When I walk in my building, she is huddled in the back of the hallway, naked. Beaten and discarded, like a rag doll that nobody wants. I spy her right away, there in the darkness in the furthest corner, away from where the other tenants can see her. But I know she’s there. I can even smell her. My senses have become fine tuned over the years and there’s no mistaking the scent of brimstone and a fiery temperament. I walk over to her and take the sweater off my shoulders, wrapping it around her. She looks up at me with eyes red tinged from the crying. Her pupils seem to implore me to help her. I take her hand and look at the wrist. She has the mark. And she has no one to turn to because of it.
“Mordecai said you’d help,” she barely manages to whisper.
Mordecai, an old friend, always sending me strays. What a guy.
“Come on,” I sigh and lift her up. I help her around to the staircase where I barely manage to navigate her to the third floor, apartment six. We probably look like a pair of junkies stumbling down the hallway. She is weak and her dead weight causes us to shuffle and stumble, but we finally make it into the safety of my apartment.
I sit her on the couch in the living room and go to turn up the thermostat. I casually glance out the window, and that’s when I see them standing in the shadows on the other side of the street. Two men in white-breasted suits. I have often wondered why they dress in such noticeable outfits if they expect not to be seen. But I guess maybe they want you to see them. They want you to be afraid. But I’m not afraid of them. I close the curtains and turn back to my new charge.
I take my sweater back and grab a blanket from the closet, which I promptly wrap around her. I notice her breathing is labored and her skin is quite pale. She’s going to need a doctor soon. The shock is just too great for her. It’s always like this for the new ones. The trauma of real life sets in quickly it seems.
“What’s your name?” I ask her.
“Sky,” she manages to whisper.
“You wouldn’t be able to pronounce my real name.”
“You’d be surprised. But for now Sky will do. So…. you hungry?”
She looks at me strangely as if I’ve just asked her if her mom’s name is Bill.
“Food?” she asks.
I nod and get up to go to the kitchen. I open up a cabinet. Cans of soup, peaches, apple sauce… yes, that’s it, applesauce. I take a can down and open it. I grab a spoon and carry her very light dinner into the living room for her. She is still on the couch, has hardly moved an inch.
“Here you go.” I hand her the can and spoon. She looks at both as if she doesn’t know which one she wants to eat. Finally, she dips the spoon into the can and brings some of it out. She tastes it cautiously and then swallows it down.
I smile. The new ones always like applesauce. But she eats it too quickly. Soon she begins to cough and choke on the mixture. I pat her on the back and that seems to help a little. But I notice her back is unusually warm. I remove the blanket from her shoulders and take a closer look at her back. She is bleeding, and pretty badly too. I don’t know why I didn’t notice it earlier.
“I’m going to have to get you a doctor.” I pull out my cell and speed dial my friend Carl. He’s a good doctor and doesn’t ask questions.
As I wait for him to pick up the line, the girl drops the can of applesauce and slumps over, sliding off the couch and to the floor.
“Shit,” I exclaim, just as Carl’s voice comes on the line.
“Hello,” his voice says somewhat sleepily though it’s early afternoon.
I get straight to the point. “Carl, I have another one I need you to look at.”
“I’m on the way,” he replies and I hang up on him, already moving to the prone figure of Sky on the floor.
I don’t touch her. I just leave her there in the floor. I don’t even so much as check for a pulse. Healing is not my area of expertise. I am more into the adjustment end of things. I should have an ADJUSTMENT DEPT sign hanging on my door.
The girl shudders, a quick spasm. It startles me and I really want to help, but I know the rules. Wait for the doc. I leave her in the floor and busy myself with the task of preparing the spare bedroom. She is going to need a place to sleep and recuperate.
I finish changing the bed sheets when the knock comes at the door. One knock, then three, and one again. It is the doctor’s code. I go back to the living room and to the front door. When I open it Carl doesn’t say a word in greeting and neither do I. We are beyond such casual formalities.
“That the one?” he asks, looking at the motionless half naked figure on my floor.
“Yeah. She has some serious back lacerations, who knows what else.”
“I’ll need you to make me a cold compress,” he says, as if I’d just told him she has a simple fever. But I do as I’m told and go into the kitchen to prepare what he needs. It doesn’t take me long and soon I’m back in the living room with doctor and patient.
Carl hasn’t wasted much time in the short period I’ve been out of the room. The girl is back on the couch, lying on her stomach and he’s already begun examining her naked, bloody back. I notice her bare skin is of a perfect complexion and unblemished by beauty marks of any kind. The only marks are the wounds just below her shoulder blades. It looks like someone has tried to cut the bones right out of her back.
“Damn,” I exclaim quietly.
Carl looks up at me, a look of worry on his face. “Yeah, this one is pretty bad. It’s been some time since I’ve seen one like this.”
“She must have been out there by herself a long time,” I suggest.
He nods in agreement before returning to his examination. He reaches in his medicine bag and pulls out a small jar. He opens it up and applies a salve like substance to her wounds.
“Generally, this works pretty good,” he explains, “but I think she’s going to need a little more time to heal and rest.” He puts the lid on and closes up the jar, putting it back in his bag. “Are you going to be able to care for her?”
“I don’t know, Carl. This is a halfway house, not a hospital.”
He nods. “Well, if we have to move her we will, but I’d rather she be stabilized and healed before she’s out there with the dogs.”
“She’s already been out there with the dogs,” I reason.
“That’s true, but she didn’t know what the dogs were then. We want her to know what’s out there before we put her out on her own.”
“Okay, I’ll do the best I can. She can stay here however long it takes.”
“You can always call Nicodemus if you need to,” Carl suggests warily. “He’ll take care of her.”
“Nicodemus is a lecher. He would use her and then throw her back out there.”
“True, but she would be out of your hands and not your responsibility.”
“I don’t think I’ll be calling Nicodemus.”
“Good,” he smiles. “Well, I think that’s it for her back wounds there, let’s get her in the bedroom so she can rest.”
I go to the hall closet and get a new blanket, which we lay out beside the couch. Ever so gently we lift and move her onto it. For the most part she is unconscious, but I believe I hear her whisper “no”. I don’t think it is directed towards us though. I imagine she is in the throes of a bad dream. Hell, she doesn’t even know the half of it.
For hours she doesn’t stir in the bed. She just lies there naked, curled up in a fetal position, as if she’s a child resting in the womb. In a way that isn’t too far off the mark. I step in and check on her every so often, but I know she’ll rest for some time. The salve Carl uses seems to heal well enough, but it sometimes makes you sleep for days on end.
My doctor friend waits around for several hours just to make sure she is going to be okay, and then he too leaves. He doesn’t say goodbye. He knows he’ll be hearing from me again soon. No need saying goodbye when you are just going to say hello again.
I watch television as she sleeps. Surfing through the channels I am always surprised there really isn’t anything worth watching. Between “Nobody Has Any Frigging Talent” and reality shows that look remarkably like plastic supermodels masquerading as real people, I am stupefied over what passes as entertainment. If we are going to have reality TV, why not show us the way it truly is? Pre-teen boys shooting their neighbor for those new Nikes he saw him wearing; a young woman prostituting herself because her boyfriend is too lazy to get a real job; a man OD’s when in a drug induced stupor he accidentally shoots an air pocket into his veins. Another young woman shows up naked and bleeding at an apartment complex and no one notices. This is real life, not who is sleeping with who in a fully furnished house none of the occupants had to work their fingers to the bone to afford. This is why I don’t watch TV.
That and the fact the white suits use it to ask for money to further their cause. They think they have us fooled, standing there in their pulpit, quoting scriptures between pleas for donations. They would like us to think the money is for His work, but they aren’t really affiliated with Him at all. It all goes to hunting us down.
I turn it to the religious channel just to see what they have to say today. There is a man preaching. What he says makes sense. Forgiveness. Redemption. All the good stuff, and then a static flare spreads across the screen. The picture goes away replaced by swirling images of bodies entwined. Not in ecstasy but agony. They writhe and twist as if tortured, mouths open trying to scream but nothing comes out. It doesn’t take one of the prophets to tell me it’s a transmission from someone’s perception of hell. Then the screen blanks out again and returns focused on the street outside the apartment. The two white suits who were there earlier are now joined by a third. The third one grins from the TV screen.
“Why don’t you just send her on down, Rachel? We won’t hurt her, promise.”
He reminds me of a used car salesman, or some guy in a bar who looks my way and sees a big flashing neon sign that says TITS AVAILABLE HERE.
“Yeah right, pervert,” I reply.
“You know we’ll get her eventually. We always do,” he says with a lecherous gleam in his eye. “You know as well I do she can’t stay there forever. Eventually you’ll put her out and we’ll be there to get her. You could save yourself some trouble and just put her out now.”
“Why do you want her so bad? Did you run out of altar boys this week?”
“Oh that was funny. Remind me to laugh when I peel the flesh off your bones and…”
“Oh save it for the bleeding choir indivisible, why don’t you?”
Click! I turn off the television. I know this will go nowhere – just insults after insults hurled at each other. And you think the battle of the sexes is bad.
I get up and go to the window. Yes, all three of them are out there leaning against a storefront wall across the street. They all wave as if signaling a long lost friend. I give them the finger. They always hate the “damn you” connotation that applies.
I head for the bedroom to check on my charge and she still sleeps peacefully. She doesn’t even know anyone has been fighting over her. In fact she doesn’t know much at all. I’m going to have to teach her, and fast.
I am distracted by a knock at the door. I know who it is before I even answer it. Nicholas, the boy from the apartment down the hall. He stops by at least once a day whenever I’m home. I think he must watch my door to see if I come and go. Most people would find this creepy, but if you knew the boy you would find it endearing. I mean it’s no secret he has a crush. I saw it in his eyes the first I met him, and though this may sound bad of me, I sometimes use that to my advantage.
I open the door. “Hi Nicky,” I say. He likes the pet name I’ve given him, makes him blush every time.
“Hi Rach,” he grins. His baby blue eyes are wide and innocent. He is much like the girl recuperating in my bed, so far untouched by the madness of the world we live. He’s only sixteen, but his good looks are already a hit with the girls I’m sure. If I was younger and of a different preference I would be tempted to be smitten with him myself. But I have this thing with dating guys. I don’t. Maybe it’s the fact I can always tell what the male of the species is thinking. It kind of takes the mystery out of the evening when you know all they are working for is to find out if you wear panties or thong, or if that’s your natural hair color. Nicky isn’t like that though, thank heavens or whoever. Once, about two weeks ago I caught him thinking of kissing me. I guess that wouldn’t be too unpleasant, but I don’t want him getting anymore attached to me than he already is.
“Hey, I was heading out to the store,” he says. “Can I get you anything?”
“I was thinking of doing that myself, Nicky. Must have read my mind.”
“Cool! We could go together!”
“Well, actually I have company and don’t want to leave them by themselves.”
His smile fades for a minute. I know what he thinks. That I have a man over. But then he grins again. “One of them wild nights, huh?”
“No, it’s not like that,” I laugh. “Just a friend.”
“Ahhh,” he says, giving me a wink. “Well, hey I can pick some stuff up for ya at the store. What do you want?”
“Just some milk and applesauce.”
“I should have known. What do you do with all that applesauce anyway, take a bath in it?”
“Now that’s an idea,” I tease, and for a brief moment I catch an image from his head of me naked in a tub of applesauce. So much for innocence.
I watch Nicky from the window as he heads down the street. I notice the men in white are watching him too. One of them detaches himself from the others and begins to follow the boy discretely. In the old days I would have panicked, thinking they were going to hurt him, but I know better now. They have no real interest in anyone other than those in the halfway house. They know Nick is harmless and no threat to them. Still, they like to keep tabs on people I come in contact with. Maybe they think I will secretly call out for reinforcements.
I turn from the window and go to check out my guest. She has managed to kick off the covers and I gently put them back over her, tucking her in. She stirs lightly and murmurs something that sounds like “Father.”
I touch my hand to her cheek. Her skin is so soft and I find myself wishing to lie beside her. To just curl up next to her and forget the world outside. Would she understand? Or would she recoil in shock or shame, already jaded by this world to believe such intimacy was purely a flawed human thing? My fingers linger on her skin a little longer and I find myself bending over top of her sleeping form, drawing myself down to kiss her cheek.
My thoughts are interrupted by the squeal of tires. No not yet, I think. Please not yet. I forget my impossible dreams of affection and jump to my feet. Returning to the living room I take a look out the window. A car is stopped in the middle of the road. The careless driver almost hit a little old lady pushing a grocery cart across the road. I breathe a sigh of relief. There for a minute I believed it was time’s up for Nicky. One of the hardest parts of being who I am is knowing how someone is going to die. I don’t know when. He could very well live to a ripe old age before it happens, or his end could come tomorrow for all we know. It is a shame that my foresight doesn’t extend far enough out of the shadows to give me all the details.
Nicky arrives with the milk and applesauce fifteen minutes later. I let him in and he stands in the living room as I go to get him some money.
“Whoa, did you spill some ketchup?” he exclaims.
I return with the money and see he is looking at a spot on the couch that I missed while cleaning up after my guest. “Yes, dropped the whole bottle,” I lie.
“I get sloppy with my hamburgers too. Mom won’t even let me eat on the couch anymore.”
I smile and hand him the money for my groceries. He looks at it for a moment, and then hands it back. “You know what? Just keep it,” he says.
“No Nicky, I can’t let you buy my stuff for me. You probably work hard for your allowance.”
“Allowance? Did you know how many rocks I had to sell to get that?”
I know he is playing. He doesn’t do that kind of thing, still I act shocked so he will not know I can read his every thought. “Nicky!”
He grins real big and points his finger at me. “Ha, gotcha!”
“You shouldn’t joke about such things,” I mildly admonish him.
“Yeah I know, but it’s good to see that look on your face every now and then. Hey, could I use your bathroom?”
“Sure go ahead.”
As he heads off down the hall, I take a peek into his own grocery bag. Sodas, bread, his mother’s medicine. I drop the money down in there. He can fuss at me later.
I am cleaning the spot on the couch when he screams. It is not a cry of terror, but one of shocked surprise. I run towards the restroom and come to a complete stop in the hallway. “Oh no,” I whisper.
Nicky is standing there in the bathroom doorway his jaw hanging open. In front of him stands my guest, completely naked. She has obviously awakened and healed enough to start exploring her surroundings. This however is not a good time.
I open the hall closet and pull down a sheet to wrap around her. As I approach them, Nicky turns his eyes from her perfectly alluring form to look at me. “Why didn’t you tell me it was this kind of company?” he stammers.
“Because I knew your tongue would fall out of your head,” I explain, wrapping her in the sheet and steering her back into the bedroom. “Go wait in the living room while I put my sister back to bed. She’s sick.”
“Yes, now go in the living room. I’ll only be a minute.”
He grudgingly obeys, and I close the bedroom door behind me, so he won’t try to ogle my guest any further.
“We really need to get you some clothes before you go wandering around too much,” I tell her.
She sits down on the edge of the bed and is looking at me with admiration. “You healed me.”
“No, not me. A friend.”
“You’re not my friend?”
“No, I’m not. I’m just here to help you make the transition.”
“Transition from what?”
“All in good time. You will remember gradually. Until then we have to get you prepared.”
“Prepared for what?”
I open up the bedroom closet and start rifling through my clothes. “You are a little smaller than me, but hopefully I can find something that won’t swallow you up too much.”
She gets up and comes up behind me. I can feel her breath on my neck. Her close proximity is intoxicating. I hate this. Why does she have to be so beautiful?
“Here, you find something you like,” I stammer. “I have to go explain you to Nicky.”
She is unaware of the effect she has on me. She’ll soon discover she will have that affect on everyone until she learns to hide what she’s been blessed with. These new ones just seem to drip sexuality so much you want to dip them in mud to remove some of that glamour. Problem is I happen to like mud, too.
I leave her to browse my wardrobe while I go to tell Nicky some lie to get him to go home.
“I didn’t know you had a sister,” Nicky says when I tell him she’ll be visiting for a few days. “And she’s hot too!”
“Down boy,” I tell him. “She’s not ready for anyone to be pawing all over her. She had an accident.”
“A great height. But I think she’ll be okay.”
“She looks fine to me,” he grins.
“Come on Nicky, please don’t turn out like every other guy I know.”
“I’m sorry, Rach. It’s just ..well…it’s not every day you see a naked girl standing in front of you. It does something to you.”
Tell me about it.
“Well, she’s not acting like herself. I think the fall dazed her.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “So please behave.”
He sits up straight. I’m not sure if its from what I’ve said or the fact I actually touched him. “No problem,” he says.
“Nicky, you’re going to have to leave us girls to talk, but you can come back tomorrow and visit.”
“Yeah, maybe your sister will be feeling better.”
“Yes, I’m sure she will be.”
He reluctantly gets up, grabs his grocery bag, and walks slowly for the door. He looks almost dejected that he can’t stay. Boys will be boys, I guess.
“Nicky,” I say and he stops. “Thank you for getting my groceries for me.”
This brightens him up a little and he smiles brightly. “Anything for you. Rachel.”
As he leaves, with the door closing behind him, an image comes to me. Nicky hit by a car, his body doing somersaults before crashing down on the vehicle’s windshield. I want to yank back open the door and take him into my arms to protect him somehow. But I know it’s not going to happen today. Still it will happen eventually and that makes me mourn the frailties of mortality.
I feel something stir behind me. My guest has come into the room. “Did he leave?” she asks.
“Yes, he’s gone.”
“He’s going to die, isn’t he?”
“They all do eventually,” I tell her.
“But we don’t?”
“Why is that?”
I hesitate for a moment not sure of how much to tell her. “Because we’re angels,” I finally say.
She seems to think on this a moment, and the look on her face tells me she doesn’t find that idea as preposterous as it seems. I know in time she will remember things I would just as soon forget. But for now she appears to accept the one basic truth: We were in heaven, now we’re in hell.
“Halfway House” 2017 Paul D Aronson.