3:3: “The Next”, by Patricia Russo

3:3: “The Next”, by Patricia Russo

Darwin was seated on the sidewalk in front of his building, enveloped in stink. Green plastic bins stuffed with garbage stood to his left, blue plastic bins spilling over with recyclables to his right. He’d been sitting there for quite a while, thinking of absolutely nothing at all, when he chanced to look up and saw the woman who looked exactly like him. Exactly, right down to the slightly bulbous tip of her nose and the overlong, chubby earlobes. Darwin goggled. The woman was bent under a bursting backpack, was hauling a bulging shopping bag in each hand, and was paying him no attention, so he didn’t feel too bad about staring. He did, however, feel sick. The resemblance was perfect. Okay, except that she didn’t have a week or two’s worth of stubble on her cheeks, there was that. And she was pregnant. And a woman, of course.

Darwin cleared his throat, the immediately flinched. Idiot! What the hell had possessed him to do that? He certainly didn’t want the woman who looked exactly like him to turn her head and notice him.

She didn’t. She crossed the street and walked up the five or six concrete steps of the building directly across the way. Putting down her bags, she hooked a keychain out of her pocket, unlocked what seemed like three or four locks, and went inside.

“This your new veg-out spot?”

Darwin didn’t need to tilt his head. He know Raul, his roommate, was standing at the top of their building’s own steps, glaring down at him.

“Makes a change from the couch, huh?” Raul said.

Sometimes Raul agreed to be ignored, sometimes he didn’t. This, apparently, was one of his less amendable days. Darwin felt another small stir in his stomach, a fresh lick of queasy despair. He couldn’t deal with Raul now, he really couldn’t. Shoulda stayed in bed, he thought. Unable to sleep, he’d been gripped by a stray spasm of responsibility, and had leaped up to shovel some of the shit in his room into a couple of garbage bags and haul it out to the trash. Thought it might make him feel better. Yeah. There was almost as much crap in his room after he’d filled two bags than before he’d started. Uselsss, he thought. Futile. His small spurt of energy had drained away after the first trip. Too tired to go back inside, Darwin had sat down on the pavement, his back against the chilly cement-block wall.

He had seen the sun rise.

On the step above him, Raul uttered a sound of disgust. Probably at Darwin’s bare feet, or stained t-shirt, or the burgeoning gut spilling out from under it. Or simply at Darwin’s general condition. The envelope of stink he sat in wasn’t generated only by the trash bins on either side of him.

“Somebody’s moving in across the street,” he said.

“It speaks.” Raul clattered down the steps. Hard shoes, jacket, tie. Going to work. “Where?”

“That building.” Darwin pointed.

“That’s a warehouse, numbnuts. See the sign? Moving and Storage?”

Shrugging was too much effort. But she went inside with stuff, Darwin thought.

At that moment the woman who looked precisely like him opened the door of the building across the street and stepped outside, minus her shopping bags and backpack. Darwin felt a spark of something hot and spiteful. See. Told you. “Her,” he said, barely above a whisper.

“What?”

“That woman.” Shut up, Darwin told himself. There was so no point in talking to Raul. Except that the woman, who was more clearly, more extremely, pregnant than he’d first thought, still bore a pore-by- pore resemblance to the face stuck on the front of his own wortheless head. “Look,” he said to Raul.

Raul looked, in between glances at his watch. “Take a shower, man. This shit is getting old.”

“Look,” Darwin repeated. “See anything?”

“Pregnant lady.”

“Anything else?”

But Raul was already striding away, not looking back, not looking around, totally focused on whatever lay ahead of him, even if it was only the damn bus stop. Raul was oh so goal-oriented. He had his eyes on the prize. He was making something of himself, going somewhere with his life, heading straight to the top. Yeah, Darwin thought. In a couple of years, Raul was going straight from Gadget Palace salesclerk to Gadget Palace assistant manager.

“Excuse me?”

Darwin looked up, and his heart began to pound. The pregnant woman with his face was standing over him, gazing down with a small frown of concern. Damn, she’d blindsided him, backtracked when he wasn’t looking, crossed the street at the other end of the block, and come up behind him. Suddenly Darwin was acute aware of his bare feet, and just how filthy they were.

“Are you all right?” she asked. The day was still cool, but her face bore a light sheen of sweat. Well, yeah, she was hauling around all that extra weight, wasn’t she. Her stomach was about as big as a beachball.

“Yeah,” Darwin mumbled.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I live here,” he added, jerking his head toward his building.

“Oh.”

Darwin was having a lot of trouble meeting her eyes. It was easier to focus on her belly, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t, and he just looked at the sidewalk. He could feel her eyes on him, though. Her gaze felt like twin lasers scouring every millimeter of his skin.

“I live over there,” she said, waving at the building across the street.

“Thought it was a warehouse.” His face was hot. He hadn’t had a conversation with a living, breathing person in months, if you didn’t count Raul. And this was a living, breathing, female person. For a moment the fact that an actual woman was speaking to him, and rather nicely at that, was more astonishing than the fact of their facial resemblance.

Any second now, she was going to mention that resemblance.

She didn’t. She just smiled, said, “Well, I’ve got to get the rest of my stuff. Nice to meet you,” and walked off.

Darwin blinked. “Yeah,” he said, but she had already reached the end of the street before he managed to get the word out of his mouth.

———•———

A week later, the monster came.

Darwin had been sleeping on and off all day. What with the quilt he’d staple-gunned over the window in his room and the wobbly halogen lamp he kept on all the time, telling day from night was a constant challenge. When the roar woke him, he groaned, cursed, dragged the grungy sheet over his head, then yanked it down again and glanced at the miraculously still functioning Aqua Boy clock some dippy girl had given him once. 2:14. Morning, afternoon, he had no clue.

He was rubbing his eyes when a thud like a semi slamming over on its side rocked the building. Immediately car alarms wailed all up and down the street.

Earthquake? he thought, in disbelief.

He had forgotten the roar, but when it came again Darwin recognized it instantly, a sound like breathy tearing of metal, a scream ripped from a steel throat. That was the noise that had broken his sleep. The roar was so loud it momentarily drowned out the syncopated sirens of the dozen or so car alarms.

Darwin got out of bed. Fear and curiosity tugged him to the window.

Underneath the persistent wailing of the car alarms, Darwin heard a heavy, bass-in-the-bones thudding, slow but…angry. Something out there was pacing, seeking, something monstrously weighty and extremely pissed off.

Darwin yanked on the corner of the staple-gunned quilt. His hands were shaking and a big part of him was incredulous at what he was doing. Could not freaking believe it. You do not want to see what’s outside, this part of him told himself, and more importantly, you do not want whatever’s outside to see you.

A couple of the staples came away from the wall. Darwin pulled harder.

The quilt came away with a loud rip, a raspberry of cloth tearing. Fuck, Darwin thought, but grimly kept pulling.

Outside the window, it was dark. Two-something in the morning, then. Darwin pressed his face up against the cool glass. It was hard to see anything outside with the halogen lamp flooding the bedroom with light. A shape, down below, dark and humped, indistinct but large, filling the street…Darwin thought he could make out shoulders, perhaps a head. The form seemed vaguely reptilian, the way those blurry snapshots of that Loch Ness thing looked reptilian.

Darwin felt his flesh creep. Really. Fuck, so that wasn’t just an expression. Felt like a thousand cold ants crawling over his skin. His stomach flipped, and flipped again. Any second now he was going to shit his shorts.

Darwin leaped to the lamp, fumbled for the off switch, couldn’t find it, wound up yanking on the power cord until the plug sprang out of the socket. He darted back to the window, his eyes still light-dazzled; when they adjusted, he caught a glimpse of a massive muscular tail whipping out of sight, around the corner.

Raul had managed to sleep through the whole thing, thumps, thuds, roars, car alarms, and all, but the next morning he stood on the street for a long moment, gazing in amazed disgust at the damage visible up and down the block.

“Kids?” Raul muttered, half to himself. “Like, you know, drunk teenagers?”

Darwin, sitting on the steps with a cup of coffee Raul had uncharacteristically treated him to, nearly choked.

The asphalt on their street had been pounded into a minefield of potholes. Its footsteps, Darwin thought. The sheer weight of its feet, thudding down, stomping down. The telephone pole at the corner had been snapped in half, and the streetlight on the corner opposite bent backwards; its middle amber light blinked in distress. Caused, possibly, by the quick passage of the reptilian thing’s shoulders. Darwin had no doubt what had scored the ragged-edged scratches on brickwork and cement block and aluminum siding all along the block – the thing’s claws.

Darwin said nothing to Raul about what he had seen from his window. He drank his coffee, and stared at the deep grooves clawed into the door of the building directly across the street.

———•———

Twice more he heard the monster come, both times more quietly, more surreptitiously, than the first. Both times he jumped to the window, and both times he saw nothing, though he heard its roar, muffled now, and once he got the window open, smelled its snake-house stench. Smart monster, Darwin thought. It’s learned to hide. Its shape, anyway. And if the thing were truly intelligent, soon it might learn to conceal its sounds and its stink as well.

Both mornings following the nighttime visitations, the scratches on the door of the building directly opposite his own were more numerous, more blatant, deeper.

And the next time Darwin saw the woman, she was walking very slowly. She walked like someone who could barely stand to put one foot before the other. She was wearing a long-sleeved blouse whose loose cuffs concealed most of her hands, and whose high collar shielded her up to the jawline. She’d combed her hair forward and was walking with her head tucked down, but he could see the scratches on her face from across the street.

Darwin ran to her.

She recoiled as soon as he came off the steps, caught herself against the side of her building, then turned to flee. Then she saw him, saw him and not some random form hurtling toward her, and stopped.

She was breathing hard. So was Darwin.

He raised his hand — slowly, for she was watching him with steely wariness — and lightly touched the scratches on her forehead, the deep one under her eye, the glancing one on her chin.

Darwin’s fingers began to tremble. He burst into tears.

After more than a minute in which he just stood there scared and sobbing, the woman reached up and took his hand away from her face.

Then she put her hand on his cheek and made him look at her. “It’s all right,” she said. “You’re safe. It won’t hurt you. It’s only after me.”

Utterly wretched, ashamed of his tears, humiliated that he was getting her hand wet (fuck, he was crying on her hand), Darwin forced himself to point out the obvious. “But we look exactly the same.”

The woman smiled. She let out a small sound that was almost like a laugh. “That’s all right. Millions of people look alike.”

“But exactly.”

She was shaking her head, as if in amusement, though Darwin was still wracked with fear. At least she didn’t laugh again, he thought, as she dropped her hand and said, kindly, “You’ll be all right. Really.”

He caught her hand as it fell to her side, unbuttoned the cuff, drew back the sleeve. She let him. Her smile was sad now.

Darwin bit his lip and trembled.

She undid the front of her shirt, flashed him a quick peek.

Under her long-sleeved, high-necked blouse, her arms and torso were scored by dozens and dozens of deep, raw cuts, some starting to crust, others still oozing.

“What are you going to do?” he said.

“Move again.”

“You could stay at my place,” he offered immediately. “I’ll hide you.”

“You can’t help me.”

“Yes I can. I will. I want to. I’ll — ”

“No,” she said, in a voice like scissors snapping shut. “You can’t. It isn’t in your power. But don’t be afraid, okay? It’s not going to hurt you. You’re safe.”

Darwin stepped back. Something inside him was swelling, growing bigger and bigger, heavier and heavier, hotter and hotter. His heart, he thought. If it swelled any more it might explode in grief. Let me save you, he wanted to plead. Let me try.

“It’s all right,” she said kindly. She made a move to get past him, and reluctantly Darwin shifted sideways. “It’s all right that you can’t help me. Maybe,” she offered, over her shoulder, as she made for her door, “you can help the next one.”

“Next one?”

“Oh, there’s always a next one,” she said softly, and went inside.

She emerged again a few minutes later. Darwin was still standing where she’d left him, slowly turning over in his mind whether it was worth the effort to re-cross the street, or whether he might not just sit down where he was, sag down on the sidewalk with his back against the wall of her building, and just…sit. Just sit.

“Hey,” she said, “here,” and held something out to him.

Darwin took it without looking at it. He could only look at her, at her face.

“I’m leaving today,” she said. “Bye.”

“Bye,” he murmured, and then she was gone again, back into the building.

When Raul came home from work that evening, he found Darwin sitting at the counter in the kitchenette, perched on one of the stools, turning a small object over and over in his hands. The surprise of encountering Darwin in the kitchenette, and not vegged out on the couch or hermiting in his room, made Raul stop dead for a second. Then he saw what Darwin was fiddling with, and rolled his eyes. Raul let out a loud, exasperated sigh. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

Darwin shrugged slightly.

Raul got a beer from the fridge, started poking around for leftover takeout. “That’s real retarded, man. Shit, you’re getting worse. Playing with an empty box.”

“Maybe,” Darwin said. For the object was indeed an empty box, slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes, and made of dingy gray pressed paper, not even as durable as cardboard. It had a hinged lid, the hinge a single bit of flimsy plastic. And it was empty, completely and totally empty, there was no doubt about that.

Darwin set the box down on the counter. He stood up.

An empty box. He’d almost cried when she gave it to him, disappointed, wanting something more. He couldn’t help it; he thought she was making fun of him. He’d returned home with his face burning. It had taken him a couple of hours to realize that the woman who looked exactly like him had not been mocking, had not been joking in the least.

He went and found his jacket. He brushed it off, then put it on.

He went and found his shoes. He put them on.

“I need another beer for this,” Raul said, snapping the pop-top. “What the hell is going on?”

“Nothing.” Darwin checked his jacket pockets, then glanced back at the box. He could carry it with him if he wanted to, it would fit easily. He didn’t think he needed to, though, and in any case the box was fragile. Better leave it home.

“What are you doing?”

“I…” Darwin trailed off, then took a breath. “I am going for a walk.”

“No shit,” Raul said, with some wonderment.

“No shit,” Darwin confirmed, with a small wonderment of his own. An empty box, after all, was a promise of a sort. A promise that it might be filled, and with an item of his own choosing. Any item at all. Or left unfilled, should he so choose. There was freedom in that, and more trust than anyone else had ever shown in him.

Then he left, and took his walk, the first walk of many, to see what he could see, and to do what he could do.



Leave a Reply