Asher carefully crossed his arms so that his right forearm was on top. This way he couldn’t see the purple demon he had tattooed on his left forearm during a particularly bad and blurry period. He’d made many mistakes, but few as permanently visible. Asher wasn’t wearing long sleeves now, but he mostly did. That way he wouldn’t be asked what the tattoo meant. He didn’t mind being asked, he just couldn’t answer honestly because he honestly didn’t know.
From behind him, down a few stairs and through a cheap door, he could hear, “My name is Lucia, an’ I am an addict,” and he thought about going back in because Lucia was beautiful and she’d been a whore and the stories she told were awful and sad, yes, but also, well, not that they should be at all, but a little sexy, and sometimes after her stories she would sit alone, with her hands in her lap and every man at the meeting, Asher was sure, every straight man would ignore whoever spoke next and fantasize about sitting next to her, putting an arm around her and having her melt vulnerably into his side. She had a little habit of sticking the tip of her perfectly pink tongue out and flicking it with her thumb. It was too much for Asher to even think about.
Cool air rushed across the dusk desert, between the cars and smack into Asher. He nodded a greeting and smiled. There was a saguaro just on the other side of the chain-link fence that was getting ready to bloom.
The voices of teenagers came whispering across the yard of the school next door to the church hall. He knew they were teenagers without having to see them because despite their attempt at being hushed, their voices were desperately eager and on the cusp of some more heightened feeling.
It was two guys and a girl and they each had a can of beer on the go.
The girl sat down with her back against the school wall. In the deepening dusk it was hard to tell if she was pretty, but the amount of skin visible on her legs and torso told Asher that she meant to be and probably was attractive to the boys. He knew that soon she would be too cold and he guessed that they guy wearing the windbreaker only had it on to offer it to her.
Asher’s phone buzzed. It was a text from his sponsor, Austin. “Where’d you go, brother?”
“Needed air. Back soon.”
Asher looked up from his phone. The girl was slumped forward now, and one of the boys was pulling on her legs to move her out from the wall. Her head smacked the pavement. The other boy lay down beside her and ran his hand up and down her side.
“We said I’d be first,” the standing boy said.
“I’m just getting ready,” the lying boy said grabbing at his crotch.
Asher ran towards them. He slammed, hands up, into the tall chain-link fence separating the playground from the church lot.
“What the fuck,” the standing boy said, turning.
“Holy shit,” the lying boy said, lifting himself on one arm.
The girl’s mouth was open to the sky.
Asher pointed at the boys and glared. He was a scary looking guy. But something about the way they responded was wrong. Too flat or something. He was running around to the street to find his way into the schoolyard. Asher slowed and reached into his back pocket for his cell phone. With one hand he found Austin’s name and number. He started running again. He was out front of the school. Could there really be no gate here? He ran around short hedges and in-ground sprinklers, past the quadruple-door entrance to the building.
Austin wasn’t picking up.
Asher considered leaping a bike rack like a hurdle, but went around instead. Asher hung up and redialed Austin’s number. Austin wasn’t answering because he was in the meeting, Asher knew, but “Get up for Christ sake,” he breathed, by which he meant, Get your ass out of the room, go to the bathroom or, better yet the back door and see for yourself what the fuck is going on.
He found the gap in the fence, went through it and ran around the other two sides of the school, breathing very hard now, still holding the futilely ringing ringing ringing phone to his ear. There was the girl. There were no boys. “Pick up, Austin,” Asher said. He stayed in the open, as equidistant from the fence and the school as his racing mind could manage. The girl was lying the same as she had been, which Asher was relieved to see, but it meant that the boys had had the whole time it had taken him to get around the building to plan for this moment.
He heard their footsteps and he turned around. One boy was swinging a stick at his head, the other held a flapping plastic bag. The order of events was confused from here. He knew they didn’t get his head right away, but that somehow he ended up on the ground and that he was kicked in the head and that eventually he blacked out and saw a jaguar who was Asher for parts of the vision and who Asher watched for other parts of the vision, a jaguar who was hunting by a cool stream that he followed until it ran under a chain-link fence with people behind it watching him, a chain-link fence that he put his front paws on and tried to climb out of because it was the edge of a cage and in the cage there was no air.
The world was framed with a fringe of torn plastic. Austin kneeled over Asher, and touched his face. Asher gasped, gulped the desert air eagerly. “Alright, brother, I’m just going to take this off you now,” Austin said. He worked at a knot at Asher’s throat.
Asher noticed the people from the meeting standing behind the fence. He grabbed Austin’s hand. “The girl,” he said.
Asher turned his head to find the girl.
“She’s knocked out, but other than that, I mean.”
Lucia had turned the girl over on her side and was cradling the girl’s head. The way Lucia ran her hand over and through the girl’s hair conveyed some message Asher knew wasn’t for him.
He lay back and let his friend continue to untie the bag while he stared up at the waxing crescent moon. Sirens sounded on the horizon. Asher wished he found them reassuring.
He rubbed the purple devil on his forearm and wondered if a good enough tattoo artist could cover it with a jaguar.
Toronto, June 2015
Emoji sequence: artist Amanda Nedham
Story: Lee Sheppard