The nightmare played on a loop. A simple shortcut three months ago, and he still could not pass dark spaces without shaking. The mere thought of leaving his apartment brought out a sweat.
Stan Worth grew up in this city. And until he was beaten and left for dead in an alley off Bromont Street, he had enjoyed a long career as an auto mechanic in the shop three blocks down. He frequently travelled past the homeless shacks in what they called 'Ho-down Street', passing out spare change and keeping an eye on the regulars. Friends had told him to stop supporting their habits, their lifestyle. But Stan knew, if it wasn't for a few handouts along the way, he might have been camped out next to the forgotten.
Those people saved his life. He supposed he had to term it 'saved', even though he felt more dead than living. But he was breathing, usually normally. Until the nightmare struck. Head trauma was the hardest to heal according to the doctors. While the swelling on his brain had reduced, the memories could not be erased. Stan would wake in the dark, recalling the sound of his ribs cracking under the impact of two pairs of steel-toed boots.
He scratched the inside of his right knee. It itched under the supportive brace. Nothing was the same. He wasn't just robbed of $27.00 and his maxed-out credit cards. They took his whole life. In 46 years, he had never been afraid. Now? Now he jumped at meaningless noises and hid from shadows. When the old veterans dragged him out to the edge of the street to get help, his unconscious form lay under the street light for pedestrians to step around. A passing bus driver noticed the blood coming from his ear and called it in. Stan didn't remember the time alone on the sidewalk, but internally he knew. He knew there had been no help from his neighbours, from the people he passed by every day on the way to work. He might have fixed their car in the past, helped them with a flat tire. And none of them had helped him.
The bitterness of the experience soured his outlook. Between the dreams, the visions of blacked-out faces and flying fists, and the knowledge that his attackers knew where he lived, Stan struggled. He knew he was falling into the very well of dependency his addict father had fought until his own death. But the empty bottles littering the kitchen counter proved he had failed at resisting the cycle.
Rage overcame him and the nearest bottle smashed against the far wall of the living room. For a second, the sound threatened to break him, the high-pitched frequency of glass shattering similar but not quite a trigger. For all that he had tried to recall their faces, his brain could not find the memory. They were still out there. They knew where he lived. They knew where he worked – used to work. His rage at his impotence settled into anger. Ninety-one days. That's all it took for him to hit rock bottom. The bourbon trickled down the wall to pool in the flattened carpet, the smell wrinkling his nose as Stan took a hard look at the remains of his life.
What was left?
Anger slowly shifted into resolve. He might still be afraid. He might always be afraid. But if he never left his apartment, he might as well have given up and died in that alley. Stan wasn't ready to throw open the curtains yet, but he was prepared to stop feeding his pity party. Rubbing his chin, disgust in himself rose above the resolve. How long had it been since he shaved? Or showered? Wiping the film from the mirror, he looked briefly before hanging his head. Looking into his haunted eyes had nearly undone the momentum of the past few minutes.
Tears pooled as he heaved in air. The panic attack would subside. He had timed them before. Counting down from two hundred helped. Stan clung to the edge of the sink while the shaking slowed and his mind cleared.
With a shudder, he pushed himself taller and reached for the razor. Might as well start at the top, he thought. No barber is going to want to touch this rat's nest. Going by feel, Stan dragged the blade along his scalp, the tangles falling to the floor to blend in with the dirty towels and empty toilet paper rolls. He cleared the growth from his chin while he was there, being careful to gaze only at the lower part of his reflection.
Tapping the edge of the razor on the sink startled him. He didn't remember it being so loud before. The simplest, tiniest sounds were amplified. His ears practically burned with the effort to hear everything around him. Spooked, but still determined to make progress, Stan stripped out of his sweatpants, kicking them into a pile with the rest of the laundry.
Old patterning had him reaching to close the door when his fear jumped up. He eased back from the handle, not prepared to seal himself in. Who was going to see him anyway? Even his girlfriend, Angela, had stopped coming by. In truth, he had scared her off, yelling and swearing at her until she ran out, crying. His heart ached at the memory of his behaviour, the slam of the door echoing in his mind.
The warmth of the shower engulfed him, the steam rolling out of the open door to coat the windows and discarded dishes. Keeping one ear out of the falling water, Stan scrubbed the misery from his pores. The simple act of caring for himself was emotionally draining. His skin craved the moisture and he sank into the bottom of the tub to let the droplets run down his freshly shaved skull. The scars prickled and puckered in the heat. Tears mingled with the shower water to create rivulets down his cheeks. Sobs escaped from their vault deep within his gut, no longer containable. The simple sensation of caring had shattered the lock and there was no going back.
Stan cried for the man he used to be, for the life he had planned to live. He sobbed and wailed until the water ran cold, the shivers intensifying until he gathered the strength to crawl over the side. Turning off the taps, he became aware of the apartment again. Somewhere in time, he had stopped listening, stopped worrying, stopped being afraid.
Now he listened.
Muffled by the closed curtains and bolted glass, familiar street noises filtered in. Normal, everyday noises. Cars, buses, the streetlight humming. But that was not what grabbed his attention.
He stood motionless, the water pooling around his feet, his towel clenched in fists so tight they ached. There it was again. Stan shrunk back into the bathroom. The nightmares seemed more real. The thuds and groans, the sickly sound of stricken flesh. His mind cracked and he fell to the floor, curling into a ball, his head tucked in and covered against the blows that never came.
Curious, he halted his shaking. Alone in his apartment, he laughed. It had been a dream. He unrolled his body, stretching his cramped arms and legs until blood returned and he felt stable enough to stand. His reflection showed a man who had fought a great battle and won, the light in his eyes a faint glimmer but the darkness was being pushed back. Bowing his head, he stood in the midst of the ruins of his former life.
He had survived.
For the first time in two weeks, Stan pulled clean clothes from his dresser. Angela's face looked back at him from the picture beside his wallet. Allowing himself a brief moment to grieve his loss, he tucked the photo in his shirt pocket. She would still be in his heart, even if she never returned to his life.
Feeling brave, he moved to the window and pulled back the blinds. Beneath his fire escape, he watched shadows dance in the glow from the headlights on Bromont. Flashes of old thoughts brush his mind as the movie stutters and stalls, holding at the point where he is lying, alone, in the dark.
“AAAAH!” The scream is feminine, the pitch high and piercing, breaking through the veil of memory Stan had wrapped himself in. “Help! Oh, God! Someone! PLEASE! I need help!”
Looking through the slatted metal bars, he struggles to focus on the scene below. The time-lapse light show threatens to trigger another episode. Not this time. Stan's hands press into his eyes to push out the strobing dots. Panic fights with intention, his stomach acid rising too quickly to contain. He leans over the edge of the window, vomit streaming to the sidewalk below. His lungs heaved in short breaths, the rapid-fire pattern depriving him of any useful oxygen. The wall supported his weight as he leaned over the sill, bits of spittle clinging to his lip.
Where were the sirens? Someone should have called by now.
Silence. Even the traffic had slowed its pace.
“Is there anyone there?”
Shut up, woman. They'll hear you!
“Please. This man is going to die. Someone call an ambulance. Please!”
Stan scrubbed the bile from his chin and shakily pushed himself away from the window. It was simple enough to call 911. Punching in the numbers, he left the details before dropping the phone to the floor, leaving the line open.
The voice of the operator continued in the background as he backed into the kitchen. He had done the right thing. He had helped. He had done all he could. Hadn't he? In his 'before' life, he would have dashed down the fire escape and protected the girl. In his 'before' life, he would have picked up the brass knuckles sitting in the drawer and raced after the punks who had taken out another guy in the neighbourhood.
Without clear thought, Stan found himself standing with the brass knuckles in one hand and the can of pepper spray in his other. He had brought it home for Angela, thinking she could protect herself with it. Seeing it in the drawer flushed out ideas he thought long dead. Deep inside, his 'before' self added its two cents. If he would have done all the right things before, he could do them again. He could. Couldn't he? Was he really so broken he would let a woman be alone in the street, holding the head of a dying man?
Was he not more of a man than that? His hand rubbed the stubble on his head, reminding him that only minutes ago he had seen the glimmer of himself. He had a chance to bring that back. He only needed to open the door. Slipping on his leather jacket, he tucked the pepper spray in the pocket, preparing to go out. He could do this.
The blessed sound of sirens drifted in through the open window. Stan's hand fell away from the door handle. His head dropped, releasing the anxiety-created cables of tension from his neck. His forehead rested against the cool metal of the frame while he drew in ragged breaths. He got closer this time. He had nearly done it.
Turning back to pick up the phone from the cold tiles, he thanked the operator, confirming the arrival of the ambulance. Sounds from outside told the story. Doors slammed, people shouted, a woman cried.
And Stan sunk to the floor, his apartment bathed in the swirling lights filtered up from below. Soon enough there would be a knock on his door. Questions. There would be questions. Until then, he tucked his knees to his chest and sobbed. He was still in there. The old 'him'. The old 'Stan'. Time would heal. He just needed more time...
About the author
I am a panster by nature, discovering my characters as they reveal themselves. To date, my novel writing has involved the paranormal or magick within a more familiar setting, blending it with mysteries, police procedurals, or thrillers.