The day’s work left me with a powerful desire for either a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed or a massive amount of coffee. The good lord granted me neither, but when my feet refused to set themselves one in front of the other anymore I opted to find a place to crash.
Put like that, it almost sounds as if I had a choice. Atop one of the tenement buildings I located a nest of threadbare cushions and damp blankets. It wasn’t comfortable by any measure, but the rooftop was empty, and the door was easy enough to wedge shut. I lay my coat over the cleanest portion of the nest, pulled my hat down over my eyes, and, for a while, contemplated my discomfort.
Misery existed on many levels. The lumpy cushions over the black asphalt roof discomfited me well enough, but the real trouble lay on a less physical level. I realized that I would do anything to help Floretta Smith. She’d been there my whole childhood—more so than even my parents. She knew me. Floretta had cleaned up after us—cared for us—and every complaint she had about us was true. Maybe I held a heaping, uncomfortable share of guilt over that fact. She’d been decent to us. Not good, maybe, but decent.
Yet, digging into the history of that crash terrified me. It always had. My parents died along with a hundred and twenty three passengers, the pilot, and a crew of twelve. So few of us survived that a more spiritual person might have called our rescue a miracle. That term never crossed my lips. Curse, maybe.
At the time, I had wanted to know the cause more than anything. I ignored my sister, even as she struggled with her recovery. I gambled. I fought. By then I was excommunicated for my sins, which should have led me to rely on the kindness of strangers and thus reintegrate with the community. It didn’t work that way for me. Whoever designed that system had never heard of a teenager.
I shifted on the cushions and the scent of dry mold lodged itself in my nostrils. It was the smell of a rot set in so deep that it touched everything. It was a rot that spread spores that itched on the skin. A rot that settled into the lungs.
This, I thought, was where I belonged. Right in the center of that rot. I couldn’t know the cause of that crash because I didn’t deserve to know it. At one point I swore I’d uncover everything—and then I didn’t. I let the world suck me down. I fled to the Heavies, bringing my sister the wrong direction to a place where her disability would be worse, not better.
But nobody ever ascends to the better beads on this giant rosary. Eyes don’t adjust to the light as painlessly as they settle into the dark. Down in dim, bleak Heavy Nicodemia, my sister and I found a place to belong. A thing close enough to purgatory that it matched the dreary tint of my soul.
Somehow, despite the rot and the rocks and the wailing of the residents in the tenements below, I drifted into a fitful sleep to dream of the dangers in the liminal spaces—the dangers I faced as a teen and the dangers I would face still. Always, the black gravity of the Heavies pulled me back. All I needed to do was let go.
I woke as the sky transitioned into the burning bright dawn. My bones ached and the cheery notes of a harmonica playing far below drove razor-sharp claws into the back of my skull. Three gray pigeons perched on the ledge nearby, watching my misery as I wrenched myself up from my uncomfortable impromptu bed.
“I’ve been worse,” I said, surprised at the phlegmmy gravel of my voice. I coughed and spat. Ran some fingers through my hair. The pigeons watched as if they were expecting the display. “I’ve been better, too.”
The pigeons didn’t look convinced.
They say a good night’s sleep is the best way to let ideas cook on the back burner of a the mind. My terrible night’s sleep had cooked my ideas, boiled them down to nothing, then burned them to a crisp. I figured they’d be fine once they were rehydrated with coffee, so I headed down to the closest cafe.
A bleak coffee shop nestled into the corner of one of the tenements looked like the kind of place that had a regular clientelle and an attitude toward anyone else. It had a faded sign out front that labeled it as Luke’s, and the three tables set up on the sidewalk crammed three lonesome coffee drinkers into a space almost big enough for one. Inside, the decor was about as pretentious as my sister’s diner, but without any of the friendliness. The lady behind the counter had wrinkles accentuating a frown that looked like they’d put up a good fight if she ever decided to smile. She didn’t give them much of a workout when she finally looked up to greet me.
“Coffee,” I said, sliding a dime across the counter. “Black.”
She looked at the dime, raising one eyebrow. Without a word, she swayed over to her coffee pot and poured.
“Say,” I said, trying to sound casual, “Any idea what weather’s scheduled for the next few days?”
The woman finished pouring coffee. When she set the cup in front of me, a little sloshed out onto the counter. “What’s a holy man like you doing slumming around down here?”
“Lady, I’m not holy.”
“You from Hallows?” She must have picked it up from my size. I’d lost my accent ages ago. “You’re probably lost, mister. You’re going to want to call a lift and go counter a spell.”
Counterclockwise would take me upward, presumably to where I’d get out of her bead and take an elevator back to Hallows. I was headed that way, but I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of hearing it. “You know of a lady named Smith? Floretta Smith?”
Her frown creases deepened. “Who’s asking?”
“A concerned citizen,” I said.
“I’m starting to get concerned. What if Floretta doesn’t want you finding her?”
“She’s already been found. What I’m doing is asking about her. She a decent person far as you know?”
She almost assaulted her face with a smile. “What kind of barista badmouths her customers?”
“So, she’s a customer.” I glanced down at the coffee. An oily film formed a sheen across the top. “Is she a black coffee kind of gal or is she more into the fancy stuff.”
The barista glanced at the shelves, which held a few flavored oils that looked like they might be decorative. “Honey, does this look like the kind of place that sells the fancy stuff?”
I shrugged. “Down below all we have is burnt sludge and a kick in the face.”
“Down below, huh?” she crossed her arms and gave me a hard look over. “You think I’m going to believe a tall fella like you comes from the Heavies?”
“I’ve had a long walk to get this far, lady. Sometimes that takes me where I need to go, and sometime that takes me where I should never be. But it’s the only road I know how to walk.”
She leaned forward, palms of her hands flat on the counter. “Floretta’s a decent lady,” she said. “She doesn’t order fancy, tips well enough, and she isn’t too nosy about other people’s business. She likes it bitter and strong.”
“So that’s why she’s taken such a shine to me.”
“Must be a lapse in judgment.”
It was about as I’d figured. If Smith had been a terrible gossip or a thorn in someone’s side, the barista wouldn’t have told me, but she would have hinted at it the way people speak with subtext that they think only they can hear. That didn’t help my situation, of course. Learning that Smith wasn’t a monster only made it harder to change my mind about helping her.
“One more thing,” I said, sliding another dime across the counter.
“What is it?”
I tapped the fiberstone mug. “I need this in a to go cup.”
The barista took a lightweight disposable cup from the rack, dumped my black coffee into it, and slid it across the counter at me. More droplets of precious coffee sloshed onto the table. What a waste. I put a cover on and left, tipping my hat to the barista on my way out the door. She responded with a stony frown that might have been chiseled onto a stray meteor for all its warmth.
The coffee was life-changingly good, even though it wasn’t the best coffee I’d ever had. It was a light roast, with notes of berries and vanilla. She’d scorched it with too-hot water and by the time I took a sip it was below that threshold where even good coffee starts to taste like bad feet. Not a great brew by any means, but after the garbage water they called coffee in the Heavies I was almost ready to offer a hand in marriage.
Like I said: life-changing.
Support "The Man Who Walked in the Dark"
Bio: Anthony W. Eichenlaub's short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Little Blue Marble, On Spec Magazine, and the anthology A Punk Rock Future. His novels range from pulse-pounding technothrillers to the adventures of irresponsible scientists on a colony planet. In his spare time he enjoys woodworking, video games, and working in his garden. Support him at: https://www.patreon.com/AWEichenlaub