I stood with my back to the church, much the way I’d lived my life.
Rain poured down the eaves, splashing my shoes. Each drop pattering against the leather felt as though it landed directly on my mood. I tugged my suit jacket tighter and glanced at my watch—almost eleven p.m. If the rain didn’t let up soon, Trevor would be in bed, his belated birthday present another day late. After letting him down again, Rae probably wouldn’t let me give him the gift, anyway. A heavy sigh drew the taste of rain on dry soil into my lungs as I suppressed the desire to call her names in my head, to blame her for everything. It wasn’t her fault.
There I stood, spirit as dampened by the April shower as my clothing, thinking I waited for the rain to stop, not knowing it was something else I waited for, something entirely different.
I shifted again and the plastic Best Buy bag hidden under my jacket to keep it dry slipped out and hit the stairs with a splash.
I stooped to retrieve the bag, feeling unremorseful for swearing outside a house of worship. There was no God to hear anyway and—with the Pope dry in the Vatican—who’d be offended? A plump drop of rain punished my Godly disdain with a direct hit to my left eye as I fetched my son’s gift from the top step.
I suspected the rain might not let up any time soon.
It probably couldn’t have happened any differently. Do we have any choice in what we do, or is it all pre-planned? I used to believe we did, but my beliefs—or lack of them—were about to be thrown into question, along with my opinion of what happens after we die.
I stepped back and shook moisture from the bag impatiently. It had been half an hour since the unexpected downpour began, its torrent catching me unprepared and forcing me from my planned path—to sneak Trevor his birthday present without Rae noticing me—to my current hiding spot at the church. This church of all churches.
See what I mean about choice?
If the rain wasn’t going to let up, I’d just have to get wet. I stepped from under the pathetic cover of the church’s eaves and my foot splashed in an unseen puddle, cold water soaking the Wal-Mart loafer on my left foot. Raindrops pelted my cheek and I bit back another curse as I jammed the Xbox game purchased for Trevor’s birthday into the pocket of my suit jacket and pulled the coat over my head. I felt like an idiot as my saturated footwear slurped with each step down the concrete path.
Halfway across the churchyard, I noticed two men blocking the path ahead. They wore jackets with hoods pulled up to hide their faces, keep the rain from their heads. At first glimpse, the sheets of rain gave them a ghostly quality, a glow, and made me doubt my eyes. My gaze flickered sideways to the graveyard beside the church, with its broken, moss-covered headstones canted at odd angles, but I quickly dismissed the thought. A trick of rain and poor light.
There’s no such thing as ghosts.
I slowed, wondering if the men could be avoided. Probably not. Living in the city my entire life taught me to be wary of men hanging out on the streets at night with their faces hidden. But this wasn’t the streets, it was a churchyard, and rain this heavy gave good reason to use a hood. Maybe they’d come for a little midnight prayer, eager for the best pew in the house.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” I ventured drawing closer to them. “Beautiful night, isn’t it?”
Apparently they didn’t think so. The man nearest me pulled a knife from under his forest-green rain slicker and jabbed it toward me, stabbing the rain between us. Hell of a reaction.
He could’ve just said ‘no’.
“Give me your money,” he growled.
I know you’re supposed to do what a mugger says: it’s your best shot at survival, but I didn’t. Maybe the rain made me hesitate, or the wetness in my shoes, or knowing the boy would be disappointed again; whichever, my brain wouldn’t let my body do what it knew it should. I stood taller than either of them, but they had the knife. All I had on them was fifteen years of poor eating and neglect.
“C’mon guys. It’s a crummy night and I’m two weeks late for my boy’s birthday. Let a guy be, will you? There must be some little old ladies running around practically begging to have their social security cheques stolen.”
“Shut up and give us your money, asshole.”
The man holding the knife remained in front of me as the other circled to my right, presumably to hinder any escape. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, saw rain bouncing off his gray raincoat, noticed that his runners didn’t match, but he quickly passed from view, blocked by the jacket held foolishly over my head, keeping my hair dry in case they killed me. Cool rain peppered my face as I dropped the coat back onto my shoulders and reached to pull my wallet from the inner pocket. The man with the knife lunged forward, brandishing the blade at my nose. My stomach jumped into my chest and I threw both hands up in the air like a good mugging victim.
“Whoa. You want my money, you need my wallet.”
The tip of the knife waggled in the air, gesturing for me to continue. I stared at the point of the blade, at the man’s fingerless glove and the way he’d chewed his fingers until they looked painful. Beyond his arm, I thought I saw a smile hidden in the darkness beneath the hood.
I sighed, a shuddering breath lamenting how little my wallet contained for them to steal as much as it did the fact they were stealing it. The man behind me snatched it away before it cleared my pocket, his nails raking my wrist, and rifled through the meager contents. He snatched the three bills it contained, made a face at the fifteen bucks, and then took the VISA card I’d fought so hard to get after ruining my credit a few years back. Joke’s on him if he uses it, they’ll probably ask for a payment first.
He showed the sparse loot to his partner.
“Fifteen bucks? That’s it?”
“Look at this.” He’d dug out my driver’s licence. I knew this would happen. “The guy’s name is Icarus Fell. Icarus, like in the Iron Maiden song”
“Yeah,” I said. “The guy who named me didn’t like me much. Call me Ric.”
“Sure, Icarus,” the guy holding the knife said in a schoolyard-bully lilt. With a name like Icarus Fell, I’d heard that tone enough to recognize it. He stepped toward me, blade extended to within an inch of my face. I wanted to take an equal step away, but knew his partner wouldn’t like that, so I stood my ground, hoping to look more brave than stupid. “What else you got?”
“Nothing. That’s it.”
“Check his pockets. He put something in his pocket.”
The man tossed my wallet onto the grass where it landed with a mucky-sounding splat. He advanced on me and this time I moved. He grabbed my arm, pulled me toward him.
“Don’t do nothing stupid.”
Why didn’t he tell me that twenty-five or thirty years ago?
He patted my pants pockets first—the most action I’d seen in a while—then moved to the pockets of my suit jacket; the right hand outer one produced a hollow, plasticky thud. I cringed.
“Nothing,” I said inching away. “A game for my kid.”
“Give it up.”
“Guys, really. What are you going to do with a video game?”
His fingers dug into my bicep. “Give it to me.”
“I already missed his birthday. Can’t you let me keep it?” I yanked against his grip knowing I shouldn’t—people got killed for less—but I couldn’t let Trevor down. Not again. “Take everything else. I won’t tell anyone.”
“There is nothing else. Give it to me,” the knife-wielder demanded.
I wondered what Rae would tell Trevor when he didn’t get a present from me again. Probably that, since someone else was his ‘real’ father, I didn’t care.
Adrenaline flooded my brain, but it didn’t heighten my senses the way they describe in books. Instead, it made me stupid. Before I realized what I was doing, I swung at the man holding my arm, my fist contacting his nose with a satisfying crunch. The move surprised both of us and he lifted his hands to his face.
It took a second to comprehend that he’d let me go. My heartbeat quickened, pulsed in my ears. I ran, or attempted to: dress shoes aren’t made for sprinting on wet grass. Both men jumped me before I got going, riding me to the ground like they were the cowboys and I was the calf. A knee pressed into my back, an elbow in my ear as my cheek sank into soggy lawn knocking breath from my lungs and hope from my heart. My clothes soaked instantly, plastering cloth to skin, the smell of wet earth filled my nose, literally.
“You stupid bastard,” one of them said, but the mud in one ear and elbow in the other precluded me from identifying which one. “Couldn’t give us the stupid game, could you?” He yanked it out of my pocket.
The pain of the knife’s tip pushing through the flesh of my lower back into my kidney hurt more than I could ever have imagined. The shock of it made me suck a mixture of cold air and dirty rain water through taut lips and expel it all in an agonized howl. The knife rose and fell again, then again, perforating my internal organs, each stab more painful than the last. Each time it pulled free, I prayed to a God I didn’t believe in that it would end, that I would get up and hurry on my way to see Trevor.
My body jerked and spasmed beneath the men straddling me, my bladder let go. After the fourth time the knife entered me, my flesh went numb. It may have pierced me a few more times, but I lost interest in counting. I gasped air in through my mouth and the breath tasted like the black crud scraped off bread left too long in the toaster. And blood.
“That’s enough. Let’s go,” one of them said, presumably the one not engaged in shredding my bowels.
Their weight lifted off my back and my mind told me to roll over and sit up, defend against further attack, but my muscles would have nothing of such a proposal, so I lay on the wet grass doing the only thing I could: bleed. Maybe I wept a little, too, but who can tell in the rain?
“I guess Icarus really did fall, didn’t he, Ric?”
Their laughter didn’t sting nearly as much as the knife, and it dissipated much more quickly as they ran off. I was used to being teased but couldn’t say the same of being knifed. After they left, my ragged breathing and the sound of rain pattering around and on me became my world. I never realized how much noise rain hitting grass made until my ear was pressed to the ground with no choice but to listen.
My stomach knotted as the gravity of my situation set in: after eleven on a Wednesday night, bleeding on the lawn outside an empty church in the kind of downpour that convinced people not to venture out for a chat with God.
Did I mention I was bleeding? A lot?
Water pooled in my ear canal until the unnaturally loud plop of rain drops splashing into the tiny pond drowned out even the sound of my breath. Not steady, metronomic drips like I imagined a water torture would be, but an uneven patter that, should I live long enough, would likely prove equally effective at driving me crazy.
In my head, the single word came out a scream, shaking trees and rattling windows, attracting the attention needed to save me so I could see my son again, even if it was for the last time. In reality, it was more of a peep. I closed my eyes and sucked dirty water through my nose then coughed it out my mouth. The pain it induced in my back and side hurt worse than the original stabbing, like someone stood over me with a hot poker pressed to my side, except I was cold and wet and bleeding to death, too. A hot poker didn’t sound so bad.
“Help,” I peeped.