By Jon Pelletier
A man pulled his car up to the valet. He opened the door and walked towards the restaurant. Throwing his keys at the young man in a red vest, the richer of the two told him, “Take care of her, she’s all I have.” The valet gave him a small piece of paper to hold until his dinner was over. The young man stepped into the car and moved it towards the street before turning into the large parking lot in front of the building. He pulled the car into a stall and shut it off. He stood and closed the door with a thud.
The night was cold. There was a small dusting of snow on the ground, covering the ice that had accumulated over the thaw and then freezing of the air. The young man stood looking above the car for a minute, looking over the bleak cityscape. Buildings drove out from the ground and towered forty floors above him. He pulled his warm shirt up around his neck, touching the cut he had from shaving that morning. The valet cringed and moved quickly back towards the door.
“Henry,” the valet’s boss said. He stepped towards the young valet before he had reached the edge of the grey sidewalk. “Yes, sir?” Henry replied. “You are done,” the boss said, “We have too many of you tonight.” Henry looked towards the ground and raised his hand towards his throat. “What time is it?” he asked. The boss pulled his shirtsleeve up and checked a silver and round watch, “Nearly seven.” The boss asked for any information that may help the rest of them, Henry knew none. He walked inside the building and took off his vest. He placed his vest in a locker and used a key to lock the door.
Henry did not have a car for himself. There was a time when he did, but since he had moved to the city it seemed the more convenient way to travel was the system of trains. He began to walk towards the train station, which was five blocks north of him. He had a heavy, dark red jacket wrapped around his body. His head was covered with an old wool cap his sister had bought him in Peru. It was white and grey. It had ear covers that fell down to his neck and a strand falling off either one that could be tied together in case of an emergency. Other people's generic witty comments seemed to follow. People would tell him he looked silly, he would simply reply that he was warm.
The sky was dark, but the streets were lit on either side. He reached the end of the parking lot and followed the road to a crossing. He reached the corner and waited for the light to change. There was too much traffic for an evening so cold. The light seemed to take twenty minutes, though he knew it was only a matter of seconds. When the chime began he rubbed his ear, moving slowly across the intersection. Trudging meaninglessly through the thin snow, Henry entered the deep canyon that was the downtown of his city. He moved slowly into an empty city block passing two closed shops with their lights turned dim and cages masking the windows and doors. The shops were old relics of a part of the city that had seen better days. One sold fur coats and was marked as going out of business. The other was an organic food market with funny sheep painted on the window. He stepped faster in the cold to keep himself warm.
Henry passed doorways and landings. One held a man covered in newspaper that was trying to sleep. Another had the door propped open with a brick and a cloud of steam was escaping into the street. Henry stopped for a moment and stood watching the fog rise from the heated building. He found it enchanting. It was a moment when he found beauty in this cold city he now called his home. He enjoyed seeing things like this. He always tried to find nice images in depressing settings. He was in no hurry so he stood until two men came barreling down the stairs.
The men were laughing and holding each other by the shoulders. They seemed drunk. One tripped on the final stair and was caught by the other man. They both laughed loudly and moved the brick out from the landing, closing the door before they noticed Henry watching them. The man who fell looked at Henry coldly. He asked him quickly, “What are you looking at?” Henry told them he was just enjoying the sight of the steam rising from the open doorway. The second man stepped towards him and asked, “You know what’s up these stairs, kid?” Henry replied that he did not. The first man said, “You should find out yourself. They shut us down.” The other man told Henry, “They kicked us out, is all. We ran out of money.”
Henry asked the man to tell him what was up there. The man pulled a knife out of his pocket. He laughed and choked on his spit. When he began to breathe again he told Henry he should go see for himself. “You’ll be welcome there,” the man said, still out of breath. Henry replied he would not just go crash a party uninvited. “They didn’t invite us, did they? Chuck? Did you get invited to this?” The other man smiled, “I just paid them. But kid, maybe you don’t want to start getting in this way.”
Henry stammered. He knew he had to keep walking. The two men laughed, calling him names. The man with the knife pushed him as he walked away. Henry stumbled but continued to move quickly away from them. Moving up the street Henry checked over his shoulder twice to make sure they did not follow.
Henry was in no hurry to get home. He usually didn’t make it back until well after ten and checking his watch he found it was still only quarter after seven. He reached the next corner and stopped to wait for the light. He checked behind him and the two men were pounding on the door they had closed and buzzing the upstairs room they had left. They were screaming into the box that they needed to come back in. Henry looked towards the ground and continued to the corner.
The light changed and Henry began to step onto the street. A car flew through the red light and Henry jumped back to the sidewalk. It skidded to a halt about halfway down the block and began to race backwards towards him. The car stopped in front of Henry as he stood in disbelief, watching. The driver rolled down his window. “Hey, Buddy,” the driver slurred, “I just barely missed you!” Henry said it was no problem, as he was on the other side of the street. “Well then I held you up, didn’t I. Hop in, where you going?”
Henry told him he was just going another few blocks to the train and could walk himself. The driver refused his answer and said he would take him where he needed to go. Henry refused and the driver laughed and pulled a handgun out of his glove box. Pointing the end towards Henry, the driver muttered something under his breath and motioned the gun up and down. He spoke louder, "I don't want to do this, but you've made them slit their wrists." Henry was afraid. The man tapped the car door and repeated himself, “Hop in, we’ll take you to where you are going, kid.” Henry began to run back towards the two men still trying to get into the building.
He made it passed three doorways and two gunshots rang out. One nearly hit him. He noticed a spark on the lamppost to his left. The other seemed to vanish in thin air. A wave of panic took over his mind. He fell to the ground and landed face first in the snow. The snow began to be painted red, streaming around his head from his neck. He tried to stand and found he could not move. The car pulled up beside him and the man got out and stood over him.
He felt as if he were being cut to pieces. He was paralyzed, but could feel his body separating. Quickly the feeling changed one that he was in the process of being sewn back together by what seemed to be a waiting ghost. The backs of his knees were set back into place and he opened his eyes and moved them from the ground. He tried to stand but his arms could not hold his weight. He felt the painless surgery all through his body. He was being cut and sewn back together, but felt content. He was lifted by two men and was in the front seat of the car that shot at him when he could move his legs again.
He looked at the driver. The man had a pale face, with a hood around his head. He wore white and had both hands on the steering wheel of the car. The gun was on the dashboard and the driver’s knuckles held the wheel tightly. Henry was too terrified to speak. The driver looked at him and said cheerfully, “I’ll take you to that train.” Henry began to shake. The car pulled down the street and turned right at the first corner. He headed out to an overpass towards a freeway. Henry tried to tell the pale man he was headed the wrong way but the words would not come. He could do little but hold his neck. The blood was still rushing from the wound. A man popped his head from the back seat.
“Hello,” the man said. You’ve been scheduled to take a wee bit of a detour, Henry.” He handed Henry a cloth. He was wearing a pinstriped black and grey suit. He told Henry everything was fine, “We’re here to calm your nerves.” He held a clipboard and a pen and began to write frantically on a once empty piece of paper. Henry held the cloth to his neck. It quickly became red, but quickly stopped the bleeding. Henry was in no pain, but still was unable to talk. Henry held the cloth tight to his neck and looked out the windows.
The car swerved and pulled into the freeway and sped down the road. Henry was looking through the windows, wishing he could tell these men they were headed in the wrong direction. The man in the backseat began to tell the driver something in a strange language, it sounded like something from Eastern Europe. The driver laughed and sped forward. The man in the backseat told Henry, “We’ll take care of you. Don’t worry, please just rest your head. We are nearly at our final destination.” The car pulled off the freeway at an exit Henry did not recognize. The driver slowed the car and headed down the street towards a residential area. This part of the city was not familiar to Henry. The driver took the main road and eventually turned left onto an access road into a heavily secured lot filled with warehouses.
The men pulled the vehicle through a gate that opened for them. The chain link fence pulled to the side as they waited. They began to speak in the strange language again. The driver seemed concerned with what was being said. He replied sharply to the man in the back. The man wrote something on his clipboard and said something calmly. The driver replied using one word, perhaps he said “Yes.” The gate finished shaking open with a creak and the car moved inside the compound. They pulled towards a warehouse with a large number two painted on the side in black. The warehouse was beige and had few windows. There was an open overhead garage door directly in front of them. The car moved inside the building and the white overhead door was shut. They stopped in front of an office.
The driver got out of the car. He walked around to the other side and let Henry out. The man in the back seat followed Henry through the front door. The two men led Henry inside and were welcomed by a large woman sitting behind a desk. The office was filled with stacks of paper and cardboard boxes. The woman asked Henry his name, date of birth and last memory. Henry explained that he was unsure why he was here. He noted to the woman that those were the first words he could speak since the street. He claimed he was very confused at the recent turn of events. The woman smiled at him and said, “Sir, you’ll be comfortable forever.”
She asked him to fill out a form. It was quick and painless, asking simply his name, birthday and a short description of what had led him to the warehouse. He handed it back to her. She directed him into the next room. He found his way to the door and looked inside. Enclosed in the warehouse was an entire city. He entered a street much like those in the pictures he had seen of Edinburgh, Scotland. The buildings were massive stone skyscrapers, molding to the hills of the road. Their peaks were all at nearly the same level. The sun was shining and the streets were filled with happy people. The streets were built on hills with gargoyles marking the great stone buildings. Green leaved trees lined the blocks and vines climbed some of the facades. The streets were paved but there were few vehicles on them. He moved with the two men from the car towards the first intersection. The driver of the car asked him, “How about a cup of coffee, I know a great shop.” Henry looked at the man. “Sure,” he said.
They strolled passed people who were pacing around the city listening to the variety of acoustic bands of the street. The people passed by the various trees and statues in no particular rush to be anywhere. The sky was sunny except for one cloud that marked the direct center of the sky about the three men. Henry then noticed his neck was no longer bleeding. He could not find the cloth and decided to thank the man from the back seat for his help. They walked on the a sidewalk before reaching a narrow alley of descending stairs. Moss and vines climbed the walls, which were lined with cut out windows. Many of the windows had small flower gardens hanging off the side. It was a beautiful place on a wonderfully sunny day. Henry could not help but smile. They turned a corner and entered a square with a traffic roundabout and a large fountain. There was an old man playing the fiddle near the fountain. He had a long white beard and was wearing a dull brown robe. There were three buildings surrounding the large white fountain. The signs stated the buildings held various services and were frequented by stars. The three men continued to an area where the roads were much flatter. There was one large hill that led up to a castle at the end of the street. This was the direction they walked, until they found the building that was their destination.
They walked through a landing and reached an open door to a well-kept lobby. A sign on a wall pointed at a door with a curved top, which was placed near the back of the room. The wall was grey, with large bricks. It was straight and had no windows. The door looked like one found on a ship. It was dark brown and had a circular window with a cross in the middle. Henry opened the door with a push. There were stairs headed down to the shop. He took them and found himself in a deep maroon room. The shape was not traditionally rectangular, with different booths and round tables jutting out in various directions. The driver, the man in the back seat and Henry sat at a booth in the corner. The coffee shop was unusually empty.
They sat drinking coffee dispensed from two brass taps near a counter at the front. The counter had a small bald man behind it, sitting on a chair. Henry made it his honest intent to pay, but he found he had no money. The man told him to take his coffee. Henry questioned this before getting shooed away. The driver, the man in the suit and Henry sat speaking idle conversation for about an hour. When Henry decided to leave the shop they walked through a different door, which lead directly to the street. Henry realized he might never have to park cars for twelve dollars an hour again. He mentioned this to the driver, who replied, “Not unless you want to.” The sky was blue and sun shone down on Henry’s tired body. The car they had arrived in was now parked just uphill from the door they had just exited. The driver and the man in the suit pulled a fine bottle of red wine out of a paper bag. The man in the suit held the neck and twisted a corkscrew into the top. He pulled away and it opened with a pop.
They passed the wine between them. The driver only took one pull, explaining he had much more work yet to do. Henry thanked the man in the suit for his wine, sipping and feeling he had a much clearer head than he had in a long time. The driver sat at a bench as Henry and the other man drank the wine. They laughed and told each other jokes, stories and other anecdotes. This passed the time until Henry noticed the sun was beginning to fall behind a building at the top of the hill. The shade comforted them, as the sun had before. When they had drank nearly half the wine, the driver stood and asked Henry if he wanted to see his new home. It would be everything he had ever wanted it to be. The two of them walked to the waiting automobile. The man in the suit wished to stay in the city.