The Patron Saint of a Wandering New Yorker

My mother’s cancer had metastasized. It was 2003, and the summer was in full swing. High school kids who would normally be crowding the sidewalks after school were now basking in the East Village sunshine during the day. Brightly colored hair, baggy pants and silly t-shirts bounced off cranky residents, shoppers, and passersby. Sidewalk vendors, those that survived, sold anything and everything an adolescent might need. The continuous din of citizenry drowned out everything except the traffic on 3rd Avenue.

I was visiting for the first time since I had gone to Buffalo for college almost five years ago. I had expected to see big changes in the neighborhood. But it was the same as it ever was and completely different. My plan was to move to Montreal, another excruciating life change that I needed to force upon myself. The empty feeling inside my chest that I had my whole life was only growing bigger. I had to keep moving. The great wide north called to me. I had deferred my plan for a few days, long enough to see my mother’s face one last time.

I spoke to her from time to time during those college years but was otherwise estranged from my old life. I had left the city as soon as I could–a painful but necessary procedure. I could have gone to a school in California or somewhere out west but couldn’t reconcile my need to escape with being so far from my parents. They were all I had. In hindsight, moving upstate had not been the best decision. In my virtual solitude as a student, the darkness inside me and my unquenchable curiosity had unleashed eldritch horrors that I should have seen coming. Even now, as I write this, they haunt me. However, in light of those dark things that have come to pass, I don’t think I would have done anything differently. Well, almost anything…

I was born and raised in the East Village but always felt like a stranger there. My parents owned the building at 13 St. Mark’s Place, which had been passed down to them from my grandparents. I lived there the entire 18 years since my birth, but I never felt like a part of the neighborhood. On top of that, my parents sent me to an uptown private school with the money they brought in from rent. So, my social interactions there were mostly limited to those with the kids in the building, and they always seemed to come and go. By the time I left for college, the building was full of hipsters, and the neighborhood I once knew was almost unrecognizable.

On the day I flew back to the city, I got out of the subway at 8th Street on the N train and walked across Astor Place to the corner of 3rd Avenue and St. Mark’s. It was a walk I had taken thousands of times. I felt like a ghost walking unseen by all but the few unlucky ones who maintained that vestigial ability to see into the beyond. I stood on the corner for a while and watched people walking past the building, completely oblivious to my surveillance. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but when I saw it, him, I knew and smiled. The smile didn’t last long. It disappeared once he got close enough for me to see the permanent dismal look on his face.

My father had given me everything he could, in some ways more than my mother. He had protected me, had taught me everything he knew and had loved me the way he knew how. He had always hoped I would stay in the city for college, as he had done. Over the years, the disappointments just piled up, and our relationship selfishly deteriorated past the point of no return. By the time I left for college, he had already begun to resent me and the choices I had made. My mother’s recent diagnosis of skin cancer had made that resentment worse.

My relationship with my father was the least of my concerns. I was only there to see my mother one last time. They said the cancer had become aggressive, attacking several major organs. It was just a matter of time, they said. When my father began to fumble with his keys, arms full of groceries, I finally went over to the building. I walked up to him, and the restrained look of excitement on his face almost overwhelmed me. As the shape of his face began to resume its downward drag, he let the door shut before us and placed one of the grocery bags on the floor. Then the unexpected happened. He put his free arm around me and buried his face in my neck. He squeezed me tightly, and memories of his strength came flooding back. It was only when I felt his tears wetting my neck that I realized he was crying.

“Dad…” I said, choking on the dryness in my throat. Before I knew it, he had placed the other bag on the floor and put both his arms around me.

“She’s gone…” he sobbed. He buried his face further into me, almost like he was trying to find a home there.

The emptiness in my chest began to fill with all manner of contortions. My thoughts ran wild, and I felt I was being plucked from this world. I whispered to my father. “Dad, I have to go.” I had planned to leave soon after seeing my mother, a plan that now seemed futile. I couldn’t spend those days alone with my father any more than I could have put an end to my insatiable curiosity.

“Just come in for a little while,” he said. He looked at me and touched my face as if he were recognizing someone else, someone I hadn’t been for ages, someone he still saw there. He wiped the tears that had silently descended my cheeks. In his face, I only saw regret, but I now know that it was my own.

I pushed him away gently, picking up the groceries and said, “Okay, dad. Just for a little while.”

Evolutionary Genetic (T) Dilation (W)

Humans on the planet Earth had done well for themselves for a long time. Or so they thought. By the time they realized that they were tying their own rope, the world became unrecognizable and in large part unlivable. Overpopulation had found its limit, and the population was now on an unprecedented decline. From 24 billion to 10 in a matter of months, people, some otherwise healthy people began dying from what in the end were heart attacks. Unexplained heart attacks. The population has been going down slowly ever since.

Humanity had shit all over everything.

The environment was now seen as a public good, and its protection became militaristic. There were heavily enforced bans on entering beaches and other natural environments that had previously been tourist spots. The population was declining because people simply no longer saw the value or sense there was in procreating. Some rare places had banned pregnancy altogether. Reducing the population was seen as a duty, and one that most people accepted. Still, the very few children being born were accepted as a part of society as well. These children ended up holding the same values as most adults did.

People recognized the horrors brought about by humanity. They accepted some of those horrors, and some of them they did not. There were all kinds–genetic manipulations, Human Digital Implants (HDIs), Organic Artificial Intelligence (OAIs), time travel and more. Each one had benefits and dangers. Some were strictly prohibited, like time travel, although time travel was semi-legal as long as it was done off-planet, and the traveler never returned to present day Earth.

People now protected the environment how they once used to protect oil. Part of this protection included the protection of animals, which meant animals now had many rights of people.

This was a problem for Benjameen, a true animal lover who dreamed of dragons. You might be wondering why an animal lover would see animal rights as a problem. That’s where the story begins…

LV-42

He thought it was funny to cough near old people he passed on the train or bus. There was so much hysteria about LV-42, that he couldn’t help finding the whole situation to be extremely humorous. He would cough around mothers with small babies, the old, the infirm. His name was Fred, this minstrel of dearth. He had never been funny. Not before LV-42, not after. Not now. Never. He was the only one laughing. He tried to reason with people when they got angry at him for coughing and sneezing all over them during an outbreak such as this. He tried to tell them that this all has happened before. They had been through worse. They were being silly. He usually just barely avoided a beating. Sometimes he would get slapped or even punched, but an outright beating was rare. So he continued to do it. His favorite spot was a crowded train. It had the most spectacular effect. One poorly covered sneeze sent a wave a fear, repelling passengers from him at more than an arm’s length radius. It always had him roaring with laughter. Their faces were comical expressions of fear. Comical because he believed their fear to be irrational. He laughed and laughed until one day, someone made him stop. Most people were too afraid to give him the beating he deserved. In their minds, the risk of infection was too great. To some degree their fears were rational, which is what made his bad joke so much worse for everyone but him. He sneezed on a crowded train one day, and he began to laugh. From within the receding mass of commuters, he heard an angry, smoldering voice say just one word. “You…” A large man, young, fit, came forward. As usual, Fred tried to reason with him. But the young man just repeated the refrain. “You…” Without warning, the young man grabbed Fred’s neck and squeezed it with the force of a hydraulic press and the conviction of a virgin nun. As Fred’s eyes bulged out of his head, silently begging to escape, a few brave straphangers tried in vain to break the young man’s fierce grip, but failed. A tear ran down the young man’s cheek as Fred began to lose consciousness. “You… took her from me…” the young man said as his whole body trembled toward his goal. Fred’s body finally went limp, and the young man kept squeezing. Shouts of you’re killing him and somebody stop him faded into the background. The onlookers kept their distance, and by the time the police got to Fred’s lifeless body on the train floor, they had all disappeared.

Basement Grate

The little boy, Manny, sat in the alley behind his building. The hot sun filled up every crack and crevice. Outside, there was little escaping it. But the boy didn’t notice the heat. He didn’t have enough sense to notice it. And he was preoccupied with a piece of curved glass from a broken bottle. He sat in the dry, sepia dirt and held the shard between the sun and a troop of ants around an anthill in the concrete. It seemed to him that they were scrambling around chaotically. The sun’s rays focused through the shard into a point of light. He chased an unlucky ant with the minuscule sunbeam. When he was able to hold the light long enough on the ant, it crumbled and fumed into the dirt. The boy was amazed at the result, but his amazement wore off quickly when he realized that the ant was dead. He knew about death. His grandmother had died recently. Amazement turned to sadness, and his look of wonder became a frown. He tossed the shard aside and stood up, carelessly dusting off his pants. He glanced up and down the alley. It was calm, dusty, deserted, filled with a persistent barrage of sunlight. Same as before. Sounds of the city quietly found their way to him. He turned to the back door of his building, sighed and kicked the dirt. Sweat dripped down his temple. Although he didn’t mind the heat, his body gravitated back to the cool corridors of his building. He happened to glance down at a spiderwebbed grate on the floor at the edge of the wall. On the other side of the grate was a small window. For the briefest of moments, he thought he saw a small red light blink in the basement. He stopped in his tracks. Instead of going inside, where his body was telling him to go, he crouched near the grate and lay belly down so he could peer into the darkness through the window. The sunlight illuminated a small part of the basement. The rest of it had no light. He stared and stared and stared into the darkness until, for the briefest of moments, the light blinked again. His imagination ran wild. The voices of his aunt and uncle telling him never to go into the basement echoed in his head. He remembered seeing his neighbors going down there, strangers, workers. He was an obedient child, but this time his fear and whatever prudence he had was replaced by insatiable curiosity. The wooden door of the basement was heavy and unbalanced. He stood in front of it and contemplated touching the doorknob until he did. He looked up and down the hallway. The building was quiet. Only sunlight came in, through the back door window. He was alone. Inside the building it was cool and dark. He felt alone, a feeling that only bolstered his audacity. With a slight twist of the doorknob, the door seemed to open on its own. He stepped back and let the door slowly swing open to the subterranean shadows. He had seen neighbors turn on the light, reaching around the right door jamb. He mimicked their movements, and a dim light above him flickered on. He went down the wooden staircase without looking back. As he disappeared in the darkness, someone entered the building through the front door.

Manny found himself at the bottom of the stairs, where the light from above just barely ventured. He saw the back alley window. It sent a small column of light through the window and onto the wall and floor, leaving the rest of the basement to the shadows. He stared again into the darkness, at where he thought the mysterious light would be. He stared and stared, and finally it blinked again. Nothing could stop him from getting closer to that light. His eyes were already used to the darkness, and he began to see what the light was attached to. It was quietly humming in a corner of the dusty basement. It was a deep freezer, and it was locked. He tugged gently on the lock, disappointed. The staircase creaked behind him, and he turned around. It was his uncle, who asked him what he was doing down there. He said he wasn’t doing anything and asked his uncle what the freezer was and what it was doing there. His uncle told him it was from one of the neighbors and that it would be gone soon. It was nothing to think about. His uncle led him back upstairs, and Manny looked back at the freezer, wishing with his whole heart that he could know its contents. He didn’t notice the smell that was beginning to develop down there. He didn’t have enough sense to notice it.

Bichos (Creatures)

The brown-haired man rolled himself up into a ball in the bloody bed and took the last swig of cheap brandy. The sheets were sweaty and so was he. It was getting late, but that didn’t matter anymore. He had gone too far this time. The night sky was riddled with white points. He thought about rolling out of the bed, but couldn’t find a reason to. He put his lips to the bottle again and sucked air. He pushed himself up onto his arms. His head hung in between his shoulders. His hair hung in front of his face. He was naked. He looked around the room for something to wear.

He found a set of keys on the floor and tested them in the door. When he was satisfied that the keys would let him back in, he left, locking the door behind him. The night air was beautiful. A terrible insult to him. A terrible reminder that he could never be who he had been ever again. He didn’t regret it. He had already reconciled with the fact that he was not much longer for this world. In many ways, he was happy about it. When he got to the liquor store, he went straight back to the overproof rum without even a glance at anyone else in the store.

A shrill voice rose from near the counter. “Just let me have the beer, man.” A young woman was complaining. “I’ve been here a thousand times!” she shouted. It seemed that the clerk disagreed with her, but he didn’t say much about it. Her face was agitated, and for a moment it made her look older.

The brown-haired man waited for her to move out of the way. When she did, he placed two bottles on the counter and took enough cash from the wallet.

“Hey, mister,” she said, letting her frown twist up to a straight line.

The brown-haired man knew what was coming, but he didn’t care.

“Hey, mister? Hello?” she said with a wavering inflection as she waggled two fingers in his face. When he looked at her, she cringed for a moment, but quickly switched to a smile. “Yeah?” he said, with barely any breath in his lungs. “Ugh, god. Never mind,” she huffed. Then she left. The brown-haired man shrugged and looked at the clerk, who cringed for a moment, but quickly switched to a smile.

The brown-haired man left the liquor store. Behind him angels’ bells rang. He looked around the night streets and looked to the sky. Stars winkled at him. He cracked open one of the bottles and tipped it back, looking at the sky until his eyes teared up. He looked around again, took another swig and cringed for a moment, and quickly switched to a smile.