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The Hate Crime
The blackness of the alley was a claw at my throat, choking away my screams. Beside me, I sensed the soft scattering of rats among the dumpster bins, the shriek of nails warring against sheet metal. With a careful step forward, I placed my hand on my nylon duffel bag, my hand desperately seeking its front pocket. My hands shook as I retrieved my cell phone, the brightly-lit screen creating a pathetic tunnel of soft blue light. The zipper was deafening to my ears, echoing along the savaged brick walls. A cloud of reddish dust bloomed from the floor as I placed another hesitant foot forward, coating the screen with a layer of dust. I cursed silently and brought the cell phone to my nose, trying to read the display. Why was I even here? Maybe Ricky had wandered home, anxious for sleep. A cough bubbled in my throat as I squinted at my surroundings. I was hopelessly lost, trapped in the menacing darkness of a narrow alleyway, the ripened stink of garbage still hovering in the air.
A windless chill settled on my arms, just as a street light overhead began to flicker ominously. I shielded my eyes, unused to its yellow glow. Even as I raised my head with relief, the lamp flickered, stuttered, and blew out with a pitiful whimper of defeat. Groaning limply, I placed my hand on a crumbling wall and attempted a few more steps. The fullness of black pressed against my shoulders, my breath coming in shallow, fickle gasps. A frenzied panic began at the base of my skull, rising with the staccato bass of my heart.
Fear's hot, lecherous gaze was as plain as the tender ache in my ankles. Vague, hazy shapes began to sculpt themselves from the dust-ridden floor. A rattling whistle from one of the dumpsters stunned my senses, and the phone plummeted from my grasp with a muffled thud. Sweat glazed over me, frigid from the stifling night air. All around me, metal bins opened their gaping mechanical jaws, ready to charge with garbage-caked mouths. The sparse spattering of stars overhead provided no comfort, morphing into pupil-less eyes. I shook my head in a futile attempt to clear my thoughts. Find Ricky, I commanded sternly. Find him and then get out, my brain repeated, forcefully. With renewed conviction, I wiped the droplets of sweat from my upper lip and bent toward the ground. Hunched over, I ran my hand along the long-forgotten cracks in the pavement, shuffling for my phone. Just as my fingertips came in contact with the studded metal of the phone's case, a shrill cry bounced across the alley. The voice was raw and strained and brimming, sour with terror.
I froze in place, horrified. A second scream emerged, louder than the first. Pounding footsteps and throaty giggles echo, faraway. And so I sprint, my fists balled. My nails pinch the skin of my palms, pressing little crescent moons into the sensitive pink flesh.
And then I see it, see it all with a terrifying clarity, watching the flickers and scuff marks sidle into place, melding into a scene of dull, surreal reality. The pixels form an image.
A lamp post, coated with a dark slickness that shines like an accusation. Half-shrouded by splotchy shadows, a figure tied to it, a morbid painting. A nightmare, potent and unwavering. My breath comes fast through my nostrils, braced against the odorous perfume of blood. It smells sharp and prickly, metallic and corrosive. I raise a trembling hand, whimpering as I inch away. I feel like a coward. I am a coward.
I move forward again. The cell phone's cheerful screen shoves away some of the dimness. And that’s when the portrait comes to life, brushstrokes of scarlet and ebony.
It’s Ricky, my best friend, a confidante and partner in crime. I feel another imaginary hand at my throat, crushing the air from my lungs like pulp from a sour fruit.
He dangles, two feet from the scattered rubble-crowded pavement, ropes and laces biting deeply into his skin. A screaming wound, gleaming like black oil, slashes like a ribbon across one cheekbone. His eyes rattle in his skull, and I can see the pallid whites of his eyes, shot through with pale spidery veins. I don’t think I can move.
His hair is so drowned in darkness, I can barely discern his characteristic bleached-blond shag. Instead, all I can make out now are three letters, innocent enough, pieced together into the key that puts sense into this scene, a scene from a dream. I need to wake up. My hands dampen with aching disbelief, punching in the numbers 911. My fingers slip twice.
The woman on the other line is mechanic, equally weary and alert in her serene, authoritative manner. I despise her. I need to wake up.
An ambulance arrives, startling away the moldy rats. The lights flash against Ricky’s alarmingly pale skin. I cry out, but only the darkness hears. A flashlight waves against my moist, salty face, green jolts blinking across my vision. But I don’t look away from the three letters, sprawled nonchalantly across the bricks.
FAG. Smeared hastily and hurriedly, furious scrawls and a looping G, elegantly melodramatic, with added drips of rusty brown that slather down the asphalt.
And I know they see it too, as soon as the yellow-vested look-alike men all cringe, and the policeman quietly brings a radio to his mustached lips, his hands hidden by shadows. A blanket sags sullenly along my shoulders, and I don’t know how it got there. I don’t care. I don’t care about anything. I slap away a woman’s intrusive hand, hissing with an unrecognizable, primal mutter. My brain has been dropped somewhere, shattered like the skewed bones in Ricky’s arms. I still can’t come any closer, still as the weighty, moist-soaked air.
They lift Ricky onto a stretcher. I wretch, and yank the awful softness of the blanket from my shoulders. I’m seeing everything through a hazy, distorted lens, my vision twisting into knots of muted color and bolts of sirens and blood blood blood, too much of it.
“A hate crime,” murmurs the policeman with quiet confidence and a half-groan of sympathy and exhaustion. I hate him too.
The other details are lost, borne into the quickly-retreating night, but the dull outline of Ricky’s slack body is still lodged like a splinter. A flicker of a scene plays out, an old-fashioned reel in my mind. I hear him when he laughs, with that odd release of his entire body, a full-frontal slump. The way he bore the people’s pointed frowns and subtle disapproval. Already, my throat tightens in that sour, reluctant way, and I know I will be sobbing now, the cries wrenching away from me, pulled into reverberations by the alleyway. I am put in the back of a police car. My brother would laugh.
We drive to the hospital. I call my mom, two states away, as oblivious as she’s always been. I don’t know where I’m walking. I trip and fall, down two flights of stairs. They give me a bed, say I’ve fractured two ribs, and that I can go home tomorrow. As if I want to. Maybe I fell on purpose, I don’t care.
Doctors come in, they call my mom, they call Ricky’s uncle, papers are shuffled and filtered and launched onto dust-coated tabletops, under the exhaustive charge of alert-eyed nurses.
As I lay across from his restless form, a sort of intrusive guilt clings to me. My eyes want to escape my head, my hands twitter nervously in the air, my legs tumble one after another in a hurried twitch, each clamoring to exit the presence of such unrestrained suffering. But my heart beats low and steady and strong enough for the both of us.
Because tonight, all that matters is that I spend the night beside him, listening to his ragged breathing, each gasp another lash of the whip, gorges of fire against our chests.
Please, I want to wake up.