Miranda's Dance

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Chapter Thirty-Seven

God, I wish that hadn’t happened. There’s an old saying: “Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.” Well, sometimes you get exactly what you wish you wouldn’t get. And that’s what exactly happened: I asked for a sign and I got one. I got a big, fucking, nasty sign from God and the worst part is, I don’t know what the fuck it means. Did he make me run across that girl in order to show me that my time was up and no matter what I do, this fucking place just keeps on going? Or did he do it so that I could help her out and maybe I’d decide that somehow there was still meaning to my life? Or was it something else entirely? What the fuck, God? Is this your idea of a joke? When I asked for a sign, I meant a burning bush or a bolt of lightning or a flock of angels descending from the heavens or something. I wanted something that was perfectly fucking clear! What the fuck is this shit? I’m not a prophet! I don’t know how to interpret your will! I don’t know what to make of this shit! Why the fuck did you do that to me? Why did you have to let me see her? Why did you have to bring her to me? What? So I could savor the knowledge of what I know is going to happen to her? You know I’m right! You saw her! She doesn’t have what it takes! She doesn’t have the strength to make it out here! She’s not even crazy! Do you honestly think she’s going to be able to do what I did? Do you think someone like Charlie’s going to take her under his wing and teach her all of the fucked-up things she needs to learn in order to survive out here? Did you think that was going to be me? What? I’m the fucking shepherd and she’s the little lost sheep? I’m not Charlie! I’m not even close! I’m not one ten-millionth of what Charlie is! I can’t do it! I can’t even save myself! So how the hell am I supposed to save anyone else? And do you think for a fucking minute that no matter what I tell her or what I do, that I really believe she’s going to get out of here? Do you think I don’t know that by this time tomorrow, she’ll be in a fucking alley down on her knees; choking on some dealer’s dick so she can pay for her next fucking fix? Do you think I don’t know she was fucking done for the minute she got here? Fuck you! Why did you do that to me? Why? Do you really hate me that much? Answer me!

Jesus Christ! What the fuck is wrong with me? I’m fucking crying over this shit? Why? What am I getting so upset over? What’s it to me, anyway? Someone else comes along and her life is fucked and she’s going to go through hell and die here, just like everyone else. So what? What do I care? She’s no different than the rest of us. We’re all fucked. This is our fate. It was the moment we set foot in this fucking place. So what if she’s one of us? If it hadn’t been her, it would’ve been someone else. Think of how many people just like her have come and gone. I came, and now I’m about to go. It’s like I said: one life ends and another one begins. One dies and someone else takes her place. Exit Miranda; enter Helen. So what if she’s fucking nineteen years old? So what if this fucking place eats her alive? Serves her right. Serves all of us right. We must have done something to deserve it, right? We all brought this shit on ourselves. She’s here and she’s a junkie and she’s cute and weak and that pretty much means she’s going to be whoring herself out for dope money. And when she’s not whoring herself out, she’ll probably be getting gang-raped. That’s how it goes in our sector. So what if I didn’t have to do it? So what if I was luckier than her? Someone has it worse than me and I’m supposed to feel like shit about it? Why? My life was no picnic. Think of all the people who are luckier than me. Just look up at that skyline. There’s fifty skyscrapers full of them. That’s what it all comes down to, you know: luck. Pure, dumb fucking luck. Most people have a lot of it. Some of us have very little. I didn’t have much, but I had more than Helen. I drew the short straw; she drew the shorter one. Sorry, honey. Somebody’s got to be the whore around here. What would skid row be without some woman whoring herself out for dope? These assholes want pussy and someone’s got to provide it. Looks like your number came up, kid. It’s nothing personal. It’s just the luck of the draw. So why should I give a shit?

Oh, who the fuck am I kidding? “Should” has nothing to do with it! What matters is, I do! I do give a shit! I wish I didn’t, but I do and I can’t stop it. I thought I was tougher than that. Maybe it’s because it’s all over for me and tonight’s been pure hell? Maybe that’s why I’m so fucking weak about this? You see, when you die, you leave everything behind. Evidently, that includes all of the armor you’ve built up over a lifetime. I guess mine’s in a pile in the corner, somewhere. I didn’t realize that until now. Maybe that’s why she got to me? Maybe it’s because she’s actually worse off than me? I wasn’t a junkie on the street with a boyfriend in jail when I was nineteen. I wasn’t even a junkie yet. I’m not much for the grand sisterhood, but the women out here always get to me. This one, more than most. God knows she’s not the first one I’ve met, but the others were pretty well fucked over by the time I ran into them. The truth is, it’s because I look in her eyes and I know she doesn’t have a fucking clue. She has no idea what’s waiting for her. But I do. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. I’ve dodged it and I’ve fought it and I’m afraid of it and I’m a part of it and I know all about it. Remember how I told you how I can’t stand to see someone in pain? There you go. Christ, it’s worse than that. She isn’t in pain yet, but I can still feel every fucking second of it. It’s like I look at her and I can feel every second of all of the searing, God-awful pain she’s ever going to feel out here. Her whole life from now on is all happening to me in a fucking microsecond. And I know one day she’ll be wandering these alleys, all burned-out and miserable, and she’ll decide that she can’t take it anymore. She’ll think about all of the fucked-up things that have happened to her. She’ll think about all of the times she fucked and sucked some goddamned pig for a fucking taste or maybe just for the privilege of being allowed to keep on breathing for another night. She’ll think about all of the times she got raped and how she always told herself she could handle it, right before she broke down naked on a bathroom floor and couldn’t stop shaking. She’ll think about all of the times she got her ass kicked and all of the times some asshole made her get down on her knees and beg him not to hurt her anymore. She’ll think about all of the times where some asshole had her so fucking scared that she’d do anything he told her to do, just to make it stop. Then she’ll think about how that just made him beat her even worse. She’ll think about how humiliated she felt afterward, and how she just wanted to die, but she didn’t. She wasn’t that lucky. She’ll think about the times she went to the cops begging for help and they just laughed at her. And then she’ll think of me. She’ll remember me. She’ll think I was the only person who could’ve saved her, but I didn’t. She’ll remember how I left her in the basement of a building; alone and scared out of her fucking mind. And she’ll hate me for that. She’ll hate my guts for leaving her in this fucking shithole. She’ll remember I gave her some good advice, but I didn’t take her by the hand and lead her out of here. Lead her to the Promised Land. To safety. She’ll hate me for that. She’ll hate me every day for the rest of her life. And she’ll be right.

And when she can’t take it anymore, she’ll think that maybe she can get one last useful piece of information from me. She’ll know what happened to me by then, and so she’ll ask someone to show her where I killed myself. Where’s the roof that Miranda jumped off of? Where’s the exact spot where she landed? Then she’ll make her way there and take one last look around, and then over she’ll go. Goodbye, everyone! Anything’s got to be better than this shit! Splat! Right on the pavement! Just like the fucking bitch who abandoned her all those years ago. God, I should’ve killed her myself! That’s what I should’ve done. I should’ve told her to close her eyes and take a deep breath and then I should’ve jammed my knife straight into the back of her head. Right near the bottom, where the skull opens up by the top of the neck. Right where Sid taught me. He said just three inches of blade jammed in there will scramble a person’s brains like a fucking egg. It’ll switch them off like a light. No pain. No feeling. No nothing. Just bang! Instant death. How merciful. That’s what I should’ve done. I should’ve killed her quick and painless. It was the only way I could’ve really helped her. But I didn’t. I didn’t even have the decency to do that for her. Instead, I gave her a lot of false hope and some bullshit pie in the sky story about how if she did everything right and stuck to the straight and narrow, she could get out of here in one piece. Why did I do that? I hate it when people lie to me. Why did I lie to her? Well, technically, it wasn’t a lie. Everything I said was true. And if she does it just like I said, she might have a shot at getting out of here. Yeah, right! A billion to one shot, maybe. I don’t know. She didn’t look like the whole truth of this shit had sunken in yet. Maybe I just couldn’t bring myself to kill whatever was left of her? You can do that with a word just as easily as with a knife. It’s true. That’s lesson number umpteen thousand and ten that I learned out here. The difference is, a word just kills the soul. A knife takes the body and sends the soul on its way. That’s why knives are better than words out here. They’re not cruel. They’re just sharp. Final. I don’t know. God, I just don’t know.

All right! Enough! Fuck this shit! I’m being an asshole! I need to stop feeling sorry for myself! And stop feeling sorry for her! You’re a fucking bitch, Miranda! What else is new? You want to do something for her? Do something useful: say a fucking prayer. Ask God to watch over her. She needs a goddamned miracle, and God’s the only one who can deliver one. Yeah, that’s a good idea. Really. That’s what I’ll do. That’s all I can do. God, please watch over Helen. I don’t know who she is or if she deserves to be out here, but even if she does, please get her out. Please don’t let the horrible things that you and I know are going to happen to her ever happen. I know it’s too late to save me, but could you please save her? She’s just a kid and kids shouldn’t know about this place. This place shouldn’t happen to kids. Get her out of here, God. And not in a body bag. Get her out of here and make it so she has a nice, long life. It doesn’t have to be great. Just nice. Just bearable. You can do that. You’re God. You can do anything. You can fix anything. I know I’ve been asking you for a lot tonight and you’re probably going to be really pissed at me when you see me later, but don’t take it out on her, OK? She’s not me. She looks like she’s OK. She looks like she’s salvageable. I think there’s still something worthwhile in her. Get her the fuck out of here, God. Please? Amen.

Damn! I’m almost out of time. All of that shit took longer than I thought. Well, sitting here crying about it took longer than I thought. I need to dry my eyes and get down to business. I’ve got to focus now. I’ve got to get moving again. I’ve got to get to the liquor store and give the letter to Carl. Then it’s off to Miranda’s Place to finish it. The liquor store’s not far from here. At least that’s something. God damn! My legs are really sore! And my fucking ankle is killing me! The brace isn’t helping much anymore. It’s actually starting to chafe me now. I guess I overdid it. Angelo told me to stay off of it. So what did I do? I pretty much ran a fucking marathon obstacle course on it. Way to go, Miranda! Hey, I don’t listen to doctors, so why would I listen to a paramedic, right? Anyway, at least it’ll be over soon. I can live with it for a little while longer. I’m used to pain. I hate it, but I’m used to it. I just hope to God Carl’s where he said he’d be. Jesus, he’d better be there! I’ll fucking kill someone if he isn’t! I’ll kill the first asshole I see and tack the letter to his head with my knife! That way, the cops can give it to Charlie after they blast my ass! Can you believe it? There I go again! Calm down, Miranda. Get a hold of yourself. Think positive. Hey, if there’s a couch to sleep on, then he’s fucking there. Those things are priceless out here. There are plenty of people who would kill you just to sleep on a good couch. Shit, there are people out here who would kill you just to sleep on a bad one.

There it is: the liquor store. Collings’ Liquor, to be exact. We don’t pay much attention to the names. We just refer to them as the liquor store next to this place or near that one. Places are more important to us than names. Mother of God! I didn’t think I’d make it! I feel like I’m going to puke again! I ache everywhere! My ankle is swollen up like a fucking tree trunk! God damn! I need a rest! I need to get off my feet for a minute. No! No, I don’t have a minute! I’m running out of time. I’ve got to finish this. I’ve got to find Carl. He said that couch was near the bushes. That’s behind the store, at the edge of the parking lot. It’s a popular crash spot during the summer. I hope there aren’t a shitload of people crashed out back here right now. I don’t want to deal with anybody else tonight. I don’t want any more surprises. No more, God. Please? I swear, I’m all used up.

Now, what makes this a popular crash spot is the fact that it’s pitch fucking dark back here. You literally can’t see your hand in front of your face. I never had any trouble sleeping with lights shining on me, but a lot of people out here do. A truly dark spot that doesn’t feel too much like a coffin is a real find out here.

“Carl? Hey, Carl? Are you here?”

Oh, fuck! What the fuck was that? Great! I just slammed my fucking knee into the goddamned planter! Oh, shit! That hurt like a fucking bitch! Right on the goddamned kneecap! Fuck this shit! Where are those fucking matches? Light one! Hell, light a bunch! Who cares if I set the place on fire? I’ll drag Carl’s drunken ass to safety and everyone else can go to hell! I need to see where I’m going! Anything’s better than this shit!

That’s not much better. A match isn’t exactly a torch. Still, I can see a little bit. But I don’t see anyone back here, and I sure as hell don’t see a fucking couch!

“Carl? Hey, Carl! Where the fuck are…oww! Mother fuck!

Son of a bitch! That fucking hurt! I hit something else! Well, I guess I found the fucking couch! With the same fucking knee! Christ! This place is going to cripple me!

“Hey, Carl! Say something, would you? Are you back here? You’d fucking better be back here!”

“What the hell? What you be doin’ bangin’ on my goddamned bed? Motherfucker!”

My luck’s improving. I think I found him. Hooray for me.

“Carl? Is that you?”

“Who’s askin’?”

“It’s me, Miranda.”


“Miranda! You know, Red! The red-haired chick! It’s me!”

“Red? Oh, damn! What you be doin’ here, girl?”

God, is he ever three fucking sheets to the wind! This could be a problem!

“I’m looking for you! You said you’d be here, remember? You said that if I gave you a letter, you’d make sure Charlie got it when he gets out of the hospital. Remember? You said you’d give it to him.”

“I did?”

Oh, this is going to be fucking fun! Rule number umpteen thousand and fifty regarding major fucking drunks: never wake one up unless you absolutely have to! They’re a goddamned migraine! They’re also completely brain-dead. This is going to be like pulling teeth!

“Yeah, you did. Remember?”

All I’ve got is a match to see by, so he can probably see even less. In his condition, I probably look like a ghost to him. I hope he doesn’t think he’s hallucinating. What I wouldn’t give for a floodlight right now.

“Carl? You remember, don’t you?”

“Uh, yeah. I think so. Yeah. Yeah, I remember.”

“OK, then. Here it is.”

“Here’s what?”

See what I mean? Completely, utterly, totally brain-dead! This is what he gets for drinking fucking Cisco!

“The letter! This is the letter you said you’d give to Charlie!”

“You want to give him somethin’? Why don’t you give it to him yourself?”

Oh, my God! This is going to take fucking forever! Maybe I should just tack it to his head? He sure as hell wouldn’t feel it!

“I can’t. Charlie’s in the hospital, remember? I won’t be here when he gets out. I need you to give this to him when he gets out. As soon as you see him. It’s important.”

“What the hell you mean, you won’t be here when he gets out? Where you be goin’ to, girl?”

Believe it or not, this is pretty much how I expected this conversation to go. It doesn’t make it any easier, though. And the searing pain I’m feeling over every inch of my body isn’t doing wonders for my fucking patience.

“I have to…I have to go somewhere. I have to go away. I won’t be here when Charlie gets out of the hospital.”

“Why the fuck not? You here now, ain’t you?”

“What? Yeah, I’m here now! But Charlie isn’t! He’s in the hospital. Remember?”

“No, he ain’t.”

Oh, God! Give me strength! Fucking drunks! I really think they had the right idea with that prohibition shit!

“Yes, he is! They took him away in an ambulance the other day. Remember?”

“Yeah, I remember. I ain’t stupid, you know.”

“I know you’re not stupid. But Charlie’s in the hospital, and I won’t be here when he gets out. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”

“And I’m sayin’ he ain’t there no more! That’s what I’m tryin’ to tell you!


“Charlie ain’t in the hospital no more!”

“What are you talking about?”

“He’s out. They done threw his ass out.”


“Today, I guess. I don’t know for sure. I just know he’s out.”

My God! Charlie’s out of the hospital? Is it true? I mean, is he just saying that because he’s drunk? Is he delusional? Drunks get delusional sometimes. They mix shit up. No, Carl’s never been delusional. He doesn’t mix shit up. God, is it true? Did he really see Charlie?

“How do you know?”

“How do I know what?”

“How do you know Charlie’s out of the hospital?”

“On account of I done seen him. If I done seen him, then he ain’t in the hospital no more.”

“You’ve seen him? Tonight?”


“Where? Carl! Where did you see him? When did you see him?”

“Over by the hotel. A couple hours ago, I guess.”

Christ! There must be fifty fucking hotels he could be talking about! Which one? Shit! He’s fading out. If he goes back to sleep, I’ll never wake him up again. He’ll be dead to the world until he sleeps it off. That’s not going to fucking happen! No fucking way!

“Carl! Which hotel? Which one?”

“Which one what?”

“Which one did you see Charlie at?”

“Uh, the white one.”

Well, that narrows it down to about ten. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or the strength to search them all. I need to narrow this shit down!

“Which white one? The Dunross? The Lex? The Forsythe? The one over by the awning?”

“No, not that one. It’s the one…you know that one…it’s ah, it’s…it’s by that place where they fix the cars. You know that one? With the Mexicans? Motherfuckers got all them car parts out front, but they won’t let you take none of ’em to sell. Cheap-assed motherfuckers! They got plenty! Probably ’cause they done stole them motherfuckers!”

I know that place! It’s about four or five blocks from here. It’s a transmission shop. The hotel across from it is the Mayflower. It’s a major fucking crackhead dump. What would Charlie be doing over there?

“The Mayflower? Carl, wake up! Are you talking about the Mayflower?”

“Yeah! That’s the one!”

“You’re sure?”

“Fuck, yeah! It’s the Mayflower! Right by that place where they fix the motherfuckin’ cars!”

“And you saw Charlie there tonight? You’re sure it was him?”

“You don’t think I know Charlie when I see him? Motherfuckin’ him and me been friends since before your ass was even born! Of course it was him!”

“Did you talk to him?”

“Yeah, a little. He wasn’t up for talkin’ too much. He didn’t look too good, you know. Got a touch of the flu or somethin’. Motherfucker ought to be in a goddamned hospital!”

“Thank you! Thank you, Carl! I love you! You just saved my fucking life!”

Well, sort of, anyway. You definitely just saved my fucking night!

“Ah, you’re welcome, honey. You know I love you, don’t you?”

“I love you too, Carl! You just made my night!”

I can’t believe it! He’s here! Charlie’s here! Thank you, God! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! OK, think about this for a minute! Don’t lose your head, Miranda! A lot of shit’s gone wrong tonight. I can’t blow this one. I don’t have time. What if Carl’s wrong? What if Charlie isn’t there? What if I can’t find him? I need to cover all the bases. I know! I’ll give the letter to Carl. If I find Charlie, I’ll say goodbye and tell him Carl’s got the letter. If I don’t find him, then Carl will give it to him later. Either way, I’ll get my message to him. That’ll work!

“OK, Carl! Carl! Listen to me! I need you to take this letter for Charlie. It’s right here. It’s got his name on the front so you’ll remember. It says ‘Give this to Charlie.’ See? You give this to him the next time you see him. As soon as you see him! It’s very important! Do you understand?”

“Yeah, I understand! I told you, I ain’t stupid!”

“I know you’re not. You’re a prince.”

“Damn right!”

“Here, I’m just going to fold this up and put it in your pocket. I’m going to put it right here. You need to remember this, OK? You need to remember to get this to Charlie. Will you do that?”

“Sure, I’ll do it! Next time I see his ass!”

“Thanks, Carl! I love you!”

“I love you too, girl! Didn’t I tell you that already? I thought I did?”

“Yeah, you did. Lots of times. Goodbye, Carl. God bless you.”

God, do something really nice for him, please! Something that doesn’t involve a bottle of Cisco, but something really nice! He just made my fucking life!

I don’t believe it! Charlie’s out of the hospital! I don’t believe it! Thank you, God! Thank you! This almost makes up for all of the shit I went through tonight. I can see him after all! Yes! Now I can say goodbye the way I wanted to. I won’t have as much time as I wanted, but anything’s better than nothing. OK, let’s get moving. Oh, God! My ankle is fucking killing me! Everything’s killing me! Fuck it! I don’t care. I don’t care if my fucking foot falls off. I can do it. I can get there. It’s not so far. Shit, I don’t care if I have to hop on one foot. I’m not going to blow my last chance to see Charlie. Wait a minute! What the hell is he doing out of the hospital? Carl said he didn’t look too good. Carl’s pretty big on understatement when it comes to shit like that. He said Zach didn’t look too good about thirty seconds before he had a fucking heart attack and dropped dead. I know. I was there. So why the fuck did Charlie leave the hospital if he’s in such bad shape? It’s probably like Carl said: they threw his ass out. An old, black homeless guy? They must’ve decided he didn’t have any insurance and tossed him out the door as soon as they were sure he wasn’t going to die right there. They do it to all of us. Then again, he might’ve just walked out the first chance he got. As you’ve heard already, Charlie hates hospitals with a passion, and he can be really pigheaded sometimes. God, I hope he’s all right! Just let me get there in time, God! Just let me see him! Just let me say goodbye to him like I wanted to. You can do whatever you want to me after that. It’s the last thing I’ll ever ask of you. Please just give me this.

God, how the fuck am I going to get over there? It’s not too far – maybe about half a mile – but I’m a fucking wreck! I barely made it this far! I honestly don’t know if I have the strength to hobble over there. I can’t take a bus. There aren’t any. Only a few busses still run at this hour, and they sure as hell don’t run through this part of town. Oh, fuck it! I’m just going to have to suck it up and start walking. I may drop dead before I get there, but I don’t have any choice. I have to try. I have to see Charlie. No one’s going to give me a ride, so it’s walk or nothing. I have to walk. Maybe I can adjust this ankle brace? Maybe that will help? I don’t really know how to adjust it. I guess I can pull the straps tighter. Not too tight, though. Even with this brace on, I can see my ankle’s already swollen up pretty bad. If I pull it too tight, I’ll cut off the fucking circulation! All right, let’s see…oh, fuck! That hurt! That hurt like a motherfucker! Not so tight! A little looser. That’s it. Just enough to support it. That’s better. I can do this. I can make it over there. God, please let Charlie be there! I can’ be searching all over the fucking sector for him! No way can I do that! Just let him be over at the Mayflower!

Now that I think about it, I really wish he’d picked somewhere else to crash. That fucking Mayflower’s a pretty dangerous place. Like I said, it’s a crackhead place. It attracts a lot of real psychos. Lots of fights. Lots of stabbings. Lots of other shit that usually results in half of your fucking blood winding up on the pavement. It’s one of the many places I try to avoid, but if Charlie’s there, then I don’t give a shit if it’s the ninth circle of hell! I’m going! I’m going to find Charlie! I’ll just have to be extra careful. I’m in no shape for a real fight. Charlie says the only thing better than winning a fight is avoiding one. That’s what I’m going to have to do: avoid one. I’ll have to get in there quietly, without anyone seeing me. While I don’t know the place too well, I do know a couple of ways to get in there that don’t involve the front door. God, I hope there isn’t a crowd over there. Since it’s almost certain to rain tonight, there’s a pretty good chance that there’s going to be someone there looking to stay dry. If they see me, they’ll think I’m trying to steal their squat and the fight’s on. There won’t be any talking them out of it. They’ll beat the living dog shit out of me to get me out of there. I can’t let that happen.

Oh, shit! Speaking of being careful! Right up ahead! Cops! They’ve got a bunch of guys on their knees, up against the wall. Yeah, that’s not surprising. Metropolitan Hardware got hit tonight. That’s always going to put the cops on high alert for the rest of the night. And look who they’ve got jacked up! Right there; second from the right: it’s fucking Cole! Down on his knees, with his hands behind his head! Good! I hope they throw his ass in jail. Even if they can’t find anything to lock him up for, they can always hang a bullshit case on him. I don’t usually approve of that, but in Cole’s case, I’ll make an exception. He deserves it. But what the fuck is he doing way over here? He should be over by the missions at this hour. That’s where he usually hangs out late at night. Yet another reason why I avoid those places. So why is he here? Maybe the cops did a sweep over by the main drag by the Shepherd Mission? When they do that, everybody scatters. They spread out, and the smart ones go someplace where they think the cops won’t be – like this place. Well, at least they grabbed him for something. I definitely don’t want to run into him again tonight. Christ, can you imagine if that girl Helen ran into him? I don’t even want to think about that one. Please, God! Throw his ass in jail! Lock him up and weld the fucking bars shut! I fucking hate that asshole!

I can’t just walk past them. Well, I could, but I won’t. I’m not going to take a chance that those cops are out here by themselves. Cops on skid row usually don’t work that way; especially if those are Midwatch cops. They always have their backup close by. Whoever they are, if they’re here, then there’s probably at least one more cop car nearby. If they see me, then they’ll jack my ass up for sure. And I’m still wanted for kicking that cop in the face. I’m in no shape to take off running again. I’ll have to take the long way around to get to the Mayflower. Fortunately, the long way isn’t really that long out of my way. Still, with the way I ache from head to toe, it’s just going to add to my misery. But hey, if it gets me to see Charlie tonight, then it’s worth it. Anything’s worth that.

“You! Lady! Stop right there!”

Oh, fuck! I told you there had to be another cop car nearby! Fucking spotlight! There’s no way I can run! All right, put my hands up and hope they aren’t looking for me. Maybe they’re just jacking everybody up in the sector? I mean, they didn’t see me back at Metropolitan. Or at that fucked-up garment heist. I might just be able to bullshit my way out of this. Just be nice and respectful and act like I don’t have a fucking clue. As long as that isn’t Hoekstra in that car, I might just pull it off.

“All right, officer! I’m not doing anything!”

“Just keep your hands where we can see them!”

You’re damned right I will! If I make a move for my coat, you’ll probably shoot me in the fucking gut! See? They’ve both got their guns out. Just take it easy, guys!

“I’m not armed or anything. What do you want?”

At least they turned the spotlight off. Now I can see them. Thank God it’s not Hoekstra. I don’t recognize either one of them. That could be a good thing or a bad thing.

“What are you doing here, lady?”

“Just walking. I’m homeless.”

“So what are you doing over here? The missions are east of here.”

I guess these two don’t know how things work out here. Only a fucking rookie would think the missions were a good place for a woman at night.

“I don’t hang out at the missions, officer. I’m not looking to get raped or killed. That’s why I like to keep moving at night.”

“Uh-huh. Are you a whore?”

Oh, here we go! Talk about fucking stereotypes!

“No, I’m not a whore. I’m a junkie. Do you want to see my tracks?”

“So what happened to you? You look like you got your ass kicked pretty bad. Who did that to you?”

I’m not going to say Ricky. Loomis already knows he did it, but there’s nothing he can do about it. So there’s nothing this guy can do about it, either. And I’d rather those guys over there didn’t hear me snitching off Ricky. A lot can happen between now and when I jump. I don’t want to take that chance.

“Some asshole beat the crap out of me. I don’t know who he is. I didn’t recognize him. And I think he did it just for the hell of it.”

“No reason?”

“Does anyone need a reason to beat the crap out of someone out here?”

“You’ve got a point. So what do you do for money?”

“I panhandle. I don’t have my cup with me, but I’d be happy to accept a donation.”

At least that got a laugh out of them. That means they’re less likely to kick the shit out of me. Maybe my luck’s improving?

“Sorry, honey. We wouldn’t want you spending it on dope. Do you have any warrants?”

“Not unless they popped up in the last few hours since the other cops jacked me up. And no, I don’t have any dope on me. Or needles, or razor blades, or machineguns. Just what you see.”

At least they put their guns away. I won’t be getting shot in the gut tonight. The cop on the right is looking at his watch. Good! That means he won’t want to fuck with me. At this hour? He’s got to be looking forward to going home. Loomis said his watch got held over. These guys might be part of that, which means they’ve been here for a long fucking time. They’re probably tired as shit. Just play it up and let them know I’m not worth the trouble. That should do it.

“Officer, you can search me if you want. I swear, I don’t have anything on me. I’m just walking around. I do that a lot. Ask Officer Loomis if he’s still working. He’ll tell you.”

“You know Loomis?”

“Doesn’t everyone out here? He knows me. I’m Miranda.”

“Oh, you’re that crazy chick who spins around and talks to herself, right?”

I see my reputation precedes me. But judging how these two let their guard down, I think that’s a good thing. They’re going to give me the brush-off.

“That’s me. So why did you guys stop me?”

“Just routine. There’s a lot of shit going on tonight. So where are you headed? And don’t give me any bullshit stories! If you’re this far over, then you’ve got a destination. Where are you headed?”

I’d better not lie to him. If I slip up, he’ll probably know it. And why should I lie? What does he care if some homeless bitch heads over to the Mayflower? It’s a junkie-homeless spot. It’s not like they’re going to care if I go over there.

“I’m headed over to the Mayflower. It’s going to rain tonight, so I need a place to crash. It’s a good place to stay out of the rain. They’ve got overhangs and shit.”

“Are you sure you’re not going over there to score some dope?”

“If I were looking for dope, I’d be headed over to the Narrow Alley. What they’ve got is a hell of a lot better than anything you’re going to find over at the Mayflower. Besides, the Mayflower’s mostly crack. I don’t go for crack. It makes me jittery.”

Now they’re really cracking up. Too bad I’m going to die tonight. These guys seem alright. I’d try to remember their names if I were going to be around any longer.

“Officer, I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Are you new, here?”

“I’m new to Midwatch. My name’s Ruiz. This is my partner, Officer Rosen. He just got to the division. I think we’re going to cut you a break tonight, Miranda. We’ll take your word for it that you don’t have any warrants. But I don’t want to see you around here anymore tonight. Like I said, a lot of shit’s been going on, and you don’t want to get mixed up in it. Fair enough?”

“Fair enough. You won’t see me again tonight, officer. I give you my word.”

“Would Officer Loomis trust you?”

“Strangely enough, he really would. He knows I keep my word. It’s one of my few saving graces. Ask him if you don’t believe me. I’ll wait.”

That seems to have convinced him. What Charlie is to the homeless on skid row, Officer Loomis is to the cops who work the downtown area. His name is almost like magic, which is one of the reasons why I’ve always tried hard to stay on his good side. It’s paid off more than once. I guess in a way, he and Charlie are two sides of the same coin. How weird is that? But then again, on skid row? It just works, somehow. That’s skid row logic for you.

“No need. I don’t think you’d have mentioned him if he wouldn’t vouch for you. You’re free to go.”

“Are you going to keep those guys over there?”

“Why? Who are they to you?”

“Nobody. But that white guy with the baseball hat? The one named Cole? He’s a major asshole. I wouldn’t mind if you threw him in jail.”

“I hear you, but I’m afraid we can’t do that. He doesn’t have any warrants. But you’re right about the asshole part. He definitely needs to go to jail. But don’t worry. A guy like him is going to fuck up sooner or later. He’ll be behind bars before you know it. And with his record, he probably won’t be getting out.”

Unfortunately for me, that’s not soon enough. In a few hours, it won’t matter. But right now, I don’t like the idea of him being so close to me. He’s looked over here a couple of times, so he knows I’m here. That’s not good. In fact, I wonder if he’s the one I’ve been seeing all night? I thought it was just my imagination or paranoia or whatever, but seeing him right over there? I don’t know. Has he been following me?

“Could you at least hang onto him until I’m gone? I’d rather he didn’t follow me.”

“We’ll see what we can do. Maybe we’ll relocate him for the night? Take him over to the north end of the division. We’ll ask the Sarge if he’ll let us do it. You have a good one, Miranda.”

Jesus, talk about famous last words! Yeah, it’ll be a good one: the last one ever for me. That’s about the only good thing that’s happened tonight. Well, besides some of the conclusions I’ve come to. God, I just want it to be over. I want to find Charlie and finish this thing. I don’t have anything left in me to do anything else. I’ll be lucky if I can do that much. Just one more favor, God. Let me find Charlie. Let me find him and say goodbye. You can do whatever you want to me after that. I don’t think I even care anymore.

God, I can’t take another step! Fuck! The Mayflower’s still a few blocks from here, but I’ve got to sit down. I’ve got to take a break. Jesus, what the fuck was I thinking? What made me think I could just tough it out and make my way over there? Most people don’t have a clue what it’s like to be beaten within an inch of your life. It’s times like this that I think about those TV shows and movies where the hero gets his ass kicked massively and somehow continues to fight as if nothing had happened to him. Fucking bullshit! No one can take that kind of a pounding and keep going like nothing happened. I don’t give a shit how tough you are. The human body isn’t designed to take that shit, and that bullshit about how you can just tune out the pain is exactly that: bullshit! I want to scream! I want to cry! I want to fall over on the fucking sidewalk and just die! I ache! Everything hurts! Every step on this fucking ankle is like someone’s hitting me with a goddamned hammer! My eye’s swelling up. I can feel it. It’s hard to focus my vision. And my gut feels like I swallowed a fucking stick of dynamite and it just exploded! I wanted to make some sense of this place before I cashed in, and this is it: pain! That’s what this fucking place is all about! Nothing but pain! It hurts! Skid row fucking hurts! That really sums it up. Everything about this place is designed to hurt you in one way or another, and it works. So much pain. So much misery. So much heartache. These are the price of failure. Total failure. If you fail at life, then you’re destined for unending, searing pain. It’s a sick fact of life: failure isn’t its own punishment. It’s not enough. No, failure comes with a penalty as well as a price, and everything that’s happened to me tonight is living proof of that. I wasn’t good enough to make it, and so I have to pay for that. Me and everybody else. I guess some people just handle it better than I do. I think it has to do with your capacity for cruelty. The more you have, the less it hurts. I don’t have any, so I never get to know anything but pain. Hatred isn’t enough. Anger isn’t enough. Outrage isn’t enough. Intelligence sure as hell isn’t enough. No, only your capacity for deliberate cruelty is enough. If you don’t have it, you’re fucked. It’s as simple as that. Skid row really is the devil’s place. He makes the rules. They’re evil rules. Evil rules for an evil place. Evil rules for evil people. Any trace of a soul marks you as a victim. You can’t hide it and you can’t get rid of it. I don’t care what you do, you’re stuck with it. You know how people talk about selling their souls to the devil? Well, it’s bullshit. You can’t do it. If you can’t give it away, then you can’t sell it. You’re stuck with it. Even if it’s just a tiny little speck, you’re stuck with it. And that means you’re stuck with all of the baggage that comes with it. And that baggage is just another word for victim out here. I’m living proof of that.

I have to be careful, now. If I’m not careful, I’ll fall asleep. Either that, or I’ll pass out from the pain and exhaustion. I can’t let that happen. God, I just want to close my eyes! I just want to go to sleep! I wish to God that I could go to sleep and never wake up. Unfortunately, I know that won’t happen. I’ve got to finish it. I’ve got to find Charlie, and then I’ve got to make my way back to Miranda’s Place for the final act. I can do it. I can finish it. I just need to catch my breath. I can sit here for a minute. Just a minute. That’s enough. One minute’s rest. That’s more than I’ve gotten on more nights than I care to remember.

I need to keep talking. If I keep talking, I won’t pass out. I’ll be able to keep going. So I need to keep talking. Anything. Talk about anything. You want to hear something really crazy? Right now, I feel so…so alone. I don’t know if you’d call it feeling lonely. Feeling lonely is when you’re all alone and you wish there was someone with you. It’s not like that. I just feel like…I don’t know how to put it. I feel like I’m the only person left in the world. It’s like everyone else doesn’t really exist. I feel separate. Yeah, that’s good way to put it. I feel separate from everyone else. I always have, to some degree. It’s part of my curse. But right now, I’m pretty sure I’ve never felt so alone in my life. I guess that’s to be expected when I’ve got less than two hours to live. I always knew that on the last night of my life, I’d be spending most of it inside my head. Why not? That’s where I’ve spent most of my life anyway. But right now, it feels a million times worse. It’s almost as if I’ve got the whole world to myself. It’s not a good feeling. It feels kind of like I got left behind while everyone else took off for parts unknown. I don’t know where they went, and I probably couldn’t go there if I did. It’s just me and skid fucking row. It feels so…empty. That’s weird, because one thing skid row isn’t is empty. If it were empty, it wouldn’t exist. The normal people would reclaim it, disinfect it, knock down all of the abandoned buildings and the alleys and all of the other shitholes and build something nice. No one would ever know it had been here. I’ll bet a lot of people in the Emerald City dream about that day. Fat chance, assholes! This place is never going away. As long as some people are destined to lose everything, skid row will just keep on going. It’s a disease with no cure. And every day, it infects someone else. And it does it in every city in America. And almost nobody realizes it. God, how is that even possible?

So I’m all alone. It’s just me and you and God, if he’s listening. The devil would be here, but I’ll bet he’s got better things to do. I sincerely hope so. What is it the Irish say? Let your soul be in heaven an hour before the devil knows you’re dead. God, I hope so. When you feel this alone, you begin to think that killing yourself is a terrible crime. I mean, if you’re the only one left in the world, then you sort of have an obligation to stick around. The fate of the human race is on your shoulders. Once you’re gone, then that’s it: no more human race. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s kind of how I feel right now. But it doesn’t matter. This night is all of the fucking proof I’ll ever need to convince me that I’ve lived too long. The optimists say it’s not the years in your life, but rather the life in your years. Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not the years in your life, but the living hell in those years. Everything that’s happened to me – in my life and especially tonight – is God sending me a great big fucking message: come home now, you stupid bitch! How much clearer can I be? Get your ass up here! You’re through! Enough, already! Get your head out of your ass and take a fucking hint! Don’t worry, God. I hear you. I hear you loud and clear.

I wonder what I’m going to miss? I don’t mean miss like I’m going to miss ice cream or summer days or shit like that. I mean, I wonder what things are going to happen that I’m going to miss? What would I have been around to see if I lived to be eighty or ninety, like Charlie? God, he’s seen a lot of shit. What would I have seen? Would we have someone land on Mars during my lifetime? Would we discover a cure for AIDS or some incredible shit like that? A cure for cancer? Christ, maybe they’ll discover a cure for TRD? Yeah, that would be some ridiculous shit! Miranda died last year? Too bad. We finally found a cure for her. Oh, well. A day late and a dollar short. No, I can’t believe that would happen. I honestly don’t believe they’ll ever find a cure for what fucked me up. I gave up on that shit before I could legally buy a drink. But what will I miss? World War III? Now that would be something to see: the whole fucking world turned into a shithole just like this one. Jesus, we’d be on top! We’d be the only ones who knew how to handle it! For us, it would be just another day and night. A little lethal radiation? Big fucking deal! We’re probably immune to it. I’m sure we get plenty of that as it is. You know, I’d really like to have seen that happen. It would’ve been good for a laugh.

The only one I’m really going to miss is Charlie. I honestly feel bad about leaving him. I mean, he doesn’t need me. He doesn’t need anyone. But I know he likes having me around. I know he cares about me. If he didn’t, then he sure as hell would’ve kicked me to the curb years ago. I know he’ll understand – hell, he’ll probably be surprised that it took me so long to finally do it – but that doesn’t make me feel any better about leaving him behind. Then again, it probably won’t be for too long. He’s older than dirt, and he’s obviously in bad shape. I don’t think he’s going to last too much longer. God, if I weren’t going to kill myself tonight, that thought would scare the living shit out of me. I wouldn’t want to stay one minute out here if he were gone. Not one fucking minute. This place wouldn’t be the same without him. Without Charlie, there wouldn’t be anything left that’s worth hanging onto. How’s that for crazy?

So I should run into him pretty soon, once I get up there. Heaven, I mean. Hey, maybe I’ll run into him right away? They say there’s no such thing as time in heaven, so maybe a few years will go by and I won’t notice it at all? I’ll get there and I’ll turn around and he’ll be right there behind me. I’ll say, “How did you get here so fast?” He’ll give me that look he gives me whenever I say something really stupid and he’ll say, “Girl, you’ve been gone for three years! I just got here! What? You didn’t bring your goddamned watch with you? Three years! What the hell have you been doing up here that three years goes by and you don’t even notice?” Yeah, that’s Charlie for you. God, it’ll be so great to be up there with him. And then one day, my whole family will be up there, too. They’ll be there and we’ll be together again and it won’t matter what happened down here. I’ll never have to worry about it again, and I won’t be afraid of them finding out about all of the horrible things that I’ve done. None of that will matter anymore. I’ll have left it all behind. That’ll be the miracle of all miracles. I can’t wait.

But first things first: I need to find Charlie, and then I need to get up there. I’ve been sitting here long enough. Yeah, I still ache like a motherfucker, and my eye is about half swollen shut. I can feel it. My ankle feels like it’s about to break in two. But I can’t rest here any longer. God, how I want to! I feel like I got run over by a car! I think that says it best. Every fucking inch of my body is killing me. I think tonight counts as the second-worst pounding I’ve ever taken. The worst was that gauntlet, courtesy of Hoekstra and his psycho friends. Thank God that didn’t happen tonight. There’s no way I could fight through that much pain. But I can fight through this. I ache and I’m tired and my mind’s coming apart at the seams, but I can do this. I can hold it together for a little while longer. Just a little while. Just long enough. I can do it. I have to do it. I have to get moving. Just tell the pain to go fuck itself. In a very short time, it’ll all be gone.

The Mayflower’s not too far from here. I have to figure out the best way to get there. That cop let me go, but the next one might not. They’re definitely ramping it down for the night, but that doesn’t mean that one of the others won’t try to haul me in to the station on some bullshit charge. That’s what happens when they do these sweeps. It’s all about the numbers to them, and a psycho junkie suicidal woman is a number just like anyone else, so I’ve got to be careful. The best way to get there and avoid the cops is to go up to the end of the block and try to squeeze through the fence that’s at the end of the alley on the south, but that’s a big fucking risk for me. They don’t call that place Ambush Alley for nothing. It’s completely sealed off, and while we can get through the fences, there’s a million places in there for some asshole to hide and wait for his next victim. Even the cops won’t go in there, except in force. They’ve been attacked in there dozens of times. Some of the most psycho motherfuckers we’ve got out here hang out in Ambush Alley and attack anyone they see. They can come at you from any direction: the sides, the overhangs, even from the underground. The sewers and the service tunnels are big enough for a bunch of guys to hide and jump out at you in a heartbeat. I know. I’ve seen it. But it’s probably my best shot if I want to get there in a hurry, and I can’t take the long route. I’m in too much pain for a walk like that. I can’t believe I’m actually considering this! Going in there is practically suicide! It’s like begging to get gang-raped and murdered! Charlie said so! And yet here I am, about to do it! I can’t think like that. This is my best shot. I have to do it. I have to. I’m out of time. I’m out of options. I should be OK. It’s really late. The cops have been going crazy, so almost anyone who’s left out here should be trying to hide. God, I hope so. Fighting my way out of there isn’t on my agenda tonight. I don’t have the strength. I don’t have the time, either. I’m running out of time. God, please don’t let me run out of time. Not now. Not when I’m so close!

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