took one last self-satisfied look around the room before turning out the lights.
It wasn't much, but it was all his. A gallery showing, his photography filling
a room in Manhattan, an actual showing of his work, this was his moment and he wanted
to breathe it in before hiding it away in the dark. OK, maybe the gallery was
so out of the way that you had to be told it was even there, sure, that was
true, but that didn’t diminish it any. Austin didn't convince himself that this
was the start of fame or fortune either, he knew that a lot of why he got this
was being friends with Terrell and Terrell having people in town visiting so he
needed someone to close the gallery for a week and featuring Austin got him
free labor. There was a definite quid pro quo here. All true, but it didn't
change the fact that he'd come a long way baby.
dragged his bike out to the sidewalk and hopped on gingerly. It wasn't like he
couldn't swing the subway, he had a pass, but Austin liked to just ride. It
reminded him of being a messenger when he first got to the city all those years
ago. A fresh-faced kid raring to go, desperate to make ends meet, willing to
break all laws of traffic and common sense just to get a package to its
destination just a little bit sooner. Everyone likes to be reminded of the
physical power they had as a kid, Austin had no qualms about allowing himself
days were behind him, lots of days had fallen gracelessly into the morass of
time to hopefully be forgotten by everyone but him. Lots of different Austins
were behind him standing in the distance in his rear-view waving, some might
even be wishing him luck. He was finally starting to feel like maybe this was
his favorite Austin of all. An Austin who could just pedal along on the streets
at night, no great rush to get home, no great rush to get out and be seen.
Going to a nice cozy place of his own, where the bills were paid, there was
food in the fridge, where life was normal. The need to find something,
something to fill an ache he couldn't even describe, hopefully, that was finally
gone. Better yet, he no longer missed it, he no longer longed. This was the
Austin that went through life doing what he did, being who he was deep down
with nothing left to prove.
night was a little muggy, but the city in the summer always feels a bit damp at
night, the only thing that changes with the vanishing sun is the temperature of
the moisture. All of the heat of the day has burned off, leaving only the
humidity you barely noticed behind to make the air feel laden, like life had
been cocooned in the heavy air. Austin
liked the city at times like these, at least in low traffic areas like this. You
could feel the monster slumbering all around you, the air too thick for the hot
violence of the day. He pushed off into the bosom of the beast to travel home.
It was only fifteen blocks, and that was far enough at his age. When he was a
messenger such a distance would have meant that dispatch was being nice enough
to gang his drops together, better payday that way. Now it was close to as far
as he rode to anything unless he had to.
even enjoyed the process of hauling his bike up the stairs to his apartment. No
mean feat, he lived on the third floor, but it was one of the prices you paid
for city life. Having to do little things like this kept him in better shape at
least. Austin figured that at his age it was better for him than a car or the
subway by far. Not to mention the blast and the bother that went with a car.
Not even the expenses, which were crippling all on their own, but having to
park it, having to worry about it out there exposed to the tender mercies of
whatever hooligan decided they wanted your radio and didn't want to ask nice. A
bike kept you fit, and you kept it inside at night.
he unlocked the door to push his bike inside the babies were waiting for him.
They always were there, swirling and demanding as soon as they heard his key
hit the lock. FEED US! PET US! LOVE US! AND FOR GOD'S SAKE DO IT NOW! YOU LEFT
US AND NOW YOU OWE US! They sang the song of their people to him, another
routine in a life safe enough to have them. Pushing the bike inside and locking
up the door he finally had his hands free to pet little Sid and Darby who mewed
their appreciation as they swirled around his outstretched hands in ecstasy. It
wouldn't last. In a moment their stomachs would remind them of the other thing
they needed him for, and the wailing of anguish would begin all over again. But
for the moment, it was nice, so he enjoyed the moment.
had just gotten done putting their bowls down when he felt something jab in his
arm. It was a pain he knew intimately, but one that was completely out of
position and time. A sharp pain, followed by an almost empty feeling, painful
as well, certainly, but an aching pain caused by an unnatural void. Quickly he
unbuttoned his shirt and rolled up his sleeve certain he'd see a small dot of
blood there. Nothing. A few old scars, but no blood, no puncture of his skin of
any kind. But it had all felt so real! When he had first even looked down at
his arm at all it had been subconsciously with the expectation of seeing a
needle sticking out of it. Now there wasn't even any pain, like nothing had
and Darby came over to him and meowed, concern showing on their faces, at least
that was how it seemed to Austin. He knelt and began fussing over them, “No
idea boys, no idea at all.”
spent a lot of his spare time on websites for the next week. He couldn’t stop
himself from looking up symptoms and diseases and finding nothing that matched
what he had felt for the time he spent. At this point, he was left with
psychosomatic caused by stress as his only really viable culprit. It struck him
odd since he really didn't think he had anything to be stressed out about, if
anything he should be happy. He had the show, a day job to pay the bills, and
all of the bills were indeed paid in full, he had the receipts to prove it. As
much as you could have one in a major city Austin had a relatively stress-free
life. This led him to conclude that he had a fear of success, which he secretly
had already suspected for years anyway.
was fully possible that he did feel that way deep down, success hadn't worked
out too well the last time he had it. But he'd been a kid then, a child really,
despite any legal definition saying otherwise. It may work out for some, but
for most people your first real job shouldn't be in a rock n roll band. It wasn't
what being in a band was designed for, a band was supposed to be release and
freedom and expression giving you a chance to escape the mundane, the drudgery
of school, and worse that was waiting for you after you graduated. And that's
what the experience is, until it becomes a victim of its own success. Until
large amounts of money are tied up in the band's continued success or its
failure, that's when it becomes a job. Unlike Burger King, it was also a first
job that would do anything to keep you from quitting until every last penny had
been wrung out of you. Burger King thinks they can happily hire another one of
you tomorrow, though they still want that money. What's a stressed-out nineteen-year-old
supposed to do? How about drugs? When you're in a band, that is always an
option, in fact, it's the easiest option, easier than sex. Sex was something you
needed a partner for.
why would those phantoms be haunting him now? He'd paid, he'd suffered, he'd
matured past all of that, unlike those who hadn’t made it. Austin had gone from
nothing mattered but the music to nothing mattered but the drugs, to where he
was now. He had paid for his days of being le enfant terrible. Where he was now
had become, "Everything matters to somebody." Not doing drugs was
easy for him at last, it was just a matter of finding enough things that
mattered to you more to keep you busy, the things to keep you occupied. It hadn't
been easy to quit, he would never belittle that effort, but staying off had
turned out to be a matter of making sure that the devil always had to look for
the idle hands elsewhere. It worked for him, he photographed, did his day job,
wrote a little, and now he even found time for music again. Don't put all your
eggs in one basket, and never look back, the devil had caught you once before,
and he was still back there waiting.
likely the whole thing was just one more of the random aches and pains that
came with successfully attaining middle age. Those pains that mean nothing, but
weren't there the day before, and won't be there the day after. Where older
muscles twist or turn in some random direction that wouldn't have even made you
blink at twenty, but these days feel like impending doom upon your head. That
had to be all it was, no matter what it might have felt like, or what that
reminded him of. Austin finally decided he was being ridiculous and tried to
let it drop.
that, and that was exactly what Austin intended to do now, he'd had a good
week. He'd made a few sales that would put money in savings for one thing. Even
better, he'd made contacts that might lead to future shows. All the more reason
to make sure he got out some more and took his type of photos to keep his
stockpile intact. His type of photo was the rapidly vanishing older city, the
one that was being torn down, suffering from the process of being gentrified
into non-existence. The last chance to get those shots that told the stories
that were well on their way to being forgotten. It seemed fitting that exactly
that type of building sheltered him when he was a wreck, and now they provided
him cash on the barrel head when he sold prints these days. He hadn't moved out
of the garbage; he'd just learned to appreciate the beauty in it from the safe distance
of a zoom lens.
was back tonight; when they weren’t both in the up front they were taking turns
getting up from the small back room to wander around the gallery in a proprietorial
manner while they mingled with whoever was in the gallery. Answering questions,
giving out cards, taking numbers, that sort of thing. Maybe there might be some
sales tonight, it could happen at any moment. Sometimes people who had seen a
work earlier on during the show got a case of burning desire and came back.
Some of tonight’s browsers would be later sales, maybe even some commissions,
phone messages that would need answering.
the present, they were both out front. It was an oddity of the art world, they
worked better as a team. Austin had no illusions; he knew what it was. The
people with the money, who wanted to think of themselves as artistically
minded, also liked to think of themselves as open-minded. Austin had to admit
if what the customers thought was true, he and Terrell would probably make a
darling couple. They weren't, but just the both of them out on the floor
together was enough to sucker the rubes into thinking they were being
"allies" without either Austin or Terrell ever saying a word about
it. Assumptions can make such an ass out
of people, but that was fine if it put money in the accounts. Terrell thought
it was hilarious, and would often tell him that Austin would have to invest in
a new wardrobe before he even had a shot at Terrell’s sweet hindquarters.
people they were talking to now probably owned a place uptown, and Austin
thought "owned" was the word he wanted here. He vaguely remembered
the woman being in earlier in the week. She must have harried and nagged her poor
husband all week to get him down here carrying his checkbook tonight. This was
going to be a sale; he could see it in the man's eyes. No price too high to get
her to shut the hell up and to just let him go home to the scotch he had
waiting. Austin was letting Terrell do most of the talking, he owned the place,
and had the best idea as to what counted as witty sales patter around here.
Austin was about to add something of his own when he felt it. The same pain as
before, this time in one of the veins on the top of his foot. It was all that
Austin could do to not gasp at the sudden intrusion into his flesh. As it was,
Terrell must have seen something
in his face, because he drew the couple off to the side to talk up another
print, leaving Austin by himself.
just stood there for a moment, gasping like a fish, lost in his sudden
yearning. The last time there hadn't been such desire to match the pain, but
tonight it was different. For the first time in years, he craved to feel what
came next, to float on out of here. To spend a couple of his precious few hours
in a world where he didn't give a damn about the opinions of these wretched
people, not to care if he sold a single photo. Just to feel the wave come over
him, and to wash all his cares away for a while.
the time Terrell had come back to check on him, it was gone. As fast as the combination
of pain and emotions came, they were gone like the distant memory they should
be. Austin told him it was just a bad cramp, that he'd been riding his bike a
lot lately and like a fool had forgotten to hydrate. There might have even been
some truth to that. Austin didn't remember hydration being so important when he
was younger, he joked. Whether or not Terrell accepted it, he wasn't sure.
Austin supposed it wasn't really important, the show had been deemed a success
and Terrell had gotten free from the shop for a while by having Austin cover.
Terrell hinted that he wouldn't mind terribly if Austin spent the night
upstairs in Terrell's apartment. Austin begged off, saying it had been a tiring
had been days ago. There had been no
repeats of the incident, so just like before Austin was willing to think it was
nothing. One thing he did know, with prints selling, and hints of other shows
to come, he had to get back to work. Progress, gentrification, it was taking
the old city apart before your eyes. The decay, the squalor, that was what was
leaving, he supposed that was true. These much- heralded improvements were little
solace for the working people being forced from their homes to go who knew
where. But it wasn’t just taking squalor,
it wasn’t just destroying communities, the stories, the amazing moments in the
human spirit that came with those communities, that was all vanishing.
Hopefully not before Austin could photograph it.
with the mysterious pains, he shouldn't have come to this neighborhood. It
wasn't like he didn't know it well from another time in his life. But that had
been then, and this was now, and whatever brief cravings he’d had aside, he'd
been clean a long time now. Austin needed photos, preferably of urban decay, to
get them he had to go to where it was, simple as that. At least he was smart
enough to not have good cameras for the trip, portraiture he had a nice rig
for, he even used that for uptown to shoot architecture. Not here, here you
brought along stuff that you could afford to get stolen from you or broken. He
had a holstered .38 with the idea of preventing that under his windbreaker, but
if they've already gotten their weapon out and pointed at you what good was the
damned thing? It wasn't like you could just wander around pointing the gun at
everyone that came within fifty feet of you.
had been getting some photos today, some pretty decent ones. He didn't have a really
specific goal on these trips, these “let it rip” excursions were free flow.
Sometimes you did have a game plan, sometimes you had a full building planned,
a full shoot that would take all day. Some days you just wandered getting what
caught your eye. It was hard to say what was the most profitable use of a day,
micro-concentrating on every aspect of a single building, or just catching them
as they fell into your lap. As long as the shots came out, productive was
productive either way.
turned a corner, his eyes drifting this way and that, trying to see what would
catch his eye next. His eyes beheld a brick building, one he knew he could never
forget. How in the hell had he let himself get turned around enough to be on
this block? It was here. The one thing he needed to never think about happened…
that memory lived here. He had forgiven himself almost everything he had done
back then, everything but what happened in that building. The looming structure
hadn't changed one iota, almost like it had been waiting for him to come back
all this time.
stood open-mouthed, transfixed. A man passing by bumped into him sending him
stumbling a step or two, the man calling out to Austin over his shoulder as he
continued on his way, "Next time move yo' raggedy junkie ass, people got
places to go!"
feet were moving on their own. They knew where to go from here, they didn't
need his brain's help. It was just as well; Austin's brain was lost in a scene
from over a decade ago. He could blame everything and everyone for why he'd
been reduced to lying there in a shooting gallery on that day. He could do that,
but he knew deep down that it was boredom, selfish boredom. He'd gotten bored
with his life. He hadn't been engaged with the life he was living so he found a
way to not be in that life entirely for hours at a pop. Oh, there were all
kinds of other excuses, stress, sadness, etc. but what it had really come down
to was the pain of being bored and dissatisfied with who he was. If there was
no future that could interest him, slow-moving doom could at least have the
decency to feel good. That was why he'd been here before, nobody else to blame.
mind briefly contemplated the actions of his hands, almost in a daze, Austin
watched as they yanked free the loose board that led down to the basement. On a
hot summer day, it had been a cool place to lie there for hours. If you were down
there, and you were carrying, that was exactly what you intended to do. Lie
there and let the great big ugly world bark and yell but never be able to
penetrate your glorious orgasmic fog as you sprawled there in the darkness and
the dank, oblivious to its call.
had been lying there coming down and trying to figure out how he could hook
himself up to get back on that cloud. Austin was aware of Ducky coming into the
empty basement, but he didn't look up at first. Austin had never liked Ducky;
the guy was just some loaded-with-cash brat who thought he was being cool by
slumming down here. There was no REASON for the kid to come to places like this.
It was like Ducky was a dope fiend tourist, doing smack with the real desperate
junkies so he could tell his friends what it had been like later for cool
points with them back at the club.
Ducky would hook him up?
Ducky? You carrying? Fuck am I sayin', you wouldn't be down here if you
weren't. Gimmee a taste buddy,” he croaked managing to get his head upright.
had already slid down a pillar and was setting his works out carefully on the
ground next to himself. “Tell you what white boy, this shit is supposed to be
real good. You need to come down some anyway before you do this. Keep an eye
out on me when I saddle up in case it's too much fun. It ain't, I'll hook you
up,” the kid said with a smirk, speaking in that second generation once removed
slight Chinatown accent of his. If the kid thought he could put one over on
somebody by playing dumb he went full Buddy Hackett accent. If he was really
trying to play someone, he'd say the one or two sentences of Mandarin he
could Austin do except wait him out? A promise for a hookup was better than any
hope that was currently residing in his empty pockets, right? Anyway, he
figured the kid snuck in here often enough, Ducky didn't want to get a
reputation for burning people. Even if he was promising a freebie, you only got
your word. "All right, I can hang out for a bit.”
deal rock star, keep em peeled for a bit, I'll hit you up after my rush."
He was able to
ignore the slap in the face,
bringing up who Austin used to be. It was easy to do, pride had taken a powder
from this scene a long time ago. Austin was practically licking his lips with
anticipation as the kid first drew back a little blood to make sure he had a
hit and then plunged it all home. Ducky slumped back almost immediately. The
kid must not have been bullshitting, this shit looked high-end indeed. Too high
end. Austin could see something was wrong within moments. Nobody's skin goes
that gray that fast when everything is honky and or dory. Austin got up to
check Ducky, first thing he checked was his eyes. They told a simple tale;
Ducky wasn't home anymore.
him got nothing at all. Shit! The kid was OD'ing! Austin should DO something.
Instead, he froze up, he watched the kid lie there just sinking fast. The only
noise other than his own breath was Ducky beginning to make some kind of weird
choking noise. No way he could get help fast enough to make a difference, even
if he wanted to, Ducky was a goner. There was nothing Austin could do for him.
Then the thought crept into his mind, like some sinister monster, Ducky had money
and better shit than Austin had touched in months...
rationalized; he knew in the parts of his soul that were still functioning
that's what it was. Austin told himself
that if he didn't roll him someone would come along and do it anyway. Anyway, Ducky
had promised him, and Austin did try and shake him to keep him awake and to
keep him from swallowing puke, it wasn't like he hadn't done anything at all.
If he took a little more than what he’d been promised, so what? Like Ducky was
gonna miss it anyway? Not where Ducky had gone. Austin could only hope he'd end
up in a place that always felt like junk did when he finally stopped choking.
of Austin died a little inside as his hand snaked inside of Ducky's jacket
pocket. But that self-loathing was crushed under by triumph when Austin felt
his grubby fingers close over what he was looking for. Hell, more than he could
have hoped for in his wildest dreams, Ducky must have moved to dealing a bit
now, there was a full stack of little packets in there held together with a
rubber band. Austin wouldn't hurt for a week, at least, off of what he quickly
transferred to his rotting army jacket's inside pocket.
thing would be to blow right now, leave the wallet for the other jackals. Start
moving immediately before anybody came up on this scene and started asking
questions. But fuck it man, it had been so long since he'd had a room, since
he'd had food... Wad of packets like that, Ducky had to have serious cash he
was carrying too. Dumb to come down here to shoot up holding that much, but
Ducky was a rich dumbass who could always run home to Mommy and Daddy if it
went south. He didn't know the stakes down here; he just knew he liked lording
it over the little people that he could leave.
rolled him partway over the other way. Sure as hell he found Ducky's wallet, in
his back pocket like an idiot. Austin reached down and slid it out carefully.
He had no idea why in the hell he was being so cautious, Ducky wasn't going to
find out, Ducky wasn't going to be in the room at all in a few moments. Ducky's
body was just waiting to figure out what Ducky's brain already knew; this was
the final fog.
Just as Austin
began to pull away everything
some reserve from God only knew where, Ducky suddenly rolled back on his own.
Worse, instead of just lying there, he suddenly lunged up at Austin! Some garbled
accusatory growl came from his mouth as he rose. Unbelievably, Ducky's eyes had
opened wide, the pupils were like pinpricks, but the eyes were glaring at him
all the same as Ducky's hands grasped at his arms. His mouth started spilling a
phlegmy indecipherable accusation at him in a rapid staccato.
panicked, he shoved hard at Ducky. All he had wanted to do was to get Ducky the
fuck away from him. Just to be free and clear of this sudden nightmare. The
crack that resounded in the empty basement when Ducky's head hit the pillar
behind him told Austin and the rats living down here that Austin had done so
much more than just get Ducky off him. The dark smear on the corner of the
pillar that appeared as Ducky slumped back down to the ground told him he had
done oh, so much more than that.
pocketed the wallet and bolted.
might not have carried so much guilt with him, hiding it down in his darkest
recesses where no one knew where it was, if that had been his wake-up call and he
had gotten clean right then and there. If this horrible incident had been just
the impetus he needed for him to reform and save himself… Ducky was as
good as dead anyway before Austin
did a thing, at least it would have been good for something. If anything, the
sudden influx of junk, guilt, and money just made it worse for a while. The
first thing he had done when he had put what he thought was sufficient distance
between him and the scene of Ducky's demise was get high. Austin told himself
that this was all so heavy and he needed to take the edge off. Any excuse in a
storm, that is all a junkie needs.
didn't clean up for a year. When he finally did it was because it turned out
that buried under the edifice of bullshit he'd constructed around himself he
did have some pride left in him. Austin had been out panhandling trying to get up
enough for a bag when some kid walked right up to him. The kid held out a
single that Austin's old band had released on some indie label years and years
ago. He said he'd give him a fiver if Austin signed it. Later, after he had
used that money and what he'd begged for to get high, Austin saw himself for
what he was. And for the first time in years, he found the dignity to be disgusted
the end of it all, the only person Austin got clean for, was Austin.
paid no heed as his feet splashed into surprisingly deep and cold water. The
basement had flooded at some time or another, so nobody was hanging out here
anymore. Maybe in the abandoned upper floors junkies still nodded off
blissfully, but water had managed to get rid of what self-respect couldn't keep
from being down here. He needed to go there, he needed to see it again. Austin
couldn't say why, he could only say he needed to. Austin's very soul was drawn
to the one tragedy that he could never put behind him when he went to bed at
sloshed to a stop and stared in guilt and horror at the pillar in the dim light
from the broken windows. He knew it was the right one, he even fancied he could
still see the stain where Ducky's head cracked open there in the distant past.
Austin hadn't meant for it to happen, but it was the one thing he couldn't
atone for. Austin didn't even know who Ducky's parents were to this day, so for
all the other apologies he'd made when he'd gotten clean, this one remained
sorry Du--!" he had begun to croak out when the pains hit him again, this
time from everywhere at once Every spot he'd ever stuck a needle suddenly all
felt like they'd been hit again! Both of his arms, the tops of his feet, his
groin, all of it throbbed with that hollow feeling and that longing for
something to come. Only this time, something else was different, this time it
did come! He felt the push of something entering him from each of those spots
an instant after the pain. He had one logical moment of thinking, "This
can't be happening!" before there was no doubt at all that it was. Bigger
and harder than ever before it hit his brain sending it to the cloud of nobody
cares and nobody's home. A wide smile of bliss flashed across Austin's face
before his body, left with no one at the controls anymore, slumped down face-first
into the water. Bubbles came up briefly, breaking the liquid sludge that was at
least a foot deep down here. It wasn't very long at all before even they
home at all now, and nobody ever coming back.
A vague reflection on the water of something not clearly seen, something
without definition or solid form, something hovered over the water next to Austin's
body for a moment. Satisfied, it drifted across the water's surface striving to
reach the light at long last.
Paul Lubaczewski has done many things in
life, printer, caving, the SCA, Brew-master, punk singer, music critic etc.
Since taking on writing fiction he has appeared in numerous science fiction and
horror magazines and anthologies. Born in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, he moved
to Appalachia in his 30’s. He has three children, two who live in his native
Pennsylvania, and one at home. Married to his lovely wife Leslie for twenty
years, they live in a fairy-tale town nestled in a valley by a river. Author of
over 50 published stories including the award-winning “Everybody Loves a
Clown,” his Amazon Best Seller debut novel “I Never Eat…Cheesesteak” has just
been re-released with an author's preferred edit from St. Rooster books. His
novella “A New Life” is available both
as a Paperback and on Kindle from St. Rooster Books. His kaiju comedy novel
“Cult of the Gator God” released in 2020 from 50/50 Press. His collection of
three Appalachian horror novelettes “3 Hits From the Holler” released in 2021
from St. Rooster. His first full length collection of short stories “What Is A
Paddywack” released in 2021, and his latest horror comedy is “The Wild Witches
of West Bygod” from Madness Heart Press.
Paul is a member of the Horror Writers Association