Life was not okay, but it was dormant for now. Mark could move in the world without feeling guilty, without judgment by his peers and his betters. He was the type of young man who lived his life as if on a breaking ice shelf, leaping from floe to floe, afraid to slide into the icy deeps of the world and its responsibilities. He had recently given up a lifestyle, left a world behind.
Tonight was good. There was a competent DJ at Lipstick Nocturne, and Mark felt able to relax and let the bass fill his skull, dancing without the support of substances, absorbing what comforting darkness he could. When he spilled out the side exit into the alleyway, sweating old, resistant toxins from his body, he was refreshed and holy. It was time to return to the outside.
Mark had always felt an attraction to the city, its anonymity, the watery barrier of being surrounded by life yet divided from it. As the door slammed behind him, the muffled bass punishing the walls inside, he stood and soaked in the brick-walled alley, the scent of filthy water creeping down its middle, the distant blare of car horns, the hum of street. He scraped pale palms over long black hair, gazing at a cat on the dumpster who gazed back at him. Yellow eyes stared, then the cat settled its shoulders after it had considered and discarded him.
That’s the way Mark liked it: ignored. The way he preferred to live.
"Hey. Hey, man," said a gunmetal voice from the alley's side. The bum lay crumpled against the dumpster. No, not a bum. A junkie, maybe. Mark knew the type. Mark was the type. The man's clothes were shiny black, his hair slicked and flaring on the sides like miniature horns. He was impossibly gaunt.
Mark leaned forward, and saw an unsettling wetness on the man’s torso. Oh, God. He’s been stabbed. He babbled. "Dude. You have to get to a hospital. I don’t have a phone, man, oh, shit!" Mark could not tear his eyes from the seeping red, almost black in the dim light of the alley. The cat sat uncaring atop the dumpster, accusing them both.
"No. No, it's okay. No safe haven. Look, you have to take this for me," said the man. He held forth a blocky object in a shaking hand. A book. "You know the church on 7th and State? Take this there. Drop it in the water font up front. You hear me? Just drop it in the water. That's all you have to do."
Mark had not taken anything tonight. He no longer did that. He was not coming down from anything, not peaking, not under the rush. This was insane. A dying man was giving him impossible, ridiculous instruction.
"Jesus!" was all he could say.
The man narrowed dark eyes, and winced. "I forgive you because you aren't thinking of him when you say it. But don't say it again."
Coldness ran down Mark’s spine, the sweat from his dancing exertions turning sour. Behind him the bass kept thumping; people writhed and reveled only several feet away from him but were suddenly remote, disconnected. A childhood memory shuddered in his head, of Mark standing with other children, draped in white, singing.
The gaunt man lay there, shining black and red, eyes drilling slowly into him, searching. Mark stared dumbly. Eyes, yellow eyes, fixed him in place, picked up pieces of his life and turned them over, checking for dust, checking for sin, while Mark stood there and took in breath. The man's blood had found the filthy stream in the middle of the alley and added its color. The cat watched it mix with the murky water.
Mark could hear the song inside the nightclub changing, the rhythm becoming something else, slower, darker. His breaths grew shallow. The man spoke.
"Your name is Mark Randolph. You used to sing choir in that church. Your grandmother is Romanian."
"You felt up Melanie Carter behind the Vons delivery dock in seventh grade. You've never held a job more than seven months. You sold heroin out of your apartment until you started using."
"Stop," Mark pleaded.
"You want me to leave you alone? Take it. Make a decision. This is the best thing you’ll ever do. Ever." A smell of mouldering eggs filled Mark's nostrils as the man's blood-crusted fingernails clutched the book. "Take it. Do what I said. Please."
Mark took it. The book was heavy, and uncomfortably warm, bound in a brittle leather that was brown in places, yellow and rust in others. It was held fast shut with cold iron clasps.
He gazed at it in his hands, and memories tore through him like a cold sweat breaking after a fever, memories that did not belong to him. A holy place burned. Pleas falling on deaf ears. Slow dying on wooden stakes sprouting like grass from wooded fields. Rebellion. A flurry of wings. A rejection worse than coming down.
He blinked, returning to now. The gaunt man had leaned back against the moist brick, eyes closed. Streetlamps glowed from behind the buildings. Mark fled, the book gripped in pale hands, the booming of wings loud in his ears. He wondered briefly, terribly, from what animal the leather had come. Seventh street was not far away, and he went there, long legs churning. Before he had taken a hundred breaths the church loomed before him, white and austere, its doors thrown wide to hopeful masses. A bowl of water beckoned inside.
Mark stopped, his breathing frantic, and the sound of the choir filled his ears.