Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Issue #6: December, 2010
***Winner of the 2011 Spinetingler Award for Best Short Story on the Web***
by Matthew C. Funk
Alvin knew even before Jay’s body had stopped shoving blood onto the asphalt that he had to get up. Jay’s dead limbs and the stink of new murder and the heat were heavy on Alvin, but he pushed hard to get up, not even knowing where it was he had to get to. Pain bleached his memory. He only knew he had somewhere to go and a life to save by getting there.
Alvin pushed and the gunshot wounds in his belly and chest pushed back. They pushed like expanding sponges, not painful so much as hot; the kind of heat that put the fricassee of New Orleans’ surrounding summer to shame.
His canvas shoes slipped in the blood of his friends’ three bodies as Alvin got his bearings. What survived of his thoughts stripped the necessary from the inconsequential.
He checked his Rolex. It was 12:02. This mattered.
“Motherfucker,” Alvin croaked. “Ain’t got long.”
The triggermen had long since peeled away in their car: A Cadillac. No, a Civic. No, not a Civic—a Rav 4; Dirty-30 thugs drove Rav 4s. No, it didn’t matter. What make and model had done Alvin’s boys in and nearly finished him off didn’t matter. Wondering on why this happened wouldn’t make a difference—living on the corners and project blocks of Desire District built up more reasons for murder than for survival. Only that they had been here and were now gone mattered—that meant he could get away. Alvin had a chance to get where he was going.
Alvin set to running. This mattered—he had to get to her.
To Marinette. He had to get to Marinette.
Alvin’s shoes left brushstrokes of blood in a staggered line down Law Street. It was 12:03. He had only an hour. Maybe less if his wounds were doing as quick a work as they felt.
“Come on, motherfucker.” Alvin snarled at himself. “Step it up.”
Alvin shook his head, dreadlocks blending afro-sheen with the sweat on his face. He would figure out later why he thought he had only an hour. For now, he had to keep going. He had to get to his girl.
12:10. Alvin made it to the end of the block and turned down Piety Street.
Impressions staggered around him like the footsteps: The warp of sirens, lurching in and receding. Shotgun houses of clapboard and radiant color shuffling by in tight rows. Advertisements painted on buildings with an inexpert hand that spoke modestly of ‘Cold Beer’, ‘Crawfish by the Pound’, ‘Jazz’, ‘Cards’, ‘Gas’, all the rough diet of New Orleans.
Worst of all were the faces—faces he thought he should recognize, but that turned away from him with a common cruelty; with the refusal to recognize him or his pain.
Maybe it was the cruelty that made them familiar. He had seen that look every day of his life in Desire District. Those looks had watched Alvin take punches and deal drugs and pull triggers and they had not cared then. They did not care now.
Marinette had cared. Alvin’s mind stitched together their shared history in the skips and drags of his wounded feet.
Marinette’s fingers, spreading like breath as they covered him with her bed sheet. Marinette, watching Green Acres on Nick At Night, her body sown with Alvin’s, as he watched what fantastic things her scent did to his mind. Marinette like a glass of coffee, standing by the barred window of her house, waiting for him.
Alvin knew she was waiting. He could not fix on why. He just knew she was in deadly danger.
He put more speed in his stumbles. That put more blood out of the holes in his gut and chest. And it stood to reason, Alvin figured, that those that had done dirt to him and his crew today would be a threat to her.
That was it, yes, Marinette’s life was in danger. He remembered that much now.
It was 12:12.
“Just fifteen more blocks to go.” Alvin said to the sun. The sun squatted, mean and big, on his face. New Orleans summer carved the wet out of his pores and gave it to the Mississippi air. Alvin spat at it and his spit came with blood.
“Ain’t nothing going to stop me.” Alvin swore. “I’m coming, baby. Don’t you worry.”
12:20, Alvin felt his feet floating in his shoes. The canvas was a cask of his blood, coughing it up with each step.
“Floats are for Mardi Gras.” Alvin had said to Marinette when she asked him to buy her a Coke float on their first date. “Gangsters live on the O.E.”
Dragging his left leg down Piety Street, Alvin tried to remember if the faded yellow-and-blue coffee hut he passed was where they had shared that first float.
“Is that what you think you are, Alvin?” Marinette had asked, giving him a look that could disprove gravity.
“Straight up. I’m all gangster.”
“Then you got it all wrong.”
“How you figure?”
He had taken a step back from her then, even as his fingers spread out for her with a thirst he hadn’t known existed until she stood by him.
“You got a mind and a heart bigger than any meanness you think you got to do.” Marinette had said. “I can see it in your eyes, trying to get out.”
“Maybe you need a closer look at my eyes.”
Maybe, Alvin wondered, that first date had been up on Humanity, at the grocery. Maybe it had been up at the Saint Roch Seafood and gas station, where the Interstate roared a promise of escape so amazingly vast and so out of reach.
“Maybe I do.” Marinette’s answer had brushed his chin for the first time. The look she put on him brought a new and necessary music to his heart.
The presence of that first date echoed around Alvin—he could not find it in one place; only in everywhere around. It was a vast and terrifying Interstate all its own, its traffic conducting what was left of him back to her.
“You sure?” He had asked her then. He had been afraid then. Alvin had been more afraid than he had ever been—more afraid than manning a corner, all alone with the police cruisers and the scowls of passing rival soldiers; more afraid than when his friend Deucy took one in the back of the head by the lockers between Remedial Math and English; more afraid than he could imagine himself to be.
He was sure now.
Marinette had put her lips on him then and from then on, Alvin had been surrendered to needing their return more than he needed breath.
“I’m sure.” Alvin spoke now, to keep his left foot sliding forward through all that heaviness.
Alvin was sure he needed Marinette’s lips, her fingers, the holiness of her watching him, than he needed anything—more than he needed to be bigger than the Projects; to be richer than his family’s food stamps and his stolen Rolex; to be feared.
His only fear now was that he would not reach Marinette in time, before the boys who shot him would knock her door in with bullets and not stop shooting until she was lost forever.
“I’m sure.” It kept Alvin’s legs moving with all the heat in them, all the heat leaking into his shoes, all the clustering heaviness.
He had to get back to feel those lips one last time before he gave up on breath.
12:30. Delirium would be a problem, Alvin knew.
Alvin talked to Marinette, her memory throbbing around him, as he lurched on, ten blocks to go.
“I ain’t fixing to die yet.” Alvin whispered to Marinette. His fingers worked the empty air and felt the gorse of her hair. “Don’t you fret about that.”
Marinette had been so long in replying then—they had been curled on her back porch, watching the night tint the June sky with flowery color, and its colors had been vivid as a plasma screen, putting on a program just for them.
Marinette had studied that program and spoke like reading its dialogue perfectly. “I’m just as worried about you killing part of yourself and going on living.”
“I gots to do what gots to be done, if I’m to stay alive.” Alvin had stumbled over those lines.
He stumbled now, the colors of the Piety Street houses pulsing around him: Pink and sea foam green and daffodil and dun. The smell of his blood, ripening the white cotton of his shirt, had a dark color all its own. It smelled like that night on her porch.
“You really believe walking away would be more trouble than pulling a trigger on that Dirty-30 boy?” Marinette had said.
Alvin felt regret as he recited what he had said to her then.
“What Parnell say need doin’, it’s as good as God’s own law.”
“You really believe that?” Marinette had kept reading the sunset, even as badly as Alvin needed her to look at him.
“You telling me that Parnell’s bigger than this?” And her fingers fit in his with perfect mathematics.
“No.” Alvin had said, overcome by the sum of those fingers.
“You telling me that you would let a little thing like God keep us apart?”
12:33, and Alvin knew that his left leg had already died, but that he would not let a little thing like that keep him from Marinette. Not now. Not before saving her. Not before one o’ clock. Not before her lips. Not ever.
Alvin clenched his fingers as he walked. It kept his heart pumping and his heart kept his good leg moving. That kept him moving toward Marinette, through times past, to a time when his grip could add itself to hers and never fear letting go.
12:34. Alvin whispered to Marinette through the blaze of sunset red that lidded his eyes. “I ain’t fixing to die yet.”
12:40. Five blocks to go, Alvin felt the urge to beg grab the base of his throat and pull.
His insides were cold now. His skin was sautéing in the hot blanket that the Mississippi smothered his skin with.
“Fuck the French Quarter,” Alvin sang to the slideshow of colorful houses. “Fuck those honky tourists. Fuck the Zulu King. We gonna make our own Mardi Gras here, better than any spectacle white folk come to take pictures of.”
Alvin had given Marinette a mask then and another mask every month after. Marinette had given him a Valentine’s card in sixth grade—a puppy with a full heart in its paws—and even then, it had felt like a promise shiny as gold and scarier than the streets ever could be. Alvin had given Marinette her first Mardi Gras mask that day in March and had hung beads on her naked body.
“This is just for us, baby.” Marinette had told him, tucking the words into Alvin’s mouth with her tongue.
“Just for us.”
12:42. Delirium summoned the smell of what that Mardi Gras spent alone had brought to her bedroom. Alvin pushed his nose toward it down Piety Street and kept his body following in step. The tempo of his steps echoed the mournful time of a jazz funeral.
One o’ clock, Alvin reminded himself—he had to get to Marinette’s by one o’ clock. It was life or death. The convulsive grasping of his fingers seized on this fact. He tried to remember why.
Those boys who shot him—that was why, Alvin thought; his fingers were to blame. Alvin sobbed out a blossom of blood as he remembered why.
He had let her fingers go that night on the back porch and he had let them pick up a gun. He had made them pull the trigger on C-Dog, the Dirty-30 boy Parnell had demanded that Alvin kill.
“Just for us.” Alvin whispered through the screen of blood.
But it had not been for Marinette and him. And watching C-Dog’s head open like a can of corn, his brains spraying out all yellow and gray, Alvin had felt sadness close him in its tomb. He had felt that boy’s death bury Marinette and him. In the silence after that gunshot, Alvin had heard the Interstate and the music of Marinette’s look and every promise their joined skin exchanged all close away.
That was why he had been shot—revenge from the Dirty-30. That was why he had to get to Marinette before one o’ clock. At one o’ clock, Alvin was certain without really knowing why, she would be dead.
It would be too late, just like the silence after the gunshot promised.
“Just for us.” Alvin tried to say, unable to form words with all the blood running from his mouth. He had two blocks left to go.
Alvin turned the corner at Clouet Street as the bass beat rumble of gangsters in a Rav 4 rose up behind him.
Alvin coughed with effort as he tried to turn for the cover of a nearby house.
He heard the window of the Rav 4 whirr down.
He heard the rubber of his limbs wail as he tried to run.
He heard the car speed up and feared his heartbeat was too slow to jump out of sight in time.
12:50, Alvin came back to consciousness to find himself caged by the sword grass of an alley way. A sense of dread hunkered on his chest, as big and as cruel a prison as ever lay over Desire District.
Alvin tried to place it as he shook upright.
Was it the grass? Marinette had a garden—a precious patch of honeysuckle and lilies that she fed and defended against the crush of wild growth that choked every space in Desire Distict.
“Baby girl,” Alvin muttered. “You forgot to trim the grass.”
Yes, Marinette’s garden needed her to tend it—Alvin remembered this—but that wasn’t the source of the dread. And yes, now his skin felt overgrown with running liquid—with seeds of sweat and blood hatching so fast he couldn’t hope to contain them. But no, that wasn’t the dread.
“Shit, baby, where you at? Why you let the garden get this way?”
It was nearly one o’ clock. That was it. One o’ clock meant Marinette was dead.
That was enough to get Alvin on his feet again, and to get those feet moving fast, burping blood from his shoes.
12:52. Three steps on, Alvin slowed, finding the sense to listen for the Dirty-30 before stepping onto the street. He picked up the rumbling wash of bass beats, rolling up and down Clouet street.
“I ain’t fixing to die yet.” Alvin promised Marinette, turning for the other end of the alley, where backyards collided in flaking chain link and spills of sword grass.
Alvin picked up speed toward Marinette’s house, stumbling over the low fences and under the sagging clotheslines, making for her backyard.
His thoughts felt slippery. His muscles wanted to slough from the bones. Alvin kept them moving, dread pushing his heart and his heart pushing what part of him was still alive.
He had let Marinette’s fingers go then. He would not let her go now. He would not let it be too late.
Marinette was not waiting in the window. The seat on the back porch they had shared was smothered in the scent of refineries and river water that stuck to everything in the Desire District summer. Alvin dragged himself up to the door and banged on the bars with a gripping hand.
No answer came. Alvin checked his watch as he leaned his arm on the door.
12:56. He banged again.
“Who the fuck creeping up back there?” Marinette’s mother’s voice came from inside.
“Open up!” Alvin croaked. “You got to open up! It’s urgent!”
“Alvin?” Marinette’s mother sounded more sad than worried—sad and bitter. “Why you come around here, boy?”
“Please open up, miss.” Alvin moaned. “I got to get in to Marinette and get us out safe!”
12:57. Marinette’s mother was working the locks so slowly. By the time she drew out the last bolt, Alvin couldn’t keep his feet. He tumbled in as the door opened.
Marinette’s mother’s body staggered back as they collided.
“Jesus wept, boy. What happened to you?”
Alvin felt more embarrassed than almost anything—more than anything but the fear he might be too late. He tried to peel himself off of the woman and stand, but the hot sponges inside him had soaked right through to his bones. Alvin could only lean into her embrace and leak what was left of him.
“Marinette, miss.” Alvin gasped. “I done wrong.”
“I know, boy. I know.” She held him but her hands didn’t move; didn’t dare comforting him.
“I done wrong and now they come for her.”
“Alvin…” Marinette’s mother said, the despair welling up into her mouth. He wanted to see her face—to make sure she understood the urgency. All he could see was the color of sunset now.
“I had to get here by one. One o’ clock, Marinette gonna be dead.”
“One o’ clock’s come and gone, Alvin.”
A last reflex of disbelief shook through his pain and got Alvin to lift his arm. It couldn’t be too late. He tried to see his Rolex. He couldn’t—he could only see the blood red blindness.
“Nah,” Alvin gave up on seeing his watch but would not give up on looking for Marinette. He had to see her—to see her looking at him and to feel that music again. He had to get to her. It had to not be too late. “Nah, it’s minutes before one.”
“Alvin, that one o’ clock has come and gone, son. You just rest.”
“You just rest now.”
“No,” Alvin tried to struggle but could only move the remains of his voice. Everything else seemed to be bleeding out—running out of him like the colors of the passing houses had, like that past sunset had, like he had let Marinette’s fingers slip from his. “No, I got to be here at one. One o’ clock, my Marinette’s dead”
“One o’ clock, a week back, was Marinette’s funeral, Alvin.” Marinette’s mother was stroking his face now. She wiped the blood away from his eyes but could not clean them of its color. “You were there, remember?”
12:59, Alvin remembered. He remembered arriving a week ago to find a house inhabited by the same endless silence that had begun when he pulled the trigger on C-Dog—a silence only cracked by the teary whispers of Marinette’s family and the click of tea cups like the phonograph hiss beneath an old Blues recording. He remembered how Marinette’s smell had been shrouded by the mothball stink of fine black clothing. He remembered standing there, stiff in that smell, knowing that Marinette’s murder was the work of the Dirty-30 and knowing that it was just a matter of time before they would finish him.
He remembered needing for it to not be too late. He remembered the promise of Marinette’s lips, louder than the Interstate and still so alive. Alvin had only stared then, trying to see the flowery colors of their shared sky in his future.
“Ain’t nothing going to stop me.” He tried to tell them.
1:00. Alvin stared into those colors now. Now and forever.
Matthew C. Funk is a professional marketing copywriter and social media consultant, a writing mentor and the author of several manuscripts that illuminate the beauty of human extremes. A graduate of the Professional Writing MFA at USC, his online work is featured at sites such as A Twist of Noir; Thrillers, Killers and Chillers; Flash Fiction Offensive; ThugLit; Powder Burn Flash; Pulp Metal Magazine and his Web domain.