Fade to Gunmetal
by Jeremy Sim
It’s me, Reyes. Just figured I’d stop by on my way back from the hockshop, sit down, have words. Just for a couple minutes this time. Then I’ll be on my way.
It’s cold here, huh? It’s a frost-splattered night tonight, a slicked-up Wednesday in January. Doesn’t feel nothing like a new year, though. Been raining, so everything’s wet–the whole city’s got this wrung-out feel to it, like an old shirt fished from the river. The neon lights still glare down, bright and cold as hell. The Hand still owns the streets. Ol’ Snuck still bartends at the Green-Eyed Cat.
It’s been about five weeks since you died, Benny, and everything feels the same.
You’ve got yourself a nice headstone, you know that, Benny? Nice little plot too. I’m sitting here in the dark back behind St. Margo’s and I can hardly hear a thing, it’s so peaceful. It’s just me and the wind and the frosty grass crunching under my shoes. You’re out near the back, behind a lichen-covered angel and a grave marker taller than I am.
I know some fellas don’t like cemeteries much. Superstition, I guess. They walk into a place like this and they think they feel an old, slimy warmth under the hard ground, and it gives them the willies. But I don’t know. There’s something about a graveyard that makes the cold of midnight sting a little less. It smells of life here, of green moss and distant cigarettes. It’s drizzling tonight, the kind of rain that won’t stop slapping you playfully in the face. From here I can hardly hear the sirens and the crazy night sounds of the city. It’s a good place to rest, Benny.
You won’t believe who came banging at my door last Tuesday morning. Well, I say morning, but you know what I mean. I open the door and there’s Frankie, leaning on my doorframe with his cobra smile. I stare him up and down for a minute, from his gel-solid hair to the Hand tattoo on his neck to those chi-chi leather boots he always wears.
“Where’s Benny?” he asks me all chinny, as if I’m your keeper.
I can’t help but laugh. “What you still doing around here, Frankie?”
His eyes flit over my shoulder, taking in the mess in the apartment behind me. “Benny owes me some capital. I’m here to collect, and he ain’t answering his door. Where is he?”
You’ll have to forgive Frankie. That hair gel of his goes on a little thick.
“He’s taken up new residence, Frankie.”
“If we knew that, Franklin, all those big white churches on Madison wouldn’t have nothing to sell.”
His eyes flash. “Benny’s dead?”
“I thought you’d be more choked up over the death of a blood brother.”
“Reyes, if you’re screwing with me–“
“He died in a drug sting over a month ago, Frankie. Blues put two bullets in his head. Christ. How can you not know this? He was a Hand member, like you. I’m just a neighbor.”
His mouth tightens, but he doesn’t say anything. Guess he really didn’t know.
“Will that be all?” I say.
He takes his hand off my door frame. “For now, Reyes.”
“Been a pleasure.”
I watch as he leaves, his bootheels echoing in the dingy corridor. A curlicue of smoke rises from the spot where Frankie’s hand was, and there’s the summer smell of charcoal. He leaves a new scorch mark on my door every time he visits, black streaks like a kid’s fingerpainting. He enjoys showing off.
Sometimes I tell myself it’s not such a big deal you’re dead. You know? You’re just one more kid missing from the halls–gone off to the big barbershop in the sky and all. We barely even traded words twice a month. To you, I must’ve been no one. Just a talky lug on the wrong side of forty, spitting stories about better days.
But you were always so goddamned polite. Clean-shaven, your new Hand tat itching on your neck. I could see you were a dreamer, like me. Joined up with the wrong people for all the right reasons.
And now I’m here, sitting on a frozen stump at midnight, and I’m talking to your headstone. Because you reminded me of myself, Benny. Blue eyes, like me. Standing with your weight on both feet. When we passed each other in the hall, it was like looking at a twenty-year-old reflection of myself.
Yeah, you remind me of me, right down to the faded old tattoo here on the left side of my neck.
Mackenzie doesn’t like me to talk about it, but I ain’t been a Hand member for years. I keep my collar up when I’m out. It hides the mark just enough to keep me out of trouble, but shows it just enough to keep me out of trouble, if you know what I mean. At the very least it reminds jokers like Frankie to treat me with some respect, knowing I’ve got the old power still in my hand.
News doesn’t exactly beat a path to my apartment door, but I hear things ain’t looking too hot for the Hand these days. I get the feeling they’re a long shot from the days when we were just kids, trying to scratch our way through in this big city. Maybe this time they’ve bitten off more than they can chew–maybe between the blues and La Guerra, they’re losing a few too many battles. Some say the blues and La Guerra are in it together to wipe out the Hand once and for all. But the Hand won’t go down pretty, I can guarantee you that.
Word is that the Hand is hurting for new blood. Did you know that when you joined up, Benny? Could you sense it in Mackenzie’s cut-up face when you went through the old power-granting Ritual? La Guerra, the new gang in town, hasn’t got the Ritual–what they have is numbers, a generation of youngsters that hate the Hand like a dog hates mailmen. They’ve got the cash, the count, and the connections. I still say they ain’t a match for Mackenzie’s boys.
I saw a bunch of La Guerra kids in the alley between Brockhurst and Main bout four days ago. They turned their heads to follow me as I went by. I don’t lift my head to look back at groups of guys in alleys as a rule, but I felt them scoping me out. Casing the joint. Things have changed, Benny. Couple years ago any La Guerra kids this far south of James woulda found themselves with a lot more to worry about than the bus fare home.
So when someone taps me on the shoulder at the Green-Eyed Cat that night, I half expect to find myself up against a hockey team of razzed-up Guerra kids.
Instead, it’s Frankie again.
“Reyes,” he says, his hand resting on my jacket. It’s uncomfortably warm. “Our good friend would like to send his regards.”
I look over to where he’s pointing. At the far corner of the Cat, at the table where the blues beat the crap out of old Simon that time fifteen years ago, is Dino Russell and a couple of the new kids. They’re all looking at me. Dino’s ugly face looks like a squashed orange in the barlight. He’s gotten chunkier since I last saw him, but his suits have stayed the same size. Doesn’t matter, I guess. Nobody makes fun of Dino Russell, not ‘less they want a couple of attention-hungry Hand kids testing out their new powers on them.
I raise my glass to Dino.
“Join us at the table,” says Frankie. “Dino extends his invitation.”
With guys like Dino, saying no is never a good idea. I never liked the man, but he’s one of the guys I jived with back in the day, so there’s something.
I down the shot in my hand and go over to the table. He gestures to an open seat and I sit down, inclining my head.
“Reyes. Been a long time, huh?” His voice is like granite.
I nod. “Dino.”
“When you coming back to us, huh?”
“I’m retired, Dino. Don’t give me that.”
One of the kids at the table, a Latino with braided hair, messes with his beer glass, turning his hand insubstantial and passing it through the rim–left to right, right to left. I can see his fingers dipping in the foam, but his hand comes out dry. There’s a smirk behind his indifferent lips.
Dino’s eyes flick to my tattoo and back. “Not too safe for a guy like you out there tonight.”
The word hangs loaded in the air, mixing with the neon and shadow.
“Bad weather lately,” I say. “Probably rain.”
Dino laughs, an insubstantial snort.
Some of the kids have their eyes locked on me. They’ve probably figured out who I am by now, this washed-up old guy mouthing off to Dino and getting away with it.
Mindy comes over with a new shot of whiskey, drops it in front of me.
“On me,” says Dino. “For old times.”
I look down, then up at Dino’s pockmarked face. I don’t touch the glass.
“Say, Reyes. How long you had your tat for? Twenty years? Twenty-five? You should see some of these kids with their baby powers.” He gestures around him. “A month fresh from the ritual. They have no idea what that power is gonna look like in twenty years. Ain’t that right, Reyes?” His face is emotionless, a tad too nonchalant for my taste.
“I’m not coming back, Dino. You can stop beating around the bush.”
Dino shrugs, sidesteps. “Just passing the message, buddy. Mackenzie says you’re a good friend, but if push comes to shove, he’ll see your legs broken before letting you sit this fight out.”
“He’s been saying that for years, Dino. Is Mackenzie really hurting for manpower that much?”
“Mackenzie’s got his reasons, Reyes. And he can say whatever the damn hell he wants.”
“I’m just asking, Dino.”
Dino leans over and scoops up my whiskey glass. He downs it, wipes his hand on his sleeve. “And I’m just saying.”
I talk tough to Dino, but that’s just how it’s always been between him and me. I remember the old days, out on the streets with Dino and Shooter Thompson and Mackenzie–Grandmaster Mackenzie, we used to call him. We were invincible. Nothing could touch us, and together we broke a path that made the Hand what it is today. Dino’s got one hell of a punch in that rock fist of his.
And it makes me boil sometimes, because what the hell have I got now that compares to that? Sarah’s been dead four years and if I’m not at the Cat I’m at home every night listening to the clock tick and looking for a clean glass to fill. And the world’s still moving but it’s a world that I hate, where kids like you die because they don’t know any better. One less familiar face in the halls tomorrow. One more familiar name carved out here in the silence behind St. Margo’s. And the whole city’s a little emptier each night.
Sarah used to hate that I used whiskey to forget. She was right, I guess; whiskey’s a poor medicine. On the other side of St. Margo’s, under the neon-lit rain, burrowed up in basements and apartment buildings people are just itching to hurt each other, to take things from each other that they think they need. Whiskey ain’t going to fix that. But you know what? I went off the bottle for Sarah. For thirteen years I didn’t have so much as a thimbleful. That didn’t turn out so good either.
I remember when Sarah was diagnosed. It was sudden, like a chisel to the stomach. But not as sudden as what happened two months later.
I remember hammering on Mackenzie’s door the night after Sarah died, beating at the mahogany so hard I thought my heart might splinter.
“Who did it?” I shouted when Mackenzie finally appeared. I could smell spaghetti or something, warm smells from his dining room. “Who did it? If it was you, Mackenzie, so help me God, I’ll–“
“It wasn’t us,” he said quietly. “We aren’t in meds. You know that, Reyes.”
He looks at me with those calculating eyes and shakes his head briefly. “I’m so sorry, Reyes.” It’s the first time I’ve heard those words from his mouth.
Sarah once said she liked me because I gave her something to fix. She was the kind of girl who’d push me away when I came up behind her, just because she hadn’t finished sorting the tableware. I used to call her a loon because she was always serious, always worried about something or other. But she was a ray of light. She made my life beautiful. She liked everything to be on the button, in its proper place.
I can still hear Mackenzie now, the smell of spaghetti wafting out behind him, saying It wasn’t us, Reyes. We don’t do that. Someone rustles the shipment, Sarah gets a wrong dose of something from the doc. And the accusation behind the words, always there with Mackenzie. Maybe if you were here helping us run this joint, this never would’ve happened.
This turf war with La Guerra is bringing out the worst in this city. Sarah wouldn’t have put up with a bit of it, from the big coats strutting the streets to the janes balancing on chipped heels on every corner. This city is feeling more and more like an empty shell, Benny, dry and thin and brittle with age. And I hate it.
So I’m trudging around town the Saturday after running into Dino at the Cat, and I’m pretty drunk. Partly because it’s getting near the four-year anniversary of Sarah’s death, partly because Ol’ Snuck gets a little tipsy himself on Saturday nights near closing–he doesn’t drink on Sundays, you understand. And when Ol’ Snuck gets tipsy, he’s generous with the whiskey.
It’s the kind of night that feels like stepping out of an airport at midnight–chilly, unsettling, unfamiliar. It’s not so much raining as leaking fog. Steam wafts up from the manhole covers, fleetingly warm and earthy. As I wander down empty streets and side alleys the asphalt under my shoes is damp, and it feels like I’m the only soul out there.
I don’t honestly remember what I’m thinking about that night, except that it probably isn’t about getting mugged.
“Don’t move,” he says before I even notice him there. “Don’t move a muscle or I’ll shoot, I swear.”
I’ve been on the loud end of a gun before, don’t get me wrong. But that night, with the neon making shifty patterns in my eyes as I turn to face the mugger, all I can think is Sarah, it’s okay. Get behind me. Then I realize I’m alone, the knowledge sharp and hot like a knife edge. Then anger: Who does this sap think he is?
Fog blankets the alley, chilling my face, my legs, the back of my neck. It’s a guy maybe in his early thirties–too much stubble for the collared shirt he wears, buzzed hair, tired eyes. The Colt doesn’t shake much in his hand. He hasn’t got any gang tats, of course–even La Guerra doesn’t do random muggings. There’s just no money in it.
I’m facing him with my palms up in the alley. For a second I imagine him doing the smart thing and pulling the trigger, the blast of noise cutting through empty streets again and again like repeated thunder. The feeling smolders, a coal in my gut.
“Put your money on the ground.”
I raise my eyebrows at him, then stuff my hands in my pockets.
I turn out my pockets, slowly, and show him my wallet. I pull out a wad of bills.
“Take off your watch and weigh down the cash.”
I undo the leather strap of my watch. When I lean down to put everything on the ground, I push a little spark of power through my fingers into the money.
Then I straighten up.
“Good. Now go.”
I take two steps back.
“Go! Get lost,” he says.
I could leave right then. I could turn on my heels, wrap my overcoat around me and go home. I don’t need the money–couple five dollar bills and change, and a cheap old watch.
I take one more step back and wait.
He makes a grab for the money, swooping down in one cute motion. He keeps the Colt trained on me, for the most part, but I’m just standing there with my hands in my pockets.
The money vanishes in his hands, dissolving like cotton candy in water.
He thinks he’s dropped the money, or it’s slipped away in the wind or something. The lamplight is dim; he searches the ground around him, shuffles a bit, stands. Turns.
That’s when I hit him.
My fist connects with the back of his head, hard, and I lunge for his pistol arm–my fingers close around cold metal and I push thick sparks into the barrel of the Colt. The gun dissolves. The guy’s hand flails up, suddenly light, his index finger squeezing at nothing.
I elbow him hard in the face, hitting his cheek so hard that I feel the bones crack against each other like two pebbles. His head snaps back and he falls backward, landing on his ass, squirming to get away.
I stand over him. Behind me, the Colt rematerializes and clatters to the ground.
His eyes are wide. I think he’s seen the Hand tattoo on my neck now. “Oh shit,” he says. “Oh shit, man, I’m sorry. I need the money for hospital bills, that’s all, you know I didn’t mean no harm.” He’s holding his neck with one hand; he pushes off the ground with the other and turns to run.
A flash of anger sears through me. Hospital bills? Hospital bills? I grab his collar, feel him struggle against me, and slam him hard against the alley wall. I get a good look at his face then–bloodshot eyes, watery nose. He’s got the rusty-iron stink of a crack junkie. Hospital bills my ass.
He’s kicking like an animal–he gets a foothold on the wall and shoves himself onto me. My legs slip out from under me and oof the ground hits me hard, he’s on top and all the air is driven out of my chest. He pushes my face against the wet stone and scrambles to his feet, making a run for it, but God, my face smarts like hell and I grab his ankle and he tumbles to the ground again.
My heart is pounding; I don’t let go of his ankle so he half-jerks, half-drags me a couple feet and puts his weight on a trash can by the side of the alley for balance.
I slap a palm on the trash can, and it vanishes.
He stumbles, unbalanced, and now I’ve got my footing–I push him through the space where the trash can was and shove him up against the wall. For an instant I burn with anger so white and hot that I want to just stuff him into the wall and leave him there, or shove his head in the trash can’s space and let it materialize around him. But the second passes and I grab his head with both hands and slam it down on the rim of the trash can just as it pops back into existence.
He crumples to the ground.
I reach down and prop him up against the trash can, lifting him by the scruff of his shirt. He’s heavy.
“No,” he says. “No.”
“You know what happens when I vanish people?” I say. My teeth are gritted, I think. My heart is hammering; my whole body feels hot. My head is swimming, thick with heat and pain and whiskey.
“No. Don’t,” he whimpers.
“They come back dead, you son of a bitch.”
Dead, their last warm breath still on their parted lips. Dead, with open, staring eyes.
“But it’s your lucky night, because I’m not gonna do that to you. You know why?”
He stares up at me with the eyes of a kid who thinks he’s about to die. “W-why?”
“Because,” I say, my arm shaking from the slurred fury that’s coursing through me. “Because there’s too. Much. Damned. Dying in this damned city.”
“Stop,” he gasps, because I’ve been ramming his head into the side of the trash can.
The guy is bleeding from his nose and mouth, and there is a long red mark across his cheek. The blood flows over his lips, soaking into the dark stubble of his beard. His eyes are closed.
I scream then, letting out the hot maelstrom of frustration and pain. I vanish the part of his shirt in my fist and he slumps to the ground, his clothes in tatters, and I hit the trash can so hard that it skids eight feet across the alley and pops out of existence again.
Then I stand and walk away.
The wind whips a dollar bill into the air in front of me as I trudge out of that alley. I know I should be hurting, that the skin on my knuckles is probably ragged and bleeding, but maybe the whiskey is helping with something after all, because I feel about the same.
Everything feels about the same.
I remember when Sarah and I got married. It was just the two of us at City Hall, Sarah’s long brown hair done up in braids. She looked like a princess in her white dress, and the whole time the bored-looking clerk was talking she had this look on her face, like there was some sort of joke I wasn’t getting.
When I told Mackenzie I was leaving the Hand, he slammed his fist on the table and told me I was an idiot. He said he’d hunt me down himself and kill me if I left. He didn’t, but Dino Russell nearly did.
It didn’t rain at Sarah’s funeral. It was sunny, of course, like she would’ve wanted. Dino and Mackenzie were there, I think, but I didn’t talk to them. I walked off halfway through the ceremony. Four days later I opened up a bottle of whiskey.
I keep thinking of the time we were in our early twenties and I saw Dino Russell pound his way through a brick wall, mortar crumbling all around him, to bust Shooter out of the clink. This was before I could do doors and walls, before Dino could flatten a house with a single punch. Mackenzie stood and watched us from the roof across the street, orchestrating everything with those twitchy fingers of his. Blues’ pistols flew out of their holsters and emptied themselves of ammo. Cars swerved suddenly and smashed into glass storefronts. Shooter was beat up pretty bad, but alive.
Shooter killed himself two years later. I never found out how it happened, but I imagine he just lifted two fingers to his head, smiled, and said “Ka-blam.”
It rained at his funeral.
So I’ll just leave this shotglass right here on your headstone, Benny, like I did when I visited Sarah’s grave about two hours ago. She’ll be glad to know I’m giving up drinking again, even if I can’t bring myself to tell her all the details. She worries about me, you know?
This morning I put on my coat, locked the door behind me, and walked across town. I went right up to an old brick house, knocked on the mahogany door, and told Mackenzie that I’d come back and fight for him. He looked at me funny at first; I don’t think he expected that out of me. Mackenzie’s always suspicious. He asked me why, and I told him I was giving up drinking again.
I think he understood that. Me and Mackenzie go far back.
“Welcome back,” he said.
I can make things go away, Benny. I’ve always known how to do that. But forever? I dunno. Things come back around. Especially the bad things.
I hardly know any of the Hand anymore. Dino and Mackenzie are still scumbags. I don’t like it, but maybe they’re the only things I have left of my life. The only parts of me I haven’t vanished away.
Maybe someday it’ll come back, all of it, fading back into existence as if it had all been a simple vanishing trick. Sunshine. Sarah. A bunch of friends, with a blue-eyed kid whose dreams were too big for this city.
Things always come back, Benny. Except when they don’t.
Jeremy Sim has lived in Singapore, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and currently writes and eats doner kebabs in Berlin, Germany. He wrote this story at Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2011, on a challenge from his classmates. Check out some of his other fiction at www.jeremysim.com, including online stories at Crossed Genres, Waylines, and Flash Fiction Online. Or follow him on Twitter @jeremy_sim.