whole of the Mall’s second floor and some. By then I feel my stomach legitimately grumble and turn around, wondering again at the time, searching for the familiar waft of sweat and BBQ from Bourbon Street. Down the next escalator, the hall almost empty and its bar-restaurants full, I choose a place I’ve never been and follow the tired host to a small table near the front. Already, infectious, I hear it again before I’ve even ordered:
The rush returns, the red in my face only cooled by the icy glass of water brought out by a bored server. It is then that I know I’ll do it. Just walk out once I’ve finished the soon ordered meal of brisket and spaghetti and go back home, fifty bucks richer.
Even before the food’s arrived I’m dizzy with it, the newness, the Something, the big TVs in the background barely bothering as I whisk down my meal, relishing it little, only to walk out just as fast—out into the hall and through the plated glass doors of W.E.M. The night-cold wind tames the sweat from my forehead quickly, my hands stuck deep in my coat pockets for warmth. My whole body unfamiliar, with goosebumps creeping up the nape of my neck, I step off the property and away from home, not letting the empty prospect of returning drag on me. Even the traffic outside seems louder than before, more dangerous. And in the dark, my heart pounding, my jacket dark, I choose to walk when the light doesn’t favour me, the buzz of it all growing thanks to the something honking of a horn-blower I would never see, my middle finger flashing blindly behind.
Walking fast, afraid to let it all go, I turn back for a repeat cross—this time with the light—and keep to the mall’s perimeter, listening for signs that anyone was the wiser; listening for any disruption I might have caused to the building’s inner balance.
Were you even in there at all?
The thought depresses me—shoves a blunt instrument into my already dwindling adrenaline that leaves me feeling rubbery, almost nauseous with a forming cramp in my side from the food. I sit down on a nearby bus-stop bench and throw my head in my hands, trying to breathe heavily into the pain, the grey concrete below like a wall closing in. Desperate for distraction, I latch onto the growing and then fading voices of two older men stumbling off a bus I hadn’t even heard pull up. Both are unseeing of me, busy blathering drunkenly about how much they’d brought for the casino.
The thought of it rings through me like some kind of sound beacon, and all at once I realize that I have to go back inside. That there is no other answer.
I barely choose to follow them then, ignoring the bus driver holding the door open thinking I’ll come aboard. My feet are already falling into quiet steps not far behind, just out of reach, as the bus pulls loudly away, and from their distant rambling—one of them carrying a side-bag of what I suppose must be beer, the other sniffing too obviously for a cold – I get their names: Dale and Mac. Or Mike. Whichever. Either way I don’t have to hide my following much, both of them too involved in their own selves for anything else. before long we’re back into the parkade where they start talking again, their voices covering my steps as I follow them up a set of piss-and-pot-smelling concrete stairs to the lot surrounding the Starlight Casino.
This time of night, not many are milling about outside, just some chain-smokers lamenting about the night’s losses. Gripping the fifty tightly in my pocket I follow the two men further inside, first into the mall, casually eyeing the guards at the gate, and then into the casino, already lost in the spray of bad carpet and boozy breath. The one named Dale leaves, mentioning the restroom, waving at Mac/Mike to catch seats at their favorite machines. I follow to where this one sits down, myself settling at an empty machine not too far behind…waiting. Waiting for something.
All the sudden I’m not sure why I’ve come. I look around once more for signs of recognition—of someone saying: that’s him! Get him! But none of it comes. Just me, staring blankly around, emptying of the rush and feeling exhaustion creep. Focusing on own my slot machine, I notice a three-row of left-behind cherries signalling someone else’s luck, listening as Mac/ Mike’s machine swallows 40 odd bucks before Dale’s even returned. Part of me wonders if I should throw in the fifty after all.
Thankfully, at that moment Dale finally appears close-by still lifting his zipper, his motion reflected against the polished gold pull-stick to my right. Already up and pulling his own slot lever, he starts yammering on as if he’d never left, stumbling head-first into a story of cash-finding, losing his train of thought almost as fast. The wine taking its effect, I lean back in my seat and let their flow wash over me a bit, the lights of the casino low, tinny music obsolete in the din.
“Yeah, Mac, it’s been that way since back when we used to bring stuff all around 96A. The garage of the white house on the block where Randy used to go to…you know? Yeah. With that babe Rita. She’s the one got me into this CashMoney and loans shit. Actually, I remember going down there late one night with Colin—you meet him?. Anyway, it was fucking dark. Just this one streetlamp so we didn’t really see them right away. Lucky Colin’s got that power-vision even on just half a bar and stopped us both, his eyes bugged and staring all night-terrored at these shapes in the driveway to the garage.
So we turned the fork, right? To kind of get out of the way, but Colin stops me to sit watching. Next thing we know all these rows of cops just ‘peer outta nowhere carrying these lumps—lumps—of bags as big as dogs. Opened ‘em up and had guns the size of one, too. Next second the garage door is up and they’re shooting more than a lungful of smoke inside if you know what I mean, and there was some banging flashing of those guns yo—and what the fuck does Colin do?
Pumps his little shit-legs over the back of them all and just starts grabbing at the first thing he sees, silent like some fucking menace man! I’d never seen him with the guts so he musta been really tripping, lucky bastard that those cops were too busy hunting to tag him too! Yeah but we were both up and running after that with the bag, all the way back to Sid’s, barely catching our breath, skirting a few patrol cars too, right?
Nah. When we got home there was nothing much but parts left in the bag. But damn that gun was huge! I’m like what were they using that for on poor old Rita and her ‘lord? No, no man it was way bigger than you got, that’s for sure. Anyway. That’s what I mean from earlier! You jus’ wouldn’t be able to carry a gun like the one I’m talking about. You wouldn’t be able to just waltz in hiding it. Huh? Tell me. Who the fuck woulda done that?”
At the pause an uncanny part of me takes over and I’m already talking before my mouth can stop, not even looking at them yet except through the fake gold head of the untouched slot-machine in front of me.
I say it again, this time to their faces, turning myself slowly on the poor pink bar-chair for effect, eating at the something that my words had created in the air between.
Just play with them a bit. There’s no harm.
“My name was all in the papers…Albèrto,” the name suddenly coming to me, “…you never heard of me? See, the trick is, you don’t try and hide a gun that big. You just…walk in with it loud and proud like your friends. Use the fear of it against them.” For the next part I even start changing my accent a bit, mimicking Dale:
“Fact is, there’s a few tough-guys over in…in northern Manitoba who will tell you about what we did. Kind of a…casino-type job, like this one, but called the Northern Eagle…”
From there I keep going, the story rolling out of me like I’d been building that second self all along, egged on and on by the something greedy lights growing in their eyes, both of them eating the falseness of my so-called exploits like ham, the row of cherries behind me adding to the effect that I’m a winner. Rich. Lucky. Before long I actually do spend the fifty bucks on buying us drinks—their suggestion, not mine—all the time with one or the other pulling their own proverbial triggers, the machines behind them gulping down their funds like water, their mouths guzzling proffered booze much the same.
“Yeah? Big timer hey?” interrupts Mac finally, his face wrinkling into a sneer showing few teeth on the top row, his words struggling into coherence through a buzz much worse than Dale’s seemed. “Well wouldn’t’ya know I got myself packing hmmm?”
I let my face react cooly, glancing only for a moment at the door’s guards, my mind focusing forward instead of inside, trying to concentrate through the drinks I’d finished and saying ‘I don’t believe you’, saying it knowing he had one for sure and suddenly wanting to see it bad.
“Huh? You don’t think so…Al?”
Mac sways from his chair like in an old western and lifts his over-long jeans just enough to show me the tip of the type of gun I’d seen cops use in movies—black handle, clip-loaded-looking, criss-cross pattern on the handle. Basic model. Maybe. Not having to feign my surprise, I sit back against the machine arms crossed, the voice…Albèrto’s voice…his ideas already building up at the back of my skull as they had back in the restaurant: that I wanted to shoot that gun.
And then the whole story comes together, perfect, like I’d asked aloud:
“Wanna show us what-yur made of? I’d fucking like to see you shoot…man.”
For a moment, Mac’s slurred ask sits in the air between us, the tension of the ‘maybe not’ I would have said on any other day drying the saliva in my mouth. And then: the trick of the light off a passerby’s tan jacket mimics the nothing beige of the walls waiting for me at home and I force it out calm, more assuredly than my legs feel:
“Coooool. Me’n’Dale’s got a place of sorts. Dale here used to work for the mall you know? Liquor store, of all places.”
With that he drags Dale’s arm, who’d already gotten lost again in the machine before him, and leads him in a not-so-straight line to and through the front entrance, saluting the security guard on his way out. On standing to follow, I almost trip on a hidden-carpeted step, the second and third drinks mixing badly with the first. The same security guard looks at me sideways and I walk fast by him, following them outside, thankful for the cool air blowing against the growing pain in my skull.
Together, we walking toward the theatre not really speaking much–Mac checking a few car handles along the way to no success. The glowing Wild West Shooting Range signage reflects against the black road-top as we round a small corner near a set of gated stairs, stopping for a second to accept an already-going, almost whole cigarette that Dale had plucked from the ground. Passing it forward, the warmth of coughing clearing the booze some, my sight suddenly sharpens from the nicotine and for only a second, I get the feeling that even if I had wanted to go back—to just ditch them right there—that there was no getting out of this now. That my body wouldn’t listen to me if I asked it; that I was just watching myself go through the motions, almost, following his lead.
Together, the three of us walk through a hidden access-granted side door that Dale has a working security card to. We traipse up two more sets of stairs before lifting a hatch onto the roof, Mac leaving one of his shoes behind and stumbling to prop open the lid.
The rush of seeing out over the city all the way to the black outskirts evaporates the rest of my worries and I begin to really accept it all: Him. Me. The person I could be.
I waltz over to where Dale and Mac stand, confident, out-of-body.
“Give me the gun.” The words seem to echo within and outside of my head.
“Heyyyy, you sound weird hey? And now that we got you up here idiot, I should ask how come you’re not carrying huh? B…fucking b-big man like you? Why should I trust you? Huh?”
…I just stand there, hands in my pockets, looking at Mac hard. Finally, he busts out laughing and bends over to grab the gun from his boot, handing it my way.
“Damnnnn-this guy probably did pull some automatics on that Cass-ass-ino!”
They both begin laughing, and don’t stop when I take the gun. Heavy, weighted. Different. Something.
Mac can barely stand straight in the half-dark as he points out a bent-rough target sitting against the side of a roof-top wall. In two steps I’m in front of it, both my hands on the butt of the gun, As Seen On TV. Shoulder’s steady, I breathe big, deep, squeezing the trigger when I let it all out and—
and miss the target entirely, my hands ricocheting back almost hitting me in the face with the gun from the burst of it. A cloud of bad rock and slate chokes the air, still ringing with the shot’s sound, causing me to sneeze, leaving me for a moment with nothing but the sounds of blood rushing in my ears and the pain of breathing in the settling smoke. Turning, Dale and Mac are bent double, both laughing and clapping each other on the back with the night’s last beers in their hands from the bag, their mockery evident even as the ringing in my head grows louder. I watch, roiling, their two faces stretched grotesquely over their skulls, exposed teeth dragging over chapped dry lips at each hooting gasp for air.
And then out of nowhere: the Anger. Like an extra gear shifting, clicking into the last slot, the whole of me corrodes, white, blinding, alive. Albèrto, the voice become real once again:
“What’s so funny?!”
Unable to speak again, I shift my weight, my arm still sore from the recoil but unable to stop the lift of the gun through the air: to point, to take aim.
“Yo, Al!” bursts Dale, still laughing, “don’t be waggin’ that around you might end up…you might end up…” He starts hitting Mac with his arm, an odd number of fast-paced “heys” falling terribly from his mouth, each more choked than the next, his eyes wide and staring at the arm raising the gun as he realizes. Mac just turns, wiping the tears streaming from his eyes and squints at me, blurry, putting the idea in my head with a rambling:
“Yer turn, fuck! Sim-ohn says! Truth or Dare!”
“Alright then,” I say to Mac, himself teetering trying to stand, grabbing out onto the nothing air around him for balance. My own blood boils underneath the thin surface of my skin when I say, cold without shivering:
“Jump that wall.”
Mac looks down, nowhere near the edge and not even realizing, squinting through his own drunk and the glare of the eye-level street-lamps sending shadows long across the roof. Dale tries grabbing at Mac’s collar, stumbling on a few words about leaving—but I can’t move either, my feet planted, my elbows locked, the heat of the booze and madness coming off me and making waves in the cold air all around, the rising stink of some lone smoker’s cigarette streaming up from the parking lot below.
“Do it,” I whisper, the voice a hiss and unrecognizable. Mac wags his finger at the ground and pulls off his now-empty beer-bag, settling his full pabst beside it. Dale moves to grab hold of him again, but it’s him the gun’s locked on now, causing his motion to stutter, causing him to trip and fall again to his knees.
“Yer DRUNK Dale hahaha, I’ll fucking…” He says it self-important, walking over to the actual edge, bragging, his confidence adding to the unreality of it all.
“Land-on my fecking feet too watch me…HEY! Lookout BELOW!”
From down there, where we can’t see, a shout and then, too fast, Mac’s up and over, laughing for split-seconds on the way down, a guttural CRACK stopping that clean and a single surprised scream starting up after. Immediately Dale tries again to get away, panic in his eyes sloughing the drunk, the shake in him deadly, the beer can clutched in his hand dripping on the pavement. But his legs fail him and he falls again, jeans torn and wet with piss.
“What? Not laughing now?”
Nothing much else comes out of him, the beer-piss puddle beneath the man growing as grows the effects of the adrenaline I know I can’t let go of now, no, not now. Not ever. And besides: it’s not even me!
It’s not even me.
Knowing there’s nothing else for it, the gears still shifting and driving my body forward, I bring the gun to Dale’s wet and sweating head, the smell of him rank from up close. I can already see us getting away, none the wiser. The beige walls would then be welcome then—this something enough to occupy for weeks.
Pull it. Pull it and go.
So, I do.
Nothing. No burst. Empty clip. Dead gun.
Like a snap, Albèrto goes away and I’m just Robert again—just nothing Robert. From the ground, Mac begins sobbing, sobbing like laughter, sobbing like relief, already scrambling on his knees away and leaving me pointing at…nothing.
After that I barely hear his cries as he makes it to the side and sees what’s left below. I barely hear the curt shout from behind,
SECURITY! PUT THE GUN DOWN OR I’LL SHOOT!
either—that or the rough feel of a push taking me down to the ground, my mind receding further into the nothingness as the weight of two guards push the air from my lungs with their heavy knees, cuffing my now-empty hands behind my back.
Then, pain and blankness.
“Keep him there for now. Just watch him. He’s transferring at 17:00 tonight.”
Their voices come to me from down the hall, to where I sit still blurry in an empty grey cell, surrounded on three sides by cement-block walls fissured with cracks and creases, my skin starting to itch as the boredom starts again.
Header Image Copyright Jessica Barratt
This story was written in dedication to Robert Petersen-Bach who was the lucky winner of WordsofHer’s annual “Face Your Fears” Short Story Draw. Want to see the story published for last year’s winner? Check out the story HERE. Look forward to your fears next year!