Abyss & Apex : Second Quarter 2011: Concrete by Nathaniel Lee

Concrete

Nathaniel Lee

“What’s the status on the Exark project?”  Corman’s face loomed over the wall of Trent’s cubicle like the moon breaking through a cloud-bank.

“We’re a day ahead of schedule,” Trent answered.  He rubbed at his short-cropped hair and avoided Corman’s eyes. “Just entered Phase Three, actually.”

“You haven’t been filing your update sheets.”  Corman pursed his lips in a schoolmarm gesture, grotesque on his fat, bald baby-head.

“I’ll get those in today. Or tomorrow,” Trent amended hastily. “It’s already after three.”

“They were supposed to be done last week,” Corman chided. “You can’t neglect the little things. ‘For want of a nail,’ Trent.”

For want of a jackass, Trent thought, fighting to keep the sneer from his face. “I’ll get the paperwork done tonight, Jeremy. Work right through, get it done, get it filed. Promise.”

“Mm.”  Corman didn’t move, his eyes hooded.

Trent thought. What else do I have to do? It’s like placating a tribal god. Maybe if I sacrifice a virgin? Not that one would touch his flabby ass. He forced a smile. “Actually, I just remembered that I’m free this evening.  I’ll clock out and stay late to finish.”

“That’s the spirit,” Corman said with a smile. “Remember, there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’.”

There’s an ‘I’ in ‘insane,’ though, thought Trent. God knows I’ve got a reason to be. My boss talks like a fortune cookie with an MBA. He forced a smile and a wave as Corman departed.

Trent sighed. Another late night of unpaid overtime, filling out forms in triplicate to update managers who didn’t care about a project that was doomed to failure. He would have minded more if he wasn’t already nervous about going home.

Trent was being haunted. Truly, literally haunted.  It would be there on the walk home, between him and his apartment.

 

 

“Staying late again?” Jay raised bushy eyebrows. He was slouched in the entrance of Trent’s cubicle, tie rumpled and shirt half-untucked.

“Gotta finish the status updates for the Exark project,” said Trent. He almost kept his voice chipper.

“Well, they do have to be done,” said Jay. “You know what Corman says. ‘For want of a nail’ and all that.”

Trent massaged the bridge of his nose. “Jay, if there’s one thing I don’t need, it’s more Corman quotes. He’s bad enough alone. Please do not give him stereo surround-sound.”

Jay held up his hands. “Hey, okay, no problemo.” He smiled, his thin beard bristling. “He’s really not a bad guy, you know. He’s had a rough time since Cathy left.”

“He’s a sociopathic control freak,” snapped Trent. “Cathy left for a good reason.”

“It was still difficult for-”

“He had her car bugged, Jay. Installed a GPS without telling her. That’s not a sign of a healthy relationship. You don’t need to be Dr. Phil to psychoanalyze this case.”

“I know, I know. It’s just you’re always so hard on the guy.”

“I know I am. What I want to know is why you stand up for that sack of shit.”

Jay shrugged, his favorite gesture. He never fought with anyone, always tried to see things their way. It made him easy to get along with, but it could be annoying when Trent wanted to vent a little frustration. “Anyway,” Jay said, changing the subject to avoid confrontation, “I was going to ask if you wanted to hit Coolers after work, but if you’re busy…”

Trent shook his head. “I’ve got to get these finished. They’re already late and Corman’s starting to stare hungrily at my kidneys.”

Jay nodded his acceptance and meandered away. Trent wondered how a guy like Jay survived in a cutthroat office environment. Probably by being so inoffensive that no one cares enough to try and take him out, he thought. The politics were the worst part of the job, really. The only reason Trent was stuck with a turd like Exark was because he’d mouthed off to Caroline the last time he’d ventured into the catacombs of the management offices. Corman took his secretary’s mental health very seriously. Trent didn’t really blame Caroline for complaining; if he’d worked here as many years as she had, he’d take his vicious little pleasures where he could, too. He could already feel himself settling into the routine, less than three years into it. Store up the petty grievances and return them sevenfold. There were a million ways to make your coworkers miserable. And I’ve been on the wrong end of half of them, Trent reflected.

He returned to his work, chair creaking, and tried not to think about the walk home in the dark.

The city never slept, not completely, but it was at least drowsing in front of the television with a beer by the time Trent finally got out of the office. The work was finished. Mostly. Every blank was filled in, every number calculated, or at least given a plausible guess, and every sheaf properly collated, dated, signed, and dumped in Corman’s inbox. Tomorrow, Corman would doubtless run his clawed hands over them, cackle maniacally, and ignite them with a burst of sulfurous flames, never to be seen again by a living soul. Trent walked out of the building like a man finishing a ten year prison sentence. He caught one of the last trains and avoided eye contact with the reeking wino in the car with him.

Outside Trent’s subway stop, the air was thick and soupy, swollen with the threat of rain. The heat of the day still radiated from the concrete and asphalt; the echoes of millions of footfalls swirled around the street like soap scum trapped by a clogged drain. The clouds overhead obscured the moon as well as what few stars could be seen through the city lights. The weathermen all said the rain would cool it down some, which would have been nice if the rain ever got around to falling. So far, it had been content to sit up in its rumbling cloud-home and glower downward, providing the simmering pressure needed to bring the muggy streets to a boil.

Trent slumped through the dissipating crowds, keeping his movements confident to deter predators. It was all he could do to keep his feet moving. Exhaustion clung to his bones like a leaden spiderweb. He let it slow his steps as he passed out of the active areas and into the quieter residential blocks. If he tried, he could pretend to himself that it was only his weariness that dragged at his heels. He rounded the last corner reluctantly.

There it was.

It was a spot on the sidewalk, undistinguished in every way, pale beneath the streetlight overhead. Scuff marks, dirt, and ancient, blackened gum adorned it. Periodically leaves and cigarette butts brushed across it on their way to somewhere else. It was neither newer nor older than the rest of the sidewalk. A small crack zig-zagged across it, splitting into finer and finer lines until it disappeared completely.

Trent slowed to a halt, the shiny black toes of his shoes just on the edge of the nondescript concrete square. He took a deep breath, and then another.

I could go out onto the street. Go around it, he thought, but he knew he wouldn’t. He didn’t really want to. That was what made it so frightening.

Cringing, he lifted his left foot and stepped forward. Instantly, he was engulfed in sensation. The pleasure wasn’t physical, not the urgent need of sexual desire nor the dozy repleteness of a fabulous meal. It wasn’t the delirium of a drug high, though that was closer. It was just . . . happiness. Vibrant, shimmering contentment that filled him like a bowl of crystal-clear water, thrumming in tune with the heartbeat of the universe. Trent felt the connections between himself and all the living creatures around him, tenuous silver threads that sparked with unseen energy. He could feel the city, all around him, and through him, and in him. He breathed in the tainted air and tasted joy. He was at peace.

Trent shoved his right foot forward, straining like a swimmer reaching for solid ground. His shoe touched down on the far side and, with a gasp of pain and loss, he emerged. He staggered a bit and turned to regard the haunted sidewalk. There was nothing, no sign of anything out of the ordinary. A dingy gray square, like the hundreds he walked across every day.

Shuddering, Trent clutched his briefcase and hurried into his apartment building.

He’d watched the spot from his window, ever since the first occurrence two weeks ago. He’d seen several hundred people walk across it. People of every description: children, elderly couples, mailmen, trim young professionals, rowdy toughs, even a homeless man who’d shuffled past it with his shopping cart of miscellany. None of them had reacted, at least not the way Trent imagined he did, freezing in place for long seconds with his expression twisted in helpless ecstasy. One pair of children had paused, riveting Trent’s attention, but then one had run off with something snatched from the other’s hand, hotly pursued. Just kids’ shenanigans. No one else seemed to notice anything strange about the sidewalk.

He wondered if he was going insane.

Watching it now, through the Venetian blinds, he couldn’t help feeling more than a little foolish. What could he do, go to therapy? “Yes, doctor, I’m addicted to stepping on a sidewalk. No, not all of them, just one section in particular.” He turned away from the window in disgust. The tiny apartment–all he could afford on his salary–was dark and stifling. Air conditioning cost money, of course; the lack of light was less a cost-cutting concern and more a worrying manifestation of his paranoia. It was harder to see in if the lights were off. Trent tried not to think about what it meant that he was afraid of being watched by a square chunk of concrete. He trudged across the living room and into the bedroom, stripping off his clothes and preparing to spend another sleepless night sweating on top of the covers.

Trent dreamed. He was standing outside, feeling the throbbing, rain-engorged sky bearing down on him. It was night, and he was still wearing only his boxers, but he was oddly unconcerned about that. It was that kind of dream. He was on the sidewalk, walking, drawing nearer and nearer to the particular square that bewitched him. He tried to stop himself, tried to turn and walk another way.  His legs moved as slowly as if he waded through a molasses swamp, but he still hurtled forward at the same rapid rate. Too soon, he found himself approaching the dreaded spot. He could feel the cold, gritty surface under his bare feet. He tried to dig in his heels, but only scraped and scuffed his skin. He wasn’t walking any longer, but being dragged along. He threw himself to the ground, clawed for purchase, but was tugged as though by invisible ropes to the concrete square. At the last second, he managed to hook his fingers and toes into the cracks in the sidewalk and held on for dear life. He lifted his head and glanced over his shoulder at the bizarrely mundane square. The force drawing him on increased. He cried out as his fingers slipped, his nail tearing painfully, and his foot skidded out onto the surface. It fell right through, slipping down into the stone as though into sludgy oatmeal, unpleasantly chilly and clinging, a sharp and unwelcome contrast to the oppressive heat.

Struggling was no use. Trent was pulled in. The cold stone closed over his head.

Abruptly, he was back in his bedroom, still covered in goosebumps from the icy touch of the stone. He struggled with the bedsheets tangled around his feet. Was he awake? Was he still dreaming? He couldn’t tell.  Cold light spilled in from the streetlights below, tossing crooked shadows on the ceiling.

He sat upright and nearly cried out in panic. There was something in the room with him, standing at the foot of his bed. His panic subsided briefly as he realized it was not moving. A statue? It was child-sized, with a spherical head and rough-hewn features, its mouth a mere slit, eyes dark holes. It had no legs, melding with the dark floor in a sort of pedestal, but it had arms. It held both of them out in the shadows, fingerless hands palm up, like a beggar asking for change, or a bellhop waiting for a tip.

Trent’s unease spiked as he noticed something oddly familiar about the statue. The cracks that ran down the minimalist features; a dark spot that proved to be a patch of elderly chewing gum; the pallid, gritty texture of it, all illuminated by green indicator lights from his bedroom electronics.

It was the sidewalk. It was staring at him.

He didn’t know whether to laugh or scream. The whole thing was ridiculous, but here he was, in his own room, being taunted and tormented by some crude concrete puppet. He eased himself out of bed. The thin carpet was slick with humidity. The dark sockets of the statue’s eyes seemed to follow him as he edged around the walls, making for the door. He glanced away to look for the light switch. When he glanced back, the statue had gone. He turned to the door again.

“Shit!” He stumbled back, tripping over the fallen sheets and falling onto the bed. The statue was in front of the door, hands held out imploringly.

“What do you want?” he said out loud. He felt briefly foolish, but shoved the worry aside. This had to be a dream. It was far too weird to be real.

The statue made no motion. It was just a hunk of rock; it wasn’t alive.  Why would it respond? But it had moved, hadn’t it? When he’d looked away . . . .

Trent reached for his pillow and grunted as pain shot up his arm. He pulled his hand back, holding it up in the dim light from the window. Black blood covered the tip of his finger. Blood from the nail he’d torn as the concrete had swallowed him down. Shocked completely awake, he spun back to the door.

The statue was gone. Disappeared while his attention was diverted. It hadn’t reappeared. It could be anywhere.

Whimpering, Trent clutched his injured hand and stared around the room with wide eyes. He propped himself up with the pillow, hardly daring to blink. At some point, he slipped unknowing into a dreamless, exhausted sleep.

 

 

“Are you . . . all right?” asked Jay, setting his bag of fast food down on the table beside Trent. The company cafeteria was rarely crowded, but just as rarely empty.

Trent fiddled with his plastic silverware. “I’m fine,” he grunted.

“Got fast food today?” Jay said. “You don’t usually eat that stuff.”

“I’m so tired when I get home that there’s no time to cook,” said Trent

“I remember when you brought in that fish thing. That was pretty good. What was it called?”

“The Russian Coulibiac.” Trent’s smiled wistfully. “It took me two days to make that. A whole weekend. And I nearly ruined my Dutch oven.”

Jay shook his head and laughed. “No way would I spend a whole weekend cooking. You’re a nut.”

“I wish I could spend every weekend cooking,” said Trent. He poked halfheartedly at his Beef’n’Bean Chalupa. “I think this is actual dog food.”

“Make a run for the bathroom,” Jay laughed. He bit into his own paper-wrapped, mass-produced food product with gusto, sending sugary ketchup dribbling onto the wrapper.

Trent tried to return Jay’s cheerfulness, but something across the room caught his eye. He felt his stomach drop, what little appetite he’d been able to muster disappearing in an instant.

The concrete statue was in the lunchroom. It had grown legs, as stumpy and malformed as the rest of it. It moved with the slow deliberation of a tortoise, lifting one ponderous limb at a time. Its arms were still held stiffly in front of it, hands outstretched to receive some unguessable gift or offering. The shadowed eyes still focused right on Trent. He could swear the thing’s fixed smile grew wider when he met its gaze.

“What’s wrong?” asked Jay, still chewing.

“I, uh- You were right. I think I need to take a quick restroom break,” said Trent. He shoved away from the table almost violently.

“You haven’t even eaten any of it yet,” Jay said, his brows knitting together.

Trent stalked stiff-legged out of the lunchroom.

Trent kept himself under control as he left, but once in the hallway he broke into a run, ignoring the startled glances from a few latecomers. He slammed through the bathroom door and leaned against it, breathing heavily. Derek from Accounting leaned back from a urinal and regarded Trent with raised brows. Trent cleared his throat and tried to look nonchalant, but he couldn’t resist cracking the door and peering back the way he’d come. The statue had turned in the cafeteria doorway and was making its way down the hall, toward the bathroom. It had moved about a foot and a half.

I can outrun it! Trent thought. Then he recalled where he was. Was he supposed to take a break every half hour to run around the building and lead the thing on a wild goose chase? What would he say to Corman? “I have to go confuse the statue?” Why was it here? What did it want from him?

He watched it proceed at its glacial pace for a while longer, until Derek coughed uncomfortably behind him.

“Oh!” said Trent. “Sorry.” He stood aside to let the man pass. “Hey,” he said as Derek left the bathroom.

Hesitantly, Derek turned toward him, his face plastered with a polite rictus.

“Do you . . . see anything? Down there?” Trent indicated the statue with a nod of his head.

Derek glanced in the indicated direction for perhaps a half second, then shook his head. He was already backing slowly away, preparatory to an all-out run. Trent sighed and hung his head. “Okay, thanks,” he said, giving Derek tacit permission to flee.

I’ll be getting an extra-hard look at all my expense reports after that, Trent reflected. He watched Derek double-time march away. He seemed to veer around the statue without ever noticing it. Trent frowned and retreated inside the men’s room. He regarded himself in the mirror, the fluorescent lighting giving him a greenish complexion and accentuating the bags under his eyes.

“I look dead,” Trent said aloud. “Maybe I am dead. Maybe this is Hell.” A demon in the form of an ambulatory sidewalk? It wouldn’t be any weirder than some of the things he remembered from Sunday School. How would he know if he was dead? He’d have thought someone would tell him; wasn’t the point of Hell to punish people? What’s the good of punishment if you never found out who was punishing you for what?

He splashed water on his face and straightened his tie. Steeling his nerves, he headed for the door again. The statue had made it another few feet while Trent had been in the restroom. Trent was just in time to see Jay striding down the hallway with an unusual degree of purpose in his step. Jay collided with the little concrete mannequin, tripping over its waist-high body. It wobbled, its platter-like feet giving it impressive balance. Jay tumbled over it to the ground, where he scrambled to a sitting position, rubbing at his shins and staring around in confusion. Trent felt excitement, like a surge of electricity, reanimating his tired limbs. He dashed forward.

“Jay!” he cried. “Did you see it?”

“See what?” Jay said. He regarded Trent with an expression not dissimilar to Derek’s. “I was coming to check on you. You’ve been acting a little weird lately.”

Trent slowed as he neared Jay, sidling to the far side of the hall. The little stone statue was already rotating to face him and pursue, moving like one of those little windup toys. “You didn’t see what you tripped over? That right there?” Trent pointed at the statue, keeping his arm back as though it were a dog that might bite.

Jay looked at the carpeted floor, obviously not seeing anything. “I just fell over my own feet, I guess,” he said. “Feels like I barked my shin on something, though.”

Trent tried to digest this new information. So many new things were happening! He needed to test some of them. He backed away a step as the statue drew near. “Come on, Jay.  I want to show you something.”

Jay frowned. The statue thumped forward another step. “It’s the middle of the day,” he said. “See, this is the kind of thing I was talking about…”

“It’s important,” said Trent.

“We can’t just leave. Corman’ll go ballistic.”

“I’m putting in for emergency sick leave,” said Trent. “Food poisoning. You’re taking me to the hospital.”

“You’re going to lie?”

“Creative misperception.” Trent paused. “Please, Jay,” he said. “I’ll make it up to you. I promise. I just really need you to see this. I-” A little truth couldn’t hurt, could it? “I think I’m going crazy.”

Jay could never resist the hard sell. Trent watched his friend’s doughy face slacken and shift from irritation to pained sympathy, as slow and sure as the weather. “Well, all right. But just this once, and only for the afternoon, okay?”

“Come on,” said Trent, skipping back another step, just shy of the concrete man’s clumsy grasp. “Joyce in HR owes me a favor.”

 

They walked, at Trent’s insistence; he didn’t want to know what would happen if he entered a subway and waited long enough for the thing to catch up. The streets were still filled with soggy heat, rivers of misery baking under the light of the sun, itself half-hidden behind a haze of clouds. The rain was a threat, not a promise, but one held perpetually at bay. Trent could feel the sweat trickling down his back as he led Jay down the sidewalk, miles and miles of sun-bleached concrete, laid out in bite-size segments. One after another after another, all alike, all the same. Except one.

Behind them, Trent could see the truncated form of the statue trundling along, slow but unstoppable. It never stopped, never slowed down or sped up. Somehow, it kept pace with them for hours through the city. Trent wasn’t sure how, but whenever he turned to check, he could see it wobbling unhurriedly forward. He was fascinated to see how the city reacted to it. The world of the real and the visible seemed to treat the statue as a special exemption. Cars sat idling in front of green lights while it passed, their drivers apparently unaware of anything wrong. Pedestrians sidestepped around it, never noticing it, though every once in a while someone would stub a toe against it or jostle it with their hips and glance around, puzzlement clear in every line of their bodies. Trent was the only one who saw.

Jay was full of unspoken questions, keeping a wary eye on Trent, who almost capered like a child, darting forward and back around Jay’s stolid bulk. Trent, for his part, spoke rapidly, talking about everything and nothing. Recipes he’d tried or wanted to try; long-buried memories of his grandmother’s kitchen or the gourmet meals he’d prepared with pride back in his college days; his insights about the endless sidewalks and the oppressive weather; Corman and his infuriating inanities; Trent’s plans for retribution against Carol, still in their formative stages but promising truly dizzying heights of pettiness. He never mentioned the concrete gremlin that tailed them through the streets and subways, and he avoided saying anything specific about the sidewalk outside his building. He wanted to see how Jay reacted to it without prompting, without preparation. This was going to be a scientific experiment. Avoiding bias was important.

The sidewalk looked much the same as it always did. Trent had half expected the square of concrete to be gone, reshaped into the animate form that pursued him – still visible nearly a block away, shuffling forward with its wide-lipped smile and grasping hands outstretched. Trent stared at the spot long enough for Jay to cough uncomfortably.

“So what’s here?” Jay asked. “Are we going up to your apartment?  Because it’s kind of hot out here, and-”

“Shh!” Trent waved a hand. “I need to see if it’s here.” He glanced over his shoulder again.

The statue was gone. The street was empty, broiling under the pressure-cooker sky. Trent narrowed his eyes and stepped forward with one foot. The sullen afternoon disappeared into a blaze of ecstasy.

Trent floated for a time in a limpid pool of pleasure, the water cool and soothing where it brushed against his skin. He was drifting, subtle currents dragging him along. The scenery was indistinct, but it felt right somehow, as if he belonged here. He had an impression of lush foliage and tropical fruits, glistening with moisture. The raft or float or whatever device it was that held him had a rough exterior, almost pebbly. It felt divine, putting pressure on all the right spots on his aching back, soothing knots in muscles he hadn’t known were tensed. He felt vaguely as though he should have a drink in his hand, possibly with a little paper umbrella. No sooner had he formed the thought than it became so. He sipped at one of the plethora of straws that sprouted from the glass like aerials on a television studio. A burst of fruit and alcohol flooded his tongue. He smacked his lips. Pineapple, cherries. Peaches? Mangoes?

The waterway began to speed up, flecks of white appearing on an increasingly choppy surface. It was less a pool and more a river now, winding through thick trees. Trent felt something worrying him, something niggling at the back of his mind. It was something important. He tried to remember it as he took another sip. The medley of flavors washed it out of his mind. Surely he wouldn’t have trouble recalling it if it was so terribly urgent.  He let the water carry him along.

The forest thickened, screening out the sun.  The water was slightly too cool now, without the heat to balance it.  Trent shivered, the first hints of discomfort he could remember feeling. Ever? Surely he’d been uncomfortable before. In another lifetime . . .

The water was rushing along now. Trent gripped the sides of his conveyance to keep his balance. The cold surface, like stone but not, sparked a memory. He looked down, focused on his perch for the first time.

A hand. A concrete hand, webbed with cracks and marked with the grime of the city.

Trent looked forward with sudden dread. The trees parted to reveal the bottom of the swirling cataract. It ended at a cave of pale stone, the water surging forward and disappearing down into a dark hole like a mouth. On the cliff face overhead, there was a suggestion of two shadowed eyes. The great concrete head shifted as Trent neared, looking down on him. The vast mouth curled upward in an unmistakable smile . . .

“Trent! Snap out of it, man!”

The muggy heat was like a slap in the face after the icy waterfall. Trent reeled backward, gasping, swallowing the thick city air in great gulps. Jay had a hand on his shoulder, steadying him. Trent panted, leaning on his knees like a runner pushed to his limits.

“What’s going on?” Jay asked.

Trent pointed a trembling finger at the sidewalk. “It… it almost got me,” he said. “If you hadn’t been here . . . ”

Jay’s expression said what he was thinking quite clearly. “Maybe we should go to the hospital for real,” he said.

Trent got himself under control, or at least a semblance of control. “Just try it,” he said. “Step onto that square of sidewalk. I know it’s there, now. I think it’s getting upset. It never tried that hard before.  Maybe it’s stronger now, maybe it’s feeding on my fear, I don’t know-” He cut himself off, aware he was babbling. “Look, just stand on that spot where I was. Just for a second. I just want to see you do it and have nothing happen, okay?”

“Yeah, okay. Sure.” Jay released Trent’s shoulder slowly, as though he were a poorly-trained dog who might bolt. “And then we’ll go talk to someone? Like a therapist?” He stepped forward.

“Absolutely,” Trent assured him, but his words were lost. Jay was frozen in place, his eyes distant. “Jay?” Trent waved a hand in front of Jay’s eyes. “Jay, are you okay?” He touched his friend on the arm.

Jay threw the hand off, startling Trent. “Okay?” he snarled, his soft features transformed into those of a snarling beast. “No, I’m not fucking okay!” He bared his teeth and Jay took a step back, honestly surprised that they weren’t sharpened fangs. “I’m out of the office without real permission in the middle of the god-damned day, and for what? For your weird little neuroses to fire off at random? I don’t have time for this shit! I have a job to do. Some of us care about our jobs, Trent, startling as that might be to you and your fucking pretensions. I’m not your babysitter. I’m not your god-damned therapist. I’m supposed to be your friend, though to you that seems to mean using me as a verbal punching bag and emotional parachute, and sometimes a free drink machine. Congratulations, Trent! You’ve probably gotten my ass in deep shit now. This could be the big one. I could get fired. I’m already on Corman’s ‘Fuck You’ list, you know. Low productivity. Didn’t kiss enough ass. But you wouldn’t know about that, because all you care about is yourself and your own petty little problems. So kudos to you, you fucking selfish douchebag. Ding ding ding! You win the Asshole Lottery!”

“Jesus, Jay,” Trent said, holding up a hand. “Look, I’m sorry about work. I didn’t… I’ve been-”

“Oh, shut the fuck up, Trent,” Jay shouted. He swung a sudden punch at Trent’s jaw. Trent was too surprised to defend himself, not that he was much of a fighter anyway. A flash of red blurred his vision for a moment.

When his sight returned, he was rubbing his aching jaw while Jay blinked around him in befuddlement.  His attack had carried him off of the sidewalk square. He was clutching his right hand and his face had reverted to its usual expression of affable concern, tempered with pain and distress.

“What just happened?”

“Nothing serious,” Trent said, stretching his jaw and hearing something pop inside it. “I think we’re both just a little overtired.”

“Must be,” said Jay. “Are we… outside your apartment?  What time is it?  Shouldn’t we be at work?”

“You don’t remember?”

Jay shook his head.

“We, uh, took the afternoon off. To blow off some steam. Corman’s been working us both pretty hard, right?” Trent improvised madly. “I told you to be careful about those Jell-O shots, but you said… uh…”

“I got you,” Jay said, frowning. “That explains why I’m so woozy. But why does my hand hurt?”

“We fell,” said Trent. “On the sidewalk. You might’ve bruised it. You kind of clocked me a little, too.”

“Oh, man, I’m sorry. I-”

“Don’t worry about it.” Trent felt like a rat, lying to Jay. He fished for a distraction. “Hey, look, come on up to my place. I’ll get you a bag of ice or something. We’ll finish the day quietly. No bars or anything. I think I’ve got a bottle of wine stashed somewhere.”

“Sure,” Jay cradled his hand to his chest and shook his head as though coming out of water. “Maybe I shouldn’t drink any more. I feel really weird.  But kind of good. Invigorated. What bar was it? I might want to go back there sometime.” He followed Trent to the apartment building’s door. They both gave the sidewalk a wide berth. Neither mentioned it.

 

Trent had had several bottles, as it turned out, and sometime after sunset Jay stumbled out, slurring his speech and wobbling as he walked. Trent watched him go, feeling the effects himself, though he’d tried to minimize his intake. His head was whirling, and not just from the alcohol. Why had Jay reacted like that? It had been so unlike his usual demeanor. Possession? Was the concrete ghost-thing getting more aggressive, trying to attack him and claim him that way? But Jay hadn’t seemed to be pursuing Trent. Quite the opposite, really.

So if that hadn’t been the ghost controlling Jay, then the sidewalk had done something to alter Jay’s behavior. Why had Jay been filled with anger and violence while Trent experienced bliss and contentment? Trent gnawed on his lip and stared out his window. There wasn’t much point in hiding behind the blinds any more, not now that the sidewalk could apparently get inside his bedroom at will.

An old man was walking along the sidewalk, leaning heavily on a cane. He was hunched nearly double and looked painfully thin, his face lined with deep creases and set in what looked to be a permanent frown. Now there’s a guy who could use a little happiness. At least a laugh, thought Trent. He watched the man shuffle onto the sidewalk square. Countless passersby had stepped on the concrete without incident, for all Trent’s fears. He’d seen at least two dozen this evening alone. But when the old man’s foot touched down, he froze in place. Trent saw the man’s shoulder’s shake, saw him bend over even further, both hands on his cane, which trembled wildly. In a panic, Trent scrambled for his shoes. Was the old man having a fit of some kind? A heart attack? Something brought on by the sidewalk? Trent felt responsible, somehow; it was his ghost, or at least he’d been the first victim.

He’d only gotten one sock on when he heard the laughter. Trent leapt back to the window. The old man was laughing! The old man resumed his unsteady pace, tremendous belly laughs rolling out from him. The withered face was transformed with a wide, gap-toothed grin. The laughter ebbed when he stepped off of the square of sidewalk, but his shoulders continued to shake with chuckles all the way to the corner.

Utterly confused, Trent sat back down. This was yet another new wrinkle. He could perhaps explain Jay if simple association with Trent was enough to attract the ghost’s attention. But to have another completely different response to the sidewalk from a stranger? Why that old man? Why not any of the other people who’d crossed the spot in the weeks this had been going on? One thing’s for sure, Trent thought. I don’t even want to try and think about this sober. Trent went to the kitchenette and poured himself a tumbler full of wine, then sat down to ponder. He’d made it halfway through the glass when he fell asleep.

He woke in the dark. It was never fully dark in the city. The streetlights, stores, buildings, all poured incandescence out and up and away. There was always some illumination filtering through the windows of the apartment. Now it was pitch black. Dark like a basement. Dark like a cave. Dark like the rocky bowels of the earth. Trent fumbled to his feet and promptly tripped. His head was pounding, courtesy of the wine he’d drunk. He felt the room spinning around him. Without vision to orient himself, it was like floating in space.

There was a flash and a rumble. The outline of the window was thrown starkly across the floor for the briefest of moments. The storm! The power must be out, Trent decided. Where did I put that flashlight?

He felt in the darkness until he found the chair he’d fallen asleep in.  Using that as a guide, he pulled himself to his feet and reached out a questing arm, seeking the wall to guide him to the bedroom, where the flashlight was very sensibly stored within easy reach of the bed. Lightning flashed again, filling the room with light through the open blinds. Trent reeled backwards in a panic; the statue was in the room with him, the pits of its eyes staring, its toothless grin wide. Unable to see, Trent ended up with his back pressed against the window, the roiling heat outside throbbing against his shoulders with the rumble of the thunder. The clouds overhead seethed like thick stew, still holding the rain captive. The violence of the storm was already here, though.

The lightning flickered, arcing back and forth in the clouds overhead, a spectacular light show. In the strobing light, Trent could see the statue approaching, not seeming to move, appearing in frozen moments in time with the near-simultaneous flash and crackle of lightning and thunder. Flash.  Five feet. Flash. Three feet. Flash. One foot. In desperation, Trent leaped gymnast-style over the statue, tumbling in an awkward somersault on landing and scrambling on all fours to get away. He clawed at the doorknob, fear stealing the agility from his hands. Out into the hallway. The elevator? No, the power was out. The stairs, then. Trent pounded away, not daring to look back, knowing he’d see the quiet smile of the statue’s slow advance. Through the door and into the red-lit stairwell, the emergency lights flashing warningly. He slipped and skidded on the laminate floor, one sock on his left foot and nothing on his right. His heart nearly stopped when he heard the stairwell door open again with a series of soft thuds, as though malformed concrete hands fumbled with the handle. A louder thump drew his eyes unwillingly upward.

The statue was pursuing him down the stairs. Its thick legs could not manage the steps. Instead, it simply tilted forward and bounced down each flight, serene expression never wavering as it impacted with tile-shattering force on the landing below. Trent screamed and fled.

He burst out of the apartment door, half-clad and shoeless. He had some mad thought of leading the thing back to its sidewalk square, that perhaps it would be swallowed up by it as he had been in his dream. He sprinted across the tiny patch of grass, feeling something moist squish beneath his bare toes. Reaching the square, instantly recognizable to him now, he spun around at bay. The statue ambled forward, smile wide, hands outstretched.

“What do you want!?” Trent shrieked at it as it neared. “What do you want from me?”

The statue approached and said nothing.

“Money? Blood? My soul? What am I supposed to give you to make you go away?”

The statue was close enough to touch now. It stopped. Its head cocked to one side and it raised its cupped hands.

Lightning sparked across the sky. Nothing else moved.

Suddenly Trent understood. He knew now why the sidewalk pursued him.  He knew why it had given soft-spoken Jay an attack of backbone and the dour old man a fit of the giggles. He even understood what he had done to cause the mess in the first place.

The sidewalk didn’t want anything from him.

It wanted to return something. Something he’d lost, something he’d dropped on his way from his tiny apartment to the job he loathed in the city that choked him. Something strong enough to give shape and purpose even to a hunk of concrete. He hadn’t even realized it was gone until he’d gotten a taste of it again, a taste addictive enough to keep him returning to the sidewalk that terrified him.

Trent reached down to the statue’s cupped hands and picked up his happiness. A droplet of water hit him on the forehead. He looked up. Overhead, the clouds broke and the cooling rain poured down through the darkened city. Trent slipped to his knees and began to laugh.

 

“. . . been a rough time, but we’re managing.”

“I hear you’ve been doing some ‘managing,’ huh?”

Trent could hear the blush in Jay’s voice. “Well, after Corman was gone they needed to promote someone. I was the only person nobody hated enough to block. The past year has been . . . interesting.”

“That’s great! You think you’re cut out for being the boss, then?”

“I don’t know about that. It’s been nice to have the extra money, though. I can afford to take Caroline out to a nice restaurant sometimes.”

“I’d never have thought you two would hit it off,” Trent said. “But swing by the neighborhood sometime. I’ll hook you guys up. Just don’t tell her it’s from me or she’ll think I spat in it.”

“Aw, she doesn’t hate you still. Not really,” said Jay. “Not much. So you’re really a, uh, a cook now?”

Chef de partie. Line cook. The work is brutal most nights. God, you think the old job was stressful . . . but I’m loving every minute of it.” Trent smiled. “It’s hard to describe. I’m where I was supposed to be all along. It’s like being whole again.”

“You weren’t very happy in an office.”

“No,” said Trent with a smile. “No, I wasn’t. But I am now. I finally realized what I’d been missing.”

______________

Nathaniel Lee puts words in various orders and hopes you enjoy reading them.  He works as a phone monkey in Charlotte, NC, where he is kept by two cats and a patient spouse.  His fiction can also be seen (well, heard) at Podcastle, Pseudopod, Cast Macabre, and the Dunesteef. Nathaniel also publishes a 100-word story every day at www.mirrorshards.org.

 

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