“That fuckin’ tranny,” Leeroy Kincaid muttered to himself, pausing to glance up at a brightly painted building in disgust. He shifted his gaze further upward, toward a sky filled with scattered stars and thunderheads threatening from the distant Everglades. He growled and cracked his knuckles, imagining his fingers wrapped around Charles “Charlene” Briar’s neck. The fantastic murals of the Wynwood Arts District surrounded him as he thought about his assignment from Brock. That fucker had probably set him up to look bad, sending him after some drag queen in this artsy bullshit section of Midtown Miami.
Garishly dressed people crammed into a little café named Panther Coffee nearby, hoping to get their last jolt of caffeine before it closed for the night. Soon they would head to the glowing, decorated havens of alcohol and art that lined the streets of the Wynwood area, interspersed with galleries, studios, and apartments. Vibrant murals highlighted the walls and entrances of many buildings, creating an atmosphere that was cheerful, mysterious, and ominous all at once. Lee grunted in bored frustration and turned towards the darkened side streets, thinking about his assignment as he walked.
Charlene Briar had a habit of buying Oxycodone on credit, and Brock had sent Kincaid to collect. The sinewy enforcer leaned against the painted wall of a warehouse and flicked open his switchblade knife in one pale, spiderlike hand. “You wanna be a woman, huh, Charlie? Maybe tonight we can make that happen,” Kincaid whispered to himself. But first he had to find his target, and two hours of wandering from bar to café to art gallery, to back alley hadn’t yielded any results. It was getting late, and Brock would be expecting a report soon. He folded the knife and put it back in the pocket of his faded denim jeans, glancing around to get his bearings.
He looked up at the mural he had been leaning against, a vast, surreal portrait of a snarling hyena composed of cement and steel. It possessed street sign legs, emerald traffic light eyes, and a vicious iron grate snout. But only shades of blue, purple, green, and gray had been used. The animal sat poised in frozen fury against a vivid amethyst horizon. A chain-link tail lashed against the side of a steely indigo skyscraper, and one foreleg extended out to display a bright azure STOP sign. The perspective shifted and twisted throughout the painting, making the creature seem larger in some parts of the mural and smaller in others. He backed away towards the sidewalk, taking in the bizarre image despite his general contempt for art.
He felt his shoulder smack into something solid, followed by a “Hey, watch where you’re going, man!” Lee turned to look at the young man he had bumped, some dopey kid wearing a custom blazer jacket and designer eyeglasses. Kincaid curled his lip and glanced around for witnesses, seeing that they were alone in the street. The bustle of the bars and cafes could be heard in the distance, but there was no one around to watch him have a little fun if he wanted. And he needed to release some frustration.
“The fuck you just say to me? Huh?” Leeroy grabbed the kid by the front of his shirt.
“Hey, buddy-” the kid stammered.
“I’m not your buddy you little prick. Watch where you’re walking, cocksucker.” Lee sent a right cross at the kid’s jaw, but he ducked and broke Lee’s hold, putting his back to the mural and pivoting away in a burst of movement. Lee advanced, grinning. So the little shit had some skill, but Kincaid had been fighting since he could remember. Lee threw a jab at the young man’s face, and then followed up with a blow to his abdomen. But the kid surprised him and landed a hard left hook on Lee’s jaw.
Rage boiled in his gut, and Kincaid’s vision turned scarlet. He slammed the kid against the painted jaws of the hyena with one arm and flicked open his knife with the other. The words open the door flew through his mind before he could even process them, but that internal voice was both strange and familiar all at once. Kincaid shook his head to clear his thoughts and dragged the edge of his blade across the kid’s throat, spraying the mural with crimson. He stared straight into the young man’s dark brown eyes as the life drained from them.
He let the body slump to the ground, cursing himself for his recklessness. Kincaid looked around to see if anyone had been watching, but he was still alone. He hadn’t meant to kill the guy, just mess him up a bit. And now his clothes were covered in blood, but at least that hideous mural was too. He turned back to the painting that had started the altercation and saw that the blood had vanished from the jaws of the hyena. The monster seemed more vibrant and solid, and even the Miami skyline in the backdrop glowed with newfound intensity. Then the monster shifted on the wall, its viridian traffic light eyes locking onto the man standing before it.
Lee backed away, and terror formed a hard knot in his stomach. The gleaming chain-link tail lashed out of the painting, two-dimensional artwork gaining hard three-dimensional substance. It wrapped itself tight around Kincaid’s lean, well-muscled torso. Lee tugged at the strangely icy, glowing chain, but it wouldn’t budge. On the wall, the two-dimensional creature opened its toothy metal jaws and roared in silence. The chain pressed Lee flat against the wall, which began losing consistency. “What the hell- let go of me you f-” he screamed before he disappeared into the mural.
Leeroy Kincaid landed hard on blue-tinged concrete, rolling over to stare up at a fantastic purple sky. Neon green palm trees shone bright against azure and indigo buildings, and obsidian stars hung in the brilliant night sky overhead. Across the street a flash of movement caught his eye. Kincaid groaned and pushed himself to his feet, dusting off his battered leather jacket and faded jeans. On the other side of the street stood an appliance shop display window filled with flickering TV sets. Leeroy walked over, head darting from side to side as he took in his bizarre surroundings.
At the display window, the TV sets cleared to form the snarling figure of the concrete hyena from the mural. Then the scene changed to an image of Kincaid pulling out a man’s teeth with pliers, but all the colors were blues, greens, purples, and greys. He hadn’t seen a single red or yellow hue in this strange place yet, just like in the mural. Had he really just been pulled into a painting on the side of a wall? How was that even possible?
The screen turned to a different scene in which Lee shoved a prostitute up against a wall, his forearm wedged against her throat. His other hand held his knife to the woman’s eye as she screamed and pleaded. The image that followed displayed the dead body of the kid in the designer glasses, followed by a glowing emerald question mark. Leeroy glanced around, and then turned back to the television sets. In one image Lee slammed a baseball bat down on a man’s kneecap, in another he backhanded a woman into a coffee table, and then that question mark.
“Why? It’s what I do, and I’m damn good at it. Where am I? Who or what are you and what do you want?” A low growl filled the street from behind him, and Leeroy swung around to see the muted gray street tremble and crack alongside the cobalt-hued sidewalk. An iron grate snout nudged its way up from crumbling concrete slabs, and Kincaid stumbled backward as the hyena pushed its way up from beneath the street. A whistling filled the air, and a dark, spiky object thudded to the ground where he had been standing. He looked up to see an empty space in the sky from where the star had fallen. In the street, blazing emerald traffic light eyes rose to glare at him. For a moment he felt as if the creature were gazing not just at him but into him, as if his head were transparent and the entity could sift through his thoughts at will.
Leeroy Kincaid ran towards the azure skyline and the amethyst horizon, luminescent palm trees lining the sides of the road. A suffocating sensation closed in on him and he doubled over, gasping. He felt as if he were trapped in an elevator, or a box, or a—no, not that, you’re not there—goddamnit, no… Kincaid straightened and clenched his unshaven jaw. He might not know where he was, but he wasn’t there. That had happened a long time ago. Or had it? For a moment past and present seemed to fuse together. Trembling hands betrayed his panic. He balled them into fists and shoved them into the pockets of his jeans.
He skidded to a halt in front of a large, flickering digital display on the side of a commercial skyscraper. The screen flashed an image of a mall escalator with a dripping trail of azure blood, then a message. Y DO U H8? Y DO U KIL?
“Why do you care?” Leeroy screamed at the sky. “What are you?” He pulled his right hand out of his pocket, his fingers curled around the hilt of his knife.
I WANT 2 NO, the screen replied. I WIL DISKOVR + U WIL C.
The cityscape dropped away without warning. The sky changed to the hard sapphire of late autumn in rural New York, and in front of him sat the dark green, brackish waters of a large pond in the process of freezing over. A pitted gray gravel road circled the pond, and decrepit houses in varying shades of purple sat on either side. Behind the pond sprawled a junkyard, with neon cars and trucks stacked high near the back. Toxins from the rusting machines formed their own little stream that fed into the pond. Leeroy Kincaid recognized his surroundings, except that the colors had been much more drab in reality.
Lee stopped running. He wouldn’t go near that pond, or that pale blue ice. Terror rose in his gut, and he turned to see the snarling concrete and steel hyena bounding towards him, seeming to bounce on the surface of the road that led up to the pond. He pulled a handgun out of a hidden shoulder holster and aimed it at the creature’s right eye as it leaped towards him. He held his hands steady and fired thrice, but the monster raised a foreleg ending in a YIELD sign to cover its face and the bullets whined off it. Iron jaws gripped Leeroy’s shirt, not piercing his flesh but holding him fast. The thing snarled smoke through its iron nostrils, and then vaulted towards the frigid pond with Kincaid in tow.
“No! No! Let go of me, you can’t-” The monster approached the edge of the water and launched into the air. Lee stared down into the rank depths of the pond and its companion junkyard. The residents of the neighborhood had abandoned everything from toasters to trucks there, leaving them to rust in lonely silence. He saw the remains of a washing machine, various discarded automobile parts, and a refrigerator with its door gaping open amidst other less distinguishable rubbish. The darkness within the underwater fridge seemed to obscure impossible depths, and Lee could swear he saw tendrils of darkness leaking out. “No, please-” he screamed, not this horrible place, anything but this, how did the creature know, somehow it knew…notthatnotthatanythingbuthtat…
Putrid, icy waves embraced Kincaid as the creature plunged into the pond, and his breath hitched in his chest. Freezing water filled his nose, mouth, and lungs, forcing out everything else but not drowning him. The sky disappeared beneath volumes of fetid pond. The gloomy depths closed in around Lee, and he struggled in vain against the jaws of the steel hyena. The open refrigerator grew larger in his vision, and within seconds he felt its chill embrace, not realizing until after the door had begun to creak in the water that the steel hyena had disappeared and he was no longer a man but an eight-year-old boy. He gasped and tried to force himself up and out, but the water held him down.
Beneath the water time seemed to slow, just as it had on that day. The darkness within the refrigerator gave a strange, forceful pulse, and inky tendrils began to inch forward. They twisted and swirled around him and soon they hovered above young Lee as he huddled at the bottom of the refrigerator. But the darkness still swirled around him, and he heard a creaking noise like a door about to swing shut. The water distorted the sound, but there was no mistaking it. Lee struggled in vain against the freezing wall of water that pressed him down as the door wobbled and then closed on the boy, leaving him in pitch-black silence.
The airless void lifted and Kincaid landed hard on the floor of a gleaming glass and chrome shopping mall two stories high. A massive escalator ran up the center to connect the floors, and storefronts of amethyst, azure, and emerald radiated their hues up and down the corridors. People walked everywhere in robot stride, and in place of heads each man, woman, and child possessed a shimmering silver question mark. Flickering digital displays hung everywhere, and each held an image of ramshackle houses huddled around that half-frozen, trash-filled pond. Next to the pond sat a cluster of emergency vehicles flashing their beacons. A small, shivering boy lay on a stretcher, and one of the paramedics slid it into the ambulance.
His father had rescued him, jumping into the water and pulling him out after hearing a faint, desperate cry. He hadn’t seen Lee walking out onto the brittle ice covering the pond, his curious child’s mind transfixed by something he had glimpsed beneath the waters. But when he heard his son yell he had looked out the window and seen the boy disappear under the ice. Young Leeroy had been hypothermic and frostbitten, half-dead after being underwater for over three minutes. But his father had told him that the refrigerator door hadn’t been closed, that it was impossible for it to close underwater. And Lee began to wonder if he had really made it out of that pond, or if he had just passed out in the pond and everything after had just been one fevered dream while he waited for oblivion.
The digital displays whined, bringing Kincaid out of his memories. THERE WAS I CONCEIVED, HERE WAS I BORN, the display read. The grammar was sloppy, but he saw no more strange, misspelled words. Maybe the thing had decided to stop playing around, or maybe it had just gained a better grasp of language. For a moment Kincaid wondered whether the hyena had just now come to life or if it had already existed.
“I don’t understand. What are you trying to show me?”
WHAT HAPPENED HERE. SEARCH YOUR BRAIN-MIND-MEMORY, the displays read. Lee glanced around again, and this time he did recognize his surroundings. He was in the Crossgates Mall in Albany, New York. He had been here once at the age of 12, on a trip with his family. REMEMBER-RECALL-REMEMBER-RECALL-REMEMBER-RECALL the displays flashed at him in fierce emerald.
The door, the door, he had been trying to push open the door- “I was trying to open the door!” Lee screamed at the display, but it continued to flash its redundant message. The hyena appeared at one end of the hallway, hunched and menacing. It approached, crushing the tiles with its street sign paws. A wave of vertigo hit Leeroy, and he stumbled backward against a wall as memories washed over him.
He stands at the top of the escalator, staring at the outstretched expanse of the mall. A sudden chill grips him, and he wraps his arms around his twelve-year-old torso and trembles. He hates the cold, it brings his mind back to that dismal pond and the gaping maw of the refrigerator. It causes him to question his surroundings, his reality. A gust of frigid air conditioning sweeps around him, and Lee is seized with the certainty that he is still in the pond, trapped beneath that rusty steel door.
He glances frantically around and the colors blur and merge together, swimming around him. The refrigerator door falls silently shut in his mind, the watery sky obliterated from view. The boy wrenches his eyes shut and cries out in terror. Then he thrusts his arms blindly outward, and he feels the door give and fall away. For the first time since he fell beneath the ice, he feels free. Then the screams reach his ears.
Lee opened his eyes and stood up from where he had fallen against the wall, shaken out of his memories and into the present. He stared down the gleaming chrome escalator where streams of crimson pool together amidst a pile of broken bodies. The new color jarred him, and he realized that this was the first time he was seeing even a trace of red since he had been pulled into the mural. This world’s taboo had finally been broken, and he was the perpetrator.
He looked back at the jumble of broken limbs and torsos. His mother and father lay on top, staring at him with dull, glassy eyes, mouths still hanging open in shock. He had sent them and everyone in front of them tumbling to the bottom, many injured and some dead, including both of his parents. “I opened the door…I was just trying to shove the door open…” Lee whispered.
YOU DID, the displays flashed, the words turning scarlet on the screen. AND IT WAS MAGNIFICENT.
“Who are you? What are you?” Lee screeched at the displays. The mall was empty now, all the robotic people with their silver question mark heads gone from the corridors.
I AM HATRED. I AM RAGE. I AM DESTRUCTION. I AM AGONY AND SUFFERING. I AM DEATH. AND I AM YOU. BUT YOU ARE NOT ME. Each sentence flashed across the screen in a deep azure hue. Lee sensed an urgency to its words, as if the creature hastened to differentiate itself from him. I AM GREATER THAN THE SUM OF MY PARTS.
“I don’t understand,” Lee murmured, but in the back of his head the pieces were starting to fall into place.
YOU ARE THE MIRROR I LOOKED INTO UPON MY BIRTH. YOU ARE THE LENS THROUGH WHICH I FIRST VIEWED THE WORLD. YOU ARE THE TEMPLATE AROUND WHICH I FORMED MYSELF. YOU OPENED THE DOOR THAT ALLOWED FOR MY EXISTENCE.
“I opened the door…” Lee walked over to the escalator, staring down at the bottom. The bodies were gone, but the pools of scarlet remained. From the corridor to his right he heard a series of metallic thuds, and a figure exited to stand behind him. He turned, and saw the head of the hyena, but affixed to his torso. The hyena wore his battered leather jacket, his faded denim jeans, and his shoulder holster with its hidden handgun. It reached a pale, spiderlike hand into its pocket and pulled out a switchblade knife. Lee looked down at his own body, and saw that he was twelve years old again.
AND NOW I WILL DO THE SAME. The words flashed directly into his mind this time as Leeroy Kincaid stared up at the creature, numb and trembling. The hyena drove the knife through his gut and jerked upward, twisting the blade. An icy spear tore through his innards and sent him reeling. He felt a hand rest on his shoulder, and he met the smoldering gaze of the hyena. The hand shifted, shoving Leeroy out towards the empty space above the escalator. He stumbled, his young arms whirling in a vain attempt to regain balance. The bright blues, purples, and greens of his surroundings spun around him, closing in and throttling him until all he could see was the glaring carmine at the bottom.
As he hurtled downward, frigid, murky water replaced the crimson smeared floor beneath him. And lurking under the waters he glimpsed the hulking, rusty iron frame of the refrigerator, door open and waiting. The abyss within beckoned, and Leeroy plummeted helpless into its embrace. The door squealed on its hinges, the water distorting the noise into a shriek of agony or ecstasy, Leeroy couldn’t tell which.
The water clutched his body in its rancid fist, and Leeroy Kincaid’s eyes fluttered shut just as the refrigerator door closed over his thin, shuddering form. He wondered if he were falling asleep or waking up, whether he had ever left the freezing, steel embrace of his prison or if he had simply imagined everything that had come after in one fevered frozen burst before succumbing. Past and present seemed to run together and fuse once more.
Which would be better? A voice asked, and he couldn’t tell if it was the hyena or some inner voice he had long since repressed. Are you glad you opened the door? Or should it have remained shut, Lee? A child drowns in an icebox or he is rescued, a life is saved or it is taken, Schrodinger’s Boy.
YOU HAVE SEEN THE OUTCOMES OF BOTH, THE FUTILITY OF YOUR EXISTENCE. BUT I CAN UNMAKE YOU. IN THIS WAY I WILL END YOUR SUFFERING.
The voice of the hyena hissed in his ears, and in his mind’s eye he saw the creature appear, wearing his body from the neck down, sharp azure words appearing above its head. Smoke fumed from its gleaming grate mouth, and Leeroy knelt before it in his eight-year-old form. His surroundings changed once more, the environment seamlessly transforming to reflect his mental landscape. A void of darkness surrounded them on all sides.
I CAN TAKE IT ALL BACK, LITTLE LEEROY. I CAN MAKE IT ALL BETTER. GIVE YOUR EXISTENCE, YOUR PLACE IN THIS WORLD, TO ME. I WILL LIVE YOUR LIFE FOR YOU AND ABSOLVE YOU OF ALL RESPONSIBILITY. I CAN BE THE ONE WHO OPENS THE DOOR. GIVE ME YOUR PLACE IN THE WORLD AND YOU NEED NOT BE THE ONE.
“Take it, then,” Lee growled, once again a lean, sinewy man in his leather jacket and ragged jeans. “If you think you can. If you think you deserve it, then come and get it.” He drew his handgun from the holster concealed at his shoulder and flicked open his switchblade. He reversed his grip on the knife, glaring at the abyss of darkness surrounding him. The darkness lifted and the environment changed to the mad amethyst and azure Miami skyline where he had begun, dotted by the neon green halos of palm trees. He stood once again in the street before the bank of television sets, each one displaying a constantly shifting question mark.
The hulking steel and concrete form of the beast crouched in front of him, snorting steam from its vicious iron grate nostrils. The hyena raised itself on its two hind legs, displaying forepaws reading YIELD and STOP. The creature roared, and then slammed its gleaming limbs into the pavement and hurled itself towards Leeroy Kincaid.
Lee fired three shots before the monster snapped its jaws around his right arm, causing him to drop the gun in agony. He thrust his blade into one blazing emerald traffic light eye, shattering glass and hearing a fizzle as the circuits blew. It released his arm and snarled. Lee growled in response, his bestial voice matching the hyena’s ferocity. He punched the iron snout of his foe, feeling the bones in his hand give way but also denting the creature’s face and sending several screws and bolts flying. Pain faded to fury. He punched again and again, until there was nothing left of his hand to slam into the hyena but a shattered stump oozing azure blood.
The beast leaped at Kincaid and worried at his other arm with the remains of its snout, street sign forepaws smacking Lee’s face repeatedly. He shrieked in torment and dropped the knife. The hyena lifted its forepaw and leaned in close to Kincaid, belching rancid, oily smoke into the enforcer’s face. He kicked in vain at the thing’s steel torso as it tore into his carotid artery, scarlet once more breaking into this bizarre world.
“Fine,” Lee huffed. “I’ll take death’s freedom. You win.” He lay drenched in a spreading pool of his own blood. Crimson spurted from his neck and flowed around him, turning to icy water. Brackish pond water flowed in from the alleys, flooding the street and lifting Kincaid high in the air.
The creature belched smoke out of its grate, and Leeroy realized that was its equivalent to laughter. I DID NOTHING. EVERYTHING THAT HAS HAPPENED HERE HAS OCCURRED AT THE BEHEST OF YOUR SUBCONSCIOUS. ALL OF MY ACTIONS WERE DRIVEN BY YOUR WILL. YOU CALLED OUT TO ME, QUICKENED MY EXISTENCE, BUT THIS IS YOUR WORLD, YOUR MURAL, A REFLECTION MORE GENUINE THAN ANY MIRROR COULD REVEAL. The creature paused, then continued. IT WAS OUR WORLD, LEEROY KINCAID, YOURS AND MINE, BUT NOW IT IS YOURS ALONE.
Kincaid groaned, struggling to comprehend the creature’s words. How could he have called out to it? All he had done was murdered some brat and gotten blood on the mural. And yet…the mural had displayed only the Miami landscape, not the mall or that horrid pond. Where had those scenes come from, then?
The creature spewed more smoke into the air. YOU HAVE TRAPPED YOURSELF HERE AND REDUCED YOURSELF TO YOUR MOST BESTIAL NATURE. NOW YOU MUST FREE YOURSELF. I CAN UNDO YOUR ACTIONS BUT YOU MUST STILL ATONE FOR THEM.
“You liar…” Lee began, but trailed off. He looked down through the murky waters to see the looming bulk of the refrigerator with its waiting open door. “No…” The water pulsed once more, and Kincaid felt a strange force grip his torso and pull him back down to where he belonged, to the rusty maw that had claimed him long ago. Once again, the door swung shut in liquid silence.
I DO NOT LIE. I WILL DO EVERYTHING PROMISED. OVERCOME YOUR GUILT AND FEAR, LEEROY KINCAID, CEASE YOUR FLIGHT AND FACE YOUR FLAWS. THEN YOU SHALL KNOW FREEDOM. The hyena faded from his mind, leaving him alone in the frozen dark. He couldn’t breathe but found he didn’t need to, not in this place that hung suspended between life and death, past and present. Leeroy Kincaid began to beat against the inside of the refrigerator door, his screams muffled by the chill, murky water.
On a side street of the Wynwood Arts District in Midtown Miami, a man bearing the name and almost identical face of Leeroy Kincaid walked away from a massive, surreal mural painted on the wall of a two-story building. It depicted a character that was boy, teenager, and man in different places. Smaller portrayals of violent and disturbing scenes from the subject’s past came together to form a larger tableau of the child/teenager/man struggling beneath the waters of a polluted pond, trapped in an old, rusty, and somehow ominous refrigerator. In the painting the door to the appliance loomed as if it were about to swing down and imprison its occupant underwater. The subject screamed unheard, his last words lost to the chill, rancid depths. At the root of all hatred lies an unshakable and perverse fear; of the world, others, and most of all of oneself was spray-painted in pallid yellow across the bottom of the mural, the words still wet to the touch.
The man bearing the name and face of Leeroy Kincaid glanced back at the mural, and smiled as he tossed a can of spray paint into a nearby garbage can. His eyes flashed a luminescent, traffic light green in the overhead streetlights. The man bearing the name of Leeroy Kincaid greatly resembled the figure in the mural, although there were several differences. His face did not bear the hard lines of the adult subject, nor the desperate sadness of the teenager. He was Leeroy Kincaid rewritten, but also something else, an entity from elsewhere, a concept that had breached the barrier of reality through a voluntary offering of blood and life. But now he had woven the threads of his existence into the fabric of this universe, seamlessly inserting himself without causing a ripple.
He strolled away from the point of his inception, contemplating his existence. He was at once newborn and almost three decades old, a paradox in the process of resolving itself as he adjusted. Time flowed in both directions and for a second he rippled. Instead of a man there stood a hulking steel and concrete hyena with street sign limbs and steaming iron grate jaws. But the image was fleeting, and after that flicker he did not change his form again. He searched his mind, reconciling extra-dimensional concepts with the rules of this universe. And soon enough he understood what Leeroy Kincaid was in relation to him. He paused and glanced back at the mural. “Goodbye, father.” Then he turned and walked away, toward the faint fringe of dawn light on the horizon.