The following is an early draft of a short story I recently wrote. Feel free to comment with your critiques and questions.
He ran through a deep, muddy puddle, sploshing water in all directions, dampening his tattered jeans. Holding back a curse, he quickened his gait as the splash echoed against concrete walls. The trash-strewn alleyway had obscured any street lights from illuminating the way. It always felt like eyes from above were watching him when he made his way through this dark, ominous passageway. The familiar pulse-racing and heart-thumping rendered memories of venturing down the basement steps of his father’s house when he was a kid, where it seemed anyone—or anything—could be lurking. That was ten years ago. The adrenaline sparked a rush that cried for escape, both then and now.
This is where he could escape without being detected. But it could also be where he disappeared forever. The alley opened to an empty street. A street light blinked red above him. He turned the corner up the sidewalk.
He had to hurry. He didn’t want to miss her. The other day he had gotten there five minutes late, only to see her jump into a car that drove off immediately. He had spent the rest of the night watching a drunk try to stumble his way home, and a feral cat get in a fight with a scavenging raccoon. The raccoon won.
His backpack’s weatherworn straps dug into his shoulders, and the weight of it bounced against his lower back with every step he took. The weary trek up to Main Street, the steepest part of town, was grueling. He hated it. But he had to focus. He was fighting for breaths by the time he reached the summit. He consciously relaxed his shoulders and crossed Main Street.
Appear normal. Be calm. Act like you belong, like no one should mess with you. If anyone happened to be watching, you are just passing through.
The Watcher allowed himself to take a few nervous glances in his peripherals. He could feel the tension tonight. It was in the magenta hue against the thick fog that hung over the city’s towers of aging brick, weathered concrete, and shimmering glass. Or maybe it was in the way the street lights reflected off the grimy, wet streets, soiled with car oil and rubber tread. His head buzzed with it.
Tonight was one of those nights. Tonight there was something different, something new. It rattled him more than usual. Made him wish someone else was by his side, or perhaps just keeping a watchful eye.
He stepped off the sidewalk as a car sped by, throwing a cool air mixed with the odor of burning marijuana leaves. It reminded him of green shag carpet and aged floral wallpaper, and beer cans lying hopelessly abandoned on the front porch of his dad’s house.
A three-story parking garage, mostly empty, was situated to his left as he continued up the hill, turning off of Main Street and onto Fifth Street. Section Six, as he like to call it. This was one of his many perches. Tonight, he broke his habit. He never came here on a Sunday. But tonight was different. The orange hue of the streetlights was brighter. The air felt cleaner, or maybe it was just dampened by the humidity.
The girl fascinated him, but he didn’t know why. She was no different from the others. Perhaps because she was so young—her childlike innocence stolen from her. Maybe it was just her pretty face.
As he came to the end of the block, he turned into the quiet parking garage. He edged around the corner and stepped onto the stairs. He scaled four flights of stairs before coming to the top level. Exposed to the open air, he allowed his lungs to inflate with the crisp night air. After a long moment his heart rate finally slowed. He dropped to his stomach to survey the area. No lights lit up the lot; just the gray glow from above. Even the moon liked to hide sometimes.
Only one vehicle in the lot, but that was more than normal. From where he lay, the SUV was positioned at his ten o’clock, pointed towards Main Street. He checked for any movement, scanned the lot one more time. No signs of life from the SUV, but he would be thorough.
Hard gravel and blacktop digging into his palms, he crawled forward with slow, fluid movements. The front seats were empty. He crept toward the rear and slowly pushed himself into a crouch, then peeked into the back of the SUV. No surprises here; only beer bottles, cigarettes, and fast food wrappers.
Satisfied, he crawled on his palms and toes for the far corner overlooking Main and Fourth. He raised his head just inches above the concrete ledge, gazing through the rusted security fence. An LED sign in front of a bank flashed the temperature, then the time.
12:49AM. Almost time.
The Watcher shrugged the pack off his shoulders and it fell with a thud to the ground. He unzipped the main flap and rummaged through it with one hand as he looked up at the cold, bright moon, shining through a break in the fog. He felt a little exposed under the soft light, but another layer of clouds would soon move in and settle over the area. The moon would be blanketed with thick vapor soon enough. Besides, he was safe up here, above the streets.
He felt the fabric of a glove, the plastic of a candy bar wrapper, an apple core, the stub of a half-used cigarette. There! He removed the item and examined his old, trusty companion, Michael. That’s what he called it. The camcorder, its outer finish scratched, had to be ten years old. A fissure ran through the plastic under the lens, and a layer of grunge coated its outer shell, making it sticky in various places.
The zoom stuck sometimes, and the colors on the view screen were a bit off, but it worked just fine. Fresh off a battery charge at the local coffee shop, and having uploaded last night’s footage to his personal website, Michael was ready to go for another night.
It was hard to believe that Michael and he still slept in the abandoned train station on South End. He switched the camcorder on, selected the playback option, and rewound from the end of the tape. The perspective of these clips was from the top of the court house in West Side. That building was always difficult breaking into, but it was necessary so that he could climb onto the roof. Difficult, but not impossible.
The screen showed a bunch of cars and occasionally people traveling in fast motion. The middle-aged woman with gray hair in a ponytail sauntered backwards along the sidewalk, pulling a baby carriage. A kid passed her her by, and dime bag of drugs returned to his hand from her cart as she returned his bills. They never made eye contact.
His eyes glazed over as the video sped past the scene he captured through the window of a fourth floor apartment. A man had hit a woman repeatedly in the stomach before she fell to the floor, out of sight. The man had given her a few more kicks for good measure and stomped off toward the hallway. He had watched for several more hours with the camera switched off, but dawn came so he left without knowing if she got up again.
These were the actions of the creatures of the night. It was in these quiet hours that people shed their masks of civility and goodness. This is what they became, when no one else was watching. Well, there was someone watching. He was keeping score. But they didn’t know that. They didn’t know they were being recorded or that their actions were being seen by thousands of people. One day, maybe, it would be millions. Whether it did any good, he didn’t know. But they needed to be exposed.
The camcorder beeped as the tape reached the beginning, and he switched it to the record mode. The inner motors whirred within the camera as he opened the flip screen. He zoomed in towards the street corner on his right, in front of an abandoned shop, boarded up and covered with graffiti, the bricks weathered and decaying.
He had to see her again. There was something about the way she walked. Something about the way she held her mouth just slightly open, looking lost and vulnerable. Something about the way she held her hands together and fidgeted as she waited. Something about the way her eyes seemed to be watching and searching. He hoped she would show. He had risked so much to be here tonight.
Then, a slender figure emerged from the shadows. She carried a small black purse, as she always did. He zoomed in on her face as much as the camera allowed. There were her big brown eyes that reflected the street lights. A light shade of lipstick accented her soft lips, and her long brown curls flowed over her shoulders. Her delicate complexion was obscured by a mask of eyeliner, fake eyelashes, and a layer of pancake and blush. She wore fishnet leggings and a short black skirt under a tan trench coat.
But those were not the reasons that she tugged at his heart strings tonight. It was the black and green bruise on her left cheek. And if he wasn’t mistaken, she had a black eye too. Was her upper lip trembling? He couldn’t quite tell. Unlike the usual loneliness and yearning, her eyes looked a little blank, not bothering to watch the cars that passed her by. She wasn’t making an effort to grab anyone’s attention.
But she had his attention. He had watched her for the better part of a month now, daring to come more and more often. He had never uploaded any footage of her to his website. He wasn’t sure if she deserved it. Now he was sure that she didn’t do this with any pleasure. Perhaps she was even being held captive, forced to produce at the profit of a sick, greedy pimp, the piece of scum who hid in the shadows, waiting for the nightly return on his human investment. The bruise was proof.
Suddenly she raised her head and looked up at him. He instinctively ducked down behind the concrete wall. He held his breath. He thought he had been far enough away from her field of view. He thought about checking the tape to see if they indeed had made eye contact, but decided against it.
He peeked over the concrete edge and looked to the street corner again. She was still there, leaning against the abandoned building now, looking dazed. She was no longer looking up. If she had seen him, she probably only saw a shadow or momentary blur. He ducked back down again, then glanced at the SUV. He had to save her, before someone picked her up, and she spent another night in Hell.
He crawled up to the SUV. A siren sounded in the distance. It was a fire truck. Knowing the door would be locked, he dug into his pack. He slipped on his black gloves, then pulled out the lock rake he had pawned off an old man. With it, he could get into any older vehicle. He shoved the tool into the lock, twisted it and jiggled it. The door clicked open.
He immediately dug out his switchblade, plunged it into the tan plastic of the steering column. He cut a fist-sized hole. Making sure his black gloves were secure, he used his knife to cut the red power wires and twisted them together. He also cut the brown starter wires, and stripped the ends of them. His fingers were getting sweaty inside his gloves. Moments later he rubbed the two starter wires together.
It was taking forever. He glanced around the lot for the hundredth time, and stroked the two wires against each other furiously. The engine coughed to a low roar. He jumped in the front seat, throwing his backpack in the passenger’s side. He unzipped the front flap and removed the wad of cash, strapped together with a rubber band. He had counted it a thousand times. His life’s savings. All of three hundred fifty-seven dollars and eleven cents. It wouldn’t get her far, but it’s all he had. He zipped the pack up again, shoved the stick into Drive, and coaxed the car towards the exit lane. With every turn in the parking garage, he bit his lip harder, afraid someone might see him. Someone might know his secret.
He was on the bottom level now. He realized that he didn’t know what exactly to say to her. He didn’t want to scare her. He had to save her. He would take her to the church lady on Hickory Street. She would take her in, he hoped.
Or maybe they could flee this town, get away from everything they knew, and start a new life. Maybe they would become best friends. Maybe he could be her savior, her knight in shining armor that risked his life to save her from everything dangerous and evil.
He poked the nose of the vehicle into the street. No cars. Nobody but her. He turned onto the street. There she was. He tried to take a deep breath, but his heart beat all the stronger. She was so beautiful, he wondered how she could have ever been caught up in such a horrible life. He pulled into the parking spot directly across from her, parallel to the sidewalk and abandoned building. She had yet to look up. He rolled down the window.
She was so beautiful. Up close she looked like a creature from Heaven that had been captured and imprisoned, tortured and used. Besides the rumble of the SUV’s engine, and that distant firetruck siren, the street was silent
“Hey,” he said. After a long moment, she looked up at him. Her eyes nearly destroyed him. They were so alluring, so young, yet so blank, as if the light had been stolen from them. She eased away from the building and moved towards him with unbalanced, inconsistent strides. He cleared his throat.
“Get in,” he said. She looked left and right, then nodded, coming around the front to get into the passenger side. As the vehicle pulled away from the curb and continued down Main Street, the overwhelming aroma of her perfume made his head hurt.
“Turn down this street up here,” she said. “I know a place. It’s private.”
The Watcher said nothing and obediently made the turn.
“Do you have the money?” she said, fiddling with something in her purse.
“It’s in the pack, on the floor.”
She unzipped the main part.
“Turn onto Rosewood up here,” she said without looking up. “There’s a motel on the left.”
“I thought that place was abandoned,” he said. He took the turn onto Rosewood a little fast, and the tire’s screeched. She said nothing.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
She looked up at him with a quizzical look, still digging through his pack.
“What does it matter?”
“What is this?” she said, pulling the camcorder out of my bag. His chest tightened. “Is this for tonight?”
“No, no,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t do that kind of thing.”
“Why did you bring it?”
She switched it on.
“Please, don’t, that’s my personal property.”
“Turn up here,” she said, hitting the play button. She seemed like she might be difficult to talk to.
He turned into the empty parking lot quickly. The motel was dark and quiet, having been abandoned for several years. The place had dilapidated beyond repair.
“Why were you recording me?” she said, holding up the viewfinder to him, unbuckling her seatbelt and throwing open her door.
He couldn’t think to say anything. Getting her to go along with his plan was getting more difficult, and he didn’t exactly have a way with words.
The Watcher got out of the vehicle and walked around to her side of the car. But she wasn’t there. Some blunt object struck the back of his head, and he fell to the ground face down in the gravel, head throbbing with pain.
The next thing he felt was cold metal tightening around his wrists. Red and blue lights cast long shadows on the abandoned motel. Shadows of people.
“You have the right to remain silent,” a booming, gruff voice said. Someone drug him to his feet and threw him up against the SUV. His vision was blurry, and he could feel spittle on his lips. Nothing was making sense.
“You have the right to an attorney…” He looked over his left shoulder. The girl was talking to a man in a cop’s uniform, several yards away.
“I found plenty of money in his pack,” she said. “And this.”
She handed his camcorder to the cop. His camcorder.
“He was spying on me. I think he’s done this before.”
“This is good,” the cop said. “This is going to be an easy one. We ran those plates. Car’s stolen too.”
“Sick freak is getting what he deserves.”
And as he looked up at the street light above, the distant sounds of dogs barking and sirens wailing filled his ears.
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