Breath & Shadow
Fall 2012 - Vol. 9, Issue 4
"Redemption and Sacrifice"
By the doorway of the free kitchen, I passed old people in their twilight, huddled in torn coats they probably got free from the Salvation Army. There was energy in the air, the electric announcement of an oncoming storm. Black clouds were like phantoms rattling chains of thunder. As if the sky above were sewn together with the thread of the everyday nightmare of the inner city below, it split at the seams. The falling sheets of rain wrapped around rusted sculptures on the square. Holding a newspaper above my head to ward off the falling water, I slipped down the stairs to the basement of the run-down apartment building I stayed in. My home was dark. The very filth on the walls seemed to produce another layer of shadow.
I lived in a dank basement apartment in this hellhole section of the city for three reasons. One, up to a week ago, I was a drug dealer, and most of my customers lived nearby. Two, I didn't want the police to know that I had money. I wasn't as obvious as the dealers who lived in the ghetto and drove brand new Cadillacs. I was smarter than other drug dealers in another way, also. I didn't use meth; I just used to sell it. The third reason I was still living downtown was that I was soon going to have the expense of buying a car and some new clothing. Then I would get a real job, and later a decent apartment somewhere else. A few times in the last week I had even considered trying to get a grant and going back to college.
I opened the door to my apartment and locked it behind me, not planning on opening it again for the rest of the night, regardless of how many ex-customers came knocking. That is the good thing about doors. Doors are twofold. They can open up to life or shut the world away. I got a beer from the fridge, sat down on my stained couch and prepared for another night of depression. Each night for the last week had consisted of the same pathetic routine. I was having trouble standing myself, and it had to do with the reason I had decided to quit dealing drugs.
Eight days earlier I had sold meth to the little sister of a friend. She called herself Brandy and had a cute nose ring, but scratched her arms like many of my regular customers. She had licked her dry lips, told me she was seventeen and needed a few foils for herself and her friends. I warned her not to say anything to Eddie, and she paid in cash. The cops found her body at the edge of the river the following morning. The other junkies had already stolen her pipe, wallet and shoes. To my knowledge, no one knew I was the one who sold her the crank. I've done some bad things since I began dealing. Twice I hired people to rough up customers who owed me money. I've taken cash from people I knew needed the money to feed their families. But I had never felt like a murderer until now.
"It's going to be a long night," I told myself.
I knew I'd need something to do to keep me occupied, something to keep me from dwelling on that young face. I drained the beer, got another, and clicked through the ninety-nine channels of crap on the TV. I'd settled on a rerun of 'Hogan's Heroes' when I remembered the spare room. The basement apartment I rented had once been the abode of the landlord's son. There was a spare room still filled to the brim with his stuff from childhood. An old broken slate pool table took up most of the space. The rest was mostly boxes. I had looked through them once, hoping to find something I could steal and sell. All I found was junk, bent Frisbees, moldy clothing, old magazines and the like.
"Anyway," I thought. "It's something to do."
I hadn't had this much spare time on my hands for a couple of years. Until a week ago, when I had quit answering my door, my nights were full with visitors. I went into the spare room and waded through the waste of years, choosing a box at random. To my surprise it held something that interested me.
The box contained an old, small reel-to-reel movie projector. I remembered them from when I was a kid. You could order the little machines out of the back ads in monster magazines. The projectors cost about nine dollars, and came with a small screen to hang on the wall. The magazines also sold movies to play. I took the box to my living room and pulled out the projector. It looked like it was in good shape. The screen was also intact, and I hung it on my wall. There was only one movie in the box, entitled "The Pilgrims". I put the reel on, turned on the machine, and to my surprise an image appeared on the screen.
The film was dark and scratchy, but viewable. There was no sound. The words, "The Pilgrims Arrive on the Mayflower", came on the screen. The ship looked like a toy, and the quality of the motion picture was so poor I was amused. The next words were, "The Indians Taught the Pilgrims to Live Off the Land". The Native Americans in the film looked as campy as in an old western, and the costumes of the Puritans reminded me of when my class would dress in cardboard Pilgrim hats in elementary school. The next scene was of the Native Americans and the pioneers sharing a feast. There was a flicker in the film, a moment of static, and then the words, "The Indians Go Hunting". In this sequence the Native Americans were riding off into the woods, leaving their women and children. Then I was shocked. In the next series of events the Pilgrims swept down upon the Native American women and children, and began butchering the screaming innocents with long knives.
I knew this was the truth, that the sad reality of American history was that the Puritans had slaughtered all the Native American tribes near them, often killing the women and children while the warriors were gone from camp. But I did not expect this kind of film to take this turn of events. Fascinated, I leaned forward. There was a close up of one of the Puritans plunging his blade over and over again into the chest of a teenage girl. She wore her hair in long braids and had on a leather dress. The Pilgrim turned toward the camera, and I gasped. The face of the Puritan was my own. Then the movie ended abruptly. Terrified, I jumped up and almost knocked the projector over. How many beers had I had? Shaking my head, I told myself I must have imagined what I saw. With a trembling hand, I rewound the reel-to-reel and started it again. This time the beginning was as before. But when the scene of the murderous Pilgrim came into view, he was stabbing a different teenage Native American girl, slightly plumper, with hair that was not braided. But when the Puritan holding the bloody knife turned, once again the face was mine, and this time the image of me pointed a red, dripping finger in my direction. I think I shouted out loud, and then I switched off the projector. What the hell? Was I dreaming? Was this some sort of nightmare?
There was a knock on my door, and I heard my neighbor Elwood call my name. I was more than relieved. At once I decided to forgo my original decision to not answer the door all night. I wanted company, and wanted it bad. Elwood was not someone I particularly cared for, but he had always been a good customer of mine, and had always paid back the money he owed me on time. Hearing his voice brought me back to reality, and I felt as if I might have imagined what I had seen on the screen.
"Surely I couldn't have seen what I thought I did," I considered. "It must have been some kind of psychological delusion created by guilt.”
I quickly opened the door and was greeted by Elwood, and the love of my life, Tina Westwood. She was the hottest girl in the apartment complex, maybe even in the entire city, in my opinion. And she was wasted.
The blonde stumbled into my arms, gave me a quick kiss on the cheek and said, "I've got to use your bathroom." She hurried by me into my restroom.
I looked at Elwood in a questioning manner. For one thing, Tina had never given me the time of day. I'd had the hots for her for two years, and had done everything I could think of to get down her pants. She was one of the rudest girls I had ever encountered. Frankly, Tina considered me to be a lowlife drug dealer, and had let me know her opinion on this matter more than once. As far as I had always figured, she despised me. Somehow this had made me try harder to win her affections, to no avail.
Elwood smiled. "I brought you a little present for all the times you fronted me some stuff, brother.”
"What's she on?" I asked.
"She's just had a few beers. That's all Tina ever does. But I crushed up a couple of forget-me-pills and slipped them into her brew. The good old date rape drug has come to your emotional rescue. I've got to run."
And he was gone, shutting the door behind him.
Just then Tina came out of the john, and plowed directly into my arms.
"Baby," she said, "I feel like I've never seen you before."
Her words were slurred. She kissed my neck and licked a long line up my throat.
"Take me to heaven," she purred.
She looked like Aphrodite on a binge.
I noticed that Tina had unbuttoned her blouse a few notches while she was in the bathroom, and her ample cleavage showed clearly. Then she stumbled and practically fell backwards onto the couch. Her eyes weren't closed but she seemed almost hypnotized, semi-conscious. The split in her skirt was wide, exposing her thighs. I felt all the blood in my head moving southward. Her eyes closed even more. I thought of all the times that she had been a major bitch to me. Now was my opportunity for payback, and to realize my fantasy.
Then I thought of Brandy, dead on the gravel among all the washed up trash by the river. Why this came to my mind I wasn't sure. I thought of her face, and the faces of the Native American girls in the reel-to-reel film. Tina had leaned her head back, and was sprawled out with her legs slightly spread. Her hair was like blonde fountain of cascading curls and spirals. I caught a glimpse of her panties and had to count to ten. Then I reached down for her legs and moved them onto the couch. I pulled a Mexican blanket from my beat-up armchair, covered her with it, and went to my room to toss and turn for a few hours.
The next morning I was cooking eggs and bacon when Tina woke up. She looked around herself in confusion.
"What am I doing here?" she asked.
"Elwood brought you," I replied.
"I can't remember anything about last night," she said, looking at me suspiciously.
"Why can't I remember? What happened?"
"Nothing happened," I replied. "Nothing at all, but I wouldn't hang out with Elwood anymore. He slipped you a ruffie.”
"Oh my god," she said, dropping her head and rubbing her eyes.
"And you, you didn't take advantage of me?”
"No," I reached over and turned off the coffee maker.
"You can go see a doctor if you don't believe me.”
Tina looked at me thoughtfully.
"No," she replied. "I do believe you. If you had taken advantage of me, you wouldn't have told me Elwood slipped a pill into my drink. And I've been terrible to you since I've known you. I really underestimated you.”
"Don't worry about it," I replied, handing her a plate of bacon and eggs.
"I think I've been underestimating myself for a long time, too. Would you mind watching something for me?”
"What?" she asked.
"This old film."
I rewound the reel-to-reel, and started the movie about the pilgrims. Tina looked confused, but watched politely. To my amazement, after the scene in which the puritans and Native Americans feasted, the words "The End" came up on the screen, and the movie was over.
"Wait a minute," I said, and played the short film one more time.
Once again, there was no scene depicting the slaughter of the Native American women and children.
"What's your point?" asked Tina.
I sat and stared at the blank screen for a long moment.
"I think the point is about redemption and sacrifice," I replied.
Todd Hanks lives in the Ozarks and is a schizophrenic. His creative writing has appeared in publications such as Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine and the Kansas City Star newspaper.