“The Lepers in Your Head” / Chapter Six: The Hills

This is the sixth chapter of a novella I’ve written. It will be published here one chapter at a time, roughly twice a week. Trigger warning: this story is very dark, and may be triggering for those with suicidal ideation. It’s also not the kind of thing you’d expect your pastor to write. So, fair warning.

After about an hour of walking, I was in Scarlet Hills, heading down Theodore Avenue. I knew this street. I’d driven and walked on this street so many times. I lived in Scarlet Hills for two years, back when Amber and I were first married, before we had kids. We rented an apartment here because we needed to save money, and rents in this neighborhood were very cheap. It was a noisy part of town – between the freight trains that came through this area at all hours of the night, and the night life that came out as well. I always thought the building across the street from us was a hub for drug deals, but I was never sure.

But it was early in the day today, and things were quiet. The Sunday morning lull, I suppose. Of course, it could also be that I didn’t know what the Hills were like in 1996 – after all, Amber and I wouldn’t be moving here for another nine years. I walked along with a strange sense of backwards nostalgia – seeing the sights I knew, but years before I knew them.

I came to the Dairy Queen at the corner of Theodore and Belmont, and I suddenly realized that I was not only emotional and nostalgic, but hungry. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast back in 2021. And I had absolutely no idea how many hours ago that was for me. I could really use some food, and some coffee. I walked in, and was delighted at the menu prices. A hamburger and a coffee were going to run me three dollars.

I opened my wallet, and my heart sank. I had a five-dollar bill with a huge twenty-first century picture of Lincoln, and two twenties with similar-sized portraits of Jackson. This would look like Monopoly money to these people. I looked behind the twenties, and found there were five singles. They never redesigned the one dollar bill! My heart lifted again. I walked up to the counter, and paid for my order with three of those beautiful old-school dollars. I sat at a table, and ate the burger in about three bites. As fast as I ate the food, I nursed that coffee just as slowly. I figured I had about three hours of walking left, give or take.

“Why don’t you just take a bus?”

The Dead Voice was back. I scanned the room around me, just to make sure it wasn’t someone else speaking. Nope. Nobody here. It was him, back again.

I said, under my voice, “What?”

“There’s got to be a bus system that runs from here to Pennybrook. You could be there in half an hour.”

“First of all,” I said, “I don’t have much money left that looks like 1996 money. Second of all, there’s no reason for me to be in Pennybrook before sunset. Third of all, I like walking. It will be nice to walk these streets one last time, the same streets I walked when I lived here.”

“But you’re going to be exhausted after walking another eight miles. Don’t you want to have all your strength for what you have to do?”

I smiled grimly, and took a sip of the coffee. “Actually, if I’m exhausted, it might be better. I know myself. If I’m as happy and light as I was this morning, I might change my mind. But if I’m exhausted, I’ll also be cranky, and that might just be the attitude I need to follow through with this.”

There was a pause. I drank some more coffee.

“Are you going to walk past the old apartment here in the Hills?” the voice finally asked.

“Of course. It’s only a few blocks from here! How could I not? It’ll be weird, though, to see a building I used to live in a decade before I lived in it.”

“Well, why don’t you hang around the Hills for a while and reminisce here? You had some good memories here, didn’t you? Then you can catch a bus later.”

I shook my head and smiled. “What’s your angle, man? When did you start working for the bus company?” I said this louder than I intended, and I noticed a few heads turned toward me. I smiled, and looked down at my coffee. Under my breath, I continued, “Tell you what. You go ahead and take the bus. I’ll meet you there. Hey, you know what? I’ll meet you at that coffeehouse on Newton Street. I’ll want another cup by the time I get there. I’ll meet you there around, say, 3:30.”

“Fine. Asshole.” And then he was silent. I could almost hear the front door hitting him in the backside. I grabbed my coffee and stood up.

I walked out of the Dairy Queen, and went around to the back. I carefully walked around a big dumpster marked “GREASE ONLY,” and exited the parking lot into an alley. I had walked this alley so many times getting hamburgers and blizzards back in the day. There wasn’t as much graffiti today as I remembered from – well, from the future – but it still felt the same. I passed by postage-stamp backyards with kids’ toys strewn everywhere. It occurred to me that some of the teenage hardcases I remembered in this neighborhood might right now be playing with a wiffle ball or a nerf gun.

I finally came to the corner where my apartment was. Across the street was a small basketball court. I groaned when I saw it – it brought back memories of people playing ball here at all hours of the night. My bedroom window faced the court, and the dribbling and yelling never pleased me at two o’clock in the morning. Today there was a solitary man on the court, wearing grey shorts and a red T-shirt, dribbling the ball and making foul shots. Every one went in.

I turned back to the apartment. Same red bricks as I remembered. Same cement porch, though it wasn’t as cracked as I remembered. Same stained glass above the front door. Inside would be a staircase leading to the upstairs apartment, where Amber and I lived. I thought about knocking on the door. What would I say, though? “I used to live here, could I look around” is creepy enough, but how about “I will live here in nine years?”

“No, you won’t.” A man’s voice said that, but it wasn’t the Dead Voice. I looked around, and the man on the basketball court was staring straight at me. He dribbled his ball slowly, without moving his gaze.

“Excuse me?” I said, unsure if I knew him or not. He seemed strangely familiar. Would I know him in the future? I didn’t know.

“I said, you won’t be living here,” he responded. “Not in nine years. Not ever.”

I crossed the street, and walked right up to the fence around the basketball court. I looked the man over. Young, maybe twenty or twenty-five. Not muscular, but I got a sense he was mighty quick. I replied to him, “I never said I’d be living here. I think you have me confused with someone else.”

“Don’t think so,” he said. He turned away from me to make a shot at the basket – nothing but net.

“How would you know that I’m going to live here in nine years? Who told you this?”

He kept dribbling, looking at the basket. “You’re not. And you did.”

“What do you mean I did? I was thinking it, maybe. But I never said anything. What are you, a mind reader?”

He took another shot. Swish. “Nope, not a mind reader.” He turned to me, and then caught the ball on the rebound without looking. “But I know you, Cave Boy.”

He walked toward me, slowly, like a tiger approaching its prey. “I know you. And I know that you don’t belong here. You don’t belong here, that’s why you’ll never live here. You don’t belong here, and the one you’re looking for, the one who’s in Pennybrook, he doesn’t belong there either. That’s what you’re taking care of, isn’t it? Cleaning up a mess?” We were just inches apart, the chain-link fence between us. His eyes blazed with fire. “Well, this mess, you living here in the Hills, is a mess you won’t have to worry about, isn’t it? You’re too good for us, aren’t you? You and your white skin, you and your college education, you and your suburban style, you know you don’t belong here, don’t you? You’re too good for this part of town, you’re too good for this world, and you’re too good for suicide. You have to do it your way, you don’t care who gets hurt along the way. Just rip a god-damned hole in the universe if you have to.”

I was equal parts terrified of this man’s eyes and of his words. I felt fear crawl up my throat, and come out as rage. “Who do you think you are, man?” I shouted. “How do you know what I’ve been doing today? How do you even know who I am?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know who you are, not really. But I know where you’re from. And I know what you’re planning to do.” He paused, looked at the basketball, and dribbled it three times. His eyes still on the ball, he said, “You don’t know what you’re messing with.”

Right now I’m just messing with you, I thought. And I’m done. I don’t need to listen to any more of this.

He laughed. “No, I suppose you don’t. But there’s other voices you’ll hear.”

“Get out of my head! How are you doing that?”

He looked up a moment, as though to figure out how to explain it. He said, “Let me ask you this. How old do you think I am?”

I stared at him. He looked Latino, with dark skin and dark hair. But his features looked fuzzy, somehow. He had a stubble-length beard, but…no he didn’t. It was more of a goatee. No, he was clean-shaven. His hair had grey streaks, but then they were gone. I saw wrinkles around his eyes that faded away as soon as I focused on them.

“So you have a timeless face,” I said. “Big deal.”

He smiled. “And you’re trying to have a faceless time.”

Despite my fear, I laughed. “That doesn’t even make sense.”

He started dribbling again. “Alright, then. I’ll play you for it.” He dribbled faster and faster, then shouted, “Here. Catch.” I expected him to throw the ball over the fence, but he threw it directly at me. It should have collided with the fence, but it didn’t. Somehow it passed right through it, as though the metal was just streams of water. I wasn’t prepared for physics to break down like that in front of me, and the ball slammed into me, full force in the chest. It hit hard – astoundingly hard, like getting hit with a cement block thrown at the same speed. I fell backward, and hit the ground.

Next chapter: The Graveyard.

(c) 2021 Michael J. Scholtes

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