Ian McLowski was halfway through smoking something his neighbor had given him when a man came out of his wall.
He should’ve been startled, but he’d seen stranger sights. Once, while shooting some dope an ex-girlfriend had scored for him, he’d seen worms crawling out of his skin. Another time it was a lake of blood and pus filled with floating corpses bobbing up and down in the water. Sometimes he’d even see two little shoulder demons squatting on his shirt. Most of the time he’d just hear them. The white one would tell him to knock off the funny business and get clean. It had his mother’s voice. The black one would tell him screw that other guy, life’s too short to not enjoy. His voice was soft, like the wind. Ian liked that one. That’s the one he usually listened to.
A man emerging from drywall? Child’s play for the young man.
Ian had been sitting on his couch with the window open to enjoy the cool air. A glass pipe sat in his hand, a lighter in the other. Winter in Phoenix was something to be cherished after enduring the grueling summer heat. Ian intended to soak up every bit of fresh air he could.
Tonight was different, though. Tonight, it was snowing.
Snow in Arizona was like a sighting of Sasquatch; not entirely impossible, but so rare that it had to be seen to be believed.
Ian hadn’t seen snow since before his Dad left. It was a welcome sight.
He was nearly out of everything - hash, herb, dope, beer, you name it. Thank God his downstairs neighbor, Jill, could spot him until next week. He would’ve gotten the shakes and not been able to enjoy the rare sight of Phoenix snow. God forbid.
The tv had been on, showing reruns of some menial sitcom, when a crow with burning eyes had perched on the sill for a few moments. It stared at him before fluttering away into the night. A soft voice whispered in the wind, it’s words indistinguishable, then it was gone.
He heard groaning from the wall underneath the dusty air vent. The blue paint on the wall began to peel in small patches, peppering the tan-colored carpet in tiny flakes. A crackling sound echoed in the pint-sized apartment. There was silence. Only the soft, idyllic roar of the television laugh track could be heard.
The outline of a short man with pawed fists bulged from the naked spot on the wall, just above the pile of paint chips. Ian heard a fierce screaming sound, then a bloodied hand emerged with a pop from behind the sheet rock. Its fingers danced, flinging red droplets onto the floor. White powder flew in a cloud from the hole. Another hand popped out, then a foot, then a head, then a whole body. Ian’s bony body jumped in his seat. His bloodshot, baggy eyes were the size of dinner plates.
Ian didn’t know it, but the man from the wall spelled death that night.
Ian recognized the man, though he looked much worse than he did in life. It was Abram, the local pawn shop owner who’d died two years ago during a mugging that went sour. He stood there, coated in plaster and dust, then looked at Ian with black circles for eyes. Streams of rouge and lavender streamed down cracked, pale cheeks. Splatters of blood were smeared across his clerk’s shirt. Dried mud varnished his boots. He smelled of rot.
Ian’s mouth dropped. The man from the wall was supposed to be dead. He’d gone to the old man’s funeral and everything.
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite customer,” the dead man said. His voice sounded like sandpaper. “How are you, my old friend? Still got that knife I sold ya?”
“Well, of course I’m dead! What, I can’t say hello to the boy who made me rich all those years?”
“I don’t understand,” Ian said, his tone anesthetic.
“What’s to understand?”
The jovial corpse laughed. The sound was raspy. Four flies flew from his throat. “What have you been smoking?”
“I’m not sure. Black, uh, something or another?”
“Black something or another? My oh my, how things haven’t changed.” He coughed. Black tar spewed from his lips. “Never mind what it is, so long as it makes the world go away, right?”
“Right,” Ian replied with a cocked head.
“That’s all that matters, huh?”
“That’s all that ever mattered, man.”
“How’s the job?”
“Amazing as always.”
“That bad, eh?”
Ian nodded numbly, then took another hit from the glass pipe. Tendrils of gray smoke slid between his cracked lips.
“How many hours a week that dive giving you these days?” Abram croaked. His body jerked. Ian noticed that a pair of little deer antlers were perched on the cadaver’s head. Their polish glistened in the glow of the tatty lamp light.
“They’ve bumped me up to twenty-five.”
“Twenty-five! Hot diggity-dog, that’s a whole lot more than you used to get!” A thin line of black goo began to drip from the side of his mouth. A shudder zipped down Ian’s spine.
“Yeah, but they don’t give me jack squat for all the hard work I put into it.”
“Of course not, young buck! You still work for ‘The Man!’ You can give them your very life and they’d still find something to whine about. Gotta be your own boss! After all, you work hard, dontcha?” His head began to twitch, contorting on his vein-ridden neck.
“To the bone, man,” Ian muttered. He swatted at one of the flies that had buzzed its way to his shoulder. Green gel oozed onto his palm. He wiped it on the couch with an emerald smear.
The corpse continued, “Too hard and not paid nearly enough, isn’t that right?”
“You got that right.”
“You deserve something nice, Mr. McLowski. You deserve more than what you’re getting. You work too long and too hard with no give to not get a little ‘somethin’ somethin’.’ Let me get to the point - you barely can cover rent, right?”
“Yessir. Mom still pays most of it though…”
“Never mind that. You’re fresh out of, um, your ‘medicine,’ right?”
“Ran our two days ago. Jill spotted me today, but I don’t get paid till next week.”
“Isn’t she a Saint? Well, Ian, today’s your lucky day, ‘cuz I know of a score that’ll wet your pants.” His head twisted until it was upside-down. A small pool of liquid tar shimmered at his feet. Ian paid no mind. He was razor-sharp focused on whatever this dead man knew about a score. He didn’t want the shakes. He hated them. And he DID work hard, after all. He deserved SOMETHING for all the blood, sweat and tears poured over the burger grill.
“There’s this guy, you see,” Abram continued. His head twisted back until his soggy chin faced the floor. His head dropped into the dark pool with a splash next to a black Sharpie pen. His body stood there like a rigid rag doll. Splotches of blood and black splattered the walls. The carpet looked like a Jackson Pollack painting. Ian didn’t care.
“Names Chuck. Smaller fella, like me. You might know him, come to think of it. Might’a seen him around. Worked for my son at the shop but ran off with some money. He hadn’t been seen for a while but got spotted hanging in an alley near there. You find him, you make sure he knocks off the funny business with my son, you got yourself some of the best dope this side of Texas. Enough to last you till summer, I bet. Whaddya say? You the man for the job?”
Ian hadn’t noticed he’d been licking his crusted lips. His mouth had salivated at the very thought. He worked for hours and days and weeks and months at that crummy diner for how long? And for what? To barely scrape by check to check? This? Less than an hour’s worth of work with an award beyond his wildest dreams?
It was a no-brainer.
“I’m your man, Abe,” Ian responded, unsure of where to look: the floor or where the man’s body swayed.
“Eye’s down here, buddy,” the head said, grinning with grit and slime embalming his teeth. Flies continued to bizz and buzz around him. “Eye’s down here. Whelp, best get on to it, kid. Make sure to take your lucky knife - never know if you’ll need it!”
“Good idea, Pops!” Ian stated as he rose from his chair. His shoes smeared dirty footprints as he passed the grinning corpse on the ground. The pocket knife sat where it always sat: in a kitchen drawer next to his collection of Bic lighters.
It felt nice and heavy in his jean pocket, like it always did.
A white demon appeared on his left shoulder and pleaded in the grating voice of his mother. “You sure about this, Ian? Are you absolutely SURE about this? Take a moment to think about what you’re doing – what really is happening here… Please… Do it for me… Or this may be the last time you get to see me…”
He didn’t like that, right as she may be. Maybe that thing just didn’t understand – he was almost out. Fresh OUT. Had that little shoulder guy with his Mama’s voice ever worked as hard as he did? Probably not. It didn’t get it. Not like he did.
The black demon appeared on his right. Its tone was pleasant. “You heard the man, Ian. You work too hard to not get a little ‘somethin’ somethin,’ as he put it. Come on now. Stop lollygagging and get a move on already. There’s enough dope to get you through winter. Enough to last a lifetime…”
He liked the sound of that. He liked it a lot. He’d always wanted a prize or an award, and God knows his Dad wasn’t around to give him one. You want something in life? Gotta do it yourself. That’s what he had learned, and that’s what he intended to do as he left, despite the shrieking words of his mother still ringing in his ears.
Ian McLowski walked out his apartment door for the last time in his adult life.
The young man found himself wondering how in the world mankind had survived so long without snow boots as he trudged through the slush in his worn-out sneakers. His feet froze in soggy socks.
Snow in Phoenix. As common as seeing a mermaid. And Ian dared to venture out into the fray armed with a meager hoodie, rustic jeans, soggy shoes and a 15-year old pocket knife bought with the measly $50 his Dad left him before going out for smokes and never coming back.
He tried to not think about that too much though. That’s where the dope came in. That’s why it was so handy.
He shivered as he kicked a small pebble into the street. As it skidded along, for a moment, it flashed the picture of Abrams’ head rolling in thick slime. Then it was just a pebble again.
All this effort of slushing and slogging through foreign snow wasn’t for nothing, though. Abram said so. He’d slaved away for “The Man” for ages and deserved something nice. He needed this. Maybe he even DESERVED this. His boss would never reward him, and even his therapist had told him once he needed to treat himself better. If this looming score wasn’t the Treat of Treats, then what would be?
His right hand remained jammed in his right pocket, fiddling with the knife.
The alley Abram foretold of drew closer. Ian just knew it. He’d done more than his fair share of wandering the streets. He knew them like the back of his hand. He looked at the steps behind him and saw his footprints were glowing bright orange from the ground.
A crow with burning ruby eyes landed on the snow-ridden bench next to him. It cocked its head and asked in a screechy voice, “You lost, kid?”
Ian brushed the hair from his face. “Nah, I’m good, thanks.” A couple holding hands crossed the street with wary faces. He didn’t notice. “Have we met? I think I’ve seen you before.”
“Abram send you?” The crow asked, its wings flapping before resting on its slim body.
“That’s none of your business, thank you,” Ian replied. He began to resume his stroll when he stopped and looked around. It dawned on him he hadn’t the faintest idea where he was. All the buildings were drenched in frost. It continued to sprinkle small flakes that danced under the evening streetlights. He shivered with his hands in his pockets.
“Fair enough. Shouldn’t be so nosy I guess,” the crow replied with a squawk. Its flaming eyes rolled. “Too bad though. I happen to be good friends with both Abram and Chuck and happen to know exactly where the latter is right now. Well, have a good evening anyhow.”
The crow began to fly away when Ian called after him, “Wait!”
It stopped mid-flight, then turned to face him. It had grown to the size of a basketball. Its eyes blazed with a strange entrancement. “How quickly you people change your tune. So desperate for your ‘reward’ you’d follow a strange little crow to your doom?”
“My doom? You mean my score?”
The crow chuckled a little crow chuckle, then dashed off through the canvas of flickering light and snowfall. Ian followed with a muddied mind. He had too much to lose to not follow.
The crow twisted and turned through streets and dark alleys. Each fluorescent bulb it passed trundled on and off as it passed. Ian barely noticed. His heart raced too fast to care for such details. The edges of his vision blurred.
The crow rested on top of a cracked brick wall behind a title loan place with a neon red “CLOSED” sign hanging in the window. It had grown to the size of a beach ball. Its eyes sizzled in the darkness under the light of the moon. Stars danced in concentric patterns in the sky. The streetlight burned out.
Ian’s eyes adjusted. A shaded figure lay slumped on the dirt and gravel, below the crow’s feet. It looked at him.
“Here’s Chuck, just like we told you!” The black crow squawked with a wretched voice that echoed listlessly through the night. Then it was gone with the beating of its dark wings.
His own shadow stretched ten feet in front of himself as he approached the veiled figure. The frost crunched under his feet.
The man they called Chuck groaned, then looked up. A pair of wooden horns protruded from the top of matted hair, mud and feces woven at their bases. His eyes were glossed over; muddied and far away. He nodded like a bobble head. A gloved hand rested on top of a shabby excuse of a backpack. A putrid scent sizzled Ian’s nostril.
The bricks on the back wall of the shop began to rattle. Ian’s head snapped to see bits of dust and dirt pepper the snow as the bricks rumbled. A black antler popped from behind a brick towards the top, which sunk half-buried into the powder below. Gooey liquid spilled from the hole where the antler stuck out, staining the wall in an iridescent silver line and forming a lustrous pool below. Flies shot out and zipped around. Some rested on the shiny puddle. He heard cursing and shouting from behind the wall, covered in a trifling cloud of soot, then the clattering ceased. The slumped man on the ground didn’t notice a thing.
Ian heard a heavy sigh, then Abrams voice spoke. It sounded raw, like he’d eaten something but hadn’t finished swallowing. “Ian my boy, that you?”
“Yeah, it me,” Ian replied reluctantly. His voice sounded pathetic and hollow as the snow continued to fall. “I’m right here.”
“Good, good, glad you made it.” A horrible coughing sound erupted. The man in the wall hawked phlegm into an out-of-sight tin can. It clanked. Ian’s blood ran cold. For a brief moment he wondered why in the world he was here, and wanted to be home, safe and warm, instead of out here in the harsh snow.
But only for a moment.
“Sorry I couldn’t make it out there,” Abrams voice snarled. “Seems I’m stuck behind this wall. Awfully nasty behind here too. Lots of roaches. These title loan people sure know how to take care of a store. My amigo get you here okay?”
Ian’s stomach twisted in a knot. He swatted at one of the pesky flies with his right hand. His left felt limp and ached. He waved it up and down. It looked like a pool noodle. The fly flew back into the hole with a hiss. “You mean that weird bird?”
“Weird bird? WEIRD BIRD?!” The bricks shimmied in their grout as his voice echoed in the dead night air. The antler thrashed about, got caught in the edge of the hole, snapped with a vicious break, then crashed into the pool below. Argent ooze splattered the ground in hideous patches. The flies jumped up, leaving gleaming tails in their flight paths as snow continued to drizzle. The horned man twitched on the ground.
“Ian, if this wall wasn’t made of brick, I’d throttle you for that. ‘Weird bird.’ Pheh!” Another spitting sound ensued. “You would’ve been lost in the woods if my partner in crime didn’t lead you right here.”
“I could’ve found it myself, you know,” Ian replied defiantly. “I’ve seen this hobo around. I’m not stupid.”
“No apology for the insult? You know everything, do you?” He let out a heavy hurricane of a sigh. The building trembled.
“Very well. My favorite customer can’t even say sorry. Whelp,” Abrams voice boomed. The brick wall quaked with each uttered word. “If you’re not stupid, as you say, then WHADDYA WAITIN FOR, IAN MY BOY? He’s RIGHT THERE! The man you’ve been looking for! The man of the hour! Chuck! He’s got your award RIGHT IN THAT BACKPACK! GET IT! GET IT! GO GET IT BOY!”
Ian barely heard the words of the man in the wall. His heart thumped in his ears. He stepped forward and looked down at the horned man they called Chuck. His muddied eyes looked up at the young man. Ian didn’t notice. Ian didn’t care. A fog pervaded his mind. His body went numb. Tunnel vision set in on the scrunched backpack, and he squatted down.
His trembling hand stretched towards the backpack when the horned man, the one they called Chuck, reached over and clutched his wrist. The grip was tense and hard. Ian looked over.
Chuck’s flaxen teeth, or what was left of them, snarled. Bits of grime and food jutted in and out of his mouth. The horns had enlarged to half a foot, towering over Ian in the light of the pale moon. Sludge ran down his cheeks. Foam fizzled at the edge of his lips. His glass eyes squinted.
“Hands off, pipsqueak, or I’ll break every last bone in your body,” He growled with a menacing sneer.
Ian fell right on his rump, wrenching his shaking hand back. Everything around the horned man turned to pitch black. All he could see was this hideous creature hoarding his prized treasure.
He noticed it had deep-red claws clutching the stash. He noticed there were holes torn in the man’s coat.
He noticed something else, too; something he hadn’t registered right away but rather had recognized in some long dormant place in his psyche when the word “pipsqueak” had been spat.
The man had his Dad’s eyes.
Abram shouted to “Hurry it up, hurry it up – the cops are coming!” in the distance and flies droned all around him, but their noise was muffled. Had those eyes been his Dad’s this entire time, or just when he used the word his Dad had called him all his childhood before he never saw the prick again?
A ringing sound sang in Ian’s ears, like a bomb had gone off somewhere close by. His heart thumped to a steady beat, pulsing in his stupefied body. A fire burned in his stomach. This man was supposed to be a nobody; some hopeless junkie named “Chuck” he’d seen skulking around the neighborhood; somebody nobody would miss.
Not his Dad.
The backpack then began to shimmer. Ian’s mind went blank. Speckles of gold sparkled from beneath the clawed fist of the horned Chuck-Dad creature. The walls were bathed in abstract shades of yellow and white.
The shrill voice of his mother erupted in his ear from his left shoulder. “Ian McLowski, just GO HOME. GO HOME before you do something you regret!” He knew that shoulder angel well. He didn’t like it. It never told him what he wanted to hear. But if she was right… And perhaps she was right… Maybe he should leave after all, forget this whole affair and just go home… Maybe… Just maybe…
He then heard a soft voice whisper in the wind, “There it is, Ian. The man you’ve always wanted to see suffer for making you suffer, and an award for all you’ve gone through. Take them both. Take them both…
“Take them now, and run, before it’s too late.”
Ian liked that voice. That’s the one he always liked.
“An award for all you’ve gone through…”
His lips pursed to a thin line. His brow furrowed. His heart jackhammered under his tight skin.
The voice of his mother, perhaps disguised as his own rarely-used conscience, still hung in his ears. He hesitated.
The voices of the crow, of Abram, and the wind all shouted in hideous concert, drowning out all else, “DO IT! DO IT NOW! TAKE IT! TAKE IT! TAKE IT!”
Ian snapped from his daze. Without thinking, his hand slipped into his pocket and gripped the knife. The Chuck-Dad creature moaned. Its hands flew up in protest. The blade flipped open, shining in the dark. His mind was a red cloud. Primal instinct robbed conscious thought.
The knife slid into the man’s stomach like it was cutting butter. Then it sliced again. Then again. And again. And again. Again. Again. Again.
“You – like – that – Dad? You – bought – this – knife – you –“ Ian screamed, barely aware he was saying anything at all, punctuating each stab with a bellowed word.
Chuck collapsed to the snowy ground. His blank eyes stared out into the dead of winter like a gutted fish. The horns had vanished. The claws too. His limp body lay in a pool of blood soaking into the frost.
Ian scooted back two paces. His rear smeared red in his wake. The knife fell into the rouge powder, scarlet goop swallowing it to the hilt. Crimson splatter dripped down his face and up the sleeves of his threadbare hoodie. His wild eyes swung toward the docile black backpack, sitting naked in the dark, waiting to be ravaged.
Adrenaline coursed in his veins. He was beyond rational thought now.
He growled as he seized the backpack and pried it open. Amber needles, glass bottles, pearl-white powdered dime bags, crystal rocks. Ambram was right – he’d hit the jackpot of all jackpots. He’d hit the motherload.
Ian had forgotten his pipe at home. But why wait? He had everything he’d ever wanted right here, right now, all thanks to the man in the wall at home and the crow who helped him find his Dad.
Or whoever it was.
Not that it mattered.
At that moment, nothing mattered but the spoils of war.
The voices came back. “IAN!” Boomed his mother’s voice. “You’ve done enough for one night! Get out of there! Leave the stash and go! Go! Go! Get out! Get out, while you still can!”
For a moment, Ian McLowski experienced the semblance of sanity. He saw the dirty brick wall in front of him, a bloody corpse beside him, a filthy backpack filled with dirty paraphernalia, and his own two hands, one limp, bruised and broken, the other drenched in red. He almost left with the screaming words of his mother ringing in his ears.
The voice in the wind sang in his ear. It was soft, seductive. “You didn’t come all this way for nothing, did you? No, certainly not. You’re in the middle of nowhere. No one will find you here. No one will find out what you did. You’re safe here, Ian. You deserve this. You need this. You want this. This is your REWARD, buddy boy. You have to take it… Nobody’s going to hand it to you… It’s right there, it’s right there, IT’S RIGHT THERE…”
Ian’s quivering hand began to steady. He liked the sound of that voice. He liked it a lot. That voice made sense to him. It always had. He didn’t do what he did tonight for nothing.
He deserved his reward.
Ian looked up. The crow sat on top of the title loan shop. It was the size of a bus. Its dark shape blocked the sky. Its eyes were hellish bonfires. Its cackle rippled through the air.
Ian didn’t care.
He deserved his reward.
He muttered a quiet “Thank you” to a long-dead pawn shop owner, forgetting everything he saw and did that night, then slid a dirty needle into his veiny left arm. His thumb nudged the shaft.
The voices were gone. The stars were gone. The moon, the antler, the backpack, the knife, the crow and the snow all went away; all at once.
The world went black for Ian McLowski, just like he always liked it.
That was reward enough.
He had no idea what really happened that night until several days later.
He had no idea there were sirens and red-and-blue lights flashing on his face within an hour while his head floated up and down. He had no idea the first responders would find him overdosing in an alley with a bloodied, broken left hand and punch marks on the brick wall of the title loan place. He had no idea a pair of handcuffs were placed on his torn wrists. He had no idea that the officer that found him in the alley would get his own reward - a promotion for hauling in one of the biggest drug busts of the year and nailing a first-degree first-time murderer. He had no idea that he would go to prison for the rest of his life for killing a homeless man he thought was his father. He had no idea the police would haul him to detox in jail and find disturbing scribblings in permanent marker all over his apartment walls. He had no idea that they would ask his neighbors questions, nor that Jill would crack under pressure and run and do her own time in the joint.
He had no idea what was in the stuff she gave him to smoke that made him think he saw what he saw.
All he knew was that he worked hard, nobody appreciated him, he deserved something nice for all his “hard work,” and that right there, in that darkened moment, drenched in blood and sweat, sitting in the rare snow of Phoenix, the world had finally gone away.
And that’s all that mattered to him.
That’s all that ever mattered.