Death is but a Walking Shadow
The biting stench of ammonia. Every surface scrubbed and washed and cleansed in relentless cycles by immigrants shouldering red scrubs. A never-ending campaign against infectious microbes.
Why the hell did this sick-house always stink like burned flesh?
Sam had inhaled his share, in the bombed-out buildings of Fallujah where bodies lay scattered like black ticker tape. Now he strode through the halls of Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, hands thrust in his pockets, jacket collar turned up, wading through a blizzard.
The stench tracked him, the burned-rubber scent of a faulty washing machine belt, charred rotted chicken, or maybe the tire fire up in Yonkers. Oh, he’d complained, sending floor wardens on a fruitless search for faulty equipment, but they consoled him with a mixture of sadness and solicitude.
Yeah, he was That Guy, the dutiful father on his daily visit, the man with no good news in his future. And none in his past.
The assault didn’t end with nose-hair-curling aromas. In mirrors, in chrome-slathered equipment, in endless panes of glass draped with curtains. Eyes. Watching him, studying him. Following him. A footstep when no one was there. A distorted face reflected in a collection jar. Laughter.
He was insane, on some PTSD trip. Had to be. Except the faces only jeered here, in the hospital. Well, almost always here. Sometimes in the bar. On the bus. In the shower.
Wrap that jacket tighter and avoid eye contact. Only a few more halls slung with finger painting and cutout pumpkins and letters of support. A few more yards slipping past rooms full of children with shaved heads and IV’s and wobbly beeps on their heart monitors, proving they lived, just barely. Fingers clenched the paper bag, wishing it contained a cure, a miracle, something better than a two-second smile.
Room 317 beckoned. Breath drew shallow, ignoring the stench that always gathered right here, just outside the door, an evil presence lurking off the edge of sight. Sam dragged his cap off and wiped chill moisture from his brow. How the hell can they keep a hospital running when something burned right under their noses? In the glass, his reflection shifted into a man he didn’t recognize, hollow eyes and thinning hair and a back with a hint of a stoop. Thirty-three going on ninety. The kids fighting for their lives looked more alive. Lack of sleep, lack of money, lack of will to do anything but fight. Not just the disease, but misery. Fight to keep from diving off the highest rooftop.
The stainless steel rod that served as a door handle cooled his fingers, bolted right through the glass. He eased the door, the jiggly tones of some Nickelodeon toon whispering out of a TV. In this room, antiseptic had prevailed over the burning garbage. In here, fighting strength entered his veins, the strength to visit the little body swaddled in hospital sheets, the one with vacant eyes who battled pain on a minute-by-minute basis.
Sam slid the door closed with a soft thud. Tommy hadn’t noticed him, but Sam caught the grimace in the boy’s face as the disease sunk its teeth one notch further into Tommy’s soul. The sunken eyes, thinning hair, stooped back reflected Sam as if they somehow fought the same illness. The bag rustled in Sam’s hand and Tommy turned to him, his face instantly turning bright, a smile creasing his lips, his back now straight and eyes alert.
Two-second reprieve, go.
Plant a kiss on Tommy’s brow, touch kid’s shoulder, Africa-thin under Sam’s hand. Here comes the obligatory question, the one that would never be answered truthfully. “How are things today?”
“Good. No draws, just pricks.”
A line of toys sat arranged like rush hour traffic on the windowsill, various cars and tanks and mechanical men. Tommy eyed the paper bag.
“You got it?” he asked in breathless wonder.
“Sure did.” The bag found Tommy’s impatient fingers. No wince recalling last night, bribing the night guard with whiskey and a little knock-out juice, sneaking into the only store in the Triborough area that carried the Fightin’ Fury Fire Fanatic, some intricate pile of gears and missiles and a robotic body, the fiercest fighting machine known to children’s TV programming. Hello thievery, while eating tins of cabbage and sardines. Didn’t even know cabbage came in tins, boosted from an Army Surplus. Bills sucked away every legit cent. Three file boxes on his desk brimmed with demands, more than he could earn in his lifetime, more than any charity would consider. With Angela long gone to the cold beyond, it all fell on him, crushing him like 9/11.
Tommy slipped out of bed to the windowsill, carefully moving each toy into a new configuration, providing a spot for the Fanatic. Small beeps and rumbles and gunfire bubbled from his lips as he mimicked the sound of each toy, each roaring engine, each screaming jet, each thundering robot ready to crush the world.
“Take a picture?”
Sam obliged, positioning Tommy to hide the IV’s that probably sucked more life than they injected into him, adjusting the angle of his face to fill the deep shadows and color his cheeks. He snapped the photo, tagged it, “Dying Boy With His Toys”. Mental note jumped in to suggest framing this one for the funeral. Shut up, brain. Tommy held out his hand for the High-Five, after which Sam gathering the boy in his arms, mostly to hide the tears forcing themselves into his eyes.
“Dad, Geez,” said Tommy, pushing himself back to his collection, re-arranging them for the millionth time.
Sam daubed his rebellious lids. Nothing he wouldn’t do for Tommy. Nothing he could do, except prowl stores, risk his neck for some small trinket to liven the kid’s remaining days. The wall calendar mentioned October. Would they ever turn the page?
“Hey Dad,” said Tommy, pausing in his play. “Is there a such thing as demons?”
Ice washed Sam’s guts, as if he’d been thrown into the Arctic Ocean. “What?” The burning-tire aroma crept to his nostrils, teased him. Taunted him.
“You know. Demons. Do they exist?”
“Of course not. Why do you ask?”
Sam begged his lips to say nothing. Tommy’s facing an afterlife showdown, who wouldn’t be freaking out? One leg’s sunk in the grave. The stinks and shadows and sounds all haunted in Sam’s head, some legacy of his concussions in Iraq. No way could Tommy sense it. No way.
“Why? You seen something?” Like faces in mirrors, like footsteps from nowhere, like cold drafts on the back of your neck, like the one breathing on him right now?
Tommy peered at the floor. “It was probably a dream. Couldn’t have been real.”
Sam patted the bed. His child was not going to leave this earth afraid. This child was going to feel loved for every second he still breathed. “Come on, tell Daddy all about it.”
Tommy crept up, slid his leg bones under the covers, and rubbed the ugly purple marks on his forearms. “There was a demon. He came to me. He said he had to take me. That I had to come with him and be brave.”
Couldn’t stop the word “Fuck.” Damn doctors, damn meds. Kid was getting hallucinatory. “What he’d look like?”
Tommy shivered. Maybe the kid did feel that cold draft from nowhere. “Sorta like a box, but with hands like knives. Face was ringed in blades like a mane. He had these glowing red eyes, like flames. And he felt cold, like someone just opened the freezer. Stank pretty bad too, like the time you put a turkey in the oven and left it there for a week.”
Sam calmed his twitching hands, the ripples that danced on his back. That cold jail, hearing questions but lacking answers. Damn turkey, thought he’d have time to go home and freeze it. “Sounds like a pretty bad dream. Don’t worry. It’s just the medicine.” Or the crappy hospital food. Indigestion. The damn fumes in this place that no one but Sam seemed to smell. If the disease failed to kill Tommy, this hospital would finish him.
Tommy’s hand gripped his wrist, with a strength that belied his tiny frame.
“Another thing,” he said, gaze riveted, cracks of pain and fear in his eyes. “That demon said that he was you. He was you, Dad. Are you going to die?”
Fumes chased Sam down the hall, past the white-smocked nurses, an aquarium teeming with hydrae, a reception area rife with bean bags and illustrations ripped from books, past portraits of all the wealthy benefactors, the people who could afford illness. The stink struck smelling-salt-violent, ripping out tears, seizing his stomach in a python’s grasp. The administration corridor wound to the room marked “Dr. A” in happy letters, next to a smiling picture of the doc in a blazer topped with his lab coat.
Sam didn’t bother knocking; he just burst him, his own fumes of rage about to boil.
“Mr. Johnson?” The doc slapped his laptop closed, his face lemon-sucking dour. “Consultation hours are over. Can you to return in the morning.”
“What have you been giving him? Tommy’s hallucinating. Says he sees demons. He’s scared as shit.” Sam too. Scared of losing his son to demons.
Dr. A. blinked. “I’m sure it’s nothing. We’ll talk it over in the morning.”
“No.” Let Tommy face another night fearing for his life? “You figure out what’s doing it, and you fix it. Tonight.”
The doctor folded his reading glasses and sighed, the kind of huff that a car salesman gives you when “the manager” declines your counter-offer. “Mr. Johnson. I assure you we’re doing all that can be done. The progression of this disease can be unpredictable. The body becomes weak, and the brain can become susceptible to delusions. I’ll have the night nurses drop by every hour to check on him. That’s the best I can do. Now if you’ll excuse me.”
“What about the trial? Have you heard anything?”
Doc stiffened, shook his head. “He’s just not a good candidate. I’m sorry Sam, we tried.”
No trial. No hope. Nothing, except a slow, painful extermination. Doc made to leave, but Sam grabbed him. Doc looked down at Sam’s hand, then back up to his face. Sam let him go, followed him out, watched as Doc locked his door.
“We’ll talk tomorrow,” Doc promised, and walked away, not looking back.
Fumes came, strong, sticking his head in the oven with that bloated turkey. Corridors whipped by, absent of air, offering empty beds and double-glass doors that yawned open like the mouth of hell.
The sidewalk pounded his feet, the New York air caressed him, buildings shouted high into the sky. The stoop redoubled, hands on his knees, searching for convenient bushes to retch behind. The fumes chased him, surrounded him, mocked him, sucked the dirty city air and turned it filthy, like a sewage backup gone explosive. Sam grabbed his abdomen. Someone stood next to him, a man in a hoodie, no one he recognized. The man handed Sam a folded white paper.
“Follow these directions if you want Tommy to live.”
Sam snatched the paper, ready to shove it down the man’s throat. He grabbed for the man, but the bastard turned and ran. Sam pursued, but something reached out and snatched his ankle, tripping him. “Let me go!”
Nothing there, just a gum-blotched sidewalk, damp from recent rain. The shadows of Broadway teemed with huddled figures. The stench had vanished along with the thing, the wraith, a word tumbling into Sam’s mind. Sam stumbled over to a streetlight, un-crumpling the paper in his hand and scanned the sharp handwriting.
Midnight. Top of One World Trade Center. Instructions to gain access.
Sam crumpled it again.
The coffee shop offered the bitter mocha of the coffee grounds mixed with steamed milk and spice. Barista eyed him, checking her pink strap of a watch, probably wondering what kind of weirdo just sits and stares out the window. Only a bum paid for drip with loose change, pennies, hat swallowing his eyes. Two beat officers passed by on the street, wide-bodied and trimmed with weapons. Girl motioned to them, but the Jets’ quarterback situation required their attention. The empty paper cup rolled between his palms.
Who the fuck gave half a shit about Tommy besides Sam? Some cousins. Aunts and uncles. Well-meaning, full of condolences and pity and the occasional check that covered maybe five minutes’ worth of Tommy’s care.
This ain’t that.
Desperate men do desperate things. He’d go up that sky-slicing spire, they’d promise him the world. Maybe a miracle cure, some rare treatment, get Tommy into the trial. All Sam would have to do was lose his soul. Shoot some guy in front of his family. Burn a few buildings, who cares who fried. Capture some cheating wife and rip out her teeth. Someone must have gotten wind of his little escapade to lift Tommy’s toy, marked him for a sucker.
Like tuning the TV, everything became clear. That damn stench. He’d smelled it, back in the apartment, worse than the turkey, worse than Fallujah. Whoever they were, they had followed him tonight. Turned his place over, all the carefully ordered bills thrown around like confetti, his sofa slashed, his TV smashed, walls disintegrated. Like if he’d had anything of value, he wouldn’t have sold it to help Tommy. Fuckers would pay for that. His hand crept down to the lump in his coat, a .38. Go find some other chump to do your dirty work.
Or he’d bend over and take it. What the hell was his life compared to Tommy’s? What did he have to live for? Apartment wrecked, wife in a cold grave, kid knocking on death’s door, himself working in some dead-end job stacking boxes in a cold-as-concrete warehouse. Still, no reason anyone else should suffer. This was his burden, and his alone. No matter how much he hated the world, or the hospital bureaucracy, or the pity in everyone’s eyes, he wouldn’t take it out on them. Which is why he’d go up there and tell them to fuck off and leave him alone, from the end of his .38 if necessary.
He slipped from the table, threw the cup into the compost bin. Girl gave him a hint of a smile at his departure, glad she could finally close. Outside, the wind bit hard, cold even for October. No strange smells, just the usual mix of New York garbage bins, diesel buses, pizza boxes, and maybe the pungent hint of rain. Clouds glowed sodium orange. He un-crumpled the paper and followed the directions. Key taped to bottom of bench. Bus locker with passes and cardkeys. He approached the One World Trade Center that stabbed the night like some giant middle finger, wondering who the hell would set a meet up there. Must be a million better places to conduct this kind of business. Hell, grab a booth in a bar.
Sam walked straight up to the entrance, hung the pass around his neck. The guards barely acknowledged at him. Strode into the building, hit the elevator, swiped his cards, found himself on the top floor after a stomach-churning, ear-popping ride. A thought dripped into his head as the elevator door opened and a hint of brimstone touched his nose.
This whole place was death built over. Yeah, all the corpses had been removed, everything rebuilt and sanitized and memorialized, replaced with the promise of a happy future of industry and recovery. But the whole place stank, a permanent scar on Lower Manhattan. One-WTC was a building borne from terror and execution, a monument to devastation. And as he crept through the ladders and passages that led him up to the towering spire, evil lurked in every rivet. His bones tried to run from his body.
He crept out to the metal mast of parallel steel columns, some Greek temple, clouds gathering close overhead, rumbling. The wind howled across the rooftop, buffeting him, thrusting spikes of cold into his body. His hands grew numb as he climbed the metal ladders, a slip away from permanent disability. He checked the paper, but the wind snatched it from his grasp, out into the void beyond the roof, fluttering like a wounded gull. Even the whipping gusts couldn’t blow away the stench. They were here, waiting for him, at the highest point of New York City. This was their castle, their redoubt, their lair. Shivers collected in his spine. Every nerve in his body screamed that he turn around and run, but he couldn’t.
A hatch opened to a room surrounded by glass and bright blue lights that blushed the clouds. A rotten-beef stench punched his gut. Three faced him, two steroid-junkies in bad Italian suits, including the messenger who’s delivered the paper. Their eyes simmered red.
The third—a woman, dressed in black under a heavy cloak, petite, no one he recognized, but her eyes glowed like coals, surrounded by a swirl of sulfur and burned flesh. When their gazes met, a flash slammed him, a woman, naked, beneath him, crying his name, dying, the flesh melting from her bones, in a grave riddled with worms.
Angela? Breath left him like rats escaping a burning building.
The voice rasped hollow and distant, old bones grinding together. The cloak shimmered and disappeared around the edges. The wind paused, expectant, waiting for its moment, but lightning strobed the distance.
Heart threatened to leap down the ladder. Disbelief chased panic.
“I don’t have much time in this body.” She gestured down.
Her lackeys stood with folded arms, one on the hatch, preventing Sam’s escape. The wraith woman drew closer.
“There is a way to save Tommy.”
The words slashed through Sam’s consciousness. “What?”
“Bring him here and cast him from this spire.”
Sam blinked. His hand crept to his gun. Cursed demons. “Did you just say I need to kill my own son?”
Skeleton arms reached out, crawling with bugs. “Send him to me. I can protect him. Motions are underway that will change things forever. I don’t want him caught in the crossfire.”
The darkness of the demon’s face reflected a black sun. “Liar.” He whipped out the gun, thrust it into Demon Angela’s face.
“Please,” she begged, “if you love Tommy, you must act.”
The cloak fell back. Her body dissolved, revealing little more than a skull, riddled with worms and dripping with pus. Sam stumbled away. She was Death. Death had come for Tommy, come to claim him, and asked Sam to do his bidding.
“Liar! You want him dead. You mock me with my dead wife and now you want my son!”
The gun bucked in his hand as bullets flew through the Demon’s face, splattering her brains over the windows. The wind resumed its mad applause, and lightning boomed overhead, drowning out the thunder of the snub-nose revolver. Death picked herself up, touched the holes in her skull, pushed an eye back into its socket. Her face swirled with fire and ash. “Sam. My love. It’s the only way.”
“You will never get my son. You will never have him!” The revolver clicked emptily in his hands. He tossed it at Death’s head and crouched, ready to attack.
The wraith sighed, shook her head. The vermin grew still. “You do not believe me. You must learn for yourself. I’m sorry, Sam, I really am. And for what I’m about to do, you have only yourself to blame. Boys?”
Two hands of iron grabbed him with strength borne of years of juggling weights. Sam fought, muscle and bone again steel and rock. They kicked open a window, seized Sam by the jacket, and flung him from the spire just as a lightning bolt dazzled the tip.
Thoughts ripped through Sam during the terrifying trip down to the cold finality of Manhattan’s streets. Tommy would wake up to the news that he’ll never have another toy or another hug. No one would be there when he had the bad shakes or dreams about demons.
One last breath. “Tom—