I woke up with a headache. My brain engaged before my eyelids parted and it was the first thing that I consciously knew. I felt the atmosphere like a leaded blanket, so close to the ground I could brush it with the top of my head like a low ceilinged room. I didn’t know if it was morning or afternoon and I didn’t really give a shit; it was the kind of day where it didn’t matter anyway, seeing as when I opened my eyes it was grey and heavy like a picture bleached to a monochromatic blandness. An invisible giant’s hands cradled my skull, exerting an inexorable pressure with gentle glee, squeezing slowly tighter. An army of enthusiastic imps danced about, jabbing at the backs of my eyes with tiny pitchforks.
I bit back a groan, exhaled slowly through my nose, and vowed to not move an eyelash again for at least an hour. What I would do, what I would do is I would lay here; I would lay here and try to stop my brain from spinning like an overwrought carousel so that it would tell me important things. Things like, what the fuck happened last night; things like, why didn’t I feel the indent next to me in the bed that would tell me Melody was still here; things like what the hell gave me this forsaken headache on my day off.
As the merry go round began to slow and my mind stopped poking at me – Hey! You there! Are you sure you know how bad your head hurts? I can keep reminding you, lest you forget! That’s what I’m here for! – pictures of last night began to emerge. It was like watching someone shuffling through a slideshow without context, no professor announcing the topic of today’s lecture before jumping right into the lesson.
A bar. A back room. Melody walking through a door, looking hot enough to melt ice cream in Antarctica; me giving the evil eye to a guy at the end of the bar who stood to intercept her. Smoking a cigarette in a back alley, strobe-like broken light flickering at the world’s worst rave and splayed feet on the ground sticking out from behind a dumpster. Flexing bloody knuckles. Melody murmuring thank you and planting sloppy kisses on my neck so I could feel the smile on her lips; the bar-back yelling in my face, telling me to go-go-go, NOW! Slipping through a manhole cover, snicking down a slimy ladder into the sewer tunnels. Throwing shoes that smelled of shit into the garbage can behind my house. Giggling like a drunken girl, leaning on Melody as she helped me to bed. Did she stay? I couldn’t remember that part. Maybe the sex was just a dream. Probably it was. Son of a bitch.
Someone hammered on my back kitchen door. “Saul!”, yelled a man’s voice that I didn’t recognize. “Saul, sweetie, it’s time for you to get the fuck up!” The hammering continued unabated, until I heard my neighbor’s door open, his whiny voice complaining about the noise, the profanity. I heard a laugh, footsteps, my back gate swinging open with a squeak. There were heavy footsteps, one-two-three, up the neighbor’s porch steps, a hurried conversation carried on too low for me to hear much more than grumbles. A door slamming after Bob the neighbor made a sound that sounded suspiciously like ‘eeek’. The hammering resumed a moment later.
Shitfuckpissdamn. I gritted teeth like fuzzy cinderblocks and propped myself up on my elbows. A quick inventory told me that only my head and my hands hurt, so that wasn’t too bad. As I swung my legs over the side of the bed my vision swam and the imps smoked some crystal meth before joyfully resuming their whirligig dance of pitchfork fun.
By the time I could open my eyes again, the hammering had stopped and there was a presence looming behind me in the doorway. Lock picking criminal who isn’t afraid to walk into my house after calling me sweetie? That this was someone that I should be worried about was an easy assumption to make. People didn’t barge into my house. I am the one that people are afraid of, the one known as Gladiator to the right kind of people, who most often were the wrong kind of people.
“Who the fuck is this guy,” I mumbled to myself, loud enough for the man to hear. The looming loomed closer and as I turned my head to check out the man with the admirable set of brass balls, all I got was a glimpse of a Cheshire smile and a ham sized fist before the imps were silenced by a giant devil who took over their pain detail and knocked me the hell out.
My head was lolling forward on a neck that felt like it was held on by limp spaghetti noodles. This new pain was white hot and blinding, but they call me Gladiator because I’m a bad motherfucker, not because I cry every time shit doesn’t feel good. My brain engaged before my eyes again; I smelled sewer rot. What was with the sewer thing? I had no idea why I had been in them last night and no clue why I was in them again, but the sickly smell was a sense memory that told me I most definitely was.
I tensed and flexed with as little movement as possible. Minute tensions at wrists and ankles told me I was bound, but I couldn’t tell if it was to a thing or only to myself; a coppery taste and a quick dart of the tongue told me that the bastard had knocked out both my front teeth along with consciousness.
With an effort worthy of Atlas, I raised my head up and held it firmly in place with grit and orneriness. I pretended that all was peachy keen with the world as I waited for the bright lights to stop spotting my vision and the waves in my stomach to slosh back to stillness. I grimaced a smile that I hoped looked as awful as it felt.
“Thup?” I asked, and then grimaced for real. My nonchalant ‘Sup was trumped by lack of front teeth. Instead of sounding like a tough guy smart ass, I sounded like a second grader posturing on a playground. I shrugged, hid the wince, and looked around.
A cavernous room of dirty brick, seeping walls and a pitted cement floor. A couple of bare bulbs hung from chains here and there, casting fitful circles of light. There was a man awkwardly slumped against one wall and I recognized the shoes on the splayed feet as the ones I saw sticking out from behind a dumpster in that memory flash alley.
I laughed and pointed with one finger, tugging just a bit, discovering that my hands were tied together behind me but not to the chair I sat on. “Did I do that? Right now I’m kind of hoping so.” I turned and looked up, and up, and up into the face that I had seen right before I got sent to la-la-land.
I’m no shrimp but this guy was a giant, 6’6” at least. He had to run around 300 pounds and it was solid muscle. Not body-builder show off muscles, but muscles that someone is born to, leaving them the choice in childhood to lean towards gentle giant or enforcer. I don’t think this one had to make a conscious decision.
He nodded his large, round head. “Yup, Leo over there is your work, kid. You broke his neck.” He flexed his fingers open, closed, open. “Did you mean to kill him?”
The surprise on my face must have registered as genuine. “I don’t remember what happened. I remember smoking a cigarette in an alley, and there was someone on the ground behind a dumpster. All I could see was their feet. How did I kill him?”
The man considered me for a long and silent moment. “You hit him. Once.”
I nodded. That sounded right; if it was necessary I knew how to do that. “Do you have any idea why I found it necessary to kill your friend?”
Another long and silent moment. His shoulders strained the sleeves of his jacket as he shrugged. “No. I came around trying to find Leo. There was a girl running to the other end of the alley, some blond in a black dress with killer legs, and you two squared off. Leo said something I couldn’t hear and pow,” he mimed a straight armed jab, “his head snapped back like someone yoked it with a leash and he hit the ground.” Again with the stare. “I’ve never seen anything quite like that before.”
Melody. Melody running. But I remembered her helping me, I remembered her leading me through the sewers and lifting the lid so I could throw my shoes into the garbage can. So, obviously she came back after she ran. Shit. Did I kill a man for a girl? My head started to throb like a rotten melon the harder I strained to remember, and the ache in my face from my missing teeth became grating.
Sausage fingers snapped in front of my face. “Hey, pal, stay on task here. Who was the girl?”
“Yeah well, why don’t you tell me who the fuck you are first? Not that I don’t appreciate your hospitality and impromptu dental work, I’d just like to know who it is that’s being so magnanimous.”
He chuckled like graveyard bones dancing through gravel. “You’re Gladiator, right? Well. They call me Scrapper.”
I intend for this to have a conclusion, cleverly titled That Kind of a Night, but I haven’t quite figured out whether or not the mysterious blond is gonna be a good guy or a bad guy yet. Probably bad, because, you know, blond 😉 I’ve heard they’re always trouble…
Anyhoo, this is my submission for Master Class this week – the line was chosen by Prof SAM from Chosen, by Ted Dekker. Check out the prompt, the other writers, and SAM’s other stuff at www.frommywriteside.wordpress.com because all of it is completely worthwhile.
I would definitely be interested to know how the ‘tone’ of this piece read. I’m not sure if it vacillates between tough guy and verbosity too much, so I’d be glad to hear opinions. Thank you as always for reading 🙂