“Violence is the world. It’s what saves us and what we are saved from.”
The girl raised her eyes from the textbook to him, scanned the otherwise empty waiting area, then turned to look down the hall.
He smiled. “I just saw your history book and thought I’d help sum it up.”
“Oh? Yeah.” She closed her book, clicked her pen.
He held up his left hand. “This group of people establishes a society. They develop,” he ticked off the cornerstones on his fingers, “a food source, an economy, a government, an organized religion.”
She gathered her backpack between her feet and dropped in her books.
He raised his right hand. “Then these other people do the same thing. But they decide they’re doing it better than these first people.”
The girl stood, threw her bag over one shoulder, and stepped out into the hall.
His eyes remained fixed on her empty seat. He clapped his right hand around his left. “So they kill these people. They take what they can use—mostly their women and weapons—and absorb it to make their society stronger.”
She looked over her shoulder at him. “Okay?”
“And . . . amen.” He turned his eyes toward her. “I just spared you six hundred pages.”
Now he had to wait for her to disappear. After a few moments he ambled back to the nurses’ station and drummed his fingers on the counter, all three nurses mixing the same cocktail of pity and confusion. He opened his mouth to speak, but instead closed his eyes, bowed his head, and pressed his palms together.
“Amen,” he said, and they all looked away to their clipboards and computer screens.
From the station, he could see straight down the hall. Some rooms sat empty, others with the door closed. One held the remains of a dying old man. He’d heard the family discussing the ventilator, debating a feeding tube. Another room held a young boy fighting an infection brought on by his treatment. He tuned out those conversations. And there in the nearest room lay his wife—probed, plugged, and monitored, rogue cells breaching her uterus and staging their final attack on her body. He’d neglected to say that to the girl: sometimes the society ends up killing itself.
He had to tell her.
He put a hand on the nurses’ station counter. “Thank you.”
Someone’s extended family huddled in the hall—a younger couple, a middle aged
couple, two older couples. The men jangled keys in their jacket pockets and the women hugged their purses. Parts and counterparts all apparently healthy.
They looked at him, eyebrows expectantly up. He had forgotten to straighten his hair after pulling at it like a bored third grader back in the waiting room. He combed it with his fingers, then became paranoid about infestation, bacteria, disease. Had he washed his hands? Surely. He always washed his hands.
“Did any of you see a girl come through here? Brown headed. Maybe fifteen or sixteen.”
“No,” one of the ladies said. “Your daughter?”
“Oh, no. We were talking a few minutes ago, and I thought of something else I need to tell her. I just didn’t see where she went.”
The room’s temperature changed.
“We haven’t seen anybody,” the middle-aged man said.
“Okay.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and clicked his tongue, looked up and down the hall. “Well, if you do, could you—”
“We’re leaving,” the man said.
“Right. Well. Have a good evening.”
She hadn’t gone into one of the rooms. Maybe the elevator. But who was she with? Why
would she be doing homework on this floor? None of it added up.
On his way to the elevator, he glanced back to see the middle-aged man walking toward the nurses’ station, watching him.
Outside at ground level the air was cool and dry enough to bounce off his skin, moving too slow to call it a breeze. Car tires vibrated the interstate bridge like a bow perpetually dragged across the strings. He’d once had an idea for a musical bridge—the cars’ vibrations drawing consonant notes from it so that it played all night and all day. A melody might emerge from the rabble and the notes become music, the concrete become ethereal and vice versa. A masterpiece could be written from one of the bridge’s melodies.
His wife laughed when he told her. “Maybe it would accidentally play Vivaldi. That’d be amazing.”
He smiled. “I’d settle for ‘Old MacDonald.’”
A herd of cars left the parking garage and scattered through downtown. The family from the hall exited the main entrance and walked across the street. He ducked around the corner. Up ahead, the ER’s waiting room spilled its light onto the sidewalk and he thought he heard someone screaming.
“Hey, brother. You got a dollar?” The man sat on the curb, most of his body in the bushes.
“No. I would say I don’t carry cash, but I just don’t have any money.” “I hear you.”
“Do you have family here?”
“Family.” He motioned toward the window. “In the Emergency Room.”
The man looked at the windows as if noticing them for the first time. “My son gone. Grandbabies,” he moved his fingers through the air as if playing a piano, “in the wind. You got a family?”
“Wife’s a good thing to have.”
The man grunted. “Kids?”
“She lost the baby. After she got sick.”
He grunted again, drawing it out this time into a groan. “I lost my boy. I ask one preacher, he say the Lord done it. I ask another, he say the devil. I read there in my Bible—you know the Book of Job?”
“Book of Job say the devil walk by, ask God can he do something. I say, that’s the case, preacher, I got nobody to pray to. You know what that preacher say?”
A cackle shot out of the man’s throat, bounced off the hospital walls, and dissipated in the air. He stomped his foot and shook his head. “You right! You right! He say have faith.”
Silence fell between them. He wanted to ask the man how it felt to have a child. “I’m looking for a girl,” he said finally. “You see a girl walk by here?”
“Oh. That what we talking about?”
“A young girl. Teenager.”
The man hummed, tapped his foot. “That’s what we doing? I guess it got to be that way. You in the wrong place, my man.”
“You saw her?”
“I know where to find her. You got a ride, I’ll take you.”
He shook his head. “No ride. She should be close by.”
“Oh. We can walk down a couple blocks. She ain’t far. You gonna need to dig up more than a dollar, though.”
“Why?” He helped him up from the curb, his hands cold and dry.
The man smiled a toothless smile. “You call me Po.”
They turned down streets that appeared out of nowhere, the signs and gaps in the sidewalk becoming visible at the last possible second, Po dragging him by the arm. Everywhere shadows moved, shifted, turned into people and back into night with the flash of a cigarette lighter or passing headlight. Houses along the streets sat crammed together, kids hopping from porch to porch, some of them making a game of following him and Po. He would swear he saw them on the rooftops, too, but that couldn’t be. Some of them finally disappeared into houses blocks away from where they first appeared, and he imagined some subterranean connection, all of the houses linked by trapdoors and tunnels, or maybe closet doors metaphysically opening into other houses.
It did not make sense that they would find the girl here. He had given up hope after their second digression from the hospital’s street. He held out the possibility that Po knew something he didn’t, and when the man grasped his arm he had no choice but to follow.
At the dead end of a street, Po finally stopped.
“You hear that?”
“I don’t hear anything.”
Po released his arm and walked down the driveway to their right, pointing behind the house. “They back here.”
The house’s backyard turned into a vacant lot, and eventually ran into a graveyard’s fence. On the unkempt lot sat a shed about half the size of the house, dim light seeping through its cracks. He heard it now—the low hum and thump of a stereo, people laughing.
Po knocked on the door. “It Po!”
The voices inside dipped, but rose again as the door opened.
“What you need, Po?” The fat man held a short rib in one hand and kept the other on the doorknob, his huge stomach stretching out a white tank top, his chins obscuring his neck, supporting a face that didn’t welcome company.
“I got a man here need to talk to you.”
The fat man leaned forward. “This man police?”
“Nah, nah, he—” The door slammed in Po’s face. He looked back, more disappointed than angry. “You ain’t police. Right?”
He shook his head.
Po knocked again. “He looking for a girl!”
Through the door, the fat man shouted, “She ain’t here!”
“Nah, man. A girl.”
The door opened again, the fat man this time looking past Po to the wraith behind him. “You police or what?”
“Not the police. I’m looking for somebody.”
The fat man gnawed the last bit of meat from his rib, tossed the bone out into the dark, and wiped his hand on his shirt. “Spread your legs.” He patted him down and took his wallet. “No money. No license. Who are you?”
“What’s your name, Nobody?”
He looked to Po for help, but got none.
“You a ghost?” the fat man asked with a grin.
“I’m just trying to find somebody. But I think I’m in the wrong place.”
“Depends on what kind of body you looking for.” He turned back toward the door. “Come on.”
Inside he could hear the voices more clearly, but the music swallowed their words. Too many people to count sat around the room, all of the men in T-shirts and jeans, all of the women in some state of undress. Po abandoned him immediately, heading to a table piled with beer and barbecue. Two girls stepped out of the dark edge of the room pawing at their own hips, pulling at tight dresses, looking into his eyes. One removed her dress and pressed herself against him, his arm between her breasts. She ran her tongue up his neck and to his mouth, but he stared slack into middle distance.
The fat man walked over and put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. She crawled off of him and disappeared. “You don’t like black girls, I find you a white one. Long as your money’s green, no offense taken.”
“No. I have a wife.”
“I think Po misunderstood.”
“He said you looking for a girl.”
“A girl I talked to earlier. She walked away. But—”
“Why you look like a ghost? You seen a ghost out there—in that graveyard?”
He looked away from the fat man, out into the dim room. “I haven’t slept. My wife’s in the hospital.”
“But you looking for a girl?”
The fat man leaned close, his breath septic like his mouth had rotted the meat instead of chewed it. “I get you help for your wife, if you need it. I know all kinds of people. Not just party girls.”
“She’s in the hospital—”
The fat man nodded. “Dying. There’s ways to heal a body.” He dug in his pocket and produced a card, black with white text, bearing only an address. “You see him. I’ll get Po to take you.”
“Who is he?”
“Apothecary. You tell him about your wife.”
“Ghost Man, when’s the last time you ate?”
They filled a plate with ribs and thigh quarters, and he shoveled it down. He could not answer the question. He remembered eating breakfast, but could not recall how many mornings ago. The meat dissolved in his mouth, smeared on his face and hands, the smell of it charred and sweet.
Po drank in the corner of the room. People here and there undressed. The fat man held court at the table in the center, each arm draped across a different woman, with another straddling him, holding food up for him to eat, pouring beer into his open mouth until he vomited, a red-brown spume flowing down his necks, on and into his shirt.
“I’m full!” he said, and howled laughing.
The address meant nothing to him. Back on the hospital’s street, the lights revealed Po to be too drunk to help. He propped him against the door of a church and took his hand.
“Thank you for the help. Now rest.”
“That way,” Po said, pointing down the street. “You keep going, you’ll find him. Just keep going.”
The kids joined him again as he moved through the dark, walking closer this time, in and out of his path. He did not know how far he walked and did not keep track of his turns, but Po had told him the truth. The shop sat on a corner, dim yellow lights illuminating small circles in the cracked lot. Rusted bars guarded the windows, and the hand-painted sign read: LIQUOR – SMOKE – HERBAL CLEANSING – XXX – NATURAL PROPHYLACTICS – FERTILITY – TAROT – PRAYER – VIDEO BINGO. He had a sense that the list could have gone on and on. The place appeared to have no name.
Inside, Muzak seeped from the bingo machines’ stall in the back corner. A man stood on the other end of the store perusing a library of pornography. Liquor and smoke filled a wall of shelves behind the clerk. Plexiglas extended from counter to ceiling with a slot for money and a port to speak through.
He pressed the card to the window. “I’m here to see an apothecary.”
The clerk’s deep-set eyes, obscured by the shadows of their sockets, moved from his face to the card and back again. A door down along the counter buzzed and clicked open and the clerk ushered him through, leading him to a second door in a corner hidden from the customer’s view. The clerk nodded toward it, his right hand resting on the butt of a holstered revolver.
As a child, such back rooms held the simple attraction of the unknown. The teacher’s lounge. The dead space behind a bowling alley’s lanes. A movie theater’s projection booth. The idea that on the other side of what he saw only as a wall was another world entirely. Time and experience had proven him wrong about this again and again—the rooms never held anything of mystical worth—but they never tarnished the fantasy.
This office was no different. A metal desk consumed most of the space. Dark wood paneling on the walls. A small TV on a corner filing cabinet framed a black and white Him staring at a TV framing a black and white Him, and so on, forever. A chair sat against the far wall, perpendicular to the desk, but he chose to stand. After a moment the clerk entered, adjusting a black tie he now wore underneath a vest decorated in baroque needlepoint. His conductor’s cap bore the word “APOTHECARY” stitched in bold capitals.
The Apothecary sat down at the desk. “Give me the card.” He took it and dropped it into a drawer. “Bull hands them out haphazardly. I cannot have them floating around.” After a moment, he said, “Sit down.”
He did as instructed. He had resolved to say nothing unless and until it became necessary.
The Apothecary leaned in, elbows on the desk, fingers woven together. “Bull says your wife is ill.”
“How much time?”
“Stage four. Spread from her uterus.”
“So, little time.” He leaned back, hands across his chest. “She has undergone treatment?”
The Apothecary sighed. “I have things. Oils, tinctures, compounds, ointments, teas, herbs—all manner of treatments for all manner of ills. But I am not magic. I have nothing that can bring someone back from the edge of death.”
He stood up. “Thank you for your time.”
“I know a man.”
His hands collapsed into fists. A memory of some feeling beyond his voided heart seized him. “Everyone knows a man. Thank you again.” He stepped to the door.
“I already know my fortune.”
“No. His name is Turot.”
He faced the Apothecary now, his back against the wall. “What about him?”
“He will heal her. He rewards those who know him with one gift. It can be anything. But you have to reach him.”
“Where is he?”
The Apothecary smiled. “Let us talk first about how you will pay for this. Forgive me for saying, but a man of means buys doctors and experimental treatments for his sick wife. He does not come looking for me.”
“You’re referring me. Why do I owe you?”
“Not referring. Providing access to. Turot does not seek and he is not found.”
“What’s the price?”
The Apothecary looked him over. “Bull was right to send you here.” He raised a finger to encourage patience, and left the room. He returned with two mason jars, one empty, the other filled with a dark brown brew. He sat and poured a shot into the empty jar, then slid it across the desk.
“I wish there were a more comfortable place to do this.”
“What is it?”
“Medicinal. Spiritual. Are you familiar with the practice?”
The Apothecary waved a hand. “It does not matter. Of course I have other, more legitimate anesthetics. But this will serve us both. It will start you on your journey toward Turot, and you will feel nothing.”
He eyed the door. How far could he run, and how fast? “What is it that I won’t be feeling?”
“As I said, I concoct all kinds of treatments. Some of them require very specific ingredients that can be hard to come by through traditional means.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
The Apothecary motioned for him to sit, and waited until he had done so. “I sense your incredulity, and I understand. I told you that Turot will heal your wife. I did not lie. What is her life worth to you?”
“You would give your life, correct?”
“If I had to.”
“I am not asking for nearly that much. A small thing.” The Apothecary’s gaze circled, scanning his face before landing again on his eyes. “Adam gave his rib for the life of a woman.”
“Are you God?”
The Apothecary pushed the jar closer with the tips of his fingers. “Drink. When you wake, you will know him.”
He did not think of the void as an entity. He understood it as an absence of everything, rather than the presence of nothing. He moved through it screaming. The screams left him and entered the children standing in the shadows, sending them running into doorways and alleys, slamming into walls and tripping over their own feet. A light rose at the end of the road. The further he walked, the further the light remained, until he took his final step off the pavement and laid prostrate in space. He heard voices and saw their silhouettes moving through a veil. The stars quaked and rushed together into Taurus, and the bull shot toward him. He took the horns’ blow to his face and his head shattered. One detached eye observed his headless body, and the other floated toward the veil until his head assembled itself against it, the voices from the other side louder now. The headless body shifted and grew to twice its size, shedding its clothes. It reached out and took his head into its hands, and the fear left him. The giant planted his feet on a grid that extended from the bottom of the veil into open space, and threw his head as hard and as far as he could. He moved beyond the absence of fear to the presence of peace. Disembodied— his inabilities justified, his sins forgiven, his love perfect. His head descended on its arc and fell through a hole in the grid, and his eyes opened to yellow-lit asphalt. The taste of blood filled his mouth. He pounded the pavement with his fists, burying bits of gravel between his knuckles. He tried to curse but couldn’t form the sounds. The pain throttled him and pushed his mind toward his gaping mouth, forced his eyes to focus on the growing pool of blood. The Apothecary’s shop sat silent and dark. The light belonged to the parking lot. He ran his tongue along the bridge of his toothless gums and screamed, stood and stalked to the barred door, slamming his body against it again and again until no one answered.
The dead hour. Not even the children moved along the streets. The night had tucked itself into this corner of the world, muted the streetlights, choked off all sound except the slurping and spitting of blood. Strings of it hung from his lips and swung into his clothes. He kept the pain in front of him like an orb, focused in one space as he stumbled the way he came, hoping to find his way back to Po at the church. Po could lead him to the shed. Unless he met Turot first.
He stood finally in front of the church staring at the empty entranceway, Po nowhere in sight. The wood doors extended up into the dark, the very top of the building lit at the undersides of its pocks and arches, giving off shadow. He grabbed the handle and pressed the latch, pushing the door open into the sanctuary. He clapped his hands to hear the echo, and to serve as a warning—it would hurt too much to speak. No one answered.
When they were first married, Victoria searched diligently for God. It had not been easy for her to let go of her childish faith and replace it with the childlike. She could never feel as certain, as comfortable as he. He taught her what he knew from Scripture, prayed for and with her, followed her to Sunday school, to Mass, to faith healings, to revivals, and to baptisms. He only balked when she came to him with questions about the origins of sin, and later spent her mornings in Buddhist meditation. As the cancer took her, she ran back to God while he ran from him. When she lost the baby, she sang songs of praise to the one who gives and the one who takes away. He kept to himself for fear of saying something he could never take back. In recent days, she had held his hand and prayed more for his heart to be softened than for her own body to be healed.
A prayer could not hurt. He dragged himself to the front of the sanctuary, unable to look up at the Crucifix. He took a candle in his hand and rummaged for a lighter, knocking glass to the floor. He drooled uncontrollably and spat wads onto the station’s white cloth. If he did not find a light, he would pray to Turot. Giving up, he threw his candle onto the pulpit and overturned the station, the crash jarring, echoing forever, candles and glass shooting away from him in every direction. He continued to look for a lighter, but begged not to find it for fear that he would burn down the building. He grabbed the white cloth from the pile of wax and glass and wiped his mouth. The pain went out of focus and crawled through his body.
A voice whispered his name.
He turned from the station and walked as fast as he could for the door. The voice rose and followed him, and halfway down the aisle it took shape in his peripheral vision. A cold hand pawed at his arm.
“Let me be,” he mumbled.
A flapping accompanied its steps—the sound of thin wings, not the robust feathers of an angel. An angel of the Lord would not approach him this way. He would make himself known.
But could a demon hide in the church?
He snatched away from it, and a step later the apparition put both hands on his back and pulled at the hem of his jacket. He screamed and dragged it to the doors, until its hands ran along his legs and tripped him. He turned, kicking at it, hitting it in the face, and as its hands crawled up his leg he pulled them away and threw himself on top of the thing. He wrapped his hands around its neck and put down his full weight.
Its hands dropped limp to the floor, and he let go and crawled away. A shaft of light from the cracked doors lay across Po’s wide, bloodshot eyes, his mouth agape.
He closed his eyes and saw the grid. Whether Turot had been the giant or a voice behind the veil, he could not be sure. And if he found Turot now, what would he ask for? Was Po’s life worth Victoria’s? He wanted his teeth, of course. And he wanted the girl to know all of this—to know that she had spoken to a prophet.
He wept as he stripped Po’s body and dragged him between the pews. His clothes stunk of piss and spilled beer. The shirtsleeves were too short and the pants too long, and he pushed Po’s dirty cap down over his eyes and assumed his half-strut through the front doors and down the vacant streets, overlaid with the grid.
He recognized familiar houses, now sleeping but with the same sagging porches and overgrown yards. They lead him through the series of streets to the dead end where Po brought him before. At the shed, he knocked on the door. “It Po!”
The door eased open to the fat man, Bull, his eyes heavy with sleep, shirt still stained with vomit. “Took you long enough.”
He stepped through the door and stayed close to the wall. Bull sat down at the table with his head thrown back. He cleared his throat and went into a coughing fit, smacking his chest with an open hand. After he settled, he rummaged in his pockets, looking into the shadows.
“You get the man there?”
“To the ‘pothecary?” He let the question hang. “Yeah. He made it.”
Bull pulled something from his pocket, checked it, then tossed it into the dark, hitting him in the face and landing in his lap. A small roll of bills.
“See?” Bull said. “Easy hundred.”
He tucked the bills into Po’s filthy pockets, but now he could not find a place for his guilt over killing him.
“What else you need?” Bull asked.
“You don’t feel bad about what you did to the man?”
“What did I do to him?”
“That ‘pothecary does bad business.”
“All business is good business, and ain’t none of it your business. You don’t need that hundred? Pass it back.”
Bull laughed. “What I thought. Man was a dead man time he came in here. You wasn’t drunk, you’d seen it too.”
He couldn’t argue with him. “’Bout the man’s wife, though? She don’t deserve to die.”
“Who deserves to die? And why you care about the man’s wife? Can’t nobody here help her.”
“Man came out talking about a name. Turot. You know him?”
Bull raised his head and squinted into the dark. “You still drunk, Po? Why you asking about him?”
“Curious how?” Bull sat up now, leaned on the table. “You forget? I know Po ain’t forget that name.”
Blood rushed from stomach to head and his hands shook. “I ain’t forget.”
Bull flicked on a lamp, its yellow half-light illuminating the table. He leaned in and extended a hooked finger. “Step out here, Po. Why you sitting in the dark?”
He stepped into the light, across the table from Bull, his mouth opened wide so he could see.
Bull jumped in his skin and sat upright. “What happened to you, Ghost Man?”
“Your friend did this to me.”
“Just be glad you still alive.”
He bent down further into Bull’s space, pointing into the table. “You have to fix this.”
“Ain’t my problem.”
“I can’t go back to her like this. She can’t see this.”
Bull looked into his eyes. “Then you know where to go.”
“I’m done looking for people. You take me.”
“You want that fixed, you got to go on your own. That Apothecary crazy, but he ain’t lie to you. You find Turot, you get that fixed.” Bull paused, examining his face, his clothes. “Or you save your wife. Or you bring Po back. That’s up to you.”
“Them sure look like dead man’s rags to me.” Bull laughed. “You went in for a penny and got way more than a pound, ain’t you? Now get on.”
He leapt onto the table, kicking the lamp to the floor as he grabbed a pile of rib bones from a dirty plate. He put the palm of his other hand against Bull’s forehead and shoved a fistful of bones into his mouth. Bull grunted and cursed, his heavy arms wagging and pounding until he landed a solid blow—both fists slamming into either side of his head at once. A flash of white light shot through his vision and he yelled out, spitting bloody clumps. Bull finally gave up and reached for his own mouth, gagging and hacking, beating at his chest. He took his chance and darted for the door and back out into the night.
Ghost Man moved through the night like a wind, the blunt force of his will keeping the sun docked long enough to make it back to the hospital. The lights of passing cars illuminated everything but his face. His mouth had finally dried, and the morning’s cool air ran needles through his gums with every breath.
At the hospital, he walked along the ER’s windows, its waiting room empty, until he reached the curb where he’d first found Po. He sat down with his back half in the bushes, closed his eyes and waited.
Turot would not seek and he would not be found. Good things come. Patience is a virtue. Time heals all wounds. He knew the truth and the lie of each platitude. When Turot came, he would confess everything. He would ask Turot to weigh each of his requests and give him the gift he deserved, though he already knew the answer. He would then walk up to his wife’s room restored, his body whole again, and hold her hands in his as they prayed to the Lord to do the same for her.
Matt McDonald is from northeast Louisiana. He works in higher education, and is a musician and former high school English teacher. After chasing down and wounding a novel, he has recently returned to writing short fiction. His work has also appeared in Loud Zooland Eunoia Review.