Trash he thought with disgust, and threw aside the handful of baubles he'd extracted from the jewelry box. Another wasted evening spent breaking into a hoarder's den. He'd had high hopes for this one; the occupant, a pearl draped old lady, looked to be the type to have antiques and heirlooms everywhere. Instead, her apartment looked like the staging area for a dollar store clearance sale. Even the cat litter was generic.
One angry swipe cleared the top of the dresser. As he turned to leave, his booted foot slipped on a figurine and a stab of pain shot through his knee. Dammit, that's all I need. Hard enough to get around as it is. He bent and picked it up.
The plastic face beamed gently at him. He threw it down and ground it under his heel slowly, deliberately, and then with increasing ire as it refused to break. With an oath, he picked it up again, cocking his arm to hurl it across the room. That's when he saw that it was bleeding.
Sweet weepin' Jaysus. The phrase slunk into his mind from the dark crevices of memory, his grandmother's voice as she salved the cigarette burns on his arm with bacon fat and the willow switch welts on his back with cool plasters. She cried, she prayed, she tried to heal him but she could not, or would not, protect him from the vicious rages of her only son, his father. The family never spoke about it, never drew the poison to the surface, and so their lives swelled and festered until they ruptured. His grandmother had statues like this, silently standing about in her room, arms outstretched bidding humanity to take shelter. But they had never, even in his fevered imagination, bled.
He turned it over and over in his hands, looking for a catch, a button, an indentation that would allow him to find the secret of the thing. This has got to be worth a helluva lot to someone. His heart fluttered. Tabloids would pay a mint for something like this. If people would pay for a piece of toast burnt with the silhouette of Elvis, or gum chewed and spat out by Britney Spears, what would they pay for a so-called genuine miracle? He would no longer be Little Sal, son of Big Sal the boozer, but Paul Peregrino, bazillionaire. A parade of desires marched before his eyes; a brand-new sports car, unending fountains of liquor, vapid women with scanty clothing, all fueled by tracks of meth and coke that stretched to the horizon. Yes, life would be good. He realized that his hands were clenched in fists of desire, sending needles of pain through him, as though they were wrapped with barbed wire.
Barbed wire. His father, twining it between Paul's fingers, binding it about his palms, withering him with red-eyed silence. I'll teach you to steal from me, you little scumbag. He hadn't taken it, would never have dared to touch a dime of his father's, but the money was gone and whether it had been lost, spent, or never even existed made no difference. You paid for other's mistakes, and then you passed it on; that's what Paul had learned at his father's knee.
As he watched, jagged red lines arose on his palms, beaded with fine red droplets. Nausea gripped him. He hadn't smashed any glass, nor handled anything that would have broken his skin. I am losing my friggin' mind. It isn't really there. I just need a fix. Taking a last look around, he awkwardly climbed back out the window, dropped to the porch roof, and from there to the litter-strewn alley. The darkness punctuated by streetlights and neon signs comforted him. It was good to be back among the shadows, with a future fortune riding comfortably in his pocket.
He heard Reggie, his wife, moving about in the kitchen as he let himself into their tiny apartment. He'd only called her by her full name "Regina" once, on the day they were married; but she had always called him Paul, believing that “Little Sal” was beneath him, perhaps in hope that the Biblical name would carry some intrinsic protective quality. Make him a better man. It hadn't. Boiling rage would overwhelm him, lashing out through his fists and his feet, driving her into the far corners of the room. And always, always, she would forgive him, making him feel even worse.
“Reggie!” he called, hearing the excitement in his own voice. “C'mere, got something to show ya.”
“Half a sec, I'm making some cocoa.” The sound of a spoon on china, then her light footsteps. “I thought it would help you sleep tonight. Last night you tossed and kicked like a mule.”
Paul looked up from fingering the statuette in his pocket. Staggering backward, his mouth dropped open of its own accord. Regina stood in the doorway, one eye swollen shut, the socket like an artist's palette of primary colors. Her arms, proffering a steaming mug, were covered with livid bruises, cuts as myriad and as tightly woven as a textile, and thick scars like caterpillars under the skin. Her face turned from cheerful to bewildered.
“Paul, what is it? What's wrong with you?”
His mouth was so thick with pasty saliva and bile that his tongue wouldn't move. I didn't do it, I didn't do it, I haven't laid a hand on her in days, someone's broken in and done this to her, they must have been looking for me, and I'll hunt them down one by one and set them on fire for this. The smell of his own fear and anger was choking him.
“Who did this to you? You need a hospital, I'll call someone, and then I'll go after them...” He was blubbering now, and Reggie only stared at him, her initial puzzlement turning to fear with a dash of her own horror.
“Paul, what are you talking about? There's nothing wrong with me! No one's been here, I'm fine, it's OK, you're having some kinda eye problems, you don't feel well, I can see that, here let me...” and she reached for him.
For an instant her face was smooth, beautiful, familiar, but then it reverted to its former state and he felt his mind struggling to keep its balance. One thing he knew; he had to get out, away from this thing, and regain control somehow. He slipped past her, noiselessly, warily, and yanked open the linen closet door. Keeping his drug stash and bankroll in an empty tampon box had been a stroke of genius; Ultra Protection! indeed. No guy would think to look there. He pocketed it, and crept past her again, watching her carefully. Empty-handed now, she stretched out her arms for him. He fled.
Although it was still hours before dawn, the street was rustling with the feral noises of its inhabitants. Paul slipped half of a pill between his dry lips, wincing at the bitter taste. No way in hell could he swallow it; he'd just have to wait for it to dissolve. But the very act of placing the tiny miracle on his tongue calmed him. He slowed his footsteps, willing the drug to work its magic and sweep the nightmares away. Craving a cigarette, he searched around, feeling instead the forgotten figurine buried in his clothing. His first impulse was to throw it away, but somehow he just couldn't do it. Superstition. Just superstition. It's a hunk of plastic. Wouldn't be worth nuthin' if it didn't do a magic trick. He pulled it out and looked it over. The blood had worn off, probably on his clothes, and now it looked just like any other piece of crap sitting on countless shelves all over the world. Still, it would bear some looking into. His eyes fell on a pimply youth sitting on a stoop, smoking and frantically tapping on some electronic gadget.
“Bum one?” he asked, drawing closer. The boy looked up.
“Sure,” he said, glancing sourly at Paul and drawing one from behind his ear. “You look like you need it more'n me. Although my girlfriend just ditched me for some douche.”
It was all Paul could do to stifle a scream. A gaping wound had suddenly bloomed on the boy's chest, opening and exposing the beating organ. I'm nuts, I'm seeing zombies,ohmygodmygodmygod. And he ran.
He crashed into a stinking, ragged bum on Third Street, flinging a curse which promptly made the guy's nose stream with blood. A prostitute smiled at him on the corner of Laurel and Oak, her body so broken that it couldn't possibly be standing on its own. Finally, he drew to a halt in front of the department store on King Street. Bent double. Straightened, took a breath, and sought his own reflection. It was ghastly beyond all imagination.
The fetid breath of a storm sewer reached him. Wracked with sobs, gagging with self-loathing, he turned, walked over to the curb, emptied out every bit of his money, dope and paraphernalia, dropping it down into the stinking depths. Last went the statue, its left arm remaining above the water for a moment as if in cheery goodbye, then disappearing on an invisible current. He sat on the curb and wept for everything and everyone: his grandmother, his mother, his father, his own wife. Most of all, for himself.
When his tears were exhausted, he stood once again and steeled himself to look in the display window. His shattered visage still greeted him with a leer; he covered his face with his hands. But then he took them away, and – miracle of miracles – it was his own face again, a little hollow-eyed, pale beyond belief, but whole. Clean. Restored.
“Thinking of buying something for me?” asked a female voice behind him. It was the whore from down the block, her voice so flat from fatigue that it was anything but a come-on. She might have been asking about the weather. Before, he would have slipped her a few bills and dragged her into an alleyway, never caring whether his roughness left a mark. But now he could see them, those marks, every one left by some act of violence, by ignorance, by harsh words or vicious lies.
Paul gently laid his hand against her bruised cheek, and then lifted it away. The flesh was once again whole and unmarred.
He now had the power to heal.
The street was becoming more animated under a watery dawn, and as he watched dozens, then hundreds of the walking wounded began to move toward him, battered and bloodied and reaching for him with greedy hands. He walked among them, murmuring kind words, placing his hands upon their heads, proclaiming his new-found love and compassion. Many of them struggled or moved away; Paul understood that they were simply unused to such benevolence and mercy, and so he redoubled his efforts. Soon there would be thousands, as the city shook off the shroud of night and roared to life. It would take weeks; no, a lifetime for him to accomplish what he had been chosen to do.
A siren rent the air, and Paul was relieved to see two police officers pull up. They would be useful in bringing order to the crowd; perhaps they could set up a cordon, keeping people in line so that everyone would receive their fair share of healing. He beamed at them.
The officers lost no time in reading Paul his rights and placing him in the back of the squad car. A plexiglass partition separated them so that he would have to wait until they got to the station to explain. There was no doubt in his mind that they would soon see his remarkable gift for themselves. After all, the big one had a trickle of blood coming out of his left ear.
“So, I vote we take him straight in to the medical center for a psych eval,” said Officer Jenkins, reaching for the radio.
O'Hara nodded, taking a quick look in the back. “Yeah, I imagine they'll want him for observation at the very least. Besides, he needs a doc to look him over. What the hell did the guy do to his hands?”
“Beats me. Looks like he's been tangling with some heavy-duty razor wire.”
“Friggin' nut job. Maybe he was tryin' to get into the loony bin the hard way.”
Jenkins bit his lip. “You know what's weird? Remember when he went to stick his bony finger in my chest?”
His partner snorted. “Yeah, thought I'd finally get to use my stunner. What's weird about some perp in your personal space?”
“He said he wanted to heal my broken heart. What the hell, John? It's like he knew Doris left me. Like he knew.”
O'Hara gave him a suspicious glance. “Don't tell me you buy into that voodoo hocus-pocus mind reading stuff.”
“Nope. The guy's just spooky, that's all. Creepy.”
Paul, in the backseat, was watching the St. Christopher medal twirling from the rear view mirror.
It had begun to bleed.
Word count excluding title: 2224
Originally published several years ago in an anthology, which is now out-of-print.