The rain smelled different in the city.
Out in the country, the air plunged into such delicious freshness that some green-eyed linguist had coined a word for it: petrichor. Earth and growth and the wide, open sky and all the things that made life worth living. Nature rejuvenated on pattering droplets out of the gunmetal grey.
The kind of freshness Casper dreamed of every time he fell asleep.
Once, the sweetness had been a promise when Casper closed his eyes, but he couldn’t seem to imagine it anymore. With every step between these metal hulks of industrial poverty and decaying grey-wash towers, the stink of human pollution swallowed a little more of the memory.
Casper dipped beneath an overhang on the corner to fumble his phone out his pocket with cold-numb fingers. Third time it’d swarmed against his thigh now. He already knew who it was before he squinted at that scratched up screen through the raindrops that splattered across the glass.
Jack, little heart tacked on the end that Casper had put there two years ago and never had the guts to change. Seemed like the stink should’ve gotten sweeter seeing his boyfriend’s name in the dull LCD.
Sighing, Casper answered the call.
“Cassie baby!” Jack’s slur blared down the phone. Babbling voices haunted the background, and gritting his teeth, Casper knocked down the volume. Drunk. But at least it sounded like a good mood. “Hey, baby! Thought you were at work?”
Casper struck back out into the downpour, shouldering through the crowds. Screeching taxis and freight lorries flung pools full of sodden rubbish and muck at his legs as he hunched along the side of the road. The pouring rain had already soaked through his hood, wormed down the back of his coat to drench his skin and bones in shuddering, gasping ice.
Jack was probably too drunk to tell.
“Hey, caught you just in time then, huh? Look—look, baby, do you— Hey, fuck off, cunt!” Jack’s voice faded even as it rose to a shout. “Yeah—Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you, you fucking asshole. Watch where you’re fucking stepping, huh? I’ll cut your fuckin’ eyes out if you ain’t gonna fuckin’ use ’em. Yeah, that’s right fuck off. Little fuckin’…” Wild laughter, and Jack’s voice came down the speaker again. “Sorry, baby. What was I saying?”
“Don’t ask me.”
Voices crackled down the phone, a distorted echo of the shapeless racket on this packed street. Except where Jack’s should be, there was nothing but a pit opening up in his gut.
Casper hissed between his teeth while he swapped hands on the phone, jamming the other in his pocket against the chill. Here it goes, Cas. That’s what your bad mood buys you.
“Fuck’s up with you?” Jack’s voice had lost all levity. “You know what, Cas, you ain’t never pleased to hear from me anymore. Dunno why I fuckin’—”
Silence. Fuck knew that was Jack hanging on for an apology, but he wouldn’t get one. Casper was fucking sick of handing them out. Lies tasted foul as this pollution-clogged air on his tongue these days, but only the kind that helped someone else.
Another corner. He squeezed around the bodies jammed up against the curb in their desperation to make space between them and the ragged figure huddled on the corner getting drenched by the rain.
Usually, Casper stopped, offered the guy a cigarette. He didn’t have anything else to give, but the least he could do was help out someone scratching out a breath of nicotine from a tin full of ends. Today, the rain came so thick and fast it drowned the guy, and the spark of Jack’s lighter still snapped down the phone.
“Jack—” His voice rasped, protesting the cold. “Jack, this fag’s almost done. You aren’t seriously gonna ignore me ’til I’ve gotta hang up, are you?”
The bar he worked at stood a grimy harbour in the darkness just across this side road, and with the rain pelting against his face, Casper bolted for it. Filth splashed up around his ankles as he sprinted across the street, down in his boots and between his toes. The alley he smoked in before work dipped down the side of the building, and only the mildewed awning of the smoking area lay between him and a breath of relief.
The regulars outside all waved to the dark shape of him huddling through the rain, shouting jokes and already slurring their words. A spill of grunge tainting the street air, and anyone passing by gave the gaggle of wheezing smokers a wide berth, but Casper skimmed close, grinning and laughing. This was where he belonged, and hey, maybe he even kinda enjoyed it. Everyone had something, right? Casper kept drunks happy.
And Jack still hadn’t hung up. Gritting his teeth, Casper slid into the side-alley, skipping over a spill of rubbish already smeared into the ground by the hammering rain.
Maybe it stunk like month-old rot but compared to that clamour of pissheads out the front, it was quiet. God knew Casper needed quiet just about always with this headache that nailed into his skull like a disease.
“Well, I’ve fucking finished it now. I’ve got to go.”
Jack’s voice burst down the speaker. “Nah, nah, nah – wait! Wait, wait—”
Tongue clenched between his teeth, Casper jammed open the backdoor and huddled in the arch. Spits of water still nipped at his cheeks, but it was sheltered enough to press the phone between his ear and his shoulder and roll a cigarette.
“Wanted to ask you, baby, you wanna come ’round later?”
Shit. That’s what he got for bullshitting about the early shift. “I dunno, Jack. I’m wrecked.”
“So you don’t wanna?”
Casper straightened up, eyes narrowing at the cobweb crusted doorframe opposite him. Why wasn’t he pissed off?
“Only askin’ ’cause if you ain’t gonna bother, there’s this smokin’ bird making eyes at—” Jack’s voice lifted abruptly out of his crooning drawl to an equally gut-tingling shout. “Yeah, honey, I see you lookin’!” Laughter. Casper pressed his eyes shut and grit his teeth. “Yeah, one second, babe, I’m just seein’ what my boyfriend’s sayin’, but he’s about to say no problem-o Jackie, so just gimme one sec, huh? Then I’ll give you—”
Static distortion crackled through the speaker. Ice pick right into his goddamn brain, hammered home by that laughter. “Sorry, baby! What you sayin’ then? ’Cause—”
“Yeah, Jack. Stick your fucking dick in her. I’ll be right here slinging drinks to smackheads where I always am. Don’t worry about me.”
“Sweet!” Jesus fucking… “Catch you ’round, huh, baby? Love you, alright?”
One last kiss smacked down the speaker and the line went dead.
Only the tobacco and paper grinding between his fingertips kept him from dashing the phone against the ground. An explosion of glass and wire against the unforgiving earth.
Wouldn’t it be beautiful?
Casper rolled another cigarette. He left his coat on the hook inside with the dream that the hypothermic downpour might make him feel alive.
It didn’t. Never did.
At the last acrid toke, Casper tipped his head back to the heavens, scratching his fingers through his black hair to invite in the rain pouring from the sky. Back to the murky grey abyss glowering between the drunken buildings.
Fat droplets splashed across his face, frostbitten gasps of cold greasy with pollution. He shivered as the water slithered down his throat, soaking the last dry scraps of his hair and plastering his t-shirt to the skeletal frame of his ribs. The strange geometric pattern adorning the front winked its illuminati eye at the sky.
Water clogged his nose and if he kept his mouth shut, it was just like drowning.
But drowning didn’t buy him more tobacco.
Inside, the muggy heat settled like a pillow across his face. Suffocating. The bass wormed through his brain, throbbing through the floor and shuddering in his bones. Water drizzled off his clothes, pattering against the concrete, and Casper turned his head up to the fluorescent bar of light flickering on the ceiling, a thin smile on his chapped lips.
Drizzle from the grey cloud that had hung low over his head for as long as he could remember.
His whisper cracked in his throat, the sound lost beneath the music crawling under his skin. “I want to run away.”
Run away from the place he’d run toward. That really was just like him, but now he drowned like a cockroach caught in a sewer flow, so how could he cling to this nightmare?
Maybe one day he’d sit beneath a porch in the countryside, and the droplets pattering on the awning while he smoked would be the only sound in the world. Green hills would roll right up to the horizon and the air would lay fresh with petrichor on his tongue.
Maybe one day he’d make it before this place killed him.
Casper sighed and started off down the corridor to the bar, his fingers trailing along the black roller-painted walls. The music pounded into his skull as he passed through the back room. Bass so filthy it strung out into a slur of gut-twisting reverberation.
Into the pit.
The rush drowned his thoughts for the rest of the night. If there was one thing to be said for bartending, nothing kept the bugs in your skull at bay better than fending off the thirsty masses.
Not half a second’s break to think; Jess poured drinks with a desultory doped-up hesitance, but Casper threw himself into the whirlwind with relish. When the crowd broke about five, it was like surfacing from a murky pond with gasping breaths that felt like being reborn.
For the first time since he’d come back from his smoke break, no one stood at the bar when he turned around. The music didn’t bang so loud, eased down to a conversational volume. Patrons slumped over the dim tables, a low buzz of conversation in the air and the glow of embers crowning cigarettes and joints alike.
Some distant cousin of adrenaline trembled beneath his skin, sweat thick through his hair and sticking his still-damp t-shirt to his back. Jess stood vacant, her eyelids drooping in slow blinks.
Casper tapped Jess on the elbow and told her to go, to watch out for herself and to make sure she carried the pepper spray in her hand when she walked home.
“Text me when you’re back,” he said, “okay?”
Something like a smile crossed her lips. “You’re gonna be the one to need the pepper spray, sweetie. All the bad guys are already in here.” It was the first joke she’d made in two weeks, so Casper smiled against the scream that clawed up his throat.
With Jess gone, it was just him, the smackheads, and the booze.
The whiskey bottle coughed up a triple into a murky glass and he tipped it down his throat. Casper lifted the bottle to the light and snorted. Watered. Barely even that cheap alcohol burn. Why did it even surprise him anymore? Except with another double, and a tingling warmth touched his fingertips anyway, fumes from the petrol-heat in his gut. Sighing, he rested his elbows on the bar.
Then Casper saw him, and he couldn’t quite believe he’d managed to miss him the whole night.