A heavy carpenter’s hammer cut through the air inches from her head with a sharp whoomp, and she uttered a breathless scream, turning to see the man from the bus, his shock-white hair windblown, chapped lips drawn back over his teeth. Surprise and fury mingled in a pair of wide, wild, red-rimmed eyes. She tried to scream again, but could manage none, because it wasn’t the hand holding the hammer that had arrested her attention, but the other arm, clutching what she realized was her book between ribs and elbow. Forgotten on the bus, her book, with her name and mailing address written inside the back cover. His ratty right sleeve folded over on itself, unfilled.
“No, no, no, please,” she hissed, backing further into the alley. He advanced on her, and in the avidity of those mad eyes she thought she read not just rage, but fear. Was he scared? Afraid now that the element of surprise was lost? She was afraid, oh yes, but she was also a predator, and even when fearful a predator is crafty - perhaps especially then.
“Please, I don’t understand - I haven’t done anything to you!” Her voice quailed, and as she made her body small and held up her tiny hands in a warding gesture, she was sure this time that she saw him hesitate, swallow, saw those strange eyes flicker. The thing inside of her with its low cunning scented the air, smelling vulnerability.
“I don’t have any money - it’s all inside! Bu-but…but you can have my jewelry!” She started to frantically remove her sapphire earrings, then went for her ring as well when she saw an expression of horror dawn on his face. “Here, take them!” She shoved her palms out at him, and he actually took a step backward, raising his truncated arm as if to say ‘oh cripes, I’m so sorry, my mistake.' His mouth worked soundlessly. Her book lay abandoned on the cement, cracked open where she had left a business card tucked between the pages.
“Please, I don’t want to die.” She played up the pathos as much as she could, and he staggered back another step, arms dropping to his sides, bamboozled by doubt. When his fingers went lax around the handle of the hammer, she knew she had him, and lunged.
There were Flipsiders more powerful than she - most of them, in fact - but even she could dominate this human given an opening. Her glam shattered like a champagne glass, and there was wrinkled gray hide and bristling black quills along a backbone steep as the barren, jagged alps.
Her socketed lamprey mouth belched a wet, sucking snarl as she pounced on the stranger, hooked her claws into the meat of his shoulders and locked her long, wiry legs around him in a nightmare mockery of an embrace. A thousand hooked teeth ringed a writhing muscular tube, and she would burrow into him, deep into the flesh, burrow up his throat and rip his tongue out at the root from underneath.
She could scarcely graze his skin. The second her mouth hooked into his flesh, she was overwhelmed with the stench, that dark animal musk that had been lingering under the rot like a dirty secret. It hit the pits at the back of her throat like an open-palmed slap to the face, and she immediately began to heave, driven away from that primeval pheromone by instinct that lived in her blood. Not for you, that smell said. He is not for you. You are not allowed.
She staggered away from him, gagging, and in the moments before her death she looked up and saw a horror. There was a sickly, bile yellow aura hanging around the old man’s head like a miasma, slicked over his cheeks and his chin and down his neck like glowing paint, staining his tongue, his teeth. His head had caved in on one side, crunching his eye down into a permanent wink, and his lips had been cut to ribbons by his broken teeth. The empty sleeve was soaked to the elbow in gangrenous blood.
All at once she knew that putrid stench for what it had been all along. She had seen it in the desert once, lurching down the moonlit highway as she looked on from across a goat pasture. The Wretched Stag, god of offal smeared on asphalt, of blowflies and buzzards and the sudden silence in the aftermath of the accident. God of unforeseen and incomprehensible loss - the infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing.
The Southpaw Man smelled like hot copper sizzling on blacktop, bent chrome and gasoline and red garlands unspooled half a mile from end to end down the avenue. Sickly-sweet and overripe like spoiled vegetables that the rot refused to take. The Roadkill God had touched him. It had led him into the witherlands, into the place outside of time where there is no more suffering.
And he had chosen not to follow.
“You shouldn't have come back,” she moaned, and for a moment the man looked absolutely thunderstruck, bright eye wide. "Why did you do that?"
He looked gutted by what some dim, forgotten part of her recognized as raw anguish. Then his lips snarled back over his broken teeth, like surf receding before the surge, and when he swung the hammer back over his head, she screamed.
And because this was Neon Palms, even the neighbors that were home on a weekday afternoon did not look out their windows.
The homeless man stood in the alley in the aftermath of what he had done. He looked down at the open book, at Ana Sofia Cabrita, 109 Chuparosa Crossing. At the thing crumpled up behind the dumpster. At the great, black eye staring out from under a sheet of brown blood. At himself reflected in the lens of that eye.
The hammer dropped, and he reached for his face, blunt fingertips frantically crawling through thinning hair. He breathed, shook, jammed the heel of his palm into his own eye as if he expected it to no longer be there.
He started to cry. Great, gut-wrenching sobs breaking through the dam of human endurance like the flash flood that follows the monsoon.
The angle of the light had shifted, electric amber as the skyline overtook the sun, and he was whole again, for a moment or two. He sat with his back to the brick wall, sucking air through his clamped fingers, thin lips, crooked teeth. He couldn't taste his own insides anymore.
But the smell never went away.
He stood. Picked up the book. Left the hammer where it lay.
The man left the alley the way he had come and wandered back down to the bus stop. When the 5:00 bus arrived, he boarded it, and when he saw the bar he had had in mind out the window, spotted the graffiti on the bench in front of it, he decided to stay on a few more stops - and the city swallowed him, because it was hungry. The city was always hungry, and not all of those it devoured were unwilling.
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