The House on Heald
By Andrew James Rush
It wasn’t the plywood on the windows, and it wasn’t the graffiti on the plywood, which spilled out onto the graying aluminum siding that had once presumably been white. It wasn’t the grass that grew high and blossomed tufts of seeds that looked like undernourished wheat. It wasn’t even the toppled rusty washing machine in the yard.
It was the smell.
It was not a strong smell. Not a rank or foul smell. It wasn’t like dead rats or mold or even standing water or mildew or any of that, though sometimes Harold smelled those things too. It was dry and icy, like the smell of a person who comes in from the cold after a long time. It was a subtle smell. He wasn’t even sure he used to smell it, or when he first noticed it. Maybe it was there the first time he woke up there, alone, in the chill of that autumn morning. The place had been empty, but not empty. He had never felt more alone, and yet those eyes wouldn’t leave him. He couldn’t shake them. He couldn’t shake them and he couldn’t see them. They watched him from nowhere as he had pried himself out of his resting place and stumbled down the hollow hallway, his aching bones pounding kickdrums in his head. They had watched him limp across the overgrown yard and he smelled it. He never un-smelled it.
He smelled it now, too.
The bus had taken him here from downtown. It always took him here, even when he didn’t want to come. He wondered now if he ever wanted to come back anymore. He kept trying to run away, only to find that he was on the bus and then he was here, and then there was that smell. It beckoned him inside with evil fingers that made evil promises that he both wanted and loathed. If only his bones didn’t hurt. He just needed his bones to not hurt. And his insides. Rotten with fear, and dread, and shame.
He fingered the soft pellet in his pocket, wrapped in plastic, with his left hand, and tried to remember where it had come from. Little crystals of broken glass glimmered in his eyes and he instinctively made a fist with his right. His knuckles cracked open again and fresh blood oozed through the brittle and jagged wounds in his skin. A Mazda on Larkin street. An iPhone in the cupholder. His right hand throbbed, probably broken, as his left caressed the slick cellophane and clicked his fingernail against the tiny knot at the top. It felt fresh and clean in his damp and gritty pocket.
Harold had made the trade quickly, swapping the new looking phone for the little bag, with a twitchy little man on Hyde street. He hadn’t wanted to come to the house. He could have shot right there in the alley. Several others had been doing that very thing right in front of him. But the smell beckoned him. And those eyes. And now here he was, all the way past Noriega, past Sunset, where Heald street turned and the sky went out.
Fog nestled into the little valley and wrapped itself around the weedy yard. The other houses on the street all seemed to turn their backs on this one. There was a vehicle in the driveway that had been totalled beyond recognition, a crumpled frame on three rotten tires and one rusted out, bare wheel. Once he passed the invisible line marked by the vehicle’s rear fender, the city behind him disappeared. The smell touched his nose. Pinched his nose. The smell hooked itself into his nose and pulled him around the back where he ducked so low under the bushes that he crawled and the knees of his jeans touched the damp earth that was the same color as his jeans, there at the knees. When he stood again, he quickly lifted the bottom corner of the plywood up from the frame of the window. The window opened like a mouth and he wriggled his scrawny body through it, as he’d done so many times before. But this time, when he put his right hand against the tile of the bathroom wall to steady himself and pull his legs through, his hand was too injured to support him and it gave way, and he tumbled into the filthy tub below, which sent a couple of rats scurrying out of the hole in the wall next to it.
As he fell, his left hip thunked hard against the rim of the tub. His body turned and writhed as he struggled to reorient himself so that he could stand, but his mind swam dizzy in the dusty air, and lights popped in his eyes. Even through the fog of withdrawal he could tell he was badly hurt. The invisible eyes narrowed in satisfied pleasure and he slumped deeper into the tub like a loosely wrapped sack of brittle sticks. The rotten ache soaked up the shooting pain from his hip and hand and made them into one dull, dark mass, and his eyes went out.
“Dad! Look! Hey Dad!”
The little boy in the backseat was waving his tablet around, trying to catch his father’s eyes in the rearview window of the minivan.
“Harry! Hold on, put it down. I need to see.” The fat man behind the wheel was sweating as he dodged his head around, and the minivan veered right, across two lanes of traffic, to catch the 280 exit Southbound.
“I got the pigs!” Harry exclaimed, quickly focussing his attention once again on the screen, as his index finger prodded and poked at it.
“That’s great kid,” the fat man grumbled. The woman in the passenger’s seat gently smacked his shoulder with the back of her hand and turned her body so that she could see the boy.
“That IS great, Harry, let me see.”
“I’m on the next level now,” he replied, now fully engrossed. He dragged his finger on the screen and screwed up his face with determination. “Yessss,” he whispered.
“Honey, can you please try not to be so dismissive of our son?” the woman said, turning her body again to face the highway ahead.
“Damn it, Barb, he coulda killed us.”
Barbara gave her husband a harsh look. “You were in the wrong lane. That is not his fault.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. We’re late already. Harry, I’ll look at your game when we get there, okay bub?”
“Okay, Dad.” Harry carefully lifted his finger from the screen just as the minivan lurched over a deep hole in the pavement on the highway, which made a dangerous sounding bang issue from the front of the car. “Nooooo! Dad!”
“The fuck was that?” the fat man demanded, looking at the rearview.
“Language!” Barb looked back at her son. “You okay sweetie?”
“Goddamn California highways. What do I pay taxes for, anyway? I swear to God….”
“Ugh, yeah Mom,” Harry answered. “But now I have to start all over.”
“Linda is gonna raise hell. Always on time for everything. You know, we live almost on the damn beach. Why are we even going to Santa Cruz?” He dodged his head around and swerved quickly into the left lane, speeding around the small car in front of them.
“Well, our beach is cold and windy. Besides, Tom and Linda really wanted to see us and….”
“When was the last time they came to San Francisco?” He turned his head toward his wife. “When?”
Barb opened her mouth to answer, but her voice was drowned out by strange, rapidly repeating thumping sound, like a helicopter.
The rhythmic thumping began to change shape into a sharper, louder slapping sound.
“Harold?” Barb said, reaching her left hand behind her to feel her son. “Hold on Harr…”
Huge chunks of black tire whipped through the air past Harold’s window and flew into the adjacent traffic, making other vehicles swerve and screech. Almost instantly, the whole minivan turned sideways, squealing and screaming against the blurring pavement below, and the gravity went out in a thunderous roar of crumpling steel and shattering glass.
“Hey. Hey there now, c’mon, hon.”
Harold felt a cold hand gently patting the side of his face.
“Hey, there we go. Open up those eyes.”
He half expected to find himself in the hospital, a nurse at his side, all set to explain to him what had happened, how lucky he was to be alive.
He looked around, but seemed to be alone. The room was dark, the only light a few beams sneaking in through the gaps in the plywood over the window, but Harold could see that he was in the living room. There was no furniture here, or in any of the rooms. Just garbage arranged into rough piles, some suitable for sitting on. Tears formed in his eyes as he recognized his reality. He was a long way from that scene at the hospital. It had been a long time, and a long life, since then.
He reached into his pocket and fingered around until he found the tiny bag again, and quickly put it to his mouth. He bit at the little knot at the top with his front teeth until it came undone, opening out into a disc with a sticky black ball in the middle of it. He placed the disc on his belly and dug through his flannel pockets for a spoon, and a lighter.
His right hand was now hot and puffy, and sticky with blood, and he fumbled with his gear, dropping it several times. Each time his weight shifted, the bones in his hip crunched and sent waves of nausea up his spine. It must be broken again. The thought brought fresh terror and a sense of abject doom.
That had been how all of this had started. The long recovery at the hospital. The pills. All the pills. And then no more. His insurance wouldn’t cover them anymore, and he’d been forced to go to the streets. He’d already lost so much by then.
“Fuck.” He remembered his belt. He’d never find a vein without it.
Carefully, he laid the loaded syringe down by his right side and undid the clasp on his belt buckle. He had to roll around back and forth on his sides several times to get his belt through the loops, nearly blacking out twice. When it finally came free, he retched from the pain and effort, tilting his head to the side, coughing and sputtering bile and vomit across the living room floor.
How had he gotten into this room? How had he even gotten out of the tub? Clearly, walking was out of the question for him. It registered briefly that there was no way he would be able to get out of this house again. He would lie right here for the rest of his very short life.
This, however, was a problem for after.
Finally, he wrapped the belt around his emaciated bicep and pulled it tight, holding the other end between his teeth. He tried to make a fist, and his hand, now hot and tight, began to ooze warm blood. He would have to be quick.
The only vein he could see, in the pallid light that snuck in through the gaps in the plywood, was near his wrist. He quickly stuck the needle in and pushed the plunger. Warmth spread up his arm, his tense body finally relaxed, and his mind went out.
“Uuuunghhh...” his voice trailed off as the room got fuzzy and far away.
In the distance he heard tiny footsteps thumping on the floor, followed by a slower, larger set, and he heard disembodied voices that softened and turned to a murmur, oscillating like ocean waves, carrying him softly out to sea. There was no alarm at this. No concern. He couldn’t muster a single emotion about it. Only the soft, beautiful apathy of strong opiates that teased the nerve endings in his brain. A smile settled in on his mouth as drool began to crawl over the fat part of his lower lip. He vaguely felt cold hands on him, grabbing his ankles and wrists, and he floated down the hollow hallway into one of the bedrooms where there were a couple of faded posters barely visible in the dim light. Dust swirled in the narrow beams that forced their way through the cracks in the plywood, giving him just enough visibility to see Kermit the Frog waving in one poster, his mouth open in what appeared to be an excited grin.
The beams scanned the room in slow motion and faded over the other poster of cartoon birds, leaving him in darkness, as the warmth slowly dissipated and he began to shiver violently. Fear and shame and dread. Now the questions came.
Who had moved him? Was he not alone?
“Hey!” he called out. “Is anyone here?”
There was no answer but the soft rustle of rats in the garbage and a car engine in the distance. Of course there was no one here. There was never anyone here anymore. He was alone, and he was not alone. The eyes fixed on him now, judging and cold, a disembodied, jagged brow menacing from nowhere.
“Language!” the word warbled through the air like a tinny whisper from an old, blown speaker. It echoed in his mind and danced over his prickly flesh, goosebumps forming in his early withdrawal.
Harold tried to sit up, but his hip shot ice up his spine and gave up on him. His left leg wouldn’t move. He gathered his strength and forced himself onto his right side, and the ice in his spine went white hot, making him seize and curl into a fetal position.
“Ahhh! God damn it!”
“Language!” Again the voice menaced through the dark room, this time a little louder, but no less distorted.
He took a deep breath and rolled again, now on his stomach. The pain tore at him with iron claws, but he bore down on it and thrust his elbows against the floor, crawling slowly toward the door. As he neared it, he heard small feet thumping up the hallway toward him where they stopped. The door to the bedroom creaked slowly open, and a soft blue light pushed its way into the room.
Harry’s body was vaporous and frosty in the frame of the door; the lines of his young features blurred, and whisped around him, as if he were constructed of glowing bluish smoke. It poured like fog, down the young boy’s body and onto the floor, where it drifted toward Harold.
The smell was no longer subtle. It burned in his nostrils with the intensity of ammonia. The boy pushed the door further open and thumped his little feet across the small gap between himself and Harold, and held a badly cracked and damaged tablet out toward his father’s face.
“I got the pigs, Dad. Look.”